Author Archive

What’s Your Perspective?

June 20, 2009

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.

Is Social Enterprise a Rebranding of the Development Sector?

June 9, 2009

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?

Women Please…

April 21, 2009

Nothing is simple…

Of course the challenges are numerous for recruiting women to be a Drishtee Health Franchisees (DHF). They include anything from simply her husband said no or maybe it was her mother-in-law. Her family doesn’t want her to travel the 20km to the partner hospital for training or for her to be for a week. The license fee to be a franchisee is too high for the family or there is a lack of employment/savings. Gossipers in the village discourage her joining or the local quack spreads rumors.

In a rural culture, where women are often not formally employed, they are caretakers and homemakers within their own houses and extended families. They are often not allowed to leave the house or the village without permission and their role is to stay at home and take care of the well being of their children, husband and elders. Within in it all, there are women and families who do decide to become part of the Drishtee network. Some basic reasons are: economic need, community standing or a familiarity/desire to do the work.

It is these women that Drishtee looks to find and recruit into their micro-franchising health model.

Watch the video to see why!

“Living” Social Enterprise

April 3, 2009

Many of us are working at social enterprises that have won multiple awards for the impact they are having in the world and the innovative idea that drove them to assist in the ever existing fight against poverty. The terminology used to describe social enterprises and social entrepreneurs by default indicates and assumes that the business will be socially oriented.

When I review such awards, mounted on the wall, or listed out by name and year in pamphlets, I wonder about the social “insides” of the company and the transferable nature of such ideals into the inner workings of the business.

I often ask myself: Are they living social enterprise? Are employees treated fairly, with the same sense of social awareness and concern? Does the management & leadership style of the management team reflect such values?

In reality, I assume that many enterprises have not yet found this balance. Is it possible to take the social agenda that these enterprises are trying to meet on a daily basis with their target clients into the company? Can a business be labeled social enterprise if both sides of the coin are not met? Some might argue it is more about getting the work in the field done as fast and quickly as possible that’s  most important.

Does living social enterprise matter? Should it matter?

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!

Reframing Community Health

December 24, 2008

The photograph lured me in: the baby’s eyes in contrast to the woman’s fingers, stumps of various lengths. I had to read more. What I learned was an exciting model for community health being implemented in villages across the state of Maharashtra.

“They are not doctors. They are not nurses. They are illiterate women from India’s Untouchable castes. Yet as trained village health workers, they are delivering babies, curing disease, and saving lives—including their own.”

The article recounts the story of two village health workers, Sarubai Salve and Babai Sathe, who look after pregnant women, babies, old people, and other basic health needs of the community. Sarubai Salve has been working with the village of Jawalke for the past 24 years.

What is amazing about this story is not only the success of the community health model but also its major aim of providing dignity to women who are untouchables. These two women were once illiterate, lacked a self-identity, and were extremely poor. Through the program Jamkhed, founded by a husband and wife doctor team, Raj & Mabelle Arole, this is no longer true. In fact, they have also organized 8 women’s groups and started a revolving loan fund and business skill training.

Many groups have tried to do as Jamkhed but have not succeeded with the same results. The Aroles goal from the beginning is the key, I feel, to why Jamkhed has seen such transformations. In order to work with the poorest of the poor: “empathy, knowledge of how poor people live, and willingness to work were more important than skills and prestige.”

Today the villages where Salve and Sathe work have two prevalent illnesses: hypertension and diabetes. This is not the status quo for the majority of rural India. In fact, they are considered to be diseases of developed countries. Who would have thought that these untouchable women would be such change agents? If nothing else, this is another testimony to never draw within the lines and accept the norm as the end all be all.

Quotes and photo from Necessary Angels Article in National Geographic

Photograph by Lynn Johnson, National Geographic 2008

Baby in Village of Jawalke, India. Photo by Lynn Johnson, National Geographic

6 Rules

December 14, 2008

I spent the other weekend in Hyderabad with some of the other fellows who are placed in India. We had a great time catching up and sharing our reflections on the past couple of weeks. On the plane ride home, in the airplane magazine, I read an article about a young man who had started an edutainment business when he was 23. (He’s now 25.) He had 6 insights into starting and running a business that hold so true for much of the enterprises we are working with. I decided to share my own thoughts on my experience through these rules.

The 6 Rules are:

  1. Be prepared to give at least 10 years of extremely hard work & commitment.
  2. Having the right business partners with good experience on board counts!
  3. Never let someone else tell you what you can & cannot do.
  4. Meet someone new & learn something new every single day.
  5. Things happen for a reason. Do the job with intensity & enthusiasm in success or failure.
  6. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Implementation is what is crucial!

Please view the video for context/detail. Enjoy!