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.




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




Day 10 – Visiting ADTRAN in Hyderabad

As we were preparing for our trip to India we were very fortunate to have several of the STEM MBA Advisory Board members step forward and offer to arrange for us to make visits to their Indian operations. ADTRAN, P&G, and Dupont all have operations in Hyderabad so we thought we would take advantage of that and make some company site visits.

Mumbai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad are all growing their technology, but especially digital, industries at a rapid pace. ADTRAN is a Huntsville, Alabama based business that is a world leader in manufacturing equipment used in delivering Internet service to consumers, businesses, and government organizations. Kent Darzi, Srinivasulu Chamarthi, Monali Barman, Gouri Gunda, and Shibu Talukder all hosted us for a tour of their Hyderabad facilities and a discussion of how growing internet bandwidth will change our use of technology and entertainment and what it means for business. A great way to kick off two days of corporate visits in Hyderabad.

UA's STEM MBA students with ADTRAN's Hyderbad leadership team.

UA’s STEM MBA students with ADTRAN’s Hyderbad leadership team.

After the tour, Srinivas and Shibu took us to dinner at the most amazing castle I’ve ever seen, the Falaknuma Palace. Falaknuma was completed in 1893, built by Nawab Vikar-ul-Umra, Prime Minister of Hyderabad. The palace is built in the shape of a scorpion, and after a wonderful dinner we received a tour of the main building – an amazing place.

View of the front of Falaknuma Palace.

View of the front of Falaknuma Palace.

View from the palace balcony, overlooking the city of Hyderabad.

View from the palace balcony, overlooking the city of Hyderabad.

STEM MBA student Rachel Ramey looks out over Hyderabad at Falaknuma Palace.

STEM MBA student Rachel Ramey looks out over Hyderabad at Falaknuma Palace.

Thanks to our friends at ADTRAN for a terrific day!





Day 9 – Traveling to Hyderabad via Delhi

Today was another all-day traveling day. We drove from Agra back to Delhi and then caught a regional flight from Delhi to Hyderabad. It was our first time on what could be considered India’s equivalent of the U.S.’s interstate highway system. On our way to the nice, open highway to Delhi, we passed several trucks like the one below. Can you guess what its purpose is?

What is it?

What is that truck carrying?

The truck is seen pretty routinely near construction areas in India. It us used to carry sand from its origin to local retailers and distributors. Rather than using a steel truck bed, these trucks use what looks like huge burlap bags. Another odd thing we saw along the way were the makeshift wrecked car cemeteries. When someone has a wreck on the large highways, the disabled cars can just be towed to one of these areas and left for the owner to collect.


Day 8 Evening: The Power of Leadership, Women, and Hard Work

(Note: this post covers our experiences on July 21st but will, hopefully, be posted today, the 27th. I’ve been working on this post since the 22nd but repeatedly hit delays in finishing it. Part of it is our schedule – we’ve been starting our work days early in the morning and going until late in the evening. Part is internet access – the last two hotels we have stayed in have had spotty wifi at best. But the biggest reason for delay is understanding what is true. As you can imagine, when you are talking about culture, poverty, how one group of human beings treat another group of human beings, and other complex issues, and trying to understand them as an outsider, you rely on discerning what is true by talking to several people and trying to pick out what fragments of what you are told are true, which things are not true because someone is attempting to spin the truth, and which things are not true but those telling it believe it is. In the end, I’m just sharing what I took away from these conversations as truth. That’s the best I can do.)

While that morning the Taj Mahal was beautiful and the Agra Fort showed some impressive engineering and architecture, the afternoon and evening of Day 8 beat the morning backwards and forwards. We drove outside of Agra a few miles to a nearby village, Barara. Barara has a population of about 6,000 people. As we drove into the village, we passed what can best be described as a man-made lagoon that was connected to a drainage ditch.

Barara lagoon.

Barara lagoon.

There is nothing really particularly peculiar about that in a village in India. What was unique about it was that it had been stocked with a handful of courageous little boys who were taking advantage of the recent rain, and the accumulation of water in the lagoon, to practice their cannon ball dives and swimming strokes.

Boys swimming in Barara "lagoon".

Boys swimming in Barara “lagoon”.

The boys were having a good old time and when they saw our bus drive by, they really began to ham it up.

We stopped, piled out of the bus, and gathered in the covered driveway of one of the bigger homes in the village. Our guide to the village, Solanki, introduced us to our host in the village, Rajveer Sikarwar. Raj appeared to be in his early 40s. Once everything had settled down, he and Solanki told us about life in Barara. They talked about the local school, the clinic, and the government benefits that were given to families living in villages like Barara: heavily subsidized rice, wheat, and natural gas; 5,000 rupees placed in savings accounts for baby girls born in the hospital (more about this later), subsidized cell phone services, and other programs. As Raj talked, and as he began to answer our questions, we began to see something in him, and in Barara, that had been sorely lacking in the tribal village – passion for the village, compassion for neighbors, dreams for the village’s children. It was pretty cool to watch.

