#28DaysofGratitude – Day 27

When I was in the midst of job-hunting over the past few months, one thing I was very clear about was choosing a CEO and company that I really connected with, in terms of values, and mission. Which is why, rather than apply for jobs the traditional way, I looked up companies I thought were solving interesting problems, and asked for a conversation with the CEO. Some of these requests had very interesting and memorable results. I am reminded today of one such interaction with the CEO of an ed-tech start-up in India. I happened to speak with her on another unrelated occasion, and found her so motivated and engaging, that I had to reach out later. After weeks of back-n-forth and cancelled meetings from her end, we finally met in her posh, new-agey office in the center of the business district. After the initial pleasantries, and exchange of information, I asked her what germinated the idea of the company she had now been running for 5 years. Her answer was immediate – “Because I want to create a dent in the universe. And I felt education was the way to do it.” Probably a 10/10 answer, if she were pitching to a potential investor.

I’ve been wondering for a few days now – it is almost mandatory nowadays for CEO’s to use words like innovation, cutting-edge, and disruption while describing their idea. If you cannot use the “Uber of XYZ” phrase to describe your start-up, you’d rather shut it down immediately – you’re clearly not doing enough. Right? But is this desire to innovate and disrupt, the birthplace of real innovation? Is that where one starts, or is that more of a by-product along the journey – one that should begin with the desire to solve a real problem?

When I first spoke to this CEO, I loved the ambition behind wanting to create a dent in the universe – it sounded purposeful, and motivational. But on deeper thought, it told me nothing about the real driver behind the company and the CEO’s mission. It seemed more like an external image that needed to be built – that of being a disruptor and dent-creator. But what is Step 2 here? How does one go about doing that? And if I were to work for her, how do I, as an employee, help her with her mission?

As I spend more time interacting with people in the start-up and social impact space, I am growing increasingly uncomfortable with terms like “changing the world”, “ending poverty” etc. The fact is, one individual or organization cannot possibly know how to do that. It takes years of consistent effort across multiple interconnected systems, some of which, we have no visibility of. What one can begin with though, is the intention to create a positive impact in our sphere of influence, however small that may be – commit to go as deep as possible to understand the issues at play, and then choose a starting point for an actionable step. While this may not sound flashy and inspirational, it begins with humility.

Humility to accept that we do not have all the answers, that we would make mistakes and need to start all over again. But as long as the intention is exploration and then continuous small actions, there is no shame in admitting failure and retracing your steps. Imagine starting with wanting to create a dent in the universe, and then realizing you have the wrong weapon in your hand!

 

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#28DaysofGratitude – Day 24

Last weekend, V and I took a trip to a hill station close by called Munnar. I had heard about the place being gorgeous, but the sights, sounds and smells we experienced there were truly out of this world, and beyond anything I expected! Acres of the greenest greens I had ever seen, clouds that would descend on the fields within minutes, changing the landscape entirely, the slightest hint of a persistent rain that felt like mist on your body and a quietness that was perfectly balanced between being calming and eerie at times! Imagine walking in the middle of these tea plantations all day ! No filters necessary!

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As is typical on most of our trips, the food was a major highlight and we didn’t shy away from trying out everything including the fish, which Kerala is very popular for. On Day 2, our friendly tour guide took us to this tiny restaurant that was famous for it’s authentic Kerala meals – basically a spread of massive amounts of fluffy rice, 4 kinds of vegetables, a fish curry, and an array of condiments that only the Kerala folk can do full justice to. Simplicity at it’s best, but an explosion of flavours in your mouth. The best part of the entire experience was the restaurant owner – now if you want to know customer service at it’s best, this guy was the epitome of it! Within minutes of us having chosen a table, he walked over and explained the entire concept of the Kerala meal to us in his endearing broken English – the different kinds of fish, their size, the amount of bones one might encounter, spice levels. On realizing we are rookies, he made his own suggestions and even threw in two varieties for the price of one – no one should leave Kerala before trying out the fish, he insisted! Before leaving the table, he assured us that if we didn’t like the food, we didn’t have to pay a dime. But of course, the food was delicious – one of the best meals ever, and it cost us less than $6 overall! He checked on us multiple times and even sent over little samples of some other curries, “just to taste”! Now one might argue that he was being a shrewd business-owner – he was used to dealing with tourists and knew how to keep them happy. But in addition, what I also saw was a genuinely nice guy who knew that the only thing he needed for his business to succeed was the right product and the right attitude! The former might be easy to nail, but the latter takes a lifetime of practice and intention!

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Over the past few months, I’ve grown increasingly fascinated by small business owners. People who focus on niche products, creativity, resource-scarcity and true autonomy to make a dent in their corner of the world. And I have been trying to support them as much as possible, because it is truly admirable to run a one-man-show. Like my most recent acquisition from this guy in Bangalore who makes the cutest succulent planters using unique objects like metal measuring cans! For someone who loves plants, but has a home without much direct sunlight, this was the perfect solution! Anyway, I digress… Coming back to my Munnar trip, one of the big highlights for me, beyond the gorgeousness of the place and food, was this friendly restaurant owner who showed me that with the brightest smile, and a fantastic product, you can win the hearts of two non-fish-non-rice eaters!

