Village mein Start-up?

Village mein Start-up?

Pankaj addressed the 100 students in the hall at the ITI, a vocational training institute in Tandi village.

“How many people want to start their own business?”

Only 3 hands went up. The ITI teacher told them “Listen to me, you schmucks. After trying for a job for many years you will then look to start your own business. You should do it right now with their help.” (suitably translated from Hindi)

The teacher was referring to Udhyam’s offer to help aspiring entrepreneurs with financing and mentorship. Udhyam means enterprise in Hindi.  And this Udhyam is an organization that works in the villages to promote entrepreneurship.

The biggest challenge in villages here is poverty. People grow up with financial uncertainty and are vulnerable to things like weather and disease. Their dream is the highly coveted government job with its predictable, high income. Practically all boys want to be soldiers and all girls teachers. To even try for these jobs one needs to have completed school education, and often a lot more.

25% of boys and 20% of girls still do not complete school in Uttarakhand (source website here  ) and college Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) stands at a mere 32%. That means a large proportion of the youth are ineligible for the jobs. Even for those eligible, the competition is extremely tough. Most of the youth land up picking small jobs around here, and many of the young men head to the city.

Seeing all this, Udhyam is working to encourage the youth to get into entrepreneurship.

Udhyam poster 2
Posters like this one, and another featuring Jeevan (cover picture) dotted our landscape. Lalita & Jeevan are both successful entrepreneurs from last year. 

They started with a small pilot last year with just eight businesses financed and mentored. This year the target is to help 40 businesses with cheap loans and also offer mentoring to the ones that need it.

The idea is simple and the impact will be significant, but pulling it off is no easy task. The awesome Udhyam team visited 255 villages, put up 2000 posters, held 70 village meetings, and after all that received 499 calls. All that has been sifted down to 59 shortlisted candidades after the first round of the screening. The first round of screening interviews was on October 28-29 and I was lucky to be invited to be part of the interview panel screening the applicants.

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Udhyam selection Panel meeting

I requested permission for my 11 year old son,  A. Mahajan, to also participate. We are home-schooling him and I could not imagine a better forum to channel his inner entrepreneur. Many interesting dilemmas came up. Should we fund the guy wanting to start a DJ business (given that he will probably blow the neighbourhoods peace to bits?). What about the restauranteur who allows surreptitious drinking? And the goat farmer who will allow free grazing in the forest (which is terrible for the ecology) and may ask his school age kids to graze goats instead of having them attend school? And should women be encouraged even if their business plans seemed iffy?

Some of these were too heavy for Anhad, but I have given below his take on the experience (his English assignment).

But before we go there, I wanted to talk a little about the force behind this movement. Pankaj Wadhwa is an amazing guy. To call him dynamic and high-energy is like calling a cat nimble. He’s a classic example of people who Uncity and bring much benefit and good to the area. His first enterprise was started in 2008 to help rural producers sell their products, and currently supports some 18 NGOs. You may have seen shops named Himjoli if you’ve travelled around Uttarakhand. That’s his baby. And Udhyam is his most recent initiative. Pankaj is more action less talk, so predictably Udhyam doesn’t have a website yet.  And while Himjoli has a website (https://himjoli.org/ ), I was unable to find his name on the site.

Shark Tank* of the village

By A. Mahajan, 11 years

I had lots of fun yesterday and day before yesterday (the 29th and the 28th of October 2018). I liked it because we/I got to interview some interesting people like the photographer and the person who wanted to open/upgrade his Dhaba (which he called his “restaurant”).We also got to see how much money they wanted and how they would spend it and how they would pay it back plus how much risk there is in their businesses and how much can you trust them. I really liked it. It was lots of fun, at least the first day. The first day was in a KMVN in Bhimtal. The KMVN was definitely not the best – not great rooms, food was OK, but the view was great. At least the bathrooms were clean. The first day we had 9 interviews out of that 2 people dropped out, but 7 people did show up. And here were their ideas- mushroom farming, photographer, beauty parlor, clothing shop, herbal tea shop, knitting group and a music & arts school. After all the interviews all of us as in the selection panel met and discussed a little then everybody went home except for us and a few others. Anurag uncle was one of them, and we stayed back at the KMVN and partied – here is what we did. We got chicken pastas and Oreo shakes and ate our dinner while watching Netflix and then we slept. Next morning, we got up early washed up, packed and left, we had breakfast on the way then we went to Almora and did the rest of the interviews. This time we met 6 people and here were their ideas – 2 shop keepers, a restaurant, a tailor, a furniture shop and a cattle farm. And then again after the interviews we (the panel) met and discussed about the interviews chatted about people who we weren’t sure about and after all that we said our goodbyes and left for home.

