Days 15-20- Customer Discovery- Group 1: Water

Day 15 (Water)



We broke our group into 4 teams to tackle 4 issues of water treatment. The water team for the week is Joey, Laura and me (Rachel). Water fascinates me. All over the world, everyone needs water. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, on a same basic level everyone needs it to drink, cook, wash, and water plants or crops. Without water there is nothing.

It is a vital part of life, but also one that most people take for granted. Huge quantities of water are moved, purified, pumped, sprinkled, consumed, and wasted each day, and most people are unaware of the magnitude of work that takes place to make that water available for use.

In India we had heard about problems with water before the trip. We had heard about sanitation problems, millions of people without access to toilets or clean drinking water, and widespread outbreaks of Typhoid or Malaria. But most of the villages we’d visited so far had not identified water access as a problem. When asked, they pointed us to a well where they got their water and reported no issues from drinking it. A man in Barara village had had a reverse osmosis machine to purify water at a low cost, but otherwise no one we saw treated their water. And although in the slum they said it tasted strongly of chlorine, there were no complaints about health.

The purpose of reverse innovation is to start with a clean slate and walk into communities looking for a problem they have and listening to them to develop a solution.

So far no one had said they had a water problem so some people in our group were skeptical about us focusing on that for a week.

However, sometimes people don’t know their needs until you show them what is possible. Steve Jobs is famous for his quote: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” In 2001, when the first iPod came out, people didn’t know they needed it, and in 2007 when the first iPhone hit the stores, I guarantee you the over 300 million people who use iPhones today did not know they needed them. I was one of them.

Henry Ford said it, too: ““If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” They wouldn’t have said they needed a car.

Water, cars and iPhones share very little in common, but what this quote tells us is that sometimes customer feedback should be taken with a grain of salt. Perhaps our customers didn’t know cleaner water was a cheaper solution, perhaps they didn’t realize their clear-looking water was dirty and didn’t identify sicknesses they caught with water quality or poor hygiene. We had heard about millions of people in India with access to inadequate water, and I was not willing to give up on tackling this fundamental problem after only 6 village visits.

Almost all of the world’s largest countries have problems with water access for a portion of their population, and I was skeptical that India had perfect water consumption. The trash floating in every river and the examples of infrastructure challenges we saw everywhere around us did not have me convinced.

I wanted to spend the week diving into the water issue. Finding out where it came from, how it was transported, who was willing to pay for cleaner water. I’d studied water problems personally in Peru, Colombia, and United States, and I wanted to see water issues from an Indian perspective.

Our first task of the week was to find someone who had a problem with water and was looking for a solution. We had requested to visit a water treatment center, homes that had pumps for water, and an NGO that worked with water on our first day.

And amazingly, at breakfast the next morning we were handed a schedule that had almost all of our wish list. Mahesh explained that in India, people don’t like plans, most operate on more free-flowing schedule, ready for anything that comes their way. And although this challenge had made our earlier travels and tours difficult, now, we were able to arrange opportunities on a few hours notice. We could show up in homes, explain who we were, and families would be willing to welcome us in and answer our questions.

We were all together for the first visit. A return to the fishing village for Sheela and Meagan who were working on the cold supply chain issue. They wanted to see how the fisherman preserved their fish after catching them until they got them to the market.

We were supposed to be on the beach by 9:00am to see the auction on the beach after the fisherman brought in their morning catch, but we got a late start. We made it to the fishing village around 9:45, but we missed the auction and could only stand in the hot sun asking the few remaining fishermen how their catch was and how they stored their fish.

Our next stop was the village where we would split into teams to tackle our problems individually. We started the day with a hypothesis that in India, ‘people have diseases from water but solutions are costly or they are unaware there is a solution.’ We visited a water purification plant that was started by an entrepreneur to sell bottled water.


They sold water in bags which were filled through an automated machine and dropped onto the floor where a woman sat picking them up. They sell liter bottles to weddings and restaurants, a 20 L containers to families and hotels.


The owner walked us through the plant, past the pump at the back which pulled up groundwater, the purification room with 7 filters, sand, carbon, reverse osmosis, UV, etc. And finally to the room where there was a hose of clean water and they filled the bottles by hand before screwing on a cap. They were investing in an automated capper for the liter bottles.

Upstairs they had a lab where they tested the water for common contaminants. They said they tested the water once in the morning and once in the afternoon, and the results took 2 days. They had never had a problem with water quality, and they said the reason people buy the water is for the taste and to avoid getting sick.

As we continued walking down the streets, we learned there were 2 sources of water in the village. Each village had a pump of water that came from underground they used for washing and other purposes, and a pipe from the government that brought water straight from the Palar River, untreated for 3 hours a day. The untreated river water was used for drinking and supposed to be cleaner than the pump water.


We went to interview 2 homes, a Hindu priest who invited us in warmly and explained how he used just the ground water for all his needs and had never gotten sick. Instead of a tank on his roof he used a tank in his living room which he bleached every few weeks to clean. They had a shower room, a toilet room, and a washing machine in their very modest house. They said they had had no problems with water.


So we continued through the village, stopping at a water tower which provided the government water. We visited a home where several women showed us their pump out back of ground water. They modeled how they turned on the pump, collected the water and carried it in jars on their hips. They also had no complaints about their water.


As the morning wore on it became hotter and hotter and I was sweating through my kurta. We had a final stop at the center we stopped at yesterday where the women were folding bags. Our group was assembled in chairs under the shade of a tree drinking coconut water and listening to a panel of men talk about work in the village. We were able to ask them about water in the village and they said that migrant workers tended to have the most issues with water diseases and poor water access and that there in the village, some homes didn’t have a problem with the water and some on the other side of town did. So the next day we needed to visit migrant workers and people on that other side of town who may be looking for a solution.



