Archive for January, 2008

The road to the tractor barber shop.

January 25, 2008


January 25, 2008

Yesterday, we ran an eye camp in Mangzunuru, a village of about 5,000 people.  It wasn’t a great day – The Sarpanch (village president) hadn’t shown up to endorse it.  Business started off slow and got slower around 11 AM.  I asked Rama Devi, one of the Vision Entrepreneurs, if she wanted to take a walk around to see if we couldn’t find some more prospective customers (35-55 year-olds).  She is by far the top performing salesperson in the district – She outsells by a factor of 3:1.  After spending a few minutes listening to her, you can tell why. 

Rama Devi grabbed a stack of flyers and a pair of reading glasses for show, and we set out.  It was hot.  Going from door to door, she ambles up to small groups and gave her pitch.  The approach varied, but she was consistently personable and authoritative.  Unlike the flyer-hander-outers of New York, she invested minutes in every person she talked to, carefully explaining the details of the service.  While target customers are relatively easy to spot by age, they certainly weren’t eager to accept what she had to say.  The degree of skepticism was alarming.  I was facinated by the variety of suspicions and misconceptions launched at her:

“You aren’t doctors – how are you qualified to check people’s eyes?”
“You are working for a government program and are trying to charge for glasses that should be free.”
“Do you represent a Christian organization?  Why are you trying to change our village?”
“Reading glasses caused these dark circles under my eyes.”
“Wearing glasses makes your eyes roll back into your head.”

I stood there stymied, while Rama Devi handled these grenades with mental judo.  She’s heard them all before.  “This is for everyone.  You can come get screened for free,” she said.  “No obligation so why not come check?  We’re not affiliated with any political party or religious organization.  These are high quality glasses and will not damage your eyes.  We bring them right to your doorstep; otherwise you would have to travel far away and spend more money.  They are just for reading so you don’t need a prescription.  We have been trained to screen your eyes for this simple problem – for more complex problems we can refer you to a hospital.”

Along the way, I asked, “How do you decide who to give one of your flyers to?”

“I can just tell by the way they act when I start talking to them.”  Soft skills like Rama Devi’s are hard to find.

Designing for Emergencies

January 22, 2008

When I walk through the gate of my newly-constructed apartment building in Mumbai, I first have to walk around a dead tree.  Someone took the time to pave around—rather than cut down—the 10-foot-high tree stump that stands right in the middle of the main entrance.  Because of the tree’s position, only narrow vehicles have access to the building.  What would happen to an ambulance?

Unfortunately, this design flaw (or common sense flaw) is not confined to where I live.  This past weekend saw the running of the Mumbai Marathon, and the 1298 ambulance service provided ambulances for the race.  In the lead-up to the marathon, a 4-day “Health and Lifestyle Expo” took place at Mumbai’s World Trade Center.  The ambulance service shared a booth with the race’s medical sponsor, so I went to the Expo on the first day to help ensure that everything was set up for our marketing efforts.  As part of our presence at the Expo, we had one of our ambulances parked outside. 

The problem was that the ambulance was in danger of remaining outside of the complex.  The entry to the parking lot in front of the conference hall is blocked by a metal security arm that pivots up and down.  Unfortunately, it does not lift up high enough to allow an ambulance to pass underneath.  After a lot of discussion and negotiation, we convinced the parking lot attendant to allow us to drive the ambulance in through the exit, where the security bar lifted higher up.  If there were a real emergency at the conference hall, the time lost in getting an ambulance inside could have serious consequences.  And if there were a fire, well….

High quality ambulances can and do go a long way in ensuring that lives are saved in emergencies.  But other steps need to be taken to ensure that even more lives are saved.  Small design modifications could make a huge difference here.  Cutting down that tree or building a security arm that lifts higher does not take a lot of money or technology—just some foresight and attention to design. 

Eight days a week

January 21, 2008


It took an all-night train ride to get here from Hyderabad, but that’s nothing.  Now that I’m riding on the back of a two-wheeler on a sunny Tuesday morning in rural Andhra Pradesh, it was well worth the trip.  Today, I’m shadowing Surya Prakash, one of the District Coordinators at Scojo.

