From ‘Maid’ to ‘Made’ in India

A couple of years ago, one evening, I overheard my daughter’s nanny talking to somebody. She sounded extremely worried, gesticulating and whispering as she spoke. When she hung up the phone, I noticed tears in her eyes. A repeat of the incident a few days later, however, got me a little worried, and I cajoled her into telling me what the problem was. When I found out, I was speechless. A couple of days went by but I found myself constantly thinking about Bharti, the 12 year old whose story I had just heard. I decided, I had to do something immediately.

Bharti was the nanny’s cousin. She was the eldest of a brood of five girls, from a village named Dapoli. Her father was a drunkard, and her mother was partially blind. Her grandfather was the sole earning member, a daily wage-earner surviving on odd jobs in the city. He had brought Bharti to the city to work as a maid. The old man had no choice, he told us. Poverty and too many mouths to feed, coupled with sicknesses had forced this decision – to take the children out into the city one by one in search of employment. Work or starve, not much choice, is it? So off came Bharti, pulled out from her village school and packed off to the first family who wanted a captive servant at their disposal. That’s when it began. The uncouth family she was lodged with treated her like a slave, made her wash dishes and dirty clothes and cook and serve all day long. She was up from dawn till midnight, serving faithfully, relentlessly, compassionately.  Her meals were frugal, clothes were sparse, and her spirit squashed. She had been forced to grow up over night, in a cruel horrible way, with no hope of anything better. My worst fears were confounded when I was told that the family had a teenage son who had been eying her mischievously for a while. With a very controlled access to the house phone, she was unable to communicate with her family and the only time she managed a few words was when she spoke with her cousin, our nanny.

Bharti was a sweet little girl, pretty, doe-eyed, petite and timid. She walked in shyly, hesitating to make eye contact with me. Her clothes were dirty, one size too big, and her hands bore some bruises. She clearly looked undernourished and unhealthy. She coughed gently and fidgeted with her hands, not knowing what was coming next. My heart melted. We had gotten Bharti out of her employer’s house under the pretext of meeting her cousin, the nanny, below her building. Fait accomplit! I knew in my heart we could not send her back. The nanny suggested we shelter her for a few days while she looked for another family into which she could place this child. Short of any ideas, I chose to go along with her suggestion for the time being. A mattress, warm food and a safe place to sleep was more than Bharti had expected and I could only sense the happiness on her face and peace in her heart. The next day my family unanimously decided that Bharti was to continue to live with us till we figured out alternatives.

And so the days went by. She was nursed back to health. She read books, sat with my daughter to study and helped around the house with odd jobs. One day, whilst reading alongside my daughter, Bharti picked up one of her English books and read a paragraph, slowly, but clearly and eloquently. My daughter excitedly told me that Bharti could read and write English and was very keen to study from her books, and that I should put Bharti into her school so they could study together. Hallelujah! With that one remark the seeds of a thought were sown in my head. Bharti could get back to school! She could complete her education and qualify herself for a respectable job, stand on her own feet and ensure her family was on its way to recovery from the throes of poverty. Her sisters could not follow her path under any circumstances! I called her Grandfather once I had made up my mind. His reluctance stemmed from his fear of loss of income should he agree to my plan of readmitting her into school. I could empathize with him. We reached an agreement of a monthly stipend to be sent to her family whilst she went to school.

With that battle out of the way, next on our cards was securing admission for Bharti into a good Marathi medium school in the vicinity. MBHS Marathi Medium high school came to our rescue and the school accepted her into 8th grade with open arms! Bharti’s new lease to life was a reality! Her excitement while feeling her new books, wearing her crisp new uniform and polishing her shoes was palpable. She went on to excel in 8th grade. In 9th grade, at one PTA, her class teacher praised Bharti in a way that made me proud! She said she was happy to have a girl like Bharti in her class, giving the other city kids good competition in their race for the number one position in class! Then came 10th, SSC exams. With no tutorials, a choice made by Bharti herself, she performed brilliantly and secured 84%! Honestly, our joy knew no bounds! Friends came together and showered gifts on her, as she had become the ‘Child ’ for all our friends and family! Next came college admissions. We picked Commerce. With easy admissions considering her good grades, Bharti was on her way to a degree!

