Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

'It's crucial to acknowledge that AI can perpetuate inequalities, fraud': Dalberg's new APAC regional director

Swetha Totapally, 35, will now lead the social impact consultancy's expansion into select markets across the Asia Pacific. The mother-of-three credits much of her success to a flexible working arrangement and shared parental responsibilities

Pankti Mehta Kadakia
Published: Aug 22, 2023 02:24:44 PM IST
Updated: Aug 22, 2023 06:33:30 PM IST

'It's crucial to acknowledge that AI can perpetuate inequalities, fraud': Dalberg's new APAC regional directorSwetha Totapally, regional director, APAC, Dalberg Advisors Image: Swapnil Sakhare for Forbes India

When Swetha Totapally started her career at Dalberg in her early 20s, she came in fresh from an investment banking stint and a Yale undergraduate degree in economics and mathematics. Back then, conversation around social impact in India was centred mainly on poverty alleviation. Totapally, who grew up the ranks to partner over the 12 years she has spent at Dalberg, has seen the social impact discourse move from addressing standard of living to addressing inequality.

In her new role as regional director for Asia Pacific, Totapally will lead the firm into expansion across select Asia Pacific regions, and to deepen its presence in countries such as Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Australia.

Interestingly, Totapally and her husband, parents of three children including a six-month-old, both work with flexible or part-time arrangements in different phases, so that one of them can fill in at home.

Totapally, who has led Dalberg’s global gender practice, spoke to Forbes India about how social impact has changed over the years, the need for safe spaces for women online, and the impact artificial intelligence might have on the sector.

Edited excerpts:

Q. Congratulations on the new role. What will it involve and what will your focus areas be now?
Thank you. So far, a lot of my work has been on addressing gender inequality—I've done a lot of work around combating sex trafficking, especially with children, and in ending gender-based violence. The second part of my portfolio has been around large-scale research policy, including a big project on The State of Aadhaar. When Covid hit, we did a series of studies on its impact, to drive better decision making at the government level.

Now, my focus is on the next half billion internet users, or people who have come online since 2017. This will focus on people who have low income, and the kind of value that digital adds to their lives. This will be a big part of my work, but with the new appointment, my role is to really think about how we can deliver on our mission consistently and cohesively. Dalberg was set up in Mumbai in 2009, and the first 10 years were about the India story. Now, we want to deepen our presence in areas like Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia, using local talent to deliver on our work. That’s really exciting.

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Q. How would you say the social impact space has changed over the past decade?
The world is definitely different from when I joined Dalberg 12 years ago. There's lots and lots of people who say they're trying to create social environmental impact in the world and that's in many ways a good thing, right? There are more people to work on the issues that matter.

But with that, it also raises the bar on what it means to deliver results of the highest quality. As an organisation, I would like for us to model that. Now, the dialogue around business impact and social impact needs to change—we need to think impact first, profits next, and I think we have a real opportunity to support that change.

Funding continues to be scarce, but when I started out, the conversation was all around poverty alleviation. While that continues to be an agenda today, discourse has shifted from focus on absolute standard of living to how do you actually reduce inequality, which is a different conversation altogether. There are more people recognising this difference, and that we can’t live like that anymore.

I’m also pleased to see how, within the notion of helping to improve the standard of living for all people, we are also talking about ways to do it that respect the environment.

Q. How do you think technology, including artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), will contribute to social impact going forward?
In many ways, we live in a harder world today. Women’s rights have rolled back a few years, not in India per se, but in places like Afghanistan or even the US, there are anti-rights movements at the fore. After Covid, we’ve seen lower labour force participation from women.

Technology has, of course, been great in many ways. For women, for instance, many of them have learned skills on YouTube and that has enabled them to forge their own careers. But I also worry about online harassment, safety and bullying. It seems like there’s no form of grievance.

In the grand scheme of things, we're still in the early stages of exploring how AI can contribute to creating social impact. Currently, only a fraction of AI funding is directed towards leveraging its potential for social good. I’m excited to explore how it can contribute to uncover new grantees or investees, or with complex forecasting and modeling.

However, it's crucial to acknowledge that, like any technology, AI could perpetuate existing inequalities (eg, the gender digital divide) and pose personal risks such as fraud. Those of us working in the social impact sphere have a vital role in shaping AI's ethical standards, combatting fraud, and ensuring gender sensitivity throughout the industry.