Posts Tagged ‘2009 Fellows’

Whose vision of serving the poor?

July 20, 2009

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

“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.

The Fellowship Experience – Beyond the Work

June 6, 2009

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!

Social Enterprise or Not?

May 30, 2009

A social investor spoke to us at out mid year meeting in Hyderabad about his investment philosophy. He said that his firm was looking for high growth companies in the social space and that the key metric of social impact would be something that would be measured by the investor. He mentioned that he did not want to burden the company with this metric.

I found this philosophy quite interesting because often the greatest social impact comes from a company that is not really thinking of social impact. Take for example the growth of the mobile phones in rural India. Saturated urban markets forced companies to go rural and rapidly a huge section of the population is now “connected”.

Does it really matter if your investment is a social enterprise offering an affordable and valuable product or service versus an enterprise that offers an affordable and valuable product or service?

Probably not.

However, there are some risks associated with unburdening a company of it’s social mission. On a day-to-day basis, the pressures of meeting revenue targets and achieving profitability (and therefore sustainability) can often force companies to pursue higher margin market opportunities that may eventually dilute the organization’s social mission.

The Hype Curve

May 28, 2009


The research firm Gartner developed the curve above, nicknamed the hype curve, to describe the lifecycle of technology product adoptions. The words at different points on the curve can be used to describe the feelings of  users as they get acquainted with the product/service.

Curiously enough, most of the stuff I do and the way I feel about them fits this basic curve (just ignore the tech words). For e.g my current thoughts on the social enterprise sector or my current job lie at some point on the curve.

Most importantly, it is a reminder that thoughts and feelings are transient by nature and that eventually equilibrium is reached, where expectations and reality are in sync.

Innovations in the Field: Wheat ATM

May 14, 2009

The next series of blog posts will cover innovations from the field. Recently, I conducted some in-depth farmer interviews around Hyderbad and learned about some pretty interesting innovations that are happening on the ground. Keep in mind that these are not college-educated individuals; most have not even finished high school. What I saw was human ingenuity in its purest sense. At the end of the day, I found myself leaving inspired by their innovativeness and creativity.

Zulfiqar Ali, a four-acre farmer in the small village of Dabri, Pakistan, doesn’t travel to his nearest bank branch when he needs some cash. All he has to do is open the door to a room where he stores his wheat crop and travel to the market. Unlike most farmers in Pakistan, Zulfiqar does not sell his wheat crop upon harvest. He realized that harvest season was the worst time to sell his crops due to a glut in supply. Zulfiqar stores his wheat crop and sells it one bag at a time, based upon when he needs cash. With each passing week, the value of his remaining wheat increases. A wheat ATM… that is innovation.

Joel Montgomery

Innovations from the Field: Natural Insurance Policy

May 13, 2009

The next series of blog posts will cover innovations from the field. Recently, I conducted some in-depth farmer interviews around Hyderbad and learned about some pretty interesting innovations that are happening on the ground. Keep in mind that these are not college-educated individuals; most have not even finished high school. What I saw was human ingenuity in its purest sense. At the end of the day, I found myself leaving inspired by their innovativeness and creativity.

Agriculture is extremely risky. There are so many things that can go wrong: bad seed, no water, pest attack, fake fertilizer, bad weather, no transportation to market, etc. Price fluctuations are also quite common. This means that a farmer may spend Rs. 25,000 (USD $315) or more on inputs (seed, fertilizer, pesticide, etc.) and land preparation (tractor rental, laborer wages, etc.) just to find out at the end of the season that the price of his crop is so low that he will make a loss. He borrowed money at the beginning of the season from an arti (money lender) at a rate of 120% annual interest and now is even farther in debt.

In Pakistan, most farmers grow two crops: cotton (summer) and wheat (winter). We always wondered why both crops were so prevalent and finally realized upon completing our interviews. Firstly, most farmers grow cotton and wheat because the prices are stable. It takes a lot of the guess work (and risk) from other types of crops that have more volatile prices. Secondly, farmers grow cotton and wheat because they don’t spoil. If you grow vegetables, then you must transport them to the market quickly before they rot. Cotton and wheat, on the other hand, can be stored for a long time and won’t go bad. Probably the most interesting reason for the traditional cotton-wheat rotation is that wheat is a natural life insurance policy. Farmers grow wheat and keep 50-100 munds (1 mund = 40kg) back to ensure that their families have food to eat during the coming year. Usually an average family needs around 50 munds per year, but they keep extra for festivals, weddings, and unforeseen circumstances. No matter what happens in

Scaling up in “The Many Indias”

April 24, 2009

‘India is merely a geographical expression. It is no more a single country than the equator’- Winston Churchill

Had I read this quote five months ago, I would have not understood what it meant. But after living, traveling and working in India for exactly that long, I can say that Winston Churchill was exactly right. In India, like in any other large country as the US or Mexico, I expected to find some regional differences in people’s tastes for food or music, their accent, dress code, etc. In my mind, these differences give countries their character and do not have major consequences for business other than the opportunity to bring in some variety to the portfolio of products or services. In India, however, regional differences go FAR beyond the ones I just described. For this reason many authors to talk not about one country but “the many Indias”.

