In this week’s episode of Beyond Consulting, we welcome Manali Mahajan, former Strategy& consultant, and current Director of Strategy & Operations at Dispatch. Manali joins us to talk about her various strategy consulting experiences and how she made the move to a PE-backed tech company.
The Beyond Consulting Podcast is hosted by Ken Kanara and co-hosted by Steven Haug. Steven leads this week’s episode.
Steven Haug: Hey all, welcome to Beyond Consulting, the podcast dedicated to helping listeners navigate a career after consulting. I’m Stephen Haug, host of Beyond Consulting and Director at ECA Partners. Each week on the podcast, we host folks who spent some time in consulting but have since made a career pivot or change. Before we get started, I want to thank ECA Partners for sponsoring Beyond Consulting. ECA is an executive search and on-demand consulting firm specializing in former consultants and private equity.
Today we have the pleasure of speaking with Manali Mahajan, Director of Strategy and Operations at Dispatch. She’s also a former Strategy& consultant. Manali, welcome to Beyond Consulting.
Manali Mahajan: Thanks Steven. Happy to be here.
Steven Haug: I do want to dive into your role at Dispatch and the various roles you’ve held there, because you’ve moved up in your career quite quickly. But before we get to your current role, of course I want to rewind and hear about your consulting days. Maybe we can start and hear about your motivation for joining consulting, and then, if there’s any particular reason why you joined Strategy&, as opposed to the other management consulting programs, I’d be excited to hear that as well.
Manali Mahajan: Absolutely. I’ll take you, I guess, a little farther back than my consulting days, just to give you a little bit of context. I’m originally from New Jersey, from a town right next to Princeton called South Brunswick. I went to a public high school and did a lot of math and science courses. That was always kind of my thing. I knew when I went to college that I’d want to continue pursuing that. I was lucky enough to get into Cornell’s engineering school. I studied operations research and information engineering there. It’s basically a combination of statistics with some business applications, and a little bit of coding, because I learned pretty early on that software engineering was not my forte. I can be slightly dangerous, but not very much. I realized coding wasn’t where my future landed.
At Cornell, actually, my first exposure to consulting came during my freshman year. I was just applying to internships left and right, trying to figure out if someone wanted to hire a freshman, which was a very, very low probability. I ended up applying to Accenture, which had a technology future leaders program, something like that. I think they have rebranded it since, but it was basically targeted at giving people who were early in their college careers a mentor and helping them go through the entire college process, hopefully, ideally, bringing them to a good career in consulting. I was accepted to that, got a mentor and, on a whim, I just kept–maybe not a whim–but I kept messaging the recruiter and asking her, “are there any internship opportunities?” She said, “You know, with business need, we’ll let you know if there’s any possibility.” Somehow, it ended up working out. I ended up interning in tech consulting at Accenture after my freshman year without really knowing what consulting was. But it worked out really well for me because I found from that experience that consulting was really interesting and a great career to pursue post-college.
I did a couple of other internships in college and during my junior year, I interned with PwC, also in their tech consulting group and it was very similar. I knew I wanted to go into strategy consulting because I felt like it was a more interesting career path and it opens you up to working on higher level problems at C-Suites, and I felt like it would be a better opportunity for me post-college and so, I tried to claw my way into Strategy&. I did a lot of cold emailing during my internship just trying to offer my free services to different directors. Luckily, a couple of them did respond to me and I did a little bit of work for them. I think they just appreciated the effort that I put in. I went through that whole long process and ended up getting a full time offer with Strategy&, which is PwC’s strategy consulting arm.
I went through that whole process and then worked in consulting for a couple of years. I mainly worked in their financial services group and I was aligned to the tech strategy group, but really I had projects across the board ranging from operating model design to post merger integration. I also did a really interesting DE&I strategy product for a commercial real estate firm. I got a lot of good experience working across different kinds of projects and in different functions.
