Cheers to Humanity

Last month I travelled back and forth between Hamburg and Berlin quite frequently. One common sight every time I reached Hamburg Hauptbahnhof (Main train Station) was the hordes of people travelling to the city from different parts of the conflict zones to seek refuse. More fascinating was the number of volunteers guiding them at station and taking them to a facility just outside station, providing free food and drinks. There was also a free bus service, possibly taking them to the official camp at Messenhalle in Hamburg. I saw the bewildered faces of very small kids and their mothers and fathers, tired from thousands of miles of journey on foot, boat, train and what not. The bustling big city was adding to the confusion and it looked like they had very little idea about what to do next.

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However sight of volunteers carrying placards in four different languages and approaching them for help did bring a little smile on their faces in spite of all the thoughts about the uncertainty of the future. Some of these people, who travelled so far, had a good job and life until few months back. Now all has changed. I shuddered at the thought of putting myself in their shoes.

I am not opinionated about the current refugee crisis. I don’t know if welcoming refugees is wrong or right.  If there is a conflict back home then I would definitely like my family to move to a safer place. But we are not talking about 10 or 100 people. Looking at the sheer number I definitely felt the extent and impact of this crisis. On one hand there are people and countries that excused themselves from taking any responsibility. On the other, the support and tolerance that is shown by some, across different countries, was indeed hearting.  None of them is wrong. None of these is a long term solution. Education teaches us to take an objective view of things but this increases the dilemma in your mind.

Surely countries such as Germany that are helping are showing a great deal of responsible leadership. ESMT has also come up with some exclusive scholarships to support victims of global conflict. True, conflict brings out the best and worst in humanity.

I didn’t personally get affected by the crisis (except for selectively being asked for my ticket and ID multiple times during my train travels because of my skin color).  But if crisis deepens each one of us will be affected sooner or later. For now let’s hope things get better and nobody has to deal with the kind of ordeal faced by the people who travelled or are still stuck.

This is a big man made crisis and no one but the man has to find a solution.

A journey to the end of a River

Rivers are most majestic when they are about to meet the ocean. And that couldn’t be less true for the mighty Zambezi River, which touches nine African countries before it flows into the Indian Ocean on the east of Mozambique.

Zambezi River in some of its mightiness
Zambezi River in some of its mightiness

However this region is also a highly disaster prone and extremely vulnerable to natural calamities such as floods and cyclone.  Welthungerhilfe, the organization I am volunteering with under RLF, is running a project in some of the districts in Zambezia and Nampula provinces of Mozambique to increase the disaster resilience as part of Disaster preparedness program of European Commission (DIPECHO).

Few day back I got to visit one of the districts called Chinde (pronounced Shin-Day), which lies right at the mouth of the Zambezi river. First of all this district is so remote that it is only reachable by boat. A quick look at the google map might give an idea.

Chinde's location on map
Chinde’s location on map

One has to take a long and tiring three hours boat ride (on a fast motor boat) to this place. Bigger boats or a big vessel can take more than ten hours. BTW the winds were so strong the that I lost my cap twice (the boatman was kind enough to do a turn to pick it up)

District has a remarkable small town, also called Chinde, where the district administration has its office. The population of town is just over 16,000 although the total population of the district is around 150,000 people. The town has only about 5 cars (there was only 1 till few years back). Even electricity is also a fairly new addition to the district, introduced just 2 or 3 years back. There are some colonial buildings in the town housing government officials. Plus a couple of houses were used earlier by sugar trading company called Sena, now dysfunctional. Unsurprisingly, the largest building in the town was a Church.

Some of the administrative buildings in Chinde
Some of the administrative buildings in Chinde
Main avenue in Chinde
Main avenue in Chinde
The Church
The Church

I saw some peculiar looking (though aesthetically pleasing) houses. These houses had wooden frames filled with rubbles from old rundown buildings. On enquiring I got to know that the building material is scares and expensive so people reuse material from the old buildings destroyed at the time of civil war.

A frugal architecture?
A frugal architecture?

