Friday, August 24, 2012

India's Independence & Husk Foundation Day!

There's so much to share about the last few days at Husk...a few pictures until I finally sit down to write.

Celebrating India's 65th Independence Day in the field
and HPS 5th Foundation Day! 
Poori Subzi Brunch post flag hoisting
with Pratima ji

Celebrating Husk turning 5
with one last plant visit!

Final dinner with Gyanesh ji in Patna

Thursday, August 2, 2012

An excuse to celebrate!

All over India, people celebrated Raksha Bandhan today. It is a special day where the relationship between a brother and sister is celebrated. The sister ties a thread, Rakhi,  to her brother’s wrist to symbolize her love and gratitude for always protecting her. It is a small gesture that brothers and sisters alike, look forward to. Sisters are gifted something special in return from the brothers for the rakhi they receive - money, clothes and the latest trend thanks to Cadbury's marketing efforts - chocolates.

Boys and men, walked around proudly with bracelets around their wrists throughout the day today. There’s a great variety in the rakhis as well – there are rakhi’s with a lot of bling while others which are a bit more subdued & simple. I did feel immensely guilty for sending virtual rakhi’s to my brothers this year…but then I convinced myself that there’s a perk - they’ll have them all year round! 

Rakhi Thali - for the Rakhi ceremony
Undeniably, there was something special in the air all morning. Bhabiji, my neighbor, was elated all night with the possibility of her brother showing up to surprise her. Sure enough, after a long overnight journey, he showed up this morning to get his rakhi tied. The day was filled with the sound of prayers from poojas, reminisces of the tikkas on everyone’s foreheads from the morning ceremonies and of course the never ending food!

I thought about our ancestors and why they created so many festivals throughout the year. I concluded that perhaps it was a way to encourage people to stop, pause and reflect. To cherish the special relationships in their lives and ensure they get celebrated at least once a year if not all year round. It refreshes the soul to connect with loved ones, to sit down to a special meal and share a few memories and laughs. Even though I am miles away from my brothers, the occasion gave me a reason to call them and write them. Yes, of course, life goes right back to normal, but days like Raksha Bandhan allow people to share happiness within their communities and connect. Our ancestors were brilliant – forcing us to take a break from the daily routine and instead pay attention to what matters the most - people. By celebrating each relationship, those created by birth and others through shared experience, we foster these relationships. Each in its own right is beautiful if we pause to notice.  These festivals enable us to put aside our worries & differences -instead focus on sharing our joy & happiness.

As I type this – Bhabiji walks by, in one swift motion force feeds me a Rasgulla  - even before I can tell what it is. No matter what the occasion, these celebrations make days like today worth cherishing…all because of the delicate relationships they represent & foster.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Customer Service

This blog was inspired by the several grueling and frustrating conversations I’ve had with the Air India staff throughout this year. Sure, it has been a difficult year for the airline especially with the pilot strikes - however as Seth Godin says “Every tough time and every pressured project is another opportunity to earn the trust of someone you care about.” Yes, you should in fact care about your customers.

I recently put together a customer service training manual for all our employees at Husk. Some of the lessons seemed elementary, today was just another reminder how critical, difficult and important it is to implement those "basics"!
True, customers want to be heard especially when they are upset but this is a prerequisite for you to do your job. Until you understand their dilemma, their pain point, their goal - it is impossible for you to help them.
No one can have all the powers or answers. When things are out of your locus of control, escalate the issue. Be proactive, customers will certainly appreciate the time saved. Rather than waiting for a frustrated customer to ask for your manager, introduce them to a more experienced colleague right away.  This will do wonders for you and your reputation, perhaps even improve the organization’s negative brand image. For those that are self interested - who would you want talking to your manager about you? 
     A) A customer who you assisted immediately and referred to the manager
     B) A customer that has been given the run around and has reached your manager as a last resort
It is always your job & your problem
A customer is every employee’s problem whether it affects your job responsibilities directly or indirectly. Your job exists because the customer chooses to bring his/her business to you. Respect that choice and make their problem your problem.

If employees simply care and do their best to address a customer’s concern – regardless of the outcome - the customer leaves with some sense of satisfaction.  Treating customers as though they are disposable simply creates job insecurity.  My hope for all employees is that we continue to develop empathy for our customers and stay mindful of the long term vision.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


After the six hour drive to Varanasi we climbed up three flights of stairs to step into an unbearably hot room. There were about 40 candidates eagerly and silently waiting for our arrival. I couldn’t help but feel incredibly guilty for making them wait; I presume they had been there for at least 2 hours. 

Just as I was getting used to the stuffy atmosphere, the invertor gave out. The two giant rickety fans that were helping ventilation in the room had stopped working just as Satish ji, interim director of operations, began providing the attendees an introduction about Husk and the importance of our work.
Satish ji introduces Husk to the candidates 
We were there to recruit electricians and linemen for our operations team. These men would be trained via Husk Power University and then sent to the field to assist especially in preparation for the upcoming monsoon months. Birender ji, Head of engineering at Husk, asked each candidate a series of simple technical questions. I was there to assess their experience, communication and willingness to work within the harsh rural conditions in Bihar. Husk invests a lot in its employees, so it is important that we not only attract but more importantly retain talent once they are trained.
 Candidates browse through our new HPS brochures as they await their turn.

