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Trip to Bangalore August 2013

As soon as I stepped out of the airport, I could smell the curries. The warm and humid air thickening their intensity. My second trip to India was about to begin. My husband, Will, travels to India many times a year on business. I benefit from the wonderful tea and some lovely jewelry he brings home. Six years ago we brought our children and spent three weeks traveling from Delhi to Agra around Rajasthan and down to Mumbai. That trip was full of wonderful experiences that we still recount as a family. But this trip was different. Instead of simply being a tourist, I was joining Will to help start Social Venture Partners in Bangalore.  I was looking forward to meeting with locals and learning more about the country my husband loves and that I hear about so often.

We arrived at midnight on Saturday, the airport lively even at that late hour. Jackhammers and construction sounds blaring. Our driver Nandish brought us to our hotel. We fell into bed even though it was noon at home. The 26-hour travel time with two back-to-back flights is exhausting. In the morning, our friends Ravi and Sonali met us for breakfast, bringing guidebooks and advice on some tourist attractions in and around Bangalore. I had met Ravi before in Seattle. This was the first time I met Sonali and liked her instantly, her face honest, intelligent, thoughtful, expressive. Her reception of me warm and sincere. We had dosa for breakfast, crispy thin pancakes wrapped around a mildly spiced potato mixture.

Bangalore is a huge, teeming city of 8.5 million people. But not a tourist city (we saw few westerners) and far more affluent than Rajasthan. Everywhere, all the time, something is happening. I watch the people – the women colorful in their Sarees or more often the Salwar Kemeez or Chuirdaar Kurta  (tunics over loose-fitting or legging-like pants), families with children laughing, young lovers on park benches heads together, stick-skinny old men, young men in sneakers, jeans and t-shirts joking with each other, Muslim men with tight scull caps and veiled Muslim women.  I inhale the smells – curries from street vendors I wish I could eat, pungent garbage, bitter exhaust, stale bare feet pattering quietly in temples. I listen – cars honking and honking, languages I don’t understand, lovely Indian-accented English. The chaos entices and exhausts me.

I get a visceral reaction to the veiled women. Dressed all in black in their chadors, only their eyes exposed. I mentioned this to one of the women I met. She said there are more veiled women now than in the past. The Muslims were not always so strict. She also said that despite the veiling, the women were being educated more which she thought was a good thing. I could see her point but still have trouble with the custom and its belittling of women.

We spent Sunday touring the Bull Temple, the Bangalore Palace, and Lal Bagh a lovely park.  Wednesday will be National Day – celebrating India’s independence. Lal Bagh had a special flower show and the locals queued up to see it. The atmosphere is festive, families seeing the sites and picnicking, happy laughter. I like that Indians are family oriented, that they bring their children with them, delight in them. I watch fathers, mothers, grandparents hug and hold, toss and catch their children, playful.  Behind the Bull Temple, we discover a park with large trees, walk atop a large rock formation to get a view. I ask Will what the screeching birds we hear are. He does not know, but looking up we see dozens, perhaps more, of large bats hanging from the trees. Cool. Will thinks they are flying foxes.

In the evening we walk to Ravi and Sonali’s home for dinner. I watch my step carefully as we walk the quarter mile. Bangalore, like other cities in India in my experience, is not a city for strolling and window shopping. The sewers run under the sidewalks, each stone or concrete block a separate slab. Some broken, some missing. If you don’t watch, you might end up with a foot in the sewer or a broken leg. The sidewalks are crowded with people and garbage, sometimes wires from overhead, sometime motorbikes. We walk on the street some places. The road is dusty, speckled with litter which creates garbage drifts near empty lots . Cars and motor scooters and  motor rickshaws honk their way past through the labyrinth of streets. Crossing the street is a high-risk sport for those not trained or accustomed. I hold Will’s hand, thinking he’s a foot taller than I and easier to see.

Ravi and Sonali greet us warmly and Arathi, the Executive Director of SVP Bangalore, joins us for dinner. We begin our evening planning for the next day: a Prospective Partner event followed by the first All-Partner meeting for those already signed up. We discuss the agenda, roles, PowerPoints, and videos. Arathi is hungry for information. Ravi is strategic. He signed up to be board chair and he and Arathi identify other potential founding board members. A few calls later and half have already agreed to serve. I am impressed but know that Ravi asking is also important. He understands leadership and his role.

