Leaps of Faith: How Neeraja Ramjee went from coding to consulting — and acting — in New York City
Neeraja Ramjee had never left her home country of India before she saved up enough money to take an MBA program at Smith School of Business. It’s one of the many “leaps of faith” she’s taken on a career that has led her to a management consulting gig in New York City, and pursuing her passion as a television and stage actor.
By Hailey Eisen
At 18, Neeraja Ramjee moved to a small university town in India to study engineering. She’d never been outside of the country, save for one family vacation to Dubai, and was living out the future her parents had envisioned for her. “It was, ‘become a doctor or become an engineer,’” she recalls, “and since some of my friends were studying engineering, I decided to do the same.”
Had someone told young Neeraja that 15 years later she’d find herself halfway across the world working as a management consultant in New York, with a second job as a television and stage actor, she’d likely have laughed in disbelief. Then again, Neeraja, even then, was a woman unafraid of taking a risk — or as she likes to call it, a leap of faith.
Partway through her studies, she knew engineering wasn’t for her, but dropping out wasn’t an option, so Neeraja finished her degree and got a job as a computer coder. For the next few years she worked in a job she didn’t really like. “I wanted to see the big picture — to see all the pieces coming together,” she recalls. “I wasn’t getting that in the coding world.”
“I grew up a lot during my time at Smith. I came with little experience and learned so much along the journey.”
That’s when the opportunity for her first leap of faith presented itself. Having saved up enough to pay for tuition and an international flight, Neeraja decided to leave India for Canada to complete a 12-month MBA program at Smith School of Business. “I’d been exposed to the West through TV and movies, so it didn’t feel like a huge adjustment,” she recalls. “But when I arrived in Kingston in April, I thought, this is pretty cold.”
“I grew up a lot during my time at Smith,” says Neeraja, who in her early 20s was one of the youngest in her MBA class. “I came with little experience and learned so much along the journey.”
Much of her learning, she says, came from the extensive teamwork that’s part of the Smith program. She learned how to understand and work with people with different opinions from her own, she joined the student council, and gained more insight into the business world and what she did — and more importantly, did not — want to do going forward.
Having made the decision to pursue a career in consulting following the completion of her MBA, Neeraja took a few more leaps of faith. The first took her to Edmonton (where she experienced true cold!) and worked for a few years with a boutique consulting firm in change management. From there she moved to Toronto, joined Ernst & Young, and travelled a great deal. She also underwent some personal challenges.
Having spent so much time on the road, Neeraja decided she needed to stay put for a while. When she was recruited by BCG in New York to work as a manager of their Global Knowledge team, she considered the role a good fit, and was excited for a new challenge. It was around that time that Neeraja took another huge leap of faith, into a world that not only has brought her great joy and success — but has become, what she calls, her second job.
“I had never felt this immediate gravitational force with anything else I’d ever done.”
“I was in a fragile state when I moved to the city and I was looking for an outlet,” she recalls. “I tried various things, including going to palm readers — all in search of guidance.” Interestingly, the real aha moment came when a bus drove past her with an advertisement for an acting school plastered across its side. “From there, it seemed everywhere I went I saw posters for that same school — I wasn’t sure if it was a sign, but I decided to sign myself up for some classes.”
She fell in love with acting. “I had never felt this immediate gravitational force with anything else I’d ever done,” she says. “I felt very happy.”
From acting classes to joining a conservatory to getting her name into various theatre communities in the city to acting in small shows, Neeraja was eventually discovered by a Toronto-based agent and signed. “I never imagined I would be a professional actor, I was just doing it for fun, but I remember saying, ‘Ok, let’s give it a shot’.”
Among other things, this leap of faith has led to small parts in shows including ABC’s Designated Survivor — where she had the opportunity to work alongside Kiefer Sutherland — and given her the opportunity to act in and produce a one-person show in Toronto entitled Broken Images.
“The only way you’d want to get into professional acting is if you’re really passionate about it,” she advises. “It’s a rejection game, and you get knocked down over and over again, and you really need the tenacity to get back up again, and a whole lot of luck to shine down on you.”
So far, it’s working. As for what her next leap will look like? Neeraja says she’s very happy where she is right now.
There is no better way to learn about a school and its programs than first-hand accounts from current students and alumni. Check out the Queen’s MBA Blog for unique and authentic perspective on life in Smith’s full-time MBA program and to read the inspiring stories of its graduates.