A candidate complete an informational
sheet prior to his interview.


To ease the obvious nervousness and anxiety, we started out asking simple questions like their name, telephone number and school details – information they had already completed on their forms prior to the interview.   Eventually, Birender ji and I posed a series of worst possible scenario questions for the candidates:

  • Are you willing to leave UP and move to Bihar and work in a rural area? Aren't you afraid?
  • Do you cook? What would you do if you are unable to find food for dinner in the village after finishing up work late at night?
  • What would you do if a customer starts to swear at you about the fluctuation he/she is experiencing in the power supply?
  • Will you be able to live without a fan or light despite this heat? Our plant is the only supply of electricity in the village and it operates for just 6 hours at night.
  • What will you do if a customer refuses to pay you for the month?
  • If you have to sweep or clean up the plant in case your co-workers are missing – would you or is the job beneath you? After all you are more educated than the Husk loader?
Needless to say we got a great variety of interesting responses to the questions. The questions were all based on reasons we've lost trainees in the past. As I asked these difficult but realistic questions, I was amazed at the candidates’ willingness to endure hardship for long term gains. It is difficult work – Husk needs young, honest, hardworking individuals that aren’t quitters. The employees aren't incentivized with huge salaries, bonuses or luxuries. If they can manage to stick it out, it is an incredible opportunity for them to learn, grow and progress - in a region where opportunities for semi-trained individuals are slim at best.  The interviews reminded me of this ad we had discussed at Acumen’s midyear check in.  

Text:MEN WANTED for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.Context: In 1913, Sir Ernest Shackleton placed this ad in the Times to build a crew for an expedition to the South Pole. 5,000 men responded to the ad and 27 were selected.

The good news is that we selected over 25 people to join our electrician training program. Trainees are provided a monthly stipend along with housing for the training period. Successful completion of the training guarantees them a job with HPS. Those that were not selected for the electrician training were offered an option to train as operators. Once they gain experience operating a plant and develop their technical skill set,  they can begin training as an electrician. 

Working at Husk has definitely wiped away any illusions I may have had about working in rural India. It is a dirty, sweaty, difficult, trying but also an incredibly unique experience. Where else could I ever show up in flip flops to an interview and question a candidates culinary skills? As we were leaving, I realized that this was the first interview most of the candidates had ever attended.  I left in great admiration of their determination and willingness to work hard.

I too am beginning my career search post the fellowship.  The night before our trip to Varanasi, I had politely turned down an opportunity after an interview because the job responsibilities didn't sound exciting and I realized they weren't a good fit. After an incredibly humbling 3 hour experience with these candidates, I realized how fortunate I am to have a choice.  

Unfortunately, for many around the world it is still a luxury to have options to explore. To have a means to earn an income, beyond that generated through farming for survival, is rare. I am convinced that it is by creating access to opportunities that we can truly empower.  Education is at the core of every development issue we battle and HPS is doing its share to educate and empower the local population. 

This week, we welcomed the new recruits in Patna. I’m excited to see the fruits of HPS’ very first ground level recruiting session.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Bihari Delicacy!

Bihar is known for its litti – chokha. My fellowship experience, much like Aamir Khan's recent visit to Patna, would have been incomplete without a cooking lesson on making this favorite local treat! Recipe below for those that want to try it!!

Ingredients for approximately 40 littis (a minimum quantity @ the guesthouse!):

·         2 packets of Sattu (250gms each)
·         4 medium Onions
·         Handful Green Chilies
·         2 tbsp Garlic
·         2 Tomatoes
·         One large bunch of coriander
·         4 Lemons
·         4 cups Wheat Flour
·         2 tbsp of ajwain
·         Oil for frying
                     ·        Salt to taste

Step 1: Empty the sattu in a large bowl. Use your fingers to break up the mixture. Keep working your way through the bowl. When it is adequately broken up, you’ll notice you can form shapes  and it begins to stick together.

Step 2: Add diced chilies, garlic, onions to this mixture. Mix well. Squeeze lemon juice onto the mixture. 

Step 3: Knead wheat dough into a thick consistency adding water, oil and salt. Add ajwain to the mix.

Step 4: Grab a generous amount of dough and roll into a smooth giant round ball.

Step 5: Next start pressing in the center of the dough to make a hollow center – so it starts to look like a bowl.

Step 6: Stuff a giant spoonful of the the sattu stuffing into the dough bowl.

Step 7: Bring in the sides of the wheat dough together. This will cover up the sattu completely with the wheat dough. The uncooked litti should look like this.

Step 8 : Heat the oil and fly until the cover is golden brown. (You can also cook the litti over an open fire for a healthier version).

Step 9: The finished litti will look like the picture below.  Serve them slightly warm. 

