Meeting the first start-up

Today we spent time with two groups: the incubation portfolio team from Villgro, and from a start-up that hopes to one day qualify for Villgro funding. CodeWhite is an organization that is focused on promoting health among India’s youth. They have a great business model that could impact millions of lives.

Currently, India has a youth population (between ages of 0-24) of 250 million people. Education and health care vary drastically between urban and rural areas, and too often the children are not informed about healthy living until it is too late to correct. 1 in 3 youths suffer from a form of depression. Many turn to alcohol: in a very short span of years, the average age for alcohol abuse such as binge drinking dropped from the late 20’s to 12-13 years old. They also start smoking at young ages, because it is what they see their families doing. Side note: it is very interesting to me that every time someone on tv is shown smoking, a caption appears during the whole scene reminding viewers of the dangers of smoking.

CodeWhite has run pilots in two schools and is now working alongside Villgro to begin building out a sustainable model. They need to be able to show how many lives they could touch, the revenue potential, and what differentiates them from other initiatives. They are using gamification to engage the youth, with the opportunity to use points to purchase healthy-living items, like gym shoes or exercise gear. All rewards are geared towards improvement of health. The pilots showed great success. Now the challenge is to design a program that can be replicated not only in India, but in other countries where youth are not aware of the impact of the health decisions they do (or don’t) make.

Tomorrow or early next week, we will meet with the founder of Villgro. I’m eager to hear his ideas and vision. It’s not often I get to meet face-to-face with innovators like this. The UK government is so impressed with what Villgro is doing, they are allocating funds to them for new incubation programs.

Holy Toledo, it is hot

You know it is hot when the locals are complaining. Two days ago, they didn’t bat an eye at 95 degrees. Today, I’ve had three locals comment on the excessive heat. It is 99 degrees and humid, with a heat index of 111. Yet what idiots decided to walk half a mile to lunch? Yup, these idiots. One of my teammates was so drained from it, he fell asleep when he went to his room to type up some notes. It is definitely overwhelming. Makes summer in Florida almost tolerable by comparison.

Even worse than the heat, apparently a sewage pipe burst nearby. When we walked to lunch, we were passing raw sewage in the streets. It was hard not to gag. We returned to the hotel and decided to check out the spa/fitness area (ok, my colleague was checking out the fitness room while I checked out the spa) in the basement of the hotel. First we noticed it was deserted, then a few steps in, we were hit with the smell. Apparently the sewage problem is impacting the hotel, luckily just in the basement so far. We quickly fled back upstairs. See, I knew exercise was bad for me!

I don’t know if I’ve ever visited a collectively friendlier country. Australia was close; India might top them.  Everyone goes out of their way to please us. It felt like a parade in my room last night: first housekeeping stopped by to see if I was happy (that was literally what he asked), then the laundry service came by and he offered to press all of my clothes for free even if I didn’t have them washed and wanted to let me know his work schedule for the week, and finally I had three workers in my bathroom to see if the cold water was working. They called to say that some maintenance work had damaged pipes and a few rooms were without hot water, could they check mine? I didn’t expect it to result in 3 visitors for 10 minutes to see that yes, the cold water was broken. I told them it was no big deal, I’d rather have that happen than the a/c go on the fritz. They felt so bad, I couldn’t get them to leave. They finally got it fixed mid-day today. Whew! Here is hoping for continued cold water (aka non-scalding showers), reduced sewage smells, and fewer visitors tonight, no matter how kind they are… 🙂



Grateful for a warm welcome

Today was our first day in the Villgro office. I admit to being a bit nervous. Guns (nickname of the Villgro president, PR Ganapathy) and Heera were so open and friendly with us yesterday at the workshop, I was expecting a let-down in the office with people who didn’t want to talk to outsiders. I mean, think about it. Our role is kind of to look at what they are doing as a business and tell them how to do it better. I’ve dealt with some defensive customers in the US before in similar situations. How would Villgro team members respond to a group of outsiders who have never worked with incubators, even worse, a group of foreigners? 

