The half-way point

Two weeks in, two weeks remaining. In some ways it feels like I’ve only just arrived, yet in other ways, it feels like I’ve been working with these people for months. With the customer, we are able to speak less guardedly, more candidly because we understand their challenges better and they know that we have their best interests at heart. Full-fledged projects can take a lot longer to establish that trust. I’m glad we have reached this point in two weeks; it means that we don’t have to delicately dance around difficult discussions during the second half of our engagement. That is one of the potential benefits of working on a 4-week project. We don’t worry that if we accidentally offend the customer, we still have to work awkwardly with them for another year. We have confidence that they are being transparent with us regarding their challenges, and they know that we will share our “outside-looking-in” perspective in a non-judgmental way. I’m still doing my best to not offend anyone (we change mgmt types are supposed to build bridges not burn them), but I’m comfortable in being open about what they could improve.

Some of our internal team challenges aren’t just because the personalities are so different, you realize that you bring your work style into the effort. I mentioned a few posts back that our team of 3 comes from very different areas of SAP business. I am 100% customer facing in my role, focused on consulting delivery. Our Australian is about 50% customer facing, 50% internal, focused on pre-sales. Our German is 100% internal facing, focused on software development. Those cultures affect us more than our regional differences do. My world is about people. The German’s world is about software. I think about usability, he things about function. I’ve found that the Australian has to interpret us to each other sometimes, because we aren’t speaking the same language. Finding that middle ground has been very interesting and pretty fun.

It’s also been good for me to realize that we can’t always give the customer what they want or need. On an SAP project, we have flexibility to do that. If they don’t have budget for what they need, we can discuss risks and potentially build a use case. On a volunteer project where there is no software budget and so many of the issues come down to discipline, it is hard to make a positive impact. If Villgro’s core mission is to better the lives of the poorest of the poor (bottom of the pyramid in their terms), what can I suggest to improve their processes that will enable that impact?  Keeps me up at night.

Speaking of night, we are going to visit 2 orphanages and a nursing home this evening. I have an image in my head of what an orphanage looks like, most likely based on reading Oliver Twist at too young of an age. The severe flooding that hit Tamil Nadu last December took more than 500 lives, and left more than a million homeless. I was told that orphanage numbers increased dramatically either because the child lost both parents, or the parents were no longer able to provide a safe home. Think I’d better take some kleenex with me in case tears start flowing…


Lived up to my blog title today

You guessed it: we got lost. Hopefully, gloriously lost. It was 97 degrees (109 heat index) and we were all covered in sweat, yet it was one of the most enjoyable days we’ve had. No work, just being tourists. Goofy ones.

We started out taking auto rickshaws (aka tuk tuks) to the mall. This was my first time riding one. Taking the tuk tuk is almost as heart-racing as an amusement park ride. It’s like bumper cars come to life. The crazy traffic rules (or lack of them) are even crazier when there is nothing between you and a car’s bumper except a thin sliver of metal.

The mall itself was like an American mall, with less effective air conditioning. Sweating and shopping really don’t go hand in hand. The majority of the stores were Western (Sketchers, Van Heusen, Marks & Spencer, Calvin Klein, Levi’s, etc) but there were also a number of Indian stores. It’s pretty funny to see jeans in one store, and silk sarees in the next. There were 8 of us together: 5 ladies and 3 men. We garnered a lot of stares.

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After doing some mall shopping, we thought it would be good to go to a local silk shop. Chennai is famous for its silk products. The team had seen a shop when out for dinner one night, so how hard could it be to find? This is where it all started to go wrong. The silk shop was near a temple, so one of the team showed our driver a picture of the temple. We were dropped off in front of the temple, and the fun ensued.

The temple had a huge wall around it, and to go through the temple, we would have to leave our shoes. I knew you had to take shoes off, but didn’t love the idea of leaving my shoes outside where anyone could take them. None of us did. Plus it would do us no good because we needed to go out the other side, and they won’t let you carry your shoes through. Off we marched. If you’ve been to India or heard really anything at all, you know that cows are sacred here. And what place could be more sacred than a temple? Cows, cows everywhere. I mean everywhere. As you walk through the streets, you have to watch every step because it’s near impossible to avoid all of the manure. One of the cows decided that it wanted to play with my new friend Hollie. I hid behind Justin, our 6’6″ New Yorker on the team.


