I had the opportunity to hear Jason Fried, the founder of the project management tool Basecamp, speak this spring at Northwestern University’s Kellogg Business School Entrepreneurship Week. Jason said a number of interesting things based on his book “Rework”, but the most memorable part of his speech were his comments on “paying for services”. I found this fascinating for two reasons: (1) Jason made it clear that when you charge for services you are held to a standard of quality and are forced to deliver a great product, especially if you have a peer utilizing a “freemium” model (giving basic services for free to subsequently sell a premium service or monetize off the user data). And (2) how it was almost identical to Raju Bhai and Saath’s philosophy of having the urban poor pay for services. At Saath, we believe that if you give a service for free, the recipient is (1) left with no stake in the quality and (2) is not motivated to consume the service. For example, let’s say someone gave you free food and it tasted terrible. If you complain, the person who gave it to you will say “how can you complain, it’s free”. Similarly, if I offer free English classes on Saturdays, no one will show up – why would anyone want to study on the weekend? But if someone is charged for it, , they will show up every Saturday to maximize the money they invested in the services. Market-based development at its best.
I’ve been back in the States for 18 months and while I’ve gained 15 pounds, been ridiculed for my mustache/beard (I caved and shaved), and lost my mediocre Gujarati skills, India has still been a very key part of my life. I have continued to work closely with Rajubhai, Keren and Bijal (09-10 Fellow) at Saath and spent November in India to work closely with our new social enterprise incubator called R3. I am going to add a few more posts to ‘findingrickshaw’ and then will be moving to a new blog: http://www.rickdesai.com where I’ll continue to blog about development in India and R3’s new program, but also about my new venture.
I love Bollywood for its business model, but am not the the biggest fan of its movies. While they are (usually) entertaining, their success is measured on box office records not on cinematographic quality. My Name Is Khan was different. It touched on an Indian-Muslim American’s plight after 9/11. Bollywood Hero Shahrukh Khan played the character of Indian-born Muslim man born with Aspergers ssyndromde. He moves to America in his twenties, where ideally, he would be afforded religious/cultural freedom. However, he is discriminated universally: by his Muslim family for dating Amiercan-born Hindus; from Hindu-American Indians for being Muslim, from non-South Asian Americans for being Muslim, and the US Govt for being a terrorist. There was some Bollywood fluff and flair, but the message was almost Crash-esque, forcing viewers to challenge and question disabling stereotypes.
One of the best parts of the past 10 months was sharing with close family and friends from home. Whether they came to visit their family, shop for weddings, travel India or to see me, it was great to give the “rick slum tour”, share Saath’s development work and just talk about America over nice dinners. Their perspectives were refreshing and I enjoyed discussing (and arguing) my new revelations about India and development.
Similarly, this blog has given me a forum to share the good, bad, beautiful and sweaty of India with friends, acquaintances and strangers. Prior to this, I felt uncomfortable putting my thoughts on paper. Surprisingly, I’ve found it both therapeutic and fun to blog, share and emote. And while I know half of my page views were from my dad (he also visited me twice), I hope that you learned something new about India and enjoyed the blog as much as I did.
I look forward to continuing it when my path crosses India’s in the future.
Thanks for visiting and thanks for reading.
This year marked the 23rd anniversary of the death of my first mom, Rita. While I didn’t get to connect with her distant family and friends in Mumbai, I did get to hear about how she lived. Whether voluntarily or prompted, my dad’s family shared many stories with me. They said that they can’t believe my dad got so lucky in marriage…twice. They told me how she preached independence to all of the younger women encouraging them to “travel and see the world”. They were in shock when my mom had no qualms in asking my dad to do household chores and baby tasks – it was the first time they saw a man changing diapers. They said her Mumbai-American Gujarati was apparently hilarious (I wonder what they think of mine…). I heard how when she saw my dad’s sister’s home she found it unacceptable and, together, they bought her a new house. And they told me about her beauty and grace, how Priti and I have her eyes, and how when Priti’s hair is curly, she looks just like her.
When I asked “mara pela mummy ne yadh che? (do you remember my first mom?)”, I always heard the same response:
“How could we ever forget her? No one could.”
When given the option of working in Ahmedabad, I almost chose against it. I thought that living near family would inhibit my freedom to learn, work and live on my own in a foreign and challenging environment. It would have been a huge mistake.
