Monday, 3 September 2007

A Summer of Lessons Learned

Wow, what a summer. I have learned so much. But blogs demand brevity so I will distill my summer experience into the 5 most important lessons that I have learned.

1) Business is NOT all bad.

Of course, I am being a bit facetious. But I did learn that business (big, medium and small) plays an important role in international economic development. Markets play a key role for the rich as well as the poor; in fact, the poor need effective, accountable businesses so they can get the goods and services they need at the least expensive prices. Markets also tend to be more transparent than the informal systems that are devised without them. Most importantly, markets enable people to make choices, even if they seem like limited options to outsiders. People can choose how they want to sustain themselves, where they want to live and what they want to purchase. A few years ago, no one would imagine that this fisherman would want a cell phone...but he did and now he has one.

At the same time, business cannot do it alone. While pure capitalists may disagree, I believe that we need a balance of government, business and non-profits for a healthy society. Government should not run businesses but it should regulate and protect public goods, ensure a safety net and provide systems for basic services. It should also make businesses play fair. And non-profits play a key third role, pushing government and businesses to be more effective and equitable as well as providing services for those who are ignored or forgotten by everyone else. If it were so easy (and profitable) to serve the rural poor in the developing world, businesses would be doing it a lot more!

2) Leaders should listen more, talk less.

I realized time and time again this summer that I know nothing. Well, not exactly nothing but I have a lot to learn. Though I was frustrated at times, I was reminded how much you can learn by listening. By asking questions rather than relying on assumptions, you get a better understanding of an issue or dilemma. You are then better prepared to work with others to collaborately devise an innovative solution rather than get caught up on ineffective approaches.

My village visits made me realize that you have to be a great listener in order to be a great leader. I learned as much from the pioneering Drishtee women entrepreneurs as I have from any business school case study. Working in the field reminded me that organizations rely on the strengths of all their members so leaders need to get the best out of everyone around them. To do that, you have to get people to trust you. Especially when you are in an unfamiliar environment, whether it is a slum, rural village or a new office! And I found the best way to get people to trust me was to listen.

3) Think Globally, Act Globally.

We live in a global society. No community or country can act as a island (even if the country is an island!). Between trade, immigration and diplomatic relations, we are all connected. Even though we are sometimes divided by ethnic, cultural, social and/or political differences, I do believe that we can create a better world for the next generation by working together rather than against each other. Whether you are Italian or Indian (like the woman and children in this photo), you can find common ground.

In my experience in India, I have been impressed by the power of international free trade to encourage widespread economic growth and development. I have seen the positive upside of outsourcing and globalization. While I recognize that fair play is necessary to ensure the success of trade, I have seen firsthand the beneficial impact it can have on the poor.

At the same time, globalization can also cause harm. If you are a villager who migrates to a megacity for better opportunities only to be murdered by a slum gangster, then free trade has failed you. Or, if you are a Westerner who loses his or her job and cannot support yourself and your family, then you have been hurt by globalization. Which means that we need to build systems and safety nets to establish stronger societies and support those harmed by globalization.

4) Equal Rights are Empowering.

Women can play a critical role in economic development. However, we have to ensure that they are part of the process. This requires significant investment and energy in the short-run because women are not as experienced or educated as their male counterparts, especially in less advantaged populations. Organizations have to take a risk on these women to help them succeed in business. Drishtee has done a fantastic job involving women as entrepreneurs and I believe it will pay off for the organization in the long run. To increase female participation in the formal market economy, however, we also have to address the existing gender-related barriers. Laws are needed to protect equal rights and criminalize discrimination and domestic violence. Like this girl and boy, all children must have equitable education opportunities and child care issues must be considered.

5) You Gotta Have Hope.

I read an article this summer about a global survey that asked people what they thought about the future. I can’t remember the exact numbers but people in India, China and other developing countries were much more hopeful about the future than their counterparts in the West. There are multiple explanations for these findings but I will take them with a grain of salt and note that I admire any culture that is so optimistic about the future. Just like I admire the Drishtee entrepreneur who is the mother of this little girl because she is excited that her daughter will have more opportunities than her. In India, the majority of people seem to believe that it is getting better all the time. How great would it be if this were also true in the United States? What would it take to get us there?

