Friday, January 30, 2009

Don't Under-Estimate the Power of the "Cool Factor"

There is much being written about the economic meltdown and how it means that social capital has all but disappeared. But I have a story to tell. We moved from New York to California in the late seventies. My husband, who used to be a chain smoker in New York stopped smoking overnight after we moved. Wow, what self-control! I thought. Then, as we shared stories with fellow recent-Californians, I found many more who also stopped smoking overnight- And why? I think it is the "Cool Factor". California - always a leader in social trends - had already decided at that time that smoking was no longer "cool". The point is that we human beings are social animals and while few can be super heroic, most want to be socially relevant. So I speak with the voice of experience when I say - don't underestimate the "Obama Cool Factor". Yesterday's news is all about Obama chastising Wall Street executives about their "shameful" behavior in taking billions of bonus money even as their companies sought bailouts. Earlier in the month, Jan 19th, Obama asked the nation to devote a day to social service and Californians responded in droves. Yes, all over America, social responsibility is "cool" and self serving smack is out. Big changes come from small people in big numbers. For social entrepreneurs this means looking for capital and support from not just the few "big guys" but also from many smaller investors and yes -Do play upon the "cool factor" - No need to be apologetic about your social agenda as you explain your fiscally conservative business plan. Now if we coulld only get politicians in India to believe that honesty is cool and corruption is out.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How to change our education system: From Scarcity Mentality to Abundance Mentality

When asked what he thought was wrong with the education system, Ravi Gulati answered with a story. "It is well known that Gandhi ji, was always smiling, cheerful, always full of hope. When pushed one day to say one thing, just one thing that depressed him Gandhi said - the heartlessness of the educated." This year (Jan 15,16 2009 at Stanford) the annual King Holiday celebration theme was Education for Global Liberation. Among other events, there was a panel discussion with three educators/activists from India. These educators have developed educational curricula different from traditional models in that social awareness and justice is built into the classroom experience starting grade 1. From Riverside School in Ahemdabad, for children from relatively affluent backgrounds, to Manzil for urban lower middle class children to Manav Sadhana for the poorest of kids, each school is a product of inspired leadership. Ravi Gulati says his MBA education, with its focus on increasing consumption to increase market, as having been the catalyst in seeking alternative economic models which led to an examination of the education system. What happened to the values he learned as a child in an average middle class family, where frugality was the ethic of choice? Encouraging consumption as a market driver, leads to a scarcity mentality where no matter how much you have , you never feel you have enough, he says. He wants to create an education system based on an "abundance mentality". Viren Joshi spoke about a child from his slum school who returned a large sum of cash he found in the street simply because "it was not his" a natural behavior of the values learned in school.
So how does one instill ethics and social justice into young minds? How does one get away from the "don't know = don't care" syndrome? I got some answers from these educators who talk about the values they instill "To whom much is given much is expected"; They ask their students to ask themselves "what am I doing to "preserve" my rights?" "What am I doing to "deserve" my rights". Speakers’ Bios are:
Kiran Sethi is the Founder/Director of Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India, which focuses on social justice curriculum and experiential learning. She was elected a 2008 fellow by Ashoka, the world’s leading authority on social entrepreneurship for her innovative “aProCh – A Protagonist in every Child.” (
Ravi Gulati is the founder of Manzil, ( a youth empowerment and learning center in New Delhi. Operating out of Gulati's home, Manzil is a unique resource designed for local low-income youth. It offers classes in traditional subjects such as English and Math, but also fosters the creative arts and leadership capacity building to provide a more holistic approach to critical thinking and learning.
Viren Joshi is co-founder of Manav Sadhna in the Gandhi ashram, Ahmedabad. Inspired by Gandhian ideals of truth, non-violence, uplifting the oppressed, and promoting health, sanitation, and education, Manav Sadhna strives to adapt these ideals to the complex issues facing India and the world.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Leadership Lesson- Learn from Obama

Like millions of others I watched Obama getting sworn in - from President Elect to President. I watched his face on a 54 inch HD screen that shows every spot, every crease, every expression magnified several fold. There is lots being written abut the famous flub, but what I found interesting is something different: a lesson in leadership. Because of how he handled a crisis - a completely unscripted moment when we see the man- being himself. Here is what happened: The camera is focused on Obama's listening face as we hear a man (Justice Roberts) off camera reciting words that Obama is supposed to repeat - and even at it starts - something goes wrong - the words aren't in the right order or something. Obama's expression changes to friendly compassion, a slight nod - and it goes on. Obama's unscripted reaction made it clear (to all of us who do not know the oath by heart) that the error was not his. More important-there was no anger, no self-conscious tittering, no tension, no laughter at the other person's mistake, no negative body language at all. But he wasn't stone-faced either - he did have an expression - it was one of trust, confidence, friendship, teamwork. There is a leadership lesson in this for all of us - when things go wrong, and something always goes wrong, our first reaction should not be one of blame or anger or even withdrawal. And it should also not be denial- face adversity with compassion and trust. In addition, don't create a crisis - maybe no harm is intended; and even if it was intended - the best way to deflect it in the moment is to stay calm, cool, unemotional (which does not mean devoid of emotion). Yes - "No Drama Obama" - Here is a leadership lesson - we can all use, especially those of us involved with social issues where things are always grey and emotions run particularly high. I do believe it is possible to train oneself to be calm and show compassion in crisis, so even if it takes a bit of work - just do it - eventually it will become a natural response.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Social Enterprises Panel and Showcase 2/22/09

