Sunday, August 29, 2010

Guest Post: Pakistan Flood Relief - The uphill battle to rebuild lives -- Jawwad Farid

17-20 million affected
5 million without shelter on the streets and roadsides because relief camps are overwhelmed
1.6 million people are already being affected by waterborne diseases
800,000 people still cannot be reached because bridges have been washed off
170000 acres of crop land has been affected

The water came at night in Nowshera.

Not silently like a thief, nor on tip toes, but with all the ferocity of a moving sea mixed with the weight of mud, stones, trees and swept away dreams. 2 am at night, all you could do was wake up and run. But unlike a tidal wave that comes in, takes what it needs to pacify an angry God, and goes, the water in Nowshera kept on coming. Days later when the flooding stopped, like an unwelcome and over bearing guest it stayed. And it brought company with it to keep away the boredom of lesser lives it haunted; misery, hunger and silence.

You could change the name of the city and repeat the story throughout the length of the mighty Indus. By the time you would reach Sind and Thatta, the late night rush to safety, the breaches in river embankments and the loss of life, livelihood and loved ones become one practiced orchestra. No audience except the three that water brought with it to Nowshera; misery, hunger and silence. No post performance celebration other than the one where millions of souls slowly start re-threading their lives, one battered tin clad suitcase at a time.

With the water slowly receding the relief mosaic across Pakistan is looking more and more like a drive in movie in an endless loop across multiple time zones. Upnorth, we need food, clothing, medicine, water purifiers and shelter. Down south, we are still waiting for Thatta and nearby cities and villages along the Indus Delta to take on the first wave of flood waters.

The widespread devastation and damage to infrastructure has added a new dimension of difficulty to relief efforts. And so if you can’t find food or support in the enclave over run by mud that you used to call home, you walk to the relief camps being set up near larger urban centers.

A school for children now houses 30 families and 150 kids. It is not women and children first. The men have opted to stay behind to guard livestock or land for in the chaos caused by a raging river there is more room for tragedy, robbery and outright villainy by your fellow beings. Possession is nine-tenth of law, especially if thy neighbor has been claimed by the rising waters of River Indus.

A white collar family is not used to handouts or being treated as landless destitute. But the tragedy that is unfolding across Pakistan across millions of lives, hundreds of cities and thousands of camps is just that.

You may have escaped the water; but will you ever escape the fate and the company the Indus brought with it.

Misery, hunger, death and silence.

Jawwad Farid is the founder and CEO of Alchemy Technologies. He is an actuary by profession, a computer scientist by training, and a Columbia Business School MBA.

Jawwad has worked directly as a founder, mentor or advisor at multiple startups including two green field life insurance companies, multiple technology product businesses, financial services consulting operations, product focused distribution as well as micro insurance, micro pensions and micro finance startups. The ones he remembers the most are his failures.

He came to Darden in April for his talk "REBOOT - Everything you ever wanted to know about STARTUP FAILURE" and is a regular contributor to the DesiBackToDesh, Learning Corporate Finance and Oil Insight  blogs. 

You can view the original post here

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Guest Post: Doing Business In Africa - Joe Andrasko

So here it goes, the first ever blog post about summer internships and recruiting from a guy who has yet to write his first cover letter…  

From a recruiting perspective, my first year at Darden was a bit atypical. I came to Charlottesville focused on entrepreneurship and, throughout the first year, I couldn’t seem to shake my interest in working for myself. Don’t get me wrong, I tried to be interested in “real jobs.” I polished up my résumé last fall, made sure I used action words in all my bullet points, tweaked margins and fonts, the whole nine yards. I even went to some company briefings and “networked” on the recommendation of the good folks at the CDC who kept urging me to “trust the process.” At the end of the day though, my buy-in for the “the process” wasn’t quite there. By October, I decided to curtail the briefings. By November, I had all but written off the traditional summer internship.

Here’s the way I saw it: I was 27 years old, single, no family to support, and had a meager savings sufficient enough to provide sustenance at least in the form of ramen noodles and Natty Light for a year or so. If the actuarial folks at big insurance companies have it right, I also have roughly 50 more years of life expectancy (knock on wood) during which I can work long and hard for whatever big corporate brand deems me worthy of employment. So, where was the value in spending 10-12 weeks slogging away for some big company over the summer? The full-time job offer? I thought they had second-year recruiting for that. The learning experience? I thought we had cases for that. Bragging rights? Touché… but I thought those had already come with admission to Darden.

