Saying goodbye

I can’t believe that 4 weeks and a day have passed since I left home for Chennai. In some ways, the time has gone slowly. I miss my husband, dog, family, friends and colleagues very much. You don’t realize how hard it is to not be able to just pick up the phone and call someone until you are dealing with a 9.5 hour time difference (or 12.5 to my friends on the West Coast). I’m definitely ready to be home and enjoy all of the usual comforts. Wouldn’t be surprised if my husband greets me with a giant diet coke full of ice. I haven’t had a truly cold drink in too long.

It will also be nice to not have to second guess everything I do. Brushing your teeth with bottled water sounds easy in theory, but I can’t count how many times I would remember that for the beginning of the process; halfway through when I’d normally rinse my toothbrush and then scrub some more, I’d forget and use tap water. Or I would forget to keep my lips pressed firmly together in the shower and get water in my mouth followed by lots of spitting. It’s amazing that I never got sick. More than half of our team ended up ill by the end of this journey – my paranoia paid off but I am ready to not second guess my routine each day.

On the other hand, it sort of feels like I just arrived. The time with our customer and colleagues seemed too short. You invest four weeks building strong working relationships, and then say goodbye. What are the chances that I will ever see most of these people again? That is hard. I loved the Villgro people. I loved the kids at the orphanage and the senior citizens at the nursing home. I loved my teammates. Most places we’ve gone, we’ve been treated with kindness (and tons of curiosity – but I won’t miss the stares). It is much harder than I expected it to be to say goodbye and walk away. It takes me so long to feel comfortable enough around people to be myself, I feel like I just got to know them. Like really know them. I’ve spent every day of the past four weeks with Hollie (the Australian), even on weekends. It will be strange not to share ideas and stories with her. I will miss Heera from Villgro. She is amazingly beautiful inside and out. So many wonderful people and experiences in the last four weeks, there isn’t enough blog space to list everything.

When I signed up for this program, it was with one simple goal: to give back. It didn’t occur to me how much I might grow and learn. Well, that’s not totally true. I knew I’d be exposed to many new things and was afraid of some of the emotional impact, but I thought the impact would be temporary. Will I ever be able to not think of the global impacts we all can make? Will I start again to take for granted that I never have to worry about safe water, plenty of food, shelter, and all of the basic necessities? Will I remember seeing such pride and joy from people in circumstances that are beyond comprehension to most of us in America? Will I stop thinking of social impact as writing a check and instead share my time? I honestly don’t know. I hope this awareness and compassion lasts. I hope to learn to be more open to people and experiences. It’s a journey; can’t expect to see a complete change overnight. But my horizons have definitely been expanded and I’d be incredibly disappointed in myself if I didn’t change as a result.

Tomorrow, the long journey home begins. I fly from Chennai to Delhi to Paris to Cincinnati. With flight time and layovers, it will take 31 hours. Add in drive time to and from airport, it will be closer to 36 hours. Not looking forward to that, but knowing that Brian will be standing in the airport waiting for me makes it easier to stomach.

Thank you to those who read my scattered thoughts and shared yours in return. I’m blessed with amazing family and friends. Much love to you all!!!




Women are the face of change in India

Yesterday I had the opportunity yesterday to lead a change management / project management workshop for 3 brilliant women from Villgro. It was a great idea suggested by the Australian on our team. She recognized that we could only have so much of an impact in four weeks, but if we could equip them to keep the momentum going, they have a better chance to make our recommendations a reality. We’d actually planned to just have 2 of the ladies in there, but a 3rd asked if she could join because she is passionate about helping Villgro transform. Can’t remember the last time a client asked to come to an all-day workshop for something that isn’t on their performance plan. Very nice.

Even though change management and project management are my bread and butter, this made me more nervous than when I led the Design Thinking workshop. It was going to be much more detailed, and I expected that they’d ask some very thought-provoking questions. After the intense amount of work we’d already put in, would we have the brain power left to really give good guidance? And did I mention that our party crasher (whom I adore) went to Harvard? Because that isn’t at all intimidating… Yikes. Luckily my Aussie pal is a great color commentator and contributor, and between the two of us talking and a very attentive and sharp audience, the 7 hours flew by.

