Questions from NYU

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On September 20th I was invited to Skype in from the jungles of Machur to a class of social entrepreneurs at NYU on my experiences working for Gramothan Foundation. The class, led by Dr. Ellen McGrath is an inter-department effort by the Stern School of Business and the Wagner School of Public Service.

I’ve reproduced the questions here and put more thought into the answers

How did you get this job?

I got this job with a heartfelt cover letter.

Back in the spring of 2011 my full time offer at JPMC just didn’t sit right. Keen to impact society and business in a big way as soon as possible, corporate employment, for all its security, was incongruent with my goal.

I spent two weeks in complete system reset, shuttering myself away from the world outside my shoebox in New York. Deep diving into the foundations of existence through Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and the archetypical Hero’s Journey through Joseph Campbell’s Mythos were critical influences. I emerged resolute towards heading to India keen to learn experientially the academic and medial filtered perspective of social problems I was getting in New York. Wracking my brains to stay obedient to the inner voice, the only shot I had to accomplish this objective was an extremely long one.

Six months earlier, while visiting India, I was put in touch with Dr. Sudarshan Maini, a man I only knew as some kind of industrialist who had started his own foundation. At the time I felt disdain for old school non-profits and was expecting to encounter little more than a feel good charity. We agreed to meet in person while I was in Bangalore, but I fell terribly ill for three delirious days and rescheduled for a phone call once I was back in Delhi. Instead of a rich old man trying to jump on the bandwagon, over the course of our four-five minute call I was surprised to find a person of Dr. Maini’s age, especially in India (I had a very different perspective of the country back then), approaching social development from the cutting-edge perspective of applying industrial principles and experimentation as the basis for determining market truth. The conversation ended with an invitation to come see Gramothan Foundation’s work for myself, which I agreed to do next time I was in India, whenever I had a chance off work.

Waking up from ground zero, I spent a month crafting a cover letter applying for a nonexistent job and sent it out. The response felt like words that had been waiting for me the entire time.

How long do you plan to stay?

As expected, my assumptions about India from outside the country have evolved after seeing it for myself.

Bangalore is a flourishing city in the world’s most dynamic country. Weaving into the fabric of a nation on the cusp of greatness is phenomenal, and by the time I am Dr. Maini’s age the GDP per capita is expected to reach American levels. With so much new wealth being generated, peoples’ ambitions have opened up and to be a part of that trip is irreplaceable.

My agreement with Dr. Maini is to work with Gramothan for a year, ending in July 2012. I am extremely keen to startup my own social venture as soon as possible, but at the same time building Gramothan Foundation into a world-class organization would be a stellar launch pad. I might stay here for the rest of my life, but I really have no idea.

What are some of the difficulties you are facing?

It’s easier to start with the difficulties I’m not facing: the scenery is stunning—vistas of paddy fields striking against the lush jungle, the Kabini river nestled between Kerala and Karnataka—and the food—robust vegetarian South Indian mixed in with the occasional fish curry. I also have very stable support from Dr. Maini as a mentor, friend, and boss.

Everything else is a perpetual struggle. From trying to impose schedules on an unaccustomed village population, to navigating highly political Indian social structures, to the travails of the rustic living conditions in this jungle, to not having any friends-—all this surrounded by people I can feebly communicate with given that I don’t speak the language, Kannada. The overarching challenge is proving myself to the local staff in Machur who are all at least two decades older than me.

What do you do on a daily basis?

Three sides are education, operational, tactical.

For education I read, run, write, and study Kannada. I’m attempting to throw meditation into the mix because my mind is my worst enemy in this isolation.

Operational means things like taking the public bus over to Katikolum, a town twenty kilometers away across the border in Kerala, to purchase ten cement pipes and a hundred kilograms of cement that we will use to construct cooking stoves, renting a small truck, and transporting the goods back to Machur. Another day will involve meeting village councils to determine who the most suitable candidates for a pilot loan program are. At least once a week I walk six kilometers to Bhogapura, the most remote village within our cluster to check on the Vermi Compost pits that we are constructing there. I hand out GF tokens to villagers each worth twenty rupees for handing in ten liters of cow urine that we are going to manufacture in to insecticide—getting change for large notes is impossible here so five tokens can be redeemed for a hundred rupees in cash. I hold a weekly staff meeting. I write mini case studies on villagers who approach us for medical assistance. Ultimately I keep a running tally on all of our initiatives and step in to work with various staff members to ensure work gets completed.

Tactical means planning out the implementation of a directive from Dr. Maini and the team in Bangalore, such as devising a repayment system for micro loans, or determining the best way to procure fifty kilograms of tobacco from a random village in the neighboring county needed for insecticide, or what kind of marketing campaign will be needed to raise awareness about a new kind of cooking stove in the community. My primary concern these days is the optimal delegation of work to our staff given their varying penchants and skills. I’ve only been here three months, and as I get a better feel for the land and Dr. Maini’s vision I expect to get involved with strategic planning as well.

