Rural Transformation

August 11, 2009 by

Sudheendra Kulkarni, an op-ed contributor to the Indian Express, recently wrote an article on the transformation of a village in Central Maharashtra. The method used by the villagers and their leader, Mr.Pawar to effect this change makes for interesting reading. Here is the link to the article.

This “Adarsh Gram” (ideal village) maybe one of a kind, but is a clear example of what is possible in India.

When someone needs immediate medical help, what do you do?

August 1, 2009 by

This is the first question I have been asking women living in urban slums in Mumbai as part of a research effort to better understand what they, their family, and community do when a medical emergency occurs. Rubina, my friend and translator will often give the women examples to help them better understand our question. Such as, “what would you do if your father-in-law collapsed with chest pains?” If your child was sick with a high fever?” or If your neighbor cut herself badly with a kitchen knife?”

40% of them respond that they rush to visit the clinic doctor. Clinics, staffed with doctors and nurses are common in most slum communities in Mumbai, however the doctor is rarely available 24 hours a day.

30% of them responded that they would head to the nearest Government Hospital, which they could easily name.

Out of 200 interviews, only 4% of them responded that they would call an ambulance.

Why don’t they call an Ambulance? This is the question ‘Dial 1298 for Ambulance’ is trying to understand. With 30% of Mumbai’s population living below the poverty line (approximately 4M people), this is a segment of the city that cannot be ignored. We are learning some important consumer insights from talking to these women directly.

(FYI – only women were surveyed since most men work during the day and were not available).

Whose vision of serving the poor?

July 20, 2009 by

Does the vision of serving the low income segment of society extend beyond the investors and CEO of a social enterprise?

In my opinion, only an affirmative answer to this question will ensure that the vision of serving the poor is fulfilled (however long it may take…).  Watch what the team of doctors running AyurSEVA Hospitals has to say about their vision and motivation to work for this organization.


July 5, 2009 by

“Environment matters, but in the end, when it comes to tackling the question, What should I do with my life? it really is all in your head. The first psychological stumbling block that keeps people from finding themselves is that they feel guilty for simply taking the quest seriously.”

The previous paragraph is an excerpt from an article written by Po Bronson entitled “What Should I Do With My Life?” ( It is the last line  that caught my attention as it relates to how I am feeling at this stage of the Fellowship.  My energy level to start searching for the “what’s next” in my career is very low because I am not clear where I want to go. Two months ago I thought I knew. Now I am having doubts.

One thing I am sure of after this year’s experience as an AF Fellow is that I want to continue to be part of the social sector. What is the role I want to play? This I need time to figure out (and I am not talking of a day or two). However, the pressure I am feeling from the environment is making it difficult for me to get off the fast track and reflect. There is not a single day that passes by when I don’t hear the question-“Now that the fellowship is coming to an end, do you know what you want to do next?” I hear that question loaded with high expectations that do not necessarily match mine.

According to Bronson the biggest obstacle in finding the answer to my question is that I “feel guilty for taking the quest seriously”. And he is right, I do feel guilty. But not for taking the quest seriously, but rather for taking the time I believe I require for this quest.

Talking to my sister who is finishing her MBA at one of the top ranked business schools in Europe, I could hear the same frustration. She is bombarded everyday with e-mails about job openings she “should be applying for”. The career center spends tons of resources in helping the students find the job that will double their previous salary, but is it the job that will make the students thrive as leaders? So many resources are spent in presenting options for the “what’s next”, but how much do these schools spend in helping future business leaders figure out the “what’s first” that Bronson alludes to? (My sister and I are constantly exchanging books and articles to fill the gap.)

What I see in common in these two examples is the artificial deadline that society imposes on us (and that we accept) for taking the quest to find ourselves. Is it that bad to graduate from your MBA or finish a competitive Fellowship program and not have a job lined up? What would be the result of society giving more value to the time for quest in people’s path? More leaders “confident of their place in the world” (Branson), contributing towards building a better society? I believe so.

Enable the change you want to see in the world.

June 24, 2009 by

“All we did was look them in the eyes and say – we believe in your idea and in you. “ This from Vipin, who runs Ashoka’s Youth Venture (VY) program in India.

I attended YV’s celebratory event on Sunday where 35 young Indians, from all walks of life, between the ages of 15-24 were showcased for bringing their ideas on how to create social change to reality. Although the ventures started addressed different needs in society (girls’ education, village water access, slum sanitation, and more), what they all had in common was the young founders’ personal connection to their respective social causes. This is clearly the power behind the program – to enable the belief that even at a young age (or especially at a young age) you can tackle an issue in your community and have a positive impact.

