Rebecca Bowman is currently on the Immersion Programme in Hyderabad, India and she recalls with humour the first time she went to go and visit her client.
I’m lost. I’m in one of the most populous countries in the world, with only snippets of a shared language, and I am completely, stonkingly lost. All I can think is ‘thank god I didn’t try this without a phone”.1
I’m on my way to my first real meeting with my new clients2, Vandyaa and Rekha. They are the creative forces behind Ishma, a social enterprise which designs and makes amazingly funky jewellery using centuries old techniques. Rekha and Vandyaa are blazing new ground by being female entrepreneurs in a country where women are actively discouraged from working following college, and considered old if not married by 26.3
Jewellery by Isham Fashion Accessories
I decide to follow the instructions I’ve been given and walk up to a black gate. I stick my head inside and call out Vandyaas’ name. A small child runs over, and his mother follows close behind – there’s no Vandyaa here, she says, shaking her head.
There’s nothing else for it, I decide. I take out my phone and send the following photos:
And the message:
“I’m lost. I will be standing here very still waiting for you to come and get me”
Soon my phone rings. It’s Vandyaa – she has come out of her apartment to find me, and thinks I may be lost. I agree. She asks me to find someone nearby who she can talk to, and I practically throw the phone at a young boy walking barefoot towards me. Please talk I say to him, flapping my hands in a way that is supposed to communicate “help me please” and he takes the phone and starts speaking in Telugu to Vandyaa.4
He agrees to take me to meet her, and I soon find myself trailing along behind him, retracing the route I took in the Uber to get lost in the first place, until finally I see Rekha pull up on her moped, looking for all the world like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.
She is going to take me to Vandyaas’ place on the back, it seems. I hop on, ungracefully, definitely not in any way like Audrey, and as she takes off feel my legs swing up in the air in front of me and I grab the seat to stop from falling off. She stops, exasperated but laughing with me, and shows me where to put my feet. We take off again, and go speeding, through Hyderabadi traffic.5
As the back of a bus looms large in front of us, and we prepare to do two U-turns in quick succession, I’m not entirely convinced I’m not going to die. We finally arrive, and talking over each other tell Vandyaa how we got here. Vandyaa looks over at Rekha, and now they tell me the most worrying part – Rekha has only had her license for 2 months.
We settle in and get to work debriefing Ishmas’ biggest event to date – ComicCon Hyderabad.6 Over 2 days they sold a record amount of product, exceeded their expectations and exposed their brand to thousands of people. But Vandyaa and Rekha have big plans for Ishma, and there are still lessons to be learnt on the way.
We use a design thinking approach to empathise with our customers,7 reflecting on the most commonly asked questions over the weekend, creating personas to reflect our main customer segments and ideating responses to customer needs. These will be implemented and refined over the coming months as Ishma holds more stalls in different markets around the city.
From the customer facing part of the business we pivot to examine the business processes, and realise that it is a perfect time to take inventory. With minimal stock left, and the end of the month approaching, we work as a team to categorise and document the jewellery. This is also an opportunity to learn more about the inventory processes, and we make notes to work on later.
That’s what this work is about, I discover – being a friend, team mate, advisor, and (sometimes hopefully) expert you shift roles and perspectives quickly so that every aspect of the business is examined.
And all of this before lunch.
We break for lunch and head next door to eat with Vandyaas family. This is proper Indian food – delicious, spicy and a real cultural experience. Their family and friends are immensely supportive of the work the 2 are doing, and this is one of the greatest strengths of their business.8
After lunch it’s back to work – some of the most exciting and fulfilling work I’ve done to date, with two amazing women I feel privileged to be working alongside.
- Later it eventuates that my white-girl reliance on technology is what got me lost in the first place. Hyderabad didn’t exactly engage the services of urban planners when expanding, and so googlemaps is constantly a little wrong.
- I’m in India working as a social impact consultant with_SocialStarters. This means working with a small to medium enterprise with a social or environmental purpose on their business planning to give them the best chance of long term survival.
- I’m 34, and constantly wonder what the older generation think of me. Do they think I haven’t been lucky enough to find a husband? That I’m a spinster? Or maybe they think I’m a loose woman. “Don’t mention the divorce” becomes my personal motto.
- Telenganu is one of the newest states in India, Created just last year by the division of Andhra Pradesh into 2 separate states. Most people in Hyderabad speak a combination of English, Telagu and Hindi – all at once.
- Terrified, all I can think of is the end of Alan Bennetts’ History Boys, when the teacher takes one for the team on the back of Hectors moped, and ends up with 2 broken femurs.
- This is the approach I use to work with Ishma during my time with them, basing the work we do on a solid basis of empathy and immersion in their business.
- I got a photo taken with a young man dressed as the 11th Doctor, complete with fez and sonic screwdriver. It was amazing.
- Vandyaas dad is an absolute social justice warrior, and a massive supporter of Ishma. Before the day is over I receive a friend request from him on facebook. Through him I learn more about the social, political and religious environment I am working in than I could have through any book.
- While I refer to myself as an expert earlier, Rehka and Vandyaa have taught me so much by allowing me to join their team, even for a short while, and I want to thank them – and _SocialStarters – for this opportunity!
Would you like to join us in Hyderabad, India in 2017? We’re running another 6-week Immersion Programme in February 2017. Applications are now officially open and you can find out more information or apply – hurry, places are offered on a first come first serve basis. Applications close on 7th November.