A Shoe is A Foot in the Door

One of the things I was most excited about coming here was the academic theme of this trip: Social Enterprise. As an MBA student with the belief that the power and tools of business are the most effective way to create social impact, I see the social enterprise model as a powerful vehicle for change.  Most Americans who travel to developing countries see things that may horrify and sadden them, and then they go back home and life goes on.  I think those of us on this trip (myself included) will do this to a certain extent as well, but what I’m excited about is the opportunity to leave something behind; the greatest gift that I can give which is my time and my business skills applied to a social project.  My project team includes Katie and Mike and we are working with Hand of Hope (HOH), a non profit that is one of TOMS shoes main distributors in India for their giving program.  Last year was their first year distributing shoes, and now they await a shipment of 1 million shoes to be distributed around India in 2013.  HOH views shoes as an entry point for health, safety and education; as they say, “A shoe is like a foot in the door”.  Working on this project over the past 4 days has been a wonderful experience and I look forward to continuing to work on the project over the next month.  Here are just a few of my initial takeaways:

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Our consulting team with kids from Centenary Government School

1. First things first, HOH/TOMS is not a social enterprise.

HOH is a non profit and TOMS is a socially responsible business as they are giving away the shoes for free.  My first lesson learned is that giving away things for free in developing countries is a lot easier said than done, especially if you want to do it properly in a systematic way that is measurable and maximizes impact.

2. Do the shoes fit the need?

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Holey TOMS

Our project included interviewing 32 kids ranging from age 6-15 at 5 different schools who had all received TOMS from HOH over the past year.  We heard a lot of feedback from the kids about TOMS and the importance of wearing shoes in general.  For some kids, the TOMS they received were their very first pair of shoes, and meant their feet could finally be protected from injury and dust.  Some kids wear their TOMS only to school and special occasions in order to preserve them since they don’t know when they might receive another pair. We heard from kids who expressed how happy they were to receive shoes, and that it made them feel good in their school uniforms.  We also heard and saw first hand a lot of problems with the shoes:  Canvas shoes collect dust, the shoes get smelly, and they slip off when kids run.  Most kids we talked to were amazingly practical, valuing durability above fashion.  Bottom line: The shoes are flimsy and not necessarily suited to the rocky, dusty trash-ridden roads of India, nor the active lifestyle of kids, esp. young boys who are rough on their shoes.  TOMS has a goal of delivering shoes to kids every 6 months but there are operational challenges that limit the reality of this.  A shoe may be better than no shoe, but it was interesting from a market research perspective to glean this information, viewing the kids as customers: there are some obvious needs that are still going unmet.

3. A fresh perspective is always valuable. 

Of course none of the information we gathered was new to HOH – they are fully aware of the challenges that the TOMS model creates.  I struggled all week asking myself, how can I provide value to this organization? What can I possibly provide or create in such a short amount of time that is new or useful? I finally came to peace with these questions yesterday at our final presentations to the clients.  Verghese, who is on the board of the Byrraju Foundation and was there to give us feedback said it well:  We all bring our own personal colored lenses that tint how we experience India and view these social issues.  Even if we are saying something that has been said before, we are saying it in our own way, and it’s still a valuable perspective to share.

 

Contrast is King

From the moment I arrived in Hyderabad, India, the friendliness and hospitality of the Indian people was visible, tangible and welcome. So too the intensity of contrasts, in every respect.

Some students from Hyderabad’s Institute of Management Technology (IMT) gave me the low-down over lunch. They told me about different parts of the same city having different customs, different dress codes, different languages. There are no rules of thumb here, its all about the context you’re in. Everything is here from bejeweled decadence to squalor, and everything in between. Within 20km from the IMT’s flash new campus are villages that go without power for much of the day, and to the bright young people at IMT this is a call of duty to make development more sustainable and equitable for all.

Now that I have come by train some 400km east-southeast of Hyderabad,  I find myself less than 40km from India’s eastern shore in the town of Bhimavaram, and in the company of my fellow PSU students once again – success! While having missed the first full day of field work was a setback, I felt welcomed and intent on throwing new energy and fresh perspective into the mix.

For my first primary research assignment I teamed up with Kate to explore the family and community factors of India’s overpopulation issue. The village we visited was nestled between a stream – complete with small herd of water buffalo – and rice fields. All of the residents we interviewed, with the assistance of some local MBA students who helped bridge the language gap, had some common characteristics: they were working at their home where they lived with their spouse, parent and 1- 3 children; had not completed high school, made between US$90-120 per month; put 20-30% (US$20-40) of that away for a rainy day; and were engaged in producing sickles used to harvest the fields.

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All except for Narsama: 60 years old, no children, making US$50 per month washing clothes. She has three brothers, one of whom she lives with, and who have three sons and three daughters between them. She spends only half of her pay on living expenses. While we asked her questions about her life I was struck by the realization that the purpose with which this village went about its business was not to supply sickles to local farmers or high school graduates to engineering colleges, but to simply be, to exist, to continue.

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Any population restriction interventions that fly in the face of that belief would therefore be seen as a threat to a community’s very existence, and would ultimately fail. One policy we discovered was an incentive scheme rewarding families who had only two children, seeking to strike a balance between continuation of community while addressing some overpopulation factors.

