Saturday, June 19, 2010

In Search of the Serendipitous and the Obscure

When I was a child, my mother used to read me The Hobbit as a bedtime story. Bilbo Baggins and Belinda Took became oft-used metaphors in our family for our stability-loving and more adventurous sides. At that time, if you asked me which side I took after, I would have said Belinda Took's. I was always trying to get lost wherever I was, and rummaging through the sandbox for obscure "clues" in the form of found objects.

As I've grown older, for better or for worse I've become more of a Bilbo Baggins, although my research interests still veer dangerously towards the obscure. While I'm not advocating that all of you start researching "hotels", sacred groves and traditional crops, there are two areas of our lives in which we could all do with more serendipity and obscurity: in books and in love. And they're more similar than you think.

During a semester that I spent in London, there was a street near my university filled with bookshops, that I loved to wander down aimlessly. These tended to be specialty bookshops catering to different interests. So when I visited London again last November, that's the first place I wanted to go to. I was devastated to find that almost all the bookshops had disappeared, no doubt a casualty of Amazon.

I am a skeptical and cautious user of technology, and lest I be called a Luddite, let me say at the outset that most of the books that these stores contained might be available on Amazon. But Amazon caters to purposeful keyword searching, not aimless wandering. Even if I was to click on a category such as mystery, which one of the specialty bookstores would have catered to, once I started looking at a particular book, I would be gently prodded towards "other books customers like you liked".

I'm not under the illusion that bookstores don't keep track of their customers' preferences, and sell to them strategically. But one of the claims to fame of the Internet is that they can create a "personalized bookstore" for every customer. I'm sure I'm not the first to notice that this "personalization" actually discourages individuality, because my preferences are being matched to a vast database of "customers like me".

Thankfully, real bookstores, where they still exist, can't rearrange their shelves for every customer who walks through their doors. I can still tilt my head, scan the titles, and find that obscure book serendipitously next to something else that caught my eye.

So how are books like love, aside from the fantasy that many of my friends had about falling in love in a bookstore? Well you might think that most people would agree that serendipity is important in love, if not obscurity. But that might depend on where in the world you're from.

The arranged marriage is a highly purposeful endeavor that leaves little to serendipity. Single women and men, or their parents, decide that it is time for them to get married, and then set out on a very determined search for a bride or groom. Increasingly, this search makes use of websites like Tamil Matrimony.

A few days ago, using the ID and password of a friend, I logged on to Tamil Matrimony. I made it a project for myself to research the profiles of some women on that site, because I was interested in seeing how they represented themselves.

In most cases, the profiles were written by their parents. However, where the women had written their own profiles, I was pleasantly surprised to find that many had described their own interests, experiences and personality, and had written a few words on their views on what makes a good marriage, usually to the effect that it requires both partners to support and understand one another. Sometimes I think that this practical, planned approach to marriage, in which both partners discuss their goals and expectations beforehand, has much to recommend it. But mostly I think that marriage is about the chemistry and compatibility between two individuals, and fashioning and refashioning a relationship around that.

If you scroll a little further down the profile, you come to the "Partner Preferences" section. Not only can you specify the height, weight, caste, language, and occupation you prefer, but if you prefer a doctor, for example, you can also indicate whether by that you mean surgeon, dentist, or (soon to come) gastroenterologist.

My friend had already shortlisted a few candidates, and those were the only men's profiles we looked at. And there, at the bottom, was the piece-de-resistance - "customers who looked at this profile also looked at..." I may not be a die-hard romantic, and I can believe that there's more than one person who's right for each one of us, but the thought that our partner preferences can also be tabulated, analyzed and spit back at us left me speechless.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Some Things You Can't Put On Your Resume

In earlier posts I have talked about studies I conducted on "hotels", traditional crops and sacred groves. These three studies (and more!) were all conducted during the same one year period, for a social enterprise that was interested in using enterprise to preserve certain elements of the local culture.

I was recently amused when I happened to notice the many ways in which I had tried to capture this experience on my resume. I tailor my resume to the job that I'm applying for, which in principle is a good thing, but sometimes I think I overdo it. Here is a sampling.

"Documented the organization's history and interviewed local people and staff members to understand how community-based enterprises in alternative energy, medicinal plants and nutrition were defined and developed".

What is an enterprise in nutrition? What did I mean by defining enterprises?

"Conducted a series of case studies to assess the economic viability, environmental sustainability and social impact of pastoral livelihoods, and of developing enterprises for organic crops".

It might make sense to assess the social impact of a pastoral livelihood on a people who have recently taken to livestock. But if a community has been pastoral for as long as they remember, and if I couldn't find any documentary evidence to suggest otherwise, how would I go about assessing the social impact of their way of life?

