KUSHAL DALAL, Economics Consulting Analyst @ Analyst Group

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KUSHAL DALAL

Hometown: New Delhi, India
Years lived in the city: <1
Age: 22
Occupation: Analyst
Company: Analysis Group

I originally planned to interview Kushal at Benenon, a cute little Japanese don restaurant in East Village. One major oversight on my part was that I had completely forgotten that  NY restaurants tend to be loud, packed, and rambunctious on Saturday nights. We couldn’t do the interview there so we quickly ate and then set out to a new location.

We wandered around East Village for a little bit in search of an open coffee shop before Kushal pointed to a Crunch fitness on the corner of Bowery and East Fourth St and said, “Do you think we can just ask to sit there for an hour?” With all nearby coffee shops closed and the brutal, frigid winter (it was snowing that day) attacking us, it seemed like our best bet. 

So we sat on the couch while a few sparse people worked out on a Saturday night and had our conversation above the Demi Lovato songs playing on the speaker, with a girl working out to our left on the treadmill.

Kushal attended Princeton University (Economics, Class of 2017) and now works at Analysis Group, an economic consulting firm in New York City. In his free time, he likes to wander around New York, take pictures and try all sorts of coffee and desserts. His favorite current artists are Lawrence and George Ezra. 

What's cool about Kushal is that he was born and raised in India and actually planned to attend college there, but an experience in high school changed the course of his life and led him to study in America. Read on to see what led him to New York and what he plans for his future.

So I like to start off every interview with this question because New York is how this project started. Can you describe your first moment in New York?

Kushal: My first memory in New York is actually from 2002. My aunt lives in the city and we’d come here to visit her. I remember New York as being this place where we could just walk everywhere. Back home in New Delhi, you can’t really walk outside for too long or great distances because of the layout of the city and the traffic. I remember being here as a 7-year-old kid and just walking a lot.

My other memory of New York was when I first started college and I came to the U.S. and I stayed with my aunt again. At that time I very distinctly remember walking again, but this time to the fountain in New York in Central Park - the Bethesda Fountain.

That’s so interesting because that fountain is iconic for many people's first visits to the city and often mention it when I ask them about their first memory of New York. Did you want to move to New York?  

I always knew that I would end up in New York. During my sophomore year of college, my friend asked me, “What do you think you’ll end up doing?” and I actually said, “I don’t know...maybe I’ll end up at an economic consulting firm in New York.” I was heading to a career fair that day and had learned about a firm in that field and thought, “Wait, this is way over my head, but maybe one day I’ll want to do this”. So I randomly told my friend I wanted to do economic consulting in New York and now I’m at an economic consulting firm in New York [laughs]. It’s funny how that worked out.

I think I always knew that I’d be here in New York, but in terms of wanting to be here? It wasn’t as obvious. I always wanted to be in a city because I grew up in a city. I can’t imagine being in a place that’s slower paced and where things are far apart, but I didn’t have a good sense of what New York really was until recently. I was drawn to it as an idea, but I didn’t know very much about it.

What’s your favorite part of living here now?

I love how it’s very accessible. I don’t have to think twice before hopping on a train to go somewhere. I have a lot of friends in New York and I’ve never felt like it was hard to meet people if I really wanted to. That’s the part I like best about living here. I also like the fact that there is a lot of diversity not just in terms of people, but also in terms of physical and geographic locations. I work in Midtown which is very hectic, very busy, very shiny. I live on the Upper East Side which is very quiet. Then there’s East Village, the area that we’re in right now, and that’s a little more hipster. I like that there’s a very pronounced variation in different areas of the city.

Geographically wise, what area suits your personality the best?

I actually think that the way I have things right now is pretty good. Working near Rockefeller Center where there’s a lot of activity is nice because I draw energy from that. Lots of activity also means there’s a lot of restaurants and things to do in the area. It’s easy for me to meet up with people after work in this area, but I know I wouldn’t want to live here. I’d want to live in a quieter area which is why where I’m living is nice. Ideally I’d like to live in the Upper West Side and work in Midtown.

