Leadership Stories

A Serendipitous Life of Happy Chances

A Serendipitous Life of Happy Chances

by Dr. Kalpana Gopalan (IAS, Practitioner, scholar, policymaker, author, and mother)

How do I encapsulate a lifetime in five minutes? I searched for a word to describe my life to you… and it is … SERENDIPITY. Almost as long as I have known, it seems that a combination of fortuitous circumstances has conspired in my life; to ensure not just that the right thing happened, but that the right thing happened at the right time.

But let’s begin at the beginning. I am a daughter of the original Two States marriage, my father a Tamil, and my mother a Gujarati. Childhood alternated between schooldays in Madras and holidays in Ahmedabad. I grew up with the responsibility of high expectations; so academic excellence was taken for granted. I was a nerd long before the word was even invented.

Entering the Indian Administrative Service, India’s elite premier civil service, was not a burning ambition. Being good at studies, I naturally drifted into a Ph.D. program. But Serendipity had other plans. I got into the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Madras, but my social science interests and their technological expertise were no great fit. The civil service exam was a fallback option. I prepared with my usual diligence and cleared it on my first try, standing fairly high on the merit list.

The IAS was the first major turn in my hitherto simple student life. The job comes with all sorts of challenges and complexities. I got married around the same time, so I had a new life, new place, new job, and new husband to adjust to; all simultaneously! Fast forwarding the next two decades, working, bringing up two children, promotions … life was pretty much full and very very busy.

IAS officers are situational managers; leadership is neither a choice nor a position but a way of life. Therefore, I picked up quite a bit of multi-sectoral experience along the way. Some positions are more memorable than others; as when UNESCO awarded me for the best literacy program in the country; or when I had the rare opportunity to set up the new district of Udupi.

The next major turn in my life, again unplanned and unforeseen, came when I entered the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore. I came as a Masters’s student in the public policy program, and I came back again as a doctoral student a few years later. Well, I was teased quite a bit for going back to school mid-career and mid-life; one cousin asked me if I was having a mid-life crisis! But both professionally and personally, the years I spent in IIM Bangalore were among the most rewarding in my life. I loved the intellectual stimulation and made lasting friendships that I cherish.

Well, all good things come to an end… unless you really work hard to see that they don’t! I continue to research in academic institutions of repute; I frequently get invitations to speak at conferences, and I have written three books and quite a few articles. For me, reading, research, writing, and speaking, along with fitness and music, help me relax from my work pressures. Sharing the learnings that life, academia, and work have given me gives me great joy.

I also volunteer with social organizations. Thirty-two years ago, as a young officer-trainee, I got together with some young doctors in Mysore, all of us believing that we could make a difference. Today I continue to associate with initiatives like the Akshaya Patra Foundation, Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement in Mysore, the Centre for Health and Development in Mangalore, and the Her initiative in Maharashtra because I believe our youth can make a difference.

Today, I sit here reflecting, trying to sum up everything that I have been, seen, and done, in a few minutes. I feel I am so many things: an administrator, scholar, author, wife, volunteer, mother, and friend; and now I am about to discover whether when I write and speak, at least some people listen. It has been an incredible journey …. full of plans and surprises, joy and pain, disappointments and fulfillment.

What more do I want from life? Like all of you, I want success, happiness, and lots of love. The specifics I leave, of course, to SERENDIPITY!


About Dr. Kalpana Gopalan:

Practitioner, scholar, policymaker, author, and mother, Kalpana Gopalan’s 32-year work experience in the Indian Administrative Service and public policy research spans urban and rural development, land management, infrastructure, and public-private partnerships. Kalpana holds a Masters’s and Doctorate from the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore and was Visiting Fellow at McGill, Concordia, Salerno, Syracuse & Sussex Universities. Dr. Kalpana is the recipient of the Mother Theresa Women Empowerment Award for “outstanding contribution to excellence in leadership”, and the International Human Rights Award under the Women of Courage category. She was recognized as a “Great Warrior of Humanity” by the International Human Rights Advisory Council for her “outstanding performance, commitment, contribution and dedication towards the humanitarian services and best practices on COVID-19 prevention”; and was appreciated by UNICEF and the Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences for support in Covid19 response. She is a LinkedIn Wonder Woman and Inspirational Leader. She lives in Bangalore and presents and publishes globally. Views are personal and meant for academic and intellectual discussion only.