Each spring, Harvard Kennedy School students organize a series of student-led conferences focusing on issues that are timely, relatable, and of substance. And they’re also opportunities for our students to listen to, learn from, and speak with thought leaders from across fields and sectors—and to present their own ideas and research.
The first of this year’s student-led conferences—the India Conference—was held on February 11-12, 2023. The India Conference at Harvard provides an opportunity to discuss, debate, and champion India-centric issues. The India Conference has a legacy of hosting conversations with some of India’s leading politicians, business leaders, government officials, academics, artists, athletes, philanthropists.
The conference’s 400+ in-person attendees heard from more than 100 speakers during in a record 37 panels and sessions focused on a wide range of policy topics including:
- India’s role chairing the G20
- The caste system
- Climate transition
- LGBTQ+ rights in India
- Strengthening India’s democracy
- India’s internal security dynamic
- Universal healthcare in India
- Criminal justice reform in India
Below HKS’s conference co-chairs Dhananjay Goel (MPA/MBA 2023) and Vidhi Lohia (MPA 2023) share more about the conference and what went into making it a success.
What was the theme of this year’s conference?
This year’s theme was Vision 2047: India at 100 Years of Independence. Recently, India concluded 75 years of independence, and as it begins its 76th year as an independent nation, we wanted to ask what the next 25 years would look like.
We believed that the forward-looking theme would lend itself to a wide array of topics, some of which require long-term thinking. For instance, this year we had four different panels focused on climate change and energy, which are topics that require us to think far into the future.
What were some of the key takeaways you hope attendees walked away with?
We wanted attendees to recognize India as a diverse and beautiful country—imperfect, flawed, and yet wonderful in so many ways.
We hope that attendees took away a broad perspective on various topics: healthcare, climate, LGBTQ rights, democracy, annihilating caste discrimination, criminal justice, decoding a unicorn, sports, fashion, infrastructure, and so on. Every issue has multiple stakeholders—from civil society to business enterprise, to policy makers, bureaucrats, artists, and more—so the cross-HKS/HBS programming, along with student contributions from almost all schools at Harvard, allowed for intersectionality.
We also hope the conference allowed attendees to make new connections. Our conference app had over 3,000 messages and 50 community board posts exchanged amongst attendees. These connections are perhaps the most meaningful takeaway for us and hopefully for those who attended the conference. While going back to an in-person conference after two years of virtual programming came with its challenges, it was absolutely worth it for the opportunity it presented for students and professionals to connect in person.
Why did you decide to chair the India Conference?
Dhananjay: I first contributed to the India Conference in 2018-19. Back then, I was working in India as a startup founder. In my free time, I volunteered to help with the India Conference as an external website developer, as a way for me to connect with the Harvard community and to broaden my own perspective of the different issues at play in India. At the time, I was a few years out from applying to HKS. Looking back, that was the first contribution HKS made to my personal journey. Once I was here, I wanted to give back. I worked last year as a panel manager and absolutely loved my experience. I soon realized that chairing the conference this year, given the opportunity, would be a fantastic way for me to connect with other students at Harvard and the broader conference audience and provide a path for me to continue to expand my own perspectives—a journey that began in 2018.
Vidhi: I was an active part of the organizing team for the conference in 2022. That experience, after two years of being in on-and-off isolation due to the COVID pandemic, made me feel like a part of a bigger community here at Harvard. It helped me connect with other Indian students across Harvard schools and engage in some brilliant conversations. I saw months of hard work culminate into deeply impactful discourse that shaped the minds of so many individuals.
Chairing the conference has been a great opportunity to test out some of my newly learned leadership skills before I return to the professional world. The last 6-8 months have entailed a lot of hard work and long nights; I have been pushed outside of my comfort zone multiple times. But this is exactly what I had hoped for, and I can say with 100% confidence that I would do it all over again if given the chance.
What goes into coordinating such a conference?
Dhananjay: Coordinating the India Conference has been a wonderful, hectic, hands-on learning experience. It required a constant push and a combination of teamwork and, in some parts, luck. We are all tremendously satisfied with how the conference came together—and the attendee feedback has been extremely heartening.
Vidhi: Coordinating a conference of this scale requires a lot of time, commitment, and passion. It also requires patience and persistence. Working with 80 students across difference Harvard schools who are juggling multiple commitments through the semester is a fun but mammoth task. As co-chairs, it was our responsibility to keep the team morale up, tap into the expertise of our past co-chairs and other conference organizers, and manage all the aspects of planning. I feel extremely proud of all of us for having such a successful conference with about 500 attendees and over 100 speakers (many of whom flew in from India just for this!).
It’s been amazing to see the impact the conference has had. Some students told us after the conference that they are planning to go back to India after graduating because of India’s potential and its growth story. Being able to inform attendees’ thinking on such a deep level makes us feel like this conference was so much bigger than we had imagined.