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!