Things which make us unique despite our diversity

Over the years, I have spent a fair amount of time in different parts of our country – for education, then work and ofcourse leisure travel. One such travel a few months ago, brought up some thoughts which I decided to pen down here.

It wouldn’t be wrong to say India is country of many nations. Even within each of our states, there is so much diversity that when we meet each other we will think of how “we” are different or what sets “us” apart from “them”. “Them” could be people living across the street (since ages), from a neighbouring city/state or someone from the opposite side of our Country.

There is no denying the magnitude of social and cultural differences in India. We like to identify ourselves in many ways. Tamils, Mallus, Punjabis, Jats, Marathas, Khasis, Dogras and so on. Then we have religious identities and of course the caste and the sub castes dynamics.

There is diversity and we revel in it. It doesn’t matter which region of the country we come from, or which caste, community or religion we affirm to, we have things in common which continue to unite us. Bollywood for one, cricket matches, disdain for our politicians, love for our country which especially peaks during Independence and Republic Days or when faced with military aggression, and so on.

However today on this Republic Day, I would like to highlight some nuances, which we tend to overlook, cause they are not bragworthy.  Yet these are common traits we have as Indians, notwithstanding the north-south, east-west divide. 

We love breaking the traffic rules: Not sure about the several archaic traditions or customs that we still follow doggedly, but traffic rules are something we love to break. As far as this aspect goes, there is no difference above or below the Vindhyas. Pune, Chennai, Shillong or Delhi, we are like that only. Then, what about CCTV cameras, challans, fines, etc ? Well those are for the faint hearted. Not for the most of us. And the famous trick with a Gandhi note works with most of the traffic cops in all parts of the country. 

We love our potholes: People who allege that our governments are elitist and pro-urban, I’d say you are wrong. Look at the state of our roads. Whether its a city or a town, it’s bad everywhere. In fact, bigger the city, bigger the potholes on the roads!

Piles of garbage on our streets is a way of life for us: Except for a few high streets, like roads around the Raj Bhavan and the Vidhan Sabhas and the like, most streets are littered with garbage. After all, we like to keep our street animals well fed, even if it is plastic or spoilt food. And we are now so used to garbage, just like advertisements, that garbage is no longer visible to our naked eyes.  

We don’t mind urinating in public: Whether it is a bus stopping at a wayside dhaba or a wall on a corner of a busy street. The stench of urine is all pervasive. We like our share of ammonia. The only difference maybe is that at some places men take off their pyjamas and the other they pull up their lungis

Shabby Government offices: A visit to a government office anywhere in the country and one can find walls and corridors smattered with paan stains, tables piled high with files, damp rooms with little or no ventilation.

However, somehow magically there is one room in the whole office, which is always spick and span. You guessed it right, that is the room of the officer in charge. By the way, it also has a clean toilet, a soap, cleaner and for some reasons, there is always a white towel on the officer’s chair. 

Officials demanding ‘their cut’ haq se: Any department you go, any part of the country there will be someone demanding a couple of notes to get the work done faster. It could be worse in some parts of the country, but unfortunately, this is something that unites us all. It is here our boundaries fade, we are no longer Bangla, Bihari or Telgu. 

We like taking selfies with wires dangling behind us: The jumble of tangled, messy electrical wires and cables hanging from electrical poles is common sight whether you live in an urban sprawl or a small town. Whether you are in Ludhiana or in Bangalore. And somehow we make sure there is a wire dangling on the spots, where one can admire or take pictures of  the beautiful valleys or beachfronts which abound in India . 

Cheating in exams: My friends across different states can vouch for examination centres, especially in border areas of the state, where students get to cheat. Somehow the invigilators on duty don’t seem to be aware of such things ever. The kind of social service we do is immense, after all, a kid barely able to pass in school can actually become a good doctor or engineer in the future. 

We are all civil engineers: Well all Indians, at least once in a lifetime, do become civil engineers, architects, structural engineers and sometimes even Masons. We fancy designing and building our own homes, our own way. We don’t care whether we have planned roads, utility ducts or garbage disposal systems. All those amenities come as an afterthought. 

