Visit to Elephant Rescue Center

Bama STEM MBAs Visit Elephant Rescue Center

I posted a short story about this on Facebook a couple of days ago but am adding a post to our blog.

Yesterday we interrupted our itinerary.  Our host, Mahesh, received a call from an old friend, offering a visit for us to Elefriends 101, an elephant rescue center and sanctuary near Mahabalipuram on the coast of the Bay of Bengal.  It was a terrific opportunity and we jumped at the chance.

STEM MBA student Ben Guerra feeds one of the rescued elephants a chunk of papaya.

STEM MBA student Ben Guerra feeds one of the rescued elephants a chunk of papaya.

Three subspecies of the Asian elephant remain today:  Elephas maximus maximus, native to Sri Lanka;  Elephas maximus sumatranas from Sumatra; and Elephas maximus indicus from India.  Elephas maximus is an endangered species, having lost greater than 50% of its population over the last 60-75 years.

Elephants residing at rescue center, out for one of their daily walks.

Elephants residing at rescue center, out for one of their daily walks.

STEM MBA students watch the elephants leave their exercise area to head back to the center.

STEM MBA students watch the elephants leave their exercise area to head back to the center.

Like a lot of endangered species, the decline in population is largely attributed to decline in natural habitat, both in terms of area and quality of the environment, as well as capture and poaching.  In the recent past, Indian elephants were captured, typically as calves, and placed in zoos and circuses, Hindu temples scattered across India, and work farms.

The three Asian elephants catch a drink and splash mud on themselves to protect them from sun burn.

The three Asian elephants catch a drink and splash mud on themselves to protect them from sun burn.

 

STEM MBA students take in the sight.

STEM MBA students take in the sight.

Elefriends 101 is a fairly new venture and hopes to grow.  The center currently provides a home for three adult female elephants, all of which were rescued from Hindu temples.  The temple staff would typically chain a hind leg and a front leg, using shackles, to posts that provided the elephant negligible room to move around.  Additionally, the elephants were made to sleep on a concrete floor, which led to pressure sores on their hips, shoulders, and legs.  It’s estimated that the oldest of the three elephants at Elefriends 101 was in captivity in these conditions  for over 30 years before her rescue.

The team.

The team.

Students look on as the elephants play in the mud.

Students look on as the elephants play in the mud.

Filmmaker Sangita Iyer created a documentary addressing the capturing of Indian elephants and their use in these various ways.  It was covered in the Telegraph.  It seems that progress is being made, thanks to these efforts to publicize the problem and the efforts made to care for the animals.

The elephants love the papaya and the students took turns shoveling it in.  Josh perfected a two-handed technique.

The elephants love the papaya and the students took turns shoveling it in. Josh perfected a two-handed technique.

You can learn more about these elephants by visiting Elefriends 101 on Facebook.  Hope you enjoy the photos below of our group at the rescue center.

Juan feeds the elephant.

Juan feeds the elephant.

Jimmy tries his hand at feeding.

Jimmy tries his hand at feeding.

Jake feeds one elephant while Ben checks out the trunk of another.

Jake feeds one elephant while Ben checks out the trunk of another.

Elephants 2

Elephants 3

Trying to feed her without losing a finger.

Trying to feed her without losing a finger.

Elephants 5

 

Observations of the Caste System


As I return to India for the second time, I’ve been able to gain a better understanding of the intricacies and contradictions of this captivating country.

Last year one of our greatest takeaways from our time in India was that everything that is true in India is also untrue. And with 1.25 billion people, hundreds of languages and dialects, multiple religions and thousands of years of history, it’s not hard to see why this is the case.

One of the fundamental parts of Indian Society for thousands of years has been the caste system. The caste system is a five level pyramidal hierarchy originating with roots in the Hindu culture. 
 
It has survived all the changes in political systems, perhaps because although the rulers of India change (most recently the British, and before them the Moguls) the village system in remote areas has stayed virtually the same for thousands of years. 
 