Bharti’s journey has been a lesson in life for several of us. Bharti herself, of course, has metamorphosized into a bold young girl, full of ambition, and a resolve to ensure her sisters and other girls from her village do not suffer the way she did for lack of options. She is working with us on getting distance education to the girls in her village to ensure they are able to complete their secondary education without going far away from their villages in search of colleges. She is working on getting her degree in commerce, with a specialization in computer science. To ensure she is ahead of the race, she has enrolled in English speaking classes, and computer classes and spends every waking moment engrossed in her books. Bharti is on her way to be a woman of consequence!

Bharti’s story has taught us what it means to overcome setbacks. We have learnt to respect people from diverse backgrounds, social brackets and above all, humanity. Bharti’s journey has taught us to value education even more than we currently do. What comes across easily to us, is a gift for millions of others across our country. The dark shroud of poverty is a curse and unfortunately a reality in our nation. From that stems the trigger of child employment and illiteracy. We must look for solutions that are sustainable and can improve not just one girl’s life, but an entire family. And then a clan and then a village! It may sound like a Herculean task, but we can all contribute to this solution. ‘Rather than providing a man with fish, we should teach him to fish’, is how the popular adage goes. These young girls will not stop searching for employment on account of poverty and lack of educational facilities. A little bit of effort from each one of us in this direction, will change the future of our India. Scholarships to reduce the financial burden of fees, provision of school supplies, rehabilitation through hostels and trusts for the girls who eventually come to the city in search of employment but have a desire for education, investing in E-education that can reach remote villages with a lack of secondary education facilities….These are all some of the things you and I could easily do. All it needs is the desire. I do not have all the answers yet, but with Bharti’s determination and help, I know we are going to change Dapoli, and impact the lives of 75 other girls in that village! To commemorate our 69th year of Independence, Bharti and I decided that it would be alright for us to share her story, and inspire others. We were thinking of titles for this story, when she chuckled and smilingly suggested to me, “ MADE in India” and then laughed as she added, ” Didi, not maid in India, ok, MADE in India!’.

Happy Independence Day, Bharti!

Jai Hind!

Build Your Personal Brand

There are thousands of books, articles and papers available on the subject of product and services branding, and an equal number of agencies and executives across the world working on developing great brands. More courses are being curated as part of the curriculum in business schools and millions being spent on conferences and seminars to bring the experts in the field together to share their views. However, not as many conferences, courses and articles on ‘personal or individual branding’ make their way to the headlines! The fact is that all of us as individuals, too, possess the potential to be those great brands we revere. In a world that is fast to clone, it is worth thinking about what can then help individuals, in every ordinary walk of life, stand apart from the crowd and create brands for themselves. For individuals, the process can actually be simplified.

Firstly, to share some facts surrounding Personal Branding:

Effective Personal branding is not a spin. It is not sugar coating or artificial packaging. Its roots lie in authenticity. The image manufactured for the world, has to be the actual person in reality as well. If you play a role, one that is not real, you will quickly be found out, and you will exhaust yourself one day just living those perceptions. It also means that you live in a world in which If your approach is to wear a mask, you will fail. You cannot be what others want you to be. You will have to get others to see YOU for what you really are. The traditional models at the workplace were about doing as told, blending in and adhering to what was the ‘normal’. The new normal is to stand out. Current models are about passion, discovering meaning and purpose and about defining values. It’s about building your personal brand.

Personal Branding is not meant only for outgoing gregarious personalities. In fact, everyone, irrespective of their personality can possess a personal brand. Did you think the most amicable or social personalities are the ones who have their own brands? This is one of the biggest myths surrounding personal brand building. It supersedes personality, and rather is based on the strength of relationships!

Building a Personal Brand takes does not take time. It emerges as a reflection of your behavior. It is not a hobby or something you ‘do’ in your spare time. You can’t ‘do’ a brand. You build it, bit by bit, everyday, every minute. Every email you send, every conversation you have and every meeting you attend, is contributing to the brand you create.

It’s not just business, It’s personal : Can you imagine trying to say ‘ It’s not personal, it’s just business’ to any leader, teacher, or CEO who has spent half of his/her life at work and put their heart and soul into their work?  Business is personal, because we each crave a deeper connection with our work, a connection that transcends position and power and money. It’s almost spiritual!  We all want to be valued and recognized. And we like to know that we are making a difference when we put our heart and soul into something. Our work reflects our personal lives, and our personal lives reflect our work. If you have delighted your customers beyond the rule book, it’s personal. If you have lost sleep over a client’s loss, it’s personal. If you have gone out of your way for a colleague in need, it’s personal. If you stayed extra hours to help a team member, it’s personal. The fine line between personal and business has evaporated. Its not just business anymore, it’s personal.