I’m the type of person where I can have a few hectic days, but then I need to unwind. If I have a busy day at work with a 12 hour day and then I come back home, I can’t just fall asleep immediately. I need to unwind and a little bit of time to relax and not do anything to settle down for the night.

Let’s touch back on the economic consulting job you mentioned before, which is a career path that not many know about. At the time when you texted your friend that message, did you already know that you were going to major in economics?

I knew coming into college that I wanted to do economics, which I can explain later. Economics touches all fields and that’s what I really like about it. I knew that I could go into any field because there's an economics component to nearly everything.

Can you explain what you do? I believe not that many people know what economic consulting is.

I didn’t even know what economic consulting really was until I went to that career fair. I work in the litigation division of my firm which means that I do valuation for court cases. It can be one company suing another company for intellectual property rights or copyright infringement and we’ll value what the damages are in the case. That is just one example of a case. The case can be anything from IP (intellectual property) to some kind of malpractice by a company resulting in damages by the government investigating a company.

We have two different divisions: healthcare and litigation divisions. The healthcare division works with pharmaceutical companies who are trying to drug test or get a drug approved or figure out what they should be spending money on. They do a lot of data related work and work with large sets of data.

How do you usually plan your day out?

I usually wake up just in time to wake up, shower, and go out the door as soon as possible. I don’t leave myself very much time in the morning. I’ll then eat breakfast at work. Most days my role involves some kind of research. It could be qualitative research where I have a set of documents relating to the case that I’m working on or I’ll look at them to figure out certain things. Some days it’s more quantitative where I’ll have a data set and I need to figure out trends or numbers pointing to the damages relating to the court case. Around noon all the analysts who have time will go to the cafeteria. We have this long table where we’ll sit there, chat, or do the New York Times crossword.

We need to briefly discuss the NYT Crossword. It gets harder day-by-day. Monday’s crossword is good.

Mondays are good. I can do Mondays by myself, but starting with Thursday if I don’t have other people I’ll definitely not even be close to finishing. On Fridays, even with multiple people, we don't finish every single time.

Yeah, on Monday’s you feel smart. Then it just goes downhill from there.

If you ever complete a Friday crossword, you feel accomplished. The days I don’t feel accomplished at work, but I finished a crossword, then I’m like, “Ok, I can count this day as a successful day.”

But yeah, after lunch I go back to work and generally finish around 6 pm. Most days I’ll make plans with friends to see them for dinner. I feel that meals are one of the main ways I socialize now that I’m working. It’s not like in college where you’re in class or you talk to people between classes or you’re in clubs and things like that. If I get back home early, I’ll read, watch a TV show, or call a friend I haven’t spoken to in a while.

Do you think that it’s harder to make friends now outside of college?

Definitely. Well, I think it depends on where you work. Some companies have a lot of new hires and set up events where it’s easy to become friends with your coworkers whereas my firm like I mentioned earlier, is pretty small. The New York office is small in general. It’s hard to find people who are free or want to do the same things that I want to do. So I’m friends with my coworkers but outside of work, I don’t really hang out with them. Because of that, nearly everyone that I hang out with on weekdays and weekends is someone I know from college.

I agree. I work at a firm with 5,000 employees in the NY office but there’s this culture of “you don’t hang out with coworkers outside of work.” Coworkers are your coworkers and that’s it. Some companies, especially tech firms, are a bit different in that regard. I wish there were ways to join more orgs in post-grad life where you can find people with similar interests or hobbies as you.

I remember when I was in Australia interning for a summer, there was this app where you could find groups of people based on the activity that you wanted to do. So I went to a board game group because I really like board games and it was just this random group of people but everyone happened to like board games.

Wow. I also really like board games and games in general. We need to create a network of people who like board games and throw board game parties.

I feel like people in the city don’t really do that! What kind of board games do you like?

The Game of Life was my obsession in childhood.

I grew up playing The Game of Life a lot! When I came in 2002 the one board game we bought was Life. I also like Monopoly, Risk - these are the games that I played growing up. In college, it was more games like Settlers of Catan. In my Eating Club in college, Thursdays were Board Game Night. One of my favorite games was this one called Resistance.