Friday, 24 August 2007


As I wrap up my time in India, I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who made my summer an unbelievable experience. First, I want to thank Satyan, Nitin, Shilesh, Swapna and Siddhartha – the Dristhee leadership team who made my internship possible. I also wanted to thank Andrew, Nirdesh, Ann, John, David, Raj, Kavita, Radhika, Pankaj, Ajai, Arnab, Amit, Mamaji, Dr. Hamilton, Ajay, Sony, Rajiv and everyone else at Drishtee. I also wanted to appreciate all of the Drishtee entrepreneurs and their communities for welcoming me, serving me endless cups of chai and helping me understand the challenges of living in rural India. Along with them, I am grateful to all of the Indians who shared their food, homes and stories with me.

Most importantly, thanks go out to my Stanford Business School classmates. Almost all of my classmates donated some of their hard-earned summer earnings so that I could come to India. Through our Summer Management Internship Fund (SMIF), business students contribute their own money to support classmates who are working for non-profit organizations, government or social businesses like Drishtee. Without them, I would probably be working on Wall Street. Well, maybe not, but I certainly would not have had such an incredible opportunity! Special thanks to Liz, Julie and John and the rest of the SMIF leadership. And, as for the rest of the GSB, I can’t wait to get back and share what I have learned. I will never tire of talking of India…so you will have to let me know when you want to switch topics.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Unintended Consequences of a Call Center

Thanks to the terrible traffic in Mumbai, I spent a lot of time with Iqbal, the driver for my friend. Originally from Pune, Iqbal is a Muslim who was born and raised in India. Though he has worked overseas, including a stint in the Middle East, he loves India and does not want to live anywhere else.

Iqbal told me all about the Muslim community in Mumbai. He was incredibly open and we discussed veils and women’s rights as well as fundamentalism and terrorism. Proud of his religion but concerned about the extremists, Ikbal represented the modern Muslim Indian.

Still, I was most amazed with the story of Iqbal’s son, who works in a call center nearby. Though Iqbal has struggled financially throughout his life, he is comforted by the fact that his son has many more opportunities. His son speaks English fluently and has secured a high-paying position. Ikbal says that this job has changed his son’s life; he is committed to working hard to achieve success and is hopeful for the future. In addition, he has a Christian girlfriend whom he met at work. When I asked Iqbal if he was okay with his son’s girlfriend, he said that things had been different for his generation but his son helped him realize that they were happy. Which made Iqbal happy.

Of course, Iqbal and I both know that the call center job itself does not create this happiness in and of itself. Still, these jobs can have a positive impact on employees. They are paid well relative to the national average, receive excellent training and are likely to move up within their organizations if they work hard. They are also exposed to the broader world and are more invested in the future. In addition, young folks like Iqbal’s son are less likely to be influenced by extremism than disenfranchised Muslim youth who live in crowded, under-resourced slum communities where the offer of fundamentalism seems more enticing.

I am not na├»ve enough to believe that call centers can save the world. Still, Iqbal’s son provides a compelling portrait of the upside of globalization. Please remember him the next time you get frustrated with customer service. Don’t be mean to the representative, just insist on speaking to a supervisor!

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Maximum City

I visited a friend in Mumbai, the largest city in India. Mumbai, which was known as Bombay in a former life, is a megalopolis with 13 million people in the city and another 7 million in the suburbs. It is huge. Unlike Delhi which reminds me of Washington, D.C., Mumbai feels like a mix of New York City, Los Angeles and Miami as it is a bustling, humid, glamorous city by the sea.

Mumbai is the home of Bollywood, the stock exchange and the slums that are second only to Kolkata (Calcutta). It epitomizes the extreme contrasts between the haves and have-nots in modern India. Underneath the billboards that pay homage to the glitzy lifestyle of the uber-rich, there are endless miles of homes of corrugated tin and cardboard. The fancy sportscars line up in front of the nightclubs while small children sleep on the street a few feet away. The only equalizer is the traffic which ensnarls everyone, regardless of wealth or privilege. It is bumper-to-bumper, a mish-mash of bicycles, buses, trucks, rickshaws and cars that moves along at snail’s pace.

Through a connection from a Stanford classmate, I visited a school for disabled children and community programs in the slums. Once again, I realized how doubly difficult it is to be poor and disabled, physically or emotionally. Still, I was impressed by the competence and compassion of the school’s staff who insist that these children are treated with dignity and, ultimately, empowered to live a normal life.

