Aditi Poddar: Develop Social Enterprises
Mid-Term Public Progress Report
Originally from New Delhi, Aditi Poddar is partnered with Source for Change, an all women’s BPO in Bagar, Rajasthan. Aditi has lived in India, UK, Singapore, Dubai and Indonesia. While focusing on increasing operational efficiency at the BPO, Aditi says, “there is power in small personal acts too which create smaller changes.”
Source for Change & Community Background
Grassroots Development Laboratory (GDL) is an initiative created through a partnership between Indicorps and the Piramal Foundation. It serves as an incubator for innovative ideas to tackle a wide range of development issues in and around Bagar in eastern Rajasthan. The town of Bagar grapples with many of the same problems that other locations of similar size and economic status face within India. Specifically, as an educational hub in the region, Bagar has a predominantly educated population , with more than 30 schools and colleges. However, it suffers from a serious lack of employment opportunities as the only industry here is education. It also has a large pool of educated women but, paradoxically, it remains a highly discriminatory society reflected by the strong preference for sons, large dowry payments and a generally lower social status for women. Employment opportunities for women are even more limited since they have physical and social restrictions on where they can work. Until now, GDL has piloted a few programs targeting some of the local issues such as drinking water, employment and income generation, and women’s empowerment. Although GDL begins with addressing issues in a restricted geographical area, it places value on its solutions being nationally scalable and replicable.
Currently, GDL has three social enterprises, one of which is Source for Change (SFC), an all women’s rural BPO . The idea for SFC was born out of a need to provide dignified employment opportunities to educated women in this particularly conservative part of Rajasthan while empowering them with skills unrelated to technology or outsourcing – self confidence and self determination. SFC trains women with a minimum education level of class 10 in basic computer skills and some English. The women (Associates) are then employed to carry out tasks such as data entry and digitization which are outsourced by domestic and international clients. The women come from varying backgrounds – married, unmarried, studying, sole earner of the family, supporting siblings’ and their own education, traveling long distances to come to work, supportive families, and unsupportive families.
Most of my time is spent with the Associates both within the office and at their homes with their families, and with the GDL family of volunteers, staff and fellow FellowsWith GDL’s history of strong personal relationships in the larger Bagar community, most people are automatically familiar with “GDLers” and easily accept us into their lives. I have built relationships with women of varying ages and from all sections of the community – from little girls whom I happened to befriend on the way to the market, to adolescent girls that I spend my Sundays with, trying to instill life skills in the guise of fun; from the mothers of SFC Associates past and present, to grandmothers that I chat with on sunny winter afternoons and a-little-too-hot summer evenings. Spending time with the Associates, living life alongside them, is always a powerful reminder of why an organization like SFC is needed. Seeing these women work on computers everyday, dressed impeccably, I always forget that they lead the same lives as other, non-SFC, women in the community.They don’t come from a special class without the responsibilities that the rest of the women do – cooking, cleaning, working in the fields, taking care of animals and family members, they too struggle with the same economic, social and familial pressures. It also serves as a powerful reminder of the impact that the organization is having on the lives of these women – monetary and personal.
My role at SFC, has been of contributing in whatever way I can to the most urgent needs of the organization. I started off helping in operations, doing targeted business development for SFC, working on developing marketing materials and building relationships with the microfinance sector to create long term partnerships. I also helped start the marketing initiative aimed at local businesses and educational institutions. But with SFC’s expansion plans gathering steam, my focus has shifted to creating more efficiency by streamlining operations. Along with improving operational efficiency, SFC also wants to give the Associates more ownership and responsibility of daily operations. The goal is to have the Associates run the centre themselves leaving senior management with more time to focus on expansion and business development.
With my current focus on operational efficiency, in true social enterprise style, this project will have a two-fold impact – creating financial value for the enterprise by making processes more efficient while empowering the Associates to take more ownership of SFC. Building their managerial capacity such that they can run operations themselves is definitely a step beyond working a computer-related job. I saw the effects of investing in their potential by involving the women in local marketing. They made it their own, jubilant beyond belief even on getting a meeting with a potential client and examining unsuccessful meetings for things that didn’t go well and their own shortcomings during the interaction. They learned quickly and beautifully took over responsibilities that were previously the domain of the senior management with just a little confidence that was shown in them.
Project Implementation Progress and Future Plans
In the first four months of my time at SFC (September – December) I focused on marketing SFC’s services to microfinance institutions (MFIs) and proposing long term relationships to potential clients. Through a few exposure visits to MFIs I learnt more about their operations and ways in which SFC could partner with them. We are currently negotiating with 3 MFIs and at least 3 others have shown a keen interest in working with SFC. During this period, I also collaboratedwith some of the Associates on marketing our services to local educational institutions and businesses. It was extremely rewarding to see the Associates move quickly from being shy and quiet to persuasive sales women in the local marketing meetings that they scheduled with the heads of organizations that they had researched and found themselves. Although our intention through this effort was to generate more business for SFC, while empowering the Associates with a new set of skills and exposing them to different business experiences, a wonderful by-product was exposing the wider community to the idea of SFC and revealing the impact it was having on the women.
In the last two months (January – February) I have spent time assessing the current level of operational efficiency at SFC and suggested an altered business process to utilize all resources better. The new processes require more involvement by the Associates in daily operational responsibilities which they will carry out as “Junior Managers” on a rotational basis. We have now identified the Associates that we will train as the first batch of Junior Managers and I have developed a hard skills training program and designed documentation to aid the new managers in their daily tasks.
In the next two weeks I will be working with an instructional designer who will help create a soft skills training program for all the Associates. I hope to implement a group soft skills program for the entire group and an individualized hard skills program in the following two months. In the last two months I will spend time tweaking the business processes to create a more efficient model, fine tuning the training program and writing up a manual so that this process can be replicated at all future SFC centres. Using my understanding of the business and the challenges it is facing along with the relationship of trust and familiarity that I have built with the Associates, I hope to encourage enthusiasm about their new roles and instill a sense of ownership for SFC. I hope to make the systems and manuals easy to use and also to ensure that the first batch of managers is trained well enough so that they can train the next batch when it is time to hand over the baton.
Outside of my formal project, with the girls that I spend time with on Sundays, I hope they feel a little more connected to themselves through the activities that we do (which involve various activities such as storytelling, expression through art, sports, etc.). I hope that they can rid themselves of the constraints that society has built in their minds. I hope they feel a little less afraid to speak their mind, a little more confident and a little less guilty when they do something they like.
A year ago, when I applied for the Fellowship, my intention was purely to work at the grassroots level in the field of development. I hadn’t imagined the amount of emphasis the Fellowship places on personal growth. The Fellowship has proved to be a learning experience on many levels, and half-way through, I am surprised by the self-discovery that I am making everyday. I love the heightened sense of self awareness that I am experiencing. The Fellowship has provided me with the opportunity, and often pushed me, to look at myself and my surroundings differently.
I have always lived in a rush, wanting to do as many things as possible in the limited time that I have; always planning ahead; always living in the future. But learning to be in the present completely and living every moment to the fullest has been one of the most important lessons in the past few months.
Along the way, I have also learnt that coming from a “place of love” is the best way to deal with most, if not all things in life, and it is definitely the most effective way of creating change, within and without. I learnt that creating change is not always about large-scale interventions which might be impersonal; there is power in small personal acts too which create smaller changes which can snowball into a larger, more potent force which can push for larger scale change.
Aditi Poddar, August 2009 Indicorps Fellow