To accompany the litti – Biharies make a variety of sides chokha including chutney, eggplant, potatoes, a selection of sauces. We made simple yet tasty chutney to go along with our littis.

Steps for coriander chutney:
     1) Roast tomatoes over an open flame until the skin gets a little burnt

     2) Peel off the skin of the tomato.
     3) Roast garlic, coriander and chillies on a pan. Wait till they get a little brown. This gives the chutney a nice roasted flavor.

4)  Grind tomatoes, garlic, chilies, coriander in a mixer. Add salt. Don’t add too much water – you want the chutney to maintain a thick consistency.

 5)Serve with your Litti!

Munna ji:  My instructor & the cook at the guesthouse!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Reflections inspired by the Ganga

Yesterday, I experienced Varanasi first hand. I drove there with a few colleagues to recruit candidates for HPU’s linemen training (more details in a later blog). If you know anything about India, you've invariably heard about Varanasi. I too had heard extremely varying views from friends and family about what is considered to be the holiest sites in India.

Along the banks of the Ganga – you truly witness life, death and everything in between all in one glance. Children running around selling candles as yogis meditate in stillness; buffalos bathing as families cremate loved ones; young adults smoking marijuana while pundits chant centuries old scriptures; foreigners walking around with rudraksha malas as locals soak in the sun with flaunting their DIOR sunglasses. The sensory overload pales in comparison to Mumbai airport’s exit gate or New York’s Times Square for that matter.

What was most shocking and unexpected though was the hustle and bustle of ongoing business transactions along the Ganges bank. Cops stand by a temporary barricade to openly accept bribes from cycle rickshaws and bikers for entry to a "pedestrian only" pathway leading to the river. Along the way, men wearing saffron robes look for their prey and insist on guiding visitors to the hidden temple entrance.  They offer deity darshan for a small “finder’s fee”.  Along the bank, priests walk around with brass plates used for religious ceremonies – eager to adorn a tikka on a non suspecting visitor’s forehead and swiftly hand over coconut as prasad (blessed offering) – all in return for a fee they deem appropriate. The ferry boats in the Ganges are no exception. After your guide has introduced you to all the ghats along the river - they stop to share that last ghat is where visitors give “Gupt daan” – literally translated to “anonymous donations” – an act that will bring the donor good luck. I was dumbstruck by the facade of religion and tradition used to promote dishonest businesses everywhere I looked. Under the disguise of holy and pure, the Ganga can be described as a market place filled with deception.

We sailed to end the day with the Ganga Aarti. As I listened to the chiming of the bells, the chatter from all that I had just witnessed silenced itself. I started to think about the millions that had come before me -  full of hope to cleanse themselves in the Ganga. I thought about how for hundreds of years, thousands of souls from all around the world had probably left feeling blessed to hear the same prayers, I was witnessing. The glowing lights diverted my thoughts away from the numerous examples of deceitfulness I had observed earlier.  An amazing sense of calmness came over me as I experienced the synchronized Aarti made as an offering nightly to the Ganga.  I was in awe and suddenly I felt fortunate to be there.

I concluded on our six hour drive home that Varanasi is certainly special.  The negative noise within me was silenced while I floated amidst the dishonesty, corruption, lying and cheating. I suppose the Ganga is just a unfiltered and clear reflection of the world. A world filled with selfishness, dishonesty and deceit balanced with hope, faith and generosity. We choose where to focus our thoughts and effort.  

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Ripple Effect

I break your trust. “I” could be anyone – stranger, lifelong friend, boss, spouse, subordinate, organization, supplier, customer, government - the list could go on and on. Anyone you come into contact with – directly or indirectly - carries their reputation with them.

The varied experiences you have with me over time – begin to reveal a prominent and unique image. Each interaction adds a different color, a different stroke to your canvas - of me. Suddenly - one incident, one un kept promise, one misspoken word begins to tarnish this portrait. The trust which may have been difficult to establish in the first place, is shred to pieces.  Now you begin to view each interaction associated with me - with a shattered lens.  Consistent with human nature, you are more likely to share your disappointments, rather than surprises, with those close to you.

Unfortunately, the shattered lens doesn’t just affect my individual credibility. My actions or in actions - influence and create unseen ripple effects.  My associations - family, department, company, educational background, race, gender, religion, nationality - are somehow affected. Reputations develop, organizational culture is influenced, stereotypes get formed, and expectations begin to change; you begin to react differently to the same interaction because now I’ve opened Pandora’s box and given you a reason to question and doubt.

Lack of trust is often cited as one of the biggest challenges with doing business with rural customers.  They’ve been burnt by too many NGOs, banks and businesses promising to solve their problems. Many fail to deliver, shattering their trust and making it difficult for the next solution to be given any consideration.

Each of us is therefore burdened with enormous responsibility. To ensure our actions create positive effects in the communities we belong to. It is important to individually recognize our extended influence.  It is just a matter of pausing to decide – do you wish to create a masterpiece or help destroy art? After all you too must bear the consequences.