I think, ultimately, after a couple of years, I knew that I if I stayed in consulting longer I could definitely learn plenty more. At the point that I was in my career, it wasn’t that my learning was plateauing or anything, but I felt more and more of an inkling that I wanted to move into tech. I wanted to, hopefully, work at a startup with a very different environment, but still continue on this really fast-paced learning path that I was on. I was looking for different types of jobs, for a while actually, almost six months. Somehow I came across my current company, Dispatch, which is a small startup, basically on LinkedIn. I’ve been at Dispatch for two and a half years now, like you mentioned, Steven, in different roles–titles I would say, but with increasing responsibility, but essentially with the same function that I’m in, which is leading strategy and operations.
Steven Haug: I really appreciate that overview Manali. That was quite effective and I think we have a good understanding of your career trajectory here. I want to pause at the consulting days and dive into those projects a bit more. You were there for about two years altogether?
Manali Mahajan: Yes. I think a little less, but we’ll round up.
Steven Haug: Right around there? Good. I’d be happy to hear about any interesting projects you worked on that you want to share, especially any that you feel were helpful in telling your story to get a job in industry. That’d be particularly interesting.
Manali Mahajan: Yes, yes. I think a really impactful project for me, personally, both in terms of, the cause being really interesting, but also the kind of work that I was doing. It was a lot of responsibilities that I’d been given because it was a really lean team that I was working on. It was myself, a director, and a partner and it was a year into to my associate career, so it was a really cool project to work on. I mentioned it before, but it was a DE&I strategy project for a large commercial real estate firm. It was interesting because the project came from their upper level C Suite, their CEO & CHRO, and they had noticed that they had issues in DE&I, which is prevalent by the way in the commercial real estate industry as anyone could guess. It’s definitely not the most inclusive industry altogether, although this was a few years ago. I know that they’ve undertaken a lot of measures to try to improve that, but they really bought into the business case around it. This was back in 2019, so before anything related to the pandemic, George Floyd, and way before all the things that have happened more recently. They had fully bought into it and they realized it was hurting their bottom line when they were pitching to these large tech companies and they came in with a slate of people that looked nothing like who they were pitching to at tech companies to sell them real estate. The project came down top-level from them, and they asked us to help build a long-term road map and strategy around improving the DE&I for them. We went on a listening tour across various departments, various levels, various functions throughout the company. We did the usual workshop/focus group methodology.
Some interesting work that I did was really digging into the data across all these different countries and regions, different levels, different functions to try to pick apart trends and where we felt were the areas that we needed to really focus on helping build more diversity, but also more inclusion based on some of the data that we got from focus groups. It was a really interesting project to work on. It was an awesome, phase zero kind of project where you’re really working on the strategy, you’re working really high level and, I think, the ideal strategy consulting project that you could work on. It was also very cool because I was really the only associate level person working on it. That was a great thing for me and I think one of the main takeaways was, A, working with clients at all these different levels and actually getting that direct client exposure which I think is harder when you’re just starting off your career. At the analyst associate level, you’re mostly crunching the numbers, building the slides, doing all that work, so sometimes client exposure is not something you get as much, early on.
Then, on the data side too, I think it was interesting because, usually, projects you get are very scoped out and you’re directed to do exactly what you need to do. Because it was such a lean team, I was working directly with my director. She was gave me a little guidance, but I had forms of data on all these different regions–it was a very large commercia real estate company. What was interesting for me was learning how to pick apart the key insights that would make the most impact on the CEO/CHRO we were working with, and really helping shape the narrative for the different recommendations that we were making based on the focus groups and interviews, as well.
Steven Haug: That does sound like the type of problems that consultants join consulting to solve, right? It’s interesting, it’s difficult, it’s impactful, and it sounds like your background in engineering, and in mathematics and sciences, you were able to leverage that in that project as well by being able to turn the data into interesting business insights. It sounds like that was a great project to be a part of and something that you could really sink your teeth into early on in your career.
Manali Mahajan: Yes. Absolutely. It was a very impactful one, and also, the general cause that we were working on, helping to make a difference in this large company where there were many people who felt that it wasn’t as inclusive of an environment as it could be. Just knowing that the impact that we were making through building the road map, helping their leadership really role model the right behaviors, and cascading that throughout the organization, it felt really good to be working on that kind of project.
