Cape Town Chronicles – II: When being kind is cruel!

Kindness. Cruelty. Two opposite words. To those who’ve experienced them in one or the other way, these are two different worlds. Where one exists, the other doesn’t. Or at least that’s how I used to think. But this past Monday, I learnt something that gave me a whole new perspective on these two aspects.

A few weeks ago, a student group at TSiBA approached me for some advice on their business. Their idea won an entrepreneurship contest. But the organisers wanted them to turnover a certain level of sales of their product to claim the prize. The product these students have at hand (which I can’t disclose) needs refinement. The prize they won is an equipment that will help them refine the product. Now, without the equipment, they will need to either make or source a raw material that is not environment-friendly. If they have this equipment, they will be able to make the product in a ‘green’ way. And the students want to be green. It is one of their major value propositions. So they were faced with a dilemma: Should we compromise on our values and sell the product in its current state, which is not environment-friendly, or should we give up the prize?

Last Monday, I was a guest at the Rotary Club of Newlands’ weekly meeting. And I had the opportunity to sit and observe their entrepreneurship meeting. This group of business men was looking for opportunities to help budding entrepreneurs. I thought this could be an opportunity for my student group, and so I pitched my students’ business as an opportunity to these entrepreneurs, in case the students do not secure their prize. The group was excited about the green product idea and was open to help the student group. So, I felt very good about it.

On the way back home, I thanked Jenna (my colleague at TSiBA and a Rotarian; I was her guest at the meeting) for letting me go with her to the meeting, and told her this could be a good help to the student group. While talking about this students’ case we wondered why the contest owners wanted the students to sell the environmentally unfriendly product. We considered multiple possibilities and in the context of one of them Jenna shared with me the story of the little boy and his caterpillar.

One day, playing in his garden, a child found a caterpillar. Fascinated, he took it inside, and put it in a clear big jar. He nurtured it every day and took good care of it. A few days later, the caterpillar started building the cocoon. When he showed it to his mother, she told him how the caterpillar would undergo changes to become a butterfly. This fascinated the boy even more. He got very attached to his caterpillar and watched it all the time, eagerly waiting for the caterpillar to turn into a butterfly.

Soon, one day, the cocoon broke and the butterfly started emerging from it. The boy was instantly excited, but his excitement was short-lived. The butterfly struggled to come out, and this saddened the boy. It was hard for the butterfly, it desperately struggled to break the cocoon and emerge out, but it couldn’t. It kept trying. The boy became impatient. He couldn’t understand why the butterfly couldn’t come out. He thought it was stuck and just couldn’t make its way out of the little opening in the cocoon. So, he decided to help, ran to his mother, brought a pair of scissors, and very carefully nipped through the hole in the cocoon to enlarge it. The butterfly came out, but it was not what he expected. Its wings were small, and the body swollen. He was sad but hoped that in a few days the body would shrink and wings would grow large enough for it to fly. But that never happened. The butterfly struggled for the rest of its life, crawling with its swollen body and wings that were not strong enough for it to fly. It never flew and eventually died.

The tiny hole in the cocoon is the key to butterfly’s metamorphosis. The struggle that it faces to get through that small opening, forces the fluid from its body into the wings and one day when the wings are strong enough for its body, it breaks free from the cocoon and flies out. But the little boy’s caterpillar never got to that stage. The child’s kindness subverted the natural struggle that the caterpillar needed in order to develop the necessary strength in its wings and break from the cocoon.

We all go through struggles in life and it is just natural for us to feel sympathy when someone we know struggles. And we don’t stop there. We try to help them in whatever ways we can, to alleviate their struggles. That is precisely what I was trying to do for my students. So when I heard this short story from Jenna, it struck me instantly that by doing so, I was, in a metaphorical sense, widening the tiny hole in their cocoon to help them come out, without realising that their wings are not yet strong enough to fly if they come out of their cocoon.

An important lesson learnt about the journey of an entrepreneur. The long term success of an entrepreneur hinges very much on how s/he responds to the struggles. In fact, I wonder now whether an entrepreneur can build a sustainable business if all the resources required are made available to him/her. How s/he finds solutions when the required resources are inadequate/not available is such a big part of her/his learning process. Don’t get me wrong. I am not against the idea of helping entrepreneurs. All I am saying is perhaps we should not offer help before they try. They need to be immensely driven and should have explored on their own to find solutions to their challenges, and any help that is offered should be a result of their dogged determination to seek that help. Being kind before they explore options to find solutions is tantamount to being cruel to them.