After almost 2 miles of walking in circles, we realized that the driver had taken us to the wrong temple. We had no clue where we were and the Map app oon our phones refused to find us.  Our team had divided into two groups to fit into the cars (no tuk tuks for this part) and we tried calling the others. They were in a dead zone. Justin called for a cab but when you don’t know where you are, the conversation is kind of odd. We were doubled over laughing as he was asking the cab driver if he could just find him based on the app. Finally we found a street sign and Justin relayed the info. The driver said he’d come get us in 10 minutes. Not that he was 10 minutes away, he just didn’t want to come yet. Now the stares were accompanied by laughter as locals walked by the 5 white people covered in sweat, dirt, and possible cow dung. We gave up on the cab and got back in some tuk tuks. As I was riding back to the hotel taking pics of the area, some cows totally photo bombed my pic.


It was a case of “you had to be there,” but it was a fun, zany day. Just what we all needed. Tomorrow, Hollie and I are taking a tour to Pondicherry. The heat will be awful; as long as there are no cows, all will be great.

Part-time power is a real thing

I learned today that there are many villages in rural areas that only have power for four or five hours per day. That astonished me. How in 2016 is that a real situation? I get it that in extremely remote villages they might not have power at all, but somehow, only having it for a few hours a day doesn’t seem much better. That’s important because any social enterprise proposing solutions for rural India have to design in a way that does not require continuous electricity. For example, one innovator created a product that will keep milk cool without access to power. Another created a manual crank device that greatly reduces the time it takes to husk coconuts, which is big business around India. So now I see that the innovators not only have to identify a gap that will improve the lives of the poor and design a solution, they also have to plan for some of those solutions to be offered in places with limited electricity.

I grew up in a small village that is surrounded by farm land. I wasn’t naive enough to expect rural India to look exactly like my home town, with its cute little town area and restaurants. However, I didn’t even consider that it could be so different. That there are farmers and laborers working without electricity for most of the day. That they can’t even have a freezer, refrigerator, or lighting. To me, growing up in a small village was idyllic and pretty darn awesome. Yes everyone knew what everyone else was up to (and when you were in trouble, which happened to me more than most would believe, the whole town knew). But there was also a comfort in knowing that 3,500 other people cared about us as students, musicians, athletes (except me, stop laughing), and as humans in general. On top of it, I still had every opportunity that anyone in a large city had. Maybe I couldn’t walk to a world-class museum, but I had the same education and career choices as everyone else. I just had much less crime and poverty as city folks had. Like I said, idyllic.

In India, when you grow up in these remote villages, you have the deck stacked against you. They are rarely taught English, and in a country with 24 official languages and more than 2,000 dialects, being able to speak English is mandatory for any kind of professional career. Most of the street signs are even in English! Kids have to work because their families are dependant either on the income or their farm work, so they are only able to study at night if at all. So how do you study at night with no power? Anyone else picturing Abe Lincoln 200 years ago studying by candlelight? How is that necessary in 2016?!

Ok, off my soap box. It just feels like every time I think I understand the challenges faced here, a new one comes up. And as I sit in a hotel room with central air, running water, lit lamps and a tv on in the background, I’m feeling pretty guilty and fortunate.

I will try for a more cheerful topic tomorrow. Don’t want to depress myself and any readers! 🙂

How do these innovators come up with such great ideas?

