Monday, July 27, 2009

On technology

Bill Gates is in India to receive the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Of course there was media frenzy, the result being that every English news channel had an ‘exclusive’ interview of the man himself! I watched a snippet of an interview on mute (don’t ask why, long story) while channel surfing and I was struck by just how old he was looking. I have this image in my head of Gates, with his owlish glasses and youthful looks, looking very much the college-dropout-tech-startup-cute-millionaire. I had to tell myself that that was many years ago and that technology as MSFT defined it has now been around for much of my lifetime.

I never thought of myself as the techie kinds when I was growing up. In high school, I always skived off the programming classes. After all, I’m the person that signed up for mechanical engineering only so that I’d have to do the bare minimum number of programming classes. But then I am also the person that went to work in a tech firm. Sigh. Anyway, I realized, however, that much as I hated programming, I had great respect for technology as such and what it could do for societies and businesses. I think I really found my “calling”, if I could call it that, in the internet and Web 2.0. I became a big tech buff, even though I remained in absolute dislike of social networking because of the lack of privacy (ha ha I’m a blogger).

And this brings me to the present. I’ve taken technology so much for granted that the first thing I did in India was to take an internet connection - even before I took a cell phone one! (So maybe I’m a little too addicted, so what?!) I spend a fair bit of time tracking tech news on Digits and WSJ and of course I obsessively follow all things Google. And therefore, imagine my surprise when I realized that not everyone with a hotshot MBA and working in a hotshot Day Zero Indian company is on the social-networking-site-for-professionals. I found that a lot of people my age did not feel the need to know so much about all the techie stuff out there – so not so much twitter or xobni for them. It came as a bit of a surprise to me when my enthusiasm for document versioning software (as a suggestion to implement in this office) was met with quizzical looks.

Anyway, I’ve long since made peace with the fact that their professional world probably does not hinge on technology as it does for those in some of their global offices. I remember talking to a recruiter from MSFT in the fall at school, and I asked him where he saw his product (a communications tool) go in India, where high speed internet is still a bit of a luxury. And he said that the problem is being solved by Google, who are aiming to get high speed internet into areas serviced mostly by dial ups and painfully slow broadbands. If high speed internet and wifi were to become commonplace in India, as it is in the US now, then will we see a new business opportunity here? For starters, I would be open to the idea of an information sharing portal a la craigslist. I’d love all big malls to have their own website so that I know what stores I can find there along with phone numbers and store timings. I could go on, but I’ll stop now. However, I’m super stoked that I can find Google maps directions for all Indian cities now. I just found directions to a new restaurant near work that I’m going lunch at tomorrow!

Internship - the last mile

I’m on the last week of my internship here. While work has gotten less exciting in the past three weeks (i.e. no traveling), it’s been information overload. I had one really slow week that frustrated the hell out of me – it’s hard enough to wake up in the morning, even harder to make it to work when it’s pouring outside – the least I expect is to be busy for the nine hours I’m at work. Instead, I had enough work for about an uninterrupted half day and then I’d wonder what I should be doing. Not that I minded it so much. You see, sitting in the middle of the action, you pick up stuff just from hearing and seeing. So although I didn’t get an opportunity to work with as many people as I would have liked to, I did get to learn a lot from observation (kind of like the way I learnt to cook!).

But that was just the one week. The one after that has been pretty busy. My final deliverable is a creative brief to an ad agency, one that encompasses a number of brands. After some analysis on the regions we are piloting this initiative (that I’m working on), we came up with a few brands that have the highest salience (how’s that for jargon?). I have spent the better part of last week meeting with the brand managers of these brands and studying brand materials I have obtained from them. While I have enjoyed meeting these people and learning about the brands and how they have been designing the campaigns that I see on outdoor overheads (OOH) and commercials (TVC), I wish they had time to talk to me about other stuff… like what keeps them here, what they like about their job, what their career graph has been etc. Basically the typical networking buzz except that I actually really WANT to know this about them. More than just an exposure to the workings of a typical CPG firm, I am using this internship to evaluate whether I want to return to India after Darden. Unfortunately, people here have been way too busy and I am constantly aware of the long hours they put in everyday, including Fridays.

