Nina Maturu was graduate student at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy where she pursued a joint MPP/MBA degree. She is also the creator of Maturu, a socially conscious fashion line, which uses vintage and sustainably sourced materials. Nina attended the University of Michigan’s JSI program in 2005. She graduated from New York University (NYU) with a BA in History and a minor in Asian American Studies. She has lived and worked in Japan, India, and Tanzania and is the recipient of the Clinton Fellowship for Service. In this interview, Nina shares experiences that have helped her shape a career path that fits her passions.
You recently launched Maturu, a socially conscious fashion line. What influenced you to do that and what has that experience been like?
In college, I started making my own clothes. I remember wearing my creations during my PPIA program at Michigan and all the women would say: ‘I love your clothes, how do you get clothes that fit you so well?!’ One of them had said how I had to create my own clothes line. I was a junior in college but it was always in the back of my mind. After I got into policy school, I said let me just try to start it, I already have a backup plan by being in grad school so if it fails, it fails. I ended up doing really well. As I sold my stuff I realized that I couldn’t produce everything, especially going to school. I wanted to produce my clothes in a different way. Something I learned about in India was the idea of a “collective”, where they would work with women currently unemployed or unemployable and they would teach them how to sew.
Many of the same issues that are happening in developing countries are happening in the US. In so many degrees and in a different context but they’re the same basic issues. They don’t have reliable housing or access to basic goods and services. I thought, I’m living in Michigan now, what if I tried to form a sewing cooperative or collective to have women produce my line. That’s what I’ve been working with. I want to provide my workers with living wage but is it possible to do that in a developed country in order to cover my costs and so my workers can make a living? This winter break I went back to India to do fieldwork and basically understand how do you do distribution, marketing, product development and what the government’s role in facilitating it is.
I feel like India’s nonprofits are pretty robust and I want to see how that can be applied to the US. I love working on my business and I want to continue doing it, but I want to have at least two years of funding before I go into it full time. I have some job offers for after I graduate and was going to work on those and get some critical skills. And work on this on the side until I have sufficient funding.
You have a very strong background in social justice, what first inspired you to get involved in those issues?
I remember the classes that changed it for me; it was a class on the Constitution of Communities of Color and also a class on the Asian Diaspora. The first one talked about how inequality has been written into our legal system and how it has been institutionalized. And on the Asian Diaspora class, we talked about how a person’s identity can shift depending on how other people view them and the different historical contexts they are a part of. This was the first time I had learned about systematic inequality in a classroom setting. So they made me really want to work on social issues. At NYU, I took a part-time staff position at the New York Civil Liberties Union, organizing their student chapters of the ACLU across the state of New York.
Through my time at the NYCLU, I learned the power of the legal system in creating social change. However, I wanted to work closer with the communities I wanted to impact. My senior year, I became a Community Organizer in Brooklyn, NY, working with public housing residents and immigrant retail workers on Fulton Mall. This experience took my understanding of inequality from a conceptual framework to the everyday obstacles.
You attended your JSI at the Ford School, in 2005. What made you apply and pursue the PPIA Fellowship?
I had already been working at the ACLU, so I knew that social justice was a strong interest. I remember getting an email through the NYU listserv and thinking: ‘what’s policy school?’ I saw the program and thought PPIA’s mission to help underrepresented minorities and kind of close that inequality gap really resonated with me. I remember telling my brother I was going to apply, and at the time only one in ten people were accepted. And he said ‘you’re probably not going to get in.’ I was deciding between a few summer options and the amount of support they were giving their fellows made it a very intriguing program to me. I feel it was one of the best choices I made. PPIA has affected so many of my career choices.
What was the most significant take-away from your JSI experience?
I would say it was meeting such amazing people. When I think about my PPIA cohort, every single one of them is oing amazing things today. They’re the most impressive group of people. There are two things I’ve done in my life that I felt everyone involved in was amazing, one was the Clinton fellowship and the other was PPIA. It was just a group of high-achieving individuals that are all interested in making a social impact. There’s something really amazing about that group of people. They could do anything, they were so smart and such hard workers and just charismatic as people in general, but they chose to make social justice a large part of their life. I kept in touch with a lot of them. It’s amazing to know that there’s a community of people like this who exist and who will continue to support one another no matter what they go on to do.
You’re currently getting a joint MPP/MBA from the Ford School. Why did you choose to pursue a dual degree?
For most of my professional career, I was working on the community level, which was incredibly rewarding. But I wanted to explore methods for affecting change on a larger scale and I felt policy was one way to do that. Having worked for the ACLU, I always thought I would go to law school. After spending three years abroad I was not sure if I wanted to work domestically or internationally. I saw an MPP as a degree that was much more versatile in this regard, where a law degree was more domestically focused.
I lived in Japan, in India, later I lived in Tanzania and I realized more than language or culture, economic markets were the international language. If you look at immigration problems, they exist really for an economic reason. If you look at why other cultures started communicating with one another, it was for economic reasons. I think it’s only one part of development, but definitely a large part. So I decided to get a business degree as well.
Why did you choose to attend the Ford School for a graduate degree?
I think having gone to PPIA at Michigan I had a really good idea on what I was getting into. Having a very positive experience at PPIA definitely stacked the cards in Ford’s favor. I knew most of the people at Career Services already because I did PPIA at Michigan. Three people from my cohort were at Michigan at the time. So I had three people from PPIA who I love also at Michigan and after not having a community for three years it was really nice to come somewhere where I already knew people and I really liked the school too. So I was coming into a community with friends and even having staff that I knew. Funding was a huge issue too. I was able to get the Rackham Merit Fellowship, which is an amazing scholarship, through the University of Michigan. I knew about it from PPIA.
I was also looking at graduate schools that had strong graduate programs campus wide because I really wanted to take classes in the different schools. Michigan was one of the few schools that had really strong programs in all of its graduate schools. Some of the other schools their policy program was really good, but their business school wasn’t that good or they had great programs but it was impossible to take classes in other programs.
What advice would you give to alumni who are planning on pursuing graduate school and careers in public service?
My advice in retrospect is I wish I hadn’t second-guessed myself so much. I grew up in a family where modesty was important. Business school taught me that you need to be your biggest advocate. If you don’t think you are freaking amazing nobody else is going to think so. They don’t know you so you have to convey all that you’ve done in this way that makes you sound great.
I wish someone had told me that especially when you’re applying to policy programs you can talk about your personal experiences and how they’ve informed your view of the world. I was always told you should keep it very professional but I think that so much of my interest in social equality had to do with being a person of color and then taking a class like the Constitution of the Communities of Color I realized I was not alone in feeling that way. In fact, our institutions were designed to make people of color feel unequal/inadequate. So much of your view of inequality is shaped by the way people speak to you and how people perceive you. And it’s a very difficult thing to articulate but very important also. And policy schools are very attuned to it. Being a big advocate for yourself and being honest on why you are interested in graduate school is important. What was very helpful was visiting the school and just seeing, can I imagine myself coming to class here? And talking to a lot of people was incredibly helpful.