[ To Express, To Reflect, To Give Back ]

A fantastic cocktail of capitalism and corruption

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

Often I stumble upon on the same day, two different perspectives on the same topic. One of my favorite past time is to pick up random magazines from the library. The lucky winner the other day was The Progressive magazine. Very thought-provoking articles focused on current events in America, and with arguments that normally fly below the mainstream media.

Quite a few articles caught my interest due to the nature of the topics that I haven’t come across lately. An article, “Fighting Fire with Water” by Colman McCarthy, on the idea of pacifism was a great reminder of why the revolts in the middle east are so effective.

Another article by Luis J. Rodríguez, “the Latino vote” cleared up my common misconception of treating the entire Latino population in the US as one entity. On one of the panel discussions that the author was part of, an average American would have classified the panel participants as all “Latinos” but the author highlights that the only thing common amongst them was writing, if that.

But the best one was waiting just for me. The blockbuster article of the February edition was “The Rule of the Rich” by Bill Moyers. Some of you may know him from the PBS show Bill Moyer’s Journal – which I recommend if you are interested in thoughtful talk shows. The article is based on a rather lengthy speech he gave at Boston University in honor of Howard Zinn. Apparently, the Progressive article not available online in its entirety.

The article starts with defining the word Plutocracy (a new word for me and it means “state in which the wealthy class rules”) and goes on to open your eyes on why Richest Americans do not need the rest of America. The point of Moyers’ article is best summarized by this quote, ““There are two things that are important in politics, The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.”. What you will realize, after reading his speech (or the article if you can get hold of the magazine), is how in the name of capitalism, American politics and governance has outright sold itself to the wealthiest in America. Here is a key part of the article to ponder

from 1950 through 1980, the share of all income in America going to everyone but the rich increased from 64 percent to 65 percent. Because the nation’s economy was growing handsomely, the average income for 9 out of l0 Americans was growing, too – from $17,719 to $30,941. That’s a 75 percent increase in income in constant 2008 dollars.

But then it stopped. Since 1980 the economy has also continued to grow handsomely, but only a fraction at the top have benefitted. The line flattens for the bottom 90% of Americans. Average income went from that $30,941 in 1980 to $31,244 in 2008. Think about that: the average income of Americans increased just $303 dollars in 28 years.

Just a couple of days prior to reading this article, I was watching the PBS show, Need to Know and they had a fantastic segment on “Income inequality in America: An illustrated interview”. Try to watch the video on the link but the summary of it is that if this deadly canyon of inequality doesn’t stop, America may split into two parallel worlds.

If the trend that we’ve seen for the past 25 years were to continue over the next 25 years, I can’t imagine what the world would look like. Because suddenly you’ve got two separate education systems, two separate housing places. Two separate levels of experience. So, of course, I do not see how, in a system such as this, somebody that begins at the bottom can end up at the top.

Corporation, Profit, Politics & Corruption?

You know about six years ago I made a big decision to get a MBA from a reputed university. Which I did. But about half way into my short journey on business education, I realized I was losing appetite for corporate America’s lure. The courses I took, and some of the wonderful teachers at NYU made me discover what really clicked for me was the Social Enterprise Sector (Non-profit). I disliked finance, accounting and investment banking. I grew wary of Capitalism. Most students out of a business school get out deeply married to the ideas of Capitalism, I emerged crystal clear of its perils. The stories by Bill Moyers and Eduardo Porter reminded me of the heated discussions we used to have in the classes on corporate ethics, global economy and social entrepreneurship.

The subtle reality is corporate America is becoming monstrously huge and ruthless. The pointless year over year growth syndrome is driving corporations to seek wealth at any cost. Where the costs are too high, Washington devises clever policies to rescue Wall Street.

The agony is America is creating a fantastic cocktail of capitalism and corruption. The rest of the world is boozing the hell out of it.