The Cover Letter

I’m embarrassed to share this (it’s like reading your college application essay) but feel that it will be of use to others.

Dear Dr. Maini,

I hope that life has been kind to you since we last spoke. I have spent the past few days thinking hard about our conversation, as well as the presentation and document that Shubha was kind enough to send to me. After careful consideration I am happy to say I would like to seriously consider accepting your invitation to see the work Gram Uthan does in the villages for myself—a critical gap in my education that I am eager to close.

I would like to explain to you first why this will be an important experience for me, and second why I can be extremely useful in helping you reach your objectives.

Given the triumph of capitalism and democracy over the communist experiment that defined 20th century geopolitics, my belief is that 21st century's great ideological battle will be fought over the conscience of capitalism. Now that we have a system that efficiently allocates labor and resources, we as a species must determine how we choose to wield this power. I believe that the front lines of this ideological battle have been drawn in the disconnected, disenfranchised villages that Gram Uthan works in. This is a very real war with very real casualties—farmers committing suicide, malnourishment, easily treatable diseases spreading rampantly. The elegance and power of capitalism must now be harnessed to deliver the essential products and services necessary for an individual to live a fulfilling life, free from the terror of destructive conditions that are trivial problems for the developed world.

Until the 600 million impoverished of “Bharath” are reached, and their own talents and intellects are harnessed, India can never seriously claim to have fulfilled the democracy promised by independence. India is shining, and I want to see its villages do the same.

~~

Now that you have my convictions and the reasons behind them, there is something I must seek your advice on to enable me to get involved with Gram Uthan. Allow me to give context: 1. So far, my parents have already invested a great deal in my NYU Stern business school education, and I can not ask them to support me any longer. I need to be able to sustain myself henceforth. 2. I already have a job offer from JP Morgan Chase—viewed as a great blessing by many of my peers who are struggling to find work in this difficult economy. Not only is the starting salary very comfortable, but this option brings with it a set career path where little can go wrong. 3. Although my parents view JP Morgan as a secure first step for me and a strong launch-pad for the future, I wholly disagree and am convinced that the necessary next step in my education to wards making our world more equitable will happen on the front lines and not cloistered away in the back of an office. This is my passion, the flame I want to fan, and I need your advice to make it a reality.

All I ask is to be given the opportunity to work with you and Gram Uthan, and thereby prove to you the value and worth of my character. However, to sustain and support myself under this situation, I am compelled to look for a salary package that on the minimum will allow me to take care of my travel, insurance, and living expenses keeping in mind the cost structures of a city like Bangalore.

That being said, I can assure you with the utmost confidence that your money will not be wasted. I have a skill set that will prove extremely useful to you the work you want to do. In the presentation you delivered to IIS in Bangalore in 2008, you said that: “Involved Awareness of Rural Development at an accelerated pace is a major challenge. We have to find ways and means to achieve it. It may be worthwhile to put the best brains of India in PR to undertake this assignment.”

With all humility, I think I am one of those brains. I have earned accolades from my peers, professors, and major American multinational companies—-such as PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Delloite Consulting and JP Morgan Chase—-for my ability to simplify complicated information and disseminate it persuasively. I have even won consulting case competitions, and been invited to present at a US State Department celebration of relations with China while I was in Shanghai. I have also served two years in the Singapore Armed Forces as part of my National Service obligation where I was selected for Officer Cadet School (OCS) and was commissioned as an Officer (Infantry), eventually being promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. I have attached my CV for your reference.

I have already begun broadcasting my writings on the importance of social enterprise at http://www.abeerdesai.com which so impressed one of my readers that they now pay me to syndicate my content to a multi-million readership at the California based http://www.care2.com information portal. I do want to immerse myself at the grass-roots levels. But then I will use persuasive writing and speaking, deft visual presentations, a strong ability to network, and my comfort with the latest social media tools such as Twitter and blogging to publicize the problem and the work you are doing to develop scalable solutions. I believe my efforts will result in a greater interest amongst the Indian public for the Bharath that has been left behind, inspire a reevaluation of the average urban Indian's values, and thereby spur greater action.

In addition, my deep network within social enterprise in New York and on the internet means that Gramothan's impact and the lessons learned through careful business experimentation can be shared with the world. If this will be useful to you, I am also willing and able to spend time between India and New York to raise global awareness and funds from corporate CSR contributors by persuading them to see the same value in Gram Uthan that I do.

~~

I do apologize for subjecting you to this long letter. However, I hope that it has conveyed to you some sense of my passion and sincerity, and the defining cross-road I find myself at. I am a young man with drive, intelligence, and a love for India. I will accept nothing less for modern capitalism than the complete unleashing of the positive impact I know it can have on not just a privileged few, but all of humanity. It would be an privilege to embark upon this journey under you.

I anxiously await your response and thoughts on the next steps. I am happy to go through a formal interview process with you, your extended Board or any organization that you feel will help further this cause.

With warm wishes for your best health,

Abeer Desai