Sunday, July 18, 2010

Jaalaka - Connecting the HIV/AIDS Community through Technology

“Things will change when you get to India”. This was echoed throughout the pre-departure planning stages for my project. I had a very clear understanding of my purpose for this project: resolve the technical issues and expand the software into other NGO’s, but I went in knowing that these objectives could change dramatically.

I am fortunate that my project has not deviated greatly from the proposal my team had prepared. The NGO’s that are working with us are extremely organized and have realistic goals and expectations that were communicated clearly and promptly from the beginning. Despite the pre-departure planning, there have been many challenges that I did not anticipate. Specifically, the length of time needed to resolve the technical issues that these NGO’s are facing, the technical knowledge needed to implement the program, and the identification of possible expansion opportunities for the software have proven to be the biggest challenges.

However, we have been able to take a step back from the urge to focus solely on fixing the technical issues and have analyzed the most efficient growth for the SMSFrontline software. After meeting with multiple stakeholders working with the HIV/AIDS community, my team and I have identified a need to expand the program and create a more efficient network to connect all the stakeholders that are currently using the SMSFrontline software. A centralized database would allow the NGO’s I am working with to share their data to create a more automated and structured tracking, referral and follow up system. In order to create this database, we have enlisted the help of various sources- LEAD students from BVB College, a software engineer and a fellow intern. I am hopeful that this database will streamline the data flow currently being implemented and improve the overall data sharing between the NGO’s. So what does my team envision? We hope that a specific NGO can refer a patient to register for a support group via SMS, and the support group will receive a message regarding the referral. If the patient attends the support group, the support group can then send a SMS message back to the referring NGO to confirm the registration of the patient. All of these messages would go through the central database and a history of the patient will begin to accumulate. With such limited resources, the NGO’s can benefit greatly from this system and will allow the NGO’s to spend more time working directly with the community members.

Working in India is definitely a unique experience. I have learned to become much more patient and accept the miscommunication that is bound to occur. Because my project involves many stakeholders, I am often at meetings to discuss specifics about the project. Email and phone calls are not effective in India, and thus, things take much longer to accomplish because of the face time that is required. One benefit to this is the chai and biscuit requirement for every meeting- if I wasn’t a tea drinker before coming here, I definitely am now!

Despite the delays that consistently take place in India, small victories do occur and are appreciated that much more. I am truly enjoying my internship and I feel fortunate that I can now truly understand the different work cultures that exist across the world.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Daily Struggle

I came to India to get experience developing and executing an entrepreneurial idea and to gain international exposure to NGO work. My experience in the US had quickly taught me that a nonprofit organization's approach to working in one city required a different approach to working in another city. I knew that regional differences played a significant role and anticipated that India's would only be magnified, but to what degree and to what dimension I had no clue. In my nearly five weeks working in India, I've quickly learned what I came here seeking. Entrepreneurship is no doubt difficult, but doing it in rural India requires twice the input and gets you only half the output. Never had the words, "you will soon appreciate the small wins," rang so true.

Everyday is a new day and never like the one before. When we first arrived we focused heavily on meeting with foundation staff to begin understanding the challenges in the area and develop contacts throughout the region. When not in meetings, we were discussing our web platform and wireframing the webpages to pass along to our web developers.

As we began developing our local sea legs, we soon became all too familiar with "the runaround." The runaround is everywhere. A task that should take five minutes takes five days. Things that are promised are rarely delivered without persistent pressure. Good communication (not to be confused with translation problems) is hard to come by and passing the buck is standard operating protocol. These are all part of a culture, which for thousands of years has tolerated with great patience bureaucracy, a sense of individualism, and in my opinion, a lack of trust, which I think is at the heart of why you can never find the decision maker when you need a simple task completed, and why when things go wrong everyone wants to point their finger to the next person. Without accountability the job is always harder.

Having learned to recalibrate expectations we have continued to pursue our work in the field, meeting, interviewing and filming NGO leaders, government officials, journalists, professionals, farmers and villagers. If logistics are the tortoise of our project, then getting an interview is the hare. When people hear you are a student from the US, it becomes your VIP pass to speak with whomever you want, even without an appointment. And they have no problem opening up their mobile contact lists to you either. Whether it was the Commissioner of the Municipal Development Corporation, who overseas 1.2 million people, or the most successful businessmen in the region, getting their numbers, speaking to them on the phone, and setting up a meeting was no problem - in fact, almost too easy.

With already 15 hours of footage, we split our time pursuing new leads and editing clips to help frame the challenges we seek to present. Beyond all the day-to-day operations, this has been our biggest challenge. There are no shortage of problems to be solved, for example in the education sector, but determining which issues are systematic and which could have potential to be addressed by the general public with a sustainable, scaleable solution is always a debate. And ensuring our time is spent wisely is a guessing game. When we travel four hours to a remote village to interview farmers about their involvement in their child's education, it's a total crapshoot whether the information we gather will be pertinent to our project's objectives. Some days require so much time and energy, yet provide little reward for the project, beyond the personal experience we can take home with us.