Here are some of the reasons for rejection: if the applicant doesn’t need the money, capability of returning the money, bad business ideas, serving alcohol without a permit, etc.

And here are some reasons for acceptance: creating employment, benefiting the society, low risk profile, people whose business idea needed the money etc.

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*Shark Tank is an American TV series where entrepreneurs make their presentations to a panel of investors. Details here .

Quiet Place? Really?

Quiet Place? Really?

Everything happened in Nanoseconds. The dog took off after the rooster. The rooster ran flapping its wings, squawking a frantic SOS. Human voices cried out “Po! Leave it!”. For a dog named after a Panda, she moved fast. Things ended without any loss of life, although the rooster has developed a nervous tic and needs counseling. But my psychologist wife insists that Cognitive Behavior Therapy doesn’t work on poultry.

The above is one of many true incidents at our new place. The place which will be the new home for the erstwhile homeless Himalayan Writing Retreat. The same place we were trying to name, and for which many of you had voted. Thank you for taking the time. The votes helped.

In the vote count, “Centreself” topped the list with “Thought Orchard” & “Quiet Place”a very close second. They are lovely names. We realized that they are also very serious, and we’re not. Neither is the place we’re creating. We are serious about giving people a great experience, but we don’t do heavy. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. Maybe that’s why the sole award this blog has won was for humour.

Our place, like us, is full of quirks. Our location is a windy, picturesque ridge where our chickens walk on two feet but our wifi limps. Our loving dogs frequently try to reduce our workload by eating our hens. My US licensed, doctoral degree holding psychologist wife sometimes gets paid in vegetables and fruits by the locals for her services.

We all have our quirks. They make us unusual and different. Quirky is best defined as “Weird in a good way.” The quirk can be anything. A need to wear a fedora hat & leather boots – and nothing else – on a beach. The need to know the names of all the birds you see. The urge to wrap the selfie stick around the neck of the person using it. The desire to stop in the middle of things and write down an idea or thought because you might use it later.

It’s all weird in a good way. So we nearly settled on Quirky Ridge for the name.

But then we realized that while “Quirky Ridge” may make people curious, it may not  inspire them to stay with us. We needed a more appealing name – something that goes with the sagacity associated with the mountains. A name that would reflect the physical beauty and calm that mostly prevails at our place. A name that tells guests how perfect our place is for the writer or artist seeking inspiration. A name that appeals to the frantic city dweller looking for stillness.

I wanted a name that slips from the mind and easily sticks to the tongue. Strike that out. I mean I wanted a name that sticks in the mind and easily slips off the tongue.

So after much gut-wrenching debate, we’ve settled for quietplace. You can check out our website at www.quietplace.in .

We plan to train our dog. And if the rooster keeps up it’s racket, we may have to eat it. Very quietly.

You can’t eat the view

You can’t eat the view

I just filed my taxes. My income has fallen. In corporate jargon, we have sustainability issues. I live in a Himalayan village. Everything around is incredibly beautiful. Most people who come through envy our life. But I cannot eat the view. I also cannot use it to pay for my kids’ education.

That’s okay because I am the eternal optimist who believes that things will get better. But the tax return did make me think about the trade-off between money and happiness. As I pondered, I came across a diagram for work, money and happiness. It hit home. I have created this version of it.

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Most of it is pretty clear. The “Dreaming” box means you may have a passion for something, and money can be made from it, but you’re no good at it. My ability with music is a great example. I’ve joined guitar classes six times and still can’t play. I’ll never make it to the rock-n-roll hall of fame.

But the boxes here are not an end state. The box you’re in now is a starting point. You could be very happy in your box. If not, move. It’s the difference between “As is” and “To be”. (Apologies for the corporate jargon. To my credit, I did replace “monetize” with “make it pay” in the picture below). The goal is to alter the box we are in. The quest is for the “JOY” box – that ideal combination of Passion, Excellence & Money.  We wont discuss how much money. Let’s just say its personal and move on.

