Sunita Grote, Innovation Fund Manager, New York
Tell us a bit about your background.
I’m a ‘mixie’ in many ways. I’m half-Indian-half-German, born and raised in Berlin, and moved to New Delhi, India, when I was 15. I studied molecular biology, but then found that I wasn’t quite cut out for life in a lab surrounded by bugs I couldn’t see, so moved on to working on messy things like politics, business and international development instead. I like being in and around places, lives and people in transition. So, not surprisingly, I have moved cities (and countries) nine times in the last 15 years and don’t really plan to stop anytime soon.
What do you do?
I manage UNICEF’s Innovation Fund. The Innovation Fund identifies, supports and grows open source technology solutions. We are looking to invest in solutions that use emerging technology to increase children’s access to information, opportunity and choice – and to grow a new community of problem solvers in UNICEF’s programme countries.
This is a really exciting project to manage. I learn something new every day and quite often feel like I’m flying by the seat of my pants. We are combining concepts from across different worlds – venture capital, development, entrepreneurship and public systems – to see how that mix can bring better results for children.
What’s your working day like?
Never the same, but generally a fast flurry of activity. Sometimes I never sit down, sometimes I never stop talking, sometimes I just reply to emails all day, but there’s never a dull moment. These days I am spending quite a lot of time reviewing applications to the Innovation Fund and trying to figure out how we can use UNICEF’s procedures to actually move money out of our accounts and into start-ups.
How would you describe your job to a 5-year-old?
I support groups of very smart people with money and other resources they might need. These people are trying to find ways to use the latest gadgets and tools to help children have a better, safer and healthier life.
What did you want to be when you were a child?
Astronaut, circus acrobat, vet, architect, doctor. I still keep adding to the list.
How/when did you join UNICEF?
Most recently I joined UNICEF in November 2014 as a member of the Innovation Unit to support our corporate partnerships and then transitioned to managing the Innovation Fund in August 2015. The first time I joined UNICEF however was 11 years ago, when I got to be part of the team working on the Global Study on Violence against Children.
What are the most satisfying parts of your job?
That I have at my fingertips an incredible network of people, the leverage of a great organisation and a significant amount of funding to give smart people who do good for children, access to resources they wouldn’t otherwise have. Even better, I get to do that to challenge the status quo, take risks and encourage people to think and do things outside the box.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
I struggle staying grounded in the realities that our Country Offices work in. Sitting in HQ, there’s a real risk of being disconnected and thinking our New York bubble is the real world.
What’s your best UNICEF experience/memory?
Launching the first call for applications to the Innovation Fund. I was terrified. I thought we wouldn’t get any applications. We now have the opposite problem.
What’s one of the biggest risks you’ve ever taken in your life?
In 2009, I quit a well-paid stable job in the UK to move to India – I needed to be in a more dynamic, noisy, challenging place. I moved for a job with a small group of courageous lawyers who challenge the government and corporations on human rights violations and represent marginalised communities. My salary didn’t even cover my rent; I didn’t know the city I was going to live in; I knew very little about human rights law. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
What are your passions?
I have been described as “spectacularly angry” when I see or experience injustice or unfairness of any kind. I like to think of this anger as passion – sometimes it makes me get on a soapbox or into an argument, but it also makes me go to work every morning.
Other than that, put me on a pair of skis on the top of a mountain with snow and sun, and I’m very happy.
What advice would you give others who are seeking a similar job as yours?
Know what your strengths are, build those up and know which problems they can solve. Go to where those problems are.
Who do you look towards for inspiration?
My parents – in their own ways, they took risks, blazed new trails and never accepted things or “limits” for what they were. My mother’s family is a big clan of social activists, artists, entrepreneurs and public servants who have strong opinions about most things in the world and have made a life out of fighting for them. They never cease to amaze me.
My colleagues don’t know that…
I don’t know how to use Twitter.