My dad still has a large family base in Ahmedabad and Gujarat. My dad’s older brother, Kirit, is our family protector. Even with modest means and at the age of 65+, he looks after all our family in India and all of our American relatives interests here with great care and without hesitation. He is methodical, incredibly patient, thoughtful and extremely loyal and kind. My dad speaks so highly of him and with so much love, and now I know why. His grandkids, Harsh (15 running) and Kanisha (9 completed)), are my best friends here. They taught me Gujarati and translated Hindi movies for me. Harsh’s curiosity and love for history is refreshing. Kanisha has a way with words and a flair that is constantly entertaining. I’ve begged their mom, Bhargavi, to let them come to the States with me. Unfortunately, she is too good of a mom, as the kids keep saying “we won’t go anywhere without her”. She has answers to all my questions and we’ve had great conversations about family and life in general. Getting to to be part of Kirit Kaka, Sushila Kaki, Parag Bhai, Bhargavi Bhabi, Harsh and Kanisha’s family rather than just a 2-week guest from America, has been without question the best part of my experience in India. I’ll forever be indebted to them.
On the same note, I also spent time with my other relatives in India. My dad’s older sister, some cousins and cousins’ kids (who are older than me?!), my dad’s cousins, etc. I saw some of Smita’s family in Baroda when she came to India. It’s incredible how much proximity affects your relationships. I felt sad that I had all this family in India who I’ve met before on short visits but never really “knew”. But I guess the best part about family is that you can alway (re)connect through the familial bond. Without the multitude of dinners I ate at relatives houses’, I would have lost at least another 10 pounds.
Ramesh Kaka, my dad’s older cousin, his brother Satish Kaka and their families are the perfect example. We always visited them when we came to India, but other than name and appearance I couldn’t tell you much about my uncle, aunt or my cousins and their families. They fed me, blackberried me, and even came to work with me. After spending time I can tell you that it’s families like Ramesh Kaka’s that gives you hope to India’s future. They treat everyone – family, employees, domestic help, friends – with dignity and respect. It’s a far cry from how you see people generally treat others here, especially minorities and those of “lower caste”.
It was amazing to see a new side of Ahmedabad, my family; and to share with them the incredible work that Saath does here.
This past Friday was my last day at Saath. Natassia and I found it difficult to leave. We visited the field staff one last time. Rajubhai took us to dinner. We bough everyone ice cream. They bought us lunch. We made a collage. And they gave us presents. I am extremely thankful to have been placed at such an incredible organization with such motivated people, work with Natassia and learn from Rajubhai.
Not sure how well I can articulate what I learned, but the below is my attempt:
1) Community Ownership. Almost all of Saath’s programs require a monetary contribution from the community. As Divyang, the MFI program manager explained, “Let’s say you are eating free food that tastes awful. You can’t complain because you didn’t pay for it”. Paying for services promotes community ownership and accountability from service providers. An invaluable result of this is that the community leadership has blurred with Saath’s program staff. The community has a say in every programming decision and in most cases is the direct implementing agent. This has achieved much more than empowerment – it has led to the community managing its own development.
2) Recognition Model. I first heard it in training and then observed it through Rajendra Joshi, the founder of Saath: “You can achieve anything as long as you don’t care about who gets the credit.” Saath has embodied this from the top-down. They are happy to give credit to partners – private sector or government or community. As a result, these partners are more likely to support Saath in the future.
3) People Professionally.
Saath Staff. I am amazed by the talent and humility of Saath’s management. With architecture, financial, social, zoology backgrounds, each brings an abundance of skill to their work. Mixing this with their passion for the organization’s mission makes Saath an incredible organization.
Community-Based Organizations. Similarly, Saath’s CBOs are just as impressive. You can’t spend five minutes with Yaqoobbhai, Madhuben, or Devuben without touching their feet out of respect or asking for their guidance.
4) People Casually. It was a pleasure walking into the office every morning. From Hemali’s hellos to Shomnaben’s delicious tea, the office environment was a perfect balance of friendly, venture, productive and fun. Everyone was very willing to help explain anything and everything. Most importantly, though, I learned about humility and respect. While I’ll always be impressed with the work and reach of Saath, I’m more appreciative of how no one takes themselves too seriously and everyone is treated equally. I am grateful to have worked and learned from people with such great commitment, diligence and intellect. And I’ll always remember how much fun coming to work at Saath was.