I also met with a group of mothers from the slums. These women are part of a self-sustaining help group. With sewing machines, they produce goods such as tablecloths and handcrafts. As they work, they discuss the challenges they face as well as support each other.

I introduced myself to the group and explained my background. When I mentioned my work combating domestic violence, one woman raised her hand. She was a composed woman in her early twenties who was 7 months pregnant. She explained that her husband had died six months ago. He was killed by a train on the tracks near the slums. She was unsure whether it was an accident or murder. Such a death is not uncommon among Mumbai’s poor; accidents occur because tracks are often crossed or used as bathrooms. More tragically, the tracks are sometimes used as killing grounds (railroad deaths are difficult for the police to track, if they are interested in investigating at all).

On top of grieving, this woman had to deal with an abusive family. In accordance with tradition, she had moved in with her husband’s family after she got married. Since her husband’s death, her in-laws had been harassing her because they wanted to claim the small amount of compensation that the railroads provide for anyone who dies on the tracks. She was afraid for her life, especially after she gave birth. Her greatest fear was that she would have a male child and her in-laws would take the boy and kill her. With a male heir, there was no need for her.

As the group discussed her alternatives, I realized how few options this woman had. She desparately needed the compensation money but she also had to escape. She cannot go home as her family will not accept her. And there are no shelters. She could call the police but they are unlikely to respond. Instead, she will have to work with the group to establish an informal method of protection where she will rely on friends and neighbors to intervene if the abuse escalates. And she will just hope for a girl.

I felt incredibly humbled and saddened. I also learned that there is an entire informal system that operates in lieu of the formal structures in the slums. From basic services to courts and childcare, these slum communities function in parallel to the official world. Government-issued property deeds may not exist but there is a network of slum landlords who “own” all the property and collect rent every month. There are informal police (thugs) who ensure “safety and security” for a certain price. The moneylenders and merchants offer products, most of which are as expensive (or more) as those you find outside of the slums. Yet again, location is everything. In fact, some research indicates that it may be costlier in relative terms to live in the slums. People spend more of their incomes on basic services and goods because they have such limited options.

But the craziest thing is that almost all of these residents or their families left their villages because they believed that the city would provide a better life for them and their children. Everyone that I met still thought this, even with the difficulties they encounter every day. Talk about tough choices.

[Post-script: I will email the community program staff to find out what has happened with the woman I met and will update the blog if I find out more.]

Friday, 10 August 2007


How do you translate “work-life balance” into Hindi?

In my field visits, I met with several woman entrepreneurs who were also moms. I was especially impressed by the women who were running a thriving computer education business and handling little ones at home. And remember too, that the workweek here is Monday-Saturday.

When I asked how they manage it all, most smiled graciously and acted as though it was no problem. Probing deeper, I have figured out certain keys to their success:

The Home Office
Most of these moms run kiosks that are adjacent to their homes. They can move easily between the office and the home, enabling them to bounce back and forth between checking accounts, chopping vegetables and changing diapers. Not only does this reduce the barriers for women to become entrepreneurs but they tend to run more stable businesses because they are less likely to move or change jobs. The switching costs are just too high.

As I have experienced in my homestays, it is all in the family. Or, at least, all of the family is in one place. Most homes include extended families, with parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. It is based around the patriarchal unit; women typically move in with their husband’s extended family after marriage. Though it can be hectic at times, all those grandparents, uncles and aunts means that there is always someone to watch over the little ones. What is especially cool is that the kids have closer relationships with their extended relatives.

Role of Operating Partner
With woman entrepreneurs, especially those with limited experience, Drishtee often works closely with the primary male figure in her life. We call the husband, father or brother the “operating partner” and we truly seek to treat the two as partners. We want to build on the strengths and experiences of the operating partners while empowering the woman entrepreneurs to develop their own skills.

This practice also helps us get more buy-in in rural India where individuals are less likely to support a woman working on her own. Though I have had my own reservations about power imbalances between partners, this system seems to work well, in part because it uses the family unit as the foundation for the business.

It may not work everywhere but the mom-trepreneur model provides for a great balance between work and family life in rural India.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Laughing Yoga, Seriously

How many times have you laughed today? Yesterday? If you are like most adults, you probably are not laughing as much as you should. When we are little kids, we can’t stop laughing. But then we grow up and get serious.

It turns out that we should get serious about laughing. I spent Sunday night at a 10th anniversary celebration dinner for my community’s Laughing Club. That’s right, 10 years of laughs, chuckles and guffaws, all without the aid of jokes!