We are a country of adventure-seeking backpackers:  Yes, you heard me right, we are a country seeking adventure. Every day, we see people, mounting their motorbikes, with a backpack, without helmets, of course, seeking a daily dose of the adrenaline rush of going to and coming back from the office.  And then if this was not enough, we like to cling to the buses and trains on the sides or on the rooftops. And this happens regardless of where we live in this country. 

Well, there are many more which can be enumerated here. However, I am hopeful, a day will soon come when these things will not be a common recurrence in our country. Till then let us continue to enjoy the unfettered freedom, which has been bestowed upon us. 

Wishing you the best for what the Republic of India can offer in its 71st year of existence. May we contribute our bit in stenghthening our country and continue to celebrate our unity in diversity. 

5 good habits I picked up in Oklahoma

5 good habits I picked up in Oklahoma 5

In October 2017, I had the chance to visit Oklahoma in the United States as part of a Professional Fellows Program (PFP). PFP is a two-way, global thought exchange program aimed at building sustainable relationships between mid-level emerging leaders from foreign countries and the United States.

During the program, I got the opportunity to live and work with entrepreneurs from 4 countries, Bangladesh, Myanmar, India and our hosts, US. The weeks spent in America is when I experienced first hand the American way of doing things, right from their work environment to local culture and everyday life. It was also instrumental in breaking my preconceived notions about Americans, gained from American sitcoms and movies, and friends and relatives who have had the chance to visit or work in America.

Now, Oklahoma is not the America that most Indians are familiar with. It’s quite different from the well known places on the West Coast such as Florida and California – the tech hub, also from cities in the East Coast like New York and Boston. Oklahoma is the heart of America and is known for its highly conservative society. A lot of people even told me, I may not like this America at all!

But when I look back, it was a wonderful and enriching five weeks spent among Oklahomans. I couldn’t have had the exciting experiences that I was presented with if not for the people of Oklahoma. I found them to be very open, as a matter of fact and very forthcoming. Not only did they welcome me at their offices, but also for lunches, coffee and office get-togethers. Professionals weren’t queasy about sharing their business strategies and the work environment was very collaborative.

I picked up quite a few good habits during my stay and thought I’d share them with you.

  • Begin the day early

I was quite surprised to see that the day begins quite early for most Oklahomans. Never an early riser myself, I was convinced I am not a morning person and that’s how I will be for the rest of my life. But in the weeks spent in the US, I realised waking just a couple of hours early actually gives a great head start to the day.  And more work gets done throughout the day, and a significant portion before noon!

Now, I am up before 6.00 – 6.30am every day, and it has worked great for me. It’s almost as if I have more time than others and the results are pretty impressive. I am much more organised and calmer as well!

  • Be more physically active

I was well aware of the fact that Americans (and Europeans, and most probably everyone else in the world) are more physically active than Indians. The Olympics medal tally is proof enough. But somehow, I had not expected even business professionals to be so physically fit.

In India, the fitness craze is definitely catching on. But, it’s not just about gymming or having a regular exercise schedule, overall people in America seem to be physically more active. They walk more, play a sport and seem to have more energy.

Doctors now are saying; sitting is the new cancer. It’s a good idea to not spend too much sitting at your desk and rather be up on your feet more often. I now also make it a point to never miss that morning run. It also helps that Dharamshala has scenic walking trails.

I sometimes wonder, why did I not do this before?

  • Get more involved with local community

Like all southern states of US, Oklahoma is proudly Republican with a prominent Christian population. The town revolves around the church, and is a closely knit community. It was interesting to see that locals are very passionate about community issues (and politics) and involved in various volunteering activities.

This is something I have felt quite strongly that we all must be involved in our local community. I now consciously try to play an active role in community partnership initiatives and volunteer for initiatives that focus on specific problems or activities. It has helped me become more socially aware and  made me more optimistic.

  • Work to live, not live to work

I consider myself to be a very laid back person. After meeting some really chilled out Oklahomans, I am not so sure now. People take work-life balance very seriously; weekends are sacrosanct for families and parents focus on spending quality time with their children.

This probably has been the most important takeaway for me. Achievement in professional life shouldn’t be the only source of satisfaction in life. It’s necessary to have interests, hobbies. I am trying to learn guitar and swimming. Focusing a lot on self-learning, reading and watching a lot of video tutorials.  

