What if he’s conning me?

“What if this story this guy is telling me isn’t true? What if he, 70 years old, scraggly hair, sitting in a wheelchair, knee brace on his left leg, with a couple of bags and a book on his lap, didn’t really lose his place in Hurricane Sandy? What if that’s not what pushed him over the edge and shoved him back into a life of homeless shelters and benefits checks that don’t go far enough?”

Sure, that goes through my head.

But as I stand there listening I cannot help but stand face-to-face with my own good fortune, all the challenges I don’t face every day, all the barriers that aren’t in my way.

So, instead, I endeavor to think, “maybe this is a chance to help. Maybe a little bit will make a difference. Maybe experiencing the indignity of asking for money on the subway is something that this articulate guy shouldn’t have to go through.”

Maybe the chance to help even a little is a chance worth taking.

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What they say, what they mean

“I’m not saying that…” = “I AM saying that…”

“By the way…” = “The most important thing to me is…”

“I’ll be brief…” = “You’d better make yourself comfortable.”

“Oh, one last thing…” = “Listen up.”

“I’d like this presentation to be a real dialogue…” = “Shut up and listen…”

Posted in listening | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Fazle Abed and Thulsi Ravilla – Learning at the Feet of the Masters

The other night I had the chance to witness a remarkable conversation between two of the true pillars of our space: Dr. Fazle Abed and Thulsi Ravilla.

Dr. Fazle Abed is the founder of BRAC, a Bangladeshi organization that began with a focus on microfinance and has expanded organically in a massive way, now employing 130,000 people with a budget of more than $700 million. In addition to being one of the world’s largest microfinance organizations serving tens of millions, BRAC has provides livelihoods, maternal care, and nutrition, including now growing and providing 80% of the improved rice seed and 30% of the improved maize seed in Bangladesh.

Thulsi Ravilla is the President of Aravind Eye Hospital, the first truly scaled social enterprise outside of the microfinance space. Aravind has performed more than three million eye surgeries, two-thirds of which are to patients who do not pay. Its doctors perform 2,000 eye surgeries a year compared to 120 in the United States. They are the world’s largest manufacturer of intraocular lenses, selling these lenses for $3 versus the $200 they used to pay to buy them. And 15% of all ophthalmologists in India have been trained by Aravind.

Abed and Thulsi were being interviewed by Acumen’s founder and CEO (and my boss) Jacqueline Novogratz, as part of Acumen’s annual Advisory meeting – Abed serves on our Advisory Council and Thulsi on our Board of Directors.

I didn’t have a notebook for the conversation, so will share impressions of what really stuck in my mind and not the blow-by-blow:

  • This has been a life’s work for both of these men. They have each been at it for 40+ years in Abed’s case and 30+ years in Thulsi’s case. While it’s possible that the new funding mechanisms we have created around impact investing could accelerate this path today, it’s also completely clear that this is what a life’s work looks like, and there’s no way we will create massive, lasting and sustainable change in 5 or 7 years time, no matter how we finance it. This is about building enduring institutions.
  • Both share a relentless focus on poor customers. These men, and their organizations, know deeply and inviolably who they are serving. Poor customers (most of whom are women in BRAC’s case). That customer is known and fixed, and they have built the culture and logic of their organizations in answer to the question: what will it take to serve this customer in the most efficient, most dignified, most impactful way possible? And how can we build a sustainable organization so we can be here for decades to serve that customer?
  • A notion of service. Abed had been working at Shell and had been part of the Bangladeshi independence movement (in its separation from Pakistan) when he founded BRAC. To fund it, he liquidated all of his assets including selling his home. When asked in the conversation if this was hard to do he said, simply, “After you have been a freedom fighter, after you have witnessed life and death, these sorts of questions become less important. I had a home which I sold. I thought, ‘What is this change that will happen if I live in another home? It is still a home with four walls.’ The sacrifices I had to make were not that big.”
  • Building culture globally. Whenever talk came to culture, both men became especially focused and clear, as if they were about to utter their most serious and important truths, the wisdom that comes after decades of work. “The systems are easy to build and to transfer, and they do build efficiency,” said Thulsi. “But the culture is what makes the system work. It is the interaction of the culture and the systems that make our work possible.” Thulsi said that 90% of Aravind’s hiring is about culture and fit, literally asking questions like how much the bus fare was to the interview to get underneath what kind of person the interviewee is. If you’re hiring someone to do a job for a few years, perhaps the yield on short-term skills is higher, but to hear Thulsi describe it, it’s all about the culture. Some of the most interesting conversation was about how you build culture at scale, and while I didn’t leave the discussion with a clear “how to guide”, I was left with a renewed sense of clarity that for any scaled organization, culture is the most important thing to get right and that it requires constant investment and renewal.   This in addition to building the systems and other institutional underpinnings that allow for efficiency.
  • With time, persistence and endurance, anything is possible. Both of these organizations have moved into adjacencies that are far from obvious at the outset: Aravind as a major supplier of intraocular lenses – because they were a big expense line they wanted to address – and BRAC a huge supplier of seeds – because, in Abed’s telling, he discovered a group of 300,000 women whose repayment rates were relatively low, and rather than change policies or squeeze them he went to investigate and discovered that they were using low-quality vegetable seeds whose yields were low. So BRAC started manufacturing its own seed. While I am sure both organizations tried lots of new things that didn’t work out, it’s also clear that when these organizations got their core right they were strong enough to take on new business lines that, at first glance, would seem to be far afield.
  • Need versus demand. The recent Monitor/Delloitt follow-up report to Blueprint to Scale talks about “push” versus “pull” products, a point that Thulsi made using different words. “Need” in his definition is clinically defined – reduced or no sight – but even though Aravind offered free surgeries, many people with need would not show up. What they learned was that if they could go to the village – using telemedicine (which an Acumen grant 12 years ago helped facilitate) and other technology – they would, within 24 months, have treated 100% of their target market and 90% of those would follow through on recommendations from Aravind (to get glasses, to have surgery with Aravind, or go to a specialist hospital).
  • Scale. When asked about the importance of scale both men found the question almost trivial – the need is big, the solutions have to be big, we have no choice in the matter.
  • Urgency. When asked about whether he would have liked to have gone faster, Abed said “absolutely.” “A child,” he said, “can get stunted from malnutrition as early as age 6, at which point that child has reduced prospects for life.” Abed said he is always in a rush because the clock is ticking for that boy and for everyone like him, so we must always move with a real sense of urgency.

These are just the big pieces that stuck with me from a conversation that could have gone on for many more hours with everyone on the edge of their seats.   We were sitting at the feet of the masters, getting pearl after pearl of wisdom, hard-earned in a life’s work.

Just as the conversation was wrapping up, Abed jumped in to close. He told the story of Mahatma Ghandi, who interrupted a conversation by saying, “Excuse me, I have to go. My people are going over there and I have to follow them, for I am their leader.”

Indeed, what picture of leadership could be more powerful, or more relevant for today, than this?

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Heartbleed security vulnerability

I hadn’t been paying much attention to the Heartbleed vulnerability, but a colleague talked me through it and I thought I’d share what I learned.

By way of background, Mashable calls the Heartbleed bug “one of the biggest security threats the Internet has ever seen.”

From what I understand, passwords may have been compromised for many of the Internet’s most popular services, including Facebook, Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Dropbox, etc. (full lists from Mashable and CNET).

Even though all of these site have now addressed the vulnerability, there is no way to know whether passwords have been stolen and, if they have, when your account might be hijacked.

So, to be safe:

  1. I changed my passwords on all of those services
  2. I enabled two-step verification wherever I could. All this means is that if I want to log in to my Gmail or Dropbox or whatever else from a new device, I will have to enter a code that will be sent by text to my phone.

Other hints, since finding where to change your passwords is a hassle:

  • For Google, click on the top-right (on your picture) and then click on Accounts and then Security
  • For Yahoo!, click on the gear in the top right and then on “Change Your Password” under “Sign in and Security”
  • For Facebook click on the little arrow next to the padlock on the top right, and then on Settings.
  • For Dropbox click on your name and then Settings and then Security

It’s worth the 5 minutes it takes to do this.  And since you probably have the day off today, you have the time to do it.

Posted in Heartbleed | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

The ties that bind us

I’m OK with grumpy and tough, with funny and jolly.