My landlord, Uncle, with an honorary hat

I was invited by my landlord and neighbor, a fabulous fellow whom I know as Uncle. Even though they are retired and could sleep as late as they wanted, he and his wife are up at 5:15 every morning for their walk and yoga. After a stroll in the park, they meet and practice their laughing.

In addition to songs, dances and presentations on the health benefits of laughing, I watching this synchronized laughing in action at the celebration dinner. Imagine a stage full of people, most of whom are older, wearing colorful hats. All is silent. Then a whistle blows and the group erupts in coordinated hee-hee-hee’s or hah-hah-haw’s. It was unlike anything I ever seen. And it was contagious. My friends and I were laughing so hard we were in tears.

I cannot vouch for the medical benefits of laughing. But I do know that it was really fun.

Ann, Auntie, Josh and two other Laughing Club ladies

Monday, 6 August 2007

The Gift of School

The best gift I have ever received in my life is education. Which makes me so sad when I see so many kids who are being denied this here. Like this little guy.

With education, it is a Tale of Two Indias. It has the best of schools, it has the worst of schools. Some of the finest engineering, computer programming and business schools are here. Literacy rates in certain areas are unbelievably high, especially when compared to per-capita income. At the same time, there are many rural and slum children who are not in school. At the government schools, the facilities and resources are deplorable. And the teachers, well, they don’t even show up for school that often.

In spite of this, Indians are fiercely interested in education. There is an amazing array of educational opportunities from private schools to supplemental classes to tutoring programs. The newspapers are chock full of education advertisements. And people are willing to spend a significant portion of their earnings on education, rather than on material goods.

This is especially true if the education pertains to technology. Technology has helped spur India's phenomenal growth recently and everyone wants a piece of the action. Computers and cell phones are spreading to the most remote parts and now everyone wants to learn how to use them.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Dads and Daughters

My dad has is a little techno-phobic. He actually calls his computer an email-machine. So he has gotten a kick out of this blog, even if he is not really sure how it works. He just loves the fact that his daughter is slightly more technically adept than him!

It turns out that some dads in India feel the same way about their daughters. A few of the amazing students I met last week were the daughters of rural farmers. Even though their fathers have never even used computers, they convinced them to spend at least a month’s earnings on tuition for a computer education class. They helped their dads understand that learning computer skills would be critical for their future. Pretty impressive.

These acts of persuasion are an especially remarkable in India where investments in girls’ education are often perceived to be a waste. Most women will get married and move to their husband’s village so the family never fully captures the value of their daughter’s education.

These girls were all so shy when I met them. After finishing my questions, I always encouraged them to ask questions of me. Most were too intimidated to say anything. Little did they know that I was as awe-inspired by their courage and will to learn as they were with me.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

A Forgotten Passport, A New Family

Forgetting my passport on last week’s trip was one of the best things that happened to me. I was supposed to stay in a hotel in the nearby city, Kanpur. However, I did not realize that I needed a passport and I had left mine in Delhi. Luckily, one of the District staff offered up his home.

I stayed with Amit and his extended family at their home. They were not expecting me but they were the most generous hosts. In fact, I became a part of the family. Not only did they provide a bed but Amit’s mother fed me delicious food and endless cups of ginger chai. Amit’s uncle, Babaji, let me watch as he completed his Hindu worship ceremonies, complete with drums and bells, each morning. I chatted with Amit’s father and hung out with Amit’s wife and cousins. And Amit’s beautiful daughter kept me smiling throughout it all.

The best time was Friday night when we all sat around in the living room, looking at pictures, talking about life, families, India and America. At some random point, I looked around the room and realized why I do the work I do: I believe in people. Just when everything feels impossible, I meet people who are so good that they give me hope for our entire society.

A special thanks to Ajay, Rajiv, Amit and his family for taking care of me.

Friday, 3 August 2007

Business in the Boondocks

If you check out the class offerings of Stanford, Harvard or Wharton Business Schools, you will not find any classes on Rural Marketing or Business. Which is unfortunate, especially considering half the globe lives in a rural environment.

