All of a sudden mid-March is here already!  Our team in Seattle and Ahmedabad has been laboring away to get everything done before our final presentation next week.  Fortunately, despite us being 13.5 hours behind them, the Hariyali team has been reviewing our deliverables and providing us clear feedback and suggestions.  Video calls to connect quasi face-to-face have been our main source of communication. Due to schedule differences one calls was rescheduled for the following week, which worked out fine for both parties.  One truly piece of bad luck is this team’s health!  Tack got the worst of it, suffering from malaria after returning to Seattle, which was followed immediately by being attacked by two different cold viruses.  Just as Tack was fully recovered, Anurag suffered from a sinus infection.  The good news is we are on track to finish on time.  Everyone is doing much better now, and hopefully we can finish this quarter all feeling 100%.

One thing is for sure, we are definitely missing the food in India!

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Learning and overcoming communication challenges

Some of the challenges we have faced this quarter, which I find quite applicable to most consulting projects include:

  • While clients are handing you a project with outcomes that they do care about, they are delegating because of lack of time, resource and/or skills. As a result, consultants often face the challenge of trying to get and retain client attention and supply of data.
  • Consulting across time zones and oceans adds an additional layer of complexity in terms of: harder to grab client attention through face-to-face interaction or phone call, longer turnaround time from when a draft/ deliverable I provided to when feedback is provided (often times we don’t even know if client had received or reviewed the deliverable)
  • Part of the obstacle of a 12-week consulting project with the time and geographical distance, language and cultural barrier is that we continue to find ourselves discovering something new (or corrected) week after week and at every skype call.
  • We also discovered, and adapted to, client’s communication preference half way through the quarter.
  • Our team’s biggest hope as well as concern is whether our client find our deliverables valuable and useful, and would actually put the tools and recommendations to use.

As a result, here are my 2 cents on communications for future teams:

  • Be conscious of how you present yourself during a Skype call session – it is one of the many ways your clients assess your credibility, and as a result, the credibility of your work
  • Help minimize your client’s need and effort to prepare for the skype calls by providing an agenda and expectations for their input in advance
  • Be considerate of your client’s time and availability, but still emphasize the need for their input in order for your project (and as an extension, their projects) to be successful.
  • Importance of teammates – due to the cultural and language differences, we often find ourselves hearing and interpreting varying messages from our clients. The downside is that it creates potential for tension in team dynamics, but the upside is that we are more careful with our listening and interpretations, and that we try harder to keep each other in check and opt for clarifying with our client rather than guessing based on our logic.
  • Importance of teammates – due to the cultural and language differences, we often find ourselves hearing and interpreting varying messages from our clients. The downside is that it creates potential for tension in team dynamics, but the upside is that we are more careful with our listening and interpretations, and that we try harder to keep each other in check and opt for clarifying with our client rather than guessing based on our logic.
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One Week to Go

As we come to our final check-in call India seems like a distant memory. The challenges facing the Rachaita Cooperative seem just as apparent, as do the opportunities that the business presents. With the benefits that time allows to gain prospective it seems more and more clear how Rachaita has the chance to really capture a significant share of the market, while improving the lives of women who otherwise have very few opportunities for advancement. In many cases women can more than double their daily wage, and truly help their families on a daily basis.

As we move to the final week we have started to get many of our deliverables in final form, and realize what it means to be helpful to our clients. Rather than focus on major business plan that will get shelved to never be seen again we can really make small incremental recommendations around organization and management, as well as improvements to current systems, to get Rachaita on track to meet its growth goals over the next few three years.

Today we sat and discussed some of the major elements of our plan and had insights around the necessity of improved middle management and a dissemination of skills past Varsha. These accomplishments are critical to Rachaita’s movement from a small operation to one that can grow to the 1000 employees she envisions.

Focusing on our client—and defining who that client really is—has been critical. The women who can get hired on by Rachaita with this growth plan will have the opportunity to change their lives through stable work and an increase in wages. This might mean savings and security above any opportunity they currently have. We want to make sure that the changes we recommend will help both the current and future workers to have a steady job and be able to better plan for the future.