  • Adopting online tech tools for project management

As per my area of expertise I was matched with two digital marketing firms – Mcmahon Marketing and Benali Marketing – so that I could understand how these firms operate. Both were firms with small teams but handled huge amounts of business.

Mcmahon Marketing with only around 7 professionals were handling digital marketing accounts of 30 firms, at a time, smoothly and without major hiccups. All employees knew what they were supposed to do and when. Quarterly, monthly and weekly plans were followed to a T. Looking at them, it seemed as though managing a business is so easy.

And the only thing they did differently was use project management tools like Asana to plan and structure their day-to-day operations. The way the teams used a tech tool and to such effect left me astounded.

Since the past one year I have been trying to put in place similar systems at my company, with varying degrees of success. We are still not there, but I am hopeful we will soon get there. Maybe this year!

But one thing that still intrigues me is: In spite of embracing technology in such a big way, most people there still use visiting cards. Maybe it’s a part of their social etiquette. I found it endearing.

These are the things I have been able to follow. But there’s one I have not been able to.

I greatly admire Americans (and for that matter most people in western countries) for well they maintain their (huge) houses and gardens. Importantly, without any house-help. Everybody in the family, irrespective of gender, is involved in this and it’s a good thing I feel.

I am still trying to make myself more useful around the house and not very successfully.

Hopefully in this New Year I will be able to imbibe this good habit!

Independent cinema and more: Dharamshala International Film Festival 2018

What’s the best time to visit Dharamshala?

I’d say all through the year.

But if you ask me to pick my favourite time of the year, then it has to be autumn. October – November is when Dharamshala is at its picturesque best; the town is buzzing but not as crowded as in the summers. The weather’s perfect; days are pleasant and the nights – a bit chilly, giving everyone and particularly the tourists from the temperate parts of our country a chance to wear their jackets and the light woolens.

It’s also the time when the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) comes calling. An annual affair since 2012, DIFF is an amazing opportunity to gain exposure to independent films. It’s also a place where you get to meet and know people you wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to interact with.

With its massive outreach, the film festival has put our town on the creative map. In fact, even within India people are pretty confused about Uttarakhand and Himachal. And though places like Shimla and Manali are quite well known but Dharamshala not so much. It’s due to events such as DIFF and international cricket matches that Dharamshala is getting more noticed.

Volunteering @DIFF

Not much of a film buff, and not by a long shot, I got into volunteering at DIFF just by chance. In a small town like Dharamshala everyone knows everyone else, quite literally. A couple of years ago Ritu and Tenzin, founder and festival director of DIFF, were looking for community partners to help them with the festival. That’s when we chanced upon each other. I vividly remember our first meeting, with Ritu sharing her ideas, which got us all excited.

Organising a film festival that too an international one, as you’d probably expect, is a lot of work.  Volunteers are the backbone of such events. Also, considering that finding sponsors for a film festival into alternate and independent cinema is tough and this makes the role of volunteers all the more critical.

The festival is a huge event for the local community and in a way the entire town comes together to make DIFF a success. As a localite it made sense for me to pitch in whichever way I could. A few of our team members at Development Logics have been volunteering since 2012, but 2016 was when I volunteered for the first time and then again this year.

I was involved in operational aspects of the festival such as orienting volunteers, overseeing logistics and co-ordinating with between teams.

DIFF 2018

Attending DIFF has always been a great experience, and this year was no different. Despite the harsh weather, the turnout was very good and we also received good support from sponsors. Several celebrities were part of the festival this year. The ones I must mention is Manoj Bajpayee, who is one of my favourite actor.  

Manoj Bajpayee is a Bollywood actor known for his powerful acting and unconventional roles. He came across be a very approachable and down to earth person no airs. Also, DIFF being a festival of independent cinema the entire atmosphere is quite different. It’s all about watching good films, participating in discussions and masterclasses, and importantly having a good time. It doesn’t have any of the red carpet glitz and glamour.

My favourite movies this year

This year I managed to catch up on a couple of films. One was the movie Pashi by Siddharth Chauhan.  Another was Hamid by Aijaz Khan starring Rasika Dugal, Vikas Kumar and Talha Arshad Reshi in major roles.