As I have learned this summer, the rural sector presents a complex set of challenges for business. From management and organizational structure to marketing and operations, you have to do things differently. You cannot just rely on size and speed. There is nothing speedy about spending two hours on the back of a scooter, traveling less than 20 kilometers, just to get to the office. Especially in monsoon season. Check out the main road to town here:

You cannot just hire a bunch of a great people and throw them together on a project. Having spent 27 hours on a train, I now understand why company retreats do not occur here. And, as demonstrated by this picture of the electricity “infrastructure” at one of our kiosks, there is a total lack of basic resources:

So you have to be innovative and resourceful. You have to overcome geographical obstacles, limited resources, lack of human capital and lack of experience. And you have to be credible. In most villages, there is usually a history of exploitation that leads itself to mistrust of businesses.

That said, if you can do it, you can have a big impact, both in terms of profit and development. So, where do you start? You begin with the same premise that design theory, social work and business all share: know your customers or clients and meet them where they are at. If you do not understand the daily life of the rural Indian, you cannot sell to him, support him or empower him.

Drishtee understands this. Management consistently emphasizes that the magic happens in the field. At the top, we need to create a self-sustaining structure that, with the right mix of people, products and support, can run itself. The structure has to be sound enough to enable success for less-qualified (but hard-working) individuals while being flexible enough to allow the high-performers to soar. Sounds simple, right?

Of course, it is not. But we are trying, along with a few other intrepid organizations. In fact, India is ahead of the curve when it comes to rural marketing and business. There is an entire business school dedicated to this field. However, someone told me that the students cannot afford to work in rural areas after they graduate because of the debts they have to pay off! Add yet another obstacle to the list.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Off Again

I apologize for the recent lack of posts. Work has gotten the best of me for the last few days. That, and a game of frisbee in monsoon rain, a birthday bash for a one-month old baby girl and a morning spent watching "ear cleaner" entrepreneurs on the street in Old Delhi. Yes, there are men who make a living cleaning out other people's ears on the street.

I am headed off to villages in Uttar Pradesh tomorrow. I will be away for a few days but there will be plenty of posts when I return. As I am immersing myself in my summer project, I will write about education in rural India. Here are a few photos to get you thinking on the topic.

(Class size? Desks? Resources?)

(Slightly more labor intensive than a water fountain)

(It is the middle of the morning and none of these guys are in school...)

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Would You Like Some?

When was the last time that you offered some of your food to the person sitting next to you on the airplane? Or invited a complete stranger in for tea or coffee?

Since coming to India, I have yet to sit next to someone on a bus, train or plane who has not offered me some of their food. While I did decline the strange cheese sandwich soaked in ketchup, I appreciated the gesture. At the office, the women I eat with share all their home-cooked food with each other and me. And in shops, villages and homes across India, I have sipped free chai, simply in exchange for conversation.

The greatest irony is that we super-size everything in America but we rarely share with strangers. In fact, I do not even know how I would respond to such food offerings if I were in the States. Just remembering all the Halloween horror stories of razor blades in apples makes me never want to accept “unwrapped” food! But what a loss that would be here.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Thanks for Leaving Me with 14 Kids

Forget about Clark Gable or Amitabh Bachchan (the most famoust Bollywood star). The original romantic was Shah Jahan, the Mughal ruler who built the Taj Mahal. He was madly in love with his second wife, Mumtaz. Not only beautiful, she was a busy woman. She bore him 14 children. Wow.

Tragically, however, she died while giving birth to number 15. Shah was so distraught that he constructed the Taj in her honor. It is the most gorgeous grave I have ever seen. Though a hulking piece of marble, it has an elegant, almost ethereal presence in person. The detail is also exquisite, from the tiny gemstone flowers inlaid in marble to the detailed calligraphy on the walls. And, with its perfect symmetry, the Taj is simply breathtaking. My photos fail to do it justice.

With a group of other Stanford students, I watched the sun set over the mighty Taj this weekend. But the best part was inside. You cannot wear shoes so you walk in on this soft, warmed marble. You enter this dark octagonal chamber where wisps of light lie gently on the two graves of Mumtaz and Shah. So perfectly serene, it feels holy.

Of course, then you remember that they had 14 kids. So their lives were never serene. They say that Shah’s hair went gray because of Mumtaz’s death. Or maybe he was just freaked out about raising all those kids!

(Shah Jahan, before his hair went gray. Unfortunately, Mumtaz's death was only the start of his troubles. His own son would later imprison him for life. Just your typical dysfunctional ruling family.)