Dinner is a beautiful South Indian veg meal: a sweet and mild okra dish, sharp raw radish and cool cucumbers, yogurt, hot poori. Dessert is a sweet milk-based pudding.  I eat well, pleased that the south Indian food is not as rich as the northern food we had in Rajasthan.

Monday, Arathi and I meet. She and Ravi have contacted a few more board members all of whom have agreed to step forward. I recount SVP’s history and our vision of a social sector filled with caring, engaged philanthropists and resilient, impactful nonprofits; my pride in our accomplishments is evident. I introduce myself, share stories of my long-involvement in SVP and my other board work in Seattle, my views on education. She tells me a little about herself, how she came to this position. Then we get down to business, discussing the format we use in Seattle for prospective partner receptions and what will work here. We edit the PowerPoint presentation we had prepared ahead via email for the All-Partner meeting.

The meetings start at 4 pm at the Microsoft offices. Getting anywhere in Bangalore takes a long time. The distance is not far but the traffic is chaotically slow. I am pleased with our driver Nandish who confidentially weaves in and out amongst the traffic. The concept of lanes does not exist here. Arathi is concerned about everyone getting through the security. But it all works out and we have 35 people come to the  Prospective Partner event. Arathi welcomes everyone. We show a video featuring Lance Fors, chair of SVPI. Ravi explains his involvement. I talk about SVP. Will talks about partner engagement. We are asked lots of excellent questions. Interest is strong, imaginations are sparked. Arathi closes by asking people to join and several do immediately. Others will sign up before I leave back to the States.

We had a break with cake and samosas. About 20 people stayed for the All-Partner Meeting. The room was abuzz with energy. Ravi introduced the board. Arathi talked about what had already been accomplished. I listed decisions that had to be made going forward. The group quickly agreed on a geographic area – primarily Bangalore and perhaps into broader Karnataka. Arathi had surveyed partners ahead about what issue area they wanted to focus on and she shared the results. After some discussion, the group agreed on poverty alleviation and livelihoods.  I suggest that  the “getting smart” phase would help them narrow focus within that broad category. Committees were formed, individuals stepped forward to chair each one, and others volunteered to serve.

Some partners talked ambitiously about getting 30 new members in the next 30 days. I reminded them that they need members who are committed and also many who had time to volunteer, better to move slowly and get the right people. I also noted that being an ambassador for SVP is the responsibility of all partners, not just those on the recruitment committee. Will pointed out that we needed more young people and women. Partners also planned for expansion to other cities in India. Arathi and Ravi cautioned that we should get Bangalore up and running so lessons learned could be applied elsewhere. “It will be at least 7-8 months before you make a grant,” I explain. “Our grantmaking process takes about six months. Take your time. This is how you learn.” At the end, all agreed that Arathi should attend the SVPI conference in Portland in November and others were encouraged to attend as well.  One signed up to come to Portland that night.

Will and I drove home, exhilarated from the energy and progress, tired from jet lag and the long day. We ordered room service, checked our email and fell into bed. With the 12 ½ hour time difference, you don’t get much email during the day–  but you wake up to scores.

On Tuesday Arathi and I met to review Monday’s meetings and to plan for Friday where I was going to walk through some “nuts and bolts” of the SVP process. I practiced my presentation with her, able to refine my information based on her questions. Then we stopped working, it was time for lunch and she had agreed to take me shopping. Later we would meet Will for dinner. She took me to a local south Indian restaurant. We wanted a light meal since we were also going out for dinner. Others were eating Thali – platters with multiple bowls of dal and rice and vegetable curries. They eat with their fingers, scooping up the sauce and the rice together. She told me Indians traditionally eat with their fingers. It tastes different she says. Eating off the metal plate and bowl instead of ceramic, using your fingers instead of a fork. She ordered vadai which are shaped like donuts but made out of lentils, bisi belle baath which is rice with lentils, puffed bread called poori and a vegetable curry with a coconut base. She described how they are made. She likes to cook. I also like to cook. So we talk about cooking. She shared more of her life – her parents, boarding school in England, living in the US, returning to India. In the US, she worked for high tech firms. Here she has been a consultant. She mentioned the World Bank and a project with Accenture helping village women market their handicrafts to large corporations. We chatted easily.

Shopping was fun. I picked out some souvenirs, presents for my kids and others, a few articles of clothing that were western enough that I would wear at home. Quite honestly, I was envious of the Indian clothing – easy to wear pants and tunic tops in lively bright colors – practical and pretty. Dinner was at Punjab Grill. Saag made with mustard greens, tender goat meat, and marrow bones. Need I say more?

