Thursday, September 29, 2011
I remember my letter well. I remember the longing I had to meet this place called India, this city called Hyderabad, this company called WaterHealth International, www.waterhealth.com. I remember my request to this city, that it introduce me to its bustling streets, its vibrant air, its hopeful people. I remember telling it that I was ready to embrace its harsh realities and all that it had to offer. I remember asking it to help me reflect and answer some of the most crucial questions I had burning inside.Who Am I? Why Am I Here? What Is My Mission? Most importantly, I asked this place to help me rediscover my passions.
One year later, as I return back to the place this journey started, I can say that these questions have been answered, that India has reignited my passions and helped me rediscover my mission. I have discovered my love for working with people that are working to create equitable communities and provide opportunities for all.
I have spent the last year in Hyderabad making wonderful friends and working with a group of people that have truly embraced me and took me in like family. I learned everything from market research to corporate branding to developing operations and streamlining processes. I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in the field at community water centers where I was able to get to know rural families and their struggles. I got to know the difficulties of being a social enterprise, trying to serve the poor yet turn a profit. And I was able to dive deep into a culture that is driven by religion, science, and tradition all woven into one. My work challenged me in ways that I am grateful for and my life abroad challenged me in ways that have hopefully changed me and made me to grow.
It has been overwhelmingly tough and lonely at times and yet at others, I felt the warmth and embrace of strangers that nothing else could compare. I met friends that have become like family and their families have become my friends. I’ve had moments of peace and clarity and times of confusion and frustration. But all have given me such an appreciation for this land and the people of India.
It is hard for me to describe in words this place, that I have fallen in love with for words still only leave a loss. It is a place that challenges every assumption, a place that bombards the senses, and a place that opens the heart, all within a moment’s time. When my best friend came to visit this summer, her first reaction was bewilderment as she was overwhelmed by the smells, the pollution, the chaos, the poverty….But by the time she left she had tears in her eyes knowing how much she would miss this land that made a lasting impression…the tumultuous, colorful, cultural and creative haven called India!
I too had tears in my eyes when I boarded the plane to return to NYC. I was happy to return to Acumen and reunite with the staff and the other fellows, to share our learnings, and to tell our stories, our experiences. But I left my heart behind…a heart that is longing to return and continue to work in this land, to support the social enterprise movement, help sustain entrepreneurial initiatives and be part of the next generation of solutions! So now the real work begins...
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Fifty years later as we find many nations at a crossroads -- fighting for democracy, struggling for freedom, breaking strongholds of colonialism, searching for economic independence, and wanting an international voice -- the mission to create ‘peace and friendship’ among nations and to support one another in such efforts is increasingly necessary.
Fortunately, this unique heritage continues to inspire today. Since 1961, more than 200,000 Americans have joined the Peace Corps, serving in 139 countries and having an impact every day. http://www.peacecorps.gov/
In honor of each Peace Corps Volunteer who has selflessly dedicated two years of their life to a distant land and a foreign people, I write this blog…And I highlight one of my dear friends, Lauren Simkulak, and her service in the country of Uganda.
A Candid Reflection of my Time as a Peace Corps Volunteer
by Lauren Simkulak
In February 2009, I departed for Uganda to serve as a Business Advisor in the Economic Development program of Peace Corps Uganda. I was placed with a small, start-up, indigenous non-governmental organization, Transform Uganda in a small northeastern town called Kumi Town.
At the time of my arrival, Transform had no funding and only two projects with volunteer-staff. Needless to say, it was a difficult start in my PC journey. However, even with little funding, we were able to start their first economic development project, Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs), an informal sector of microfinance developed by CARE International in the 1990s.
We started with just 6 associations, teaching 2 project coordinators and 3 community-based trainers on the concept of the project. Two years later, we now have 20 groups. The project has attracted attention from other donors and in the near future, it’s expected these groups will be used to expand their scope of service to water and sanitation, renewable energy and business/income-generating activities.
What Was Your Greatest Accomplishment?