Monday, 23 July 2007

Young at Heart

You are never too old to make a difference. This is what I learned from Mamaji and Dr. Hamilton.

These two men are wise in their years, but young at heart. While their peers have long since retired, they are still working actively to help rural villagers in India.

Mamaji (Hindi name for mother’s brother) is the uncle of Drishtee’s founder, Satyan Mishra. So he is Mamaji to everyone. He was our host for the week in Bihar. In addition to keeping me fed and sheltered, he entertained me with his stories. And his deep, full body laugh is infectious.

One day, Mamaji and I took a walk through his village. It was raining slightly so we strolled along under umbrellas. We talked about the challenges faced by villagers, especially the lack of opportunities for education and employment. We discussed the lasting impact of the caste system and gender inequalities. Even though he was raised in a very different culture, Mamaji never treated me differently.

(Local High School)

Mamaji has the ability to speak volumes with just a few words. When I asked for his opinions on government, he pointed to the gaping potholes in the roads, showed me a dilapidated building that was supposed to be a high school and asked, “Is this government working?”

Dr. Hamilton is Mamaji’s foil. He is the primary doctor on the Drishtee healthcare project. Though he has a home in Delhi, he has decamped to Bihar to get this project off the ground. He has spent his entire career in the rural health sector, helping villagers who did not have access to appropriate care.

(Dr. Hamilton at work with a patient, John in the background)

With Dr. Hamilton, I was most impressed with his resilience. I wondered how he could spend his entire life fighting such an uphill battle. Wouldn’t it have been easier to stay in Delhi and open a private practice? But he chooses to do this work because it is what inspires him and he can have an impact.

Together, Mamaji and Dr. Hamilton are a dynamic duo. They can talk, laugh or argue until the wee hours of the morning. I could barely keep up!

Thank you to Mamaji and Dr. Hamilton for reminding me that you can make the most out of every stage in your life.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Mad for Mangos

This fellow was one of my favorite patients. He is an elderly individual seeking treatment for a variety of conditions, including diabetes (which is a growing problem in India). While he wants to take care of himself, he also admitted that he eats mangos every once a while. When the doctor reminded him that this was a no-no, he explained that he already knows the date he will die and he wants to enjoy the rest of his time. Which means eating mangos.

I see his point. Though I do not mean to trivialize his diabetes, the mangos here taste extraordinary. Not worth dying for, but pretty darn close.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Mobile Healthcare

It is not a fast moving ambulance. But it gets the job done.

In Bihar, Drishtee is piloting a project to bring proper healthcare to villages through a for-profit model. Using the ambulance as the roving office, we set up camps in different villages every day of the week. Under a plastic canopy, the doctor sees patients, completes basic tests (e.g. blood pressure) and writes prescriptions. The villagers pay about a dollar for immediate care.

Although Drishtee costs more than free government health care, villagers are wiling to pay to avoid traveling far and losing a day of work. There are also quality concerns at the government facilities; villagers may also have to wait or may not actually see a doctor. In fact, many folks end up using the local chemist (pharmacy) as their primary care physician. This often results in inaccurate diagnoses and inappropriate prescriptions.

There are challenges to this model. First, we have to continue to educate the customers about the importance of health care and encourage them to be proactive. Often, people wait until their condition becomes so insufferable that they need extreme (and expensive) treatment.

Second, there are financial constraints. A patient may be able to afford the consultation but the prescription drugs are too expensive. We are trying to collaborate with local chemists but there are real trade-offs involved. Finally, there is an urgent need for health insurance. Ultimately, health is unpredictable and communities are better off if we can pool risk to protect individuals. But this requires convincing people who have very little money to spend it on an intangible product that does not feed or shelter them. Drishtee is also working on this but it is an uphill battle.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Outsourcing, Village-Style

Most of the outsourcing in India takes place in and around cities. It is a huge industry, bringing in lots of revenue and aiding in the development of a class of higher-skilled workers. At the same time, it also increases the divide between wealthy urban and impoverished rural India.

But Drishtee is doing something about it. This week, I went on an unusual business trip to Bihar, the poorest state in India. After a grueling 26-hour overnight train ride and 2-hour bumpy car ride, we arrived at our Drishtee outpost in the middle of nowhere. Amidst mud roads and reed huts was a one-story concrete building with 20 intact computer workstations. Through a unique bio-generator and VSAT satellite technology, there is power and wireless Internet (most of the time!). Take a look.

