Friday, November 24, 2017

Jakarta, je t'aime

If you don't like being overwhelmed by choice,
Padang food may not be for you
I just got back from a two week work trip to Jakarta, and the city has warmed its way into my heart and list of favorite places. I have to confess I wasn't too excited about the travel as I was starting out - just back from a couple of weeks of intense travel, I really wanted to stay put in Bombay for a bit, and none of the friends and colleagues who had been to Jakarta had called it exciting. The image in my head was of a city struggling with mad congestion and pollution but managing to stay cheerful with great street food.  On experience, that image proved correct, but also incomplete. To anyone who says Jakarta traffic is impossible, I say pooh, please come to Bombay, will you!  So here I am, a huge fan of the city, and here's a list of things I love about Jakarta, in random order of priority:

Padang food. My food experiences in Jakarta could a fill a book, and Padang food would be its longest chapter. So here's what happens when you walk into a Padang restaurant and get seated: two, sometimes three, servers come over and start putting bowls of colorful curries and stir fries on your table while you go "Whaaaat's going on?". Then you notice that they're carrying the multiple bowls, not on trays or trolleys, but piled up as pyramids on their arms! They continue the process until you can't see the tablecloth on the table. Then your Indonesian friend explains: you choose whatever you want to eat, take it in your plate, and at the end of the meal, tell the server what you ate and get billed for just that. If the bowl of redang had two pieces of meat, and you had one, that's all you pay for. The rest of the food goes back into the community pots and pans for the next set of guests. "But what if I lie about what I ate and pay less?" That questions causes a lot of amusement, turns out the system works. I loved it - quite apart from how delicious the this region's cuisine is (spicy, coconut-based gravies), the whole process is so affirmative and communal.

Martabak. This is difficult to write about because I'm struggling to ignore my watering mouth. Think soft, thick pancakes smothered in butter, cheese, chocolate and cream - and that's just the basic version. You then have the tough task of choosing toppings. This snack, which comes in sweet and savory versions, is something locals are very passionate about, with restaurants dedicated to it. But like most things, the street version is the best.

A screenshot of the Gojek app,
courtesy my friend Fauziah
The bike taxis. Sure, we have them in India but they're a tiny handful. In Jakarta, they're a critical part of the city's fabric, as ubiquitous as India's auto-rickshaws (Jakarta has those too, and guess what they're called? "Bajaj's", pronounced as "Bajai's"). They're fast and make you feel like a superhuman as you wind through traffic, and they're so easy to use! I used Uber, but they have so many (Grab, Gojek, maybe others too) And I'm an absolute fan of this Gojek thing, which must have started out as a taxi service provider but now has such a delightful list of bells and whistles to it! Imagine combining Uber with Grofers, Chaayos, Ferns&Petals, BlueDart, Flipkart, Bookmyshow, Home salon and maybe a few more things, and you'll have some idea of what Gojek is. I don't know any startup in India that has become a verb yet. My hospital colleagues spoke of "gojecking" documents to each other.

The food. I know I've listed Padang food and Martabak, but how do I not mention the five different types of sambal, the tahu gejrot (spicy tofu) that made my eyes water, all the satays and nasi gorengs. The street food is as amazing as you expect, and none of the restaurants I stumbled into disappointed me. A place called Dapur Bapah Elite was especially unforgettable - fabulous food in a hundred year old house. There's also a growing coffee shop culture - perfectly brewed coffee in relaxed, warmly lit rooms which have good wifi connections. My personal favorite among the cafes I worked out of - Watt coffee in Kwitang.

Transjakarta. If the BRT corridor in Delhi had worked out, it would have been like the Transjakarta. A fast, convenient way to travel in a city where unpredictable traffic is a way of life. I've decided that on my next trip, I will choose a hotel next to a transjakarta station as much as possible.

The people. I don't know what it says about me that I thought of the affection I feel for Indonesian people only after mentioning the food and transport. I did say my list was going to be random. How is it that in my two weeks in the city, I did not meet one grumpy human being?

The "Good guide walking tours". I cannot praise these guys enough! I went on two walking tours with them (old town walk and street food walk). They're everything that you expect a good walk tour to be - well informed, chatty, amusing, and then something more - political and passionate. They don't tread gently around issues they care about, and I found that wonderful. And it's pay as you wish.