Venn action

Let me take a few examples from my own life. I was in the “rich but stressed” box. I could sound passionate about a revenue target, but I was faking it. You cannot fake your way into a passion. I was lying to my boss, my team, and myself. So I walked away.

I found myself in the ”Happy but poor” box.  I now pursue various passions / projects to seek out joy.

  1. Writing. It doesn’t pay. My first book did well but earned peanuts. This blog has earned nothing except the indiblogger award for humour. The award is also inedible. So I hope my next book sells more and I can make peanuts2 from it. The fact is, I write because it’s fun. Even if I earn nothing. Happy but poor.
  2. The Himalayan Writing Retreat (THWR). I am working hard to grow THWR. It is one way of trying to make writing pay. I love teaching, and I know the retreats are good because the participants love them (on facebook we’re rated 5/5). But the problem is marketing – I have to improve that. I’m working on it right now. I can’t eat the view but it does help me sell and monetize (uff). Once that happens, I will reach the joy box.
  3.  Professional Speaking. This is something I really enjoy. It can pay as well. My initial talks were terrible. I am working hard and getting better. This 4-minute talk is amongst my better ones. I hope to start earning from it now. I expect my next book to boost that. So Professional Speaking is the “dreaming” box where I am trying to excel.
  4. The Himalayan X retreat. We are creating a yet-to-be-named learning destination around our home in the Himalayas. This is a place where people will come to learn. And grow. The rooms and learning spaces will be the future home of many thing writing. We hope to offer writing residencies, and various other writing related programs such as script-writing. We may also do other things on the side like bird-watching & photography. This is emerging from the dreaming box right now.  We have to built it and now it has the potential to give us joy.
  5. Cheesemaking is a big one. My partner Nitin Dayalu and I have recently started producing cheese  locally. Nitin also walked away from the “Rich & Stressed” box around the same time as me. His wisdom came earlier in life. The cheese we make is organic – from the awesome milk we get here. Nitin is deeply passionate about this, and it is his baby. He can – and has – run this business on his own. I am passionate about entrepreneurship, and this start-up really gets me going. I am a handy sounding board for him. For us the goal is to make the project pay enough that we can live by it. And we want to add to the local community in a meaningful way. Again, we are in “happy but poor”, looking for Joy.

Our branding, of course, has a cheekiness which some of you may expect by now.

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One person I definitely know who is in the “Joy” box is Sumit Bansal. He quit IBM to become a full-time blogger on MS Excel. He excels at blogging (hee hee). He is passionate about his work and makes good money from it.  We are jointly hosting the Himalayan Blogging Retreat on April 18-22 (details here).

In all the examples above, the goal is beyond mere wealth. Because we are passionate about what we do, we hope to find joy. We may not excel at every aspect of our work, but we’re getting better. As I strive for Joy, it is surprising how much fun the striving itself is. That effort to make something new and beautiful where nothing existed is enriching. And much more satisfying than my last “job”.

So what box are you in? And what will give you joy? Feel free to share your comments.

 

 

 

Talking about sex. To strangers.

Talking about sex. To strangers.

No, I am not a flasher. I am a professional speaker though, and that can sometimes feel like being naked in public. I like to think I am respectable. Yet I spoke about my sex life to a room-full of complete strangers recently.

The misuse of sex in communication has been the proud domain of the advertising industry. We’ve all seen bad ads with cheap lines. And hoardings with scantily clad women seductively selling cement. So when I was working on my talk for a conference last month, I was wary. I had never talked about sex in any public forum before, and didn’t want to. But for some reason it just fit into this one. And since this event – WPP Stream Asia 2018 – was a conference with advertising, marketing and tech types, I figured it might go down okay.

The talk itself had tough rules – only 4 minutes, 16 slides that move automatically every 15 seconds. No clicker so no control. And 22 speakers back to back with me somewhere in that mix. Given the audience, I chose to talk about my journey from the city to the mountains. I could have talked about my one month in jail, or about writing. But I felt that the audience would really relate to my story about leaving the city – after all most of them are similar to the person I was when I left the city.