I think, by contrast, sometimes in consulting projects, you’re working on operating model design, cost-cutting projects, those types of things, and I guess those aren’t as warm and fuzzy to the heart as this kind of project. It was a great experience for me to have.
Steven Haug: You we thinking about consulting, I guess, years before you even joined Strategy&, right? You did your internship with Accenture right after your freshman year.
Manali Mahajan: Yes.
Steven Haug: You had some time to think about what a career in consulting would look like. When you joined Strategy&, were you thinking that would be about a two year stint that you would spend in that block of time in your career, or did you have a different idea of what your consulting career would look like?
Manali Mahajan: Yes, I think that was pretty open. One of the things that really drew me to consulting, as it does to, I guess everyone in consulting, was all the exit opportunities, and also the ability to learn so much, so quickly by working on all these different kinds of projects. I didn’t have, necessarily, a perspective of how long I wanted to stay. I didn’t think that was going to be a career consultant. I guess the one thing I knew off the bat is that I was not on the partner track. That was not something I was planning on doing. I thought maybe I could stay until Senior Associate Manager or something like that. I think, that as I went on, I was just excited about different opportunities that I saw and I just wanted to keep looking, to see how I could continue learning, but just in a different context.
I think, also for me, I’ve enjoyed the startup environment a lot more. I think that’s just more my pace, and when you’re in consulting, sometimes it feels like you’re working at smaller companies because you’re working on these really small teams at times. But, ultimately, I guess I didn’t end up staying until manager. I feel great about the experience that I had, and I could have stayed longer, but I had a great opportunity with Dispatch and ended up deciding to take it.
Steven Haug: Let’s chat a little more about that. Do you mind telling us what Dispatch is?
Manali Mahajan: Dispatch is a field service management software startup. We’re based in Boston, MA and we’ve got a little over 100, 110 people. What we do is, I think any homeowner or renter is probably aware of the challenges and issues with having someone come in to service something in your home. The pandemic, obviously, exacerbated that. If you’re trying to get your AC system fixed, it takes months and months to get someone to come in. When they do decide to come in, you have no idea what day or what time they’re going to end up coming. It’s a really fragmented customer experience.
What Dispatch does is we specialize in working with large home service enterprises. Think Samsung or Whirlpool…they’re the large brands that are generally manufacturing the large appliances in your home, like your dishwasher. Often times when your dishwasher breaks, you reach out to Samsung because you may have a warranty or something like that and you want them to come fix it for you. Samsung doesn’t necessarily have thousands of people that they employ to go perform the service. They rely on 3rd party, local service providers, your local plumbing company, or your local large appliance service provider. They have this whole network of third party services providers that they work with, they send out the work to them, then that service provider comes to your home and fixes things. If they don’t really perform a great service, you’re not mad at that third party service provider, you go back to Samsung and you’re upset with them for this not-great customer experience. What Dispatch does is we really try to connect all three participants, the large enterprise brand, the local S&B service provider, the homeowner and customer, and kind of bring a virtuous circle from that perspective and try to improve the experience across all three parties.
Steven Haug: Interesting. I can see, thinking through some of the times that we’ve had to have our dishwasher fixed, this service would be extremely valuable. Are there other major competitors in the space or is this a niche that you’ve carved out that’s ahead of the game?
Manali Mahajan: Yes. There’s definitely plenty of competitors. Field service management is a very huge industry. You’ve got these big players that work with these large enterprise brands like Salesforce, Oracle, ServiceNow, and then you’ve also got, field service management players that are targeting the local service providers. I’m sure people have heard of ServiceTitan, there’s a company called Housecall Pro, there are plenty of companies there.
I think where Dispatch falls in is we’re somewhere in between all of those because we work with enterprise brands, but we also work with service providers. In a sense, we have a lot of competitors, but in another sense we don’t. It’s a really interesting space to be in and a really cool problem that we’ve solving.