As my secondary project, I taught life skills at a local all-girls boarding school, teaching health issues, self-esteem, goal-setting, and sex education. Once a week I went to the school and spent time with the girls who were always so enthusiastic to see me, ask questions, and discuss critical topics. We started a “question box” where they could write as many questions as they had and place them in the box for me to answer...“Does washing with Coca Cola after sex make you a virgin?” or “Does wearing trousers make you not a girl?”…While foreigners might find these questions funny, these were real concerns the girls had after hearing them from “aunties” and friends in the village, where most of their inaccurate information came from.
From this project bore my interest in gender and development issues. So, along with another volunteer, we started the “Gender and Development” committee within Peace Corps Uganda. Our goal was to encourage PCVs to implement gender-related activities in their communities. Our main project became creating Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World), a girls’ empowerment camp. To witness 150 girls laugh, play sports, exhibit creativity, make new friends, interact with each other in a very different environment from that of their school was truly the most inspiring time in my two years! http://www.campglowuganda.yolasite.com/.
150 Girls from across Uganda attend Camp GLOW!
What Was Your Greatest Failure?
I had so many failures in my two years in Uganda. We were always told in training that “if you don’t fail in the two years at something, you’re not a real PCV.” This meant that we would try many things, and many things would fail, and maybe a few would succeed. This was very true!
At the beginning of launching our VSLA project, I thought I had everything organized, down to the smallest details. I had trained our 2 Project Coordinators and 3 Community-Based Trainers quite well (at least, they did well on the practice activities!). Our first day, our first meeting, and no one showed up, I mean not even the CBT, until 2 hours past our scheduled meeting time. Then after finally getting underway, the trainers didn’t even follow the outline for the module. Nothing went as planned for about the first two weeks and I complained that this project was doomed for failure! However, slowly but surely, things began to change – and improve! Groups started showing up on time. The CBTs started following the outlines. And everyone began to really understand what we were doing.
This was the beginning of a long lesson I learned in my two years. I’ve always been prone to over-organizing and worrying incessantly. But during my Peace Corps service, I finally realized I needed to stop stressing over every situation because things ALWAYS worked out fine! Getting upset with others or hiding my feelings was not the way to be successful. Instead, talking openly about the good and bad, learning from our mistakes and how to improve them together, is what worked! This was true throughout my two years in Peace Corps, and I hope to apply it to the rest of my life.
What Was Your Biggest Challenge?
The most difficult part about being in the Peace Corps for 2 years was adjusting to the work ethic and slower pace of life in Uganda. In the beginning, when I had very little work, it was very difficult to remain happy. I was used to being busy, not having a lot of down time. It was the complete opposite in Uganda. And always showing up to meetings on time, against my better judgment, and finding no one there each and every time, was extremely frustrating. But that is life there and I had to accept it. I had to balance between “pushing” others to work harder and the realization that this was their culture and I was just a visitor – I had to be the one to adjust.
Who Were Your Greatest Mentors?
I would not say that I had just one or two mentors. Often people referred to me as their mentor, but I always told them they were mine! I learned something from each Ugandan I interacted with, my colleagues and counterpart at the school where I taught, and colleagues at other organizations that I collaborated with. It was the Ugandans who taught me about their culture, what to do, what not to do – I could not have implemented any projects by myself; I would’ve failed for sure!
As well, other Peace Corps Volunteers were my mentors. With them, I could release my frustrations and share my greatest challenges. Many of them taught me so much – not just how to implement a project, but how to be more positive every day or how to exude patience even when not feeling it. These were all my mentors throughout the two years and the people who had the greatest impact on me.
How Did Peace Corps Teach You Leadership?
Peace Corps has definitely taught and enhanced my leadership skills. You have to be a leader in Peace Corps to get anything accomplished in your two years! It taught me some of the greatest (and most difficult) qualities of being a good leader – tolerance, patience and respect for others who are different. I thought I had an inkling of these qualities beforehand, but this experience has taught me so much more. It’s easy to be a leader in a group of people exactly like you, but it’s extremely difficult to rise as a leader, whom is respected by all, in a community or situation where you are different from everyone else. Though I didn’t do it perfectly, I like to think that I was successful in my projects because I related to Ugandans, listened to them, learned from them and adjusted my own behavior and ideals to better suit the situations. It was the biggest challenge for me and the greatest experience.
What Leader Are You Most Inspired By In Your Life?