Special mention: Indomart and Alphamart. These are supermarket chains like 7-elevens, and it might seem a little silly to mention them, until I tell you that they double up as coffee shops, so you can find really good coffee at practically every street corner. The larger ones even have small tables right next to the shopping aisles. There is something indefinably whimsical about enjoying unhurried coffee surrounded by bright boxes of detergent and listening to employees singing as they stack merchandise.

There's one additional fact that also deserves special mention: Indians are visa-exempt! Not visa on arrival, visa exempt! Now I know how people with Australian passports feel in half the world.

And here's an eight-second video of martabak being made - sheer poetry in motion!

Monday, March 27, 2017

Of Sanctuaries and positions of safety

This is the third post to come out of my experiences at the Acumen global gathering in Naivasha earlier this month, and there's no saying if it will be the last. You cannot spend five days with some of the most powerful changemakers in the world and not come out of it shaken and stirred (the first two posts are here and here)

There is one conversation that I am going back to again and again in the week since the gathering, because it was powerful and moving, but even more because it is so relevant to choices I make every day in the Indian political climate. This was Stephanie Speirs' talk on "Sanctuaries". Stephanie is the co-founder of Solstice, an enterprise dedicated to radically expanding the number of American households that can take advantage of solar power. She is also an Echoing Green Climate Fellow, a Global Good Fund Fellow, a Kia Revisionary, and an Acumen Global Fellow, all of which recognize emerging leaders in social enterprise. 

It says a lot about this woman that, given the opportunity to address to 300+ global citizens, she choose to talk not about her amazing journey in the space of solar energy access, but to talk about courage, about the importance of speaking up when staying quiet seems like the most sensible option, about listening patiently to ideas that clash violently with your values. Because that's how the world changes. In her talk, Steph said something that made me sit up and scribble "must look this up!" in my notes. She said that American acceptance for same-sex marriages has gone from 30% to 60% in the last 10 years. How did this happen? Polls indicate that the #1 reason for this rapid change of opinion is the very simple - "I know someone who is gay".

And this is why it is important to keep talking, to keep reaching out to people outside of our "sanctuaries" (we also call these our "bubbles"). My original tendency - every time I read a friend's hateful post on social media, every time I listen to a cab-driver express contempt for a community he doesn't like - is to mentally check out of that conversation (I wrote a post to defend my desire to live a non-confrontational life in 2015). We know that people never change their minds, so why waste your breath? But here is this amazing data that Gallup collected over 20 years that shows that people do indeed change their mind - only 27% North Americans said "yes" to giving legal status to same-sex marriages in 1996, and this number went to 61% in 2016. Would this have happened if gay people stayed in their bubbles and sanctuaries and refused to engage in difficult conversations?

So here's to celebrating the loud SJW in me and all the friends who spend hours arguing and defending their point of view in the face of unrelenting anger and sarcasm. The next time I meet that neighbor who shared with me that she never employs anyone from a certain community ("sometimes they change their surnames so you have to be very careful!"), and left me depressed me for a week, I'll not smile politely and run home. I'll get out my sanctuary and ask her if we can talk about this a bit. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Love and Religion

Or, Religion and Love.

One whispers, I cannot wait to see her again. 
The other mutters, we need to kill these people who eat the other meat. 

One shouts in joy - oh, he wore the shirt I got him!
The other screams - you will wear what we tell you to wear!

One says I'm terrified she's going to friendzone me
The other says I worry about our women marrying their men

Love and Religion
No wonder they don't get along
They don't speak the same words.

Like Swahili and French
The script looks the same
but the vocabulary is too different

Monday, March 20, 2017

Notes from Naivasha - part 1

At a time when the world is obsessing over all the Yogi Adityanaths around and is convinced that nothing will change until Marion Kelly takes over as planet leader, I find myself feeling serene and optimistic to a surprisingly high degree. This probably comes from spending the past week at the Acumen global gathering in Naivasha, Kenya.  Every year (since 2014), Acumen selects local leaders and entrepreneurs working on social change projects - about 20 each in India, Pakistan and East Africa - and takes them through a five intense seminars aimed at honing, well, their leadership acumen. The seminars drive the fellows into questioning long held belief systems, challenging their status quos, and sharpening their thinking abilities. I am both proud and humbled to be among the India fellows for the year 2017. 