I’ve been reflecting over this story all this week, and I realised that this is relevant to the growth of not just an entrepreneur but any person, and I felt I gained an important insight into leadership. Struggles help us discover who we are, what we are capable of. Through struggles we find out what works for us and what not; we realise our potential. As leaders we enable our proteges to realise their potential. I feel convinced that a major part of our job as leaders has to do with kindness. The kinder we are to our proteges, the crueler we will be to their growth. Sounds so ironical, but the more I think about it, the more I am convinced it is true.

Till next time,

Time with the Champions

Beautiful Nairobi. Lots of greenery, lovely weather, friendly people, great beer…what’s not to like!


As in many developing countries, income inequality, high unemployment, rural-urban migration and other issues combine to create a large population living in poverty, dwelling in informal settlements ( read: slums) like Mathare. (view from my office)

Views from my office 1Views from my office 2

Unemployment is pretty common, with a correspondingly high crime rate. The HIV prevalence exceeds the national average. Tuberculosis, malnutrition, hypertension and diabetes are also rampant.

Run by German Doctors Nairobi, BARAKA HEALTH CENTER provides quality, accessible and sustainable health services to the vulnerable population in this community of around half a million people.Picture Baraka health center

Rose has worked in Baraka since 2007, and leads the ‘community team’.  I believe it’s more apt to call them the ‘Community Champions’With the community team

The community team delivers one of the core services of this centre. Their job is to go into the dangerous streets, narrow alleys, unmarked houses and unventilated shacks with ‘flying toilets’. They follow up on patients, identify people too sick to come to the clinic, pick out malnourished children and adults, monitor drug adherence, and refer these people to the feeding centre,the health clinic, the HIV/TB care centre or to other appropriate services.

I spent one day with them on the field to help me understand the center’s work, I couldn’t take pictures to avoid undue attention. Only Rose was bold enough to make phone calls on the street, and she told me: “they see me as their mother, and no matter how ‘bad’ these boys become, they’ll still find it hard to attack their mother; but you make sure you keep your phone well”. (I kept my phone very very well!)

In my time here as an ESMT Responsible Leaders’ Fellow, I hope to contribute to keeping the centre open and running sustainably. If I ever run out of motivation….I’ll just spend another day with Rose and her courageous team-  field trip for me, daily work for her.

With Rose

Leadership lessons I learnt from my illiterate father

Leadership is a fascinating idea. Stories and anecdotes about Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, N.R. Narayana Murthy, Steve Jobs, Mother Teresa and several other greats have always inspired me. During my professional career and during this MBA program I learnt about businesses that were inspired by exemplary leadership. In my opinion no worthwhile change has ever come about without inspiring leadership.

On different occasions when my friends learnt about my personal journey, in varying degrees, they all said that I should be proud of what I achieved in my life. That comment always got me thinking. I worked hard to get where I am today, but what enabled me to become what I am?

One of the ideas I’ve practised in this MBA is, taking a step back, connecting seemingly unrelated dots to draw insights. Applying this to my personal journey, it occurred to me that a key factor is the influence of my father, and I realised that I picked up some key leadership lessons from him. Here is my version of it.

Marrivagu Narsimha is my father’s name. He was born to a poor farmer in a village, Tangutur, in India. He never went to school. He inherited no wealth, but as the only boy child, was responsible for his three sisters. To financially support my grandfather, he migrated to Hyderabad city in search of a better livelihood in his teens. He worked as a daily wage labourer. He set up his family in a slum because he could not afford a decent house elsewhere. He raised 3 children under these conditions.

When he stopped working in 2005, this is what he had accomplished:
• Eldest son: merit student, electronics engineer, employed with one of the top corporate houses in India
• Younger son: gold medalist, electronics engineer, employed with India’s second largest software exporter
• Daughter: pursuing graduation in science

His monthly income at that time was INR 2,000 ($31).

Taking an outsider perspective and looking back in time, four key elements of his approach stand out to me. These are my leadership lessons from him.