So what should I do? Like the protagonist of any good HBS case, I gratuitously mentioned my elitist business school credentials and “consulted my notes from first-year finance” for the answer. After careful analysis, my cost of capital (in this case, 10-12 weeks of time in July and August) seemed too great for me to justify the investment in a formal internship. 

If you’re still reading (which I realize is highly unlikely after the above reference to DCF-ing my life – no pun intended), you’ll be happy to know that I didn’t simply trade off a summer in corporate America for a summer on the Jersey Shore. Instead, I did what any good entrepreneur would do and took advantage of one of the best kept secrets at Darden: The Batten Incubator. (For anyone interested in entrepreneurship, the Incubator is worth checking out)

In the spirit of full disclosure, I started two small businesses prior to Darden so abandoning the formal recruiting process was perhaps somewhat expected. I did also cave-in to interviewing for one job in the spring. Truth be told, I had a pretty difficult time deciding against taking it. But here’s why I did: As part of his sales pitch, the company’s founder told me what a great experience it would be to work for more experienced entrepreneurs like himself. After all, he reminded me, he had sold his first company – the one he started in his late twenties – for $180 million. I’m not sure he intended it, but that statement actually convinced me not to take the job. Why would I go work for him when I could go take a shot at building my own $180 million business? Game on. 

So I traded the traditional route for a shot at never having a boss and enjoyed an exciting summer. The business that I’m trying to start, a small private equity fund focused on agribusiness investments in southern Africa, allowed me split time between Incubator meetings in Charlottesville and farm visits in Swaziland. Needless to say, however, I still haven’t managed to sell anything for $180 million. 

So, what does that mean? Well, if first-year finance can continue to enlighten us, it’s time to employ a hedging strategy. I’m back on the recruiting train, secretly jealous of classmates with fancy offers, and trying my best to get back into the good graces of the CDC. I’m still hopeful about my business prospects and still wary of corporate America but at the end of the day, Darden does expose us to some pretty great opportunities and writing them all off on principal seems somewhat shortsighted. The good news is, I can sleep at night knowing that I put together a summer that was as educational and enjoyable as it was untraditional. And, if I need to spend a little extra time tweaking bullet points and actions words this fall, so be it.

For more info about the Africa endeavor and my summer in the Incubator feel free to check out this blurb by the significantly more eloquent folks in the Darden communications office.

Joe, apart from being one of the smartest kids at Darden also happens to belong to the most awesome Learning Team here. LT 32. When he's not flying off to Swaziland, or running his tutoring business at Nantucket, he gets kicks out of making excel models without moving his hands off the keyboard.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Cab Driver

Almost all cab drivers that I have met, who are originally not from the US, have a love affair with India. Ali Dani, who took me to the DFW airport today, was no different. Only, he lead an immensely interesting life.

The conversation started with him talking about how he had rented his 6 bedroom house in Dallas to an Indian family who had frequent visitors. It had saved the family a lot of money and he had, in turn, found a reliable and  harmless tenant. He had "retired" a few years ago he said, and drove the cab for 5-6 hours a day. Only so that he had something to keep him occupied. He had taken a year off after retirement to do nothing and had gotten very bored sitting at home. He was so bored that he had taken to cutting the grass in his backyard twice a week! But then he kept a couple of lambs in the backyard which ate all the grass and he was jobless again. I don't know how much of it was true, but it made for an interesting conversation so I didn't interrupt him.

"I go fishing on the White Rock Lake", he says. "I have my spot. I take a tent and my radio and sit there all day long. Sometimes I go to another lake which is far from Dallas. It's an old radio. I also get an Indian channel here. They play Indian songs."

His 28 year old son lives in Boston. Working with an insurance firm. But he wants to become a criminal lawyer. He visits Dallas more often now since his girlfriend is here - Ali says with a smile. His other son is studying at SMU and wants to be a CPA. I ask him where he's from and how long has he been in the US. "Iraq.", he says. "15 years. But I've been in Dallas for only 6. I was in Seattle before that."

My curiosity heightened at this, I asked him what he was doing in Seattle. 
"I was a lawyer for the UN", he says nonchalantly. I'm in half a mind to believe him but for entertainment's sake, I urge him. "Very interesting.", I say. 

"Yes, it was a lot of travel. My body couldn't take it anymore so I retired."

"So, where were you before Seattle."

