Monday, July 2, 2012

Bittersweet Endings

I've been really dragging my feet for the past few weeks.  Trying to figure out what to say and how to write about the end of my time here.

On May 21st I made my final trip back to Saurath, Bihar to visit Bhawna and Rangoli.  In addition to checking on the shop's progress, my main objective was to finalize the transition and ensure Bhawna was really taking full ownership.

What I found really surprised me.

"Aapko kaisi lagi meri dukan?" (What do you think of my shop?) she asked after giving me a big hug.   For the first time since the shop's establishment, she was referring to the shop as her own.  "Wonderful," I told her as we both laughed.

Things were running fairly well she told me.  Of course, some days were better than others and the normal up-down retail cycles were still at play.

But something in Bhawna was noticeably different.  Bhawna was smiling more, laughing more, and seemed generally much more at ease.  In fact, another volunteer who was visiting for the first time asked me if this was the same woman I had described just a couple months ago.

I spent a few hours each day at the shop.  With old customers coming in and out, surprised to see me back.  We chatted, caught up and had cup after cup of chai.  One afternoon, Bhawna insisted that I stay for lunch.  "Aap ke saath betke khaana khaana, mujhe achha laga" (I enjoy sitting and eating here with you), she told me as we ate daal, chawal and aloo sabji together in the inner courtyard of her house.

Then we got to more serious topics of conversation.  How can we improve this shop further? And compensate for particularly slow days?  And so we discussed the option of getting her some beauty parlor training so she can provide a few basic services (threading etc.) that always seem to be in demand in the village.  And regarding the products, we brainstormed additional items we can test in the market.

We also talked about the larger future of Rangoli Women's Shop.  I shared with her our plans of bringing the model to 10 more villages.  "What do you think is important for us to tell the future entrepreneurs of these new villages?" I asked her.  This was her response:

"When my husband is out and the sabji-wala (vegetable man) comes, the feeling of having enough money of my own to pay for it, is great.  It's a good thing for a woman to be able to help her family like this."

I was touched by this response.  And so I asked "What will you do with this extra money you are now making?"  "Use it to help my family," she said.  I used this opportunity to ask about Madhu, her daughter.  Would she start using this additional income to send her to the same type of private school she was now sending her younger son, Mittu, to?  Yes, she said.  If the business continued to be profitable, Madhu would be sent to a better school in Madhubani once she passed the next level of the government school she was now attending, Bhawna told me.  And I just hoped, that this would really be true.

With only a few days in Saurath, my trip was over almost as quickly as it started.  And I found myself already saying my goodbyes.  An incredibly bittersweet experience.  Because as sad as I was to be leaving, unsure of when I will see these people again, I was still happy to be leaving on such a positive note.

As I said my goodbyes to Bhawna, her family and others in the community, they all asked when I would return to Saurath.  "Jab mauka milega," (whenever I get the opportunity), I told them.  And as I hugged Bhawna, she again told me that she would always remember me as the one that came to help her start Rangoli.  And again, I reminded her that this was now her Rangoli.

Monday, April 30, 2012

(Universal) Ups & Downs of Retail

Bhawna (left) with a few customers
It's month 5 in Rangoli's operations.  And it seems that the ups and downs of the retail business are in full swing.

A few weeks ago, Rangoli had one of the slowest weeks since its launch back in December.  Bhawna called me in very low spirits.  No one is coming to the shop, she told me.  She was losing interest in the business, and questioning whether she had done the right thing in deciding to continue.

The situation rang all too familiar.  I remembered growing up in Jamaica and seeing the family business through the inevitable slow seasons.  And the continuous struggle in retail (read: unrelenting hope?) to make tomorrow, next week, next month, next year a better one.

I empathized with Bhawna.  But as I reflected on the situation, I realized that I couldn't truly understand her despair, as the scales of magnitude here are so distorted.  What may initially seem like a small loss, was actually much larger than I could truly appreciate.

As I struggled to find genuine words of support and encouragement, let's wait and see seemed to be all I could truly muster.