Perhaps it’s because I visited South Africa this past November and toured the Mandela museum in Johannesburg, but I think Nelson Mandela was a truly amazing leader. Without a doubt, he was a great political leader of South Africa, ending apartheid and creating a democratic country. He was also an extremely intelligent, dignified, empathetic, dedicated and respected man. But more than this, he was a moral leader. After being released from prison, he encouraged the blacks and “coloured” people to repair relations with the white South Africans and to forgive. He knew the country would never survive without this important step. I think many of today’s leaders would never promote this type of healing. Vengeance is often wanted in today’s world. Unlike most leaders today, he stepped down even when he could have remained. And yet he continued to play a part in world politics, negotiating peace agreements and fighting for human rights.
What Things You Will Miss The Most?
What I will miss the most are my Ugandan friends and colleagues. When we were in training, many PCVs told us that we’d never be true friends with people at our site because most just wanted to be friends with us for money. It was a sad thought. However, many of us found that not to be the case. I met many educated, young Ugandans who were also working in similar positions. I began making friends slowly, learning to trust. I realized they didn’t just want to be friends with the “mzungu” for money or material things. They respected me and I them. They treated me as a friend and made my two years better than I ever thought possible. I’m going to miss these friendships the most!
“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy.Then he becomes your partner” – Nelson Mandela
Special Thanks to Lauren Simkulak, RPCV Uganda 2009-11, for sharing her personal views. This post is dedicated to all the Peace Corps Volunteers doing crucial work in developing countries and reminding all of us that peace is possible through dedicated work and selfless giving!
Thursday, March 10, 2011
I embarked on my journey, a short plane ride from Hyderabad to Delhi, and then transitioned to a long bus tour north through the state of Haryana, one of the most economically developed regions of South Asia that boasts a blossoming agricultural and robust manufacturing industry. My eyes were glued to the window as I was beholden to the beauty of green flowing rice fields and bright yellow meadows of mustard flowers, like a patchwork quilt being sewn as we floated by. The bus blared its way through traffic, with the driver’s hand connected to the horn, a literal extension of his limb, and eventually we found our way, swerving and bumping, to the Northeast corner of Punjab, to the city of Amritsar.
The city of Amritsar is home to over 1.5 Million people and the resting place of one of the most famous shrines in India, the Harmandir Sahib, or better known as “The Golden Temple”. It is the spiritual and cultural Mecca of the Sikh religion. On most given weeks, it attracts more than 100,000 visitors (more than the Taj Mahal) and is the number one destination for Non-Resident Indians (NRI’s) in all of India.
As we arrived, we unloaded from the bus exhausted, tired, cranky, hungry, and in need of food and shelter! We squeezed into an auto rickshaw on the side of the dusty road and made our way through the narrow city streets to the center of town. Among the bustling crowd, we began our trek by foot. As we walked among the pathways along the city walls, I recognized that we were walking in the luminous shadows of this spectacular monument, and felt the magnitude of this place.
You can imagine in a city of this size and attraction, what awaits among the multitudes of people…the burgeoning lines, the suffocating congestion of traffic, the intense chaos. But to my surprise, even within the liveliness of the masses, there was a calm, an order, and a quietness that was pervasive. Maybe it was the magnificence of this memorial, or maybe it was the tranquility that comes with being somewhere sacred. To see the swarm of people entering with such reverence, with heads covered and knees bowed, and with prayer in their hearts, was more beautiful than any monument or shrine.
However, the place where the power of peace was most evident was at Langar. Langar, the largest eatery in the world that serves thousands of people daily with free vegetarian meals, is managed and operated by all volunteers. It is a part of the Sikh tradition of Seva, translated literally to mean ones spiritual service, or one’s giving back in the name of selfless generosity.
So just before midnight, having found a place to sleep but no food in our bellies, we ventured out to take part in Langar. As we entered the feeding hall, I was struck by the continuous flow of people, even at the late hour. We each shuffled in line and sat down in orderly rows on the floor, knee to knee, elbow to elbow, facing out across a sea of unknown faces to communally partake in our meal. Large canisters of dal (lentils) were carried up and down the rows, heaping spoonfuls outpoured in every plate. Hands were outstretched to receive the fresh, warm chappati (bread) being tossed through the air precisely yet lightly falling into one’s open-cupped palms. It was an exchange done with care, humility, and love.