"I had to travel between New York and Seattle a lot. But I started with the UN in Geneva. Moved to Oslo for a few years. Brussels. Lot of travel, man. This was in the 80s. So they had different currencies. I was so exhausted that I wouldn't know where I was or what currency to use. Ha Ha."

"I've been to India too. Calcutta and Delhi."

"When", I ask.

"1989 and 2002. India is a very nice country. Nice people. Always ready to help. And I love the food. In England too, they love Indian food"

"Yes, I know. Chicken Tikka Masala is their national dish, I've heard"

"Ya, you're right. And the naan. It's so soft and tasty"

The customary Indian food chit chat behind us, he goes on to talk about his experience negotiating with Colombian officials on the Colombia, Venezuela border. And that Australia has fewer women than men so you're lucky to have a girlfriend there! He loves China too and thinks people are very polite there since the shopkeepers give back change with both hands and bow their heads. Also that he had been friends with a Chinese girl over the internet and she had come to receive him at the airport when he had gone there.

By this time, I'm just listening to him speak without asking any questions.

"So would you come back to Dallas", he asks after getting to know about my internship.

"Maybe." I say, realizing that we're at the airport.

"Alright man. Here is the US Airways Departure. Stay healthy and come to Dallas sometime again."

"Thanks. It's been great talking."

Sunday, August 15, 2010

15th August

So it's India's independence day. 64th, as the status updates from Facebook have told me. What does it mean to me. Nothing. Till 2008, it meant a day off (I was already unemployed in Aug 2009). From work or college or school as the case may be. In school there was still something special about it. Going to school, singing the national anthem and getting sweets It felt a little different from other holidays. This year, but for Facebook, I wouldn't have noticed. The only date I care about right now is 21st August. That's when I get back to Charlottesville.

I find the 'India, I love you and miss you', 'Proud to be an Indian', 'It's India's time' themed messages and emails to be hilarious and confusing at the same time. I don't get it. I am as proud to be an Indian as I would have been to be a Chinese or a Kenyan. I don't have any control over that, right. My nationality and my country's past and present. More correctly - I haven't done anything to show my patriotism for my country. Lead a pretty comfortable, safe, normal life and pursued my self interests which will satisfy my materialistic and intellectual needs. Will I ever do something helpful for my country? Do I at all have any intentions to do so. Maybe and Yes. I don't know how or when but I do have this deep seated desire to contribute. No, not give a huge donation to charity when I am a millionaire. Something more lasting. Something which is not as easy as giving money. 

I do realize that I am saying this sitting in the US, pursuing an MBA and planning to get a job which keeps me in this country for a few years. Double standards, right? I agree. And that's the reason I feel a little uneasy on such occasions. It bothers me (not as much as I would want it to, though) that so much of my life is centered just around me and nothing bigger. My dad gave the best years of his life and more to a steel plant. Yes, it gave him back a lot, but he belonged to the generation which saw the birth of the great Indian middle class. He contributed to it. He was part of the 'Nation Building' which Nehru had started. True, circumstances were different and had at times more bearing on his life's choices than intent. At least, that's my hypothesis. So this is not a comparison of character. It's more a stating of the facts.

And this brings me to my original point. I don't like it when people fool themselves by sending out emails and forwards on 15th August. It's almost like a compensation for not doing anything at all for the rest of the year. Of course, there are people who are saving lives in villages, fighting corruption and at the same time indulging in the mass forwards. My apologies to them. But I think that the majority is more or less like me. Actually a little worse, because at least I don't spam! I wish someday we would be able to come out of this. I wish that we would realize that a lot of us would lead very selfish lives and not try to put on a facade for a day to portray otherwise. I hope, however, that most of us get tired of it and end up doing something which has far more impact than a million status updates. That as the fortunate, highly educated, forward thinking 'future' of the country, we are able to change a few things.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

2 Weeks To Go

I'm not a very good finisher. I'm a restless one actually. As a school kid, that was my attitude with exams where after having realized that I had got most of the stuff, trying to perfect it would take a monumental effort. So more often than not, I would just submit my paper rather than waiting for the full duration trying to fine tune my answers or finding silly mistakes. As a software developer, the finishing touches to make the code 'cleaner', removing the small issues here and there, used to irritate me and I almost felt someone else should do it so that I could move on to the next task.

