Doing Good and the Saviour Complex

I had a very odd dream last night. Unlike most of my dreams which are mostly fleeting visions on everything from my dog to exotic food and countries, this one felt like one never-ending movie reel with a beginning, a middle and an end. The dream begins with me on a train, with a co-passenger (who’s face I have conveniently forgotten!). Through a random sequence of events, we realize that our train is caught on fire, that is taking down one bogie at a time. However, it seems like the fire is a planned heist because the driver refuses to stop and allow the firemen to put the fire out. Which means the only way to save the passengers is to evacuate – yes – a moving train. (Did I tell you my dreams tend to be very Bollywood in nature). To add fuel to the already raging fire, I realize that the firemen have no intention of saving passengers in the third class – they’re last in priority, a fireman claims. Talk about a coup de grace! Clearly, I am taking none of this discrimination. The remainder of the dream sequence has me and my partner-in-rescue(?) risk life and limb to save the ones who were left behind. (Side Note: Now that I think about it, I think my having watched the finale of the Castle TV series just that evening played a big role in the over-dramatization bit.)

Now, I am not a big believer in psychoanalysis, so my intention to wax eloquent about my dream is not a quest for deeper meanings or signs. If I take it at face value, the part that has stayed with me, and continued to bother me was this odd saviour complex thing I had going on there. You see, ever since I decided that I want to build my career working in organizations that combine doing good with scale and profits, I have been very conscious of the story I tell myself – a possibility of the clever confusion that would make me delusional about the impact me and the organization I work for, are causing. In just the two years of pursuing this path, I have already encountered many who have fallen trap to this facade, and I have been on edge about allowing myself to fall into the same abyss.

Recently, I updated my LinkedIn profile to my most recent position – I was kicked about it. I was the Head of Operations of a social enterprise, and that too, within a month of graduating from the Acumen Fellows program. Until I realized about a week into this job, that this title and the trappings that came with it, were crippling me more than being empowering. I realized that in my mind, the title came with a certain code of conduct that I believed I should follow. But the reality is, that there is only one thing that really matters in social change (or any change, for that matter) – doing the work. I reversed the LinkedIn update immediately. I will put it up when I feel within, that I have done enough work to be worthy of the title. This tiny experience however, was a very uncomfortable reminder of the desires I am holding on to, and what I need to let go of, in order to be effective.

I don’t want to be a saviour – that is probably the one thing I am certain of. The rest, is nothing but a series of questions. Almost every day, I am reminded of this quote we were told on Day One of the Acumen Training and I find myself going back to it over and over again –

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Oh and in case you were wondering – my partner and I manage to safely retrieve all the passengers of that burning train. Just saying. (;-))

Linking to an incredible article I found on Medium, along the same theme.

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The Fearless Girl Standing Tall

The Fearless Girl sculpture recently won multiple awards at the Cannes Lions – one of the most prestigious awards in the advertising world. In one of the articles I was reading about this sculpture, the following image was used –

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One look, and it has not left my mind ever since, and I have been reading and thinking about it more and more. The statue was put on Wall Street to bring people’s attention to the lack of female executives in boardrooms. But what makes it so astounding was the way it was done. Look at this girl – standing tall, chin up, hands in the Super(wo)man pose, hair in a ponytail because no C-level executive has time for a blowout and no one cares if she does, wearing shoes not stilettos, in clothes that neither accentuate nor diminish her body because that is not the point here, and with razor-sharp eyes focused on what she’s here to do – face the Raging Bull. She appeared out of nowhere, in the middle of the night, like the classic underdog who no-one pays attention to until they make their presence felt quietly! That to me, is art that inspires, challenges prejudices, and redefines the norm.

I don’t even want to get started on feminism because of the responses it elicits from most people nowadays. And to be honest, in my eyes, this sculpture stands for so much more than that. This Girl is a symbol for anyone who is trying to crack the glass ceiling, question the status quo, and represent a voice that does not have a platform. On Wall Street, it is women in boardrooms. In the world of Social Impact, it is entrepreneurs who are trying to change the way the world tackles poverty. When one is on an unknown path, where no has gone before, it is easy to get distracted by external markers of impact – which, in the case of female empowerment, have become pant-suits and nude photoshoots. But the real indicators of change are more nuanced than that, aren’t they – they are in freedom of choice, freedom of being who you are, freedom from external fear. When you can stand your ground, keep your eyes on the prize, and make your presence felt in the most real, honest way – that is where real change can be felt.

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 !