As I write this, I am very aware that the above description of the seminars is terribly inadequate. I am already a different person from what I was before I went to the first seminar in February 2017. I am more aware of my strengths and inadequacies than I have ever been, and more accepting of the inadequacies than I ever thought was possible. I've had a tendency to talk about my life's story as a series of brightly-lit milestones (medical school, MBA in finance, Indian Navy, Clinton foundation, a passport with 25 countries' stamps, an amazing, adoring husband), and glazing quickly over all the spectacular disasters (a divorce, unending confusion about my life's purpose, a job where I made every textbook leadership mistake). The new me surprises me by recognizing my failures with humility, but also with a sense of strength from what these failures have taught me and how they add to my life's narrative. 

The Acumen fellowship will, I am convinced, turn out to me the biggest milestone of my life. I've just returned from my second seminar as a fellow, which was also the organization's first "Global Gathering", a sanctuary where the Acumen team, fellows and partners got together to share stories of impact and to learn from each other. It was four days of intense thinking, activity and discussions, and I want to record some of the many moments that will always stay with me: 

"Idealism is the new strategic"
- Jacqueline Novogratz, Acumen Founder and CEO, and the Opening Plenary

"Transparency in the face of corruption is that much harder, and that much more powerful"
- Bob Collymore (CEO of Safaricom), talking about the flak he and Joshua Oigara (CEO of KCB Bank) received when they decided to publish their salaries in the public domain.

"One of the smartest things you can do to be successful at work is find yourself a life-partner who can be your champion"
- Bob Collymore again, in a talk with Chris Anderson, who expressed fervent agreement

"Don’t worry about being broken. It’s only in our brokenness that we find our purpose"
"A person is not the worst thing they ever did. Even a murderer is more than a murderer"
"I have a list of four absolutely critical ingredients for creating impact: one, stay proximate to the problem and the communities whose problems you’re trying to solve; two, change the narratives that support poverty and inequality; three, stay hopeful even when there is no hope because that is your greatest power; and four, do uncomfortable things"
- Bryan Stevenson, Founder of Equal Justice Initiative, and one of the most powerful speakers I have listened to

"I went on a 3-day hunger strike to convince my parents to let me go to college"
"At 17, I got on the bus to go to college to a city which was six hours away from home. It was the farthest I had ever been from home. It was the closest I had ever been to freedom."
"My first government job posting was in a village very far from home. My entire neighbourhood came home to tell my father how dangerous it would be if he let me go, and I knew he was under a lot of pressure. That evening, I packed my bag, went to my his room, put the bag next to him and said - 'The bus leaves at 6 AM. If you believe in me, please wake me up at 5 AM and drop me at the bus station.' The next morning, he was standing proudly with me at the bus station. I had learned the power of words"
- Shamim Akhtar, teacher in Pakistan government education department, and Acumen 2015 fellow

"We got so many rejections we started to see them as the norm"
"My biggest lesson is that impact work is a marathon rather than a sprint. It needs a lot of patience. And as you run the marathon, treat yourself with respect. Recharge your batteries often. Invest in family, relationships."
- Ned Tozun, Co-founder D-Light, discussing the idea of scale with Chris Anderson

"People who love charts can change the world."
- Sasha Dichter, Acumen's Chief Innovations Officer, summarising the D-light journey

"Courage only comes with purpose. The crises in my mother's life gave me purpose; my purpose gave me courage, and courage gave birth to the entrepreneur in me"
- Otim Gerald, Co-Founder, Ensibuuko, a Fintech Company based in Uganda and rapidly growing to other east African nations.