So why the title for this entry? I see a major shift between the generations in India. Young women feel empowered and are willing to push for change. We covered a wide range of ages in the room: 22, 29, 31, 38, and 45. We talked about how the women in India who are my age (aka the Gen X’ers) were more complacent. They recognized the challenges in the country but didn’t have the power to do anything. However, and this is awesome, they DID raise daughters with the knowledge that they could and should be treated as equals, and that they would be the pioneers of change. We also discussed the difference between generations in general, and how their leadership doesn’t communicate with them the way that most employees would like, because they are from my generation. We’re not as big on feedback as millennials are. They started to think about how they should approach change and projects in a way that the older workers would relate better to, while still giving them the opportunities that millenials crave. As we discussed how corporations run, these ladies were immediately noticing the gaps in how they currently work, and we collaborated to come up with some ideas to make change happen. They took to the concepts of project management and change management incredibly well.

They face a difficult road ahead. Big business in India is still dominated by men. I have no doubt that these ladies have the skills to one day lead a major corporation, but it will be even harder for them than it is for American women (and we think we have a glass ceiling? theirs is lead). Because men are still seen as the breadwinner, you see more women in NGOs where the pay is less but their passion for contributing to the betterment of the country is fulfilled. That means that women are really the ones on the front line of battling poverty, abuse, child labor, health care gaps, etc. They are the face of India’s future.

Woman power! Go Heera, Chaarvi, and Kavita!!!

The importance of education in India

Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard some concerning statistics about literacy and languages in India. Not sure how true they are, but if even it is only partially right, I can see why India is trapped in the poverty cycle.

India has the largest population of illiterate people in the world. The average literacy rate is 74%. For the rest of the world, it is 84%. They have come an incredibly long was since the British gave up rule in the 1940’s, but when you consider the population, that means they have roughly 300 million citizens who can’t read or write. Studies estimate that it will take until 2060 for India to catch up to the rest of the world. Even worse is the difference between men and women for literacy. Men have an average literacy rate of 82%, while women have an average literacy rate of 64%. That severely limits the capability of women to generate income in non-rural areas. Their main opportunities are in farming and labor. In the hotels, the only female employees I’ve seen are hostesses or at the front desk. All of housekeeping and restaurant servers are male. Even the person who does our laundry is a male.

Only 10% of Indians speak English. It hasn’t been apparent to us as we’ve worked here that the number is that low, likely because 10% of India equals 120 million people. Many of them work in hospitality, retail, and tourism, so we have been fortunate. Why does it matter? English is the world language for business. If you want to build business, that means doing business with America and Europe, all of whom use English as a primary or secondary business language. Think of how many fair trade eCommerce sites have appeared over the last few years. They are all in English. The number of English speakers has risen quite a bit over the past few years as the US moved so many of our call centers to India. It is even encouraged as part of children’s education now. However, does that mean they are writing off the older generations? I’ve noticed many schools advertising that they include English in their curriculum. I haven’t seen any advertisements for adult education.

I mentioned in an earlier post that India has 20+ official languages recognized by the government, and more than 2,000 dialects. I’ve asked a few people if they are able to communicate well with each other. They said that with the different languages, they can’t; when it is a different dialect, they can communicate verbally to a certain degree but not through writing. So now you have 1.2 billion people who can’t even communicate with each other effectively. How clueless am I that I thought everyone in India spoke Hindi? Then I end up in Chennai where the language is Tamil. The font looks nothing alike. Tamil is much prettier with lots of rounded letters – not that I have a clue what they mean. Tamil is one of the oldest languages in the world, yet with only 8 million speakers in India out of 1.2 billion people, how much can the Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry residents communicate with the rest of India when they have no common language?

A smaller yet also impactful issue is that they are not taught how to invest in themselves. Our guide said that when an Indian comes into money, no matter how small, they immediately go purchase gold trinkets with it. It makes them proud to display gold baubles around their homes. They do not think to spend the money to build a business or further their education or even invest in anything. They want to put the gold on display. Believe me, I’m a fan of gold. My mom thinks my jewelry cabinet is obscene. But it does nothing to improve the poor’s situation (or mine, darn it). It doesn’t put food on the table, it doesn’t educate their children or themselves, and it doesn’t reduce their poverty cycle when all they do is look at it on a wall. How many opportunities are lost simply because they don’t know any better? Because they do what their parents did or their friends do and don’t know how to look forward?

