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.