At midnight, the clock tolled twelve and it was officially Valentine’s Day, a day when many cultures are taught to celebrate love. But the love many of us have become accustomed to exchanging has become defined by gifts associated with monetary sacrifice. Yet this exchange felt more defined by a gracious servitude, a giving of brotherly love, from one man to another, one stranger to the next. This love felt powerful, felt more pure than the Hallmark card with a singing telegram.
This year, Sasha Dichter, Acumen Fund’s Director of Business Development, proposed a substitute for Valentine’s Day, called Generosity Day, http://sashadichter.wordpress.com/2011/02/15/generosity-day-first-reflections/, the premise being that we spend the day saying yes to everything and anyone that asks for help in anyway, and seek opportunities to be generous. What a beautiful calling for each of us -- What if we could make every day about saying Yes, every day a Generosity Day?
Love in this day and age has become defined by romance and materialism. Don’t get me wrong, I think the singing telegram cards are often funny and I love the taste of the Rochelle Forei chocolate candies. But I like warm chappati and dal made by a stranger’s generous hand even more…and learning and finding ways to be that generous hand, is much more important and rewarding, No? YES!
“We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love” – Mother Theresa
Monday, February 7, 2011
India is like nothing else I've ever experienced, like nowhere else I've ever been! Nothing quite prepares you for the overwhelming shock to your senses...the massive number of cars moving haphazardly, honking and swerving among one another to make their way; the crowds of people bursting at the seams, pushing and pulling in an effort to get ahead; the instant attack of a myriad of smells, from curries stewing to chapatti baking, overtaking your nose; and to the haze that fills your eyes and the spices that swell your tongue. All I can say is “Holy Cow!” [Yes, literally, there’s a cow walking down the middle of the road!]
So, how does a foreigner like myself begin to fit into this new world, this new home? Well, it starts with a story, of course…
Many years ago I owned a pair of red pants. These red pants were one of my most favorite. I wore them all the time…to work, out to dinner, with friends. Until one day I visited my best friend, Sudha, and to put it lightly, she was horrified. “What are these?” she asked quite bluntly. “WHAT?” I said, “I love these pants!”. “Oh noooooo!” she shot back as she began laughing heartily. “I don’t think so”.
Well, suffice to say, that was the end of my red pants. She went on to lecture me, as only best friends can do, that no pair of my pants should ever resemble a color in the rainbow. She than came to my house and performed a “What Not To Wear” on my wardrobe, in fear of what other “circus clothing” I had hiding in my closet. (she got rid of my blue pants as well!)
Me at my former office, ECDC, wearing my favorite red pants!
Flash forward to last week when I went shopping with my friends in India. I walked into the store to find the largest array of red, green, yellow, and blue salwars (loose trousers that come tight around the ankles). And as you can imagine, my fond memories came flooding back. I very happily took the plunge!
In a country where “the brighter the better” is fashionable and desirable, I was finally going to fit in, me and my new pair of red salwars! To others they may just be a pair of red pants but to me they are a small nod to my ascent into assimilation, my delight of Indian culture and style!
Saturday, January 29, 2011
How do you help people feel empowered enough to take on leadership roles? How do you personally transform yourself into a stronger, more inspiring leader? How do you figure out what you can contribute to society that no one else can?
After my last blog post, my good friend Tom posed this first question to me and it’s an important question to answer...to understand how to transform ourselves into leaders, figure out what we can uniquely contribute, and how to empower others to do the same. So, I spent some time thinking, reading, and reflecting on these questions…
Considering I just finished a two-month leadership training program with the Acumen Fund, you would think the answers were abounding, but I still struggled with how to answer the question concisely. I started with contemplating my own personal leadership style (it’s crucial to know your own strengths and weaknesses) and this is how it unfolded…
.....Riding my bike through the winding, dusty roads of Hampi, a gorgeous terrain of rice fields and banana plantations as far as the eyes can see, decorated with a backdrop of ancient temples that convey amazing artistry and are nestled within rock formations that defy gravity and look like God’s personal sculptures, I pondered leadership (of course)! “I don’t want to be a LEADER!” I exclaimed, somewhat screaming at Wendy and Manasa. “Leadership implies followers and I don’t want anyone to follow me! I want people to walk beside me, to learn with me, to share and grow together…I want to empower people!”