Beyond the personal challenges of work are the personal challenges of maintaining proper health. After four weeks of eating in the local restaurants, in villages and transitioning from bottled to filtered water, my stomach and I felt most invisible, with the exception of the minor discomfort from time to time. But as soon as I thought I had begun developing an immunity to the spices and dubious cleanliness of food preparation, I was knocked off my feet, admitted to the hospital with a food-borne virus. Right when I thought I was in a good zone with respect to my body and my project, everything nearly came crashing down. If it weren't for the support of my team, our project may have been derailed while I lay incapacitated.

India is a challenging place to work. And where I am, in the rural enclaves, life is much slower and more conservative. On one level, I can't say I would want to work in an environment like this again. I must acknowledge that I am biased by the struggle of being away from my fiance for so long, but there is more to my sentiment that resides here in India. I have accepted my new temporary home, but I often find myself fighting the cultural norms. I know change is slow, and I'm not expecting to change the world overnight, but its the small things, like getting a computer cord, which require four visits to the computer shop after four separate promises that it would arrive that evening, and the next, and the next and the next. It's arriving at a meeting, and waiting five hours for it to get started. It's meeting with a doctor and asking him a question about your test results and receiving a look of contempt as if it was an affront to ask a question of such an educated man of status. And the gender inequalities, while not oppressive, are disheartening.

But when I pull back and see the forest from the trees, I come away more optimistic from this experience. There has been a lot of amazing things about working with the people in India. Most are gracious, friendly and willing to help. They have taught me so much about their culture, and through the process, have educated me of the challenges of international development. I haven't even finished my project and yet I know that grown through the richness of experience, which has made the journey all the more satisfying.


Education Pioneers Week 5

The last five weeks have flown by with much of it spent working out the details of the financial model that will guide Value Schools through their expansion. Sound exciting? Not really, but this is obviously a necessary phase of the project as we further develop our plans for expansion. By developing the financial model I have gained a better understanding of charter school funding, which will be useful as we begin targeting locations and facilities for our additional schools. We’ve really just started this process and are looking at what communities in the Los Angeles Unified Schools District could most benefit from a charter school. Ideally we would like to locate our schools in close proximity to our existing two schools, but we have not ruled out targeting new locations. During the next few weeks I will be developing a list of recommendations for additional locations and starting to target possible facilities in those locations. I am looking forward to this phase of the project and I will update you next month.

Education Pioneers: Mid-Summer Update

This week marks the halfway point of my Education Pioneers summer fellowship. I can't believe it. Looking back, I've accomplished a lot, and learned an enormous amount, but there's still so much left to do!

My marketing project for ICEF Public Schools is well under way. I've spent the first half of the summer on two main workstreams. The first has been assessing the current position of ICEF within its major stakeholder groups. This has been done via informational interviews, web/press searches and also a survey (set to go live on Monday). I'm talking to people inside and outside of ICEF - home office staff, school staff, parents, members of the greater LA education community, etc. My findings regarding ICEF's position will flow directly into the marketing plan that I recommend.

The second workstream has consisted of more secondary research. I'm looking across a variety of research, reports, case studies and other resources to study, benchmark and evaluate potential marketing/brand solutions for ICEF. I've had luck with sources from both inside and outside of the education world, and from both the non-profit and for-profit sectors. It's been really exciting for me to combine a host of "best practices" to develop a plan that will be uniquely valuable to ICEF.

In addition to my project, I've had the opportunity to get involved in other exciting projects that are taking place at the organization. For example, I got to help out with ICEF's Promise Neighborhood grant application. (The federal government will choose 20 applicants to receive grant money in order to essentially replicate the Harlem Children's Zone model.)

And finally, outside of ICEF, the Education Pioneers Fellowship itself has proven to be a valuable learning experience. Today was our third workshop, in which we focused on Human Capital. We learned about current initiatives such as Teacher Effectiveness in LAUSD, and spent the day discussing, debating and even attempting to "solve" major teacher evaluation/compensation issues. I've found the workshops especially valuable, coming from a financial services background and still forming my own opinions on what exactly should be done in Ed Reform.

All in all, my first 5 weeks have been a valuable and worthwhile experience... and yes, I feel as though I'm making a difference!

Chrysalis: Checking In

Has it been 5 weeks already? My time with Chrysalis Enterprises (CE) is flying by. I have attended almost every class/support group that Chrysalis offers to clients in an effort to better understand not only the full-range of services that Chrysalis provides, but to also give me an opportunity to speak with the clients to learn a bit more about where they struggle the most and what their experience has been like with Chrysalis.

Although I have heard many stories that bring me nearly to tears, I have also celebrated the successes of many of the clients. It is music to my ears when an announcement is played over the intercom system that a client is going to ring the bell. I grab my keys and hurry next door to see them proudly wave the bell, share their story, and offer words of encouragement for all those still working hard to find a job. (Some are more comfortable speaking in front of crowds than others!)

My role at Chrysalis has not been focused on simply one project, as those of some of my classmates I speak with at other organizations. I have had a surprising amount of autonomy in identifying projects, making recommendations, and then receiving support as I put my recommendations into action. One of the larger assignments I have worked on has been investigating the feasibility of CE selling trash liners to customers. Why now? The customers that do work with Chrysalis have been hit hard with cutbacks in the new fiscal year and were in need of another route by which to order necessary supplies. I not only played an integral role in selecting the vendor, but then developed and introduced the new inventory system for the liners.

While this internship might not be the same experience that my classmates are having at Fortune 500 companies, it is the perfect experience for me. Perhaps just what the doctor ordered.