I particularly enjoyed Hamid and would recommend everyone to watch this sensitive movie. The movie is about an unlikely friendship between a CRPF jawan and a Kashmiri boy trying to cope with his father’s death.

All in all

This year was DIFF’s 7th edition. Over the past years it has become one of India’s leading independent film festivals and draws audiences from across the world. The event also offers an unique opportunity for people to volunteer and be a part of the amazing experience. The event receives volunteers from across India and some from abroad as well.

I can vouch for the fact that of all the things required to run a successful film festival the most important are dedicated volunteers. And volunteering is not all work and gruelling schedules. It’s incredibly rewarding. It’s also a lot of fun.

You get to meet interesting people, the chance to network with professional filmmakers and media practitioners – especially relevant for those interested in getting into the creative arts, and pick up some important skills along the way. Ofcourse you also get to watch some great movies, attend workshops, spot celebs and stars.

And if you decide to volunteer for the Dharamshala Film Festival, you could also go trekking in the Dhauladhar ranges, do some adventure sports or get acquainted with Tibetan culture.

You will love the overall experience and for sure will return the next year!

I would love to hear your views. Please feel free to share your comments below.

Himalayan Startup Trek 2018: My experience of a startup hub in the back of the beyond

Indian startup incubators are all the rage these days, and with good reason!

The latest NASSCOM-Zinnov report states that India now ranks third globally in the number of incubators and accelerators, after China and US.

While India has a long way to go before it catches up with the top 2 nations, the findings that have been most heartening for me are:

  1. Startups from tier-2 and tier-3 cities make up 20% of total startups in the country.
  2. 40% of the active business incubators and accelerators are now located in tier-2 and tier -3 cities.
  3. A major share of tier-2 and tier-3 startups are working on India-centric grassroots level problems.

While these numbers may come as a surprise to many, it only reaffirms what I have believed all through — there is immense talent even outside of the major metro cities. A conducive environment and a reasonable support system is all that they need, to be able to tide through the early challenges and grow. Both these things are now, finally, being made available to startups, thanks to the growing number of business incubators and accelerators across the country and especially those located in these cities.

I have been fortunate to be a part of one such Technology Business Incubator (TBI) based out of a non-metro city — Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Mandi Catalyst.

In an effort to boost startup ecosystem in the Himalayan Region, Catalyst organises Himalayan Startup Trek (HST), a two day annual event in which idea stage startups get a chance to pitch for incubation support from IIT Mandi Catalyst.

I would like to share my experience from the 2nd edition of HST which was held on April 28 and 29, 2018, at the IIT Mandi campus.

1. Impressive participants: The event brought together a diverse mix of participants; early stage and operational startups, entrepreneurs, angel investors, VCs, industry experts, policy making bodies, startup associations, incubators and accelerators from various parts of the country, and of course startup enthusiasts.

This year’s event saw a footfall of 200 — a remarkable three-fold increase from the 2017 event. Besides this, 100+ startup enthusiasts also participated in the various sessions held during these two days.

The participating startup teams were from a wide range of sectors including clean tech, health tech, consumer tech, edu tech, affordable housing, security etc, of which 30 startups were invited to pitch during the event to raise investor funding or get incubation support from Catalyst. Six startups have been selected for incubation support.

2. Great sessions: For an event in its 2nd edition, it had an impressive line-up of speakers and panellists. To the delight of startup enthusiasts as well as the participating startups, relevant topics such as first-generation entrepreneurship, emerging technologies, customer experience and attracting investors, were discussed.

There were interesting sessions for the participating startups like Meet a Mentor – one on one mentoring sessions, Investors’ Den – for those looking to raise funding, Idea to Market Bootcamp – an in-depth session by Prof. Bringi Dev from IIM Bangalore, Pitch to Catalyst – a closed door session for incubation support and seed funding and Startup Showcase – a chance to display prototype/product and gather feedback.

Simply put, there was something for everyone.

3. Focus on the Himalayan region: Though IIT Mandi Catalyst has been actively supporting entrepreneurs from across the country, it has a definite inclination towards researching and providing innovative solutions to the problems relating to the Himalayan region and Himachal Pradesh in particular.