It’s easy for me to sit in my American “land of opportunity” tower and criticize; I don’t mean it that way at all. It just saddens me to think that so much of the population is restricted from opportunity based on their ability to communicate and plan for self-sustainment, I’d love to see more focus on improving literacy and English-competency. Funny enough, all of the TV shows that are in English as also captioned in English. Maybe that is one small way India is trying to teach written English to their citizens? Then again, they’d have to know spoken English well enough to watch it  and match up the written word with the spoken word. And since Two and a Half Men is on like 20 times a day, not sure I want them watching it because who knows what they must think of American morals… 😉

SAP: it’s everywhere

I love working for a company that no matter where I am in the world, people recognize the name. When we were in Delhi last weekend, we passed a building with the SAP logo on the side. It was the headquarters of one of our partners; apparently they are as proud of their association with SAP as I am to work there. First time I’ve seen a partner include our logo and “Authorized Partner” on the side of the building. Made me smile.

Our customer also knows the company well. He said that when he was offered the chance to have free consulting from SAP, he was thrilled. He figures we work with the biggest and best organizations in the world, and would be able to help them streamline their processes to run better, as our motto states. Of the many people we interviewed during the effort, only 1 or 2 hadn’t heard of our company. One even said that SAP is so well-respected in India, everyone wants to work there. That’s awesome to hear.

Today during lunch at the hotel, our server mentioned that he didn’t realize we work for SAP (except he pronounced it sap instead of s-a-p; I tried not to cringe). Turns out the hotel we’ve been living in for the past 3.5 weeks runs SAP. Crazy, right? I wasn’t sure he knew what he was talking about, but then he started talking about how much easier it is to close the books each month, and even the bartender can see his current and consumed inventory every day. He said that it was hard it first because they were a little overwhelmed during training, but they have all grown to really like it. Who would have thought that eating at the lunch buffet, I’d find out that the guy who brings us naan and water every day is an SAP fan! Then he mentioned that another server’s son works for a consulting firm doing SAP work and how proud his dad is because it gives his son a good future.

My real-world job is so much easier than if I were a freelance consultant, because working directly for SAP gives me immediate credibility in most companies. I may not always deserve it, but it is a benefit I appreciate. I just didn’t think that while I was halfway around the world volunteering with NGOs, that name would carry as much if not more weight. Most of the Villgro team members have educations that make mine look pretty paltry, yet they are happy to listen to me because of where I am employed. Then they see what a goofball I am and are less impressed. 🙂

The first read-out

Our team performed the first read-out today with the customer. We reviewed the results of our engagement and provided our suggestions for improvement. These kinds of things can go a few different ways. As part of my regular job, I often perform assessments for customers looking to either evaluate current performance, or get to the bottom of user adoption issues. Some customers are very open to the feedback and recommendations, while others get defensive and make excuses. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this first read-out. Would they be as open to the results as they were to sharing their experiences with us? Think about it: this is a small organization with only 23 employees, with a founder who is still CEO. What if they took our comments as not only calling the baby ugly, but also having bad breath and a terrible personality? Strange analogy – couldn’t think of anything better on little sleep.

One of the benefits of having such a small organization is that most of what we shared was not news to them. They may not have realized the depth of some of the concerns, or how widespread the perceptions ran. However, there were no moments of great surprise. I do feel that they took the results well. There was a lot of silence on the phone line (most of the customer team was in Bangalore) but at least in the Chennai office, we could see a lot of head nodding, and it wasn’t because they were falling asleep. It was great to be able to honestly say that we were impressed with the talent and commitment of their team members. All of the issues we identified are around process or fine-tuning that can be fixed with some organizational diligence. They have brilliant people employed at Villgro and work with top talent outside of the organization as mentors for incubatees. That leads the company to not put too many rules in place; they don’t want to insult or constrain them. Unfortunately, that leads to confusion and lack of process adherence. People don’t know what they are being measured on and what is expected of them. Processes actually help people perform better and feel co rodent in their success.