I’m constantly amazed by the gaps that Villgro’s incubatees are filling with innovative social enterprises. It is hard enough to identify a need or opportunity in India’s society without feeling overwhelmed or that it is hopeless, let alone design the solution. Where do you begin when there is so much need?  As much as I may grumble about the selfie generation (geez how old do I sound now?!?!), it is encouraging to see first-hand their strong connection to making their world better. Well, some of them anyway… 🙂

Skillveri used research to show that skilled laborers are in high demand but India’s school offerings do not prepare them for vocational careers. There are high unemployment levels among young adults yet these jobs go unfilled. To compount the problem, most of the welding institutes that do exist in India do not provide hands-on practice because the cost of materials is too high. They can’t afford to waste the metal. Individuals are trained in process but not hands-on technique. That has led to low quality work and delays. Skillveri designed a gamification system that simulates the welding process for trainees. It allows them to practice through gaming so they acquire the hands-on skills to be successful in this career. The impact is a reduced cost of training welders while yielding higher results in skills. It also gives them an opportunity to attract more women to the vocational field that has typically been male-dominated.

Bempu has designed a new product to detect hypothermia in newborns. The goal is to be able to identify temperature changes early enough to get them from a rural area to a hospital when needed, as early intervention is their best chance for recovery and it can take a long time to travel to good medical care. They have created a bracelet that acts as a continuous monitoring device when placed on the wrist of the baby for the first four weeks of life, when the newborn is most susceptible to hypothermia. If the baby’s skin gets cold, the device reacts with visual and auditory alerts. The founder of Bempu now has a prototype available with 90 infant care centers evaluating it. The device caught the attention of the Gates Foundation; Melinda Gates has even tweeted about it. Bempu will sell the device across all levels of society to subsidize cost for the poor.

On a lighter note, today is Tamil New Year. Kind of an odd time for it but hey, I’m always happy to celebrate a fresh start. So maybe this sabbatical is kind of my new year. I’ve been changed already by this experience, and with 2+ weeks to go, who knows what I will be like by the end? Don’t worry, I’m sure I will still be mostly my old goofy self, just much better informed about the world and starting to think about my place in it.

When the team gets stressed

Being in each other’s space for 11 straight days can take its toll on anyone, and we are no exception. I’ve found that for me, it is critical to find some alone time to “recharge my batteries.” Introverts like me prefer to think before speaking, and often find it difficult to have to talk through every thought as it comes up. That for me has been one of the toughest parts of the program. My listen, absorb, consider, respond ways is probably as trying for my teammates as their verbal thinking is for me. By the time I’m ready to share my thoughts, they are ready to move onto the next topic. I’m having to learn to share ideas before they are well-formed; any of my introvert friends are cringing at that just like I do. It wears me out and if I can’t have my quiet time, I risk becoming overwhelmed and not useful.

We also have very different personality types. I love that we almost always contradict the stereotype of our countries. Our German is very unstructured, laid back, and indirect, happy to jump around topics. Our Australian is a focused goddess, looking to build structure around our approach and drive the pace forward. Our American (aka ME) is the listener and processor, trying to interpret what they and the customer say into something tangible. Anyone outside probably expected the German to be structured, the American to be aggressive, and the Australian to be chill. Our talents not only blow up stereotypes, they complement each other’s talents well.

The downside of the different personalities, besides the fact that getting me to speak can be like pulling teeth, is we tend to retreat to our comfort zones. Hollie (Australian) is in pre-sales, so she is strong at getting the customer to talk about their needs. Hartmut (German) is in product management, and he is good at thinking about what needs to be developed. I (yup, the American) am in change management and adoption, so pretty good at figuring out how to help Villgro design an effective change program. However, if we are to grow our knowledge during this engagement, it means we can’t go off into our corners and do what we feel comfortable with, much as I may crave that alone time. We have to guide each other so they know more about what we do, when, and why. SAP did an amazing job forming our teams so we benefit not just from geographical differences, but also skill and personality differences.

Our little sub-team had a very candid conversation this morning about how we were all feeling with our roles and our contributions. Talking about emotions and feelings is even worse for me than speaking in public (and some of you know that is a form of torture that I avoid). However, knowing that I was feeling somewhat frustrated and suspecting that the others were too, it was time to shut the door and get real. The chat was good and had a positive impact on our team dynamic. Hollie and I will remember to help Hartmut understand what customer-facing work is like; Hartmut and I will better support Hollie so she doesn’t feel alone in keeping things on track; Hollie and Hartmut will give me time to process my thoughts and share before jumping onto something new. It’s great to see that we could have such a frank discussion without hurt feelings or negative behavior. That’s another form of growth, right? Look at me – old dog learning new tricks!