1. The top caste is the Brahmans-priests    
2.Kshatria- warriors
3. Vysya- traders
4. Shudras-artisans/workers
5. Dalits/ Scheduled Caste- everyone without a caste who is not integrated into the system, it includes tribal groups
 
The Caste system is illegal constitutionally in India. You can be sent to jail for discrimination against someone because of the caste system. There are multiple government programs to promote inclusion of all castes in the work force and government. A 5-day temple festival was canceled completely today in the newspaper because the Dalit caste and the Brahma caste couldn’t compromise in sharing the temple. 
 
But everything that is true in India is also untrue.  The caste system is still very prominent in many places in India. In the cities, caste is typically brought up in terms of marriage, however in rural areas the caste system plays a huge part in everyday life. Since we have been visiting rural villages, we’ve been able to observe the present-day reality of the caste system in that region.
 
Sometimes when we are asking questions in the villages what is left in said is just as important, if not more, than what they are saying. 
 
Body language, spacial distribution, and who answers the questions shows very clearly the underlying heirarchies that have existed for hundreds of years. The best example can be seen from this picture taken during our field visit to a tribal village on the outskirts of a tiger reserve. 
 
 
When we entered the community we sat in a large circle on rope beds brought out from the houses. The women and children sat on the ground across from us, a little outside of the circle. The men sat in chairs, but two men sat in front and answered all our questions. These men were not originally from the Gond tribe like the rest of the men. They were from a higher caste and took it upon themselves to answer for everyone.   The men and women from the tribe sat and watched, but didn’t object to the questions being answered for them. 
 
Our guides were from the Brahman caste, and were very reluctant to visit the outcast village with us. Normally people from a higher caste don’t go into a lower caste home, so we had to push our guides very hard to allow us to visit inside the homes. They also took it upon themselves to answer the questions we asked instead of translating to ask the tribal people we were interviewing.  The caste system is in the minds of the people. 
 
The caste Hindu society has traditionally given menial jobs to the outcasts from the society (the Dalits or schedules) and an ingrained “check system” enforces the ideas in society. When we spoke to one of the tribal girls to ask what she wanted to be, she said a police officer in the city. Our Brahma guide told her that she should stay a farmer in her village, that the village was her place and it would be better for her to stay. A very real example of the social challenges to the Dalit class integration even with their aspirations to come into higher society.              
 
Especially in rural areas isolation leads to insecurity and acceptance of the caste system institution.         
 
The differences between laws and practice, between the past and present, between north and south and between rural and urban are important to understand if we want to accurately form an understanding of the people we are meeting and the potential for creating economic opportunities to help reduce poverty levels        
 
  
 
 ****Madhya Pradesh state is perhaps the state with the most existence of the caste system in India. It is located in the very heart of India, and we reached the rural city of Khajuraho only by a full-night train.                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Bama STEM MBA in India 2016

Culverhouse STEM MBAs are Back in India!

For the second summer, I’m spending about three weeks in India with roughly a dozen STEM Path to the MBA students.  It’s very hot, very humid, and we are having a terrific time and a great learning experience.  Our itinerary this year is roughly the same as last year – we are spending time in New Delhi, Kajuraho, Agra, Chennai and Mahabilipuram – but with all but one of the students making their first trip to India (Rachel Ramey is a veteran from last summer’s trip) and mixing in some visits to new sites and with new Indian villagers, slum dwellers, and others, it’s makes for a whole new experience.

2016 STEM in India students meet with Literacy India founder and director Capt. Indraani Singh (front center).

2016 STEM in India students meet with Literacy India founder and director Capt. Indraani Singh (front center).

Why Poverty in India?

You may ask why India and why study impoverished consumers? Why villagers in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, out in the middle of nowhere and slum dwellers in the middle of India’s largest urban areas?  It’s a long story.  Each summer, students in the STEM Path to the MBA program, from incoming freshmen right out of high school to UA graduates who are rising into their MBA year of study, participate in a common reading experience exercise.  The faculty choose a book and everyone in the program reads the book over the summer and writes a short reaction paper that they turn in during the fall.  Over the course of the school year, we bring in experts to talk about the topics addressed in the book.  Sometimes those experts are the authors of the book that was read.