Rajveer Sikawar (in blue shirt), our host in the Barara village, discusses life in the village.

Rajveer Sikawar (in blue shirt), our host in the Barara village, discusses life in the village.

Raj and Solanki took questions for quite a long time, probably longer than they intended. Eventually, Raj’s brother arrived and asked if we would like to see a snake charmer. The snake charmer followed him in and Raj’s brother pulled a cobra out of his basket and offered to let the students hold it – there were quite a few takers on that offer.

The snake charmers.

The snake charmers.





We left the carport and Raj took us on a tour of the village. Along the way, we stopped at one of the homes and were invited in to watch Geetha, a young woman who seemed to constantly have a smile on her face – not a pretend smile, but an authentic smile, and she was constantly laughing at things. Geetha led us through her house to the back patio, where she had lit a fire in a small clay oven.

The living area of Geetha's home.

The living area of Geetha’s home.

Geetha squatted down and began to make roti – a small, flat bread that looks pretty much like a taco-sized pita bread. She grabs a handful of dough out of a pan, rolls it up in a ball, then smashes it methodically into a pancake and drops it onto a metal pan sitting on top of the clay oven. Once the roti is firm, she props it up on one of the sticks of firewood that is protruding from the oven so that it can bake further.

Geetha baking roti bread on clay oven.

Geetha baking roti bread on clay oven.

As we watched her working, Rachel and Evan took turns rolling the balls of dough into pancakes. As time went on, quickly the patio began to fill up with neighborhood children who were excited to meet us. Geetha’s mother arrived and Raj did the introductions.

Rachel baking roti bread.

Rachel baking roti bread.


Raj introduces Geetha's mom and family.

Raj introduces Geetha’s mom and family.

So at one point, Geetha’s patio (roughly 12’ by 12’) was not only full of STEM MBA students and kids, but goats began showing up as well. Sheela tried to show us her goat whispering skills. She should probably stick to mathematics and finance.

Sheela shows off her goat whispering skills.

Sheela shows off her goat whispering skills.

We left Geetha’s home and continued to walk through the village. As we walked, we continued to attract children and they seemed very happy to have us visit. We eventually ended up at Raj’s family’s home, a compound that apparently is home to Raj’s dad and uncle, their children, and their grandchildren. They had prepared dinner for us and we enjoyed wonderful hospitality from them.

Relaxing before dinner at the Sikawar's home in Barara.

Relaxing before dinner at the Sikawar’s home in Barara.

So this is all only part of the story. In our last village visit, to the tribal village, the lack of leadership, the lack of initiative, and the apparent marginalization of women stood out as substantial problems. In Barara, the story was just the opposite. Let me explain.

Leadership. Though we only spent a few hours in the village, after observing Raj and talking to others who know him and are familiar with the workings of Barara, it was clear that Raj, and probably other members of his family before him, were very good leaders. As he spoke about the village, he talked of how they are very much like a family. If one member of the village is in need, they all try to address the problem to help. Across India each year, a number of farmers commit suicide when their crops fail, due to drought or flood.  Suicides among farmers hasn’t occurred in Barara.  Some of our questions probed for problems that we had read about before coming to India, or seen firsthand in other villages, but Raj was quick to explain that those conditions did not exist in Barara, that the people of the village would not allow it.

Raj’s family has prospered and they share some of their blessings with others in the village. Because he was concerned about the quality of the water in his home, Raj’s father had an expensive reverse osmosis water purifying system installed on the well that serves his home. At first, he shared the water with the rest of the village. Some people wasted the water, so he began to charge a nominal fee for the water and the waste stopped. (As a marketing professor, I appreciate his solution – people tend to not value what they don’t have to pay for).

When Raj told us earlier that the village looks out for everyone in the village, he meant everyone. As we were walking through the village before dinner, the students stopped in the doorway of one home to admire the henna tattoos that two pretty little girls had on their arms. Raj explained to me that the family were Muslims. Barara is a village that is nearly completely Hindu, in a country that is largely Hindu but holds a significant population of Muslims; a country whose relationship with it’s neighbor – predominately Muslim Pakistan – is constantly one of great tension (a 14th student from UA was not allowed an Indian visa because his father, born in Bangladesh, was identified by U.S. immigration as a native of Pakistan, and the Indian visa application specifically asks about Pakistani ancestry of the applicant); a country who lost many of its temples and art to invading Muslim armies over a 300 year span earlier in the second millennium AD.   Raj explained that it bothered him that religion was being used as an excuse to discriminate against others, that people in other parts of the country were voicing concerns about their safety being threatened by Muslims. He remarked that these were just children, just a mother and father – they were no threat to anyone, they were just another Barara family.

Doorway to the home of a Muslim family in Barara.  Muslims are a very small minority in the village.

Doorway to the home of a Muslim family in Barara. Muslims are a very small minority in the village.

Raj isn’t the only important leader in the community. Remember Geetha, the young woman with the terrific smile? She is respected by the other women of the village, and Raj often relies on her leadership to help solve problems that arise that are better addressed by a woman.

