Today is Day 6 of our journey. Over the past three days we have interacted with a number of Role Model Institutions in Bangalore, Madurai and on the outskirts of Chennai.
The Yatris use an interesting Ice breaker to get to know other participants. Through a process called Timeline, each individual describes on a graph, the highs and lows of their lives so far.
Not surprisingly, given how bright (and young !) they are, most define their achievements and disappointments in academic terms. However there are others who seem to have lived a lifetime in their short timelines.
I listened with horror to the young engineer who described how he was called in to identify a friend who had succumbed to family pressure to excel in studies, and laid himself down on a railway track. Many of the young Yatris share heart breaking stories of the loss of a beloved parent. And there are the uplifting stories of those who have contributed in break through ways to their colleges, communities and villages.
The sharing of stories builds a bond that grows closer in the confines of our moving home. Time and space are both limited and the schedule is a tight one. The train has been chartered from the Indian Railways and slots on the destination Railway platforms have a precise and finite time limit. Miss them and there are not just financial penalties – but a cascading effect on the entire schedule.
Early morning starts ( typically 5.30 to 6 am) are followed by breakfast either on the train or platform. The group then heads to the Role Model Institution, for an on-site visit. On return to the train each evening, different groups present critiques of the Institution to the larger Group. Two chair cars linked back to back and connected by Video and Audio act as the Conference room for upto 200 Yatris ! Those who are unable to join the Chair car sessions, crtique the role models in smaller groups in Compartment sessions. Discussions are intense & critical. The quality of presentations is impressive, with an innovative use of music, poetry (Urdu shairi rules the day !) and drama, in addition to Power point presentations
The Role model Institutions have been well picked, reflecting the diversity of Social and Business enterprise across India.
In Bangalore, on Day 3 we camped at the Infosys campus in Electronic city. The iconic status of Infy and the strong foundation of values on which it is based is well known – but still very impressive for the Yatris to see and experience in person. The question that was raised, and on which we failed to find an answer on was why the Infy model ( a start-up collaborative, non-family dominated venture that grew to be a global giant) seems so unique and why it has not yet been replicated in India.
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw of Biocon, also joined us at the Infosys campus. The simplicity with which she described her personal journey and how this intertwined with the story of Biocon captivated all of us. The female Yatris were particularly pleased to have the opportunity to interact with a lady who had built a globally recognised Pharmaceutical firm – a truly iconic role model for women in India.
The afternoon was spent with the Millennial entrepreneurs of India’s Silicon Valley – young Indians born in the decade preceding the new Millennium, who have built highly successful Internet companies. They shared their personal Timelines through the lifetime of their new companies, in a highly engaging Panel discussion.
Phani (Phanindra Sama) of Red Bus, shared how a personal pain point in 2005 led to the birth of his firm. Driven by the aim of creating a solution to reduce wasted opportunities (a trip for the customer, a seat for the bus operator, and a commission for the agent) he has set up India’s most efficient bus booking system.
Richa of Zivame, set up an online Lingerie portal, driven by the determination to make lingerie buying in India, a respectful, respectable and comfortable experience. Started in 2011, Zivame broke even in 4 months and is today the largest seller of Women’s inner wear in India – online or offline. Her mission : Every Indian woman will have the right to the right fit !
Mekin Maheshwari, Head of Engineering at Flipkart, shared his personal journey to joining the wildly successful portal. His simple insight into Flipkart’s philosophy : If you don’t take care of your customer, someone else will. More subtle and equally powerful was the insight his story provided into what it takes for a start up to attract the right talent, without whom an enterprise will remain a still-born dream.
We journeyed overnight to Madurai and spent Day 4 trying to understand the Vision of Aravind Eye Care and the process by which they go about accomplishing their mIssion of Eradicating needless blindness. The Yatris had the opportunity to interact with Doctors, nurses and patients; visit the hospital, village and community vision centres; and the Research Aurolab centre. The spirit of Dr Govindappa Venkatasamy (Dr V as he is still referred to) clearly permeates the entire organisation. A powerful example of how a business model driven by human welfare can be self sustaining and profitable.
Yesterday, on Day 5, we awoke on arrival, to the most beautiful railway station I have ever seen ! Chengalpattu station is situated on the edge of Lake Kolavai. The railway tracks lie adjacent to water hyacinths and migratory birds nesting on the fringes of a lovely lake, covered in mist, and bordered by hills in the distance…Am amazed and deeply grateful to the far sighted railway officials who have not obstructed this surreal view – and hope the station will continue to remain untouched.
We spent the day with R Elango, in Kuthambakkam village, about 30 kms from Chennai. Inspired by the 73rd amendment and the introduction of the Panchayati Raj Act, he was elected as the Gram Pradhan of his village in 1996. In his first term he addressed the infrastructure challenges of his village : roads, housing, schooling and water. Elected un- opposed for a second term in 2001, he started tackling social issues such as the ills of alcoholism and caste. The vehicle – Women’s empowerment through Self Help groups. His dream : Reconstruct India by reconstructing our villages.
As the train continues on its journey around India, the timelines and lifetimes of these Role models give us a sense of abiding hope…India and Indians will emerge stronger despite the cynicism and despair that presently seems to surround us.