During the summer of 2013, we all read “Reverse Innovation” by Dr. Vijay Govindarajan.  Vijay is an emeritus professor of strategic management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.  Vijay grew up in a relatively poor urban area of India and was fortunate enough to be invited to attend college in the U.S., at Harvard.  One of Vijay’s mentors was the famous University of Michigan strategy guru, C. K. Prahalad.  Prahalad was born and raised in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.  He attended one of the IIT engineering colleges and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering.  After practicing engineering and managing in tech-oriented businesses, he went on to earn his doctorate in business at Harvard.  Prahalad, like I said, was a thought leader in strategic management, but also an early contributor to thinking on development in emerging markets.  He pioneered the concept “bottom of the pyramid”, which refers to the roughly 4 billion poor people on the planet who live on less than $2 per day and make up the base of an economic pyramid.  Toward the end of his career, he encouraged companies to consider the fortune that could be made from doing business with this segment of consumers.  The idea is that these consumers have needs for products that are inexpensive and address basic human needs, and because of the sheer number of these consumers in our world’s handful of emerging markets, a fortune could be made by addressing their needs.

STEM MBA students engage in discussion with villagers in the small farming community of Mukarwa.

STEM MBA students engage in discussion with villagers in the small farming community of Mukarwa.

Vijay Govindarajan shares Prahalad’s vision and developed an approach for putting it into action.  Govindarajan encourages companies to practice “reverse innovation.”  Traditionally, a common approach used by companies accustom to doing business in developed countries (typically from the western portion of the northern hemisphere) when entering developing markets (typically located in the eastern and southern hemispheres) is to create stripped-down, low cost versions of the products they are currently selling at home and introduce them to developing markets.  The results of this approach have been, at best, mixed.  Govindarajan argues for a different approach.  Companies should instead, he argues, determine the needs of consumers in developing markets and create products that address those needs.  The logic is that products developed in this way, once introduced in the developing market, will have small profit margins but, because of the very large number of potential consumers of the product, overall profits will be attractive.  However, it is not intended that the story ends there.  Numerous examples of products developed through reverse innovation are modified and introduced to the home, developed market where higher profit margins can be enjoyed and make the entire effort more attractive.

STEM MBA student Rachel Ramey learns to make bread over the small wood-fueled stove used for cooking in the tribal village we visited in the Panna Forest.

STEM MBA student Rachel Ramey learns to make bread over the small wood-fueled stove used for cooking in the tribal village we visited in the Panna Forest.

In the fall of 2013, Vijay visited campus in Tuscaloosa and had a number of great conversations with the STEM MBA students.  The students were inspired and asked me to put together a study abroad experience in rural India to perform reverse innovation exercises.  We began working with Mahesh Sriram and his company, I-India, located in Chennai.  Almost two years later, we made our first trip last summer.  It was a big success and we had sufficient interest this past year to repeat the trip this summer.  This summer’s students come from majors in mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, and biology. All but two of them have started their MBA coursework.  Nine guys and two young women, they come from Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, and, of course, Alabama.

So, I have explained the students’ general motivations for making the trip, but let me share mine.  Part of my own motivation arises from being a huge fan of innovation and capitalism.  I’ll explain more in later blog posts, but I believe that the great strides forward that we have made over the last 150 years, and especially the last two decades, in lifting the world’s poor out of poverty have been fueled by innovation.  Innovations in healthcare have resulted in the eradication of small pox and the diminution of deaths and impairment from disease that had been common prior to industrialization.  Admittedly, industrialization has brought its own negative consequences, and many innovations have been introduced to reduce or eliminate many of those.  Innovations in agriculture have allowed us to make leaps forward in feeding the people of the planet.  Innovations in information technology allow us to better monitor, in real time typically, the phenomena that threaten human health and wellbeing all over the world.  I could go on but clearly, innovation has been key in reducing misery on the planet.  An innovation in how industry and commerce are conducted, capitalism, is a constantly evolving approach that supports and rewards innovation activity.  The media today report daily on misadventures in capitalism that can leave us with a bad impression of its overall impact, but my own opinion is that the conscientious practice of capitalism provides the best environment for innovation to occur and, in turn, increase worldwide wellbeing.