Once again, I was worried for nothing (story of my life). We met several members of the team, all of whom went out of their way to make us feel welcome. They spent a lot of time with us, answered all of our many questions, and patiently taught us how social enterprise incubation works. It isn’t just handing out money to people with an idea. They invest an incredible amount of time screening applicants, making sure that the funds that have been entrusted to them are wisely invested. They guide the potential incubatee through the idea phase into prototyping if needed. There is a lot of due diligence involved, with only 1-2% of applicants making it to the incubation phase. And Villgro’s time investment doesn’t end there. They provide business expertise to these start-ups to make sure that the enterprise has a better chance of success. They don’t want to hand funds over and hope for the best. They desire to make every accepted organization a success. There are processes for grants and equities and things I hear on the business news channels but never understood until now. See, growth already! 

We worked with Kativa, who leads the Education line of business. I was wrong about their focus being solely on rural social enterprise. Villgro started with rural organizations, and have expanded into urban social enterprise. The Education projects are specifically targeted for urban youth. As a former teacher, it was very easy for me to get excited about the inroads they are making. Kativa is brilliant, holding a master’s in education from Harvard. That is the type of people they employ: forward thinkers from top schools and companies. It makes it even more impressive that they are willing and even wanting to listen to us!

Several of the employees were worried about what we would eat for lunch. They said that the dining area downstairs would probably make us sick, so they wanted to order out for us. When they food arrived, they hurried and set it out in the conference room before we even knew the food had arrived. They even had fancy plates and real silverware for us. It was very cute when one lady came in and set aside two of the dishes, saying they were uncooked and might upset our Western stomachs. We were all too happy to take their advice. 

Tomorrow, we get to attend a proposal review meeting in the morning and then watch Kativa speak at a conference in the afternoon. Can’t wait! 

Meeting our “customers”

Today, several representatives from each of our customer projects joined us in a workshop. It was inspiring to meet such incredible people who see the opportunity to make India a better place and act on it.

Arunodhaya was the first organization to present. Virgil is a woman who, in 1992, dedicated her life to reducing child slavery and labor. Her stories are a mix of heartbreaking and encouraging. Can you imagine someone in this day and age saying that child labor is just a fact of life? That comment was made to her recently by someone questioning her work. Unreal. She and her organization work closely with slums to ensure that children are given the chance to be children, to play and to learn, be safe from sexual and physical abuse, and not be forced into labor. They have met with such success that if someone in one of the 100+ slums sees a child being taken out of school or treated inappropriately, they contact the center to intervene. Virgil is passionate and strong, and her mission to save children is a great success. They are guaranteeing the future of India through their work with the youth.

The next presenter was Srini from Hand in Hand. This is a massive organization that started in 2002, initially focused also on the reduction of child labor, now expanding into many areas of empowerment. One of their great areas of success is with self-help groups for women. This isn’t what an American thinks of with self-help (I sort of pictured them sitting around reading Dr. Phil books). It is women sharing resources and building financial opportunities to support their families. They are provided with education, business support, and care to move them from below the poverty line via B2B opportunities. The goal of the overall program is to provide 5 million jobs by 2020. Think about that: the organization will be only 18 years old at that time, yet having that kind of impact. Wow.

The third organization is the one I will work with, Villgro. This group was started in 2001 to match social entrepreneurs with funding opportunities. Each funding recipient must be focused on building business to improve health care, reduce poverty, or increase education in rural areas. For example, one of their recipients had a plan for how to better test for anemia in pregnant women. Anemia affects 60% of Indian women, and rural women are particularly at risk for childbirth complications, including death, due to undiagnosed anemia. These rural women can’t afford to take a full day to travel to a larger city where their blood can be tested, and they strongly fear contracting diseases from needles, so they tend to ignore the risk. The Villgro organzation funded and advised a start-up in developing an ocular scanner that has 98% accuracy for measuring anemia, and it means the ladies can be tested right in their village. Another recipient was for a stovetop manufacturer for rural cooking that reduces the consumption of firewood by 50%. This not only cut firewood costs and pollution in half, it also greatly reduces the chance of lung disease for the restaurant cooks. Villgro supports many start-ups like this not just with funds, but also with mentorship and business expertise. It is an honor to work with Guns, Heera, and the rest of their team of innovators.