DAY 16 


After our first full day studying water in the villages, we regrouped with all the teams and presented our findings for the day. Then we turned in our ‘wish list’ of people we would like to talk to the next day. We wanted to visit a hospital, migrant workers, and people with water problems.

The next morning, we had a schedule very close to what we had asked for.

Our first stop was with the bag group to visit the fish auction on the beach. It was a beautiful place to spend the morning before the heat of the day came. The fish were placed in crates by each fisherman, and they were lined up along the sand waiting their turn to be auctioned. Women crowded around in beautifully patterned saris as the fish were dumped out by the crate onto a small tarp and bought as a lot. A man directed the auction, and although it was in the local language Tamil, I could follow the basic format of the auction similar to car auctions in the US. If an older woman went against a younger woman in a bid, the older lady would win by social circumstances.



They were selling a whole array of interesting fish, including a lot of sting rays which a woman held up for us to take her picture.


The boats were pulled high up into the sand after the morning catch, and fishermen sat in the large blue nets untangling and pulling out stray shells and baby fish, preparing it to store for the next day.


Kids crowded around us curiously, and we bought fish to serve for lunch later in the day.


Next we visited a small clinic where a village health nurse worked. She deals with a population of 9800 people and she focuses on children and expecting mothers. She said when she sees sickness from water her first question is “did you boil it?” They usually say no despite her frequent advice to purify the water before drinking it.


She told us that very few people were willing to pay for water, and although boiling the water is free, no one wants to wait for it to cool. This is understandable


She buys water in 25 L tanks for her patients.

Our next stop was a government hospital. This hospital does mostly outpatient work, and has very few beds for overnight. It was run-down, had no air-conditioning, and a long line of patients sat outside under an awning waiting to see the doctor.


The doctor was able to meet with us for a few minutes between his rounds of seeing up to 250 patients a day. The hospital was understaffed, over capacity, and under-funded. He said he usually saw waterborne illnesses in migrant workers or other people living in temporary housing with poor sanitation.

If there is an outbreak of sickness (Typhoid, Malaria, etc.) They will go knock on doors in the area of the home to find more sickness and quarantine the ill.  We realized this was probably one of the reasons people had been telling us there was no sickness in the village. They didn’t know if we were from the government looking for people to quarantine. They were suspicious of our intentions and questions.

In the hospital they boiled the water for the patients, and the staff had a small-scale filter for their water. They were hoping to buy a reverse osmosis filter for the entire hospital from donations when enough funds were raised.

From the hospital we made our way to the government water pump station. This was an eye-opening visit, not because of the large machinery they use to pull water from the Palar River and underground then propel to the filtration station, but because of the information we learned about water scarcity.


Water is getting harder and harder to supply in India as in many of the largest countries in the world (U.S., Brazil, etc.) This pump station was working at only half capacity because there was not enough water being supplied. They told us that they kept having to pull water from deeper and deeper sources. (This was consistent with families we met who had been forced to dig deeper and deeper personal wells as they dried up).

They mentioned the problem that the water they did manage to pull up from the ground was getting saltier and saltier. This is consistent with coastal areas that pull water from aquifers at a faster rate than they can be replenished. Major pumping causes the aquifer of fresh water to shrink and the salt water encroaches into the area previously filled. As shown in the diagram below, areas that were once fresh water become saltier (zone of diffusion) as the salt water seeps further into the coast.

india chart

Source:<> James Spatafora, Johnson State College

A desalination plant had begun construction along the road to Chennai to try to purify salt water to drinking water. Water scarcity is a huge problem in India, one of which we had been relatively unaware of until we were told first-hand.

After our morning interviews we returned to the same building we had visited the past two days to eat lunch made by the local women. They served us the fish we had bought at the market, rice, potatoes, spinach, buttermilk (which was chunky and fermented), a sweet pudding-noodle desert, and bottled water. They served us on large banana leaves and we ate the traditional way with our fingers.


When we returned to our home we showered, worked on summer MBA class homework online, and made presentations of our findings. We turned in a request to visit migrant workers and an NGO that worked with water.

DAY 17 

On our third day our schedule of events began in the afternoon. In the morning we got up to do yoga in the grass on shower towels. Laura is a certified yoga instructor, so she led the morning class.


After yoga and breakfast, we made a call to a man called Sai who Mahesh put us in contact with. The call dropped 3 or 4 times throughout our 45 minute conversation, but we learned lots of valuable information about water in southern India.

He told us about government focus on conservation initiatives especially rainwater collection. He said the government was also considering charging money to homes after they used a certain amount of water. There were social entrepreneurs transporting water around urban areas with water scarcity making money for themselves and providing water to homes, and a drip irrigation system that had been implemented for farmers was highly successful and saved large quantities of wasted water.

He also cautioned us that most people consider water a basic necessity, so people are not willing to pay a lot. This is a common problem in the US as well, we consider clean water a personal right, and people would not be very accepting to higher water prices even though this would promote water conservation.

He talked about the huge issue of water wasting which relates to the scarcity problems, and he advocated the direct use of collected rainwater instead of storing it underground like the present method.

A huge barrier to water access in India are the high infrastructure costs and the corrupt people in government.

His final thoughts to us were the importance of educating people about water conservation and to look at purifying sewage to clean water. In reality, dumping sewage directly to the ocean to pull ocean water back into the desalination plants was just wasting a step in the process. There is a strong stigma about purifying sewage water to drink, but there is very effective technology to do so (the space ships and cruise ships already do.)



