Archive for January, 2009

Reverse Brain Drain

January 23, 2009

After spending some time at Drishtee, I realized that there was a high percentage of new hires (as well as existing management staff) who were Indians who had recently or in the past few years returned to India from the US.

Many had gone to the US to study for undergrad and ended up staying for both graduate school and work. A number of people had lived in the US for many years, anywhere from five to 10 (or more.) This was much different then my experience in other countries around the world, where usually people left to study overseas and never returned.

When I began to ask people why they came back, many stated they were interested in joining its growth spurt by helping to build it and take it forward. Even if family pressures were part of the equation, people had made the choice to return and turned down working at a large multi-national or Indian corporation for a social enterprise.

This is also the case at many other social enterprises, a good number being Acumen Fund investees. At a another social enterprise I know, one woman had worked in China and decided to return to India on the basis that she could do the same type of work at home and couldn’t see remaining somewhere else when the same issues existed in her backyard.

People actually research, study and write about reverse brain drain. I found an article describing this situation with Indian immigrants in the US. Yet it’s not only a US to India journey, but other countries are also seeing this happen: China, Malaysia, Brazil and Turkey. Today, much of it may be due to the financial crisis in the US and Europe, but others have returned because they were interested in working for business with a social mission.

I interviewed two new employees at Drishtee: Rahil and Upasana. Rahil currently works in Connecticut for a hedge fund and took a 6 month sabbatical to work with Drishtee on its supply chain model. Upasana returned after attending university and working on the West Coast over a period of 8 years and is part of the Process and Planning team. Watch to find out more!

HR Woes

January 20, 2009

Anyone who has worked at the Base of the Pyramid can tell you that human resources is a major challenge. Recruiting and retaining good talent can be a nightmare and has major implications for how fast (or slow) a social business can scale. I am faced with these issues every day in my work as an Acumen Fund Fellow with Micro Drip, an irrigation solutions company that focuses on poor farmers in Pakistan.

Micro Drip has been searching for over a year for a competent Operations Manager. Most candidates are either extremely over or under-qualified. As a social business, we simply cannot compete with large multi-national corporations in terms of salary and benefits. Our plight provides further evidence to the gap at middle management that is often present in developing countries.

Recently, I helped develop a start-of-year workshop that was designed to rally the company around a new Vision & Mission and build a feeling of belonging & teamwork (video: As part of the three-day event, we introduced a strategic task list to help strengthen the company’s foundation in preparation for further expansion. Each employee was assigned at least one strategic task with which they were supposed to outline a logical sequence of steps to complete the task, along with an estimate for how much time each step would take. Yesterday, I reviewed the tasks in detail with several key managers and requested that they jointly create a sequence of steps necessary to complete one of the tasks. I was amazed when they were unable to do it unassisted. After about an hour of coaching the managers through the process, we arrived at a logical plan. It is not that these gentlemen aren’t intelligent, quite the contrary. I attribute their inability to complete the task at hand to two main factors: (1) Traditional Pakistani education system, and (2) A “Yes Boss” culture.

In the traditional Pakistani schooling system, there is often a stronger affinity for rote learning, discipline and respect for authority. In most classrooms in the country, critical thinking skills and problem solving skills are new concepts. This can lead to dependency on superiors in the work environment. Some of the more prestigious schools do embrace independent thinking as a critical concept to teach students, but these schools primarily cater to the elite.

Pakistan is a very hierarchical society. Many bosses in hierarchical cultures simply want to give orders and have their direct reports follow their plans to the letter. They encourage a “Yes Boss” culture in which employees never voice a dissenting opinion. This poses particular problems in Micro Drip, as we are a small company with limited resources. We need capable employees who can think for themselves without having to be guided every step of the way. Ultimately, our company will be stronger if different points of view are better represented, irrespective of where they come from in the organization.

At Micro Drip, we are committed to helping develop our employees to better themselves, but the verdict is still out on how long it will take to introduce a culture of problem solving. We must begin now to think on how we will retain our talent, because once our employees reach a higher level of professionalism, they will be a scarce commodity in an underserved human resources market.

If you are interested in learning more about my experiences in Pakistan, please check out my personal blog ( or my website ( 

Meet the people of LifeSpring Hospitals

January 19, 2009

Theme for this month’s video blog is “Meet the People”. I would like you to meet the people of LifeSpring Hospitals and some of the challenges they face as the organization continues to scale. With 6 hospitals in place and more coming up later this year, they certainly have a their hands filled. I could not get everyone in the picture or the videos, but there are many more employees at the hospitals and in the field. I will try to get them online in the upcoming videos, so stay tuned!

As always, feedback on what else you’d like to see/read is most welcome.

