It was the peak of the Ebola crisis in West Africa, and infections were increasing exponentially. It was clear that if someone didn’t do something to turn it around in the next 90 days, the world would be in for a major pandemic—a pandemic no one was prepared to tackle.

The UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) sprang into action to lead the international response, and solicited guidance and strategic support from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Enter Shalini Unnikrishnan, Davidson College class of 2001, who led the BCG team on the ground in West Africa. The UN response brought together doctors, nurses, businesses, operations experts, anthropologists and more, and Shalini and her BCG team supported these responders in an ever-evolving crisis.

Shalini explains that the responders realized quickly that the scale and complexity of this crisis was unlike any other. The response team worked in makeshift locations across countries, and Shalini and her team worked alongside them on questions like what resources would be needed at different points of the response to provide safe burials, how to share scarce laboratory capacity, and how to reduce community resistance.

“I couldn’t have anticipated that the skills and experience I was building could be useful in such a context, but all of it is not worth much if we don’t use them when people need them the most,” said Unnikrishnan, who as a part of the UN response, ran towards a crisis when most were running away from it. Unnikrishnan says it is a belief that you have a purpose in the world, a belief that you can add value that provides the courage to get involved at the right time. “Whether you say this is my moment and I’m going to help, or I’m going to sit back … that’s a personal choice.”

Some of the skills that allowed her to lead during such tragedy were developed at Davidson.

Unnikrishnan arrived at Davidson from Delhi, India, experiencing the United States for the first time.

“I was a very certain 18-year-old,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be a doctor, thought I knew what I was good at, what I was passionate about. But Davidson challenged my own understanding of myself and what motivates me.”

Her trajectory certainly changed, thanks to the liberal arts curriculum, the intellectual curiosity and openness found on campus and the exposure to a wide variety of disciplines, and she graduated with degrees in economics and sociology. She can trace her willingness to be open and her passion for discovery back to campus.

“Davidson provided this space to discover,” she said. “It prepared me to have an open mind about where the answers are going to come from. It builds you up toward solving problems in a more strategic, more holistic way. I felt encouraged to tackle problems, not pushed to take over the world.”

Today, Unnikrishnan continues her work with BCG as a Partner and Managing Director in the Chicago office, where she is a core member of the social impact, global advantage, and public sector practices.

In addition to her work with the Ebola emergency response, Unnikrishnan’s experience includes working on economic development, financial inclusion, agriculture, education and health. She leads efforts that seek to redefine the role of the private sector in development, while creating new sources of business value. Shalini has also served as an advisor for presidencies in Africa, embedded within these governments, as part of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s team, and now serves on the Board of Directors of the Tony Blair Foundation.

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