The program is remarkable. Drishtee provides a vocational BPO school. Students in their late teens or early twenties enroll in a three-year program. They receive intensive computer training at the outset and then learn by working. While working, they are also paid for their efforts.

At the moment, the group was working on data-editing. A company in Australia had scanned millions of books onto CDs. They sent the CDs to Drishtee to be checked for minor formatting errors. The BPO staff will go through every page of every book, make changes as necessary and send the CDs back to Australia. They will be paid based on completion and accuracy.

This model is amazing because it creates real economic opportunity in the heart of the rural village. There are limitations – the start-up costs are high (so tuition is higher than most can afford), it is difficult to get resources around here and there are no experienced managers available locally – but it is a great start.

I do not intend to start a debate on outsourcing on this blog. I will say, however, that this outsourcing project has the potential to truly change lives in this village. Young people can work, develop skills and bring in outside capital – all of which is likely to raise the standards of living for the community.

Here is a picture of Pankaj, one of my co-workers who is overseeing the project. Recognizing the limited experience of the BPO students, he came in from Delhi to ensure that they are properly trained and prepared to do the work. While aware of the operational challenges, he also recognizes that these students are absolutely committed to doing the best job they can do. Pretty inspirational stuff.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Monsoon Schooling

I took a great class on design at Stanford last year. I learned that you actually have to observe people to understand why they do what they do. Sounds simple but we do not apply it enough.

This is especially true when it comes to matters that we are less familiar with. Like rural India for me. I had learned that there is lower participation in services during monsoon seasons. People do not go to school or the hospital or the shops as much. Having seen the pictures of the flooded roads, I understood why.

Or so I thought. After spending last week in flooded India, I realize that the problem is not the roads. People are not going anywhere because they are all in the fields. Children, adults, the elderly. Whether wading through rice paddies, plowing with oxen or riding tip-top on a water buffalo, everyone is out there working hard from dawn to dusk. There is no time for school or medical treatment.

Putting aside extreme examples like sweatshops, child labor is no simple problem. In rural India, children are needed in the fields and rice paddies. They hoe, seed, plant and pick. And they manage the water buffalo, riding on their backs, usually carrying umbrellas that shield both sun and rain.

To their credit, many schools have tried to bring children in by offering free lunches. This has been somewhat successful though children often “have” to leave right after lunch. Until education proves to be a sure means through which families can improve their situations, the flooded fields will be flocked with kids.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Friendship 4 Sale

I spent the weekend in Udaipur, the Venice of India. The small city is in the heart of Rajastan, the land of traditions and…moustaches. Yes, the men wear the kind that point up at the end. Means they are strong.

I traveled alone and everyone was incredibly friendly so I met lots of people. One of the more interesting charactrers I met was Mukesh, who was a tour guide at the City Palace, the famous palace of the Mewar rulers. For a few bucks, I received a fabulous personal tour of the palace. Plus, Mukesh and I connected - we chatted about politics, culture and families.

At the end of the tour, Mukesh invited me to meet his wife and daughter. A few hours later, he picked me up on his scooter and we visited his home on the outskirts of town. Sitting like majarajas on their bed, Mukesh, his wife and I chatted, had chai and watched a Bollywood movie. And his five year daughter showed me her schoolbooks and favorite dolls. All was going well until Mukesh mentioned that his wife made jewelry. She pulled out boxes, spread her wares across the bedspread and the hard sell began.

Ultimately, I ended up buying a necklace. But I felt so uncomfortable. And disappointed. Maybe I was being naive, but I thought that I was slightly more than a customer. Perhaps this is unfair of me, especially considering the differences between our situations.

But I refused to let the incident ruin the evening. When Mukesh dropped me off, I told him that I neeeded to talk with him. While recognizing that we are from different cultures, I said that I would have appreciated it if he had let me know that his wife sold jewelry. He listened carefully and responded that he did not mean for me to feel pressured. We talked through the incident and the differences between our cultures. He noted that his wife was a stay-at-home mom who did not sell in the markets, only in their home to her family and friends. And I told him that I was more used to buying things in stores where the transaction was a little less personal.

In the end, I do not know whether Mukesh understood where I was coming from. But I felt so much better after our conversation. When it comes to complications of culture, some things are not better left unsaid.

By the way, if you are ever in Udaipur, please look for Mukesh. He is a local treasure. Also, for all you James Bond fans, check out the photo below. You may recognize this from Octopussy...