In the afternoon we joined the poop group (the group researching biofuels and manure) to an organic farm. This farm was run by a man who had retired from a high-paying job and simply chose to go into organic farming. He had a drip irrigation system that was highly effective, and used a type of fertilizer called Panchagavya. Panchagavya is an organic fertilizer made from cow poop (yes, poop), cow urine (yes, pee), curd, gee (like yogurt I think) and a few other cow ingredients. He had a concrete floored feeding area for the cows to collect their urine, and he generously walked us through the process of making this Panchagavya.


He said he eats a spoonful a day (yes, this man ate cow poop and urine every day) and it would prevent diabetes and a whole collection of other ailments supposedly. After demonstrating how he would eat it he shook Caylee’s hand…ew. Then he handed us a whole pile of cucumbers grown organically on his farm…with the same hands…


They showed us their drip irrigation system and several of the plants that were hanging to grow on vines.


The poop group had started to change their focus from utilizing cow manure as biofuel to focusing on Panchagavya. The limiting ingredient (the hardest one to get) was the cow urine which was in quantities almost double the cow pool. But Cow urine is hard to get. Following a cow around with a bucket waiting for him or her to take a leak is not ideal. So they were considering a urine collection system to facilitate Panchagavya production.


After the organic farm we drove to find construction workers (migrant workers) whom we found next to a large bridge construction. We climbed down a steep dirt hill to reach the place where they were cutting large sections of rebar. We were hoping to finally find people who had water problems, however according to the workers (carefully monitored by the foreman standing within earshot) they had perfect lives. No health problems, no water problems, good food made by a chef. We went into their homes built along the side of the site and they did look pretty nice.

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At this point we were stilling looking for someone with a problem…

DAY 18

For our 4th day, our wish list was only to find someone with a water problem.

Our first visit was further inland in what we would call the country in the US. There was a small home right beside the road with a huge rice field behind it. There is a pump by the road where they get their water from the government which is only turned on for an hour a day, around 6:00am.


They said they have problems with sickness when the water source changes. (Sometimes the water from the government comes from a different source when the water tower or pump is in need of repair.) The sickness that corresponds to the change in pipes makes sense because it would be different bacteria they are exposed to.

When we asked them if they filter their water they showed us a strainer like we would use for flour and said they put it under the spigot to catch the worms that come out.

Not exactly the type of filter we were asking about.


They said they had paid about 15 rupees (25 cents USD) for the strainer and would be willing to pay about that much for another filter if we designed one. They weren’t really interested in paying for water.


We talked to them about how they store water and they showed us the metal containers they keep water in throughout the day. They said they share the water with their neighbors when they have extra after their needs for the day are met.

They showed us their house and their cows and they said that if they had a way to collect the urine they could make 10 rupees a liter (15 cents).


After their home we went to visit a community leader who talked with us for a few minutes. They said they boil water during the rainy season, but summer season is when the sewage from the unlined septic tanks begins to leak into the water. He also said his people are lazy and choose not to boil the water.


We didn’t stay long visiting them, they didn’t tell us much we hadn’t already heard.

Our final stop of the day was at a government-built library that had a rainwater collection system. They had built it as a model for the village and offered 50% subsidy to build your own 5 years ago. No one installed them, primarily because water scarcity is an issue in the cities and not so much in the rural areas.

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There was also a government sign with health information about the importance of using toilets and not defecating in the open, washing hands, not walking barefoot….but they told us that the villagers chose not to follow the government instructions.

Venkat had been with our group since the airport in New Delhi the day we arrived. I think culturally, he didn’t feel comfortable sharing opinions with us while we researched water, but on this day we asked him his opinion on the water problem and he provided a wealth of information that would change the direction of our project.

Venkat lives with his family in Chennai and he said everyone in the city (if they have money) buys water. If they don’t have the money, they have to move. People in urban areas all have rainwater collection systems on their rooves that store in an underground tank.

A truck brings in 1000L of water per week in the dry season which is four months of the year. These people are transporting water from up to 600 kilometers away due to water scarcity. He said the wells people use have to get deeper and deeper to reach the water.

One of the most interesting cultural insights he told us about was visiting his wife’s family in their village. When he travels home with his wife, he drinks the water in the village knowing that he and his children will get sick. He said it would be rude to not drink the water in the family home even though they know it carries bacteria and viruses.

Again we returned back to our base to compile information, prepare our nightly presentation and compile a wish list of people to see on our final day.


DAY 19

We started the day looking for the groups of women who collect water at the spigots every morning when they are turned on for a short period of time.

We found a large group of women sitting by the road, and a woman standing ankle-deep in a puddle of water holding a pot to a pipe.


They explained to us that instead of paying the government to install a pump to their water line, they simply dug a hole themselves and sawed off the pipe (one of the oldest women in the group explained this to us with exaggerated animation.)


They had a ground pump to use for washing clothes (there was a coke bottle tied to a faucet to funnel the flow).

They said they do get sick from the water sometimes with fevers, colds, and headaches. They travel 3 kilometers to get water that they believe is clean (not the pump water). Their method for determining if the water will make them sick or not is a “rice test.” If they boil the rice and it is yellow then the water is bad. If they boil the rice and it is white, then the water is good.


I couldn’t help but laugh as the women shared their stories with us, talking over each other and trying to explain directly to me what was going on, though I clearly didn’t speak Tamil and could only read their body language.

These women gave us hope for a solution. They were the first ones to recognize there was a problem with water, and they would be interested in a solution. They were spunky ladies who took control of their own lives and sawed off a pipe if the need arose.

They told us they would be willing to pay up to 150 rupees ($2.50) for a solution. The solution should attach to the existing spigot and not fall off in heavy flow.

