Kochhar, now 32, said she was never particularly attracted to formal academics. But she knew there was something missing.
Cheistha Kochhar

For Cheistha Kochhar, MAIDP’20, work always came first. By the age of 30, she’d established two successful businesses, had worked in the highest offices of India’s government and once had two full-time jobs at the same time, devoting half of a seven-day workweek to each.

Asked on a graduate application in 2013 what she would do if she had free time, Kochhar answered: “Create more work.”

So much work left little time for personal reflection. But when Kochhar paused to reflect, she discovered she was equally invested in working on herself. 

Toward that end, she’s now considering Ph.D. programs so she can continue the policy studies she began at Harris Public Policy, an institution that is both an alma mater and her former employer. 

“Can you imagine that?” she said, noting that once she embraced academia, it “really challenged my thinking, not just in terms of theories or models, but also in how I was approaching life.” 

Kochhar, now 32, said she was never particularly attracted to formal academics. While an undergrad at Delhi University, where she studied economics and mathematics, she started her first business, Feed India. Each day, she collected university canteen food that hadn’t been eaten and would have wound up in the trash, packaging and selling meals for about five rupees, or 69 cents. 

Many of her customers were poor women for whom the packaged meals meant freedom from shopping and cooking, allowing them to work longer and earn significantly more than they spent on the food. 

With Feed India a success, she wanted to drop out of school and be a full-time entrepreneur. But her parents insisted she finish her degree.

Kochhar stayed and looked for more work, starting an internship with the government and becoming one of the founding team members for the Unique Identification Authority of India for its Aadhaar project. Aadhaar provided an identification number, similar to a U.S. Social Security number, to more than 1.2 billion Indians. 

“What my first business gave me,” she said, “was the same thing that my first internship with the government gave me: a sense of identity.

“As a young female in India, it is difficult to find that identity at home.” 

“Once I had it through work, I was very attracted to that,” she added.

A job at McKinsey and Co. after graduation meant exposure to the corporate world, better pay and more money for her entrepreneurial ideas. The work was interesting, too. One of her projects aimed to take banking services to 1.6 million people in rural areas of India. But she missed working for the government. 

“The scale and impact of government work,” she said, “were addictive.” 

She returned during the next phase of her career, working as a consultant in the government, both in the Office of the Prime Minister of India and that of the Education Minister of India. Offered two salaries, she accepted only one.

Kochhar credits Harris with cultivating a new passion for learning, leading her to investigate PhD programs.

Deeply committed to helping the less privileged, she started her second business, Aadharit, in 2014 after a change in the central government. The business provided a way for blue-collar workers, such as domestic help, to find work in an organized and regulated manner.

Such work is unregulated in India, Kochhar said, and Aadharit aimed to organize the sector. It provides employers access to background checks and references on the workers, and data collected through Aadharit also informs policy recommendations to the government for regulating the sector, Kochhar said. She was CEO.

Kochhar was passionate, successful and busy, without a doubt. But she realized she “wasn’t growing intellectually.”

“I was clever enough to get things done. But there was something missing."

“The way I solved work problems in 2014 was very similar to the way I was looking at them in 2016. And that was a big red flag for me.” 

By the end of 2016 Kochhar was working for University of Chicago on strategic initiatives, including expansion of Harris in India and the wider South Asian region. She started at Harris after meeting Ranjan Daniels, the school’s senior associate dean of student recruitment and global outreach.

Her interactions with UChicago faculty demonstrated, she said, the benefit of grounding herself in theory to build intellectual honesty into her professional work. Finding that compelling, she resigned  in 2019 and enrolled as a Harris student. 

“Why,” she asked herself after starting her Master of Arts in International Development and Policy, “did I not do this sooner?”

Nearly a year out of school, Kochhar says she can see how that year of study at Harris changed her. 

“I had believed for the longest time,” she said, “that structures stifle freedom and innovation. And I rebelled against that.

“But with life experiences, and especially through interactions with Harris faculty, I learned that theoretical grounding in fact facilitates innovation and freedom. It gives you a steady base to be creative from.”

Preparing to embark on the path to a Ph.D., she plans to specialize in behavioral public administration with a focus on the bureaucracies in the global south. 

That’s an area of focus for which she’ll have no shortage of work and life experiences, including many from Harris, to inform her studies and this next step in her professional and personal journey.