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by Kathryn O’Neill

Akshit Singla SDM ’19 joined MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) program with an interest in engineering and management and an open mind about the future. Now, as he approaches graduation, he has a clear new direction: “My goal in life is that every human on the planet should have basic needs met,” he says.

The seeds of this ambitious goal were planted when Singla was growing up in Chandigarh, India. He took a class trip to a labor chowk, a market where day laborers await gig work, and was moved by the plight of the people there. “They weren’t sure if they were going to get food that day or the next,” he says.

Now, Singla believes he can help people by applying systems thinking—the SDM approach to addressing complex problems—and his software engineering skills to the challenges of poverty. He plans to pivot his career to work toward digital inclusion, employing technology to scale projects of benefit to underserved populations.

“The poor should not be forgotten,” he says, explaining that technology should make it possible to address human problems on a broad scale. “I want to make sure everyone has access to and is able to use the internet and technology.”

The path to SDM

Singla earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science from Punjab Engineering College and began his career at Amadeus IT Group, a travel technology company. After three years in Bangalore, India, he moved to the company’s Waltham, MA, office, where he served as senior innovation engineer. His experiences with corporate innovation at this new post sparked his interest in the intersection of engineering, business and management, so he began looking for a way to learn more.

He found SDM, a graduate program that integrates studies in engineering and management sciences, thanks in part to a recommendation from Amadeus colleague Martin Jouvenot, an SDM alum. Singla enrolled in SDM’s certificate program in 2019, taking classes part-time while continuing in his full-time job. “One of the benefits of SDM is that it’s a very flexible program,” Singla says. “With the certificate program, you can test the waters to see how well the program works for you.”

Singla completed the certificate in 2020 with a capstone project that explored how a technology platform might benefit underserved populations. The project proved to be a milestone, underscoring for Singla that he could combine his passion for technology with his personal goal of improving life for the disadvantaged. “My whole journey at MIT has been about technology and underserved populations,” he says. 

In spring 2021, Singla moved into SDM’s full-time master’s program seeking a more in-depth MIT experience. “I felt doing the degree part-time while also doing my job meant I could not extract 100 percent of the value MIT offers,” Singla says. In particular, he wanted to continue to build relationships with other SDM students. “SDM has an amazing cohort of people with diverse technical experience, which is crucial. You don’t get that with other programs,” he says. “Getting those perspectives from others—who may have come from the aerospace industry or mechanical engineering, while I’m a computer scientist—that’s very enriching.”

SDM also enabled Singla to tailor his degree to his interests. While acquiring a foundation in systems thinking through SDM’s core curriculum, Singla also dived into opportunities across MIT. Notably, he gained experience with digital inclusion in India Lab, a class that combines instruction with real-world project work for host companies. Singla and his student team developed a business model for an Indian company interested in expanding high-speed internet connectivity in rural India. “That was exciting,” Singla says. 

The experience piqued Singla’s interest in the digital challenges facing low-income households. The next summer he secured an internship through the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI). He worked as a product manager for an Indian charity, helping the Myna Mahila Foundation to implement new technologies. It was inspiring work that “boosted my beam of hope for humanity,” Singla said in an interview with MISTI. “I had the opportunity to validate my career aspirations.”

While at SDM, Singla has also taken an active part in the broader MIT community. He serves as an officer on the executive committee of MIT’s Graduate Student Council (GSC), representing the grad student population in regular meetings with MIT’s senior leadership. In 2021, he also co-chaired the GSC’s orientation events, a role that gave him the chance to interview MIT President L. Rafael Reif onstage for an audience of roughly 1,000 incoming students. In 2020, he led career-related activities for SDM’s Student Leadership Committee. That same year, he also co-chaired the MIT Bitcoin Expo Hackathon, an event focused on improving and promoting blockchain technology and cryptocurrency.

Focus on social impact

Now that his time at MIT is coming to a close, Singla is focused on the job hunt, looking for product management roles with social impact. Wherever he lands, he knows he will use lessons from SDM, which has given him frameworks for assessing challenges from both the macro and micro levels—the full systems perspective.

“I apply systems thinking all the time in both my professional and personal life,” Singla says. “Now I clearly define my goals before making decisions, and I brainstorm the different pathways to achieve those goals. Then I do a tradeoff analysis of each of the pathways. That’s how I make my decisions.”—including the decision to pivot to a career focused on those at the “bottom of the pyramid,” the world’s poorest but largest socioeconomic group.

Thinking back on his childhood experience at the chowk, Singla says he remembers being surprised when one of the laborers said that while he appreciated the students’ effort to help, he didn’t expect to see them again. “I was passionate and thought, of course I will continue to help,” Singla says. “But he was right. We never came back.”

Now, as Singla makes his career pivot from travel tech to social impact, he says he feels he’s come full circle. “This is my time to go back. I want to make sure people have their basic needs met.”