A Team in 3 Days

January 19, 2009

Last week, I helped conduct a start-of-year workshop to help Micro Drip clarify its Vision, Mission, & Values. This video has some footage from the experience. 

Delivering traditional medicine in modern ways

January 19, 2009

The entrepreneurs at AyurVAID: Hospitals are testing a business model that promises to overcome the scale up challenge of delivering medical care to the masses based on Ayurveda, a system of traditional medicine. According to RV Raman, Head of Marketing at AyurVAID: Hospitals, there are about 18,962 Ayurveda companies registered in India today. Most of these companies focus on offering ayurvedic products (from medicines to toothpaste!) and spa related services, however no one has been able to come up with a successful, scalable model to deliver health services. (Ironic considering that Ayurveda is a system of medicine that has been around for more than 3,000 years!) In this video Rajiv Vasudevan, CEO of AyurVAID: Hospitals, explains some of the challenges inherent to the Ayurveda “industry” and some of the strategies the team has developed to overcome these obstacles.

Above & Beyond

January 18, 2009

Stories from the 1298 ambulance crew members during the Mumbai Terrorist Attacks.

Yin and Yang. A Buddhist Inspired Reflection in a Hindi Haven

January 16, 2009

I was told that I would either love or hate India. I didn’t expect to experience both emotions in nearly all that I do, throughout every day. It’s as though India kisses my cheek one minute and slaps me across the face the next. Surprisingly this manifests in an odd sense of peace. I think it comes from this new confidence that even if something awful is happening, you will be surprised and delighted with something beautiful if you just keep trucking. A good example is my recent trip to Rishikesh over the Christmas holiday. Many of you have seen the pictures but didn’t hear about the start.

When Mumbai-based Acumen Fellow Joanna and I joined the mob scene at New Delhi Railway Station the afternoon of the 25th we realized a little too late that the WL on our sleeper car railway tickets unfortunately did not refer to Wide, Lower Berth. It meant waitlisted. It also meant we were SOL on XMAS day. After an hour of unsuccessful finagling, we decide to hop a taxi to the bus terminal and try our luck. Here is where India is awesome. Thirty minutes and $8 got us water bottles, Tomato Tango potato chips, and front row seats on a dingy “semi-deluxe” bus up to Dehradun in the foothills of the Himalayas. Narayana Palace, Ganges River, here we come.

Nine hours and three male-only bathroom breaks later, the bus pulled over to the side of the road, seemingly at the end of the line.  No station signs, 1am, no English. The driver and a man on the side of the road kept shouting “Itibdi!” “Itibdi!” Itibdi did not show up on our map, in our guidebook or in our Hindi-English dictionary. We just sat there, pondering our options. Suddenly the man from the road leapt into the bus and shoved crinkled piece of paper into our faces that read “Miss Heidi.” Ahhhaaaa! We were saved! The driver we had booked from the hotel had actually waited three hours for our delayed bus and was there to whisk us away to our mountain retreat. We gathered our bags and walked over to our car, exhausted but relieved.

As we walked, the sound of scraping metal and plastic on asphalt whipped our heads around. The bus was gone but we saw an overturned motorcycle hurtling down the road behind us and its erstwhile rider slamming into the concrete barrier that formed the center of the deserted town’s sole driving circle. The wall was unlit and surely the cause of the incident. The men that appeared on the streets that night ran to the scene but the motorcycle rider lay still, crumpled against the wall. We froze. It was pretty clear we had just witnessed a fatal accident. For anyone that’s read Shantaram or seen a car accident in India, it’s known that things can get ugly quickly in these situations. As sad as it is, due to ambiguous liability laws and inconsistent policing strategies, strangers will often scatter in the case of emergencies. I hate to admit that I was all for a quick getaway but my traveling partner, Joanna – an Acumen Fellow placed with an ambulance company called 1298 – held back. She had just been trained in first aid and wanted to help. My approach to safety here is to keep as low a profile as possible. Being older and bossier, I won. Were this a woman or child being injured, I’d like to think I would have chosen another course. But, being that it was the middle of the night and that we were the only non-Indians and females in sight, I couldn’t see anything but bad results from inserting ourselves in the middle. At a minimum, we did confirm that there was a hospital in the town before we got in the car and locked our doors. We moved away, but sat stunned, feeling shaken and conflicted.  That silent reflection was quickly broken when our driver suddenly turned around and shouted “Merry Christmas!!”

“Umm. Right” we replied. “Merry Christmas.” Our vacation had begun.

We never found out what Itibdi meant.

For more on our trip please see the clip below.

John Wood – A real inspiration

January 13, 2009

Karthik, one of my fellow fellows just forwarded me an interview with John Wood, the founder & CEO of Room to Read, an award winning international education  organization. John has the inspiring vision of providing educational access to 10 million children in the developing world.

