Ambika Nigam could have been a number cruncher. After she graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in economics, she accepted a prestigious financial analyst position at Oppenheimer Funds, where she made the kinds of complicated mathematical models that would make Einstein blush. But, as she sat at her computer manipulating money, Ambika increasingly found herself lusting after Oppenheimer’s sexier, more social marketing division.
Through hard work and networking savvy, Ambika successfully navigated the switch from finance to marketing and became the company’s marketing manager. Now, after a stint at OgilvyOne and a Master’s degree in strategic communications from Columbia, Ambika has strayed even further from finance as a business designer at one of the industry’s hottest design firms, IDEO. But, despite its differences from her original plans, Ambika says that working at IDEO has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of her career. Read on to find out how you too can live your professional passion – whether it was in your plans or not!
Q: What did you study in college and why?
A: I studied econ at the University of Michigan. I wanted to study something that would give me a strong foundation in analytical skills, but also something that offered some versatility.
Q: You started as a financial analyst at Oppenheimer Funds and then became a marketing manager. What steps did you take to earn that promotion?
A: As an analyst, I was in charge of financial models, new products and for acting as a liaison with other departments. In that position, I was able to build strong relationships and trust with my colleagues in other departments, and the head of the marketing group became my mentor.
I naturally gravitated towards marketing because it was more gregarious and required more of a team structure than my financial analyst position. I though, if I really like marketing, how can I apply it more in my job? That’s why I began to look at other departments.
Q: Why did you decide to pursue a Master’s at Columbia?
A: I started thinking about what I was really passionate about. I loved marketing, so I wanted to really hone the craft. The Master’s program at Columbia was a really great way to do that.
I wanted to do a program that would help me answer questions about myself: what do I want to do? What am I passionate about? It was great to get exposure to different people and learn about different facets of marketing because it forced me to be more introspective about what I was really excited about.
Q: How has the Master’s helped you reach your career goals? Do you feel like you’ve learned more from that program or from real world experience?
A: I use skills from both my job and my Master’s program. The Master’s really helped me develop my point of view. It helped me clarify my goals.
Q: You’ve been a financial analyst, a marketing manager and an associate director of marketing strategy. Now you’re a business designer. How did you know when it was time to make a career change?
A: I knew it was time for a change when the challenges became too familiar. I wanted to stretch myself more. It’s that bittersweet feeling of enjoying being comfortable and confident in a job but needing to grow.
Q: How did you find the confidence to make those big changes?
A: I was surrounded by great people. My mentors nudged me to make changes when I was ready and helped give me the confidence to make those changes. And I’ve relied on my husband and my family for support.
Q: Were your skills transferable from job-to-job, or did you have to start from the beginning after every switch?
A: There were definitely aspects that were transferable, like defining my style of work and the structure I was most comfortable working in. I learned what good habits to pick up and also saw habits not to pick up.
I’ve become more comfortable in my own style and with having fun with my job. I’ve learned I like a certain amount of structure, but that I don’t like working to feel overly engineered, which is why I moved away from finance.
Q: What’s the most exciting part of working for IDEO, one of New York’s hottest design firms?
A: Everything is exciting about IDEO! If I had to pick one thing, though, it would be the people, who keep it fresh and fun. IDEO has a culture of helping each other produce the best work possible. I feel so lucky to work there – I pinch myself everyday!
Q: What is a typical day like at IDEO?
A: There isn’t a typical day at IDEO! You never know what’s going to happen. We try to have some consistencies to spark inspiration. We bring in a lot of entrepreneurs and other designers to get inspired. There’s lots of music-playing, and we have these Nerf toys, called Finger Blasters, we play with. We like to mix fun and focus!
Q: Business design sounds like it requires a very different kind of creativity from your past roles in finance and marketing. How did you develop a designer sensibility?
A: I developed it through going out in the field, making observations, looking for patterns. I read a lot of design blogs and started following designers on Twitter. I developed a sense of what people want and got really interested in the intersection of media and technology in design.
Q: How do you generate ideas? What do you do when you’re stumped?
A: When we’re stumped, we go outside. We go to some kind of analogous place to the one we’re designing for and hope it will spark something. Other times, we’ll just go for a walk, or to a movie, or to get ice cream.
Q: What projects are you currently working on?
A: I’m working on a great project for a big hospitality chain, but I can’t say which one yet!
Q: What work project are you proudest of?
A: I don’t know if I can choose just one. I’m really excited about our current project. I’m really proud of the work we’ve done as a team. That’s the most interesting thing about projects: the way people work together as a team.
Q: What would you like to improve upon or develop about yourself professionally?
A: I want to focus on the craft of being a really good business designer. I want to be a good project leader.