Steven Haug: Coming out of Strategy&, I know you mentioned that you were looking for a start up to join. Was that the main criteria you were looking for, or were you specifically looking for tech startups or service-oriented startups? I’m curious to hear what you were looking for to make the jump.
Manali Mahajan: Yes. I definitely was not looking for service-oriented startups. I didn’t know anything about the industry beforehand. I’d say the main thing that I was thinking about was tech. I wanted to go back to my engineering roots in some ways, I mean, I still work in strategy, but it helps me feel closer working in tech. Tech was the main, big thing and then I knew that I wanted to do some sort of biz ops, corporate strategy type of role and a lot of the large tech companies generally require a few more years of experience to do some of their programs. I also thought that, ultimately, I didn’t want to be at one of those large tech companies immediately after consulting because I felt like that is something I can pivot to later on if I want to. However, working on a startup would be a great learning experience for me and keep me on that high of, you know, in consulting, getting fully immersed and working on all kinds of different projects and then extending that to working in a startup.
I knew I wanted to work at a tech startup. Like I said, I spent six months, just maybe even more, just browsing, looking for different opportunities, interviewing here and there, and I think the role at Dispatch was really interesting to me because it’s a pretty lean team. I report directly to our CFO. At the time we were 50 people and now we’ve pretty much doubled in size. It’s a really interesting role because, at the time, there was no strategy team. It was me and our CFO. Our CFO is an ex-consulting. He used to work at BCG and he also started his own consulting firm. It was really interesting because I knew I’d be able to work under his mentorship and his tutelage and he would totally understand my consulting background and experience, because he did that for several years. That was one thing that really appealed to me. Also, the nature of the role because it’s sort of strategy, it’s sort of corporate development, and also sort of chief of staff to the entire leadership team that we have, so I knew it would be great exposure for me to work with all of these really experienced leaders and gain so much knowledge from working on the most high-level projects that we we’re doing. I didn’t even understand, at the time, how interesting it would be. I think I just got a little bit lucky in that sense that I trusted the people who I was speaking to and interviewing with and they were true to what they were describing what the role would be like.
Steven Haug: That’s always a pleasant surprise when it all works out, for something to be what folks say about it. When you moved into industry, was there anything you were surprised by? Is there anything that your consulting toolkit wasn’t as helpful for when you were out of the consulting world?
Manali Mahajan: Yes, there are probably a lot of things, but the first thing that comes to my mind is, I think when you’re working in consulting, you’re generally working with large companies who can afford swarms of consultants. So it’s very different from the startup environment, especially when you’re working on projects, because usually they’re well-scoped out projects, there’s a lot of data available, and it’s easy to take a very structured approach to it, and usually you’re given that structured approach, especially at the more junior level. I think working at Dispatch, and I think in industry more broadly, the projects that you’re working on, especially if you’re at a higher level and there isn’t a ten-person team working on strategy work that’s structured. There isn’t a structured, scoped-out project that you’re working on, it’s more that you’re working with all the people that you work with and you’re keeping your ear to the ground listening, seeing if there are any major issues or major patterns going on. That’s kind of how our project ends up coming to be. You don’t really know the scope, you think about the work you’re doing and what you think you’ll be able to fit in over the next couple of months or so. You set the scope yourself. Then, when you’re actually working on the project, data can be messy. It’s more of a blend of art and science than it is pure science, sometimes. The part you do learn in consulting is making things up that you go, but I think even more when you’re working on projects where there’s just not as much data and just getting comfortable with that, first of all, and then just trying to make the most of it and trying to introduce some sort of structure wherever you can, which consulting definitely does help with.
Steven Haug: Good. Moving from Strategy&, which is a large company with a clear career path, you know what you need to do in order to make it to the next level…moving form that to a fifty person startup. There’s lots of risk in that move…
Manali Mahajan: Yeah.
Steven Haug: When it comes to, “What’s my job going to look like in a year from now?” How did you think through that risk when you were making the decision to join the company?