So, it is almost 8 PM. Time for this introvert to go hide somewhere to get ready for another full day of interaction and conversation. 🙂

Another day, another inspiring start-up

We met with several of Villgro’s team members, mentors, and incubatees today before flying back to Chennai. Each day, I am even more impressed by what they are doing. It would be amazing to have even 1/10th of the innovative ideas that these people have. They don’t just think of how to build a business; they focus on improving lives. Very cool. 

The first start-up was a company that is creating a new way of testing for cervical cancer. They have designed a way of staining the samples so they can be automatically screened for abnormalities. Current tests are ineffective here because they are open to interpretation, and potentially subject to human error. In poor, rural areas, lesser trained medical staff can easily misinterpret results. Or they may not have the resources to run the tests at all. With this new product, they capture an image of the stained sample, and run it through a system that identifies abnormalities automatically. When there are questions, there is a pathologist who can review the results and provide expert guidance. All of this will go towards reducing cervical cancer in women by giving them access to affordable, accurate tests right in their villages. 

The second start-up is focused on agriculture. They have created a way to reduce the irrigation requirements by half, and improve the process of fertilizing crops. India gets rain in cycles, which means they swing between times of drought and times of monsoons. Costs for watering crops can easily cripple a farmer’s already struggling budget. The company has developed an automated irrigation system that can detect when water and fertilization is required, rather than running on a set schedule. Imagine the cost savings that a farmer could see, along with the environmental impact for water conservation. 

So now you know what I mean about wishing I had some of their innovation talent. It is easy to get so lost in work, I don’t even see the true problem. Imagine being able to see a gap as an opportunity to become an entrepreneur while making life better for those in need. Even more intimidating: they are all quite young yet they have already accomplished so much and contributed more to society than I ever will. I am in awe of each new person I meet. Will definitely be keeping on eye on these companies long after the sabbatical ends because I am excited to see their success. 

One hour flight yet a world away

Hollie, Hartmut, and I arrived in Bangalore late last night. The first thing we noticed was that traffic actually moved on the way into the city. We realized that none of our rides these past 9 days have driven more than 45 mph. The driver from the airport treated the highway like the Indy 500, going 70 mph while weaving in and out of traffic. Never thought I’d miss creeping along in Chennai traffic. I may owe everyone who has ever ridden with me a sincere apology if that is what riding with me feels like. Yikes.

The city itself is very modern. We are only an hour flight from Chennai, yet would swear we are in a different country. There are high rise buildings and Western shops / restaurants. There is a Chili’s right next to my hotel, a PinkBerry across the road, and a Body Shop diagonal. In Chennai, I didn’t see one chain that I recognized. There is also more of a blend culturally. There are more races and religions here than we have seen elsewhere in Chennai and Cochin. When we were in Cochin, people asked to see the palms of our hands and then marveled at how pink they are. That’s a new one on me: someone admiring the color of our palms. I’ve seen all sorts of churches and temples here. The other cities seemed to be Hindu, Muslim, or Catholic. It was cool to walk past the Methodist church today and think of home.

The Villgro team in Bangalore also dresses more Western. The women were in jeans and cotton tops. In Chennai and Cochin, the women predominately wear a sari or salwar kameez. It is beautiful to see but I suspect the women in Bangalore are more comfortable. I just look at all of those sari layers and wonder how the ladies don’t drop in the hot weather.

