Painting a Vision for Experiential Learning
Neeraj Mehta '96
By giving students real-life experiences during their formal years of education, they will be more attractive to employers and be able to contribute sooner rather than spending longer periods learning on the job.
When Neeraj Mehta ’96 MBA was a student, one of his favorite activities was Orange Consulting, an experiential program that paired Syracuse business students with local companies. Through the program, he worked with a paint manufacturer on its business strategy.
“I just remember going into the paint company — and I’m not a painter, and I don’t have any interest in paint — but getting excited about helping them think through what they’re working on for the vision of the company,” he says. He appreciated the opportunity to interact with management in a substantive way and have an impact on the company’s direction.
Since then, Mehta hasn’t stopped helping companies refine and execute their visions. And for several years, he has worked to make the experiential learning programs that helped him develop a vision for his own career accessible to today’s Whitman School students.
Mehta, CEO of auto industry fintech DigniFi, serves on the Whitman Advisory Council. He also recently contributed support for experiential programs at the School. For years, he has fostered interaction between Whitman students and the companies where he has worked.
“The faster an employee can contribute in the workplace, the more they will be valued,” says Mehta. “By giving students real-life experiences during their formal years of education, they will be more attractive to employers and be able to contribute sooner rather than spending longer periods learning on the job.”
Learning by Doing
Mehta earned his undergraduate degree in criminal justice from the University of California, Irvine. He envisioned himself getting a law degree and doing investigative work at the FBI or elsewhere, but sometimes the value of experience is teaching us what we don’t want to do. His first job out of college was supporting investigations at the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, and he quickly realized it was not the career path for him.
Instead of law school, Mehta landed in a marketing consulting position. A future mentor noticed his aptitude for finance and analysis and suggested getting an MBA. When Mehta decided to take a chance on using an MBA to launch the next stage of his career, the California native went to Syracuse in part because New York would be a change of pace.
Once Mehta arrived on campus, his work with Orange Consulting, along with coursework that emphasized practical skills, confirmed that he had made the right decision in pursuing an MBA at Whitman. “What I realized was the experiences with the professors, the companies and then the people that I was working with taught me more than any sort of classroom content or book content,” he says. “It was actually interacting with those people, spending time with them outside of the class or working on projects that had all the influence on not just my learning, but my passion for what I was doing.”
Combining Passion With Strategy
Mehta often combines that passion and entrepreneurial spirit with
analytical caution, a useful combination for someone who helps businesses evaluate risks and implement strategies. After earning an MBA, Mehta began working at GE Capital, the financial services arm of General Electric, which at the time operated businesses in aviation, real estate, consumer finance and commercial finance. He chose the company because of the combination of a strong and established business along with innovative new projects. He began as an auditor, analyzing not only companies’ financials but also their operations and processes. In other words, he helped refine their vision.
“There’s a number of pieces of entrepreneurial spirit that do come out when you talk about my full journey,” Mehta says. “A lot of it was the things I tried to drive and push within big companies to be more entrepreneurial and really help them start up smaller units that were more innovative and more cutting edge.”
That is exactly what he did with financial services company Synchrony, which grew out of the consumer finance division of GE Capital. In 2014, as Synchrony’s executive vice president of corporate strategy and development, Mehta helped spin Synchrony out of GE Capital in a $20 billion initial public offering.
A New Direction
During the pandemic and after close to seven years with Synchrony, Mehta found himself re-evaluating his career path. He knew he wanted to take on a new challenge but didn’t know exactly what it should be. So he took a step that may have gone against his more conservative inclinations. He left the company without another position lined up.
In 2021, Mehta served as the interim CEO of United Way Worldwide, where he had previously been involved in various board capacities. It was his first time employed by a nonprofit. Working for a mission-driven organization opened his eyes to diversity initiatives to a far greater extent than when he was in the corporate world.
That fall, Mehta took his current role as CEO of DigniFi, an automotive industry fintech platform that connects consumers to financing. He has brought the new mission-centered perspective from his time at the United Way into the position, along with the experience analyzing and guiding companies at GE Capital and Synchrony. With Mehta at the helm, DigniFi’s revenues have steadily increased.
Mehta’s new focus on company culture and diversity isn’t the only thing that has changed for him during this chapter of his career. He says he’s no longer a “slave to my calendar.” In the world of venture capital, no two days are ever the same. He has learned to prioritize the three or four things he needs to do each day rather than trying to accomplish everything at once.
“I have what I never had at Synchrony or GE, which I’m loving, which is time to think, time to reflect,” he says. “And that’s helping me grow significantly and not just an employee or a professional but as a person. And that reflection time is something I tell everyone who still is in corporate America who are in my network and friends of mine, you gotta find the reflection time. It is so rewarding and liberating.”
Making the newfound space in his life was challenging at first, and Mehta jokes that it came as a surprise to his wife and family. But ultimately he’s grateful that he’s no longer simply “doing stuff for the sake of doing stuff.”
Investing in the Next Generation
Mehta points to those who advised and mentored him on his career path as an inspiration to give back to students and young professionals.
“I truly feel so many others on my personal board of directors, mentors and former managers have made the effort to give back to help develop professionally and personally,” he says. “I want to make sure that those of us who benefitted from others investing in our experiences continue to invest in the opportunities to bring more experiences to the next generation of business leaders.”
Because of the ways in which his own experience helped shape his perspective and direction, Mehta is committed to bringing experiential opportunities to today’s students through both financial support and time.
Mehta is quick to point out that experiential learning goes well beyond traditional internships. He hopes to help continue to broaden the scope of experiential learning at Whitman.
“Experiential learning is way more than internships. There are probably 10 to 15 different ways you can provide an experience for someone to better prepare them to go into the workforce, to better prepare them with skills of interacting with people and communications and networking,” he says.
“When I think about experiential learning, it’s things you do every day. It’s things you do in your social life. It’s the things you do on social media, it’s things you do digitally that are all things you’ve got to push students to do more of before they go out into the workforce,” he adds.
No matter what that experiential learning path includes, Mehta wants to help Whitman students paint the vision for their future.
By Suzi Morales