Friday, December 14, 2012

Relearning how to smile in an Arizona Indian Reservation

The day after Thanksgiving break, I found myself on an Indian Reservation about 45 miles outside of Phoenix, heading down an empty road lined with cactus, giant tumble weeds, and San Tan mountain tops, all of which were leading us towards a pasty blue school known as Blackwater Community.

From the outside, this school didn’t seem much different than the schools around my neighborhood in Palo Alto; after looking deeper, however, it sadly began to resemble the schools I taught at this summer in Nairobi. For example, according to the Blackwater principle, only 50% of her elementary students go on to graduate from high school. And sadly, Blackwater is one of the best schools in the area: the graduation rate only gets worse amongst other Indian Reservation schools.

The goal of our trip, therefore, was to play a role in addressing these inequalities, specifically through the power of mobile technology. I was traveling with a professor from the Stanford School of Education, Dr. Paul Kim, who has developed a tool called the Stanford Mobile Inquiry-based Learning Environment (SMILE). Put simply, the idea is that students use their mobile phone to engage with their curriculum (and each other!) in new and exciting ways.

While the tool has enormous potential (and Dr. Kim has run dozens of successful pilots), we unfortunately faced a number of technical challenges during our three day pilot test, and I began to question if we were really making a big difference.

On the flight back to SFO that night, I asked Neha Taleja, the Executive Director for the nonprofit that houses SMILE, if she shared these concerns. She agreed that the technical challenges were extremely problematic, but that we would work through them. More importantly, she reminded me of a little 5th grade boy we had worked with that day, who decided to stay in during his lunch break to use the phone to create a quiz for his classmates.  According to his teacher, this was something he’s never done before. And that, to Neha, was what SMILE was all about: Generating excitement and engagement that has somehow been misplaced along the way.
Although it’s a simple anecdote, I’m realizing that there are profound insights and reminders to appreciate, particularly as I spend the next 3 weeks in India and Pakistan exploring entrepreneurial opportunities in mobile learning.

Reminders such as the gratitude found through appreciating these “small victories.” The hope discovered while focusing on why something could (and should) work, and not on why it won’t work. The liberation of not allowing perfect be the enemy of progress: of not trying to develop a flawless solution that addresses all the problems at once, but rather starting somewhere (even if it’s a simple start that has complications) and allowing the work to teach you.

And lastly, the importance of being able to smile along the way. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Kibera dreams and education potentials

Electine is a 12-year-old girl in my 8th Grade class in Kibera, an informal community in Nairobi once known as the largest and certainly most notorious slum in Kenya. According to her recent writing composition homework, Electine wants to be a pilot, so that she can travel the world and see places like the US, Tanzania and Ethiopia. In her words, “it is good to associate with different people and know more about them.” She also wants to make lots of money and buy her parents a house, build many schools and create an orphanage.

Even though life in the slums might make a dream like this seem impossible, Electine believes that her future is up to her, and that she has access to the tools that will help her. As she wrote in another composition assignment:
Education is the process of which knowledge is passed to the pupils by teachers. It is upon you to choose whether you want to gain by it or not. As for me, education will help me improve my living standard in the future.

Sheila, on the other hand, wants to be one of the country’s top broadcasters, “a critical career given that everyone relies on broadcasters for their information.” Like Electine, she is looking beyond her situation, and believes that education can unlock novel scenery for her and millions of others in slums like Kibera:
Education is the only way one is ever going to escape poverty and be ahead in life. It is a very helpful necessity that can improve lives of millions of people.

Throughout my four weeks volunteering and teaching in Kibera – both at Soweto Academy and several other primary and secondary schools – this hope and optimism in education was continually reaffirmed. At the same time, however, it was clear that the system was fundamentally flawed, failing to operate efficiently, failing to reach its potential of fulfilling dreams like Electine’s and Sheila’s.

Many of the failures were obvious, like the longest teacher strike that vacated government schools until just last week or the deteriorating/absent infrastructure. Others were less obvious, like the extremely low student enrollment rates (50%) in secondary school, the alarming amount of time (over 1/6 days per week) that teachers didn’t show up for their class, or the hyper focus on memorization and exit exams. In each case, it was clear that something more needs to be done.

In the words of Wendy Kopp:
Given that we know that education has the potential to be transformative, we must—for the sake of children and families, for our country, and for our collective well-being—do all that it takes to fulflill that potential.

Or, as Electine put it: it's up to us if we want [Kenya] to gain from education or not.

To view descriptions for each picture click here.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Football, girls and hope inside Asia’s most notorious slum

Several days ago, I trudged across the +100 degree asphalt of the Pakistan border, loaded with collages of memories from a short but overwhelming summer in India.  Shining brightest from this kaleidoscope of experiences was Dharavi – India’s largest and most enterprising slum – and the aurora of hope radiating from there.

When I first stepped into this labyrinth, Slumdog Millionaire community, I was mostly curious. Intrigued how an alleged 1 million people packed into a tiny .67 square miles could “decide to be happy, when they had every reason to be miserable.” Intrigued how generations could rise above their circumstances, and make the best life possible for themselves, despite everything holding them back. What I eventually discovered is that hope is central to this phenomenon.

Nicholas Kristof once wrote that development succeeds when it gives people hope that a better outcome is possible. Dharavi is a perfect case study of the effect of hope delivered.

