It’s hard to decipher a through-line in Shaifali Puri’s 13-year career that spans the New York State Attorney General’s Office, the Empire State Development Corporation, the nonprofit Scientists Without Borders and the Nike Foundation. But look a little deeper and you’ll see that Puri has the spark of spontaneity that allows her to leap at opportunities and a core mission to improve people’s lives. Currently a visiting scholar at New York University’s journalism school, Puri is researching how technology can be harnessed to benefit the developing world. She spoke to NationSwell about the lessons she’s learned from her eclectic career.
What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
When I got hired at Fortune (a Time Inc. magazine), they only hired young people, and the only job you could get was to be a fact-checker. What was really great was that these kids came from [top] colleges and universities, and [the company started] them all at the bottom of the totem pole, in a job that required you to do what felt like menial work. Later, when I got a federal clerkship after law school, I was incredibly proud of myself. On day one, when the judge came into the chambers and said hello, she said she had a very important lesson to impart: the proper way to staple memos in her chambers, which was at a 45-degree angle in the top left-hand corner. Some people might say that’s crazy. But I’m grateful for having had those jobs — where you had to pay immense attention to detail — because so much of our focus today is on leadership. But it’s hard to be a great leader unless you also know how to be great at not being the leader, and how to be great in service to others in the organization.
What’s on your nightstand?
I usually have one fiction and one non-fiction book going at all times. My fiction book is called “ ,” by Rachel Kushner. The nonfiction book I just started is called “ ,” Tim Wu’s book on net neutrality.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started this job?
Worry less about the title and much more about the skills map. What are you learning in each job? Sometimes in my career, it was learning how to be a deputy, how to manage big projects, how to be a boss. You’ll get a career in which you’re doing meaningful work. It’ll be eclectic enough to expose you to many different things, and you’ll get to learn a variety of skill sets so you can figure out which ones you truly want to run with. I wasn’t smart enough or didn’t have the foresight to plan out my career, but looking over my shoulder, I’m glad that without knowing what I was doing, I was jumping at opportunities that had something to teach me, more than I was worrying about a particular industry. Ultimately, by total chance, I think it served me better than had I tried to plan my way here.
What’s your perfect day?
One that has a lot of serendipity in it. Something that I love but don’t do enough is ramble around New York. [So I’d] get up when the mood strikes (I’m usually a pretty early riser), have that cup of coffee, read The New York Times totally unrushed and head out with my boyfriend in tow to leisurely see where the day takes us. It might involve museums, the park, just staring at the architecture through Chelsea or the West Village, checking out what endlessly new thing is happening in the Lower East Side or going through Chinatown (which is one of my favorite parts of New York). Just walking and taking it in without a plan, ending at one of my favorite, not-overrun, neighborhood West Village restaurants. Then, a perfect evening stroll back home. When I forget why I love this city, a good walk always reminds me.
What’s your proudest accomplishment?
I want to preface this by saying, I’ve been very lucky because I have been very privileged. I did not have to worry about financial circumstances when I came out of college. The thing I feel most proud of isn’t any individual accomplishment. I’ve really tried to build a career of purpose. When I went to Scientists Without Borders, I didn’t know the field. The New York Academy of Sciences took a chance on me, and I’m really proud of having built something. It was like being a tech startup CEO: taking a germ of an idea to a full organization. I made a lot of mistakes, and it wasn’t always clear we were going to have the funding. It felt really important to me, because the promise of what the organization could achieve: eradicating global poverty, trying to bring science and technology resources to solve the challenges of the world’s poorest people. So I’m really proud that, in the face of a tremendous amount of terror and self-doubt, I persevered. That’s been something I’ve tried to do in my career, which is take on things that have scared me and do it anyway.
What don’t most people know about you?
I was, at some point, a certified bartender. I got my certificate in college. I figured if you ever needed a fun back-up career, that was it.
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This interview has been edited and condensed.