Our final stop was at a home/local post office. This woman was the postmaster so there was an extra door in the front with a sign that said the post office opened at 10:00am.


They had three sources of water in their home, 2 wells with pumps, and one government water source. She had two well pumps because the first well had dried up and she had to build a second one much deeper. She said the neighbors use each other’s pumps when one runs dry. And there was the possibility to dig 10 feet deeper, but the improved well would only last another two or three years at the current rate of water scarcity depletion.


Her plastic hoses had fungus growing inside, and they had a problem in the summer months with sewage seeping into the wells as well. I used their toilet out back and it was simply a concrete structure built on top of a pit that served as the septic tank. But since the tank isn’t lined it is no surprise that it leaches into the wells.

She buys her mineral water to drink from across the street, but the problem is they never know where the “purified” water actually comes from.

She said she would be willing to pay 150-200 rupees every six months for a filter or pump and would be willing to clean it daily.


This woman also used the rice test we had heard about from the ladies earlier in the day.

This rice test is apparently a very commonly held idea. Venkat told us that of course everyone uses the rice test. In the words of a 5th grader… “DUH”

This is one of the best examples we had of the importance of being on the ground doing research for a reverse innovation project. This rice test may or may not actually reflect the true quality of the water. The water could look completely clear and make white rice, but there could be dangerous microscopic bacteria and viruses. In the same way, extra sediment may make the rice yellow, but the water could be safe to drink by other standards.

But whether or not the color of the rice is truly a mark of purification, any solution we create would have to produce white rice. We can filter the water to be 100% safe for drinking, but if the rice turns yellow, no one will believe in our product.

This little detail is so engrained in society, and it was something we would have never thought to ask about, we just had to discover it over time. It was a valuable insight that would allow us to relate to potential customers and hopefully develop a viable solution to the water problems in India.

I see it as a reminder of the importance time on the ground getting into the mindset of the people you want to help.

In the evening we further developed our filter and prepared for our final presentations to a panel of local Indians who would give us feedback on the feasibility of the designs we had worked so hard on. Mahesh would be our translator.


We presented our water filter design with all the features added to fit the needs of our consumers

  • A removable filter that could be manufactured by local women and sold in a corner store
  • The familiar bottle-shape of the existing pop bottles attached to spigots
  • An extra tie to ensure the filter won’t spring off the pipe
  • An expandable balloon-type material to ensure water flow is not slowed
  • And of course our filter would have to pass the rice test

The panel was extremely receptive to our pitch, and it was truly rewarding to see them nod in agreement as we shared our findings from the week and how we had incorporated the small nuances into our designs.



We are continuing development of a water filter for our STEM Path to the MBA Senior Design Project this year and we will keep this blog updated with our progress.

Student Perspective: Free Healthcare in Andhra Pradesh

When I visited my family after the STEM Reverse Innovation program ended, I had the opportunity to shadow my cousin Kishan who was doing his Residency in the surgery department at a government hospital in Vijayawada, the capital city of Andhra Pradesh. My family joked that I would not continue to want to be a doctor after seeing the conditions of the government hospital, but I braced myself and powered through to explore what the government of India is doing for the healthcare of the poor.

Kishan had “injection rounds” that evening, basically checking on patients and providing painkillers for pain management of post-operation patients before the attending physician’s rounds. People often say that visiting India overwhelms your senses, an understatement when visiting the government hospital. Words cannot describe the unimaginable combined smell of wounds festering in the humid heat, of body odor of patients and families who have not showered in days, of bathrooms not cleaned for who knows how long, and of expired antiseptics. Families wailed at the bedside of hundreds of patients while nurses clamored around to appease families and communicate with other nurses about patients. Visually, all of the equipment was dilapidated, from the beds that looked like they belong in a World War II movie set to yellow-brown respirator tubes. The hospital provides completely free medical services to anybody who shows up at the door, typically geared toward those at the poverty line and below. As a consequence, government hospitals are overflowing with patients but lacking adequate supplies to provide them full medical attention.

As Kishan and the other residents started filling syringes for painkiller injections, it quickly became apparent that any sterility guidelines were thrown out the window. Filled syringes were tossed on the table that was clearly nowhere near clean, much less sterile. The tops of glass medicine vials were hacked off and onto the floor for janitors to (probably not) sweep up later. Exam gloves were not even in sight. When I voiced my concerns, the residents replied that the sheer volume of patients that they go through does not allow the time or resources to be sterile. One resident shrugged off my appalled look, saying that during a surgery earlier that day, HIV-positive blood was dancing on her bare hands. Bare hands. During a surgery. They went on to tell me that I came on a good day, at the beginning of the month when they still had supplies. The hospital receives about a week’s worth of supplies and drugs that have to last a month. The shortages get so bad that syringes and needles will be kept with the patient to reuse them for a couple of rounds of painkillers. Some days, the residents are forced to inject only saline and pretend that it’s pain medicine (which often still alleviates pain but that’s not the point).

Despite such challenges, the doctors were clearly brilliant and practiced excellent medicine. We saw patients recovering from miraculous surgeries, ranging from limbs that could have been amputated to brain tumors cleared right up. Naturally, such working conditions and stress from overwork put these doctors and nurses in terrible moods, but they treated each patient with the utmost respect and embodied the humanistic side of medicine that is increasingly absent today. If the attending physicians saw or heard about any nurses or residents putting in IV ports too roughly or snarking at patients or families (even something as minor as using informal rather than formal pronouns to address), they got an earful in front of everybody. Likewise, most patients treated the doctors with respect and adoration. As soon as a white coat strolled into the room, hands go up in Namaste to greet the doctors who don’t have to work here, don’t have to put up with frequent patient and family abuse, and don’t have to endure these working conditions to help people who are way below them in caste (a system still strong in the minds of many Indians). The ability to give hope to people who have nothing is why my cousin purposefully picked the government hospital over private hospitals for his residency, and that wholehearted Namaste is his reward.