I was reminded of the first question the Fellows were asked when we came together at the start of the program in September, Whose shoulders do you stand on? All our responses were unique, but it was clear that someone had touched each one of us early in our lives to help establish a foundation from which we could grow and develop a strong belief in ourselves.

Whether the social ventures succeed or fail is secondary – what matters most is that each person involved in the program felt empowered to create change. No doubt, the experience will continue to fuel their personal & professional growth. Of all the events I have been to this year as an Acumen Fellow – I feel no one deserved the stage more than these young people.

YV Event and other 022

What’s Your Perspective?

June 20, 2009 by

I believe that a person’s world view is their perspective and it is this which infringes on how they approach people and places. Through this fellowship, I have met such a wide range of persons, not only within the fellowship, but also outside the fellowship via Acumen’s contacts in New York, and now in Delhi.

Often there are conversations about Delhi, debates about loving or hating the city or the age old comparison between Delhi and Mumbai. Where would one want to live? What can be done about Delhi’s pollution, overall dirtiness, beggars, cows in the street, etc? Where does one get a good glass of wine?

I sometimes tell people that Delhi is the best place I have ever lived overseas for amenities and activities. (I also believe it is a dynamic city in its own right.) Often I get a look or comment of disbelief. Yet when I begin to rattle off the other places I have lived (Jalalabad, Afghanistan; Akhaltsikhe, Georgia; Kokand, Uzbekistan; Ziway, Ethiopia, etc.) then they begin to nod their head.

What I find most interesting is the first gut reaction that people have to my statement. Delhi can’t possibly be the “best place”, as in their frame of reference it may be compared to NYC, London, or even their home town. Never the places I mention, which to be fair, most people haven’t heard of any way.

Perspective plays such a large role in how a person approaches living in and relating to people from another country. One hears various assessments of a country based on this perspective, opinions that range from being extremely open and accepting to downright ignorant and immature, in other cases.

This world view also seeps in to the work that we do. Are we still playing the age old game of Us vs. Them, Colonial vs. Native, or West vs. East? Observing another culture, whether in the workplace or outside, is one thing, but commenting in a non-constructive way begs the question…Isn’t it all just subjective? What is being said about this country and people can also be said about one’s own country and in the same tone and manner.

Is it possible to take one’s critical eye and turn it in on oneself and one’s own country or can it only be done when a person moves to another place and then all bets are off? At that point, everything can be reviewed, assessed and critiqued.

For those that have a narrow perspective, I hope that when they return to their countries they use new eyes and new perspectives to view their own homes in such a light and work towards the same improvements that they may wish upon their current hosts.

Perspective can make the world one way or the other, good or bad. For myself I strive to continue to widen mine, as through that I learn new ways of approaching life itself and that, to me, is priceless.

CARES Standard

June 10, 2009 by

To continue with my previous post about dignity. I wanted to share with you how LifeSpring has built a standard for providing customer service. It’s termed as CARES Standard or CARES Protocol.

CARES stands for:
C – Courteous – We will be polite in our communication whether oral or written. We will acknowledge customers and their family members by smiling, making eye contact and offering assistance

A – Attentive – We will attend to customers and families immediately. We will listen carefully to customers needs

R – Respectful – We will respect the dignity of all and will show empathy in our words and action. We will respect all coworkers, customers and their relatives equally.

E – Enthusiastic – We will trust, respect and support customers. We will be timely in meeting deadlines.

S – Safe – When caring for customers we will wash our hands. We will maintain a clean and safe environment for customers and employees.

For all employees joining LifeSpring they are given a booklet that describes the standard behavior in details. Everyone is expected to keep this book with them while at work.
CARES Booklet

To further emphasize the model behavior LifeSpring used GlobalRickshaw to make a video that demonstrates the CARES protocol in action. All new employees are shown this video during the on-boarding program and expected to behave in this manner.

Hope you enjoy.

Is Social Enterprise a Rebranding of the Development Sector?

June 9, 2009 by

Given that I come from traditional development: Peace Corps, INGO, universities etc, it’s a question that I have thought of often and definitely more recently. Most specifically at the “Emerging Markets” Conference hosted by the Monitor Group a couple of weeks ago. There I met Markus, a German, setting up a social enterprise incubator in the Philippines.

He was a former IT business owner who had decided to switch gears to the social sector through a Masters program. He commented how mindsets were so dissimilar between a development school versus a business school, yet both brought value to the table if a middle ground could be found.