The final project is Bhumi. This is a very new volunteer organization, founded in 2006 by Dr. Prahalathan KK. He wanted to start an initiative for young people in India to volunteer within their communities. They have grown into one of the largest youth volunteer groups in all of India. The average age of their volunteer is 22-23 years old. That made me feel so old! At that age, my priorities were less inspiring to say the least. Their focus is on educational opportunities for underprivileged or orphaned children, and on improving the environment. For the children, the program is supplemental to their daily school work, focused on keeping them in school and making it to college or finding careers that help them escape poverty. For the environment, the volunteers participate in activities such as planting trees, sweeping parks, cleaning beaches, etc. All volunteers are under the age of 30. The program builds civic pride in a young generation.

A commonality among the leaders who spoke is humility. These are individuals who are positively affecting the lives of literally millions of people, yet they take no personal credit. They are proud of their teams and the overall achievements, and seek no personal praise for all that has been accomplished. I am humbled to be around these people. I can’t wait to learn and share more!

Sensory overload

One of my colleagues in the US is originally from Chennai. When I asked him what to expect, he responded, “sensory overload.” Thank you for the tip, Sumith; you were spot on!

I was raised in a very small town. Well, it is a village really, with a current population around 4,200. That represents a good growth spurt from when I lived there. We had tons of space, and lots of peace and quiet. Sure we had the lovely manure odor coming from the fields during certain times of year, or my favorite smell of when they burn off the silos. Those are the only sensory memories I have from childhood. 

India is the loudest, brightest, stickiest, most fragrant place I’ve ever visited. The cars, scooters, and rickshaws honk non-stop. I’ve been in my room for an hour tonight, and the longest span I’ve heard without horns is roughly 15 seconds. It is a complete assault on the ears that makes NYC sound like Montana. The thing is it isn’t angry honking. They tend to drive 5-6 autos wide on a 3-lane road, so the honking is more of a “hi, I am here, do you see me? can you let me by?” It is madness. Even crazier is the fact that both meals today were at spots down the road a ways, and required us to cross a road where the stoplight is for decoration only. Our guide just waves a hand and steps out into the road. We had the bright idea of sending our tallest guy out first each time, then the rest of us hurry behind him like ducklings. We must look hilarious. I even noticed a homeless person laughing at the sight of us. It is insane and fun. 

The colors are amazing and stunning. I would like to pull the men here aside and tell them to try harder, because the women are a vision and the men are kind of blah. The saris and salwar kameez are every color under the rainbow, adorned with gold and white trim. The vast majority of women here are dressed this way. The men are mostly in jeans or mundus, with t-shirts or golf shirts. They need to up their game to match these gorgeous women. We stare in awe at all of the colors. 

The humidity is overwhelming and unavoidable. If anyone wants to argue that dry heat is no better than humid heat, visit India. You will change your mind. The ladies laugh that our hair is uncontrollable and we all feel the need to shower after 5 minutes outdoors. The team has accepted that we are all in this together so no shame in sweating profusely or having hair that is 3 inches higher and wider than usual. Plus, who notices the sweat when we are all desperately trying to avoid becoming roadkill? 

The smells vary from sweet to spicy to what can only be explained as a rest stop toilet. The flowers are beautiful and fragrant, and many women wear them in their hair. I was greeted at the airport with a jasmine lei that wilted too soon. It was lovely. Luckily I like Indian food very much, though my taste in cuisine is more in line with Northern India. Doesn’t matter. There are delicious smells coming out of every restaurant and street cart. I’m getting hungry just typing about it. The non-pleasant smells are as unavoidable as the humidity, but I find that very quickly you pass to somewhere that smells like cooking spices or flowers. One guidebook I read suggested carrying a handkerchief dipped in peppermint oil to avoid the smells. Since I am not from 1800’s Victorian England and am in danger of fainting from unpleasant odors, I’m focusing on the great smells instead. Wouldn’t want to miss those!

Time to go find some ear plugs as the honking continues. Good night!