What would you say your passion is?

I’m still figuring that out. I’m constantly doing things or wanting to do things or just thinking in general and I want to be in a position where I can harness that drive. I don't necessarily want to be in a corporate position where everything is dictated by a job description or expectation of the role.

I’m very passionate about sustainability and I know that I want to do something in that field. But I also have no idea what that looks like or where my place is in the field right now.

Those two aspects point towards me starting something in the sustainability field but I’m always open to different experiences that aren’t planned. I didn't always plan on studying in the U.S. I didn't plan on interning at a sustainability firm in Australia. These are just things that came my way because I was open to things beyond what I thought I’d be doing. I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you if those things hadn't happened. So who knows where the future will take me.

You actually moved here to go to undergrad at Princeton University. Did you know you wanted to study here or how did that come about?

When I was in India in 11th grade (junior year), I needed to pick a stream that I wanted to study. There are three streams: science, commerce, and humanities. You have to figure out which way you are headed early on. I picked the science stream. It's considered to be the most challenging field and if you do well in school people expect you to move into that field. My parents are both engineers so I just picked it without thinking about it too much, expecting myself to go on to an engineering college in India.

But how engineering and admissions colleges in India work is that there is one test and entrance exam that you have to take and you get a ranking on that test and what college you go to depends on that rank. The top institute in India is called the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). There are about 2000 spots and 1.5 million people try out for those spots. It’s ridiculously hard to get into these things and because it is so hard, people take coaching classes to do well on these exams.

To get into a good coaching institute, you need to take an entrance test. So at the end of 10th grade, I took an entrance test and I got into one of the best institutes in India for preparing for this exam.

Once I  got there, on the first day of class, the professor asked, “By a show of hands, how many of you do extracurricular activities?” and a few of us raised our hands. For some reason he picked me and asked me, “What do you do?” and I said “I do debate and I work on the school magazine. I also am involved in a bunch of other organizations.” and he looks at me and is like, “Yeah, stop doing those things. You don't have time for those things.” and he asked again “Out of this group, how many of you go to school all five days of the week?” and a lot more people raised their hands and he said “Don't go to school more than 2 days a week.” since the expectation is that you're going to sit at home and study for like 12, 15, 20 hours a day depending on how much you can do.

I did that for a little over a month and I couldn't do it anymore. I loved going to school. I loved all my extracurricular activities and just the entire atmosphere of the preparation course is very oppressive and rigid. At that point I thought  “I can't do this anymore” and I felt lost for some time as a result of how I felt.

In the science stream, you have to take physics, chemistry, math, and English. You can choose the fifth subject and my fifth subject was economics. As my interest in the sciences started going down because of this entire experience, my interest in econ went up. A lot of the research and thinking in econ happens in colleges in the United States. So that's when I started thinking about applying to colleges in the U.S. One day my high school guidance counselor said to me “You do a lot of extracurricular activities and you've been performing consistently in school. Have you considered applying to colleges in the States?” and she pushed me to take the SAT. So then I took the SAT, applied to Princeton Early Action, and here I am today.

Wow, that's an incredible story and it's amazing how you took your unhappiness and pivoted towards something better for you. May I ask why specifically Princeton?

I was confused between a couple of schools, but at the end of the day, I wanted a small school that was well known for economics. Honestly, I had very broad reasons because I hadn’t visited any schools before applying so anything I knew about a college was from what I read online.

And what was the SAT like for you, compared to the Indian version of the college entrance exam?

There is no Indian version of the SAT, but every student has to take a set of finals for the five subjects that we choose. Each test is scored out of a 100 and for a lot of colleges that are not pre-professional, where you go depends on this end-of-year test. To study at the best college for economics in India you need a 98%, which means you can make one mistake across all of your subjects. If you make more mistakes than that then you keep going down the list of colleges. So it’s very intense and the SAT actually felt like fun for me to take. You can take the SAT multiple times and it's more about aptitude than about very specific subject content. So it was very different. Also, in middle school and high school, you’re building up to the SAT. In school, you’re made aware of it and you start preparing early on. But in India, I wouldn’t know the subject content for my senior year exams because you learn it only in the senior year.