Wednesday was National Day. Will and I were up early to leave by 6 am for our trip to Shravanabelagola , a Jain Temple, and Belur and Halebeedu, Hindu Temples. Our favorite was Halebeedu with its amazing carvings. The temples were about 150 miles away so lots of driving – took over four hours each way. But the villages along the way are what really sparked my imagination. Every school has a little parade for National Day and we saw parades of all sizes – some with only a couple dozen children following two or three with musical instruments; others with hundreds including a full band and “floats.” They were charming, festive, happy and reminded me of parades in small towns in the US on the 4th of July.

The roads are crowded and we saw all the contrasts of India – fine Japanese or European cars driving alongside oxen pulled carts piled high with produce or hay. Large cities and small villages where the women were carrying water from wells back to their homes on their heads. Men laughing with their children or chatting together in groups. All the women wear traditional dress. We also saw many men also wearing traditional clothing. The women wear bright colors so they look like flowers whether they were working in the fields or walking along the streets.

We drove through a fairly prosperous agricultural area where coconut trees are grown for the oil. We saw fields of marigolds picked for offerings to the temples. A drought year, there was no monsoon this year, the lakes were nearly empty. The road we took was being expanded. On the side, trees were cut down and if a house was in the way, they just cut it in two, leaving one part standing – the other  side like a doll house that you could see into. We saw beautiful well-kept homes alongside low, tent-shaped dwellings made of palm thatch.

As I said, Will comes to India often for various businesses. One business, Pangala, makes software to help high school students pass end-of-year exams necessary to move to the next level and exams used for college acceptance. Think Kaplan online, self-paced with a proctor. Pangala is trying two models. One is to provide the class at schools where students attend after school. The other is retail where parents pay for the class much as parents pay for SAT prep classes in the US. Pangala staff people took me to one school and one retail site. The school was founded by a western woman and provides education for kids at the bottom of the pyramid. I was told these are families who live on about $2 per day. The kids were neatly dressed in uniforms and excited about the class. I chatted with two girls who were about 13 years old. They loved the computers. They proudly showed me how the model worked. They were repeating a lesson on Set Theory. Neither had done very well before. “Do you think you can do better today?” I asked. “Yes mum,” they replied. And they did – by the end of the session getting 11 out of 13 questions correct. It was clear that comfort with computers was going to be valuable as well as knowledge of Set Theory.

I chatted with a bright new employee from Pangala on the way to the retail outlet. She works on developing content and said they needed more content, deeper content, but also ways to encourage more critical thinking. India has several different national and state curriculums – Pangala currently supports two – CBSE and “State Board.”  Within those constraints, Pengala is trying to innovate and encourage more thinking and less rote memorization.

She also shared that she was recently married. I congratulated her and asked how she meet her husband. It was at  university she said. Her parents were not happy at first. They were okay now. He was of a different caste. This was my second conversation about caste. The caste system is alive and well in India. But it seems that caste and economic class have become separated. Rich people can be from any class. I know Ravi and Sonali are Brahmins. I did not ask the others. I did not know whether it was polite to ask that question.

At Pengala’s retail “tuition center,” the kids come from many different schools. They were more serious – but then their parents are paying for the class. The teacher said she had to augment computer instruction with worksheets, as she felt it was important that they also work on paper since the exams are on paper. The kids were engaged and making progress. A few were doing a course in chemistry. Getting the model right is difficult. How many teachers? How many proctors? How do you get the kids to engage? How do you make the financials work out? I asked about using an online Help Desk of sorts with a university student to augment the ones at the site. I asked about social media – could you get the kids excited because their friends were also doing this? All questions the staff at Pengala were considering.

Educating a billion or more children is no small task.

The driver took me back to Ravi and Sonali’s home for dinner. Will was at a business meeting. I was a bit early. Sonali was not home from work yet. Ravi was just walking out to go to the temple. I went with him. The temple was a couple blocks away. He said that he went to this one because it was close. On special occasions, he goes to other temples. He tries to go frequently. I watched as he made offerings and bowed to various gods in various alcoves. He told me the name of each one—Krishna, Vishnu, Brahma – every temple has all three but each temple will also specialize. I stood back and watched for awhile. The devout praying, offering flowers. The temple was mostly open with courtyards. Next to it was a pile of garbage and I watched a couple rats sniffing around. Decided to think of Templeton from Charlotte’s web rather than more unpleasent things. We had rats in our house in Seattle a couple years ago so they give me the creeps.

