Through the Goggles of a Graduate: Saswat Mishra

For our third TGG this year, we have football legend, Saswat Mishra! Saswat graduated from the IDDD Programme with a BTech in Ocean Engineering and an MTech in Data Science. He is currently juggling two jobs – one at ABInBev with the MarTech Team and the other at his own venture, SignTalk, which is pre-incubated with Nirmaan and Social Alpha. In his 5 years at IIT Madras, Saswat captained the Football Team, represented the institute at international data science competitions, and fulfilled the age-old college cliché: creating a start-up with his friends.

You know, it’s a little funny – I’m sitting here writing an article for Through the Goggles of a Graduate, but sometimes, I’ve to think twice before describing myself as an IIT-M alum. That’s just how surreal the year has been – and even after five memory-filled years at college – I still feel like the story isn’t quite over yet. The last page of this book still needs filling in. 

I’m sorry, you’ve just started reading this article, and I’m already talking about the last page. For those of you who are curious about the first page – don’t worry. 

Everything is connected.

Chapter One: Melting Pot

So dear reader, which one were/are you? Were/are you the starry-eyed freshie trying to figure yourself out or the driven individual with a plan from the very first day? Maybe you go with the flow, or instead, you have clear demarcated goals for yourself. What I eventually learned about Insti is – it’s big enough for all of us – the researcher, the entrepreneur, the gamer, the jock, and heck, even that RG scammer. It just takes time to see that for many of us. 

Looking back on my first year, I was honestly lucky. I met so many people from all over the country and came across so many different personalities. 

Some early mornings, I would hear those academically bright students worried about scoring 18/20, and at the same time, I could also catch celebrations from those who scored 10. Afternoons were sometimes about listening to crazy school parties, and sometimes, they were about watching some intense Dota gameplay. The evenings? Evenings were nearly always about football, and the competition was fierce. 

The Wing

For me, one of the centers of this melting pot of people was my Wing. The Wing – would probably be best described as the embodiment of a circus. Some of our nicknames truly represented that – Bhalu, Bakra, Nagini, and apparently, I was the lemur from Madagascar.   

Cochin Shipyard Intern

We were all so different – and hailed from all over the country – but somehow fate would have us meet here – the Dept. of Ocean Engineering. Unfortunately, I could never quite get into the NavArch academics groove. Still, it did eventually lead to a pretty enjoyable Cochin Shipyard Intern – from which we will probably remember our trips to Munnar and Alappuzha. 

Chapter Two: Inter IIT & more

I remember this story from the third semester. I was sitting with a couple of acquaintances, and we were talking about the Inter IIT Sports Meet. One of them asked me – “Who do you think will be the Captain of the Football Team from our batch? A couple of guys from our batch made it last year, right?”

I looked at them – smiled – and said, “It’s going to be me.” 

As you’d expect, the two of them burst into laughter and said, “Well, you’re not even on the Team yet!”

I chuckled and responded: “Yeah, I know, but still, watch, it’s going to be me.” 

There was little margin for error, and there was no room to slack off. I couldn’t control my selection but what I could control was my effort. I owed that to my teammates and my talented competition. I attended every practice session, put in a 100% day-in-day-out, through injuries if I had to, and I refused to relent. I loved playing football and dreamt of representing Insti. I did not want to do that passion a disservice. 

High-pressure situations – the first of many on the field.

I eventually did make it into the squad for the first time in my 2nd year, and playing for the Madras Wolves was an extraordinary experience. Funnily enough, so much of my learning at Insti happened on the football field.

The capability to think about the bigger picture, the ability to lead, the strength to handle failure and criticism – I wasn’t going to learn this stuff sitting in a classroom. I don’t mean to say that classes aren’t useful- they are, but picking up other tangential skills along the way would only amplify you as a person. 

Aside from football, I did dabble with the Saarang Publicity & Outreach Team, and although it was a lot of fun, I realized that my passions lay elsewhere. Nevertheless, 2nd-year Saarang was my favourite version of our Cultural Fest – because of the artists (Shaan) and a fun Pondi trip! One thing that I’d like to share with juniors who are finding their place in Insti right now: don’t worry about travelling against the herd. Remember, there’s room for everyone, so, pursue those things that give you the most joy earnestly. 

Of course, there was a Pondi trip

Chapter Three: A Pivotal Domino

Ah, the year of internships. Boy, oh boy, does Insti wake up during this time. Suddenly, most of us want to talk only about Heard on the Street, 64 Interview Questions, internship stipends, etc.  You know the drill, and it repeats year after year. Quite a few of us are super-ambitious people, and we strive to achieve all that we can. Many of us also face imposter syndrome and wonder if we’re good enough for this place after all. 

The world is so big, and there are so many avenues to achieve success – one internship can’t decide our entire career path once and for all; that would make the rest of our lives pointless- don’t you think? 

I understand we realize this, and yet we feel so much pressure to compete. Again, the one lesson I would reiterate is to focus on things you can control – the effort and not the outcome. 

Work hard, do your best, and then continue to do so at whichever internship you secure. Learn about that line of work and find out if it’s something you would enjoy doing for some time. 

I was from Ocean Engineering – and back then, there weren’t too many “success stories” from our branch in terms of securing an on-campus internship. A senior even told me: “Take lite. Hardly anyone gets an internship in the odd semester.” People will give you a hundred reasons to dream small, but you have no obligation to believe them. Dream as big as you want. At the end of the day, your successes and failures are just that – your experiences from which you learn.

No feeling like a well-hit volley

Eventually, I secured an internship in Data Science at ABInBev. I enjoyed Data Science, especially the math part, and continued to work hard as an intern, securing a PPO subject to a 2nd summer internship. This PPO would later prove pivotal, as you’ll find out in Chapter 5. 