So I framed out the talk and ran it by multiple people. As always, my wife offered Talk screenshotamazing insight. More importantly, she did not ask me to chop the sex life bit. Then I subjected my brother and some friends to dry runs in the name of feedback. Their tips helped a lot, but nobody asked me to chop the sensitive part. Wow. “Where are all the prudes?” I asked myself.

I am still working to better my public speaking, and I do welcome your thoughts on this. If you have 4 minutes, take a look at the talk  at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zew_jJfMSho&feature=youtu.be   and please do share your feedback in the comments. Thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

A woman with a backpack? How un-Indian!

A woman with a backpack? How un-Indian!

Contributor : Dr. Vandita Dubey

“Are you going to Ashram?”

asked the taxi driver at Bangalore Airport as he put my backpack into the trunk of his car. I looked at him, trying to figure out why he thought so, and shook my head. I then showed him my friend’s address and explained that I was headed for her house. As we settled for a long drive in the taxi, he turned around and asked me,

“What country are you from?”

Now, I am neither blond haired nor blue eyed, but I have noticed that whenever I travel with my backpack I am mistaken for a foreigner. This is regardless of where I am – the Delhi Metro station, Bangalore airport or on a train from Delhi to Kathgodam. Traveling around with a backpack in Indian or un-Indian clothes has had strangers attempting to talk to me in English, asking me which country I was from. This never happens to me when I travel through the same places, or elsewhere, carrying a suitcase or a bag. So. what is it about carrying a backpack that makes me un-Indian?

I realize that with a backpack folks cannot put me in a box. I know I don’t look like a student, definitely not college-age (however much I may wish I did). I proudly walk around with my untinted grey hair, announcing my middle age to all who may care. So, I clearly look my age. Perhaps I don’t act my age?  The fact that I carry my well stuffed back-pack around defies the Indian rules of age, gender and class. Women of my age and social status are expected to have coolies or other men folk carrying their luggage. But then I have also lugged my own bags and seen other women do so at railway stations without being labelled foreigner. Of course, this is as long as the luggage in question is a suitcase or a bag. So, what seems to  cause all this confusion is the innocuous backpack itself.

I have to admit that my backpack is an attention grabbing red with some grey. I bought the backpack more than 10 years ago from a specialty outdoor store. It is designed keeping the female form in mind. And, I have spent many a sweaty days, hiking with it in the mountains. However, now our hikes involve mules and it seem masochistic to lug uphill weight that I do not have to. So, my backpack has become my travel luggage of choice, especially when I travel alone. I prefer to carry my own bags. It makes me feel independent and in control. Perhaps that is what a backpack signifies – independence and control. Is that what is disconcerting then? An Indian woman, middle aged, independent and in control of her life?

Or. Is it that most women who travel with backpacks are foreigners? Hence, any woman who carries a backpack is a foreigner. But then any woman who wears Indian clothes is not necessarily assumed to be an Indian, especially if she has blue eyes and blond hair. Why then, with my brown eyes and black (ok, black and grey) hair am I mistaken for a foreigner?

Do tell me what you think. I’d love to hear your backpack stories or unusual travel tales.

About Dr. Vandita Dubey : A US licensed psychologist, Dr. Dubey works with her clients over phone and skype, and also hosts therapy retreats in the Himalayas. A published author, she also co-hosts the Himalayan Writing Retreat. You can learn more about her at www.vanditadubey.com, and about the retreats at www.himalayanwritingretreat.com.

 

 

 

 

Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?

Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?

Something isn’t right about what this little girl wants from her life. I googled the lyrics. Nowhere does anyone ask for happiness.

Bummer.

It got me thinking about last evening. I was at the Sonapani Music festival surrounded by amazing people. None of them were particularly rich – and if they were it certainly wasn’t on display. They were all beautiful in my eyes. Not pretty in the TV – bollywood – painted faces way. They were all lovely in their real skins, and amazingly talented. The women were beautiful because they didn’t need Maybelline to tell them that they were worth it.

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Sonapani Music Festival at the Himalayan Village Sonapani

I also spent the last month with four Ashoka Fellows. I have been working with them as part of a writing retreat, which required me to understand their work and their stories. The more I learned, the more I admired them. Each one of them is working to change something big, and has already achieved some measure of success.