The kindness of a stranger

You know how some people have tons of luck when it comes to travel, being upgraded from middle seats at the back of the plane to first class, or the hotel runs out of single rooms and substitutes a large suit for them? Yeah, I am not that person. This one is going to be a novel. Feel free to skip.

It started Wednesday when Delta called to tell me that my connecting flight from Mumbai to Chennai had been cancelled. They booked me on a later flight out of Mumbai. I was concerned because we have been cautioned not to go out alone, and I’d be arriving at 11:30 PM with 8 hours to kill. Luckily I found a hotel right inside the Mumbai airport and booked a room. I was glad to have gotten my travel issue solved. Not so fast…

The flight from Cincinnati was delayed thanks to severe thunderstorms that knocked out power for a few minutes at the airport. They couldn’t pull the plane to the gate to disembark, so our boarding was delayed. Twice. When we arrived in Paris, I asked a guide where to connect to K gates. He sent me to a security section that covered pretty much every other gate than K. It would have been awesome if I’d figured that out before clearing security and asking another guard how to get to K. Had to leave that section, take a bus, and go through security again. Hurried up to gate right as they were boarding. 

Arrival in Mumbai only got worse. The flight attendant left me the wrong form while I dozed: the one for residents. So the man at immigration had me step aside to fill the right form out, then wait until he was open again to submit. Not so bad, only 5 minutes… Luggage came out (yay) and I proceeded to check it back in after customs. This is when it really got bad. The new airline that Delta booked me on said I had no reservation. I showed them the confirmation code, and that my  luggage tags even showed me checked through to Chennai. He said I would have to go to Air France. I stepped aside to call Delta, who said everything was correct the system, and they could even see that Jet Airways had control of my reservation. I talked to the man again, to no avail. Dejectedly I walked to my in-terminal hotel and called the Jet Airways service center. Spoke with several people all of whom said they couldn’t help. By this point, Air France had closed down for the night. 

Decided to settle into my room and get a few hours sleep then head to the airport ticket area first thing in the morning. I was looking for the bag with my allergy medication when I realized my backpack was missing. !!! I hurried out to the front of the hotel and asked if they had seen it. They said I didn’t have it with me when I checked in. So here is where kindness starts to come into play. The front desk clerk said he would take back to the connecting flight area and see if it was there. They wouldn’t let me in because they said I didn’t have a ticket. The hotel clerk took my ID back to the center and found my bag. They wouldn’t let him have it because it wasn’t his. He finally persuaded a guard to let me through and collect the bag. They even made me open the combination lock in front of them to prove it was mine. Whew! Crisis averted!!

I managed to get two hours of sleep and then checked out of the hotel. That same front desk clerk was waiting for me. He said he wanted to make sure I could get on the plane. First we went back to the connecting gate area. They still argued that I wasn’t booked on the flight. He argued back, and made them call Air France. That led to another long conversation. Finally Jet Airways agreed that I did have a reservation, but they could not check me in without further paperwork. Then the front desk clerk took me all the way up to the ticketing area where we met a Jet Airways rep. Again more arguing. They gave me a document that allowed me in the airport to check in. However, they claimed I was a domestic passenger and wouldn’t let me check two bags. And the weight allowance was much lower than for international. The check-in agent made me move things from on bag to another, then charged me $100. My new buddy stayed with me through it all, arguing with them about the fee and if I should be considered international or domestic. He escorted me to another area to pay the fee, and back to check in to finally, 90 minutes since this began, get my ticket. He even took me to security, gave me his card and told me to call if anything else happened. 

So this blog entry reads like a book of travel woes and complaints, but to me, it is the story of how one amazing guy named Rohan went far, far out of his way to help a stranger. I was having such a travel nightmare, yet I was ok. I had Rohan. Can tell you without a single doubt that without him, I wouldn’t be tucked into my hotel in Chennai, ready to catch up on some sleep. I told him several times that I would be able to figure it out, yet he wouldn’t leave me. I even gave him a nice tip, knowing his work shift had ended. Still he stayed.