And so we waited.  And the next week, she called me in one of the most jovial moods I'd ever heard her in.  All smiles and laughter.  She needed more products from Delhi as things were selling out fast in the new wave of weddings that was taking place across the village.  And just like that, her mood was instantly transformed.

As we go through these up-down cycles, I try to remind myself that I can't judge success only based on last week's sales, and the tone in Bhawna's voice.  But at that moment, I couldn't help but smile as I heard her in uplifted spirits.

On the more 'objective' front, the model seems to be taking shape well as overall sales grow.  And what's even more exciting is that Bhawna and her family are taking greater ownership.  They are much more involved and enthusiastic about planning the inventory, and have taken ownership of some of the local purchasing for basic goods.

Here in Delhi, I've been focusing on the larger product portfolio and future sourcing plans.  I've been spending time exploring the wholesale markets to identify how product purchasing will be done in the future as we plan for more Women's Shops.   Squeezing through the narrow lanes of Sadar Bazar (one of the largest wholesale markets near Chandi Chowk) amongst people, cargo and animal traffic alike, has been one heck of an experience!  And not to mention, I'm learning more and more about Indian style and fashion, and the art of bargaining.  A few pictures from my excursions:

On a rickshaw from Chandni Chowk to Sadar Bazar

Along the way...

One of the crowded lanes at Sadar

Some of the costume jewelry we purchased

Jewelry, Hair Clips, Pins etc.

Some of our cool finds

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Transitions and the Art of Balance

About 3 weeks ago, I left Saurath Bihar and traveled to Delhi by overnight train (1st train experience in India success!).  Right around this time, Bhavana's confidence was slowly growing as the store started drawing more customers, and daily sales were beginning to rise.

A major part of this has been because wedding season is in full swing in the village, and several families are choosing to make their purchases here at Rangoli itself.  But another contributor to this, and perhaps a more interesting reason, is that many of the women who had never before come to Rangoli (whether because of some preconceived notions about the products or prices or otherwise) have actually started visiting!  And buying!  There's still certainly a lot more room for improvement, but this small victory has meant a lot for the team's spirit. And certainly for my own.  But perhaps most for Bhavana herself.  And the effect was quite visible as I started to see her smile more, and she seemed to be in generally better spirits.

When I told her I was leaving to Delhi for a while, though, she seemed concerned, asking how the shop would fare without me and when I would be back.  Stressing how far she's come since November, I tried to encourage her and show her that her that I'm confident that she can do it. She gave me a hug and told me that she would always remember me as the one who came to Saurath to help her start Rangoli.  And though we weren't exactly saying goodbye, I felt a certain sense of departure in the air - not only of my own, but also a feeling that things were now progressing to a new phase where Bhavana becomes the full and true owner of the shop.

Since I've been here in Noida, though, we've been staying in touch as I am still overseeing the shop's performance.  I've shifted my focus, however, to the overall model and concept of the women's shop.  After spending so much time delving deep into daily operations details, it's been a refreshing respite to work on the the higher level strategic planning. And I've definitely been bringing back those consulting skills to assess the model, fine tune its components and determine how we can make this successful on a larger scale.  Needless to say, my Excel skills are getting a good workout!

Of course, being in the city and working on a model meant for the village has its challenges. And sometimes I have to remind myself to think about what a high-level strategic idea might actually mean at a more detailed operational level in the village.  I'm struggling, but certainly learning, to balance these two.

More on my Delhi adventures to come. For now, here are some pictures from in and around the office:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

It's Better to Give Than To Receive They Say

Before coming to India, so many had told me: Remember, you will get a lot more from this experience and the community you work with, than you may be able to give.

And I thought I understood what this meant.  And even though I had ambitions of bringing real change and positive development (definitions pending) to the community, I thought I had appropriately tempered my expectations with the humble advice I received that India may have more to give me, than I it.

However, as with most things, inside I still stuck to my idealistic guns to change the world one step at a time.  Ok, maybe not the world.  But perhaps this small community.  Or even just 1 family within it.

And now, after 3 months of living in this village I am forced to face some hard truths.

At the end of the day, I had thought of success here based on seeing instant, visible benefits of my work.  And so I've poured myself into every detail.  I have to invest myself fully in the project to see real results - this is exactly the kind of experience I was searching for.  Right?

But as I pour myself into the daily details, I slowly find myself losing my vision for the long-term possibilities.  I busy myself trying to solve whatever issue or frustration has come up that day, to keep Bhavana's motivation and energy up, and somewhere in that process I begin to lose my own.

Take for example, an inicident that occurred a couple weeks ago when a bottle of shampoo worth Rs 60 (a little over $1 USD) went missing.  Bhavana called me frantically as soon as she realized, anxious over how she would makeup for the lost revenue, and fearful after her husband's furious outburst of a reaction.  And after everyone got the chance to cool off, what followed was a series of repetitive conversations about the inevitability of loss/theft, coaching on how to keep a watchful eye, and even the spreading of some rumors across the village of who was pointing the finger at whom.  Ultimately, this one seemingly small episode consumed an inordinate amount of time and energy, and put quite a damper on Bhavana's confidence and outlook for a while after.

I guess it's natural that after 3 months of working together, I've built a connection with her and her family.  But I find the line becoming even more blurred, as I begin to adopt their burdens and anxieties as my own.  And as the sales go up and down and doubts are cast on the viability of this business, I too question my role, my value, and ultimately, my ability to bring "true change" to the community.

Reflecting on this, I remembered something my older brother used to say when I was younger.  I can't remember the exact phrasing, but it goes something like: when you're in the fire, it's hard to see how far and wide the full impact is until you come outside of it.

And so after much reflection and many conversations with family and friends (my on-call personal support team!), I've been trying to take a more dissociated view to think beyond this one shop.  To focus and put forth all my energy on  the larger vision of this model to build a micro-enterprise system focused on empowering women.  And perhaps selfishly, soak up as much learning as I can along the way so that I can build the stuff that change-makers are made of.

Slowly but surely, I am learning to accept the possibility that I may not see the physical fruits of this while I am here.  I may not see this family's income double by the time my volunteership is over.  But the journey towards progress is a long one.  And I have to start somewhere.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Rangoli's Special Events - Some Fun for the Ladies of Saurath


Embroidery (kadhai) competition on 8/2
Over the past month, we have been working on mobilizing the community around the women's shop concept and increasing our customer base by holding a few fun events at the shop!

On January 13th, we held a Mehndi Competition where young ladies competed to make the best design on their friend's hand for a special prize.  And on February 2nd, we held a Hair Styling Competition and Chou Chou (scrunchie) Training where the team from Japan led the group in making and designing some beautiful hair ties.  And most recently, on February 8th we held an Embroidery Competition where participants had to make the best embroidery design on a handkerchief in 1 hour.

Seeing these young ladies at work, I am really amazed by the talent here!  As someone with very little (read: absolutely zero) artistic ability, I can definitely appreciate how skilled and creative (and not to mention, resourceful!) so many of these girls are.

Here's a look at their beautiful creations:

Roly showing her mehndi design
Bhavana explaining the mehndi comp rules

Everybody focusing on finishing in time

Annu showing her mehndi design

Shruti & Shalini 

Minu - 2nd place winner!
Shikha - 1st place winner

Joking around after the comp

Hanging out after the comp

Chou Chou Making Training on 2/1

Quite a crowd!

Lots of girls came on their lunch break to see!
So cute!

Working hard!
All the training materials

Lots of smiles!
And having fun!

About to start the judging
ome final creations
The group with their creations

One more time

Pooja and I

So focused!

Hair styling competition

Young girl and her chou chou creation
Perfecting her creation

All the competitors

And again

One of the winners!

Discussion on sanitary napkins

Embroidery competition

Bhavana Jha - Rangoli store owner

Panoramic view -ish (still working on this!)

The event drew quite a crowd!

Asha Ji from the Drishtee office

Jyothi Kumari and her creation

Gudiya Kumari and hers

Shruti Kumari and hers
Baby Kumari and hers


1st place winner - Annu!

2nd place winner - Tannu Devi!

3rd place winner - Jyothi!