Manali Mahajan: There was a lot going through my mind. I’ll also set the context for you. I interviewed with Dispatch in February 2020 and that’s, I think, around the time that I got the offer, around early March. Obviously, the pandemic hit and part of me potentially accepting the offer was also having to move from New York to Boston. At the time, like everyone thought, “it’s only going to be a couple of weeks, maybe a couple of months.” I thought that if I’m going to start in May 2020, I won’t move to Boston until maybe June or July. I ended up finally moving in September, but I probably didn’t even need to move that soon. I got the job in March, accepted the offer and thought the plan was for me to start in May, then all the things hit with the pandemic and I didn’t know if I had a job anymore. All the tech companies were going through struggles, like everyone was with all that uncertainty. I talked to David, my CFO. He was really honest and transparent with me and gave me confidence that my role will still be there. It’s not going anywhere, it’s a really important role that the company needs. Luckily, I trusted him and it worked out, but it was still a lot of risk to take.
I was worried about moving from New York to Boston. It’s still the East Coast, but it’s just far enough to feel uncomfortable, but luckily all things worked out. I wouldn’t call myself the biggest risk taker, and this isn’t a huge risk in the grand scheme of things, but it felt like the biggest risk of my life that I had taken up to that point. I’m glad I did it. I think there are only so many times in your career where you’re interested in packing everything up and moving, not knowing anyone. I was working at a completely new startup when I was comfortable with a consulting environment, joining with a class of graduates who were roughly my age…at a startup there are plenty of young people, but it was harder. Also, tack on the fact that no one was going into the office anymore so it was harder to get to know people, and even harder to get to know people in Boston when no one was going anywhere. Luckily, it all worked out for the best and I am very happy. I couldn’t be more thankful that I ended up here.
Steven Haug: Manali, you’ve given us lots of advice already. We appreciate that. Is there anything else you’d like to share with consultants who are thinking about the next step in their career?
Manali Mahajan: Yeah, I think doing a lot of research and really understanding what role you want…I think most consultants, especially early on, at the two year mark are looking to move into strategy roles, biz ops roles, startups or big tech, wherever it may be, but each company especially startups, does business very, very differently. I think I only really understood the nuances by doing a lot of interviews, speaking to people, and frankly, just reading hundreds of job descriptions. I think that actually helped me understand what that is. I can’t really speak for other industries, but especially within tech, biz ops can take two different flavors. One is more of the corporate strategy role, where you’re really doing internal consulting work and then, sometimes early-stage startups may not be mature enough to need someone working on that because it may be distributed across different business units, or it may be distributed across the leadership. For companies who aren’t as mature, their biz ops role could be more of a sales op role, and that’s very different. It’s far more data heavy. It’s a really important role, but when sales is at the heart of any tech company that end sup being what you focus on and that can pigeonhole you a bit. It’s a really interesting pathway, but I felt like that wasn’t for me.
My advice would be to really understand what the role is, who the people are, and especially if you’re going into a startup, understand the culture. When I was interviewing, I took that for granted. Everyone tells me when you’re interviewing, “Oh, it’s a great culture. We really enjoy spending time with people…we try to make connections…,” whatever it may be, just try to make sure you’re testing it in different ways. What really helps is experience from interviewing with different companies and noticing the differences in the ways that people describe the culture. I think that’s really telling. The last thing, especially if you’re looking for these types of biz ops roles at startups is understanding who is the ultimate owner and where the internal power is in a sense, and making sure that whatever function you end up being in that it’s high-level enough and that there’s opportunity to grow there. If it’s some sort of function that’s stuck in the back office, no one is really paying much attention to it, then you’re not going to get as much impact out of it. Knowing who the main people are, who the key stakeholders are, and really applying your organizational structure experience to understanding what that looks like at the company you’re interviewing with, I think that really helps.
Steven Haug: That’s very helpful insight. Manali, thanks so much for taking the time. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you. Thanks for joining us on Beyond Consulting.
Manali Mahajan: Yeah, thanks for having me. It’s been great.
Connect with Manali on LinkedIn and visit www.dispatch.me for more information.