"Data makes underserved people visible and gives them a voice"
- Tonia Kariuki, CMO, Africa, GE Healthcare

"I may have discovered my purpose late in life, but people in my family live long. I'm only in my 50s so I have 50 more years to work hard"
- Gayathri Vasudevan, CEO Labournet

If all the sessions I participated in expanded my mind, the friendships that expanded my heart were even more powerful. I learned that Sonali and I are basically the exact same person; we just look different. Fahad and Zubin discovered what might be the one thing that can tell Indians and Pakistanis apart - turns out that the head nod that says 'I agree with you' is an absolutely Indian thing, and Pakistanis find it as inexplicable and funny as the rest of the world does. I made friends with Bola who is an epidemiologist working in public health in Kenya and who went to work in hardcore advertising for a year because she wanted to learn to package healthcare advice better. We played holi and learned to dance the Attan and the Eskesta (maybe 'learned' is a stretch, but we tried). I will never forget my story-walk with Zahoor, who is an Acumen 2010 fellow, and who generously shared with me stories about his struggle-filled years in the development space, and about his large, loving family which is an interesting mix of tradition and openness. Neither will I forget my 3 AM conversation in the garden with Shabir, fighting cold and sleepiness, because I could not stop listening to the stories of his childhood - with humor and pride, he described to me how he loved reading so much that he would fish out old newspapers from the trash he was employed to clean.

In the midst of all this intense learning and bonding, two other things happened. One, my own cohort - the India 2017 fellows - became even closer and became the family I constantly found myself drifting to, every few hours, to feel recharged and loved and accepted. And two, I found that I am no longer uncomfortable about being in this space of career transition. Like Gayathri Vasudevan, I intend to live long and work for a long time in building a world of equal opportunities and access.

Click here for Notes from Naivasha - part 2 (Business Insights)

Acumen is a global VC fund that uses entrepreneurial approaches and a core philosophy of "patient capital" to build strong, sustainable organizations which deliver goods and services to address poverty-related issues globally. As of 2015, it has invested over $100 M USD in over 100 enterprises across 6 portfolios: water, health, housing, energy, agriculture, and education.

A subset of my Acumen India 2017 family: superstars who work in education, sanitation, financial inclusion, child rights.....

Notes from Naivasha - part 2 (Business Insights)

One of my most amusing, humbling yet empowering experiences at the Acumen global gathering was that every single professional or personal crises that I've experienced seemed to be a textbook case. I described in detail what I thought was a particularly twisted team dynamic issue to Barbara Grant, CEO Crux Consulting, expecting a lot of sympathy and compassion, only to have her exclaim in joy - "Oh, that is my favourite kind of problem!". Here is a summary of some session insights I plan to revisit multiple times for the rest of my career:

"Impact work is a long term career. If you really want to change the world, you need to work in a 50-year context, possibly even longer."
"Failure allows us to both learn and iterate. And what stops us from seeing this is the pressure of urgency that we put on ourselves - the pressure that tells us to 'either do it yesterday, or run away'. We need to be urgent, but we also need be patient. Just like we need to be both humble and proud."
"The one who knows his WHY can endure any HOW."
- From Maryam Mohiuddin (Founder, Social Innovations Lab) and Mina Shahid's (Co-founder, Numida Technologies) session on "Befriending failure in your lifelong commitment to social change"

"Understand that everything that you find painfully annoying about the 'difficult people' you work with is like a two-sided hook - the other party is as hooked as you are, and nothing useful can happen until you get this hook out"
"First, unhook if you can, or choose to be strategic if you can't. Second, be as curious as you can be, and really seek to understand. Third, establish trust. Fourth, allow for grace and prioritize the future"
- From Barbara Grant's session which had the absolutely irresistible title "Unlikely Allies: When you need to work with people with different values, roles, priorities"

"Start-ups need to be based in autonomy, scale needs to be based in structure. So when start-ups move to scale, processes and people need to move from autonomy to structure. This typically creates a lot of tension."
"Leaders in the impact space need to spend about 20% of their time in coaching and mentoring their team"
"The biggest cause of failure in early stage organizations is a badly defined value proposition and mission statement. For organisations in series B funding stage, the biggest causes of failure are the people - leadership and team."
- Justus Kilian, Post investment manager, Acumen, in a discussion on taking organizations to scale

"Rarely can a response make a crises situation better. What makes things better is human connection"
"It IS possible to express non-resonating feedback without being judgmental. It just needs courage, authenticity, and a little practice."
- Prerak Mehta and Neel Shah's session on Empathy

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