(In case you were wondering, I did not stay at this hotel. Very expensive. But I did stay at the Mewar Haveli which I recommend highly!)

Saturday, 14 July 2007

POV of Poverty

All in all, my visits to the villages this week were amazing. I believe that the village-by-village approach to reaching the underserved through local entrepreneurship has tremendous potential. It works in microfinance, it works with cell phones and it works with Drishtee. However, it is unbelievably hard work.

It is not easy to travel to these villages. They are far away from stores, services and information. Access to electricity, water and indoor plumbing is limited, if at all. The schools are simple concrete blocks with kids hanging out the windows. For primary schools, there are no teachers, just babysitters hired by the government. Secondary schools, along with hospitals and other critical services, are kilometers away.

The villages are full of young children, mothers and elderly people. All of the able single men and women have fled to cities for better jobs. Any men who remain are unemployed except for agriculture or spare work. Everyone is at the mercy of the climate and environment.

Everyone lives on less than 2 dollars a day. While it is true that 2 dollars goes a lot further here, that is still only $730 a year. The average summer MBA intern at Stanford makes that much money in 2 days. 2 dollars a day or a year’s income in 2 days. What a contrast.

Several times, I would meet with the entire village after my interview with the Drishtee entrepreneur. Someone would drag out a plastic chair and fifty people would sit around me. With the help of Drishtee staff, I would share that I was a “student from America who studies MBA” and “works with Drishtee in villages across India”. I would also thank everyone for their hospitality and tell them how beautiful India was. I felt like a politician but people seemed genuinely appreciative.

In one instance, an elderly lady raised her hand and respectfully asked me what I could do to help her village. Taken aback, I responded as best I could. I told her that I would share the stories of the struggles they faced with Drishtee and with people I knew in America. She seemed okay with my response but I felt useless and helpless.

Regardless of how many villages or slums I have visited, I find the extreme poverty to be overwhelming each time. At this point in the blog, I should propose an innovative idea that would solve these issues. A breakthrough social business that stimulates economic development. Or a revolutionary model to effectively use aid monies. Or a mechanism to improve governement efficiency and transparency. Instead, I just feel exhausted and out of ideas. All I know is that I was born lucky and I wish that all kids had the same opportunities that I had.

Friday, 13 July 2007

You Go Girl

Drishtee is testing different models to determine the best way to reach rural villages. The original model is a computer kiosk franchise. Drishtee works with the panchayat, the local self-government, to set up an introductory meeting in the village. They educate everyone about Drishtee. They then identify a self-starter who takes out a loan to purchase a Drishtee license, along with a computer, digital camera and printer. He or she then sets up a kiosk and offers a range of services, ranging from computer education to photography to retail servies (e.g., car batteries, hand-crank lanterns, mobile phone recharge coupons). Drishtee is responsible for distribution and delivers the product to the doorstep of the kiosk.

More recently, Drishtee has piloted a new model that is more like Amway or Avon. Working with the panchayat, they identify a woman in the village who is interested in supplementing her family’s income through sales of products and services out of her home. This is somewhat revolutionary as most of these women have never officially sold anything. With very low barriers to entry, this Drishtee model offers women a unique opportunity to empower themselves and learn valuable skills. Plus, Drishtee believes that these women may end up being more credible, and therefore, more profitable salespeople. Although new, this program has demonstrated success.

Who are these women? Some are married while others are single. Most have had some high school education and many are in their early 20s. Some are older and have children, including young sons and daughters who are eager to help Mom out. Almost none have previous work experience beyond household responsibilities so Drishtee offers training and ongoing support. In addition, Drishtee recognizes the role of the “operating partner” or a leading male in the family such as a husband, father or brother. By officially including the operating partner, Drishtee ensures that women are permitted to participate and encourages collective learning that leverages the partner’s previous experience. At the same time, Drishtee pushes the operating partner to let the entrepreneur take the lead.

One of the more inspirational women I met was the Drishtee entrepreneur pictured above. She was a mother who possesses natural charisma. With her wide smile and support from the District office, she has established a thriving business within a few months.

Meeting her made me realize that the definition of entrepreneur is broader than I initially understood. You do not necessarily need a business plan, powerpoint presentation and millions of dollars in seed capital. Instead, you need a real opportunity, personal initiative, external support and equal parts energy and hope.