Cox Leadership May2011

In May 2011 five groups of students traveled to Europe (Frankfurt, Bratislava and London), Asia (Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai), Southeast Asia (Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Shanghai), India (Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai) and Latin America (Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo) with the Global Leadership Program at the Cox School of Business.

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Changing views, changing lives

An update from Elizabeth, MBA and Master of Arts Management ’12, who traveled to India with the Cox Global Leadership Program:

Sugandha Sukrutaraj of Amba CEEIC Today was an incredibly unique company visit: unlike any we’ve had, and any we’re likely to have. Officially the “visit” was with Seva Yatra, an organization that connects willing volunteers who have resources (time, money, specific knowledge) with NGOs (non-governmental organizations, the equivalent of nonprofits) in India. But the best way to see the work Seva Yatra does, is to participate in it.

We went outside of Bangalore to Amba CEEIC – the Center for Economic Empowerment of the Intellectually Challenged. Sugandha Sukrutaraj (at left in this photo), the founder, met us at a small building and gave us an introduction to what her organization does. They provide training, and then jobs, for the intellectually challenged in India. Realizing that those with low IQs, learning disabilities, and mental retardation face incredible challenges in India, Sugandha created a way to train them in data entry, by taking advantage of their visual learning style. While reasoning is often difficult, recognizing a symbol, a letter or number, on a page, and then on the screen, is not nearly as hard. “Youngsters,” as she calls them, arrive at the center and go through 6 months of training, during which playing cards, slips of papers with names, white boards, and various other visual tools are used to begin to create relationships between what’s on the paper and what goes on the computer. Except for using keyboards to “find E,” “find Enter,” the trainees use no electronics.

After 6 months, they move inside to the one big room in the building, filled with chairs, tables, and computers. They do not do any contract work yet, but practice by working with Paint (to help learn to manipulate the mouse) and re-typing children’s stories into Word. A few weeks later, they are put on a contract and are fully employed.

Amba meets all requirements of a mainstream BPO (business processing outsourcer), and gets no special allowances for its unique employees – they are hired, given a deadline, and they meet it. At one company, after a change in staff, the new HR director did not realize that Amba was not “mainstream.” In India the intellectually challenged have a tough road: They cannot undergo formal schooling, they are unable to bring income into the house if they cannot work, and they are often marginalized. There are stories of families who, unable or unwilling to find care for a family member, chain them up while the rest go out to work. Sugandha once found a young man in a factory, folding fabric from 8 a.m. – 9 p.m. every day, being beaten if he took a break. Now, he is happily doing data entry and is contributing to his family’s economic needs. Amba does more than put the unemployable to work, it lifts their spirits and is slowly helping to change the view of the intellectually challenged.

Amba CEEIC training sessionFor our visit, we heard from Sugandha, and then the employees came out and made a presentation, reading from a script and telling us from their own perspective what Amba does and how it helps them become productive members of society. We then walked around the room a bit, watching both training taking place on the front porch (photo at left), and work taking place inside. We couldn’t be too distracting as the group had a deadline approaching. This session was a bit tough for some of us; we felt a bit strange peering over their shoulders, though, of course, it’s the same as we did at the Essilor lab. Next we had lunch with everyone, and finally, we did a group activity with the afternoon shift of trainees. We all partnered up and worked on Paint to create a picture, then talked to the group about what we drew. Amba often prints these paintings out and turns them into greeting cards as a source of revenue. The organization takes no cut of the employees’ pay, and so this helps offset operating costs. We all received a greeting card from a batch that had been leftover. My partner Dhanush and I drew a flower and colored in all the petals, and then did mountains with a lake and a fish below. I didn’t get time to take a picture of it!

At the end of the afternoon, we took a big group photo and then hopped back on our bus. It was so different from our previous visits, and I know will stick out in my mind as another exceptional experience I could never have had without this trip! The biggest thing Amba needs right now is help creating a solid infrastructure and a strategic plan, in order to scale the organization larger. There are about 30 centers in India now, helping about 200,000 intellectually challenged, but Sugandha’s vision goes much greater. Check them out at www.ambaceeic.org.

We had the afternoon free, so our bus tried to take us to a temple, but it was closed. So we dropped some folks off at Commercial Street for some shopping – pashminas, shoes, and tailored pants were purchased – while the rest of us went back to the hotel to rest. And that night, we went to Opus, the coolest bar/lounge in Bangalore!

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