Feeding a billion people every day

Saturday, February 26th, 2011

Listening to NPR’s special report yesterday, I was astonished to learn that some of Nebraska’s farmers manage as much as 2500 acres, with help from few humans and monster machines. I hear Nebrasks’s corn belt is booming but I was left to wonder how could just few people farm thousands of acres? I cannot fathom this conquest of agricultural technology – virtually erasing farm labor from the equation. You may also want to know, Twitter too is part of Nebraska’s success story! (more here)

Nebraska's Farming Profits Abound

On the other side of the globe, Indian farmers are struggling to keep up with rising demand on one hand and age-old, labor-intensive agro practices on other. Add to that the dependence on a lackluster monsoon season. For its part, the government of India hasn’t provided the infrastructure support for electricity, irrigation and storage. As much as half of farm foods don’t get to the people and rot even before it reaches its first trading post. This is pathetic and colossal waste of human and natural resources. Consequently, inflation in food prices is at unbearable levels – leaving most Indians to spend all of their income on just feeding the families. Though GDP growth is elevating many out of poverty, many wonder if it is as effective as economic theory suggests.

Such is the state of food production in a country that must feed over billion people every single day. About 250 million of that are adolescents – whose health and nutrition is crucial for the future of India. There is no concerted vision or effort from government or private sectors to address these problems holistically.

India’s problems are manifold and which one is a priority is debatable. In fact, the endless is debates amongst political groups and media is one reason decisions are stalled. I believe the livelihood and as UNICEF attests, the future of the country, rests more on agriculture than on information technology or skyscraper-studded cities. Yet, it appears there is no sense of urgency or apprehension around state of agriculture. No doubt, the decision makers are enjoying a smooth ride on the GDP bullet train. When would they have the time to step back?

Pegging our hopes on India's budding entrepreneurship

There were times when some of India’s leaders had the will, but not all the means to make it happen. Today, there are probably many ways to address this issue within a 10-year timeframe, but a vision, leadership and of course, the will, is obviously missing.

The one ray of hope is the phenomenal power of India’s educated youth. I know they are entrepreneurial (Tarun Khanna, a Harvard Professor claims billions of entrepreneurs here and here!) with the will and capability to take the best from around the world and mix it with the best of India’s past to revolutionize its future. May the almighty bless my wish to come true soon!

PS: Think Change India is a wonderful place to check out and keep track of growth in social entrepreneurship in India, specifically around agriculture.

Article of DHAN Foundation

Monday, January 11th, 2010

My next article for ThinkChangeIndia on DHAN is online. I had not heard of DHAN before and it was edifying experience to research and write about them. For over two decades, they have been doing some phenomenal grassroots work, getting thousands of people out of poverty. I had the pleasure of interviewing some of the senior staff there, including the head, Mr. Vasimalai and I must say it was an eye opening few hours worth of discussion. The extended version of the article and recording of the interviews is available for anyone who might be interested (email s k c h a r y @ y a h o o . c o m)

I had my 30 seconds with Bill Drayton

Friday, December 18th, 2009

Last night, I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Bill Drayton at a speech he gave at Princeton University. He is one of my role models and I don’t think its an exaggeration if I see him as a modern day version of Gandhi. He is on a mission to identify, encourage and support “changemakers” across the breadth and depth of human society. These ‘changemakers’ are working on the ground solving pressing social problems and Mr. Drayton ensures that these changemakers get whatever they need to do their best and sustain their impact. We need more Draytons and more organizations like the one he is pioneering: Ashoka. If I have a choice to be someone, I would like to be Mr. Drayton someday. Seeing him yesterday talk and spending a few seconds that close to him has reinforced my faith that I will be able to do what he has done, and more.