Days 16-20: Reverse Innovation Customer Discovery Projects

The objective of this study abroad trip to India was for the students to learn about the various segments of poor people in a developing country and then work in teams to develop ideas for products and services that the poor could afford, that would improve their lives, and that, optimally, could provide jobs that would lift some out of poverty.

Students in UA’s STEM Path to the MBA are taught a process for innovation and design that involves repeated, quick development of ideas, testing these ideas through customer interviews, and pivoting the idea until the students arrive at an idea that they believe is ready for prototyping.  Once a prototype is created, students go back to potential customers, in much larger numbers, to validate the business model.

On days 16-20 of our trip, each day the four groups of students (team 1: product that makes use of cattle dung and urine; team 2: sustainable clean water; team 3: container for human transport of materials; and team 4: mobile web site for coordinating employment opportunities and potential employees) traveled to one of the local villages and talked about their business idea.  These clusters of interviews typically lasted 3-5 hours each day.  During the afternoons, the groups would work on adjusting their business models to better fit what they had learned that morning.  In the evenings, we would all gather, the groups would pitch the new iterations of their ideas, get feedback, and then hit the villages again the next morning.  After five days of iterations, the students presented their ideas one last time to the group and four leaders from these local villages.

I was able to go with a different group each morning, except for the employment app group, so this and the next couple of blog posts will share sort of a day in the process.  I hope you enjoy following their progress!


Student Perspective: A Naan-Fiction Experience

It’s been about a week since we left India and I am slowly coming to terms with what that means. I never imagined how impactful the trip would be for me, academically and psychologically. I do not think that we could have ended on a better note, relaxing at a beach resort in Mahabalipuram after a busy week of field research in Cheyur Village.

Looking back, there are so many memories that I will cherish for years to come. In the first place, traveling to my parent’s home country for a research project for school was never something that I had imagined would be possible. I also could not have foreseen being able to bring one of my close friends from the trip to my grandparents’ house, where we were able to talk about all the incredible experiences we’d had so far.

Unfortunately I had to miss the first three days of the program, the Delhi portion. However, during my time in India, I learned quite a bit about poverty in developing nations. Too many of the poor Indians that we talked to told us that they wanted guidance and help to get out of their economic situation. It seemed that, throughout their lives, they had been told that they were not capable of helping themselves and that they would have to rely on governmental programs and external aid to make any progress. While I feel that the government definitely plays a large role in the healthcare and education of these villages, it appears they have an artificial understanding of how much the administration can do. It was heartbreaking to see how few children were able to make it to high school, let alone college. Although it was neat to see that there were many governmental programs being implemented to promote education, such as providing each student who graduated from 12th grade with a laptop computer to continue their education.

A computer is a tool that may have a high cost, but has an almost unlimited value. These are the types of things Indians needs. The same goes for traditional merchandising. Indians are very interested in buy extremely low-cost products if they are able to produce at least 80% of the effect or the full-price (or developed world) version. Speaking of money, everywhere we went, we were told that, in India, it is far more common to see women make financial decisions than men.

At first this thought seemed a little peculiar to us. We tried coming up with all sorts of deep explanations for this phenomenon, but it seemed to boil down to this: women are generally better at saving money. Since they are used to making sacrifices for the children and family, women are less prone to taking large financial risks. Although, after seeing the closets of the some girls in Alabama, I’m not sure that is true in the US.

The role of women is actually hugely controversial in India, because they are expected to take of money, but they are also far more often forced to stop school and get married early. In the remote villages, we saw a number of women cover their faces with their shawls as the men in our group walked by. One lady even covered her face as I played with her baby girl.

Because of the great disparity between men and women, a number of women self-help groups have sprung up in India recently. We talked with many of these women. We were even able to host a number of women of one group at our hotel in Chennai.

This lady was an incredible woman with an unimaginable strength. She has done so much for her village and her people and meeting her gave us motivation to pursue our research.

Ultimately we came up with 4 products that we are hoping to pursue further. Here is a brief description of them for now.

  1. Two-ply fabric made from jute and  Tyvek ® to store produce fresh longer
  2. Job app to bring together employers and employees in search of each other in rural areas
  3. Cow urine capture system to use for organic fertilizer made from cow urine, feces, and milk
  4. Low-cost water filtration system for rural India

We presented our ideas to a panel of local Indians near Chennai and they liked all of our ideas a lot. We’re going to obviously do a lot more research if we want to proceed, but it’s going to be a fun road ahead.


Student Perspective: Shocked and Shaped

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Moving beyond the AIME building in Alabama to rural homes in Tamil Nadu, I have been shocked and shaped.

Shocked is probably normal for visitors to India – everything from the lingering spices, the sporadic honking, the nonchalant cattle in the road, the fact that a country with constant power outages sent a satellite to Mars at almost a tenth the price of NASA’s solution, or the fact that families can’t support their daughter’s “unaffordable” college education since they must pay 10 times as much for her dowry.

Shaped, on the other hand, was probably due to where I am in my life. With a quantitative background, growing business mindset, and fortunate opportunities in America, I’ve been shaped by the potential of India. I’ve been shaped by the increasingly flat world, shaped by the 1.2 billion adapting around me, and shaped by a group of elderly women who dug up their pipeline to find drinking water. As motivated university students, we’re used to investigating complex problems, creating solutions, uncovering insights — in the same way that a 20-year-old in India is used to pumping water to last 3 days, holding a bucket to collect cow urine, or asking around for a job for weeks at a time.