And some were just impossibly broad:

"Conducted research amongst small-scale farmers and pastoral nomads on socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically viable natural resource management systems".

"Led project to research the interdependence of livelihood strategies based on pastoral nomadism and agriculture".

Yet I learnt more from these studies than I have from any other experience in the development sector. One of my first memories of this period was of sitting in a room full of rural women. Introducing myself, I said that in my previous assignment, I'd been working with women's groups in another state.

"What did they grow there?" was the immediate response.

I confessed that I didn't know.

"Why not?"

"Because I wasn't working on agricultural issues".

I was as embarassed by not knowing what the women I'd worked with had grown, as my reason for not knowing. It spoke of such a blinkered attitude.

With these studies, however, it was different. Perhaps the difference was that I didn't really know what I was supposed to be researching, so I gave my interviewees a relatively free hand to talk about whatever interested them. But I also think it was that most of the people I talked to were only "potential beneficiaries / clients".

Anthropology had already disabused me of the notion that you could ever expect to hear the "pure truth" from anyone, or that there is such a thing as the pure truth at all. My mother never tires of a cartoon in which a man in "tribal gear" runs home, shouting to his family, "Quick! Hide the TV! The anthropologists are coming!" Yet, perhaps only because my interviewees were not sure what I wanted to hear, I often heard things that contradicted my assumptions.

I've already talked about the contradictions within the sacred groves in an earlier post. Similarly, I found that while hotel owners all over the state of Tamil Nadu traced their roots to one village near Madurai, and would donate to and attend its temple festival every year, there was nothing traditional about the food they made, and they were in fact eager to innovate. I found out that while millets may be grown organically, the same land is used to grow cotton, which is notorious for its fertilizer and pesticide consumption.

But mostly, I just let people talk. My colleagues who showed me around were also, largely, willing to let people talk, and showed remarkable restraint in not jumping into the nitty-gritty of the enterprises they were planning. And I think if there was one large lesson I learnt here, it was to be much more aware of what lessons I was learning and from whom. The "Lessons Learnt" documents that I had written earlier, upon reflection, now seem to mirror much more closely the lessons we the organization wanted to learn, than the lessons that were actually being learnt.

In the course of these studies, I also learnt to be more firm with colleagues who I felt, often with the best of intentions, were nevertheless trying to twist the words of our interviewees. However, as for my resume, I'm still not sure how to capture what I learnt in two bullet points.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Villgro Blog: Social Enterprise Education, Part II

In this post I will be reflecting on the article, “Entrepreneurship Education in Forty Hours-You Can Do It!” by Riffe, Borchers and DeMonte. All three authors are professors at Kettering University in the U.S.

As the title of the article suggests, Riffe, Borchers and DeMonte describe a course that introduces students to the processes used in entrepreneurship in approximately forty hours of class time over eleven weeks. The authors say that because of Kettering’s academic schedule, this course is shorter than courses in entrepreneurship at other universities, which tend to be fifteen to thirty weeks long. Therefore at Kettering, the main objective of the course is for students to produce a business plan, rather than to fully create an enterprise as with other courses.

The business plan that Kettering students produce should be based on an innovation in product, service or delivery that is economically viable and environmentally sustainable. However, of the three examples of student ideas that the article presents, in only one is there even an indirect link apparent to environmental sustainability. This is the potable water generator for disaster zones, which it can be inferred will lead to improved environmental health.

To return to the question I raised in my last post, “How would this course look different if the focus was on innovations in products, services or delivery for the BoP?” For one, I think the goal of producing a business plan in one semester becomes even more ambitious. Riffe, Borchers and DeMonte state that defining and researching the market, which is one of the seven sections of the course, has become much quicker and easier due to the Internet. Therefore, “this keeps the time allotted for the class and the work required for the project within reasonable bounds”. However in defining and researching the BoP market, it is most likely that students will have to interact directly with the poor. This means additional time spent in traveling, in building rapport with poor communities, and in collecting and analyzing data.

Another difference may be in the amount of class time that is devoted to presentation skills. In the Kettering course, students make a persuasive speech, an idea pitch, an elevator pitch, a rocket pitch and a final plan presentation. While it is important for all students, regardless of area of study, to gain presentation skills, in India it seems that the “elevator pitch,” at least to impact investors, is not as critical to obtaining funding as it is in the U.S. If this is true in other developing countries as well, then perhaps courses focused on social enterprise at the BoP may spend less time on practicing pitches of varying lengths.

Nevertheless, there are important lessons that can be learned from this article for all courses on entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship. The first is the central role that faculty play. The course at Kettering is co-taught by one engineering and one business professor, and in order to ensure integration, both professors attend all the classes.