We are connected- everywhere, all of the time. Your community partners will know what you are doing on your holiday. They will know if you are calling into work sick, but checking into a spa… or at your daughters PTA or just a shopping trip out. It’s all visible. You are being judged, and evaluated constantly. Your networks are receiving inputs and signals with everything that you say or do or don’t say or don’t do. You walk into a meeting late, you are sending a message. You borrow stationery from the office for an emergency at home, you are sending a message, you write rude emails, you are sending out a message, you do not reprimand errant employees, you are sending a message… you go out drinking with your team, you are sending a message. Your brand is being defined and tested every minute.

It is seldom that we are remembered for our professions…..more likely for what we stood for, what we meant and how we lived our lives..which tells us how important it is to build our character which defines our brand!

To begin creating a personal brand, you could follow a few simple steps:

  1. Identify your Passion: What makes you tick? Call out your strengths and label them. Get as close to the basics as you can and be eloquent about what it is you believe you have on offer to the world. Several attempts could be made before you can zero in on what really defines you. But what is important is to believe in the fact that you had a purpose in life before anyone had an opinion about it! Start where you are, use what you have and do what you can. Keep characterizing yourself. Precise, concise and consistent.
  2. Scale your Values to Articulate your Identity: Once you have defined yourself, you need to articulate your identity with your values. The Greek Philosopher Heraclitus had said that ‘Character is fate’. After all, if people like you, they will listen to you, but if they trust you, they will do business with you. Reputation matters tremendously. Admit mistakes if you make them. Work with all stakeholders to create mutually beneficial solutions to forge deeper relations. The base of all interactions should be Trust, Respect and Humility, fundamental human values. Every interaction should reflect your values. Brands don’t just live on the page anymore. They are living breathing things. It is important to build your brand that is aligned with your values so that your actions are aligned with the message you are putting out there.
  3. Resiliency & Growth : There may come upon some difficult times in your journey, which challenge your fundamental beliefs. The Valley of C, as this is often referred to, is the lowest point in a journey, from where on the only way forwards is upwards. To propel yourself out of the Valley of C, resiliency and growth are critical factors. These are important, because they provide the opportunity to recalibrate, fortify and endorse your authentic brand. It is important to not let these create fear or shake your fundamental values. Forge through with the strength of your relationships and behaviors. Keep an eye on the goal and allow no one or nothing to weaken your resolve to adhere to your core values. The waves will settle, and what will emerge is a phoenix of a brand. Live out your promises in an authentic way and demonstrate those in how you relate and behave with all your stakeholders.
  4. Don’t just Shift, Elevate: Constantly reinvent yourself and your offerings. ‘Don’t be part of the furniture’, as we often say at the workplace. It doesn’t help your brand to be one of the herd. You ought to encourage yourself to think differently, keep adding to your experiences and perceptions. Don’t close your mind. Absorb and challenge yourself to see perspectives you previously found difficult to fathom. After all, wheels on luggage were introduced by a man who challenged the conformist way of lifting luggage!
  5. Let the World see you as you are : The greatest power and impact of personal branding comes from thinking of all the above, holistically. If you speak at a forum, or at a professional association, identify ways to link it to the virtual world- like publishing your presentation online, or writing about your experience in your Blog, and uploading video snippets on YouTube. When you link the real and the virtual, you send a consistent message while amplifying your visibility and reducing the effort required to build a strong brand. Build a twitter following. Use Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin and other networks to build a following. When you have an opinion, share it respectfully. When you produce some work, or do something meaningful, talk about it. Allow people to look through a window into your world. Let you work speak for itself.

In short, to build your effective personal brand, you need to work on your core architecture. Use your values to create your competitive advantage. Create a consistent messaging. Use your behaviors to out behave the competition. Generals wear their medals on their sleeves as a constant reminder of what they stand for, what they live for, and what they are willing to lay down their lives for. Similarly, your values should serve as your armor, your compass and your guiding light, directing behavior, sharing your message and articulating your brand!