With a couple of weeks to go before my internship ends, I find myself in a similar predicament. Deleting a word here, adding a picture there to my final presentation; timing it and trying to make sure that I don't repeat stuff and sound like I've actually done something over the summer; and tying the loose ends of the last project I am working on - the finishing touch, I have realized once again, is not what I do best. The fact that most of my friends are done with their summer or would be, by this week, and are out traveling and unwinding, makes things a little more harder. 

I'm a little bored too (my evenings are mostly spent streaming sitcoms on Netflix). Also, anxious about a few things which will hit me soon. You know, the life, career kind of stuff. And excited at the thought of new opportunities. So, it's a mixed bag. I want to get back to Charlottesville now, To familiar places and people. Talk to my friends and exchange notes on the summer experience. 

Dallas has been a fruitful experience. It has answered quite a few questions and posed a few more. I can add the function and industry to the 'Can Do' list to go along with the 'Will Not Do' list currently populated with CPG Marketing and Banking. That's progress, right ?

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Have I Met You?

How do you prefer meeting people for the first time? In person? At a common gathering or a one to one setting? Email? Phone? Facebook?
Apart from the last one, I'm pretty comfortable with any of them. Although email followed by an in person meeting is the best combination. But apparently for a lot of people these days, it's Facebook. And although I can see the ease and obvious benefits, I'm still not comfortable with the fact of befriending someone I will most probably get to know in the near future; on Facebook first. I end up accepting the requests as long as I see common friends and know the context. But I'm just curious at the motivation behind doing so. If I really wanted to talk to someone or ask something would I not rather send her an email? Or if discovering the email id is too difficult, a Facebook message? I just find the 'adding people' without any purpose a little perplexing. I mean, why? No, I don't have any privacy concerns. Nothing major anyway. It's ok if you did so to stalk me. (It would be interesting in fact!)
Well, one thing I can think of is that when we do meet, it would save us the formalities of narrating our basic 'About Me' info. Provided, of course, that both you and I took pains to fill that section and were curious enough to go through it when we became friends AND most importantly, remembered it.

As for me, I still prefer to Facebook friend people only when I have known them for sometime. Why ? Because I'm afraid, I would come out as some sort of a creep otherwise.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Perfect Lazy Sunday. Well, Almost

Of late (and by late I mean the last couple of years actually), my attention span has reduced significantly. I keep moving from one task to another without being able to concentrate for more than 30-40 minutes. To some extent it has been accentuated by the B School life, where you are constantly trying to cram in as much as you can within a given time. But that apart, the two main evidences that it's more than just a passing phase is the fact that I had all but stopped reading and watching movies. Don't get me wrong here. I still go out with my friends to watch Avatar and Iron Man II. But whereas earlier, in my spare time I wanted to update my 'movies seen from the IMDB Top 250' list; nowadays even 90 minutes seems too long a time to sit still and do one task. And I cannot watch a movie in bursts. And reading. I guess this was more because of an actual lack to time. I would manage to read for a couple of hours in a week and by the 4th week, would lose the thread and abandon the book.

I also have a tendency to get bored of the setting of the house/room I live in. So when I woke up today; instead of sitting at home and aimlessly trying to move between watching a movie, reading a novel, calling friends or killing time on the internet (yes, my Sundays are really that happening) - I took my novel and went out to have breakfast. I got my bagel with sausage and eggs and a coffee and found myself a corner. And for almost three hours, amidst murmurs of people coming-ordering-talking amongst themselves, the soothing sound of some jazzy music playing in the background, and a few coffee refills - I read. 
I came home at noon to do some work and went back at 2:00. Ordered a sandwich and iced tea, found the same place and spent another three hours.

The book resonated with a few of the things I have been thinking about (and talking to my friends) of late. What kind of life do I want. What makes me happy. What matters. Choices. It's a little unsettling to say the least, that in less than a year, school will be over and the 'real world' will come back again. Decisions would have to be made regarding everything. And this time around, most of them would be long term. You know, the really important ones. So far, all the phases in my life came with an expiry tag. Even with the job I had before, I knew I would eventually get an MBA (it's cool to say it now that I am actually doing it!). I have a feeling, the next phase doesn't necessarily have one. Not a clear defined one anyway. And no, I'm not saying I'll have the same life for the rest of my life or will do the same job or live in the same place. But I think you get the point.

Which also means that in the 10 months or so that I do have, I should make sure I visit the places and people I want to, soak in as much as I can so that there are very few (if not none) 'Ah, should have done that' experiences, and to use the cliche, make the most of it. With some effort and luck, hopefully the rest will fall in place.
"We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come."