Yes, the STEM Path to MBA generates a mindset for working towards the potential of the world. This experience in the developing world shaped me to understand why we need to access the potential of the world in the first place.

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In developed countries, about 80% of the population lives on $175 a day. In emerging economies, about 80% of the population lives on $2 a day. Very quickly, I saw these budget constraints in housing, food, college education, and health. However after 2 or 3 in-depth interviews, I’ve been able to see real people and their communities at work. They are farmers, factory workers, taxi drivers, and natural entrepreneurs. Working towards a better life together, they are shaped deeply by their families, their communities, their local governments, and their spirituality. When a husband got sick, the devoted wife worked the fields to continue their income. When an entrepreneur bought a water purification system, he began selling clean water to his entire village at ultra-low costs. There are Indian villagers living on 54 cents a day who laugh more than college students. There are mothers and fathers who simply want to watch more televisions with their kids, to give their teenage daughter more privacy, or to find consistent work. Most of these poor families are not beggars, but rather generously host our large group in their humble homes (which says a lot seeing as Southern hospitality shaped my standards). The level of sincerity here shocks me with every conversation.


Even with shocking disparities in hygiene, education, and infrastructure, a solution-based mindset shapes rural India just as solutions motivate multi-national businesses. India is ripe with opportunities as social entrepreneurs, an aggressive government, and a motivated population raise a developing nation. There are multi-generational families who strategically pool their resources together. There are women’s self-help groups who actively work to shape their villages. There is a population of people who now see their size as an asset to the world, not a shock. Everyone has problems – some people dwell on them and others look for solutions. The solution-based mindset of many savvy Indians shaped me to continually tackle problems regardless of circumstances.


With each continually conversation, I am further shaped to continue tackling problems that affect more people than I’ll ever possibly meet. I will approach my business classes, my role in a company, my business ventures, and my relationships with urgency and depth. When visiting the Mahatma Ghandi museum in the heart of Delhi, I stumbled across the story of a man wishing to donate all his money to the poor. Ghandi instead shaped the man’s perspective by ultimately saying “make use your resources and your business for the service of the poor.”

As one is constantly reminded in the developing world, our humanity is a precious gold. With my education as a tool, I’ll work to shock and shape this malleable world.

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Day 14 – Visit to three Villages and Domino’s Pizza

Today we had moved out of Chennai to a hotel in the village Thirukalukundram, south of Chennai. By staying in the village hotel, we would have easier access to poor people who live in a cluster of smaller villages near the Bay of Bengal. To expose us to a broad range of living situations, our I-India hosts had arranged for us to visit three of these outlying villages.

The first village we visited, Koovathur, a typical small village in south India. During the month of July, the local Hindus celebrate taking care for the poor, and have a festival built around it. Research shows that when poor have little access to entertainment, public festivals and celebrations are very common. When we arrived in Koovathur, we headed over to the local temple and were guests to a performance by a local group of musicians, who played for us on the temple entryway.

Musicians in Koovathur temple.

Musicians in Koovathur temple.

From there, we drove to the home of Suthakar, a 40-something gentleman who is one of the most entrepreneurial, and kind hearted, people I have ever met. He runs several businesses out of his family’s home, including computer training classes. One of his businesses involves packing little boxes with tissues, or hygiene bags, or anything else you can imagine being packed into little boxes. A multinational corporation that does business in India decided that, rather than use a machine to package their products, they would outsource the work to locals. Suthakar has about a half-dozen local women who come to his home each day and pack box after box. For their work, they receive 2 rupees for every three boxes that they pack.

Women packing hygiene bags for hotels.

Women packing hygiene bags for hotels.

As we were loading up to go to the next village, I noticed the wall of the house next door. This must be the Koovathur Tri-Delt sorority house!

Koovathur Tri Delt house?

Koovathur Tri Delt house?

Next, we visited a fishing village, Vadapattinam, about 5 km further south. The fishing folks of Vadapattinam are very simple, happy people. They fish in the early morning, clean and mend nets in the late morning, and play lots of sports, including, not surprisingly, beach volleyball.

Fishing village.

Fishing village.

This visit was fairly short, but we would be back daily over the coming days. We all had a relaxing stroll through the tides on the beach of the Bay of Bengal.

STEM MBA students take a few minutes break and enjoy the beach on the Bay of Bengal.  Roll Tide!

STEM MBA students take a few minutes break and enjoy the beach on the Bay of Bengal. Roll Tide!

Finally, when we finished talking with the fishermen, we drove to Thenpattinam and visited a woman who makes stuffed animals for a living. She buys bulk fabric in Mahabalipuram and sews the dolls together in her home.

Entrepreneur creates stuffed animals.

Entrepreneur creates stuffed animals.

There is a lot of entrepreneurship, distributed packaging, and distributed manufacturing in south India. The jobs provide incomes that lift many families out of extreme poverty.

We noticed more and more the presence of dedicated, detached, indoor toilets. In the structure below, the door on the left is to a small room with the toilet. The door on the right is to a larger room where laundry is washed and family members take bucket showers – filling a bucket with water, soaping up, and then showering themselves with water by scooping water out of the bucket.

Detached, enclosed combination toilet and wash room in a rural village home.

Detached, enclosed combination toilet and wash room in a rural village home.

Women in the village.

Women in the village.

