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Dimitra Defotis Inspired in India

Student Diary:  Students Inspired on Social Enterprise Trip to India

By Dimitra DeFotis '08

Sandwiched between the tourist traps of the Taj Mahal and the traffic tie-ups of New Delhi, there’s a farming village near Hathras that captured the hearts of traveling Columbia students in January 2008.

The Chazen Institute Social Enterprise trip was primarily a journey in search of sustainable businesses and ideas that improve the finances, health and education opportunities for poor and marginalized people. Among our corporate visits were meetings with leaders of ICICI bank, SKS Microfinance and healthcare start-ups supported by Acumen Fund. Over chai masala at the American India Foundation, we heard about healthcare and education initiatives in a country with roughly 9% GDP growth and more than 350 million people living on less than $2 per day.

The trip also was a cultural adventure. Most of us, 20 in total, had never been to India, and came back with a newfound appreciation for flatbreads and the remover of obstacles, elephant-god Ganesh. Travel books warned of India’s assault of smells and sounds. From our insulated tour bus, there was a constant kaleidoscope of never-seen things each day.

But what left a lasting impact were visits to microfinance projects that are accomplishing great things despite the caste system and government limitations. Best of all, the trip immediately resulted in a handful of marketing and development projects that will reconnect Columbia Business School students with India this year.

“We went to see how the country India is taking people out of poverty by the millions every month… and we got a sense of when, where and how fast ,” said David del Ser, who, along with student Riddhi Doshi, served as an in-country organizer. “[In Hathras] we saw small houses with goats nearby, but people were taking pictures of us with their cell phones – that shows how some industries are making fast inroads.”

The Columbia group arrived in Hathras to observe a for-profit program, e-Choupal, that conglomerate ITC developed to give isolated, poor farmers in thousands of villages better access to global crop prices. Beneficiary ITC is a big agricultural commodities exporter whose businesses include cigarettes, snacks and hotels. It gets better-quality grain and customers for its new village store, which sells fuel, fertilizer, snacks, clothing and other goods. But farmers get more money and storage for crops, more control over their livelihoods and, we observed, the chance to develop a taste for oxford shirts and large televisions.

As the tour bus pulled into town, Justin, Mica, Joe and Geddes were prepping for interviews in New York. Joanne, Andy, Adele and Hillary were still thinking about the chained, dancing monkeys we saw at a pit-stop. Paul was dreaming about his lost luggage. The rest of us– Frank, Del, Andre, Tina, Melanie, Jen, Dimitra, Katrina, David, Riddhi and Gita - were glued to the kaleidoscope view: black bulls lounging under a banyan tree on one side, people dying goods in a field of fluorescent magenta paint on the other.

We made our way to the home where ITC provides a computer for price dissemination. Horse drawn carts rolled past. Women walked to their front gates, pulling their saris over their heads, as a band of laughing kids began to gather, following us to the e-Choupal destination.

We had our cameras ready, but so did the rest of Hathras. Promise and poverty, cell phones and bare feet – Hathras was a place that stayed with us.

Optimism pervaded conversations in new ways for marketing professor and India native Gita Johar, who accompanied the Chazen trip throughout India. She encouraged students to think about the juxtaposition of India’s jump into capitalism since the 1990s with the daily life in communities with cooperative models.

Students also got a little one-on-one time with Columbia Business School Professors Bruce Greenwald and Geoff Heal in Mumbai, where they were speakers at a CBS conference on corporate social responsibility.

“Each day was a new adventure that widened my understanding of India and it’s unique and enduring culture,” said Mica Odom, a first-year student. “There is such ancient beauty and a certain vitality that lingers around every corner … even those of the most destitute. I hope to utilize this knowledge to make both professional and personal decisions that influence positive change.”

Another place that left lasting impressions was Dharavi, billed as Asia’s largest slum.

Dharavi is teeming with people and many don’t have indoor plumbing. But it endures as a sophisticated host for enterprises from tanneries to pottery concerns and recycling companies.

A more-advanced Mumbai has crept up to Dharavi’s borders. Developers and the government, which owns much of the land, are itching to build high rise offices and condos. Some one-time squatters now own property too. We heard from resident leaders and Indian NGO SPARC (the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers), who are fighting for land rights and labor solutions as construction displaces residents.

During a walking tour through Dharavi’s narrow streets, the poor air quality was exhausting. At one stop, workers described life at a pottery concern as dense, black swirls of soot spewed from large earthen kilns. Barefoot children and their mothers emerged from homes several feet away to listen in.

Here’s how one student-traveler, Joe Chmielewski summed things up: “What will leave the most lasting impression is the vast disparity between those segments of society that are rapidly developing and the millions of people that are living on such limited means. The idea that one can travel in less than fifteen minutes from Dharavi … to a shopping mall that could easily pass in any Western country is hard to wrap one’s mind around.”

Hathras and Dharavi were doses of one reality. On other days, the group donned suits and pressed shirts for another reality in gleaming-glass office parks. At India’s fast-growing banking giant ICICI, we heard about funds set up to support rural artisans and entrepreneurs. At Suzlon Energy, a wind-energy concern, the message was about solutions to India’s routine blackouts, which we experienced during a question-and-answer session with the head of ITC’s International Business Division in Hyderabad.

We also met with the chief executive of Fabindia, a traditional-clothing chain targeting the growing middle class. Fabric and labor come from a network of artisans who get the financing and skills to participate in the for-profit enterprise. Then, we shopped, heeding fabric label warnings: “Cotton/Made in India. Red/Indigo Tend to Rub.”

Student organizer Riddhi Doshi, who shared some her favorite things with fellow travelers, including Indian-style ice cream and a thali lunch, got the chance to reconnect with her Indian roots. She sees immense opportunities for MBAs in India.

“Some of us came out looking hopeful. Some people came out thinking India is in a lot of trouble,” Doshi said. “There is a divide. The poor are improving, but incrementally compared to the rich. Is the divide greater? ”

Group at the Taj Mahal, Agra.


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