For an enterprise trying to do business across the Indian territory, it is critical to be aware of all the nuances of “the many Indias”. Allow me to illustrate what I mean by this using AyurVAID: Hospitals, the organization I am working in, as an example.

AyurVAID: Hospitals is a local business with the mission of providing high quality, affordable Ayurveda (India’s traditional system of medicine) treatment for chronic illnesses across all socio-economic segments and across India (and some day abroad). In line with this vision, AyurVAID: Hospitals opened six small to medium sized hospitals in three neighboring states: two hospitals in Kerala, three in Karnataka and one in Maharastra. The hospitals are located in urban areas and three of them in the big cities of Mumbai and Bangalore.
At first glance AyurVAID: Hospitals’ strategy of expansion seems very straightforward, but in practice things are let’s say a bit more….complicated. Here is how:

Language– At each location, all sign boards and advertising material have to be translated into at least 2 different languages (English + local language) and 4 in the case of Mumbai (high immigrant population). Our doctors need to speak 2 to 3 languages to communicate with patients, English to communicate with the management and international partners, and Malayalam, the language of Kerala, to speak with the staff.

Human resources– The roots of the Ayurveda system of medicine can be traced back to the state of Kerala. Although today Ayurvedic Medical Colleges train doctors across the country, training institutions for therapists are still highly concentrated in Kerala. Hence, hiring locally becomes a difficult task and most of the therapists have to be relocated from Kerala to other states. Then again, most people in Kerala have a strong affinity for their state and prefer not to leave it.
Systems of medicine– Whereas in other parts of the world, Allopathic or “Western Medicine” is the norm, in India, patients have many other well established options to consider like Ayurveda, Homeopathy, Allopathy and Unani. In competing with these different options, public awareness about Ayurveda is a big challenge. If we take allopathic medicine as an example, most people today know what to expect when they go to a doctor, to a hospital or understand if someone says they need a “dialysis”. On the other hand, Ayurveda means a variety of things to different people, particularly as the distance from Kerala increases. To test this last point, I decided to interview people in the streets and hotels of Kerala (to get some out of state opinions) and asked them one simple question….Observe.

All of these factors make the business at AyurVAID: Hospitals challenging and exciting! One success factor as we continue to grow and do business in “the many Indias” will be to strike the right balance between standardization and customization of our services.

Useful , Free and Cool Applications from Google

April 15, 2009

The company where I presently work as an Acumen Fund Fellow, Global Easy Water Products (GEWP) is a start-up with 25 odd employees distributed in four different cities of India. Our company is a product based company in the irrigation space and there is a daily, massive churn of material at our 4 locations. Information about this churn is chronicled in Excel and the corresponding spreadsheet is emailed everyday. Keeping track of all this information is a huge challenge.

Recently, we switched our modus operandi and started using shared spreadsheets on Google Docs. This has made a huge difference to our operational efficiency. There are no more swarms of daily emails, just a link that employees can bookmark and access whenever they need to.

Another cool, free feature is the Indic transliteration application. This is how it works : You type a Hindi word in English , for e.g, chai , hit the space bar, and watch as the text is converted to the Indian script, चाय.

We recently drafted a document in English and then realized that we should switch to Marathi for clarity and effectiveness. One of our employees, typed up the survey in English and then had it transliterated to Marathi in less than an hour. We saved money and more importantly time and now have the option of transliterating to four other languages.

Finally, files in Google Docs can be converted to the PDF format for free. Save $$ on Acrobat License fees.

Start-ups often need cost effective, productive and easy-to-use solutions that can be implemented immediately to bring some order to their operations. Some of these web-based applications, might just do the trick until the time to invest in more sophisticated solutions arrives!

Have you seen any other cool applications?

Faces of Pakistan

February 25, 2009

The Pakistan that I see in the media and the Pakistan I see on the ground seem to be two very different worlds. I don’t delude myself into thinking that they are not both realities of the same country, but I wish that people could see what I am fortunate to witness here on the ground. In that vein, this video is a collage of the faces of people I have met in my travels…