Town also had an FM Radio Station of its own. I couldn’t resist visiting it. I was very thrilled (for some strange reason) at the sheer pleasure of listening to the lone channel on my mobile right outside the station with earphone in one ear and other ear tuned into the voice of RJ / music from inside the station.

Chinde FM
100.6 Chinde FM

I also got to be part of one of the rituals in the town. Every morning there is a flag hosting and the guard whistles. I was on my way to beach at 6 in the morning when I happen to cross the place. I saw everyone stop. Out of confusion and respect for local tradition I did too. After the hosting was complete guard whistled again and everyone moved on. Now it feels like time did stop for those 10 seconds or so.

The project sites are spread across many islands that are only reachable by boat. Those were some of the most beautiful places I ever visited. At one of these places the scenery around the backwaters was nothing less than breathtaking.

Backwaters at one of the Islands
Backwaters at one of the Islands

On one of these islands I observed that all women on the island had these little marks spanning across their arms and chest. We asked some of the women and no one knew why they had them. Looked like it was a custom. They were etched when women reached puberty. It’s possibly a way to show that they are ready for marriage. I didn’t want to be judgemental about their practices.

In the name of tradition!
A woman with marks around her chest line

Oh yes and on another island the village leaders were slickly dressed. Although they didn’t belong to any military establishment, they wore uniforms.  This was tradition from the time of Portuguese and still prevalent though more than four decades have passed since independence. Quite interesting how power dynamics could change but traditions can stay.

In the name of tradition!
In the name of tradition!

There was also a fort like structure at one such place. Turned out it was a prison at the time of Portuguese. New administration couldn’t find a use for the place thus it has been abandoned now. Looked like they were lucky enough not to need a prison.

The abondoned prison
The abandoned prison

I can’t sign-off without talking about food. Whereas all my colleagues relished fishes, I fall in love with Matapa and peri-peri. Matapa is a local Mozambican speciality made from Cassava leaves and coconut (with few other things added sometimes). I was eating Matapa day and night. So much so that the people who ran the eatery remembered me as “The Matapa Guy”, when someone asked them to call me from the guesthouse once. Our Project director joked about naming a cassava plantation against me at a conservation agriculture farm.  Peri-peri is a hot sauce (pickled sometimes) that is a must have with food in Mozambique (and many other African countries). I generously ate it, sometimes just peri-peri and rice or ncima (local dish made from Maize). My love for peri-peri was so conspicuous that the owner of the hotel we ate at decided to gift me a jar filled with peri-peri.

Matapa on left and Cassava plant on right
Matapa and Cassava plant
The Peri Peri :)
The Peri Peri 🙂

The whole experience was nothing less than astonishing. I was soon back to utilitarian life of cities. But my three days at Zambezi river estuary were a crash course in culture, food, people and a life so different. A journey to the end of a river and a memory till the end of a life.

Venture capital crash course

This year European Venture Capital Investment Competition (VCIC) took place in February in Barcelona. ESMT team performed great and was 2nd among top tier business schools such as London Business School, Oxford, HEC and Bocconi.  It is the best result of ESMT in this competition and we, as a team, are proud of it.

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The Team included Daria Markova, Julia Odegova, Didier Goepfert, Daniel Abel and Jose Fuquen. Our main goal was to understand the rationale behind Venture Capital investment decisions.

Since we didn’t know where to start, we started with reading. Blogs and articles gave us tons of information, but it was way too theoretical. The next step included interviews with VCs. Here we faced the first challenge: cold-calling VCs seemed to be a rather ungrateful job. To our surprise nobody told us “We, financial gods, don’t talk to mere mortals”. In the end, we had great talks with Mihai Streza from AQAL Capital, Rodrigo Martinez from Point Nine Capital, Thorben Rothe from Capnamic Ventures and Philipp Hartmann, former analyst at Index Ventures. From those we extracted detailed practical information about assessing entrepreneurs and business plans. Based on this we developed a draft term sheet and our own framework for business plan evaluation. However, we also understood: many VCs, many minds.

