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Vital People

Purnima Jolly, Deputy Director, Research Grants

Purnima Jolly moved to the U.S. from India in 2014 with her husband and her sons, then 3 and 7 years old. Her husband had been relocated for work, and as a part of his relocation package, Purnima was also offered a job at the large insurance company where he was employed. While Purnima had always worked in finance, it was her first time working for a corporation.

“I have always had an inclination toward finance, and it was a good job, it was well compensated, and they liked me, but I wasn’t happy,” she said. “I wanted to go back to my sector, to nonprofit work.”

“This is my forte. I have been in this line of work for 18 years. When I look at the cause I’m working for it really motivates me. Whatever I am doing, I am facilitating the work for those who are working in the field.

Purnima joined Vital Strategies in 2017 as Senior Finance Officer and became Deputy Director, Research Grants, in 2019. She mostly works on ensuring compliance to federal regulations and Vital Strategies policies, and strengthening systems within the research division, especially grants management. She is proud that she has been able to finish all pending audits for TREAT TB without them leading to any audit observations—that is, none of them led the auditors to note any issues.

Purnima grew up in Delhi and came from a family that she describes as conservative. Despite this, her father provided her with the same educational opportunities as her brother and she became the first person in her family to choose and qualify for finance as a career.

Purnima attended the University of Delhi, where she studied finance and simultaneously took a chartered accounting course (the equivalent of earning a CPA in the U.S.). When she graduated, it was time for her to get a job, but all of the jobs required travel.

“This was a shock to my parents. They thought, ‘How can she travel all by herself as a woman, one or two months at a time?’ I struggled to find an auditor job that did not need travel,” she said. “My father eventually said, you have to do it. His confidence boosted me. I traveled internationally, which created all sort of opportunities.”

Purnima joined an audit firm, where the nonprofits Plan International and Action Aid were clients. This developed her interest in nonprofit organizations, and she quickly aspired to work for one of the international organizations that she was auditing.

After a year, she went to work at the Financial Management Services Foundation, which, she said, “opened up all my knowledge of nonprofits.”

“I would even travel to villages, not just to audit the books,” she said. “I would visit the villages to see whether the work happened or not. Is there a school or not? I would drive four hours to small villages in India, only to be there for two or three hours. It was tiresome, but since I loved my work, I was always interested to go and learn.”

She went on to work at the European Commission for four years. There, she helped strengthen the process to review audit reports and to visit recipients of the European Commission’s funding in India for financial monitoring and strengthening systems and processes.

“They were giving funding to local organizations in India, with minimum due diligence for those organizations. Sometimes one person might be doing everything,” she said. “The system of field monitoring and risk assessment was very weak, and they might be sending funds without knowing how they are using it.”

Purnima then followed a colleague to USAID and worked there for five years. They already had systematic processes to perform audits and reviews, but Purnima helped set up a system for the program team so that they could get financial information right on their computers. Last year, a leader at USAID said they were still using the system, which is satisfying for Purnima.

“For me it was not just about finding the errors and writing the report, but building an organization’s capacity, so that the funds can be used without any chances for fraud or error, and you see them growing with those systems in place. That motivates me.”

Moving to the United States and living in suburban New Jersey, after a lifetime spent in Delhi, was exciting for Purnima. Despite missing family, she is grateful that her sons have grown up in the U.S. Hirday, now 15, is a passionate member of a drum line, and Punya, 11, plays the saxophone—experiences Purnima does not think they would have had in India.

COVID-19 meant Purnima’s husband, who had traveled Monday to Friday for years, was at home, but the pandemic also felt particularly frightening being so far from family—first in New Jersey, when case rates and mortality were high, and then this year, when India was especially hard hit.

“I don’t know any family in India who didn’t have a COVID case,” she said. “For my parents, my brother, my in-laws, I should have been there with them to hold them. I lost a few people we knew which was very sad.”

Purnima looks forward to returning to Vital Strategies’ New York office in person. Even though she has a 90-minute commute, Purnima especially loves the office at 100 Broadway and feels close to her colleagues.

While the Research Division’s USAID funding for the STREAM clinical trial ended this year, after nine years of work, the trial continues with ongoing funding from Janssen Pharmaceuticals, with further clinical trial results expected in 2022.

“I had never seen any project be extended so many times,” Purnima said. “We were a little demoralized when we didn’t get yet another extension, but I.D. [Rusen, Senior Vice President for Research] said, we shouldn’t be looking at what we aren’t getting, and instead on what we have achieved in 13 years. It is natural that there is an end. That really motivated us and I’m excited to see what we do next.”