I could have spent hours  entertaining these kids in the tiny village of Devala taking pictures and letting them see themselves on the small view screen of my camera.

I could have spent hours entertaining these kids in the tiny village of Devala taking pictures and letting them see themselves on the small view screen of my camera.

More motivating personally, I’m one of the most blessed people on the planet.  I won the lottery and was born in America to parents who created a nurturing home and encouraged curiosity, learning, and compassion for others.  I had teachers throughout my school years, both in public K-12 and later in college, who were terrific educators and I ended up leaving school with degrees in biology, pharmacy, finance, and marketing that prepared me well.  For the last 25 years, I’ve been blessed to teach and do my research at the University of Alabama.  Colleagues, administrators, and students have provided encouragement, opportunity, thought-provoking conversations and, of course, a monthly paycheck.  For the last 30 years, my wife Julie and I have enjoyed a great time together that has included raising three bright, driven, compassionate daughters.  I have learned more from these four women than any other people in my life and I am very grateful to and for them.  Finally, but foremost, I have had the opportunity to enjoy a spiritual life full of growth, in part thanks to all of the aforementioned people and circumstances, but mostly by God’s grace.  Given all of these blessings, I seek most every day the opportunity to be a blessing to someone else.  I know of no greater source of those opportunities, given my strengths and weaknesses, than working with students to better understand the large emerging markets of the world.  Thus, in the latter half of my academic career, this has become one of my work passions.  I have a long way to go before I get good at it, but I’m encouraged every day by my family, my students and my colleagues.

Changing the Approach to Blogging

If you followed our blog last summer, students blogged from time to time as their schedules and interests allowed.  My own blogs provided a daily chronology of our India trip and comments on what we were learning.  Rather than repeat that style in my own posts this year, I’ve decided to take a different approach.  Reflecting the motivations for making the trip, I’m organizing my own posts around progress and opportunities that the students and I have identified for improving the lives of India’s impoverished people.

STEM MBA students were greeted by the political leaders of Kovilambakkam.

STEM MBA students were greeted by the political leaders of Kovilambakkam.

Where do we look for opportunities for progress in the developing world?  Well, think about the everyday areas of our lives that can make life seem much better or much worse.  Perhaps the first thing that springs to mind is health, physical and mental wellness, and the presence or absence of disease. We would likely also think of our current age and expected life span.  Though we may be bashful about admitting it, undoubtedly, we would consider our material wellbeing and wealth.  Today, a number of researchers from a variety of disciplines study personal happiness as well as attitudes that we would expect someone to enjoy more of as the previously mentioned circumstances improve.  The common thread for all of these things, as mentioned before, are innovations that take place in our environment.

Unfortunately, a fairly common scene in urban India.

Unfortunately, a fairly common scene in urban India.

Going forward, I plan to organize my own posts around a number of areas where my students and I see that opportunities exist for improving the living conditions of consumers in emerging markets, specifically focusing on Prahalad’s “bottom of the pyramid” consumers. Of course, the focus will often be further narrowed to the particular emerging market that we are studying together in this summer’s trip: India.  Three of the students and I, after finishing in India, will make a short stop in Tanzania – another emerging market – and so that experience might inform the discussion as well.

For now, the areas we see where innovation can occur or areas of life that can influence the practice of innovation, especially in developing economies, include:

  • Natural Resources
  • Education
  • Health and Healthcare
  • Access to Financial Assistance
  • Government
  • Culture
  • Physical Infrastructure
  • Housing
  • Clean and Abundant Water
  • Water for Irrigation
  • Sanitation
  • Environmental Stewardship
  • Communications Infrastructure
  • Religion and Spirituality

Many of these interact or might overlap in some areas, but should provide opportunity for substantial discussion.  I hope that you enjoy it!

Bye for now.

Bye for now.