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We still lacked practice in communication with real startups. So our preparation culminated with a mock day at ESMT. This was the most important stage of our training. First, we managed to invite real entrepreneurs who are looking for pitching to VCs. Among those were Coyno, Elopay, Grabafruit and Keydock.

Second, we had a great jury that showed us how to improve: Christoph Räthke (GTEC), Olga Steidl (Inbot), Junayd Mahmood and Andreas Dittes (Talentwunder). Each of the jury members had his/her own unique style, which contributed not only to our learning experience, but also to the startups.  They had a possibility to rehearse a meeting with a VC and check their own performance in an extraordinary situation. We hope that expert recommendations they received will help them on their way to success.

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We were glad to put in practice all the theoretical knowledge and get expert feedback on our performance. Junayd Mahmood and Andreas Dittes were concise and looking deep into the startup challenges. Olga Steidl showed us the chair-on-fire tactics, shooting the entrepreneurs with simple but burning questions that drilled into the very core of the value added (or not added). Christoph Räthke representing GTEC was rather tough and critical regarding our startup evaluation. He noticed that our questions had a prepared structure and advised us to be more oriented on the concrete startup we were talking to. His “commonsense” approach included personalized questions to yourself: “Do I (not an average citizen, not Mr. Black, not some imaginary friend of mine) like this idea?” “Can I feel the pain of the target customer?” “What kind of person is the target customer?” We also appreciated how much energy and time Christoph and Andreas spent with us: they stayed until late discussing all the possible evaluation strategies.

Last but not least, the mock day was also an enriching learning experience for the audience, mostly students of the full time MBA and MIM programs at ESMT.

The mock event played a crucial role in our preparation. ESMT team took the second place in VCIC and was very close to winning. Probably the best part of the competition day was the feedback session with the judges, experienced VCs from all around the world. They praised our knowledge and realistic approach. The main reason we didn’t take the first place was that we didn’t sell ourselves well enough. Great, there is still some space to improve!

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We want to say a big THANK YOU to ESMT, GTEC and all the participants, it was a great experience overall.

P.S. Interesting fact: Barceloneta bars are great in any time of the year!

 

Lessons in Happiness

As a Responsible Leaders Fellow I am volunteering in some of the poorest countries in the world. For my work, I frequently travel to some of the remotest regions of these countries where people lack basic infrastructure and facilities. But it doesn’t mean people I meet are complaining or carrying a sad face all the time. On the contrary they are some of the happiest and most content people I have ever met. They sing and dance to everything they can and they share whatever little they have. They need help, aid and education but they need no lessons in happiness from west or east.

And happiest of them all are the children. I make a point to talk to them whenever I go for a project visit (they don’t understand me most of the time but sign and smile languages always work). They have no gadgets or fancy sports equipment. But they are happy with their friends around them.

Seven-years-old Henry and his friends love to play soccer and aspire to be local heroes. They can’t afford to buy a football. But they can make one. Yes they can MAKE one. Carefully wrapping plastic bags one over another around a piece of cloth, they have created their own nice football. So what if it doesn’t bounce enough or go as far as it should when you kick it. It’s no less fun.

Henry and his team
Henry and his team
The Handmade football
The Handmade football

Camera has been my best friend wherever I went. And it helped me make friends. During one of my site visits, little Gloria and Ester followed me wherever I moved, asking for one more picture. They are indeed the most photogenic girls I ever came across. I always show kids the pictures I took of them. Looking themselves in the 2 inch LCD screen increases their happiness many folds. They don’t need a camera to be happy. They are just happy being in it. Soon enough Gloria and Ester brought their friends to share their happiness.

Gloria and Ester
Gloria and Ester
And their friends
And their friends
and more Friends
and more Friends

As one of the projects, my organization Welthungerhilfe  is imparting health trainings in villages in Malawi and Zimbabwe. People graduate and receive certificates if they fulfill all 20 criterion on various health precautions during three months of training. There was a small event hosted in one of the districts for graduating community members. After the event I saw some kids collecting discarded soft drink caps. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of participating. Every cap found was adding more smiles to each face (including my). When I asked what they are going to do with these caps, they said they can play a Strike and Pocket game. Who said only Billiards and Carrom could be fun.