Mark your calendar and plan to attend the third annual Entrepreneurship Week at Stanford University, February 18-25, 2009. Enjoy a variety of events throughout the week, including prestigious speakers, panel discussions, workshops, mixers, VC/student "speed dating,” a start-up job fair and more. Most events are free and open to the public. The Social Enterprise Panel and Showcase is on 2/22/09, Wallenberg Hall, 3-5pm. Entrepreneurship Week is hosted by the Stanford Entrepreneurship Network (SEN), a federation of entrepreneurship-related organizations across Stanford University. SEN programs, including Entrepreneurship Week, are proudly sponsored by Deloitte.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Education- the gift that keeps on giving- isn't that called investment?

The following 2008 update letter is part of a package sent to investors. As financials are tough, I wish you all the best in making giving (investment) choices right for you.

Dear Friends,
The greatest doer must also be a great dreamer.” -- Theodore Roosevelt
In December 2007, I stood on the grounds of the Rural Women’s College in the village of Gangapur, Varanasi and as I looked into the eyes of so many eager young faces, it felt like a dream come true. The aura of hope, excitement and vitality was so strong that all I have to do is close my eyes and I can still feel it today. In the students’ young faces, I see an India that is vibrant, compassionate and wise. I see an India that retains what is best in our ancient culture without the shackles of poverty and desperation.

Our story starts many years ago when my husband and I got a letter from Salt Lake City, in the mail, outlining a dream and also a plan which included the establishment of the “Foundation for Women’s Education in the Rural World” for a school for young women in rural India. We were so moved by the vision as well as the well thought out plan that we decided to give what little financial support we could provide, to keep in touch with Dr. N.P Singh but mostly to be cheerleaders for his grand vision and a most worthy cause. We had never heard of Dr. Singh but we figured when someone takes up such a major challenge, being cheerleaders was the least we could do.

Today, the school is very real and it is making a vast difference. The buildings are functional, grounds neat and kept clean by an assiduous staff. The environment feels safe and supportive. But what is most impressive is the attitude the students and staff bring to the picture – they are enthusiastic, hard working and energized.

Their individual stories are inspirational. During my visit, I noticed several young girls with “sindoor” in their hair and so when I asked I found that many of the students had already done a full days worth of house-work taking care of families even before taking the long ride to the school. And yet they projected no hint if tiredness or hardship. In fact they were proud of themselves, their school and their family for supporting their dreams.
They say that “a dream is just a dream until you write it down….then it becomes a plan”. We feel honored to be included in the planning of this dream and look forward to seeing it grow. There still remains much to be done, but believe me to share in this dream gives rewards far greater than any investment one makes. Please do plan to join in making dreams come true for a most deserving group – young rural women of India.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Networking Strategy for Social Entrepreneurs

I was at Minority Development Workshop where Donna Nelson presented the results of her report "A National Analysis of Diversity in Science and Engineering Faculties at Research Universities". The data (US) is pretty grim: “Progress for female and minority faculty at research universities, produced from past attempted solutions combined, has been too slow. If significant progress is to be made within the next couple of decades, new and totally different approaches to solving problems facing women and minority faculty will be needed.” The report made a huge impact on me. Being a corporate type I always thought universities were more hospitable to qualified women (after all, in 1975 I knew a university professor who wore saris to work and one who took her baby to office). The report also finds that many qualified faculty women opt to drop out or settle for a lower position (very few deans for instance). After a while it is "just too much of an uphill grind", "not worth it" etc. I see this with social entrepreneurs too - it results from having inadequate informal support infrastructure. Support can come from Networking- There are two networking strategies :
1- "Blending In" is being like the majority; socializing in their playgrounds - it gives you access to influential colleagues, you understand the rules of the game - it often feels like hard work.
2-"Sticking Together" - stay close to family, race, community; gives you stress relief, builds social support and strengthens you- it can be a time sink
The key to successful networking is to explicitly adopt both strategies, to be aware of their powers and pitfalls and employ as needed in your situation. As I listened to Donna's talk I realised that in my corporate life - I followed the "blending in" strategy (no community) and now in my university life I follow the "sticking together" strategy (community of social entrepreneurs). I can see how I could have done better with a more explicit understanding of this system - I have always hated networking (time sink, too much work, no fun etc.) and now I understand why.
How do you network ?