With the math test, for example, we have to study a government-produced textbook and it’ll have hundreds of questions. Basically, if you've done all of those questions you wouldn't see anything on the test that would surprise you. If you see those questions two or three times over, you’d either know how to do them or have memorized how to do them. You’ll probably hit a 90% on the test. Only the last 5-10% would depend on your being able to think through the concept.

What did you imagine college would be like and what was it actually like for you?

I think a lot of my perception of what college would be like was based on media and in general a lot more freedom in both academics and social. I went in knowing that academics would be the primary reason but not the only reason for going to college. I did expect that it would be rigorous and for academics to take up most of my time. When I got to Princeton though, I was actually surprised by how many things existed outside of the classroom. And the fact that people were just as interested in those things as they were in their academic goals.

What supposed failure in college actually paved the way for success later on?

I think it was not doing well as I thought I would in the first economics class I took at Princeton called Intro to Microeconomics. I came in with some knowledge of economics and came in having already made the decision to major in economics. So it was actually a shock to me when I got my grade for the course. I started second guessing myself. Then, I asked myself if I still liked economics and if I could see myself being happier doing something else. I realized that I still enjoyed the class, and still wanted to learn more. In a way, that was the moment in which my perspective on classes and what I wanted out of them changed and changed for the better. It led to me taking classes because I was genuinely interested in the course content and that greatly improved my academic career.

Note: Crunch Fitness then closed and we had to move our interview elsewhere. So we went to the subway station. That day, the station was not smelling particularly well, and since it was a cold Winter's day, lots of homeless people were sleeping in the station. We found a bench and continued the interview.

My freshman year, I focused a lot on classes but then I realized that I wanted to do a lot more outside of college and I was wasting the opportunities I had. So I started doing more extracurricular activities and started hanging out with people more. I went to more social events and just tried to be more involved in other spaces.

How did you meet your best friends in college?

I think it’s funny how you can meet your best friends in a variety of ways. I'm thinking of my four closest friends and I met all of them through very different ways. I met one at a Hindi language placement test and another through a student org while driving to a conference (we were both in the same car). A third I met through my Eating Club.

Can you describe more about the Eating Clubs and what they are?

So eating clubs are like “co-ed” frats but there’s a lot more to them than what people expect from frats and sororities. We eat all of our meals at the house. We’ll hang out and study together in between classes. It’s kind of like a safe place that's not your room where you can go to have downtime or socialize in.

All of the Eating Clubs have houses but no one lives there. They are located off campus but it’s basically on-campus.

For about half of the eating clubs, you can just sign-up and express interest to sign up. For the other half, there is a selective process like rush called “bicker”. I was a part of the Eating Club called Princeton Tower Club and during the process, you’ll have a card that has your name, major, clubs, and a fun fact about you. You give that card to the tower officer and you’ll hand off that card to different members. You sit down with different members and just talk to them. People then vote for who they want as new members.

So it’s like rush?

Yeah, except it’s not intense at all. We also do this thing called “positives only” bicker where we can only say positive things about a potential new member. We believe that a person’s past shouldn’t follow them around and if someone has enough nice things to say about you, then we give that person a chance.

Each club has its own limit on how many new members they want to accept and it’s generally based on how big the house or kitchen is since we all have to eat our meals there.

Lastly, what is the very last thing you do at night before you go to sleep?

I’m guilty of being on my phone before bed. I generally don’t text during the day but at night I will respond back to everyone. I’ll also listen to music and set a timer on my phone so that it stops playing automatically. If I’ve had a busy day, I’ll debrief in my head and make sure that nothing is bothering me. I think about what I did that day and process it and once I’m settled and my head is cleared, I’ll fall asleep.

You can follow Kushal on Instagram at @kushaldalal95 or connect with him on LinkedIn here