Very glad to have that part behind us! Now we shift into some additional workshops for some of the Villgro staff. Tomorrow the German is leading one on how to create a good reporting dashboard, and Wednesday I will lead two: one on project management, and one on change management. I was really excited that one of the portfolio managers asked if she could join the change management one because she wants to help them improve their ability to change. So Wednesday will be a long day, but Thursday will be fairly low key. Friday is the large presentation for all of the teams and non-profits. Some of SAP leadership is flying in for it. No pressure. 😉



The amazing Taj Mahal

Wow. I can’t believe I almost missed this gorgeous place. Agra is pretty far from Chennai; it took a 2.5 hour flight and a 3 hour car ride to get here. Knowing how much I just adore flying, it didn’t really sound ideal.

I had decided before coming to India that I didn’t want to go through the hassle just to see an old building. Then I started to wonder: would I regret not seeing it? Would I ever really have the chance again?? I started asking some of my teammates to see if anyone else was interested. A few people were on the fence, while others thought it was too far of a flight. They would hate my weekly work commute for sure if 2.5 hours on a plane is too much. Luckily Hollie agreed pretty quickly to join me, then Rainbow did too. Peter and Eva decided to come along too, but wanted to take the train and do their own tour instead of a structured one.

The drive here was an adventure. We finally saw the countryside. The tiny huts that people live in are unimaginable. Men and women work in the fields side by side. You see buffalo all over the place, and some camels for work. There are also tons of monkeys in Agra. Wonder if I could sneak one home?

Once again, we were very popular tourists. A couple on their honeymoon asked if they could take some pics with us. Another guy came up later and asked if he could take a selfie with me. We noticed quite a few people taking pics of us when they thought we weren’t looking. One boy had the camera aimed my way, so I tried to step out of the way. The camera followed me. Then his friend was trying to surreptitiously take a selfie that ended with the camera straight on me. It is hilarious. Will be strange when I’m back in the States where most people think I’m on the medium-shade side. No more weird white chick.

The Taj Mahal is even more impressive in person. I was speechless. It took 22 years to build, and when you consider the lack of machinery 400+ years ago, that is pretty amazing. The detail is exquisite. The decorative colors aren’t painted, they are semi-precious jewels embedded in the marble. All of these years later, and the colors are still luminescent. This was worth the trip to get here, and I’m including the trip from the US. We are staying at the Oberoi Amarvilas, my new favorite hotel in the world. Each room overlooks the Taj and the accommodations and service are beyond excellent. It will be hard to return to Delhi tomorrow and Chennai tomorrow night after this amazing place.

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Building our report in 3 different voice

We’ve broken every tenet of report writing by assigning different sections to different team members. Our chief stakeholder is on vacation beginning next Tuesday, so we had to move our presentation to Monday. That’s four days less than planned to develop the report and presentation – pretty fast for a company-wide review and analysis. The only area we didn’t look at was HR. Dividing and conquering was required to meet the shortened deadline, but we didn’t take into account that there might be some rough transitions from one voice to the next.

It was interesting to me that the Australian and I have very similar writing styles. A few times during review, I wasn’t certain what she had written versus what I had written. The difference wasn’t apparent until we added in the German’s sections. His style is quite different. The surprising part was that the differences came from the German. He and I are both quiet and reflective types. The Australian is vivacious, talkative, and occasionally breaks out into dance. In other words, my polar opposite (and that makes her very good for me). So what influences our writing styles? Is it because she and I are both customer-facing and we’ve both adapted our style to always communicating with customers, while the German is internally-focused working solely with SAP colleagues? Is it because we are both women and he is male? Is it because she and I are native English speakers and he is English-as-a-second language? It can’t be age, because I’m 6 years younger than he and 14 years older than she. Don’t know why, but it really intrigues me to see that the writing style isn’t aligned to personalities. Oh well. I’ll ponder it some more while reworking this blasted thing to unify the voice.

This weekend, 5 of us are going to New Delhi then Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. I’m really looking forward to it. Can’t believe I have to get on another plane, yet I didn’t think it made sense to come all the way to India and not see the most famous site in the country. We have a tour operator picking us up in Delhi to drive us to Agra, making stops along the way to visit various tourist sites. Best part is it will be a full moon, and Taj is supposed to be amazing under a full moon. I will take lots of pics and try to survive the heat. Weather forecast has the temperature at 107 degrees. Ouch. I’m basically going to melt. As much as I appreciate this experience, I’m glad that it is our last weekend here because it means I’m getting closer to going home.