1. Vision: Must be a compelling idea of a better future
We grew up in poverty. As a family we had to choose between the basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter on a daily basis. Several days in a month, eating three square meals was a luxury. Sanitary conditions included defecating in the public, clogged drainage systems and sewage streams in the locality. On several occasions, I was not allowed to sit in school because either my clothes were torn, or because I was barefooted, or because I had not paid the fee due for the month. Our relatives looked down upon us and there was very little support.

These circumstances notwithstanding, my father made education a basic necessity for us. He believed very strongly, and was totally convinced, that education is the only thing that will ensure his children will not lead the life of poverty that he lived. What he used to say whenever I was sent back from school or I asked for shoes is still fresh in my mind, “Your focus should not be on the shoes, your focus should be on your studies. If you don’t eat once or if you don’t wear shoes it will still be okay. But if you don’t study well it will not be okay. One day when you are well educated all these problems will be gone. Sometimes it may not happen on time, but I will somehow pay your school fees. All you should do is work hard to be the best (1st ranker) in your class”. He would relentlessly repeat this message whenever we children asked for anything that he deemed was unnecessary.

2. Execution: Must be a relentless pursuit
He dragged us through those circumstances for about two and a half decades never showing signs of giving up. I remember him waking up early in the morning at 4, taking a cold bath and leaving home to bring some bags of metal scrap, then quickly cleaning his hands, eating something real fast and going to the metal shop where he was working, then coming home for lunch around 2, and returning in the night around 9. And early morning during weekdays and on Sundays, he would work on separating useful metal pieces from those bags of scrap to make some additional money. This was his routine. He would do this without any complaints, with same energy, consistently through all those years. He would buy groceries on credit because his income was not enough to provide for everything the family needed. At other times he would default on payment of house rent. With three children to educate, at times he had to default on our school fee too. But he strove real hard to pay the school on time. That was always his top priority.

As for our studies, his emphasis was on “focus” and “excellence” right through. I have vivid memories of how he used to look at my progress report. The first thing he would look at is my class rank. If it was not “1st”, he would never be happy. Sometimes when I was 2nd or 3rd he would say “Not good enough. Why are you not the first in class? You are not studying well. You keep playing cricket and roaming on the streets all the time. Whenever I see you, you are always with your friends. Instead if you had studied you would have been the 1st ranker. You have to be the best in your class, the best among your friends, the best among all our neighbours.” He was very insistent on this, all through my school years.

But once we got out of school, he never told us what to do. It was almost as if he had deliberately changed his strategy. He used to say “I am an illiterate, and I don’t know what is good and what is not when it comes to education. I sent you to school and fortunately you had good teachers who told you how to study. I could never help you with studies other than paying your fees and buying you books. You studied well so far and whatever you got was your hard work. From now on you have to make your own decisions. You decide what you want to study and how much to study. You just tell me how much money you need to study and I will try and arrange it somehow.

In retrospect, I see he led us holding hands when we were kids but once he realised we could take care of ourselves, he gave us freedom, the room to think, decide and execute what we thought was right for us, supporting us in every way we needed him to. He empowered us to think and act for ourselves.

3. Culture: Must emphasize values and foster excellence
The culture he built at home had “excellence” and “education” at its heart. He would let us do anything we wanted but only as long as it did not compromise the quality of or focus on our education. He would never stop me from playing cricket with my friends but as exams approached he would come looking for me at all places possible, take me home, sit me down and make me study. There were no excuses!

Other way around, whenever he or my mom needed us to do something, say buying vegetables or fetching water, we could always get excused if we said we had to study. Instead my father or my mother would go get the stuff. Whenever any one of us children had exams or were preparing for any competitive exam, that child would get decision rights to almost all things at home – how much sound others are allowed to make, whether doors and windows should be open, at what times and how long television would be turned on, when the lights would be turned off, whether my mother could sit down in front of the door and chat with neighbours, when the others should take bath, right to use all stationary, and exemption from all household work etc. It was almost as if that child had veto rights to every decision at home. My father would let us stay home instead of attending marriages etc., if the reason was studies. We could even excuse ourselves from spending time with visitors and relatives when we needed to study. Exceptions could always be made, if the reason was studies.

Given the latitude we were allowed, on the pretext of studies, it was a natural expectation that we were excellent in our studies. Sometimes during my school days, my father would even be angry with me because I was hanging out a lot with some friends who were not so bright in studies. He would let me play with them but would caution me whenever he sensed I was spending a lot of time with such friends.