These two very different groups don’t live by the lyrics of Que Sera Sera. Neither of them

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Harpreet & Moushmi

goes in search of wealth and good looks. They don’t care much how pretty, handsome or rich they are. The amazing artists at Sonapani – Harpreet, Moushumi, Shruthi & Shruteendra care about their art. They care about the world and all that is right and wrong with it. And that is captured in the beauty of their poetry and music.

Another line of “Que Sera Sera” the Ashoka Fellows don’t buy into is “what will be will be”. They look at what is, find what’s wrong with it, and work to fix it. They are not closed in their thinking. Not negatively invested in their particular organizations. They want change to happen – by whatever means. So they encourage others including their own employees  to create organizations like their own. The corporate world calls that competition. The Ashoka fellows don’t resist this competition – they encourage it.

One thing common to all these people is that they have realized early on in life that happiness will not come from money or looks. They believe it will come from some form of personal fulfillment. It could be art. Or Music. Or Poetry. Or doing something truly meaningful with their lives. In their own way each of these people makes the world a better place.

And then I meet people in other walks of life – especially in the corporate world. I meet the many people who completely believe that wealth is a proxy for happiness. The difference is stark. What strikes me is that many people never make a conscious choice. They take the default path set by society without question. The few who consciously choose business thrive in it and love that too.

No, I am not advocating poverty. I am simply saying that before your children ask for “pretty & rich” make sure they ask for “happy”.

It’s not the same thing.

 

*Talking about song lyrics, I also think they need to officially change the lyrics to one song. “She’s a jolly good fellow” has to be the new anthem. Three of the four Ashoka fellows I worked with were women.

Cartoon Credit : Dave Carpenter ( Cartoonstock)

 

 

 

Want to Uncity? Make a choice. Expat? Or Migrant?

Want to Uncity? Make a choice. Expat? Or Migrant?

So you want to leave your gated community in the city for a gated community in the village? Like in the above ad of home-in-the-himalayas ? Your gated community must be eco-friendly, of course. Options abound. Tata Housing sells its “Myst Eco-luxury residences” in Kasauli as a super-premium gated community. “This exclusive gated community has been designed by the world’s leading expert in sustainable architecture…” says their website.

Another similar property touts “an exclusive residential address, a community of like-minded people who value the same ideas of wellness, privacy and under-stated luxury.” The background picture shows a large, eco-friendly gate.

In the city one key thing a gated community provides is security. What are they afraid of here, I wonder?

All these exclusive properties tout how sensitive they are to the environment. The Tata Housing site says “Never before has luxury been more sensitive in its approach and more evolved in the statement it makes about those who choose to live here. ” Strangely, none of them talks about how sensitive they are to the local people and culture.

Eco-friendly is better when it is also people friendly. And that doesn’t mean just a maid and a caretaker.

At the other end of this scale is Ashish Arora. He moved here from the city over a decade back. He has built a thriving business not by excluding the local communIMG_20170601_110934.jpgity but by including them. He actively helps all the village people in their issues. He was recently elected to the van-panchayat of his village. He works hard to save the forest, employ local people, and is an integral part of the local community. He is invited to every local celebration. He pays homage when any villager dies. His wife Deepa single-handedly employs well over 50 local women through their enterprise called Chandi Maati.

Arvindji is another great example. He moved up here and set up a library which the entire region benefits from now. And of course there are many who work and contribute to the local NGOs.

These and many other amazing people are not here as expats, but migrants – woven into the local fabric.

You dream of living in the mountains. Who do you want to be?

You can be the rich city Expat who lives in the gated community in the mountains, making exclusivity statements. Or you can be the migrant who makes a statement by making a difference. Someone who connects with and changes the lives of the people around you for the better. As a city-bred person with education and exposure you can do so much for the local community. In return, you actually get to be a part of a real community – possibly for the first time ever.

Please don’t tell me you will live in the gated community and integrate with the local community. That statement doesn’t even sound right, does it?

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About Chetan Mahajan:  Chetan is a full-time author and blogger who lives in a village in the Kumaon region of the Himalayas. The amazing creative influence of the Himalayas inspired him to start the Himalayan Writing Retreats: writing getaways for both novice and advanced writers. You can learn more about these retreats at www.himalayanwritingretreat.com .  He also writes and edits this blog.