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#28DaysofGratitude – Day 16

I have been binge-watching Seth Godin‘s videos on YouTube – something about the complex simplicity of his ideas and thoughts just make you sit up, take note, and go – “Huh! What a wonderfully new way to think about this.” If you are interested – check this and this to begin with – they are my favorites.

On the latest video I watched, he talks about his morning routine and one of the things he says is – “In 1977, I decided that ‘facing the day’ didn’t feel right. So instead I view it as an opportunity. I have not hit the snooze button once since 1977.  Part of what I have tried to do with my work is create a life where I bound out of bed, eager because I get a chance at unlimited bowling”. (You have to watch the video to get the bowling reference.)

Isn’t that such a wonderful thing to aspire to? Forget the billion dollar idea, forget the jargon surrounding impact and purpose, and the 5 million followers on Twitter. Let us bring it down to the basics. We are all here in this world with a limited amount of real estate and resources to our name. Our job is to make the most of what we have, and think about creating something that makes “them (whoever them is) miss you when you are gone.” (paraphrasing Seth’s language here)

Now I know that Seth can say this today with conviction, after having authored 18 books, and created the most popular marketing blog on the web. People like you and me are not even a quarter of the way there. Which is why I use the word aspire. It doesn’t matter what you are doing, approaching each day with boundless eagerness is so much better than fear and dread of the unknown. It sets the right intention in place – and allows you to get into the flow.

You know a good place to start – by saying goodbye to the snooze button! 🙂

Cultural Messiness

The inspiration of this post is from Seth Godin’s awesome article a few days ago – read it here.

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As part of the Acumen Fellowship, I got the unusual opportunity to spend time, not like a tourist, but in a real I-live-her way, in two Tier 3 cities of India – Bhopal and Ernakulam. I say unusual because I know that I would never have taken the time to do this, had it not been for this placement. And unless you spend a solid 3-4 months in a city, interacting with the locals, speaking their language, shopping and lunching with them, celebrating birthdays and farewells, you don’t get a real understanding of their desires and motivations. For the past seven months, I have tried to assimilate and understand parts of a culture that I felt familiar to, and alienated from, at the same time. There have been parts of it that have angered me and left me frustrated, especially as I try to traverse through the complex workings of an organization that is trying to do good, and sustain in the midst of many roadblocks.

From the time I started on my Acumen journey, the words “social enterprise” and “messiness” were used almost synonymous to each other. As someone new to this world, I wondered why. On a business level, a social enterprise needs to run similar to a regular for-profit venture. Right? Yes, there is an uncompromising focus on impact that is integrated into the business model, which means cost of goods and profit margins need to be re-calibrated accordingly. When we are working with the under-served, we are designing solutions to fulfill their basic needs- the must-haves, and not the nice-to-haves. But surely, this cannot be the full story. These are external customer-centric factors. What really is different about the internal workings of these kind of companies that makes them “messy” ? It wasn’t until I spent time with my colleagues in Bhopal that I really saw what I had never seen before, and what Seth has managed to articulate so much better than I can. It is culture – this culture of familiarity, safety, fear of change.

I am not saying that organizations in bigger cities do not struggle with this – but heightened hybridization in Tier 1 cities tend to make people look more favorably upon change. We have no choice but to accept that our favorite South Indian restaurant has also started serving North Indian food now. We willingly see Durga Puja being celebrated with as much fervor as Deepavali or Vishu or Eid. From cab drivers to roadside vendors to uber-cool startups, no one can escape it and therefore, we do what is innately human to us all – we adapt. This trickles down the entire ecosystem and impacts the way organizations are run – we work at a faster pace, we demand more of our employers, we move jobs if we feel our vision doesn’t align with that of our company.

Here is what I saw in Bhopal: The organization I worked for, was facing a severe cash flow problem which meant there were delays in salary payments to employees. These delays only kept getting worse with time. When I asked the employees what their plan was to combat this – most of them shrugged their shoulders and said – “what can we do, it is what it is.” You know what would have happened in Bangalore or Mumbai – the company would probably have 100 legal notices by now. Not even kidding.

When I was in Bhopal, my team comprised of smart, capable individuals who were not able to grow and contribute, because they were not given the opportunity, and they didn’t know how to ask. If you dig deeper, the reason for this could be traced back to their upbringing, family environment, expectations of what their life can be. What I saw was unfulfilled potential. Imagine if we were able to tap into this potential of 1.2 billion people – it would change the landscape of this country!

So here’s my little theory – social enterprises are messy, not only because their customers are harder to understand and design for. It is also because most such enterprises are proximate to their customers – in smaller towns and cities – which lack the ecosystem for change. There is a larger internal battle they face every day- which is, fighting the status quo of familiarity and fear of the unknown that exists within their organization itself. Knowing that what they are doing is bigger than themselves, and for that, they really have to show up differently. This is not a security blanket, a job to retire from 45 years later with a pension account.

As Seth says –

In the face of change, the critical questions that leaders must start with are, “Why did people come to work here today? What did they sign up for?”

So that’s where the real challenge begins for CEO’s and founders of social enterprises – sharing a completely believable vision of a new reality – not just externally, but also internally!

Talk about messiness !