In addition, the business professor has industrial / entrepreneurial / intrapreneurial experience, and the students have every opportunity to benefit from it because they are required to interact with their professors outside of class. Two key requirements of the course that facilitate this interaction are the weekly meetings and journals. Student teams are required to meet weekly with faculty members to discuss their progress along the journey from idea to “final” product. The weekly meetings seem to be a good strategy to ensure that student teams do not leave their projects until the last minute. However, since in teams one or two members may dominate the discussion, the journals also provide opportunities for each student to “converse” with, through writing to and getting responses from, their professor.

Another lesson that this article provides is on the project selection process. Each student presents his/her idea to his/her peers, who vote for the ones that they would like to see become class projects. The only stipulation is that you are not allowed to vote for your own idea.

In designing the minor at IIT-Madras, we struggled over whether students should be allowed to work on their own ideas, or whether ideas should be assigned to them. Students are often interested in classes like this precisely because they have an opportunity to work on their own ideas. However, from a faculty perspective, it is important for students to learn that for a product or service to be commercially viable, it must meet a felt need of the customer rather than the innovator. In addition, we were concerned that if the faculty were viewed as favoring some ideas over others, students whose ideas were not selected might resist or resent having to join other teams. The project selection process employed by the Kettering course seems to successfully navigate these dilemmas.

Villgro Blog: Social Enterprise Education, Part I

I am also a regular contributor to, and this post was originally published there. To see some comments on this post, click here. Many thanks to Ranjit Koshi for helping me to edit this article.

In “Social Entrepreneurship Education: Is It Achieving the Desired Aims?,” it is surprising that Brock and Steiner do not begin with a discussion of what the desired aims of social entrepreneurship education are. This question is only addressed in the last paragraph of their paper, and that too, implicitly. The last paragraph says:

…The ultimate question is what course content and designs are most apt to persuade
students to develop a social mindset and become service-oriented leaders of
tomorrow. The real test of our work is the choices and actions of our graduates. How
many will choose a career path working for a socially entrepreneurial enterprise or
starting their own social venture within one year, five years, ten years, and twenty
years after graduation?

To have students work for or start their own social enterprise are certainly two important aims of social entrepreneurship education, and were part of the list of aims that my colleague and I drew up when planning a minor in innovation and social entrepreneurship at the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras (IIT-M). These correspond to numbers 7 and 5 on our list respectively. However, I reproduce the entire list below in order to illustrate that there can be many other aims of social entrepreneurship education, that Brock and Steiner neglect to discuss.

1. To enable participants to understand what social enterprise is and analyze different models of social enterprises

2. To develop participants’ primary research and writing skills, through creating case studies of social enterprises

3. To develop a body of case studies on social enterprises in India that can be used in subsequent years, through the participants’ assignments

4. To enable students to experience the worlds of an innovator and social entrepreneur, through creating their own product or service and business plan

5. To create champions of innovation and social enterprise amongst participants

6. To create a pipeline of innovative products with the potential to create social impact, that students can further develop through Genesis (IIT Madras' Social Entrepreneurship Business Plan Competition) or other avenues

7. To contribute to building a body of talent for the social enterprise sector

However, Brock and Steiner’s paper is methodologically very strong. They analyze 107 social entrepreneurship syllabi in the U.S. and abroad, the greatest number of courses analyzed to date. In addition, while they say that their list may not be exhaustive, they collected their data both through an Internet search, and from faculty listed in entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship and nonprofit management databases and list-serves. Each syllabus they collected was then coded independently by two authors. They had two rounds of “practice coding” in order to refine the category descriptions and make sure that there was agreement among the authors.

Brock and Steiner analyze 13 definitions of social entrepreneurship, and identify 7 concepts most often cited in these definitions. We conducted a similar exercise as part of the minor at IIT-M, but using fewer definitions. The concepts Brock and Steiner identify are social problems/needs, opportunity recognition, innovation, scalability, resource acquisition, sustainable business model and measuring outcomes. They then provide a brief paragraph describing each, and suggest that these are the most important topics in social entrepreneurship education. While this provides a useful guide to the topics that any overview of social entrepreneurship should cover, it could be refined further.

Amongst Brock and Steiner’s findings, I was most interested in the tabulation of the top fifteen articles assigned by instructors. What surprised me is that none of the literature on the Bottom of the Pyramid is included amongst these fifteen articles. My suspicion is that social entrepreneurship courses, which are predominantly offered by universities in the U.S. and Europe, also tend to focus on social entrepreneurship in the West. There may be good reasons for this, which include the availability of practitioners as guest faculty, and of service learning opportunities in close proximity. However, the questions I am left with are, “How transferable is the knowledge gained through these courses to social entrepreneurship in the developing world? Are the social entrepreneurship courses offered in developing countries substantially different from those offered in the West, either in terms of readings, or in other ways?”