Today, as I awake from my first decent sleep in a while, I’ve made a conscious decision to not look at the schedule. There’s no risk of confusion as to where I need to be and when – I’m already here. In letting go of the need to know, I also let go of any expectations about the day’s activities, and am compelled to be prepared, accepting and grateful for whatever happens. Bring it on.

– Simon

Scavenger hunt, or the benefits of experiential learning

The team, accompanied by the Byrraju staff, spent the morning in Bhimavaram City and the afternoon in a nearby village.

I’m a firm believer in experiential learning to anchor theoretical knowledge; a big shocker since I’m India. One of our required readings, Out of Poverty by Paul Polak, offers 12 “practical solutions to poverty” which include:

  1. Go to where the action is.
  2. Talk to people who have the problem and listen to what they have to say.

Sounds a lot like experiential learning, doesn’t it?

In my opening post, I talked about perceptual lenses and the importance of being mindful of them. Despite that awareness and the intent to be watchful, it took being out in the field to realize I was still looking through the the lens of my own context.

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One of our survey questions was “If you were to dream of a much better life, what would that life look like?” I found the scale of dreams in the responses to be surprisingly small compared to what I realized later that I had been expecting. The rikshawala (rikshaw driver) we spoke to, for example, didn’t want to do anything else but keep pulling rikshaw for the rest of his life. Another person who had a water buffalo that produced income-generating milk, would have liked another water buffalo.

Try as I might, I could not get away from my own cultural context, expectations and assumptions. Perhaps it’s a function of the lifetime exposure to the halo effect of the American Dream. The underlying question I’ll be thinking about in the days to come is who decides whether the dreams expressed by these people are either appropriate or self-limiting?

Holy Buckets! I can’t believe…

…that my flight is tomorrow. With final exams, final papers, new job preparations, purchasing a home and thoughts about holidays, it’s hard to believe that our 2 week adventure to India is literally right around the corner. I have gone from waiting for weeks to now waiting mere hours, and not without a bit of trepidation. At the same time, I am anxiously awaiting what is around that corner and the experiences I will have about which I can only begin to imagine.

The driving force for my interest in this trip (in addition to the obvious, I’m going to INDIA) is now almost 7 years old. The idea of social enterprise and the impact it can have on the lives of others is something I have known from an academic sense for quite a while. My college career was focused on it and I have begun to have this focus in my graduate degree life as well. However, as we all know, that which I know intellectually is not nearly as powerful, meaningful or impactful as that which I know through experience. And what an experience I hope to have.

I must say, I am thankful to have been towards the latter half of the group to post my initial thoughts. Thanks for the reminders about the things I was just about to forget to pack (Mike, glasses lens cleaner…how did I almost forget, especially looking out my currently smudged glasses!!). Also, I appreciate seeing and understanding a bit better your thoughts and ideas. And, perhaps most importantly, reading what you all have written reminds me that all will be good, and I do have what seems to be a great group with whom I am traveling.

Final words of prep before I run off to the store: Clear your mind; be present every moment; relish the amazing, the good, the bad, and the ugly…they each make the experience what it is; come back changed; say YES to as many experiences as you can; make an impact, however great or small.

To my family and friends who read this, see you on the other side!

Packing my lenses (and lens cleaner)

Magnetic Lenses by Theen ..., on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Theen … 

As I look forward to the journey that begins next week, I keep returning to the idea of perceptual lenses. I’m going to try to be extra mindful of my own lenses/perspective throughout our journey, and will do my best to switch to different perceptual lenses to be more fully engaged in the experience.

Speaking of lenses, a few words on the minutia of packing. Not only will my perceptual lenses need constant attention, but if the rumors of extreme dustiness are true, so will the lenses in my glasses! When packing light is imperative,1 and one has no idea how much time we’ll have to go to the chemist (to start using the right terms) or market, figuring out how to have the essential glass care tools on hand is an unexpected challenge. (Side note to Jude: it frightens me how much smaller your packing piles are than mine. I think my back is going to give me an earful.) This is just one small decision/trade off that has to happen for every single item that goes in your bag. I’m surprised at how much cognitive effort this creates, and it’s incredibly distracting from more important things.

What’s more important than getting ready for the trip? Like Kate, my family has been unbelievably supportive. My wife and daughters have been incredibly understanding and tolerant of my frequent disappearing act during the MBA program. (“Where’s dad?” “Oh, right. In the office.”) My parents have stepped up to help out throughout the program, and my sister has been very understanding of her flaky brother. Being away for almost 2.5 weeks, however, seems simply too much to ask of my daughters, especially when it’s very possible I may not have access to Skype for several days. All the craziness of wrapping up finals, spinning down at work, and the aforementioned packing are making it hard for me to do what is most important but feels like a luxury: spending some quality time with my family before I leave. In some ways, it feels like I’ve already left. My wife, supportive as ever, keeps reminding me that it’s temporary.

I know that once the journey is underway, my perspective will shift drastically. But right now, my lenses are a little melancholy-tinted.

Thanks to Alison’s visual reminder, I’m now off to pick up something for my left wrist: a watch. It will serve both as a visual cue to eat with my right hand, and as a way to keep time since I won’t have my usual watch (iPhone) ready at hand.

In closing, a note to self: once you get back, to reward yourself for pushing through these last few months, spend lots of time with your family, and play lots of guitar to make up for the musical desert of the last few years. You’ve earned it.

-Mike

 


1 Carry on baggage, for example, is one bag of 15 lbs. or less.