I went to India and all I got was this lousy epiphany

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I’ve been in India for a bit with the wonderful people from Leaders’ Quest. The idea is that a group of people – generally at the top of their respective fields - go and share an experience that is in some ways deeply discomforting but in others life affirming and energizing. If you’re interested in understanding more about the interconnectedness of the world, and more about yourself, then I’d heartily recommend it. You will see the world through different eyes.

It is however not for the faint of heart. We started off in the deceptive comfort of the Four Seasons in Mumbai, met some astonishing and successful businesses who really are delivering deep societal impact beyond self interest, yet before long were in the tribal villages where poverty and bonded labour have been a reality for generations. It is an astonishing and humbling experience to get up close and personal with – for example - a centre for seriously domestically abused women in the slum in Hyderabad; or the the rag picker community  of Mumbai; or a brilliant school for girls who have suffered abuse; or a centre that helps prepare some of India’s 70 million disabled to work. The work that Meera Shenoy and her team do in the Centre for Persons with Disability Livelihoods in Hyderabad is inspiring.

And she does something very striking – she goes to potential employers, works out what they need in terms of employee skills, then constructs her curriculum to fit their needs. She doesn’t impose a system, she works out the need and engineers backwards. I saw this again and again – Tata made a car, the Nano, to meet a price that would allow rural people to buy it. They engineered the car to the price. Similarly a chain of Ayurvedic hospitals has been constructed specifically to meet the needs of the urban slum dwelling poor. Or there’s the example of the water purifier engineered to 999 rupees in order to meet an unmet need. All huge successes – all creating a market for a need that hadn’t been met before.

In India there is no conflict between good business and societal impact. There’s not even a debate about it. Business and state work hand in hand to address societal issues – not as a side activity (CSR) but as a fundamental way of operating.

We’ll build the cars, you build the roads.

Brands that shape the way we live really are fundamentally collaborative – and seek to partner with any player who shares their ambition. Furthermore they don’t impose their model onto the market – they go out, understand the need, and engineer backwards. Societal impact is central to the way they operate – these are brands that are beyond self interest rather than commercial entities with a philanthropic arm. The questions they ask themselves are not “how do we make the most return” but (as Acumen fund does with Ayurvaid) “how do we price and structure to reach the greatest number of people?”

It is a very different, non Western, way of thinking. And it made me think just how often I, we, are guilty of foisting our assumptions on the rest of the world. Whether in business or personally or otherwise.