The best part is that Bangalore has very low humidity. We had a brief walk to and from the office, and it was quite pleasant. Never thought I’d say that about 98 degrees! Tomorrow is going to be 102, yet I dread it less than the 95 degrees and high humidity that we will have when we return to Chennai. It is like Arizona versus Florida for weather. Guess that means I am heading back to Florida tomorrow. 😉

A few scenes from Kerala

We took a houseboat tour in the Kerala region. It was a great way to see how people live in the backwater area. Their version of a houseboat is not at all what I’d envisioned. It had two floors, electricity, bathroom with regular plumbing, 2 bedrooms, and more. The cruise was 4 hours of peace and beauty. We witnessed people bathing, doing laundry, and washing dishes in the river. Most boats that passed us waved and some cheered. Such friendly people once again.  Just what we needed after a crazy week in Chennai!


Weekend trip to Kerala


Our team decided to do some sightseeing on weekends, knowing that most of us will never have the opportunity to visit India again after this sabbatical. Last night, 10 of us boarded a plane to Cochin in Kerala, along the southwest corner of India on the Arabian Sea. There are many differences between here and our home base in Chennai. Cochin (previously called Kochi) was settled by the Portuguese in the 1500’s. Vasco de Gama actually died here in Cochin. When I learned about him in school, I never dreamed I would be visiting the land he discovered. Much of the old architecture style remains, and the region is 50% Catholic. Believe it or not, they actually have beef on the menus here. After seeing some of the cows just meandering down the road, none of us had the heart to eat red meat for dinner. Kerala is the spice capital of India. When you walk into the shops, the smells are amazing (and my stomach starts growling).

Everything is incredibly green here. They have amazing “rain trees” that look as though they’ve been here for hundreds of years. The people are more accustomed to foreigners here, so we’ve had fewer stares. You can imagine how much attention we draw in Chennai: 11 foreigners, 9 of whom are Caucasian, 1 Asian, and 1 Middle Easterner. Here in Cochin, we’ve seen a wide variety of races and religions. Imagine sitting next to a Hindu, near a Catholic church, while listening to the Muslim call to prayer. Very diverse. I even saw an Indian with dreadlocks. Considering the wreck this humidity has made of my own hair, I might need to give that a try.

The biggest eye opener was when we walked to the beach. No one was in a swimsuit. I mean no one. There were some people in the water, wearing regular clothes. A few ladies lifted their saris above their ankles to step in; even most of the young girls were formally dressed. There were two ladies in burkas standing towards the back of the beach. It looked like a scene from a movie. The beach fills up with sunset gazers. Wish my camera could have capture the vivid red in the sky. Breathtaking.

Tomorrow we are taking a backwater tour on a houseboat, then three of us fly on to Bangalore to meet with the Villgro team there. It is a short trip, only two days, but I am looking forward to seeing where so many of my SAP colleagues live and work. Then we fly back to Chennai Tuesday night. My flight schedule over here is almost as crazy as back home. 😀

Who knew Indians cared about US politics?

Totally bizarre to me: I’ve had two Indians, when asking me where I am from, respond, “oh, like Kasich.” What?? There are plenty of people in the United States who don’t know who he is, let alone that he is from Ohio. I was stunned. In all of my travels, when people ask where I’m from, I’m met with a blank stare. My usual hurried clarification is typically, “kind of in the middle, not too far from Chicago.”

Then of course, since they are interested in politics, they enjoy discussing political views. Both know that Ohio is a battleground state, and I think wanted to influence my vote. haha. One is a Hillary supporter, the other is a Trump supporter. Both are passionate in their views and very well-informed.

You know what makes me feel bad? I can name the prime minister of two countries (UK and Canada) and the Chancellor of Germany. That’s it. I couldn’t name one person running for office in a foreign country, and even though I’m in essence living in India for a month, I have no idea who their Prime Minister is. Maybe it is just me, but it feels like Americans can be somewhat disconnected from the rest of the world. Like only our politics matter. I admit to being even less informed than most. It would be a lie to pretend that this adventure is going to make me start following global politics, but I do hope to become more aware. And also to give more thought to how our policies and who we elect impacts the rest of the world.

Well, that’s enough political talk for the day. I’m curious to see the next time an Indian asks me where I’m from, what they will say. Leads to some interesting restaurant conversations for sure!