Mr. Drayton is credited for bringing social entrepreneurship to the forefront of America. During his speech yesterday, he pointed out that social entrepreneurs and their enterprises existed for centuries (so all we are doing is just finding more and more of them and shedding some global light on their work). He said we might just be reaching a “tipping point” of getting social entrepreneurship to mainstream. Many other organizations and individuals have dedicated their lives to direct welfare of society, but Ashoka has done it differently, in my humble opinion. I say it because I see their model as based on what I call ‘McKinsey of Social Enterprise’. When I graduated from NYU Stern, I seriously considered working for Ashoka. There were many personal reasons for not pursuing it rigorously. But the desire continues to deepen. That’s part of the reason why I showed up right away in Princeton, when I got a google alert that Mr. Drayton is speaking there.

He speaks so softly that folks at back couldn’t hear everything clearly but he spoke with a good sense of clarity regarding whats required to make meaningful changes in the society, for good. He was speaking to an audience of about 100 students from the Princeton’s engineering school, particularly those enrolled in Gordon Bloom’s Social Entrepreneurship program. The fact that such courses are already being offered to under graduate students and that Mr. Drayton’s latest Youth Ventures is reaching out to younger generation to be “changemakers” speaks for the “tipping point” of social entrepreneurship. On the topic of leveraging human potential, Mr. Drayton has also written an insightful article recently on the topic of how flight of increased productivity year after year is causing the depletion of natural resources and why the world must wake up soon to “engage people and to retire things”.

When I look back at my own life growing up in Coimbatore, India, I had been a “changemaker” in a real sense. I was an active member for many years in a social service club (Rotaract)and was also the president of the club during which we won awards for some innovative service work. I felt good doing that type of work, even while hanging around with my best buddies. However, I never consciously thought about what I was doing and if it will have any inherent relationship to what I will do in future.

I remember vividly the times I had spent with the Handicapped Children Society. We loved the smile on their faces so much that they became our default place to campout every other Sunday and do some gratifying social work. I can’t forget how much the children enjoyed a Sunday afternoon of Rajnikanth movie. There was this one boy who really wanted to grow up to be like Rajinikanth. I hope he is doing well somewhere.

My life, however, moved on after I graduated from Engineering College and commitments from the family front required me to stay focused on earning. It reminds me of the opening scenes of ‘Forrest Gump’; I went with the flow just like a feather caught in the breeze, moving to Chennai and then to US, building a career that I didn’t think much about. I hate to think this way, but I did lose sight of social work for quite sometime, until it dawned on me again.

Just around the mid point during my 2.5 years in NYU, I figured I had pretty much ended up where I am in life, by sheer ‘go with the flow’ mentality without thinking through what I really want to do or be. This is not to say I didn’t have commitment. I worked very hard to be where I am and grateful for the people and opportunities that helped along the way. But, as they say, ‘you know when you are on a mission’. I knew I was not.

I enrolled for a Social Enterprise class with Bill Shore. I was one of the just 5 guys in about 30 students who enrolled (guess more women cared about society, than men, at least in Stern, that year!). Stern is known for Finance majors and I wasn’t surprised that there were only 30 students. In fact, it’s the opposite, the 30 students really knew what they were getting into and possibly why. So it couldn’t have been a better setting. Having read Bill’s book prior to start of the sessions and sitting through the classes, guest lectures and case discussions made me feel like I have somehow found the deepest core of who I am and what I want to be. Perhaps, it goes back to my high school days of social work around Coimbatore and I do think experiences from childhood, one way or other, returns to remind who you really are. At last, I found something that just was always there for me for the taking. I want to be a social entrepreneur. A big, audacious changemaker.

I truly believe God has placed the seed within all of us. A seed to become meaningful persons and play particular roles in serving the humanity. The seed grows and symptoms of its growth may manifest more clearly during childhood, but somewhere along the way due to family and social settings, the growth is inhibited. For many, the seed gets buried deep enough that it takes a lot of time and energy to unearth it. But the fact is, the seed is there for us to find, nurture and make a beautiful tree out of it.

All said, how to get to from where I am today to where I want to go, is going to be work in progress. It starts with the faith, the rest must fall in place. I must continue to do what I need to do.