So much for the diet jump start…

Ever since I found out back in December that I’d be going to India, I have looked at it as my opportunity to lose some weight. Four weeks in a country that is known for “Delhi Belly” for Westerners like myself; what could go wrong? I’m the biggest fan of bland food that you’ll ever meet. My favorite snack? Popcorn. It too often becomes a meal because you end up popping a big batch, then don’t want it to go to waste. I also love potatoes. No meal is complete in my life without meat and potatoes. Any beef has to be well done and preferably unseasoned. I am so plain, I don’t even like salt on my food. Ever had to wait 10 minutes for fries at McDonald’s so someone can have them salt-free? Now you know the pain my mom and my husband have suffered.

So really, was it a stretch to think that between the too-spicy food that I probably wouldn’t touch and the tendency for Westerners to have stomach issues in India, I might shed some pounds quickly? I brought 36 Clif bars with me to use as meal replacements. My husband was worried enough about my pending starvation (plus he is just awesome), he bought me huge bags of Skittles, Almond M&M’s, Dark Chocolate M&M’s, and Chewy Sprees. I was so ready for starvation and a little – or a lot of – sugar. What is that saying, something like, “we plan, God laughs?”

I love love love the food here. The team went for French food last night; I went down to the hotel restaurant for some murgh makhani. My biggest decision most days is whether to go with murgh (chicken) or paneer (they consider it cottage cheese, yet it is so much more delicious than American cottage cheese). Some of what we eat the others will comment on how spicy it is, but for whatever reason, Indian spices don’t bother me at all. I’m definitely a bigger fan of the Northern India cuisine than the Southern, though even a good thali works for me. The tomato sauces are amazing. The naan is the best I’ve ever had. And no one ever mentioned to me that Indians love ice cream. How could they have left that out when giving me advice for my trip? Have they met me?!?! Ice cream is pretty close to popcorn on my favorite food lists, and they make some vanilla bean in-house at one of my favorite restaurants here that is scrumptious.

To further ruin my diet plan, my stomach is just fine. No Delhi Belly here. Several of us joked before the trip how we were going to return home thin. Only 3 of the 11 have been intensely sick so far. 2-3 others have had a one-day bug. This plain food queen has been fine. Maybe it is because we are very careful about what we eat, but whatever it is, the second half of weight loss strategy 2016 is as unsuccessful as the first. Looks like I am going to be taking a lot of Clif bars back home with me. As for the sweets, well…

Check out the meal we had on banana leaves. No plates, no place mats, just food directly on the banana leaf. You sprinkle water on it and use your hands to rub the leaf clean, then pour the water on the tabletop. Very eco friendly.

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Doing some Design Thinking

We’ve been working with Villgro to identify opportunities for process improvement, and decided to conduct a Design Thinking workshop with their employees. We had a limited time and only 8 people due to much of their team being at a conference in Mumbai. It was a challenge to come up with a mini version that would give us the information we need for our report while also building a foundation for them to design better processes and systems. This could either go very well or completely tank.

The group was terrific. A number of them had experience with Design Thinking, but we started from scratch so that those who were new to it could have contribute equally. Public speaking is not something I will ever be completely comfortable with; am very grateful that they were a friendly and fun group. It got my past my nerves pretty quickly. I often joke that it is easy to tell when I’m nervous because I sound like a chipmunk on helium. My voice gets higher and higher until I fear that I might hyperventilate. Luckily with such a great audience, the chipmunk did not make an appearance. And even luckier, the a/c was working well so I didn’t melt in a pool of perspiration.

Several Villgro team members had taken a 6 AM train from Bangalore to Chennai to join us. They were such troopers! That added a little pressure; I was worried they would fall asleep if I didn’t keep it moving along quickly. Usually we begin these workshops telling the attendees to be bold. Not an issue here. I didn’t even have to say it. They dove right in and came up with great ideas. Typically we would have leadership in the session alongside the employees, but I think it worked in our favor that the leaders were in Mumbai. It really opened up the employees’ confidence and frankness. We focused on structure for an integrated system (wish they could afford SAP!), a reporting dashboard, and their mentor program.

