Adnan Khan is a Manager at Deloitte Consulting in the Strategy & Operations practice. He is also the co-founder of Viva, a social enterprise focused on creating meaningful career opportunities for women in Latin America. Adnan developed a strong interest in community service as a high school student when he started volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters, an organization with whom he still volunteers. He is passionate about advancing youth empowerment and gender equality through education and employment. Read more about Adnan below.
SIA: Tell us a bit about your journey. What are you doing now and how did you enter this space?
Adnan Khan: I studied at the University of Waterloo where I completed a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting and Financial Management. When I was there, the standard path was to land a co-op placement at one of the “Big Four” accounting firms. This was what I pursued, and I was fortunate enough to be hired to work at Deloitte for two co-op terms in their Audit practice. I learned a lot through this role including teamwork, attention to detail, and client service. I concluded these two co-ops terms feeling energized, but also curious about other career pathways.
In school, I enjoyed doing case competitions, and it was through these that I realized how much I enjoyed the idea of a career in consulting – thinking on my feet, solving problems, building relationships – it all seemed exciting. This is what led me to a different role within Deloitte; I completed two more co-op terms as a Business Analyst in Strategy & Operations Consulting, where I now work full time as a Manager.
Along with this professional path, I embarked on another that began with an outreach trip to Nicaragua in 2014. Most students on trips like this go into them with the mentality that they will change the communities they enter for the better. I wasn’t any different. When I returned back to Canada, I realized that the exact opposite had happened. The communities I visited changed me for the better. I was overwhelmed by the warmth and generosity of the people I met in Nicaragua. I also realized the potential for harm in outreach trips like this one, and the damage that can come from building relationships that don’t last longer than the trip itself.
I knew from this that I wanted to stay connected with the community visited, but I didn’t know how and I didn’t have any relevant experience.
During my final co-op term with Deloitte, I had the opportunity to volunteer on our annual Impact Day with an organization I had never heard of called The Rumie Initiative. I spent the day curating digital educational content for delivery to children impacted by the Syrian Refugee Crisis. In that time, the crisis shut down a lot of the schools, but education continued through the Rumie-powered technology that enabled it. By the end of that day, I learned that Rumie had never done work in Nicaragua. With my recently formed connection to the country, I had the privilege of leading the first deployment of Rumie’s technology there. This was the birth of EduGate, a social enterprise that I launched to bring education technology to rural communities and help not-for-profit organizations grow their impact through advisory services.
Balancing this impact-focused work with my full time career at Deloitte has not always been easy. What’s worked best for me is being transparent with my team about this important part of my life. Over the years, I have received tremendous support from my colleagues and have even discovered initiatives within Deloitte that have allowed me to accelerate my impact-focused commitments. A recent example being a joint Deloitte and EduGate pro bono consulting project delivered for Fundación Pies Descalzos (The Barefoot Foundation) in Colombia. I’m immensely grateful for the support my peers and leaders at Deloitte have provided me in my social impact endeavours – as a co-op student to now.
SIA: What is your definition of impact?
AK: I grapple with this because I find impact so difficult to measure, particularly for sectors like education, where outcomes can be invisible for years. For this reason, I don’t view myself as someone who has created impact. What I have done is built relationships and learned a lot in the process. That said, I define impact as solving the root cause of a problem. In consulting, we often get to the root cause through ‘5 Whys’ analysis. I believe problems arise when impact is simply measured as a number of constituents affected without considering how deep that impact goes. Depth is more important, and I would rather help to significantly improve the opportunities for a few than have a minimal effect on many. The challenge is that donors typically like to see growth. For example, number of schools built, number of students enrolled, etc…
SIA: Did you always want to work in the impact space?
AK: My parents shaped a life for me that has been filled with opportunity. The reality is that so many are left behind. I genuinely believe that it is in everyone’s best interest to create equality. It is not a zero sum game. When I entered the workforce full time after graduating, I realized that creating equality was a long term interest and something I didn’t want to defer until retirement or financial independence. When I began to work in consulting, I realized that the skills I was developing were highly transferable, and I had mentors that supported me in the early stages of forming ventures. Working to create social impact helps me to see a different dimension of life; it’s like another form of education that I get to experience every day.
SIA: What are some of the issues that you care about that you’re able to contribute to with your work?
AK: The UN SDGs I align with most closely are Goal 4: Quality Education and Goal 5: Gender Equality. My personal brand has always been focused on education and employment, and I believe that the root cause of many of our social problems has to do with these areas. Through my involvement with Big Brothers Big Sisters, and ventures like EduGate and Viva, I’ve been able to start my impact journey in these areas. My long term goal is to be able to scale solutions that tackle the root cause of problems within the realm of education and employment.
SIA: What’s next for you, what are your long-term goals?