The caps collection
The caps collection

Little Oscar is scared of Murungus (Shona word for Foreigners). Probably his mother uses stories of Murungus to make him finish his food. But hiding and looking from the back of the wooden door makes him happy that he is out of my sight. After some pursuing I managed to tame him for a picture. He is still camera shy. Too young may be. But looking at his own pictures did make him smile finally. And then he was happy teasing me around for the next one hour I was there (well his t-shirt said “T is for Trouble” 🙂 ).

Little Oscar
Little Oscar

I got my lessons in economics and money last year and it made me informed. Now I get my lessons in happiness every day and it makes me humble. I live a privileged life not because I have lived in cities or had a great job. I have a privileged life because so many people are sharing their happiness and smiles everyday with me. I am happy as I have learned to find happiness in anything around me just like these little kids.

* Pictures have been taken at various Welthungerhilfe’s project sites in Zimbabwe and Malawi. Please visit: http://www.welthungerhilfe.de/  and http://www.welthungerhilfe.de/blog/  to know more about Welthungerhilfe’s projects around the world

Responsibility begins at School

Since I am already in Harare for over a week now and have walked my talk, I feel entitled to say something about the ESMT Responsible Leaders (RL) Fellowship and the opportunity it has given me to explore the social and nonprofit sides of business. I still remember it was May of 2013 and I was browsing through websites of various Business schools to find a program which best matched my requirements. ESMT’s MBA program design and credentials definitely beckoned me but another thing that appealed to me was RLF, hidden in small texts somewhere under the international exposure options. I didn’t have much idea about it then but I did inquire during my interview with Nick Barniville, Director of MBA Program. When I finally decided to join ESMT, I wouldn’t say RLF was the only reason but it definitely played a role subconsciously. It gave me an impression about how committed ESMT is towards its social responsibility and towards imbibing that in its students and community.

Rahul Jain about the Responsible Leadership Fellowship (RLF)

I joined in January 2014 and the first meeting regarding RLF was held in April, if I remember correctly. Wulff Plinke, founding Dean of ESMT and Professor Emeritus, introduced us to what RLF was all about, what assistance was available and what were the expectations of school from its fellows. Those who were interested were told that they need to find a nonprofit organization of choice and look for a suitable role with it. Once this is done school would be sponsoring the student and pay a stipend for up to six months during the assignment. Student status of the fellow would also be extended by another six months in line with this program. Assignment was supposed to be in a developing region of the world where there were most pressing needs for expertise but safety of fellow was also a priority.

Although we were expected to find organization and role ourselves, I must say that the school’s and Wulff’s network came very handy at every stage. We were presented with host of options during our July meeting where various well known organizations came and presented possible opportunities. Wulff and Nick, who were managing the program, encouraged us throughout and helped us in overcoming our predicaments and making the right choice.

I was committed towards the fellowship from the beginning but there was always an anxiety around whether I would be able to get the right assignment and would there be an impact on my career post it. Keeping all my doubts aside I decided I really wanted to do this and I was able to secure a volunteering opportunity in October with WeltHungerHilfe in their Marketing division. There was no looking back afterwards and I was waiting eagerly to start on this assignment since then.

We graduated in December and I flew to Zimbabwe during the second week of January, after packing all my bags in Berlin. And after spending a week here I would say I did make the right choice by choosing ESMT. What I found in May 2013 was indeed what I was looking for.

I don’t know how many business schools in the world have similar programs but RLF is definitely a unique opportunity provided by ESMT to inculcate a sense of social responsibility in its Graduates. The financial commitment towards it and support provided by ESMT is indeed commendable. I would like to congratulate and wish good luck to my other five classmates and Responsible Leaders Fellows, from this year, who embarked on this journey as well and are excitingly looking forward to their volunteering assignments in different parts of the world.

They say charity begins at home but for me responsibility begins at schools with right values, people and commitment.