4. Example: Must reflect simplicity, integrity and responsibility
All through those years he had been an unassuming person, full of integrity and responsibility. A striking example is this incident. At one time my father had left his job because of some differences with his employer. One of our relatives came to know of this and he visited us and offered my father a job in his shop. My father politely refused. The relative persisted and he tried to talk my father into his offer citing the difficulties we were facing, three children to take care of, rent to be paid and so on. My father did not budge. Later when the relative had left, my father explained to my mother that he refused the offer because that relative was not trustworthy, that his business methods were questionable, and that my father feared that if he joined that relative, he would be pressurized to help him in his dubious business methods, and that he was not willing to do such wrong things to run the family.

He was a person of absolute personal responsibility. He would never lay claim to anything that was not his. I remember him ordering me to return the extra money that the shopkeeper had given me by mistake. He would return the water to our neighbours before they reminded us. He never touched alcohol or tobacco in his life. He believed that these are addictive habits that render one irresponsible.

All through those years he stayed grounded and simple. After we had graduated and joined workforce our relatives would heap praises on him for persisting with his belief and investing the family’s future into our education. But he would never take credit for what we had become. He is not used to such praises and shows a bit of an embarrassment when people praise him. He would always reply “Whatever they have achieved is their hard work and their talent. I did not tell them that they should pursue engineering or anything like that. They chose their studies, I only paid their fees. In fact, since they started going to college they got scholarships and that helped their studies.

Thanks dad!

Because you’re worth it… NOW

It is the last week of the first semester and my class are heading into a period filled with the following highlights; a financial accounting exam, finance exam, the start of four new subjects, a Bergfest on Friday evening and the lure of spring break. The smell of freedom, travel and reprieve is a permeable. That being said lets remain true to the nature of the task. Everything that you are warned about prior to enrolling into an MBA; i.e. the distortion of time, rapid rates of learning and unfathomable workloads – it IS all true. In a mere four weeks I have become reasonably comfortable with terminology like ‘credit swaps’ and ‘leveraged asset/debt capital structure.’ Watching videos on the financial crisis’ at 2:00 am and researching the financial statements of household name firms, is what you will do out of interest in your spare time, at 2:00am. The demands of each subject are not diluted by the time frame in which you are required to become an expert in whole subjects. That being said, you will learn; how to learn faster, more collaboratively and under the microscope of time pressure. Module 2 has introduced the newbies (i.e. myself) and refreshed the experts, in our class on the bare bones basics of business finance and it is empowering to have these analytical tools.

So, that was a look into my immediate future, now lets delve into my immediate past. Last week’s highlights included; a glimpse of Berlin’s fabled great summer weather, 2 exams, a Harvard marketing simulation and a full day transitions leadership workshop. We are clear on the workload issue, lets discuss leadership and self development that the MBA package presents. It is easy to get caught up in the grades, even when you promise yourself not to. ESMT is good and managing your lack of commitment to self made promises. Marcel has been gently nudging us toward getting our CV’s manicured. Corporate and faculty mentor meetings are geared toward preventing you from leaving the CV submissions for September. The MBA coaching sessions provide guidance when researching potential future industries. In the year away from the workforce, the MBA gives you a chance to look at the workplace environment as an outsider with insider knowledge. The position demands perspective and self reflection. I have asked myself fundamental questions like “Why do I want a career?” It was a surprisingly challenging question to answer and I found myself more equipped to tackle the question within this removed environment. That being said, you are not wholly segregated from the world of business, lecturer’s ground theory in context, because they are all involved in ongoing current corporate research. I hope I have given you realistic insight into the MBA program at ESMT. Hoping to not sound too sentimental with this last message, I really want to convey the value of the self investment that this program has paid toward my own career and self development.  I encourage you to challenge your comfort zone, and don’t be surprised by the strength of reserves you will muster.

Best of Times

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us” these are the immortal words of Charles Dickens and these words hold true today, as one year of learning comes to an end and a new year of experimenting begins.

There is an old saying that every year you have to learn something new. So what did I learn new in this year, one, it doesn’t matter how bad you screw up, people who care for you will always stand by your side. Two, every challenge needs to be faced with the same rigor and if you fall down, it is okay to have one hour of pity party, but the next hour start where you left off. Three, it doesn’t matter who runs first in the race, what matters is when you finish the race, you still have the people who love you at your side.