Surya pulls his motorcycle over to the side of the road to take a call.  I take the opportunity to stretch my hips and legs.  I am not a yogi yet! It’s a 70 km ride out to Rajam pali, the village where Surya’s team is hosting an eye camp today.  His phone rings off the hook.  For good reason: Surya manages 35 Vision Entrepreneurs.  He checks in with them several times a week to help them plan upcoming camps and to track their sales progress. 

We get to the village. I see a new Vision Entrepreneur putting up the banners at the edge of the park where the camp is being held.  They’ve gotten permission to use the office of the Sarpanch (a local government representative) for the day.  Prospective customers have already lined up, giving their information at the front door and waiting on the porch to have their eyes screened.  Kids from the school across the park have snuck over to peek in the windows, resisting elders who shoo them away.  Be kind to them, I think, these are future Scojo customers!

The Vision Entrepreneurs have a lot of flexibility – they can determine their own schedule.  Some of them use it as supplemental income; some make it their full time jobs.  Regardless, they all depend on Surya.  They need new inventory and marketing materials for their camps but most importantly, guidance on how to sell.  “Get me your reports and then we can talk about it!”  He says to one of his team members with a smile.  Selling reading glasses in villages far from your home can be lonely work.  Which is why Surya has instituted team practices: Vision Entrepreneurs frequently go to support each other’s camps without a share of the earnings, knowing they’ll get the same support reciprocated. 

After the mid-day heat cooled off, we headed back to town. Surya dropped me off before going to his office to do paperwork.  “What would you do if you had more time?” I asked.  Surya would rather spend it with his team.  It’s easy to imagine rural distribution models from afar, but they only comes to life through people like Surya who make “work” a verb.


January 21, 2008

I find it hard to write these days. The story I write on a Monday can be completely different by Tuesday. The picture I paint of the area around my office and home is nothing like the experience of Kenyans in Nairobi’s slums, just minutes away. And short-term peace and calm don’t capture the long-term reconstruction that lies ahead for Kenya.

Today, Monday, Nairobi feels more “normal” than it has in weeks: the streets are congested, shops are busy, and people are going about their usual business. But it is hard to know how long that will last; the opposition just called for more protests, and more violence broke out in the slums and Kisumu and Eldoret yesterday. And I’m reminded by Joseph Karoki’s photo blog: “As people try to get back to ‘normal’ life around the country, it is important to remember that there is no normal for a lot of people in Kenya.”

Karoki is one of many who have reacted in the blogosphere, where some of the most interesting dialogue and protest unfold. One particularly interesting website Ushaidi allows people to report on violence around the country. Ushaidi is the Kiswahili word for witness. And so I keep writing, to be another witness, even when I don’t really know what to say.

<p style=”text-align:justifyUshaidi

Why do you want to be a millionaire?

January 21, 2008


The “Motley Fool” recently published a poll asking: “Why do you want to be a millionaire?” With over 10,000 people voting, 20% answered: “So I can make a difference in this world.” This was one of the most popular reasons, second only to “So I can be financially secure.”

It definitely makes one wonder at the mental models we’ve created for ourselves (or “mental prisons,” as John calls them). People tend to see “making a difference” as something linear — make one’s fortune first, then start a foundation a la Bill Gates or Jeff Skoll. And while that’s certainly one model that’s generating much good and impact in this world, that’s certainly not the only one.

My friend, Chris Miller, reads the Motley Fool poll as an incredible entrepreneurial opportunity in international development. I couldn’t agree more! As he points out, the question is, how can all these people be given an opportunity to make a difference in a way they will respond to?

Being here in India has helped me realize that one of the greatest barriers to scaling up is NOT lack of money. The money is there, just waiting to back up incredible ideas that will change the world. Rather, some of the greatest barriers I see is talent, especially as an organization scales up. In social enterprises, there is an assumption that the entrepreneur and management are motivated by more than just money. But for the ayah or receptionist, a job at a social enterprise often becomes like any other job — a means to feed her family.

