By Dr. Mary Conway Dato-on,
Faculty Director, Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Hub
Two months in India. How to summarize such a dynamic experience? As I instruct my students, start with the goals… here goes.
My goals for this excursion of a lifetime included personal and professional directives.
PERSONAL – to reconnect with my Indian sister and Global Links (GL) Scholar, Sharmistha Banerjee (SB), who I had the pleasure of spending 9 months with during 2015.
- View, develop, and document the GL program in phase 2 where students, under the tutelage of SB, activate their social entrepreneurship and business learning in the field.
- Observe the 2nd largest population at work, rest, play, and shopping (I am a marketer after all!)
- Present on social entrepreneurship concepts in a manner that adds value in a country (and its neighbor Bangladesh) that birthed numerous social enterprises and a social movement that literally changed the world (e.g., channeling Gandhi)
I’m happy to report that all goals have been achieved. I spent numerous hours at work and play with SB and came to know her family in Kolkata very well. Together with the GL graduate assistant, Michelle Hernandez, we observed the GL student volunteers at work with their clients to transfer their book knowledge to a real enterprise while also learning more about business than any one class can convey. Much progress was made on formalizing phase 2 of the program. Being immersed in Kolkata – living in an apartment, shopping, commuting, walking around the neighborhood offered a plethora of observation points on life and consumer habits. After 4 presentations at colleges in Kolkata, 2 presentations at universities in Dhaka, Bangladesh and several meetings with faculty and leaders from different institutions I can say that I learned a great deal and was told I also imparted knowledge.
So, mission accomplished, story over, right?
Well, that’s not much of a story or a reflection. Rather it’s more of checklist of accomplishments. So back to trying to summarize such an all-encompassing experience… look for themes. This search resulted in the development of the “5 T’s of my time in Kolkata.”
- Tea. Every day, every meeting, every extension of friendship involved this historic beverage. Indians are proud of their brew (Darjeeling and Assam in particular) and are fairly open to serving it with or without milk. Adding lemon and salt was also observed. “Salt?” Yes, I was told it “improves hydration.” “No thanks!” I said as I whisked my cup away. As a beverage, tea is simple and complex, flavorful and watery. These features reflect the constant contradiction that was my life in India.
- Togetherness. In Kolkata one is never alone, nor should they be – according to my newfound family and friends. So, in addition to having the wonderful company of my new Indian parents at a family wedding (togetherness on steroids), I was also accompanied by GL students, assistants, and their families on professional and personal outings. Together we laughed, learned, and languished in the torrid head of the bustling city. Bless the inventor of air conditioning. Togetherness is also epitomized by the diversity of the Indian people who seem to generally live in peaceful co-existence, tolerance, and general respect. Though together we must be vigilant to ensure this outlook continues to thrive.
- Textiles (and textures). I am having a love affair! Everywhere I went and almost everyone I saw was draped in beautiful textile, rich in color and design – every piece told a story. Saris were hand loomed and hand stitched with incredible detail, true artistry. My love affair resulted in a significant boost to the Indian economy and an extra suitcase on my return flight. The love extended beyond the retailer, however, to include the artisan. All my purchases were from fair trade sources. Love has multiple dimensions and always includes mutual respect – the essence of fair trade as well.
- Tenacity – Deep admiration emanates from my entire being for the general populous of Kolkata who can endure the baking sun and blaring horns to move through their city – almost always with a smile. Beyond the general admiration is a true sense of awe for the never-ending energy of SB, the GL program assistants (Abira and Anusri) and the 14 GL student volunteers. And through them I learned of the resolve the small-business owners have who seek to improve their lot by finding a niche in an overwhelmingly crowded marketplace. India is not for the meek of spirit, one needs to be tenacious to achieve any level of comfort or success.
- Taste – No discussion or experience of India would be complete without a mention of the multitude of tastes available to the palette at every corner. From Dolly’s tea house to Kolkata’s famous street food – puchka (ground potatoes and beans placed in a hollow, fried, palm-sized pocket dipped in tamarind water), to the sophisticated treat of “Indian Accent” (5-star restaurant in Delhi) that combines various western food with Indian flare, … every sense is challenged and satiated.
These themes connect numerous memories and experiences that urge me to return and explore more. The lessons, friendships and fun can only multiply in the vastness of the diverse parts of India. Look out … I plan to return.