On Saturday morning I return home for a few days before I have to leave for VA again. It feels like my ‘vacation’ is ending. It was great having free evenings with no cases to prep for the next day. I am actually reading – the newspapers, magazines, books… I have enjoyed walking around Nariman Point in the evenings after work, looking at headquarters of a lot of major corporations. It’s been a welcome change to be able to watch Sunday night movies on tv, with nothing to ‘study’ for Monday morning. But I’m ready for this to end because I really want to spend some time with the family, not just hurried weekends like I had over the past two months. In the meantime, I have this week to get through.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Retail therapy weekend

This past weekend, my good friend from my Infosys days, M and I decided to indulge in some much needed retail therapy. After a week of hard work, there’s nothing like swiping your credit card and getting on the train at the end of the day having more bags in your hand than you came with! We walked the vibrant and bustling Colaba Causeway for a few hours, including our brief but expensive sojourn at a CWC store there. One thing about M is she’s a big foodie – seriously, what do you expect from someone who’s got a whole drawer for food in her mobile unit at work?! And that is how we came to be in Café Leopold.

Café Leopold has been around for years by the look of it but was given a new lease of life after being the backdrop for many a scene in Gregory David Roberts’ wildly successful (in India at least) semi-autobiography, Shantaram. The book has been converted to a full length movie starring the delectably Johnny Depp as Roberts. On Saturday evening, the place was crowded and the tables placed so close together that if you pushed your chair a little too much to the back, you’d hit someone else’s chair. Dim lighting barely illuminated the sketches of the Mumbai skyline from years ago that hung on the walls… for a place that old, the crowd was that much younger! I felt totally comfortable and at home there… it is places like that that give this city its charm. Some drinks and food later, we were back outside on the sidewalk, to finish up our shopping.

I’ve realized that I really like that area of Bombay and not just because there is so much to shop there. I like how I can see the really old and almost crumbling building of the High Court and just behind that I can see the tower of the stock exchange, a symbol of India Shining (maybe not in recent times). Like most parts of the city, the old and the new seem to live together, two separate worlds yet steadfastly co-existing.

I had a lazy Sunday that I spent indoors watching one and a half Bollywood movies followed by a Harry Potter movie on HBO in the night. Monday came too soon.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

More reflections from rural India

Last week I returned from another 6 day trip through rural India. This time I went to markets in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. The idea of going to these markets was to have more one on one conversation with rural customers and since I am fluent in Bengali and Tamil, these two regions seemed ideal.

I started off with WB, in an area that is about 3 hours drive from Kolkata city, where I was staying as a base. I was visiting Kolkata after many years so I was quite excited about this visit. The markets I went to were very poor with poor infrastructure from the main roads/highways to the interiors where the villages were located amidst paddy fields and the occasional betel leaf plantation. In all the markets I went to, I had to walk a good bit to reach the village since the car would not go in beyond a point. Here I found villagers needed a lot of counseling on basic healthcare. It was sad to see that these people were almost stuck in their way of life and could not hope for change for a number of reasons, primarily because of the hand to mouth existence. I came away realizing that the little kids I saw playing in the mud would grow up in that same atmosphere, without clean sanitation and drinking water, that there was no hoping that the village would change in a few years. I suppose I shouldn’t say this, but I felt that they needed clean facilities more than premium laundry detergent, but that’s just me.

Next I went to my home state, TN. My Tamil is not the best, since I’ve only ever spoken urban Tamil, so I was a little apprehensive. But what I saw in rural TN totally blew me away. I went to a few villages outside of Madurai, a bustling temple town south of Chennai and en route to Kanyakumari, India’s southernmost tip of land. Here the villages had excellent infrastructure and facilities. People were very aware of products, their benefits and of the tenets of basic healthcare, sanitation, and hygiene and overall healthy living. All homes had at least one television and cell phone, all in the same mud-brick houses with thatched roofs. All homes also had cable, which meant that my grandmother in Chennai and the Shakti Amma’s mother-in-law in rural Madurai watched the same soap every afternoon. I saw one house that had a complete LG home theater system – my apartment in C’ville does not have a tele! A number of village men were in the military and deployed in places as far away as Punjab. The biggest surprise however came from the products that sold in these villages. I went with the Shakti Amma from home to home in the village, as she sold Unilever products in the tiniest packaging I’ve ever seen. She sold Dove and Pears and all varieties of laundry detergent. She even sold fabric softener, how do you like that?! That morning, she sold 15 sachets of fabric softener in 4 homes. And none of these homes has a Laundromat. The fabric softener has a very soothing scent and so after soaking clothes in a bucket full of softener in water, the leftover water was used to sweep the floors of the house! Smartest thing I ever heard!

Having seen villages in 3 different zones of India – west, east and south – I am really confused about how I would describe rural India to an outsider. I’ve seen the poorest ones where I needed to advocate the benefits of using a toothbrush. And I’ve seen ones where they want me to explain the differences in the 3 different types of Kotex sanitary napkins available in the market. But this I know, there is a huge untapped market just waiting to devour all the aspirational consumer products that they are watching on the television commercials. No more low cost and rudimentary advertising for these people.

Some interesting articles from Outlook Business magazine on rural consumerism and how microfinance is helping:


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