Eagle or Chicken?

There’s a story I remembered one evening as I strolled down the streets of Aviemore Village in Scotland, after meeting a wonderfully inspiring woman, Debra Kopp. Debra had chosen to follow her dreams, traveling across lands, investing in small family run businesses, reviving them, contributing to the communities they operated in, and then moving onto her next destination. in this way, she touched the lives of many, helped hundreds in their struggle to run small businesses, gave back to communities, and successfully achieved her dream of seeing the world.

Once upon a time atop a mountain rested an eagle’s nest with a collection of eggs in it. One day an earthquake rocked the mountain, causing one of the eggs to roll down to a chicken farm in the valley below. Believing the egg to be one of theirs, an old hen volunteered to nurture the large egg and take care of whatever hatched from it. After a period, a beautiful eagle emerged from the egg. Sadly, however, the well-meaning hen raised the eagle as a chicken, with his beak ever pointed downward. The eagle loved his home and family, but his spirit cried out for more. One day, the eagle looked to the skies above and noticed a group of mighty eagles soaring in the skies. “Oh,” the eagle cried, “I wish I could soar like those birds.” The chickens roared with laughter, “You cannot soar with those birds. You are a chicken and chickens do not soar.” The eagle continued staring at his real family up above, dreaming that he could be with them. His heart ached for more. Each time the eagle would let his dreams be known, he was told they could never be fulfilled. That is what the eagle learned to believe. The eagle, after a time, stopped dreaming, and continued to live his life like a chicken. Finally, after a long life as a chicken, the eagle passed away.

As a child, I recollect my parents telling me to follow my dreams and aspire for what I believed I wanted to do and achieve. Dream big, they said, but remain grounded in reality. I think I was lucky in some ways, to have been presented the opportunity to pursue any interest I had. As the years went by and my interests ranged from art and archaeology, literature and law, to psychology and religion, I saw a clear path emerging—one I could follow, one that was known, treaded on successfully before, and in some ways, a path whose outcome was fairly predictable. Unlike Don Quixote, whose imagination transported him to places unseen by others, I stuck to the conformist route, set out achievable targets and milestones, and truly believed that I was realizing my dreams.  One day a few years later, I reread the story about the eagle and the chickens and I asked myself—which one was I?

The Bollywood Peacekeepers

We love them, we criticize them, we follow them, we advise them – A love hate relationship, that stems from our dreams being played out on screen. Our Bollywood Moviestars! The release of new films every Friday is a common point of excitement at the end of the week for most cinema lovers in India. Several industries are built around these people- people who spend the largest part of their life in a make belief world, momentarily transporting us out of our reality into the fantasy world. And of course the sightings! The crowd outside Amitabh Bachchan’s bungalow, Shahrukh’s house on the tourist map of mumbai, are all evidence of the Demigod status we confer on them. And rightly so, I must confess – a realization I had after an interesting conversation.

I met a dear friend a few days ago- a UN advisor and part of the UN peace talk force, who had just returned from Syria. The situation in Syria was was grim, he said, in fact life threatening- Bombs, gunfire, and the smell of death round the corner. And in the middle of all of this was my fiend attempting to get several warring factions together to meet across the table and have conversations for peace. The daunting task took its toll on him, he sadly recounted, and eventually it had limited success as the entire peace talk team had to spend most of their time in a safe bunker when the fighting took on renewed force. He described the horrific scenes he had witnessed, and the tension that was a constant in the air. I commented that he would’ve probably experienced a kind of fear that most of us could not even imagine, to which he smiled, and said that while they were in action, he had both the Gods and the Demi-Gods looking over him. And with that, he told me something very interesting.

Well, word had gotten around camp that there was an Indian in the peace talk team, and everytime somebody new walked into his makeshift office tent they searched for him very warmly! Raj Kapoor’s ‘Mera joota hai Japaani’, he said, was sung out to him with great adulation, as was Amitabh’s dialogue from Sholay. ‘Aishwarya Rai- most beautiful in India’, was announced to him warmly again and again, as were the repeated requests for Shahrukh Khan movies….All in all, he recollected fondly, he felt the warm and protective hugs of all those chieftains and leaders of the several warring camps he was trying to negotiate with! My friend confessed that it was all on account of their love for our Bollywood movie stars! In him, they saw a part of their fantasy world, a chance to get closer to their idols, to the people they loved! He brought closer to them, a part of the world they had never experienced, yet dearly adored. And in that he said, were several promises made to look after him, as a special friend! So in fact, my friend declared, that he felt looked out for, and knew that should things have gotten out of control at any point in time during negotiations or otherwise, there were enough people looking out for him!