Or for would-be social entrepreneurs, perhaps the greatest barrier is something more intrinsic. It’s like the sign that hangs in LifeSpring’s corporate office: “The greatest barrier to success is the fear of failure.”

A brand new day

January 19, 2008

I just met someone who was born yesterday.  I spent a day with Tricia at a maternity/pediatric care hospital, and got introduced to their newest customer.  He didn’t even have a name yet – that comes later in a naming ceremony. His proud parents excitedly sat with us for an hour and discussed everything.  The father makes $200 a month and supports his wife and three kids.  They had planned on two kids – this baby was an accident.  The mother will get her tubes tied in a few months.  They didn’t know the sex of the child until after it was born (it is illegal here for doctors to tell).  The mother wanted a girl so she could help out around the house.  In the U.S., it is impossible to have this kind of conversation because of HIPAA privacy regulations. 

In developing countries, people discuss “personal” topics much more openly.  People ask you to take their photo, without fear of publicity.  Why is privacy so much more intense in developed countries?  Does the same information have a higher value?  Do people in developing countries have less to lose?

Courage and Commitment

January 15, 2008

The last time I saw Dorah, at her Senye clinic in Kibera, we discussed the challenges of providing health care in an urban slum. She shared with me her commitment to the community. Today, as we talk about her personal safety and the security of her shop, her commitment speaks for itself.

Kibera has been one of the hardest hit areas in the post-election violence in Kenya. In the last two weeks, Dorah has faced a raid on her clinic by looters, fears for her own safety, and concerns about how to re-stock her supplies until vehicles can reach her. Yet she continues to operate with little disruption.

“We never know what will happen, day to day,” Dorah describes. “But I’ll be here as long as I can be.”

I am struck by two things as I listen to Dorah: 1) She is a remarkably strong, courageous and committed woman, and a reason for hope in the midst of all of this uncertainty. I wonder if I would continue my work, if I were in Dorah’s shoes? 2) There is something to the fact that Dorah is personally invested in Kibera. She doesn’t just work there; she owns a business there. She has something at stake, and she will fight for it. More on this soon.

Parliament is meeting today in Nairobi, and ODM has called for three days of protests, beginning tomorrow. With that comes great uncertainty for all of us in Nairobi, but especially for Dorah and residents of Kibera. “There is a lot of tension here today, we really don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” Dorah says softly. But as images from Parliament appear angry and heated, Dorah, Millicent and other franchisees continue to work with courage and commitment.Dorah in her Senye Clinic

Creative Take on a Business Card

January 14, 2008

The other day I met with the head of an advertising agency in Mumbai.  When he handed over his business card, I looked at his name at the bottom and, below it, for his address.  The address wasn’t there, though.  In its place was written:  “Champion Doodler, Traveler, Trainee Poet, Hiker, Family Man” and several other descriptors, ending with “Chief Executive Officer.”  A card like that immediately leads into conversation—it breaks the ice, conveys the giver’s creativity (particularly important when you’re an advertising executive), and creates an opening to tell a story about yourself.  I like the way the executive re-imagined the use of the ubiquitous business card to humanize himself and make his business meetings memorable from the start.  Simple things like that can really make a difference in helping you stand out from the rest of the crowd.

Inner Voice

January 14, 2008

A group of Columbia Business School students just arrived in Hyderabad and are visiting LifeSpring Hospital tomorrow. Having drinks with them last night and hearing about job interviews brought me back a year…going through consulting interviews, applying for the Acumen Fellowship. I nearly made myself (and probably everyone around me!) crazy assessing next steps: whether to do international development work immediately, or go back to the private sector first to gain more skills. For business school students interested in social enterprise, this seems to be a constant question. And of course, in the end, there’s no one right answer. For me, the key was getting rid of the “should’s” and following through on what I really wanted to do.

It’s like this quotation by Steve Jobs:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”