After, Ravi and I walked in a lovely small garden, circumnavigating a half dozen times, talking. “Tell me about Hinduism,” I say. And he explained about striving to selflessness. We talk about the difference between belief and devotion and action. I share my Jewish upbringing – the righteous of all nations shall rise up, what you do is most important, there is no deathbed conversion to belief. “I don’t know whether god exists,” I say. “But that does not matter. I cannot make it so or not. I can do good and be remembered by what I have done.” And he remarks that even that is about self and not selflessness. I consider this and have to agree. ”I tell my children that every person has the ability, the force to be good. That’s god to me. It’s in all of us, not separate.” He agrees. “So then you do believe,” he says. And I stumble with my answer. Believe in what? What is belief? Is this even the right question?

Friday morning brings a meeting with Will, Ravi, Arathi, and me to talk about budgets. Tedious but essential. Small organizations live and die by their cash flow. A philanthropic startup is no different.

I take a break midday—work out and have lunch. Those who know me know that I work out every day and this trip was no exception. We stayed in a business hotel near Unitus where Will is working on a startup venture fund that invests in companies serving people at the base of the economic pyramid. It is also close to Ravi’s home. Fine hotel with an adequate gym. I worked out seven days but saw only one other guest in the gym. A staff person sat there all day. He seemed happy to see me. When I walked in the first day, he was watching TV and turned it off when I came in. But then he was watching me. I told him it was okay to watch TV while I was working out. I would call him if I needed him. “Thank you mum,” he replied and turned the TV back on.

But working out also gave me the opportunity to check out Indian television. I was a bit confused as the channels on each piece of work out equipment were different and not all had the same channels. So you could get into a show on the treadmill but not be able to watch it on the stationery bike. I watched a bit of Indian 24 hour news. Every minute is some breaking news story as they sensationalize the unsensational. They make Fox and Nancy Grace on CNN seem downright subjective. It was hard to tell what was really important and what was not.  I had to ask the locals who also laughed about the online news. I checked out some India soaps but they were hard to follow. Commercials were not dissimilar to what we have here. I ended up watching BBC entertainment which had cooking and animal or nature shows.

Afternoon, we were back meeting with partners of SVP. I started by saying if I was Spock, I would do a mind meld. Fortunately, everyone had watched StarTrek and understood my joke. And I proceeded to walk through grant committees and funding, lead partners and volunteer matching, yearly workplans and the Organizational Capacity Assessment Tool (OCAT) that we use. We discussed what needed to be customized for India. There was resistance to giving unrestricted funding.  We talked about how that could be done and still have checks and balances against abuse. We talked about evaluation and refunding. People asked lots of questions. We started developing baseline criteria for grant guidelines. Everyone was engaged and offering wonderful insights.

Toward the end of the meeting, we were joined by a woman from Accenture’s local Corporate Social Responsibility group who described their process for funding and working with NGOs. This discussion led to more ideas and when we finished the meeting, I felt that the SVP Bangalore Partners, board and staff (Arathi) had a good idea of the process and a vision for how they would make it work for them. I gave them my email, told them to look at the SVPI and SVP Seattle sites, and walked out feeling that they are going to be magnificent.

Friday night Will and I walked to a nearby luxury hotel to have sushi. We wanted a light dinner. The sushi was good but double what you pay in NYC (and much more than what we pay in Seatle). On the way to the hotel, we passed a fast food place called Kentacky Chicken House. Will got a photo. The hotel itself was quiet and hushed, an oasis from the chaos outside.

Saturday was a day off for me. I met with Sonali in the morning. She took me shopping. We looked at woven items and crafts. She explained all the patterns and their religious or cultural significance. I bought a few more items. Then she dropped me off at a spa where I had a treatment – they swaddled me in spices and then gave me a massage. Will and I joined some other business colleagues and also new SVP partners and their two sons for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Indian Chinese food is unique. Chinese but with Indian spices scenting everything. My Indian friends in Seattle say they miss it. We had a tasty meal and then made our way to the airport and our short 24 hours of flight time home.

The SVP Bangalore partners were excited, anxious to get started and to make a big impact. India’s challenges are great and SVP is a small player. Still I feel that our model – of making each individual partner more impactful and increasing the capacity of each NGO – is a good one for India. Change requires strong organizations and passionate people.

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