A few moments later I took off feverishly riding my bike and Manasa shouted from behind “Don’t worry, you’re not leading us Brenda, you’re empowering us!” I chuckled. I recognized immediately the need to sometimes lead, and still, to sometimes be led. I recognized that sometimes leading was about showing the way (guiding), promoting advancement (setting benchmarks), and being enthusiastic (cheering others on!).....
And, it turns out, the answers to leadership, or better yet, empowerment, were all around me. So, from the guidance of those leaders in my life, and through conversations, readings and reflections, I identified five practices that I believe are crucial to becoming a leader and empowering others to do the same. It’s not by any means an exhaustive list or novel concepts, but just things to be reminded of.
1. Be Willing to Constantly Learn and to Give Back…
“The ones who will survive are those who are constantly learning, changing and adapting. A lot of people stop learning after they leave school. But you’ve got to read voraciously,” said Sean Covey, Partner of FranklinCovey, an executive global solutions firm, in a recent interview posted in the India Times.
The “shelf-life” of knowledge is becoming increasingly shorter as technology enhances. In today’s workforce, it’s necessary to continuously re-engage in education and read, read, read! But school is not the only venue for knowledge. Think of who is in your network and leverage the talent around you. My philosophy to continuous learning is to regularly surround oneself with people much younger and much older! Those younger will energize and promote your creative drive. Those older will provide you with the wisdom of age.
2. Find Time for Self-Reflection…
In October 2009, William Deresiewicz delivered a lecture to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point titled “Solitude and Leadership” - http://www.theamericanscholar.org/solitude-and-leadership/ in which he makes the seemingly contradictory statement that “if you want others to follow you, learn to be alone with your thoughts”.
He states that we have a leadership crisis. We have become complacent, and thus, we have implicitly created technocrats and bureaucrats, people who are good at keeping the routine, people who know how to get things done but never question whether they’re worth doing in the first place. In other words, we have a shortage of visionaries, change-makers, non-conformists, and creative thinkers!
To process a true personal thought takes time, focus and concentration…multi-tasking actually inhibits and impairs this ability. And so, our overload of media (TV, radio, social media) distracts us from spending time asking ourselves the critical questions – What do I really believe? Am I doing the right things in my life? Am I happy? And to embrace the answers to these questions you must spend time in self-reflection, in solitude, alone with your thoughts. “...you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself!”
3. Embrace Achievement…
In a recent blog post by Seth Godin he talks about “Three Ways to Help People Get Things Done” http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/01/three-ways-to-help-people-get-things-done.html. The first two ways are by tenacious bullying or by creating competition (how often do we see this!) – both can possibly be effective but only in the short-term.
However, the third and lasting method he suggests is called the open door approach. Set expectations of people (and yourself), assist when necessary (balanced management!), and then get out of the way and see the power of self-direction. Once people learn to embrace achievement they get hooked and will seek it over and over!
4. Build Trust…
The desire to succeed, achieve, and stand out in the crowd is inherent in human nature. But in a world where everything is quickly changing, progressing, moving, and accelerating, it is hard to be noticed, exceed and to lead. However, in a recent article by Vibhuti Jha, President of the Human Potential Project - “Leadership: Standing Out In the Crowd” http://www.itsmyascent.com/candidate/faces/jsp/article.jsp;jsessionid=DD01ED6E4EEB8F4058CC25158D61E595.node1?index=3 – he states that our greatest asset is ourselves.
“In an otherwise dishonest world, you control only your own honesty, your own integrity and that could make you truly unique. Try building trust around your words, actions and responses and drive yourself to fulfilling the commitments.”
To build trust, he suggests the practice of asking anyone you are in a relationship with (partner, friend, employee, colleague, etc.) these questions, genuinely regarding their answers, and more importantly, doing follow up as to your progress. This establishes trust and integrity.
b. Is there anything I do that you like a lot?
c. If there was one thing that you do not want me to do anymore?
d. Is there anything you want me to do that I have not done so far?