One of its incubated startups has developed an indigenously built low-cost landslide monitoring and warning technology which is now deployed in the Kullu-Mandi region to minimise / avoid casualties caused by landslides.

This year’s HST event had the eminent Sonam Wangchuk as a keynote speaker. Mr Wangchuk wowed the audience by his incredulous account of the many innovations currently underway in tough terrain of Ladakh using the basic principles of science.

4. Work hard, Play harder: And the best part; it wasn’t all work and no play. The sessions were relaxed, quite informal in comparison to the events in metros cities, the pressure was definitely lesser and there was an air of camaraderie. It allowed for some great networking, loads of learning and exchange of ideas.

When one is surrounded by such natural beauty, it makes no sense to stay indoors. Does it? A cultural evening put up by the students of IIT Mandi had some great musical performances which helped everyone unwind and relax after a hectic day.

The evenings were spent in the open under the open skies, with everyone just chilling out and talking to each other. Unlike events in the metro cities, where people fly-in attend the sessions and fly-out or have other plans. Here everyone had no choice but socialise with each other. One cannot fly out of a secluded place like this at a drop of a hat, you see! Jokes apart, it gave us all a chance to get to know each other at a more personal level.

Many participants said that the two days took them back to their hostel days, not sure if it was the IIT campus effect or just that everyone was holed up for the duration of the event at the location. This ensured for unhurried, leisurely conversations, experience-sharing and bonding.

Some of the participants also took the opportunity to trek up to the hills or did some trout fishing in the Uhl river, which is right next to the campus. Now this is not what you’d normally expect at a startup pitch event, would you?

5. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave: The word picturesque is just not enough to describe the IIT Mandi campus. You have to see it to believe it! You will carry the images of the valleys, the Uhl river, the pine trees and the laughter and conversations for a long time to come.

Also, for first timers getting to the campus is an experience in itself. You actually have to cross valleys and rivers to get there. And once you reach the place you may actually not want to leave, ever.

If you are an early stage startup, a budding entrepreneur or interested in finding innovative solutions to the problems of the Himalayan region then the Himalayan Startup Trek is something you should explore.

If you have participated in the Himalayan Startup Trek or any other startup pitch event, would love to hear your thoughts. Your comments would be greatly appreciated.

What led to starting up a tech venture in Kangra valley?

There is something very different about growing up in the mountains. For me, having lived all of my childhood and adolescent years in Dharamshala, it’s almost as if the towering Himalayan ranges are an inseparable part of my life. And when I am away from the landscape, I carry them with me.  

Despite this unexplainable bond with our land, most of us ‘pahadis’- as we are commonly referred to – end up migrating to the cities for ‘good’ education, career and more importantly a ‘better life’.

We grow up listening to stories of people who’ve made it big after moving to the cities and are constantly led to believe – if you wish to become successful, you must leave. And like so many before me, I too followed suit. A good part of my professional education and career was spent in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi.

But clearly I wasn’t cut out for the city life or I’d rather put it as I couldn’t see myself living away from the mountains. Life around the mountains is pleasant in so many ways. The beautiful environs, cleaner surroundings, good air and water, helpful people, and a calm, peaceful life. What is life without these?

The Baramasa series of Kangra miniature paintings from early 17th century, depict how woman is asking her lover not to leave her. Men had to leave their families behind for work or fighting a war.

The mountains are calling and I must go

The lure of a big paycheck can be hard to beat, nevertheless even during my college days, I used to constantly wonder about the need to move away from a place so beautiful for the sake of a job. The two questions constantly on my mind were – Why aren’t there any opportunities for us to do well professionally and live a decent life in places like Himachal? What can I do about it?

Just fresh out of college, life in the early 20s is confusing enough yet this seemed like a worthy adventure to pursue. Friends from engineering college and later management school would remember our conversations about this dream.  At this juncture, I had decided that I will find a way to move back. How? Well, this was something I had not figured out fully then.

In 2001, started my first business, when I was 20 and studying engineering. This was the first cyber cafe in Dharamshala. Lost my mother’s hard earned money in this one.

