I spent most of my undergrad career as a typical liberal college kid. Corporations are bad. Money is bad. What do you mean gender neutral housing won’t be passed in North Carolina? Thankfully I had several great classes and countless peers to challenge this easy thinking. Thanks to my Morehead scholarship, I also had to work for a For-Profit business one summer. Needless to say, I was skeptical. Cherokee Investment Partners proved to me that there are countless types of businesses…and some can do good too. My mentor Bret encouraged me to look for jobs where I believe in the work the company does and how they conduct themselves. I realized that I had been jumping to conclusions for businesses based on labels. Appalled with myself – I would never judge a person by one over-simplified label placed on them – I began expanding my horizons to learn about businesses that work like non-profits and non-profits that are run like businesses.
When I came to India the first time I was personally offended how the arts track (humanities) was ranked: lowest on the tier of academics. Any score on the 10th standard exams could take arts, below a certain mark had the choice of Business or Art, and only the highest scores could choose between those and science. Thank you India for keeping what you find valuable so secretive! This weekend I couldn’t help but laugh as Patrick – the researcher whose blog I shared a few weeks ago – came to understand this system. He told my student “Well that’s what’s wrong with India! There’s no liberal arts.” She was confused. He continued, “Teaching people how to think, learning about political science, communication, writing, all of that.” She looked at him and with a smile just simply stated “That’s not India.”
She could not be more right. It feels like everyone in India wants to be an entrepreneur. Starting your own business feels like an honorable way to bring yourself out of poverty. There is limited room for “learning how to think.”
Our students have that unique luxury. They develop critical thinking skills through weekly debates and practice public speaking. They set themselves apart from the crowd simply by the way they talk and carry themselves. And yet, the majority of our 11th and 12th graders, and even graduates, study business. It doesn’t hurt that our founder Dr. George was a successful business man; they respect him and he views business as an honorable option. Even though I understand the system better now, I continued to be skeptical of how common the choice for business is at SB. Until Saturday.
I chaperoned a field trip to a Community Team Work event at Goldman Sachs in Bangalore. This, more than anything, made me feel the gravity of my job…and made me feel like a real adult! I was responsible for 27 teenagers. And, seeing the real world through their eyes made this trip even more meaningful. For starters, the air-conditioning on the bus made them all feel like they were freezing to death. It was no where near an over-air-conditioned movie theater and felt refreshing to me. Then we drove past the big football stadium where German funders of SB have started hosted a tournament once a year. Their excitement in pointing out the pristine field and large building melted my heart. Once we got to Bangalore they kept pointing out big malls and chain fast food restaurants in awe. At the GS building several of the girls grabbed on to my arm as the elevator smoothly moved upwards.
To be frank, I kind of thought Corporate Social Responsibility was bullshit. But, watching my students gain courage and craft business ideas throughout the day made me reconsider such quick assumptions. The morning started with learning a little about GS, and that integrity is one of their top business principles. Who knew? Then they gave an overview of what a business plan should include. I learned that it took sticky notes 14 years to get from the lab into market. I don’t know what I would do without Post-Its! From several other success story examples they imparted the importance “love what you do and do what you love.”
The afternoon was filled with quick thinking and hard work. The students were split in to 5 groups. They had an hour and a half to decide on a product or service, write a business plan, and prepare to sell it to the group – their potential investors. Watching them work together made me proud enough as it was. But then, watching them each present their unique ideas – and both ask and answer challenging questions – made me beam.
We had quite a variety of business ideas. “Fantastic 4” was selling a new cream biscuit that was made with healthy ingredients – including real fruit to get your vitamins – and sold in packages with multiple flavors in one! “Super Nova” invented a phone case/charger made from a solar panel. “Snap Shop” made grocery shopping easy: scan the food you want and have it delivered to your home. “Alpha Agriculture” made leasing farm land more affordable and appealing. “Living Hope” helped beggars get off the street by providing training to help them become employable. Highlights from the session included the kids giving their team’s “qualifications” to convince funders to invest – including tactics like claiming “Steve Job’s right hand man,” “no experience but passionate,” and “he can sell ice to Eskimos!” Rajesh’s closing line was “My mom always told me ‘if they’re not interested in you it’s their loss.’ So, if you don’t buy Super Nova it’s your loss!”
My favorite moment was after several grilling questions about their business model, Living Hope suddenly realized they’d created a non-profit. They were convinced that because their employees would earn commission but still give money back to the organization – same with the handicrafts they sold – it was a business. Only after they explained that they were earning profit in order to put it all back in to expanding the reach of the company and reaching more beggars did they begin to realize this wasn’t a profitable business. These kids are just not capable of not trying to do good.
The whole trip was a success. The kids learned a lot and gained confidence in their skills. I learned that if big business is run by Shanti Bhavan alums, I might have to reconsider my biases.