As described in Poor Little Rich Slum, Dharavi is a cauldron bubbling with enterprise. With a never-say-die attitude. With spirit and spunk. A place where people believe that tomorrow can actually look better than today.

And Yuwa is one organization that is helping inculcate that belief at an early age, specifically with the +10 year-old girls who are learning football on a swampy mud lot behind the Mahim train station.

Despite the monsoon rains and the barely-lit lot littered with rocks, rats and restless boys, the girls continue practicing. From 7-830pm, 7 nights a week. Why? Because here the girls are apart of something bigger than themselves. Here they begin to realize that society doesn’t define who they are. Here they have the ability to create their own tomorrow.

And perhaps what’s most exciting is to see this evolution of hope in progress. Without a doubt, Yuwa is making tremendous strides in inspiring a brighter tomorrow, but their program in Dharavi is only 3 months old and there is still a lot of work to do.

For example, my last day at practice, I was walking back with the “human bus” of girls, dropping each one at their house, when I had the chance to ask Mansi* (pictured below) what she wanted to be when she grew up.

Although her parents have humble occupations – her mom cleans houses and her dad drives buses – they've managed to send her to a private school in the Bandra suburbs. Given this, I expected her to claim that she wanted to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or maybe even an engineer. But she actually has “no clue.”

Later that night, her mom told me that she lacks confidence.

If Yuwa is successful in helping inspire hope, however, I suspect Mansi’s answer will have changed by the next time I get to ask her this question. And as I journey to Kenya  to explore start-up development ideas  this simple mission of hope is one I hope to keep central.

*I know you’re not supposed to have favorites, but Mansi is mine. Perhaps because of her nearly perfect English, the way she makes sure I don’t get lost, or how she voluntarily shares her last prized piece of Cadbury chocolate.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

10,000 Women and sticks in a bundle

When Ami first tried launching her flower business, her father refused to loan her 50,000 rupees ($1,000), saying he would rather get her married. Priyanka was studying to be an entrepreneur, when she was forced to drop out as 4th year engineer student so that she could get married. And when Nayna* was launching her chocolate factory, her husband reminded her daily that it was a bad idea.

These were stories shared by women entrepreneurs at the Goldman Sach’s 10,000 Women workshop last weekend in Bangalore, India. Although each one alone was intense enough to captivate a TED audience, the countless stories echoed repeatedly were almost too much to bear. And yet, something magical was happening: each story seemed to bond the women together more tightly, a real life example that sticks gathered in a bundle truly do become unbreakable.

Although the 2012 Acumen Fund fellows and I had been prepping for this workshop for several weeks, it became clear that the biggest accomplishment of the day wasn’t necessarily our negotiations session or feedback framework, but rather this simple act of providing a platform for the women to connect. To remind them that they are not alone in the struggle.

It also became clear that their successes were not individualistic either. Each accomplishment that was announced had a resounding ripple effect of inspiration: From Ami’s 20th corporate hotel client for her flower business, to Priyanka’s 10th employee hire for her media and advertisement firm, to Nayna’s second chocolate factory launch.

Later that night, as I thought about the Acumen Fellowship (and similar programs I’ve been involved with), I realized that the power of community has almost always emerged as the most critical component.

This takeaway is also particularly true of my time at Stanford University, which coincidentally is currently exploring how to best support developing world entrepreneurs such as Ami, Priyanka and Nayna. As a fellow in this $150 million initiative – known as the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies (SEED) – I spent time interviewing the women entrepreneurs to get their input (see video clip below). As expected, the power of the collective echoed loudly.

It’s a simple insight, but a critical one for us not to lose sight of.

*names in this post have been changed to respect confidentiality. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Ride of your life: Sustaining impact in the developing world

Two weeks ago, a friend in Pakistan passionately claimed that Bombay is the most exciting city in the world. Although I mostly agreed, I quickly realized that excitement wears multiple faces, as 3 near-catastrophes unfolded 24 hours within my arrival here: first a bicycle side-clip by my taxi from the airport, then a fender-bender going to work, and finally a near (i.e., 12 inches short) head-on bus collision by my rickshaw driver.

Fortunately, everyone walked away safely, this time. Tragically, however, 114,000 people each year never walk away at all: In India, at least 13 people die every hour on the road. The country has the highest rate of accidents – 35 per 1,000 vehicles compared to the world average of 4 – resulting in more Indians dying than from HIV, malaria, and cholera combined.

For this reason, 1298 Ambulance – the social enterprise I am working with this summer – has launched one of the country’s first ambulance services, with the Gandhi-inspired philosophy that 
Saving a life is one of the most rewarding experiences a person can undergo. 
Over the past 7 years, they’ve amassed a fleet of rewards, launching 860 ambulances and transferring over 1 million patients.

Despite this success, suffering (and death) seem to be an inescapable reality of life here.

Three days into my project, I wondered aimlessly around the emergency room of a public hospital in Central Mumbai. Surrounded by pain, I speechlessly returned to the stretcher that carried Sweta Sendil, a 29-year-old teacher whose relatives dialed 1298 after she had a kidney failure. Only one year older than me, and yet she was given a 2-3 year life expectancy.

These are the days where heaven does not seem so close. Days where it seems that no matter how much you sacrifice, it’ll never be enough. Days that test whether you can really sustain a life dedicated to alleviating injustice without disconnecting from the associated suffering.

Although I’m not sure answers exist, these are questions and emotions that I’m hoping to explore further this summer. Most likely from the backseat of a 1298 Ambulance.