We had just listened to a panel on agriculture development that, to be frank, was a bit outdated and didn’t actually cover the innovation that is happening in the field. In discussing this with him, we both stated that so much has already been learned in the traditional development sector on many of these same topics, yet it seems to be disregarded.

Somewhere along the way there is a renaming, a re-categorizing and a realigning as if the sector was dealing with brand new issues. With so many people, with diverse backgrounds and skills entering this sector, trying to solve challenges, it is important to remember what has been determined already in traditional development.

For example, those designing products for Small Holder Farmers, can review the lessons learned by development organizations in marketing & selling treadle pumps. I encourage all new entrants to access internet resources, such as Rural Finance Learning Center, Eldis or CGAP, sites that track development policy, practice and research.

To make this social enterprise sector work the lessons learned from both traditional development and business need to be combined.

Is social enterprise a re-branding of the development sector? What do you think?

The Fellowship Experience – Beyond the Work

June 6, 2009 by

In the 1999 cult movie, “Being John Malkovich”, the main protagonist essayed by John Cusack, discovers a portal into the mind of John Malkovich, a celebrated actor who plays himself. Once inside the portal, Cusack has access to all of Malkovich’s thoughts and you can imagine the hilarious twists and turns that ensue. One of the most intriguing scenes in the movie is when Malkovich enters the portal himself.

Just like Malkovich, living life as an Acumen fellow, has given me the opportunity to visit a portal………my own!! This is an unexpected benefit, as I accepted the fellowship with an objective to explore the world of social enterprises and also to utilize the skills I have acquired for a greater good.

Prior to the fellowship, I lived life at a frenetic pace. My blackberry was an extension of my mind and body and I juggled the demands of a successful career, marriage and fatherhood. I moved so fast, that I never really took time out of my day or week or month to critically think about my life. I wasn’t unhappy, but felt emptiness. I knew that I had to change something and the fellowship was a great opportunity to experiment.

I now live alone in a small town in India devoid of television, internet access and social interactions. Don’t pity me. This self-imposed isolation has given me the time to think about my life, future and the role that I want to play in society.  I have had the time to think about details such as my prejudices, hypocrisies, bad habits and weaknesses in behavior and thought. The challenge, as adults are as stubborn as mules, is to use the knowledge gained (which is half the battle) from introspection to improve myself.

You might have noticed that words like, “my” and “I” appear often in previous paragraphs. Yes, this is, and has been a selfish journey. And it has come at a cost. My wife and 3 year old daughter have lived without me for 8 months and it has been tougher than expected. Buckets of tears have been shed. Earlier this week, my daughter Kavya, found an expired drivers license of mine and the photo reminded her of her missing daddy. This reminder then triggered an episode of non-stop sobbing that lasted a whole day.

With a few months left to go in India, I eagerly look forward to being reunited with my family and sincerely hope that the investment I have made in myself will yield a positive return on our lives. I also intend to rearrange my professional priorities in such a way that I help build a better, more equitable society with a greater sense of purpose and vigor.

You probably don’t have to spend a year in a foreign country or away from family to enter your own portal. However, if you are naturally confused, hard-headed and slow to understand stuff, much like myself, I highly recommend it!

Where the need for an Ambulance is greatest.

June 5, 2009 by

On June 3rd 2009, Ziquitza Healthcare (aka Dial 1298 for Ambulance) launched operations in Patna, in the Indian state of Bihar. This is a pilot project funded by the Government and operated by Ziquitza. Calling this an important health initiative would be an understatement, Bihar is one of the poorest states in India in terms of the HDI -poverty on a different scale than what I have experienced in Indian cities like Bombay.

Bihar has the 3rd largest population in India, however 85% live in the rural countryside, making safe transportation to a hospital extremely difficult. In Mumbai, those living below the poverty line have the option to take local, inexpensive transportation to the hospital, but in Patna there are few options outside of a cycle rickshaw, and as our CEO pointed out, imagine trying to transport a heart attack patient to a hospital in this manner. Launching a quality ambulance service that is universally affordable (admitted through Government subsidization) will greatly improve access to timely healthcare in this city, and eventually across the state.

To me this is the gold standard for a social enterprise. Convincing the Government of the need to take up funding for an essential initiative. The process is slow, but as is experienced throughout our head office today, the satisfaction of ensuring the expansion and longevity of a service we all believed in from the start is incredibly rewarding.

It feels like an important shift has started.