I wonder how often we have the opportunity to be a Rohan and instead act like all of the other employees I encountered. When someone asks us for directions, and we point instead of help. When a quick answer to a problem like mine can’t be found, we wish the person luck and walk away. You could argue that this was all part of his job, but I’d argue back that running around an airport for 60 minutes at 1 AM and another 90 minutes at 5 AM for one guest is not at all in his job description. He saw someone who needed help and generously gave it. What a gift to me! Truly. I will always remember that my first real contact in India was such a kind, generous person. And the next time someone asks me for directions or help, I hope to pay it forward. 

Feeling grateful

Well, it is finally time. I’m flying out shortly; the journey has officially begun. It’s been a long road to get here (sorry for the bad travel analogies) and part of me still doesn’t believe it is real. You know how you plan something for so long, you almost feel distant from it? That’s where I am.

One thing I am not numb to is the gratitude I feel to the people who have made this possible. It really took a large number of folks to get me here. Without them, this opportunity doesn’t exist.

First and foremost, my husband Brian… I was talking to a colleague last week who was being teased that he’d better not go on sabbatical. He said his wife would kill him. I know he was joking, but it reminded me that Brian was on board from the first mention of this program. I read him the invitation to apply and asked what he thought. He said he’d miss me a ton but I’d regret it forever if I didn’t try. Every day since, he has been supportive even when I know he’d rather have me tucked away safe and sound at home. I need to remember not to take that for granted.

Next, huge thanks to my VP and SVP… Kerry Brown and Greg Schroeder were incredibly encouraging. I asked if they had heard of the program, so they asked around to learn more and see if it would be something worth pursuing. They didn’t say I could apply. They said I should apply. I don’t know a lot of leaders who would happily give up a month of an employee’s time to allow them to do this kind of program. Neither of them doubted that I’d be selected. They had much more confidence than I did. They were and are amazing.

My teammates who are taking on a tremendous amount of work so I can leave for a month… Claudia Faerber, Traci Maddox, and Blake Hill are the most selfless, supportive colleagues and friends that one could hope for every day, and even more so now. They don’t complain; they encourage. Without them, I wouldn’t feel as comfortable leaving my worklife behind. And my new boss Mike Foley – he took on our team after this was all determined and even though we are all stretched thin, he never asked me to not go on this sabbatical. I asked him about it; he said he thinks I have earned this opportunity and he strongly supports my chance to grow and learn. It’s another sacrifice among many.

So many friends and family have been part of this journey and demonstrated how much they care, I can’t begin to name them all. I have more people praying for me and sending me warm wishes than I ever dreamed could care. My mom listens to every fear, concern, joy, and crazy thought that goes through my head. Like moms always do, she reassures me through my doubts. My friends at work and beyond have been curious and caring. What would I do without you? You are all going on this journey with me, and that helps lessen the fear and grow the excitement. I am so eager to share this with you!

With much love and gratitude,




What’s my project?

What a terrific question. People keep asking me this, and I’ve felt pretty dumb not being able to answer it. We had a call this morning (6 AM – ouch!) with our customer to learn more about the program. Here’s what I understand so far.

There are 11 SAP’ers from around the world who will be participating the Chennai Social Sabbatical program. I’ll be on a team of 3 people working with an organization called  Villgro. They are an incubator for social enterprises that are geared towards reducing poverty, improving access to health care, increasing education, and eliminating child labor. They provide funding for these enterprises to get started, followed by mentoring for the programs to build and sustain their business. Our specific role is to examine their current processes for selecting and aiding the businesses and provide suggestions and support for improving their business model. One of the ways we will do that is to interview some of their fundees; that will give us direct contact with people from all walks of life.

If that explanation sounded vague, it’s because I’m honestly pretty unsure of what exactly I’ll be doing. Am trying to sort through it and today’s call helped, yet I think I won’t really understand it until we get started. That’s sort of like every project we work in SAP – we think through the plan, but until we begin, it’s hard to be 100% sure of our goals and deliverables. What I do know is that I can’t wait to learn more about the businesses and people in this amazing program. They are directly improving people’s lives. It’s easy to write a check to an organization and feel we’ve made an impact. What they are doing to directly work with and help people is what leads to long-term advancement.