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Can you hear me now? Reflections on communication

Last night, after a flurry of emails, we had our second successful Skype call with our RUDI partners back in Ahmedabad. Normally, a Skype connection doesn’t merit much fanfare but I couldn’t help but feel that a toast of some sort was in order. Communication across time zones is always a challenge…. But throw in technical issues, language barriers, and schedules that are always in a state of flux and even a short check-in over the phone (or computer) can become a big deal.

When we arrived back in Seattle, we knew that communicating with the RUDI team in India would be a challenge but given the great working relationship that we had during our stay in India, I think we were still a little surprised when some of our scheduled calls fell through or emails went unanswered. Lesson for future SEWA friends: always be prepared but never be surprised if your communication plans don’t turn out as expected. Bonus: missed connections make the time you can meet even more special and it was great to hear from both Trupti and Rupesh during our successful calls.

Limited access to the RUDI home base has spurred us to look elsewhere for information and advice and we felt very lucky to be able to meet with Richard Rogers from the Gates Foundation two weeks ago regarding our project. Richard is a program officer in the agriculture group and has extensive experience in agricultural development projects around the world.  He was able to provide some great perspectives on connecting rural farmers to urban markets as well as how to improve our analysis of the various distribution channels that RUDI is considering.

This Friday, we will be sitting down with some good folks from Hartman Group (which specializes in consumer market research) who have generously volunteered some time to help us with some of our research needs. Given Hartman’s extensive experience with the food and beverage industries, we are really excited to hear what they have to say.

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Looking Back

Looking back at our trip there are some things that stand out. Not the least of which are the sights, sounds, and unique smell of India. There is also the food and of course the crazy car rides filled with honking and near collisions (i.e. way more fun than in Seattle). These are all the first things that come to mind when people ask me how the trip was. But there were also some lessons learned that have become evident now that we have returned.

One piece of advice I can offer the next group is to take a moment to appreciate the relationships you are making with the SEWA sisters while you are there. This is a unique opportunity to learn from them and to get to know how they do business. It will also help you once you return and no longer have the daily contact. Inevitably, the relationships slip as time passes between communications, Skype calls are missed, and emails go unanswered. If you have a strong relationship to begin with, the effects of these inconveniences are minimized and your work can still get done. Not to mention how much more rewarding your experience will be.

Another lesson that is clear looking back is that gulab jamun is way better when eaten in conjunction with vanilla ice cream. If someone had told me this prior to my departure, I would have gulabbed every jamun I saw from day one. As it was, it took me half the trip to grasp the wonder of this Indian equivalent to apple pie ala mode and that is time I can never get back. You can all thank me later for this one.

Finally, I’ve come to realize what a great learning experience this whole project has been. From learning to work with other cultures, to developing a rapport with the client, the more I look back the more I realize that I’ll use these skills for the rest of my life. All that while experiencing a new culture and having a great time with an amazing group of people. Not bad. I just wish I would have had one more dish of gulab jamun and ice cream.

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Progress and Discoveries

I can’t believe that it’s been two months since we said goodbye to our Rachaita team and Ahmedabad. Of course, we knew that there would be challenges that come with working on a project thousands of miles away from our clients but there have been some big wins as well.

One of our favorite experiences while being back in the US working was connecting with Karin, a member of the Gates Foundation that helps facilitate grants around the world including some with SEWA. It was helpful to sit down and revisit how SEWA runs, how SEWA’s groups are divided (you can see from the Banyan tree is it quite a complex organization), and what information companies need to achieve grants from large development foundations.

SEWA Banyan Tree

Image from:

A big discovery was when we found out about a Construction School that is (or was) right in Ahmedabad! After 10 days on-site, we hadn’t heard about this school. What’s wonderful about this is that after some research, I have found research papers that people have created on women in Ahmedabad before and after their construction training. This is new avenue into understanding the Construction industry in India and helped validate some of our assumptions and thinking around how businesses could work in this industry.

Karin was also wonderful at really focusing our group on the actual task at hand: how we produce something this is valuable to our Rachaita team? Meaning, how do we NOT produce something that gets thrown on a desk and never looked at again. It was helpful to think that we don’t have to create a groundbreaking solution or a 30-page business plan. If we can make any small change in their business practices that is a big win for our team as a whole.