Why I wanted to write about this: as I mentioned above, I don’t feel comfortable with public speaking. I’ll do almost anything to avoid it. It is occasionally part of my job and I find ways to survive it, yet that doesn’t mean that I get much sleep the night before an event. I tend to lay in bed thinking of all of the things that could go wrong, how dumb I could sound, how I wish I had more confidence and a better presence. So this may be one of the few times in my life that I willingly agreed to be the presenter. I’m not sure what the heck I was thinking at the moment besides that we had some conflicting feedback and gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to do some design thinking. It probably didn’t occur to me that I’d have to be the leader. When I realized it, I went over all of the possible excuses I could come up with to avoid it. I could tell my teammates that it would be good experience for them to take point and I would help them. Or I could suggest that the customer lead it. I might have even considered pretending that my stomach was acting up and I had better not try to stand for four hours. But how could I want the customer to be bold in their feedback if I couldn’t be bold too? My two teammates took point on an exercise so they could practice; that helped me feel less exposed. Bottom line is we did it and I’m so glad we did! I’m going to lead two other workshops next week with a smaller audience. Look out – this comfort zone of mine might finally expand!


Light in a dark place

Hollie, Rainbow, and I visited an orphanage and a nursing home last night. It was an awesome opportunity to correct my assumptions and allay some of my concerns.

One of my great fears in coming to India was that I’d be exposed to things I couldn’t emotionally process. And to be honest, to some degree I have been. There is poverty everywhere. The American version of poverty is nothing like the Indian version. They are less visible to us because they seem to be sequestered away from view. Out of sight, out of mind (mostly, anyway). In India, the poor are right next to the rich. I’ve seen a few elegant homes next to shanties. There will be a woman in a gorgeous silk sari standing in the street next to someone with ragged clothes, no shoes, and few teeth. It can be overwhelming. And of course the stray dogs rip out my heart. Far too many of the female dogs are producing milk, and the males aren’t neutered. That means more stray dogs in a place where fresh water is not readily available. I’ve watched dogs drinking from mud-filled puddles and hunting through the large garbage heaps for food. They don’t come close to us; they sit by the side of the road or under a car. There are far too many of them and I want to save them all but can’t. These things have been hard.

So here’s the light: the children and senior citizens we met were joyful. None of them carried a burden of poverty or lack of family. They all showed hope and happiness. The orphanage is a multi-care facility: they provide housing and schooling for children without families, and job skills and occupational therapy for the physically disabled. No “please sir, I want some more” here. I’m sure these children are all too aware of their circumstances, but they were happy. They took us on a tour of the facility and most children shook our hands and asked our name before telling us theirs. Many of the staff members are physically disabled; the operations director was a child there receiving therapy to learn to walk. The kids kept asking us to take photos with them. So much joy and hope. It was awesome.orphanage1

At the nursing home, again I was happily surprised. Both of my grandmothers were in nursing homes in the last years of their lives, and I’m haunted by some of what I saw with vacant expressions, emotional outbursts, and major illnesses. The home we visited was terrific. It was very small, with approximately 15 inhabitants. They were in pretty good shape. We met 8 of them and they were very alert and interested to learn about our home countries. They talked about the jobs they’d held before they retired, but when we tried to ask more, they wanted instead to talk about us. They all kissed us on each cheek and offered us blessings.

Funny side note of the day: while visiting the nursing home, a group of 20 or so people came to the door. They were campaigning for the upcoming Tamil Nadu elections. Well, they spotted Hollie and asked her to come outside. Then they asked me and Rainbow to come out too. Turns out they thought it was so neat to see white people, they wanted pictures of us. Pretty sure Hollie is going to end up on a campaign sign. She has a fair complexion that draws a lot of attention. Apparently with Rainbow being Chinese and me being a bit darker complected (I’ve been asked several times here if I am half Indian, and once if I’m Persian – huh??), we were less intriguing. But they kept pushing us forward in the pics too, maybe to show that they have the support of Caucasians, Asians, and whatever they think I am. One lady handed me a pamphlet but wouldn’t let go. I finally realized she was waiting for them to take the pic of her campaigning to me. It was pretty funny!! I’m finally kinda, sorta exotic!