AK: Whenever I do something with a positive intention, I try to think about the negative consequences. EduGate was born from this; I formed positive connections through my outreach trip, but they were temporary and I wanted to find a way to make them last. Through EduGate, we were able to improve the quality and accessibility of education, but many people, particularly women, still lacked meaningful career opportunities. I wondered how I could create those opportunities. As a result, I co-founded Viva, a business focused on hiring and training women in Latin American to work as virtual analysts (VAs) for executives in North America. So far, we have seen value delivered to clients and analysts alike, and I’m excited to see where it goes.
SIA: Could you walk us through a typical workday?
AK: Here’s the typical breakdown: in the morning, I connect with my team to get a pulse on their priorities for the day and any major blockers. After this, I generally spend some time conducting analysis; this can mean looking at data performing secondary research, or interviewing different stakeholders to uncover insights on the problem we are investigating. Then, I spend some time synthesizing with my team, going over what they heard and how to frame it. A meeting with the client usually follows to show them how we are thinking about the area of focus. All of this helps us put together executive-level content, whether in the form of a presentation or a workshop.
SIA: What parts of your job do you find most challenging?
AK: In my opinion, structured thinking is the greatest skill that a consultant brings to clients. This skill enables consultants to consume and analyze enormous amounts of data and information. A consultant will never know as much about the client’s business as their client, but they can structure their thoughts and ask the right questions to effectively drive toward a solution.
SIA: Are there any misconceptions about the space you’re in?
AK: One major misconception is how fluffy many people think the field is. The reality is that there really isn’t enough accountability for consulting firms to actually deliver the outcomes presented in their recommendations. With that said, many firms do help with the implementation of these recommendations. In addition, firms are getting more creative with their pricing strategies (e.g. being compensated based on a % of $ benefits).
Another popular perception is that consultants spend 3-4 months to themselves, preparing a “deck” (i.e. PowerPoint presentation) to present to the client. The reality is that the client is engaged along the way and participates in the process from ideation to execution. Our recommendations are not a surprise when presented, but rather a summary of the client journey.
SIA: What are some skills required in your position on a day-to-day basis?
AK: It always comes back to structured thinking. I struggled with this quite a bit initially as my thoughts often flow freely, so I had to practice being structured. Being able to absorb information and structure it into MECE buckets is a crucial skill for consultants.
In addition, communication is incredibly important, and something that I don’t think most people spend enough time refining when school is over. Looking for avenues to practice your communication skills helps a lot, and it can be fun too! Improv is one example of that which I have enjoyed. Many others participate in public speaking clubs such as Toastmasters. I’ve had the privilege of watching my mom become a highly eloquent public speaker through her involvement with Toastmasters over the past decade. Young professionals including myself should spend more time developing this skill.
SIA: What are some personal characteristics that you value in someone?
AK: Simply put, I value when someone has a good heart. It’s fairly easy to tell when someone is doing something out of genuine kindness. The people I look up to in both my personal and professional life are those that do things with the best intentions. I’m fortunate to have people with this trait in my life – from my partner, Haniya, to family and friends to mentors and colleagues.
SIA: Knowing what you know now, would you have done something differently with respect to your career?
AK: I’m really happy with how things have unfolded in my career so far. The challenges I’ve faced have kept me on my toes. It has always been 2 steps forward, 1 step backward. That 1 step backward is tough, but it gives me the opportunity to reflect and adapt so that my future steps forward can become larger and steps backward can become smaller.
SIA: Could you share with us the best life or career advice you’ve received?
AK: In the spirit of structured thinking, I’ll share three 🙂
1. My dad taught me the importance of building long-term relationships at an early stage in my life. I had the privilege of learning more about the art of building relationships through osmosis while watching him interact with others. Relationship building can be as simple as listening to someone’s idea, offering a suggestion, or introducing two of your contacts to each other. Through this approach, I’ve gotten to a point where many of my mentees have become mentors. Those that once came to me for advice are now the people go to when I need a sounding board. While working at Deloitte and building out Viva, my relationships have been invaluable.
2. I attended a conference in university where the keynote speaker said “stay humble, be hungry”. That’s always stuck with me. I expect that all my team members at early stages in their career strive to be the hungriest person in the room, without being overconfident or egoistic.
3. Finally, the practice of making the most of your opportunities. Your career can be a rollercoaster, and in business, there is a challenge between doing well in your current role, and trying to transition into the next one, whether it’s a promotion or lateral move. Young professionals typically have a 2-3 year ‘up or out’ mindset, where they expect a promotion, otherwise they’ll look for an exit opportunity. My view is that we won’t always get what we want, so a sense of patience is needed here. In particular, a willingness to over deliver in your current role, even if it might not be what you want permanently. It’s a long term game. Career growth doesn’t happen overnight. If we think about it from a lens of social impact, people spend their entire lifetime only to scratch the surface of a large problem. It’s easy to get frustrated or discouraged when short-term milestones aren’t hit, but they will happen eventually. Keep grinding!
We are grateful to learn from Adnan’s experience and journey. A few insights that stuck with us are:
We thank Adnan for sharing his experiences with us. If you want to learn more about consulting, youth education and social enterprises reach out to Adnan on LinkedIn!