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Making progress!

Wow! The end of the quarter is rapidly approaching and we still have a lot of work to do!  Two weeks ago, our team submitted our Impact Assessment deliverable to the Hariyali staff for them to review.  We have now completed one of our four scope items for the project.  The three remaining scope items are as follows: Carbon Credit Program – Project Design Document, Key Communication Messages & Strategy, and a scale-up questionnaire.  Anurag has helped us prioritize the completion of all of the scope items, communicating to us what is most urgent, while keeping in mind what are realistic deadlines.  We plan to first complete the PDD draft and Key Communication Messages & Strategy write up, and then finish with the scale-up questionnaire.  We hope this will help us create the questionnaire with good awareness of the culture, industry, and market.

 Our next call with Anurag is this Thursday, February 21.  We are looking forward to hearing his feedback on our Impact Assessment write up.  In addition, we plan to ask if there is any special topics that he would like us to include in our final presentation.

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India: Now that we are back

India trip was great! Our visits to the centers, villages, houses, sites, eco-farm, museum, etc. were all educative and at times even overwhleming. Now when we look back and reflect, overall it was a very enriching experience.

When we were in India we got to interact with the SEWA members and authorities, got a closer look at their hardships, realized the obstacles, learnt details about their strategy, got a fair idea about the functional model and gathered data about their finances. Now that we are back with to Seattle with all the information, we are trying to make sense out of it. While we got clarity on a lot of aspects, some things left us perplexed and gave birth to new questions. At times we still feel that we are missing pieces of the puzzle, and can’t wait to put all of it together.

The enthusiasm is amazing, but at the same time there is a lot of pressure to deliver high quality material. There’s that apprehension: What if we are not able to deliver what they want? What if they don’t give us feedback on time for us to fix/ tweak our deliverables as per their needs? What if they never use the business plan we provide?

Our team is excited to take on this challenge, produce desired results and empower those SEWA members we met in India!

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Working Across Time Zones

Working on an international consulting project has its challenges while away from the country of origin! The largest challenge has been communications. With Skype calls, it has been quite difficult to actually have one happen when planned. While we might put something on the calendar and confirm it on India’s end, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the call will happen. Thus far, our team has not had a Skype call happen during the planned time. It is also a challenge to work across time zones when emailing. It might require us to wait a few days in between email responses because India is 13.5 hours ahead of us. Getting answers takes time and patience!

There is also a challenge with being lost in translation – both in conversation, and in the materials we are producing. I think one fear our team has is being able to explain each aspect of our work and exactly what we have done and how each part can be used to help improve the Gitanjali business. What we are doing to combat this is be very clear with every part we are working on and communicate as much as possible. We are using the internet, Skype, and written communication to describe our actions and how each part works. We hope this will help our tools be used when we are no longer working on the project.

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India was amazing… now let the work begin.

WOW.  By now, most of us have trickled back to the US over the past week or so.  We have taken time to digest all of the information we received while in India.  And in some ways we (at least the Gitangali team) are back to our original thoughts from our first post.

While the initial overwhelming feeling of discouragement due to the sheer number of people in India faded away during our experience on the subcontinent, it still remains in the back of our mind as we embark on the final deliverables for this project.  While the 1.2 billion population is daunting, we realized that making one person smile isn’t quite as far-fetched as helping a billion people.  But now that we have shared our smiles with the sisters at SEWA we need to deliver more than smiles.  We need to deliver results.  Feelings of discouragement rise again.  Maybe discouragement isn’t the right word, but we fear failure.  We fear not giving back as much as we have received on our trip.

The experience for us was amazing, and we hope to return amazing results to Gitangali.  While it seemed daunting at first, we have a clear scope of how we can help.  But what if our plan doesn’t work?  What if it’s a great report that doesn’t get actioned?  What if we went into this project overwhelmed, and gained our footing only to lose it again by underwhelming our stakeholders who need us the most.

In some ways we are back to square one.  Hopefully a little more enlightened, a little more knowledgeable, and a little more confident than we were at the onset.  Now all we can do is try our best to let the experience we had work for us and take that passion to provide the best results we can.  Hopefully in the end we can say that we provided more than smiles.

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