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Thursday, April 21, 2011

If you want to do well by doing good...

...then take a leaf out of Vikram Akula's book.

Akula, whose parents emigrated to the US in 1970 when he was two years old, worked in remote Indian villages as an idealistic graduate student before going on in 1998 to found SKS Microfinance, which provides small loans and other financial services to poor people in India. He tells his fascinating and inspirational story in A Fistful of Rice, published earlier this year.

REINVENTING THE WHEEL: Vikram Akula decided to go the for-profit way with SKS.

A Fistful of Rice is fascinating because in compelling language it introduces the lay reader to a subject that most would not have much interest in: development work. And it is inspirational because Akula shows how well-meaning and driven people can transform for the better the lives of those less fortunate than they are.

Akula says he knew as a teenager, after having made several visits to Hyderabad, his hometown, that this is what he wanted to do. He writes in A Fistful of Rice:

When I enrolled at Tufts University at seventeen, I began thinking in earnest about how to help India's poor. I devoured the works of the great philosophers, searching for clues on how to live my life and make a difference in the lives of others.

And after he graduated, Akula says, he was excited to get out into the world and test his theories. He writes:

At long last, it was time to go to India and start working with the poor! The only problem was, I had no idea what I might do there, or who would hire a fresh-faced college graduate like me. And in those pre-Internet days, these questions were far more difficult to answer.

But Akula did not let this "problem" deter him. His approach and the exercise he then embarked on will serve as an eyeopener and encouragement for many young people who get disappointed when they don't immediately get what they want and who often give up at the first hurdle:

I went to the women's center on campus, knowing that groups working specifically with women were more progressive. I began flipping through magazines in hopes of finding a nonprofit located in drought-prone Telangana, the impoverished region of my birth. Because I spoke rudimentary Telugu and had family there, I figured that would be the best place to start. Unfortunately, there weren't as many options there as in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, or Kolkata, but eventually I tracked down the contact information for a few nonprofits. I sent off a raft of letters and waited.

Only one organization, the Deccan Development Society [DDS], responded. And even their letter was decidedly lukewarm. The director, a man named Biksham Gujja, basically said, "Okay, if you come here we'll meet with you, but we're not promising anything."

But this was good enough for Akula:

Relieved to have gotten a reply, and determined to convince Biksham to hire me, I bought a one-way plane ticket to Hyderabad and packed a single gym bag with clothes. I wanted to travel like Mahatma Gandhi — no unnecessary attachments, no excess of material goods.

And so Akula comes to India, begins working with the poor as a volunteer, is hired by DDS, learns what it means to work in development, and finally, after a two-week training session in Bangladesh with Grameen, founded by the pioneer of microfinance, Muhammad Yunus, starts his own organisation, SKS, for Swayam Krishi Sangam, "a Sanskrit phrase meaning 'self-work society', or more loosely, 'self-help-society'."

In later chapters, Akula, who was named by Time magazine in 2006 as one of the world's 100 most influential people, describes in moving detail the challenges he and his inexperienced team face. Today SKS, which unlike most NGOs is a for-profit organisation (read the book to understand the reasons for this), has moved beyond giving microloans. "We're also able to offer our members social, educational, and health benefits," writes Akula.

Vikram Akula's tale proves that initiative, enterprise, and enthusiasm aligned with a desire to help underprivileged people can help to combat poverty. It also proves that you can do well by doing good.
  • A copy of A Fistful of Rice has been placed in the Commits library. Commits students will find it useful to read the book before they go off on their NGO internships it will help them to better understand the situation on the ground.
  • Shloka Nath of Forbes India profiled Vikram Akula in the magazine in January last year. Read the profile here: "The TightRope Walker".

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