5. Engage Positively!
How can I be more present, more mindful, more confident, more joyful and in general a more positive presence for those around me?
I have to admit, I plagiarized this question from a recent email discussion that I had with a fellow colleague (thanks Francisco!) about how to be a more inspiring leader. We agreed that one important aspect to staying positive is having regular, meaningful dialogue with peers who have similar goals and missions in life.
Another simple answer is to choose to be positive and engaged. Yes, it’s a choice! You may disagree, but it’s true. You can choose to be happy…mind-boggling I know! Science shows that continuous behavior forms habits (Take the 21/40/90 day challenge - http://www.kalavati.org/change-of-habit.html). So make it a habit to be positive…read a daily affirmation, smile more, tell a joke and make laughing part of your day...and I promise you will be happier and your happiness will be infectious. Then watch how easy it is to lead!
Sunday, January 2, 2011
I am fortunate to be a part of the Acumen Fund Fellows Program, a one-year immersion program combining leadership training and field work with social enterprises and the community of ‘thought-leaders’ behind them. One said thought-leader in the water sector is WaterHealth International (WHI). It is one of the social change-makers in the Blue Revolution, with a mission to provide sustainable access to clean, safe drinking water to all, especially the poorest communities.
So, how does a social enterprise that is a leader of a sector build leaders within? Recently, with the collaboration of its Marketing and HR Departments, WHIN has started a ‘Rewards and Recognition’ Program, created to recognize leaders in the company and reward them for their ingenuity and hard work. “HR is not about Human Resources, it’s about Human Relationships” said Shubha Menon, Head of HR Department, as we sat and talked about her role at WHIN. “My motto is TCS: Trust, Care and Share. If you trust, you care...If you care, you share…If you share, you are connected…and anything can be accomplished with deep connection!”
At the beginning of each month, employees identify ten major tasks that they commit to accomplishing within the month – these are called Personal Evaluation (PE) tasks. The Challenger Award is given each month to an employee that contributes most significantly to their defined PE tasks and to their department as a whole. The employee is recognized at a monthly awards ceremony where they are presented with a certificate and gift.
Young men and women like Gurpreet are part of the next generation of leaders in the social enterprise field. In places like India, where the need for talent is great, they are the social change movement. They are smart, hopeful, energetic and eager – they want to revolutionize how business is done. And so, we must continue to ask “How do we support young people to transform the landscape of enterprise? How are we leading the next generation of leaders?”
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader” – John Quincy Adams, 6th US President (1825-29)
Thursday, December 23, 2010
When you think of a great leader, who do you think of? Do you think of someone famous, an important Head of State, an influential author, an intellectual philosopher, a social change maker, a religious icon? Or do you think of someone you know, a family member, a friend, a colleague, a mentor? If you’re like me, you think of both!
If I think of some of the greatest leaders of all time, I immediately conjure up names like Winston Churchill, Indira Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Aristotle, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. I also think of more familiar people like my favorite authors, Zora Neale Hurston and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and singers, Nina Simone and Janis Joplin. These people stood for social justice, questioned the status quo, and thought beyond the barriers of conventional society.
However, if I think of the most influential leader in my life, I would immediately say my father. A man who embodies a lot of what I consider necessary characteristics to be a great leader – patience, kindness, generosity, empathy, honesty, strength, perseverance, commitment and integrity. But most importantly, he is a cautious risk-taker.
I never completely realized this until recently. I was traveling home to visit my parents before leaving for India, and as I turned the corner to my parent’s street I was completely blinded by the reflection of the sun. I strained to see what was causing it, and as I got closer I saw it was my parent’s house. The entire roof was covered with solar panels.
I was a bit amazed, surprised, stunned and impressed. As I walked inside, I immediately questioned “What’s up with the roof?”. My dad grinned proudly and said “Yeah, you like it! 36 solar panels!”. I was still in shock gazing at him, as my brother peered from behind. We exchanged smirks…we were both amused!
The house in South Jersey with all the solar panels!
Try to discover
The road to success
And you'll seek but never find.
But blaze your own path
And the road to success
Will trail right behind.