It was a bit of a whirlwind tour, but it set up the discussion we would have that evening that would include students pitching ideas for the projects they would work on during our last week in India. Students divided into four groups and chose projects that focused on four issues:

  • Connecting rural and urban unemployed workers with employers.
  • Finding a more efficient way of using the enormous amount of cattle dung the villages produce.
  • Developing a solution that would provide clean (biologically and chemically) drinking water.
  • Developing more durable and useful packaging for hauling vegetables, fish, and anything else that villagers have to personally haul each day.

The coming week the students would go out each morning and interview members of the villages who had some insights to the problems they were studying.

It had been a long couple of weeks.  We all needed a change of pace, something to remember from home.  We ordered pizza from a Domino’s in a neighboring village.  It was wonderful.

As I walked back to my hotel room, which was about ¾ mile from our meeting room, I noticed that there was actually a slum behind the hotel’s detached restaurant. The slum was built by construction workers to provide them with a crude home to live in with their families while they worked on an addition to the hotel. These slum homes, just like the ones we had seen in Hyderabad, Delhi, and Agra near construction sites, were typically lean-tos.

Make-shift slum put up behind our hotel.  The inhabitants are construction workers and their families.

Make-shift slum put up behind our hotel. The inhabitants are construction workers and their families.

Insert photo slum



Day 13 – A Middle Class Neighborhood in Chennai

Today we visited two families who, over the last couple of generations, have been able to move out of lower class into the lowest rungs of middle class in Chennai. A middle class neighborhood in Chennai, like in any huge metropolitan city in the world, can take on one of many appearances. In the neighborhood we visited, families still live in apartments and still have narrow access areas to their homes. However, there is typically garbage pickup. Large bins are placed on most blocks and members of the neighborhood dump their garbage in these bins. Rarely are the bins large enough for the entire block, but it’s an improvement over what we saw in slums where garbage collection didn’t exist. Another difference in middle class neighborhoods is that there are more retail stores, store-front cafes, and access to many goods and services that the poor in slums don’t have.

Typical scene in a just middle class neighborhood in Chennai.

Typical scene in a just middle class neighborhood in Chennai.

Middle class neighbors share a trash dumpster.  Here, trash has spilled over onto the street and when the garbage workers came by to empty the dumpster, they left what spilled out.

Middle class neighbors share a trash dumpster. Here, trash has spilled over onto the street and when the garbage workers came by to empty the dumpster, they left what spilled out.

My group visited a young mom, Pooni, who lives in a two-floor apartment that I would guess was close to 1,000 square feet. Pooni lives with her husband, their two kids, her husband’s brother and his wife and their two kids, and his husband’s parents. Her grandmother also lived with them until she died earlier this year at 104 years of age.

Pooni with her daughter, niece, and husband in her middle class apartment.

Pooni with her daughter, two nieces, and husband in her middle class apartment.

Pooni works at a Chennai law firm, processing information on patents. Her husband is an electronic technician and he and Pooni travel together each morning to work, as work they near each other. Pooni’s mother-in-law watches the four children every day and has a maid who helps keep the house clean. The family has two washing machines, a television in every room, and a computer that her middle school aged son uses, mostly to play computer games. When we asked questions about household income and expenses, Pooni and her husband were unsure about totals. They knew that the family spent 20,000 rupees a month on food, but weren’t sure about rent and other expenses. The reason is that Pooni’s father-in-law pays the rent and pays for the family’s food, and expects his children to save as much as they can for his grandchildren’s education.

Pooni's father-in-law, a really good guy!

Pooni’s father-in-law, a really good guy!

This was a common theme that we heard across all Indian families that we met – the importance of saving for the children’s education, to give them a better chance at a good life. Pooni’s father-in-law is an entrepreneur. Several years ago he started a company that manufactures electric boxes for breakers and fuses. Today, he still works from a shop in the neighborhood but also has a factory in another part of the city where his two sons work.

Pooni's father-in-law is an entrepreneur.  Here, he shows us samples of the electronic control boxes that his company builds.

Pooni’s father-in-law is an entrepreneur. Here, he shows us samples of the electronic control boxes that his company builds.

When we asked Pooni what she would like to have, she said she would like to not need to work, so that she could stay at home and spend more time with her children. As we walked through the neighborhood, the students visited some of the retail shops. One shop caught my eye. I noticed a picture depicting Jesus on one of the shelves, so I went inside for a closer look. Behind the counter was a sign that said “Jesus Never Fails” and there were some other Christian products and posters in the store. The shop owners, a husband and wife, were originally Hindu but had converted to Christianity.  It was explained to me that, because of the caste system in India, many lower caste people feel that they are not equals in their temples, and so Christianity appeals to them.

Christian convert shop owners in the middle class neighborhood.

Christian convert shop owners in the middle class neighborhood.

We left the middle class neighborhood and traveled a short distance to the offices of the neighborhood ward leader. The ward leader is selected by his political party and he basically is the party’s leader in the neighborhood, monitoring the pulse of the electorate that he is responsible for.

STEM MBA students meet with the ward leader for  the middle class neighborhoods of Chennai.

STEM MBA students meet with the ward leader for the middle class neighborhoods of Chennai.

Among his projects that he operates is a soup kitchen where anyone in the ward can pay a nominal price and get a meal, three times a day. The food was good. After touring the kitchen, we were taken out back and toured the biofuel generator that they use to convert scraps from the kitchen into biofuel. Something we really weren’t expecting to see.

Soup kitchen in Chennai ward.

Soup kitchen in Chennai ward.

Biogas collector system for waste from ward soup kitchen.

Biogas collector system for waste from ward soup kitchen.

Finally, we toured the ward’s health clinic. For a nominal fee, ward residents can see a doctor and receive treatment. The clinic is heavily used for prenatal care, a big emphasis of India’s government, in line with the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Tate got a free sonogram.