And so, as our conversation drew to an end, we concluded that we rarely value the role that our movie-stars play as subtle peace keepers, relinquishing boundaries and religions and cultures, and how unusual relationships are forged, by virtue of common love for cinema! Our movie stars have succeeded in bringing together people like none else, including even the UN, we laughed! So here’s a big thumbs up for our favorite filmstars, and a promise for renewed respect to their dual roles – cinema hero and peacekeeper!

Meaning in Deed is Meaning Indeed!

Organizations today are globally exposed and connected with transparency and collaboration dictating conduct. Conversations, decisions, actions are not restricted to the closed confines of boardrooms and are beyond leadership jurisdiction and control. Information is out there, for all stakeholders to access, understand and interpret. This clearly challenges the earlier thought process, of organizations veiling interactions, molding and presenting it in formats that did not defy reputations, missions, and value systems. The test today, however, is not of only creating or managing reputations, but that of alignment- alignment of intention and impact, of mindsets and perceptions, and of values and behaviors. The demand for transparency and responsibility has never been this intense and the sooner organizations begin to recognize and exercise it, the faster they will embark upon their journeys in significance. Today, every form of stakeholder is an active participant in the functioning of business, influencing its present and future. Human Operating Systems with frameworks of mindfulness and empathy, and cultures that are formed through values based behaviors, are accepted, revered and recommended.  When management operates from a point of view that reflects the values of the firm and defines the organization’s purpose of existence, the narratives that emerge automatically create stories which spell inspiration and passion. Such organizations possess cultures that go beyond the realm of competencies, reaching deep into employee mindsets, and belief systems. Such cultures then operate in the space of good behavior, responsibility, significance, and above all, trust. Such cultures are then resilient in the time of crises, in fact emerging stronger, insightful, and most importantly, with the faith of their stakeholders intact.

The question is, how then can organizations work towards creating these cultures? The answer to this points at the source – the purpose of the existence of the organization; Its mission, its vision. The program which defines the way in which the organization operates has to be hardwired with the mission and the vision of the firm. Its DNA needs to formed by the values that define it. Values are the things and attributes that are most important to the organization. They define the expectations of the organization. They help clarify priorities when faced with tough decisions. Values in action reflect who or what the organization is and what it wants to be The way in which policies are formed and executed, information is shared, decisions are made, leadership behaves, employees are treated, the organizations commitment to its customers and stakeholders – all have to mirror the values which the organization considers non-negotiable. The more the organization behaves in such a way, echoing its core attributes, the more the employees will embody and foster behaviors which further amplify the organizations significance. Trust begets trust, it is said, and the more you trust, the more you shall be trusted. It is an equation which when solved leads to exponentially positive outcomes. Articulating the organization’s core attributes of significance, becomes the critical start-point. The challenge, however, is not limited to being aware, but to its interpretation in daily work life, the conditioning and mechanism of the organization.

Translating values into behaviors involves 3 stages. It begins with defining what is expected- building a common lens through which we consider everything we do, and ensuring this is communicated across the organization. It means listening to each other and having conversations to understand what living the brand takes, to build the company’s future together. The second stage is aligning business strategies with enterprise plans and embedding key values into how we hire, train, reward, measure, decide, build, filter, etc. Stage three is advocacy and supporting each other in living the values everyday. The define- embed- advocate journey is time consuming, and one that requires practice. One may not get it right the first time, but the intention and expectations driving the journey will always prod up the organization in faltering times. Selecting the right values that inspire teams to create those experiences every day, to navigate the milieu of organizational worklife, will then foster the ‘behavior’ wave, and embed it into the DNA of the firm. Understanding and iterating to arrive at the right level of detail and complexity to meet the needs of all stakeholders, will generate the precise language that is understood and spoken across the whole organization. Eventually, every parameter of success measured, will be a reflection of this norm.

This journey of significance heralds the arrival of the organization into the Age of Behavior!