Posts Tagged ‘Acumen 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.

STOP. R E F L E C T. GO!

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?” (http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/66/mylife.html). 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.

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.

Trial by Fire…D.light Fellows Applicants Shine

May 14, 2009

D.light Design launched its global fellows program in February 2009 to better organize its human resources strategy to leverage the talent and energy of interns, volunteers, advisors and short-term staff to propel company growth. D.light is sharply focused on building out its permanent core team; we just made three significant hires into finance, manufacturing, and sales operations roles in the last couple of weeks . CEO Sam Goldman recently said that 50% of his time is spent on recruiting. However, D.light has also been fortunate and intentional in bringing talented “short-timers” – e.g. consultants looking for externships, MBAs on summer breaks, investors looking for a career change, and young professionals looking for start-up experience – into the company for three to ten-month stints. When we posted Fellows positions this February, we got an incredible response across positions and offices (China and India). We had 80 stellar applicants for the Business Development position in our India office alone.

The D.light culture is fast-paced and action oriented, so we structured our assessment process to be as experiential as possible. It was trial by fire. We wanted to assess candidates’ ability to think outside the box, apply creativity and structure to an unstructured business question, produce deliverables quickly, and present a concise and compelling point of view. Business Development candidates were asked in their second round interviews to prepare a presentation that could be used to pitch a new partner on a hypothetical solar loan pilot. Plus, they were asked to author a hypothetical, “guest” blog posting that would run on Sam’s SocialEdge blog 90 days later. Our final Graphic Design candidate was asked to spend two days in our Noida office and come up with a new in-store display unit that would build the D.light brand among peri-urban consumers and provide basic education about solar energy. She had to present to Sam and other senior managers at the end of her 36 hours. She’s now on board and we’re going to print in a week. We asked behavioral questions such as “if you had been working with an executive coach for the last three months, what would be the key issues you’re working on? What’s the toughest retreat you’ve ever had to make or hardest no you’ve ever had to give? Can you describe your ideal manager?”

After all of this, four superstars rose to the top as having the best fit in terms of skill, attitude and style for D.light India. These fellows design, strategize, envision, and execute. They speak French, Hindi, English, Spanish and Gujurati. They are artists and authors. They are social change evangelists and entrepreneurs. They are going to help D.light build a movement around solar energy. Welcome to D.light India—Anay Shah (Business Development – from Development Alternatives, Inc), Sana Rao (Graphic Design – from National Institute of Design), Mariette Fourmeaux du Sartel (Carbon – from Haas School of Business, Mauna Kea Technologies), and Jack Godfrey Wood (Product Design – award winning Industrial Designer, educated at Central St. Martin’s).

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.

“Be Patient With Yourself”

February 16, 2009

This month I want to share with you not about the investment that I am working in but about myself and my personal experience in the first few months of the Fellowship.

Before flying to India I was part of many conversations in which the common theme was that in order to really make a positive social impact in the lives of the poor we need to slow down… Extend time lines, think in terms of processes not tasks, take into account the infrastructural limitations of the countries when designing a business plan, etc. All of these conversations, plus the many hours in the classrooms at LSE discussing the failures of development efforts in the last few decades, helped me prepare to transition to a work environment that would require a large quantity of patience. Patience with the external circumstances that would shape the way I worked. What I did not foresee was that I would need even a larger quantity of patience with myself and the impact that my personal transition would have on the work I was ready to do.

Find out why by watching my video.

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.

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.

The Number 17

December 7, 2008

Some of you may remember a 2007 Jim Carrey movie about a man named William Sparrow, who was tormented by the number 23. Once he started looking, he saw that his whole life looped around the number 23. For me, here in Delhi, it’s the number 17. It’s a 17 minute auto rickshaw ride each morning from my new home in Defense Colony to my carpool meeting spot at D.light CEO Sam Goldman’s house in East of Kailash. From there, we are joined intermittently by a D.light intern or two and any visiting D.light partners or staff to make the smoggy, horn-filled commute across the Yamuna River to our offices in Noida Sector 2.

Despite claiming an automatic time zone adjustment ability, my mobile phone clock is absolutely stuck at 17 minutes slow. Now used to this bizarre time lag, when I had to get up at 5am to make my flight down to Hyderabad this weekend to meet up with some Acumen Fellows, I automatically set my alarm for 4:43am.

As I was sitting at a D.light dealer’s electronics store in Aligarh District one night in late November, I counted exactly 17 bug bites on my feet acquired over a long but insightful day in the field. I smiled to myself as the shopkeeper explained how he prefers to sell his homemade lanterns that promise him recurring service and maintenance fees, rather than the sturdy D.light LED lights that do not. For more on the day I spent learning from D.light dealers and distributors alongside Sanjeev (D.light advisor), Rahul (D.light Salesman), and Meenaskhi (phenomenal D.light intern) please check out the clip below. I also wanted send a huge thank you to Meenakshi Chhabra, who devoted several weeks to the D.light business development strategy team during her transition between The Monitor Group and starting her MBA program next month at INSEAD Singapore. We’ll miss you!

I Don’t Know Why You Say “Goodbye”… I say “Hello”

November 19, 2008

Given the fact that I have lived abroad on several occasions, I have not really anticipated much about the 10 months that I would soon spend in a foreign land. I was busy enough with training and arming all the necessary documentation to get my visa to think much about what life would be like once I arrived in Pakistan. That all changed on my last day with the Acumen Fund team in New York. During the day, Acumen Fund held its Investor Gathering for all its key investors in a shareholder meeting that is atypical in the non-profit world. As part of the afternoon session, my cohort of fellows and I performed a 10 minute presentation to give the audience some background into who we were, why we were there, and where we were going. In preparation for the event, Rives, the renowned slam poet, helped us refine our ramblings into a more thoughtful and more entertaining package. The performance held special significance given the fact that this was the last day that our team of fellows would be together until out mid-project meeting in March 2009. Many of us were leaving for the field the very next morning. 

During the evening, my fellow fellows and I greeted guests to the Investor Gala with silk scarves. We mingled with the greater Acumen Fund community and I was impressed by the way that the engagement of most of the people in that room was far deeper than a simple financial commitment. I am convinced that social change requires much more than capital; it requires a passionate community that is committed to breaking molds and blazing new trails. It was at the Investor Gala that the importance of my work took on a new meaning. There is a movement brewing. For too long, the traditional aid models have thrown trillions of dollars at developing countries and in most cases making the situation far worse. Acumen Fund, Endeavor, and other like-minded hybrid organizations are challenging the old guard. We are leveraging the power of business to empower the poor. As I leave for Pakistan, I am eager to live this work firsthand.

Joel Montgomery