Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A Breed Apart - A Story of 2 XLers

Why Some Execs Are A Breed Apart
Kunal Guha
(Economic Times, Tuesday, December 26, 2006)

When one starts off in the corporate world, they’re well aware of the ‘why’ and so the ‘how to’ follows. But after a couple of years, and hours of labour many lose sight of the ’why’. It all seems pointless and does not commiserate to the effort exerted. Even at this point, most people choose to sit back and suffer, while satiating themselves with the minor perks that their corporate life offers.

They lament, grieve and hypothesise about the sorry state of the world. But it is only a select few who take up a cause that infuses a new dimension of meaning to their lives. They do this knowing that their endeavours might not always bear fruit. But when you find a cause which could light up your soul and fill you with a feeling of vitality every single day- it goes beyond all rewards. We profile two such brilliant personas who have dedicated their lives for a greater cause- to serve humanity and fulfil themselves in the process.

The wind beneath her wings

After passing out of XLRI in 1988, Gargi Banerji did what most would do: she chased corporate success at Tata Consultancy Services. A couple of years down, she went on to do something which could again be safely called as a logical next step by moving out on her own and setting up a consulting firm- Prometheus with another XL-er and TCS colleague Sunil Pillai. Life was routine up until her participation in a path-changing expedition that took her across the length of the Indian Himalayas in 1990.

Having spent her childhood in the Himalayas, the call of the Himalayas had always been there, and this adventure ride catalyzed her to undertake work to address the growing degradation of the region in a more active manner. She began by trying to draw the attention of several NGO’s towards this neglected land.

But since most did not venture into the remote villages and high altitude areas, she decided to take things on her own hands and co-founded Pragya with Pillai in 1995, and has since then dedicated her career to addressing the issues of the Indian Himalayas and improving the lives of its indigenous communities. Pragya has been very successful in developing innovative solutions to problems such as depletion of medicinal plants, reducing water resources, lack of livelihood options. A recent Pragya initiative is addressing the problem of electricity in high altitude villages.

Banerji explains, “Normally, electricity is generated at a central point and then distributed. But many of the remote Himalayan villages can’t be reached this manner, and even those that are electrified, suffer power breakdowns lasting even upto 2-3 months. We have developed a mode of decentralised energy generation using renewable sources for local usage and have installed a solar wind hybrid system- a windmill and a series of solar panels – to light up a remote village at an altitude of 14000 feet. Being a modular system, it can help in electrification of all remote, unserviced villages.”

Why are you doing this?

One of the basic reasons one works is to impact the world with one’s work. In the corporate environment, you can at the most impact a few thousand people in the particular organisation and among its customer base. But in working for a social cause, you are able to impact an entire community and that is what has kept us enthused.

What have you gained?

There is tremendous learning and opportunity to be creative in this kind of work. In the corporate sector, the context is structured and solutions are standardised. But generating electricity for remote Himalayan villages is a wide canvas with not a line - a delight for one’s creative self! Besides, the satisfaction of bringing electricity to a farmer’s hut or for that matter, introducing a new cash crop to an entire valley, has to be felt, to be understood.

Teaching values to Generation Y

Ashraf Patel, another XLite from the batch of 1990, has a similar story. She was working with Escorts Finance, when the 1993 Mumbai riots took place. She was deeply affected by the state of affairs post-riots. Patel explains, “After the 1993 Bombay riots, I was disturbed by the polarisation of society which was affecting us very deeply. Communalism was moving to violence based on hatred that we had for each other and I just wanted to do something about it. So, it all started of with a desire to make people question violence and the repercussions of it and see the connection between self and society.”

Patel quit her job to launch Pravah, a New Delhi-based organisation that facilitates high school and college students to confront conditioned values and stereotypes, expands their awareness of social issues and gives them the leadership skills needed to tackle pressing social problems.

Why are doing this?

We are doing this because we have a vision of a society that we want to live in and the kind of society we live in today needs serious changes. Everyone has a role to play in it being a part of the larger community. If everybody says that someone else will do it then it will never be done. Non-violence, social justice and equity of opportunity are three values that I would want my society to imbibe. I have also been inspired by my volunteering days in school and college where I was actively concerned about social issues.

What have you gained?

There is a lot of learning about social issues and you are able to make an impact. What counts for us most is ,when for instance, young people take up a campaign as a result of our exchange with them. The idea is to create a sense of purpose and direction and a sense of community, and belonging to the larger world. Your message to management grads:

While you are studying management, you should keep your minds and eyes open and be aware of social issues around you. Securing a job should not be the only objective, we should all engage in social action. For me the solution would be that everyone, in which ever field they would be in, should be involved in social issues.

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