Barara is full of hope for its children. Its people are proud of their life here. Leadership has been largely responsible.

Treatment of Women and Girls. Perhaps because of the international media coverage of the treatment of women in India over the last few years, perhaps because of the United Nations MDG focus on women and children, the treatment of women and children in India is a sensitive topic. Female infanticide has been a recognized problem. Sociologists and human rights activists have studied the problem and offered explanations and prescriptions. It is a hugely complex issue that, of course, can’t be adequately covered in a blog post written by a marketing professor, so these are just my own thoughts. A couple of common explanations for the rise in female infanticide in India in previous years are (1) the dowry system that has been common here in the last century, and (2) the economic value of girls vs. boys in a poor home that depends on children contributing to the family economically through labor. The unimaginable cruelty of female infanticide in India, when it has occurred, is heart breaking. The government has responded to this problem in many ways, but a couple are worth noting and we have run into their mention repeatedly during our stay in India. First, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the government now offers families 5,000 rupees for birthing children in hospitals, where care is provided by trained medical personnel, the birth is officially recorded, and the baby is kept at the hospital until it is decided that it is healthy enough to go home. Second, though sonography in pregnancy is common in India, it is illegal for medical personnel to divulge to anyone, most of all the parents, the sex of a fetus based on sonography. The concern is that if the parents knew the fetus was female they would choose an abortion. In an earlier visit, we spoke with an American woman who currently works in India and is several months pregnant. When I asked her what sex the baby was, she explained that she didn’t know, even though she had twice had a sonogram, because of this Indian law.

When we spoke with Raj about the treatment of women and girls, he brought up all of these issues without us probing. He passionately argued that in Barara, a child is a child and loved equally, regardless of its sex. He argued that, in fact, economically girls were more beneficial to the home because they work much longer hours. As evidence, he pointed to the large crowd of boys who had gathered around to watch our visit, and noted that girls were absent because they had a stronger work ethic and were out working instead of playing. He explained his views on the outdated dowry system, its origins and evolution, and how it was falling out of favor.

Young boys quickly gathered around us to watch our conversation with Raj.

Young boys quickly gathered around us to watch our conversation with Raj.

When we visited Geetha’s home, Raj interacted with Geetha and her mother in a warm, genuine way. The girls in his home, when we visited for dinner, were dressed in western clothing, were outgoing and seemed to be very happy.

Judging by criteria developed by the World Bank and others to measure equal treatment of women, such as equality of education, women’s roles in politics, equality of pay, and equality of health services, Barara and other villages and cities seem to be making progress. However, for much of the work that women do, it is not work for which they receive compensation – they work in the home but that work is not something they receive income for, but that’s true globally. Still, we observe a number of social regularities that give pause. Why is it still tolerated for a man to stop in the middle of a sidewalk and urinate on a wall? Why have Indian males and children completely adopted western clothing, while adult women continue to wear traditional clothing? Why do Indian males consumer a far larger share of alcoholic beverages? Something to think about.

Sustainability. India is famous for its frugal innovation, and frugal innovation is the rule in rural villages. In Barara, as you walk past home after home, you might be put off by so many homes having a 3-5 water buffalos or cows in their side yard, eating from a trough, defecating in the dirt yard, and often just laying around, but these animals are hugely valuable to the family for two reasons. First, most of these families are farmers and occasionally encounter a year when there is either a drought and all of their crops die, severely cutting into the family’s income, or there is too much rain and they have the same economic result. If the family has a handful of cows, they can milk them each morning and each evening and sell the milk in Agra, providing an economic supplement that allows them to accumulate some savings during good years, and serve as enough to get them through a year when the crops fail.

A village family's yard.

A village family’s yard. In the left foreground you can see the chopping machine, with the big crank wheel, that chops cherie into small bites that are fed to cattle.

Water buffalo in manger at a village home.

Water buffalo and cows in manger at a village home.

Second, the animals produce another product that is just as valuable as milk: dung. Families will stockpile dung, as you can see in the photos below, and it provides them with fuel for cooking year round. Nothing goes to waste. The cows typically feed on cherie, a tall plant that looks sort of like corn stalks without the corn. They will keep 1-2 acres of cherie and each day cut what they need, take it home, and run it through a hand-powered device that chops the cherie up into small pieces that the cows love.

Haystack-shaped pile of cattle dung behind Geetha's home.  Dung is an important fuel resource in the village.

Haystack-shaped pile of cattle dung behind Geetha’s home. Dung is an important fuel resource in the village.


In the shack on the right, dung is being stockpiled for fuel.

In the shack on the right, dung is being stockpiled for fuel.

Cherie is an important resource to the farming families who chop it and feed it to their cattle as the main source of the cattle's diet.

Cherie is an important resource to the farming families who chop it and feed it to their cattle as the main source of the cattle’s diet.  Here, the family stores the day’s supply just inside the front entrance to their home.

All in all, Barara was a terrific visit!