On the sports front, I took up a couple of PORs: Hostel Sports Secretary & Inter IIT Spons Super-Coord. We were hosting the Inter IIT Sports Meet that year, and the Madras Wolves secured their first medal in over a decade. Bonus: I scored my first goal for Insti, probably the best goal I’ve ever scored in my life! 

25 goals in 6 matches

Chapter Four: New Perspective

Fresh off my internship, I dived straight into 4th year. It had taken three long years to uncover a career path that interested me. Some of the junior readers may be wondering how I decided that this was what I liked doing. I get it – we have so many great options at Insti, and it often becomes difficult to commit to something. You’ve got to think about prestige, CTCs, Day 1, so many factors to balance. Often, we end up thinking about exit options before we’ve even entered a place! 

Wondering if they’ll ask us to get out

For me, the answer was that I wanted to get better at it despite a PPO. If you uncover something that affects your intrinsic motivation to improve, then bingo, you’ve hit the jackpot. Whatever the field, you’ll do great work in it if you love what you do.  

Outside my academic workload, I started taking part in a couple of competitions to improve my skills. Eventually, the efforts paid off, and I got the honour to represent Insti on an international stage – the Wharton People Analytics Conference 2019. We placed 3rd worldwide – competing with HBS, Kellogg, Sloan, and UPenn in the finals. 

Getting international exposure is immense – it forces you to realize that the competition is a lot bigger than IITM Internships/Placements – so the only healthy competition is the one where you compete with yourself.     

Trying to look fresh at HBS

I got my 2nd break that year at the HBS Peek Weekend (which I attended during my 2nd internship at ABInBev) – a 3-day immersion program at HBS for college students to learn more about its B-school program. One key message that struck me was their mission: to develop leaders who make a difference in the world. 

That was it: jackpot. The dream had to be bigger than becoming great at AI. I had been thinking too small. Now I had uncovered a passion beyond AI – real societal impact. 

Societal impact is a tricky thing – it’s often impossible to do alone. You’ll most likely need a strong team to lean on, and to bring the best out of your team – you need to be a great leader. I had a lot to learn about leadership, and by the end of 4th year, I had the opportunity to do so: both under the tutelage of previous Wolves’ Captains and first-hand – as Captain of the Madras Wolves. 

Learning from the legend Mohanty – a TGG alum

Chapter Five: The End

Loads of people want to be leaders. Most people want to give orders, not follow them. The thing is – orders are a small part of leadership – they are just reflections of your thought and vision. The ability to give orders does not necessarily make you a great leader, so what does?

I know I have a long way to go, but hear me out. Leadership is about enabling your team to function more than the sum of its parts, and one way to build an incredible team is to ensure that leaders cultivate more leaders, not more followers. 

What a performance in the Sports Fest Final
That smile though (Inter IIT KGP)

It was my job to make the Inter IIT Freshies feel confident in their ability. My job to make sure that every player felt important – especially the ones who missed out on the starting XI. We needed every squad member at their best whenever the opportunity presented itself. My job to ensure that we were more than just a team – we needed to be a family. 

These jobs were not easy for sure, and hence I needed more help – more leaders – to support the team and bring out the best versions of ourselves.

Leading the Wolves to a 5-0 victory in the Sports Fest Final was a surreal feeling. It was our first Gold Medal in quite a while. We were close to further cement our place in IITM folklore at Inter IIT; we were winning 2-0 with 5 minutes to go against the hosts: IIT KGP. Unfortunately, a couple of controversial penalties (a story for another time) and red cards ensured that we would eventually lose that match, winning the tournament only in spirit.

Nevertheless, you know you achieved something special together when you hear the opposition coach admit to his players – that we were the best team that has played on their ground.

While the sports angle produced quite an adventure in my final year, I was simultaneously searching for my answer to how I wanted to make a difference. Now, the PPO at ABInBev proved pivotal; I had the freedom to opt-out of Placements and could pursue something purely experimental – entrepreneurship.

It is true – entrepreneurship is tough, and most start-ups fail. The way I saw it was – if there was ever a time to face uncertainty, it was now. It was less risky to start a company now than when I was older and had real liabilities. 

I decided to convince a few of my friends to work on SignTalk – a tech-company whose mission was to make society more inclusive by bringing the Hearing and Deaf communities closer to each other.

How we got here is a story for another time – but after months of interaction with sign language interpreters, NGOs, and the Deaf community, we had clarity on a real problem – learning sign language online was tough, and often, a little boring.

Some context on sign language – it is unique to every country, and in India, the native sign language is called the Indian Sign Language (ISL). Our first product currently supports ISL – we want to help make the process of learning ISL simple, easy, and most importantly, fun! Taking inspiration from Duolingo’s quiz-based platform for language learning, we’re working on bringing that world-class experience (with our unique twist) to this space. 

Early days at SignTalk

Working on SignTalk has been humbling. The journey has come with its ups-and-downs, but the learning has been immense. If there’s one thing I’d recommend to juniors who are into entrepreneurship, it is this: the best time to start was yesterday; the next best time is today. So back yourself, dive head-first and enjoy the journey. 

I know Insti can be frustrating sometimes. It can feel suffocating, unwelcoming, and downright awkward. But take this from someone who spent a few years here – you will miss Insti a ton once it gets over. Because what makes Insti exceptional is that it doesn’t lead you to the end; it leads you to a new beginning.

You can find Saswat on his Instagram and check out SignTalk here.

Editor’s Note: You can also read the other articles from this series here.

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