Hopefully by this time next week, I’ll be able to answer the title question with confidence. Until then, I’m working on going with the flow. 🙂

What am I afraid of in India?

SAP and Pyxera have invested a lot of time to make sure we are ready for this journey. On last week’s training call, I confessed to being a mix of nervous, excited, and even a little afraid. One of my new friends asked why I am afraid. It is hard to put into words, but so I can see afterwards if my fears were founded, I’ll try…

I’m not afraid of what most people would expect: safety. I have traveled the world alone and am always hyper-vigilant of my surroundings. Things can happen; I know I’ll be alert and cautious. Plus it doesn’t hurt that I’m rather large and freakishly strong. : )

Fear #1: seeing the degree of poverty that afflicts so many in India. Very few of the people there have had the opportunities that I have had, and I feel guilty that so much of my life is based on luck of where I was born. We weren’t wealthy, but I never went hungry, and I had everything I needed and a good deal of what I wanted. How will I handle seeing folks who haven’t had that? Children begging in the street? Families living in tiny shanties without plumbing or electricity? I saw some of that in South Africa while we drove to the airport in Johannesburg. That was hard, and it lasted for all of 20 minutes as we traveled through. How will I cope / be affected when I am not in a car passing by but immersed for a month?

Fear #2: animals. Not that I’m afraid of animals – quite the opposite! I love all animals, to the point where I spent several years as a vegetarian. My family knows that one of the few things that can make me cry is when an animal is harmed or neglected. It has been a struggle for me visiting places where I’ve observed dogs and cats roaming the streets in search of food or kindness. Friends have warned me that there are many stray animals in India. This may be a silly fear to most people, yet I know it will impact me on an emotional level, and that is hard. I want to save them all and can’t.

Fear #3: flying. Another of my embarrassments – I am afraid of flying. Like all flying. Not a good trait for someone who flies 100,000 miles a year, you know? We didn’t fly at all when I was growing up; my first flight was when I was 21 years old, and I hated it. I became accustomed to air travel after many years, then had two traumatic experiences very close together that jump started some lovely panic attacks. This kind of leads to a double fear: flying, and having a panic attack on the plane. What if I lose it halfway over the Atlantic and can’t board the second or third legs of my flights? Really hoping for non-turbulent flights and patient seatmates.

Fear #4: the unknown. I’m a planner. For this journey, there isn’t much inside my control. I have no idea what my day-to-day will look like and that is really difficult. Outwardly I appear to go with the flow. Internally it drives me bananas. How well will I cope when I have no clue what to expect?

Well, now that I’ve considered my fears, I realize that #1-3 are really all part of #4. I have no ability to directly help people or animals. I have no control over the flights. I feel powerless and unsettled. That alone gives this control freak a chance to grow, right? I may end up walking around Chennai singing “Let it Go” from Frozen. Letting go of all I can’t control…

Stepping away from normal work life

I wonder how long it will take me to shed my “SAP consultant” skin and focus on this project that has nothing to do with software. I’ve been an SAP OCM & Training consultant since 1999, and prior to that, spent four years as a general OCM & Training consultant for other software programs. All in, it’s been 21 years since I’ve focused on anything but change as a result of software. This is definitely going to be a challenge.

Of course I’m also concerned about leaving the normal work life behind… My colleagues have been great about stepping up to make sure that my absence results in minimal impact. I’m so grateful for that. It also causes a tiny fear that everything will go so well without me, management could wonder if they need me.  Sad truth but this blog is supposed to be honest and reflective.

Being outside of my 21-year world (wow, my consulting career is old enough to drink!) will be a great way for me to grow my perspective not just about the world, but also my work. When I ask questions now and design programs for customers, I know what they are likely to ask or need. For the sabbatical, I’m starting totally fresh. No clue where this will go, no past ideas or examples up my sleeves… So I’m hoping that I will bring back to SAP some new ways of approaching change, because this is sure going to be a big change for me. I’ll be my own experiment. Frankenfeldman.