Tate gets a sonogram.

Tate gets a sonogram.

Many of the residents of this middle class ward were either among the poor class themselves at one point, or came from families that had been. The economic growth that India has witnessed over the last 20 years has changed the fortunes of many. Finding ways to keep the economy growing, and adding jobs, is crucial to helping lift more out of the slums.




Day 12 – Urban Slums Visit


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Today we visited a slum neighborhood in Chennai.  The sights and smells were difficult to deal with.  I decided that rather than words, pictures would best share our experience.

Laura’s Adventure


I sat quietly in the Student Services building, feeling the weight of the finals week, moving out, and the semester settle on me. I was flying home in a few hours and was more homesick than I had been all semester. It was a lot of money to go to India, with the potential for more scholarships to come it, but no guarantee. I reread Rachel’s email, my eyes scanning over her advice and come to the closing sentence, “Laura, whether or not you choose to come to India this year, I know that if you truly want to travel and work internationally, you will be able to.” That’s it. This is the time in my life that I need to get out there and start doing what I have always said I wanted to do, to travel and to serve. I take a deep breath, walk to the counter and, submit my tuition: I am going to India.

As our program comes to a close I can’t help but feel so unbelievably grateful and blessed to be sitting where I am. When I sit in the Hyderabad company visits, in our group discussions, or even at breakfast, all I can feel is inferior. I sit quietly in meetings and listen to the intelligent people around me, hearing them ask specific and smart questions and I feel intimidated by their knowledge and understanding. But it’s in the best way, I also feel so excited! These people are a picture of where I could be in a few years and these are the people who I get to learn from for the throughout this trip.

I have participated in an annual mission trip from the time I was eight to the time I was eighteen. I go with my church and Amor Ministries to build houses in Puerto Penasco, Mexico. With this organization we go for a week, build a house for an impoverished family, and make a difference for that one family. It is an amazing trip, we really get to connect with a family for a week and make an amazing difference in their life. But it isn’t fixing the root problem, it isn’t even looking at the root problem.

On this trip are trying to look at some root problems. We are trying to develop solutions to problems that many people are facing, problems like how they can fertilize their crops more cost effectively, how can we help the water scarcity problem, and can we connect potential employees to employers.


I am learning an amazing amount from the people around me, I get to watch how they think and process problems and what inventive ideas they can come up with having both a STEM background and also looking at it from a business stand point.

Dr. Morgan assigns a common summer reading experience and this summer he assigned a book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. In this book Dweck sets up a basic premise that there are two different kinds of mindsets one can have, a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. One with a fixed mindset is defined by his or her success, they see failure as a reflection of themselves while one with a growth mindset views every opportunity as a way to grow and learn. Working with my impressive peers it is easy to enter into a fixed mindset and become full of self-pity. But rather than allowing my self to enter that mindset I choose to enter a growth mindset, these are my peers and I get to be a sponge and soak up everything I can from this experience and their knowledge. I also get the opportunity to work with Dr. Morgan and learn from him and his immense experience in the business world.

This trip has been an amazing opportunity for me to continue to expand my travel experience but also to learn from some incredible people. After a long, always changing, emotional ride to decide to come on this trip I feel so blessed to have ended up where I have, in the presence of articulate, smart, caring people.

Here’s to the next adventure!


Day 11 – Visiting P&G and Dupont

Today was our second full day in Hyderabad and we were able to make two company visits AND catch our train for a 14 hour train ride to Chennai.

Our morning visit was to Procter & Gamble’s Hyderabad plant.  STEM Path to the MBA Advisory Board member William Gipson helped put this visit together for us and it was great.  The plant is very new and was exciting for the students to see.  We had wanted to do a tour of the plant floor but that would require everyone on the tour to wear steel-toed shoes.  Amazingly, our host, Mridula Varghese, seemingly scoured Hyderabad for safety shoes for her American guests!  Mridula, Ritika Singh and Monika Arya took most of the students on the tour.  Tate and I had to sit out the tour because of our freakishly large feet, and Geoff and Joey sat out with us because our alternative activity was to spend time with Amit Agrawal and Narashiva Charanshetty, having a great conversation about modeling and simulating plant operations.  So, in the end, everyone thoroughly enjoyed the time at the plant.  We were able to cap it all with a group conversation with the plant’s leadership team.  The students were able to ask about the role of castes, gender and age in the Indian work force and learn about the challenges the team faces.  They learned a ton.

Tate, Geoff, and Joey  chat with  Amit and Narashiva about modeling and simulation of production processes.

Tate, Geoff, and Joey chat with Amit and Narashiva about modeling and simulation of production processes.

P&G Hyderabad leadership team in Q&A.

P&G Hyderabad leadership team in Q&A.

UA STEM MBA students with the P&G Hyderabad leadership team.

UA STEM MBA students with the P&G Hyderabad leadership team.

After completing the visit with P&G, we hopped on the bus and headed to the other side of Hyderabad – about a 3 hour trip – to Dupont’s really cool facilities in the Knowledge Center.  STEM MBA Advisory Board member Jeff Jirak had set up the visit and we had a very good meeting with Pushparaj Mishra and Ranjan Patnaik.  The STEM Path to the MBA focuses heavily on innovation and we had the chance to visit a company that is a world class leader in innovation.

Pushparaj and Ranjan discussed with the students the history of Dupont and the genesis of their new company, Chemours.  Dupont and Chemours, though industrial giants, have the potential to be natural leaders in the reverse innovation conversation and the students left with several ideas for how their technologies could be put to use toward that end.

UA Team at Dupont