In the interview John talks about  encouraging young social entrepreneurs he meets and ensuring that he does not point out flaws in their business models. John mentions how in the beginning of starting Room to Read, most people told him that his ideas would not work.  Though I have never met John personally, I was reminded of how he inspired me to continue in the social sector through his book.

I very clearly remember buying John‘s book, “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World” in 2006 from a bookshop in Kochi, India. I had never heard of John Wood before but a title that suggested that there was another person who had left the IT sector for the social sector was reassuring. At that point in time most people would easily present counter arguments to my ideas on the social sector and try and convince me that I couldn’t have sounded more dumb! The book was an inspiring read and apart from other lessons, what I clung to most was that if such a super smart guy can believe that he has done the right thing, there must be something right about my decision to be in the social sector too.

I urge you all to read the interview and his book, “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World

Social Vs Enterprise

January 11, 2009

What should be the primary motive of a Social Enterprise – Maximizing social impact or ensuring enterprise sustainability or both? The debate is still on but I do sense this growing tendency amongst many of us (including me) to be more concerned with enterprise sustainability. We believe that if the enterprise is made sustainable, then it’s ability to create social impact automatically goes up. Nothing wrong with that, but shouldn’t we also be thinking of the of the “social” side of the enterprise?

The other day David Kuria, the founder CEO of Ecotact, walked into office and said, “Suraj! We need to do a demographic based study to understand people’s behaviour around accessing a toilet. We need to ensure that everybody can access a Ikotoilet!” (the pay-per-use toilet facilities built by Ecotact are branded as “Ikotoilet”)

My immediate thoughts – “We are already building toilets and maintaining them. We are already providing access to all. Why do we need to do a study? What more could we do? We have so many more toilets to build, so many systems and processes to put in place as we scale up and grow the Ikotoilet presence in other parts of Kenya.  More importantly should we be spending our already stretched out resources on doing a study? That too now?”

David continued – “For hygienic reasons all our Ikotoilet facilities have asian-style toilets but are asian style toilets comfortable for old people, pregnant women or for people with joint pains who find it difficult to squat?”

Very valid question which had honestly never crossed my mind.  While, my thinking continued to be around – do old people, pregnant women and people with joint pain constitute a large enough population to justify re-design of our toilets, David’s thinking was totally committed to improving access to toilets for everbody. I could sense my initial thoughts and questions melting and a sense of awe taking over in my head as I saw David deeply thinking of the “social” side of the enterprise.

(Kindly note that every Ikotoilet facility already has provisions for the disabled)

The people behind scenes

January 10, 2009

When I first read this article published yesterday on the DNA Bangalore newspaper I felt moved by Daniel’s story of resilience. Then my thoughts drifted to another character in the story, Dr. Belaku Chandu[1] from AyurVAID: Hospitals. The reason why I found myself thinking of Dr. Belaku is because the article reminded me of her reaction one of those days that Daniel heard the sound of the fire crackers.

I was sitting in the hospital’s kitchen having dinner with the staff and doctors when the noise of the firecrackers filtered the hospital building. Dr. Belaku immediately stopped eating her food, she rose from the table and went in to the hallway. She stopped for a few minutes as if waiting for something to happen and then disappeared into the first floor. Then I heard laughter.

When Dr. Belaku came back to the kitchen and I asked her what was that all about she told me Daniel’s story and how the noise of the firecrackers had affected her in the past few days. With a smile in her face she said, “The first day Daniel was very scared by the noise. She thought it was the noise of shotguns and her nerves started to jerk again. The second day she was just startled and dropped her food tray. Today, she recognized the noise and she just laughed!” She was paying attention to Daniel’s progress day and night.

Dr. Belaku’s story exemplifies the type of personal and organizational commitment that makes a social enterprise thrive. Everyday I spend at AyurVAID: Hospitals I am in awe of how devoted the caregivers and doctors are to the patients and to the organizational mission. Every single one of them believes in the healing powers of Ayurveda for treating chronic illnesses and is committed to AyurVAID: Hospitals’ mission of taking classical Kerala Ayurveda to as many people as possible in India and around the world by offering affordable, high quality services.

This article also highlighted for me the positive ripple effect of investing in a social enterprise. Acumen Fund’s investment in AyurVAID: Hospitals operation’s in India is helping reach people in Africa! Although Daniel may not belong to the low income class at the BOP that Acumen is trying to reach, there is no doubt that she was a person in need of physical and spiritual help, and that her courage in sharing her story of improvement through Ayurveda provided in the AyurVAID: way, will help this team of committed doctors and entrepreneurs communicate to all its promise to solving society’s health needs.

[1] Her name was misspelled in the article.