I’m OK with hard-edged and soft, warm and cool, clever and obtuse, quick and slow, brassy and classy. You can laugh or cry – or not – that’s all fine with me.

But kindness is something I can’t budge on.  We’ve all seen that someone who is nice in all the right ways to all the right people, and then her true colors come out when she thinks no one’s looking and she has nothing to lose.

A person who is consistently kind is a person with humility.  In being kind, no matter what, she chooses not to create separation by tearing others down.  Her kindness demonstrates respect.  It shows that she knows that she shares her humanity with everyone she interacts with.  It even shows confidence: by extending a hand to another, in ways big and small, whenever she can, she shows that she knows that raising others up doesn’t cost anything, doesn’t use up any scarce resource.

Kindness is abundance manifest.

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Death by a thousand (or 5) screens

At one of the entrances to Grand Central station, the MTA has erected a new screen with track times for upcoming trains. It’s great – brightly lit, easy to read from far away, it saves people from rushing and crowding around the miniscule 11 inch screen down the hall that must have been set up 30 years ago.

MTA 1_small

 

Oh, just one tiny problem. The screen also shows service updates for the subway, including for lines that are a 10 minute walk away.  Fine.

And it shows ads for Game of Thrones, presumably to pay the bills.

MTA 2_smallPlus, while they were at it, they threw in two public service announcements.

MTA 3 and 4

It’s easy to chuckle at this sort of thing, but only because it’s an extreme example of what happens every day – watering down the purpose of what we’re doing until it is unrecognizable and virtually useless.

In this case, the need the MTA is trying to meet is to to provide information to a person walking by a sign – she has 5 seconds to take in information.  What they ended up with is a sign that only displays the information she wants 20% of the time, and it takes 60 seconds to scroll through the five screens.

Sure, it might be harder for you to define the need you’re trying to meet (what could be simpler than getting a commuter her track information quickly?).  But how often do we refuse to hang on tight to the most important thing we are doing, letting a thousand well-wishers, plus a few folks with a totally different agenda, hijack our project and our message until it completely fails to deliver on its core promise?

Decide who you’re trying to please, where they will encounter your message, and what your non-negotiables are. And then have the courage and the conviction not to negotiate, and not to ask for input or approvals, on things that are non-negotiable.

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Maybe the dragon isn’t the problem

I just walked past a smiling blind woman – blond, straight hair, in her 30s and dressed for spring – walking down a crowded 5th Avenue street in rush hour. She and her golden lab guide dog were perfectly synchronized, and she was the picture of calm, serene confidence amidst the crush of people and traffic.

I wonder what it took for her to be able to do this – not just learning to walk with, communicate with, and trust her dog, but the courage and determination she’s showed at countless junctures in her life to get where she is today.

The thing about accomplishing great things is that it requires consistently making the decision to be brave, to show up, to overcome your own doubts and fears and the voices in your head. That fear is the dragon you have to slay each and every day.

The tricky part is that the dragon has allies. It needs them, because it knows that when you step into the arena, ready for pitched battle, it’s not hard for you to rev up your adrenaline, strap on your shield, and wield your sword for the big fight. The dragon fears that.

What is hard, though, is getting out of bed every morning to prepare for the fight. Here’s where the dragon’s secret allies come out: smiling cherubs with pointy horns hidden in their hair, cajoling you, teasing you, luring you into a stupor. “Do you really want to fight today?” “Think how dirty you’ll get, how tiring it will be.” “Things are fine the way they are now.” “Is it really worth it to put yourself out there?” “Stop rocking the boat.”

You ignore them, most days, but their chorus is seductive. If you let them, over time – months, even years – they douse the fire in your belly.

We can’t let that happen.

For those of you showing up in the arena every day, I offer you the choice to plug your ears to their Siren song.

And for those of you not yet showing up to fight, I implore you, at the least, to silence the peanut gallery commentary that saps others’ bravery and courage. If today isn’t your day to step into the arena, the amazing, powerful thing you can do is to seek out others’ moments of bravery, of insight, of courage, of grit and determination and moxie, and celebrate them.

If you see a flickering flame, protect it from the wind, add kindling to the fire until, eventually, it roars.

Because none of us actually believes that what we need in the world is less courage (or more pointy-headed cherubs).

Posted in Courage | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments