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!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Recruiting & Interviewing in the Village

Recent Mehendi Competition at Rangoli
How do you fill an open, women-only job position in a village?  With no standardized, centralized recruiting process (no monster.com or talent agencies here).  In a society where there's a cap on how much education a girl can (or should, according to many) attain.  Surrounded by so many social rules that dictate should-not's and can-not's for women.  This would be no easy task...

About 3 weeks ago, we began on a mission to find a "padhi-likhi ladki" (educated girl) who can assist with daily duties at Rangoli, further develop the customer experience, and build relationships with the clientele.  So the ideal candidate would be a girl in her late teens who: has completed at least up to the 10th standard, has strong math skills, is a good communicator, and can sell (after all, in retail - it's all about the up-sell!)

Step 1: Resume Review
As luck would have it, we had a list of resumes from girls who had previously completed a computer training course with this NGO in Saurath.  From that list, we picked the top candidates and contacted them for a short informational interview at the office.

Step 2:  Interview at Rangoli (Personal Support Team Included)
Group interviews seem to be the thing here.  See, girls tend not to travel alone (mostly for safety purposes), so they bring their friends and family along.  And since the community is a fairly small one here, everyone seems to know (or know of each other). So the interviews at Rangoli went something like this:
  • Candidate enters with friends and they all greet Bhavana
  • ~15 minutes of social exchanges: How is this one?  And that one?  She left to Delhi already?  Her train was late, wasn't it?  The train is always late these days.  The weather is so bad.  Too cold. Etc...
  • And now, to the meat of things.  I was quite excited and proud to see Bhavana lead the meeting, explaining to the candidates what the job responsibilities are and what her expectations are.  I was only there on the side for support, which she didn't seem to need. :-)
    • Here, the friends and family companions chime in to show that they too understand the job and think the candidate is a perfect fit.  It's quite like having a personal brand support team by your side to tout your capabilities to others.  (Who wouldn't want this?!)
    • And as is common here in the village, all the neighbors sense some "official business" going on, so they start peering out of their homes to find out what's going on.  Some even come and stand in the doorway, blatantly watching and listening.
  • Any questions?  Generally, no.  Although the question of salary is always an awkward one.  Some are shy about it, looking at the ground and whispering as they ask what pay the job offers.  While a few are bold and will directly ask and state their salary requirements (I think these are mostly girls from higher-caste, and higher-income families).
Step 3: Close the Candidate
This seems to be the hardest step.  Many girls face constraints at home from male family members who do not like the idea of their daughter/sister/granddaughter working in the store.  The concerns range from worries about the girl having to travel to and from work daily, to the issue I seem to keep running into: marriage-ability - will this job affect our ability to find a good groom for her?  Will people think less of her or the family if she is a sales assistant?

Fortunately, after much back-and forth with several candidates, we have finally been able to confirm someone.  Aparna, an 18 year old from Saurath, began working at Rangoli a couple weeks ago and is slowly coming to understand her role and responsibilities.  The training process has begun on the daily store activities: recording sales, verifying stock etc.  The uphill battle now will be more around the soft skills of selling techniques and relationship building to develop strong ties with the community and attract more and more women to the store.

More to come...