First steps towards building a career in the mountains

In 2007, after completing my PG diploma in rural management, I took up an assignment as an ICT4D (Information and Communications Technologies for Development) consultant in Himachal. The role involved rolling out 3000+ e-Governance kiosks (Common Service Centers) across the state.

The main purpose of these centers is to provide government services to people in rural areas. To me this assignment was more than a job, it allowed me to travel across the state which is something that I enjoyed thoroughly. The project ended after 3 years, but moving out of Himachal was not an option I wanted to exercise.

The beginning of an entrepreneurial journey

By then it was clear to me that I had to start up on my own in this very place. Though I wasn’t very sure of how things would pan out, I was absolutely determined to embark on this journey without worrying too much about the destination. Meanwhile, I had gotten married to Shilpa, my longtime girlfriend, who stood by me through this decision. Finally, in 2011, we decided to take the plunge. Since I had experience in the IT consulting domain, we decided to start a venture in IT services. When deciding on the location to set up our venture, we looked at several places across Himachal to finally zero-in on Dharamshala, headquarters of district Kangra in Himachal. The fact that Dharamshala is my hometown definitely played a part, that aside the decision was driven purely by business considerations.

How Dharamshala happened?

The city has a very cosmopolitan outlook and, being host to His Holiness the Dalai Lama it has a significant population of expats giving the place a global feel. Infrastructure-wise, it has the only functional airport in the state and is well connected by road to important cities such as Chandigarh, Amritsar and Delhi. Overnight train services from Pathankot are an added plus.

The many educational institutions present in the city ensure a steady stream of talent, while the verdant valleys inspire many others to make it their home. In hindsight, the decision seems to have paid off for us with the town being upgraded to a municipal corporation and making it to the Indian government’s flagship Smart Cities Mission.

Passengers embarking on a flight at Dharamshala airport.

7 years and counting

It has been more than 7 years since we moved here. The small ‘big’ idea with which we came here has sustained itself despite all the challenges and given us quite a few sweet triumphs. We hired locals with little experience of IT services who are now delivering best-in-class technology services to clients across the globe.

Our start-up has created more than 100+ IT jobs in this city. We have diversified into other businesses. It may sound boastful but we have actually taken internet services to regions where nobody wants to go. Besides business, I am actively involved in the revival of the Kangra miniature art tradition and initiatives such as setting up the Global Shapers hub of the World Economic Forum for leadership development and social engagement of the youth in the city, among others. Conducted workshops on technology, cybersecurity, entrepreneurship and personality development for thousands of students over these years.

More recently I have joined the board of governors at Catalyst, a business incubator at IIT Mandi. My goal is to help more entrepreneurs in our state, to take their ideas to reality. Meanwhile, I have also had the opportunity to travel internationally to gain exposure and network to raise resources for our venture and the causes I support. Another high in this journey was being selected for the Professional Fellowship, last October, sponsored by the US State Department.

New batch of interns at our Dharamshala office.

The best part about the decision to base our start-up in Dharamshala is that we have managed to do all this at a place where people either run away from or go to take a break from work!  

Professional Fellowship Program: You Have to Experience it Yourself

It has been a few months since I came back from Oklahoma. Many friends and family members have been enquiring about my experiences during the visit. So this blog.

I consider it to be a privilege to experience life in a different country, giving an opportunity to interact with professionals from different countries. To learn from each other, sharing knowledge about people, culture and business.

The Professional Fellows Program (PFP) is a two-way, global thought exchange program designed to promote mutual understanding, enhance leadership and professional skills, as well as building lasting, sustainable relationships between mid-level emerging leaders from foreign countries and the United States.

PFP participants are placed in intensive 5-6 week fellowships in non-profit organizations, private sector businesses, and government offices across the United States for an individually tailored professional development experience.

This initiative aims to enhance the professional expertise of individuals by enabling leadership development and networking among key entrepreneurs in diverse fields. The program is fully funded by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’, Professional Fellows Division.

Our hosts – Oklahoma University

Being in the south of the U.S., Oklahoma, a Republican state is situated in the heart of America, with the majority of white and prominently Christian residents. While people from India get a little sceptical about the social environment in a region like Oklahoma, I wanted to see the real America as they say it back in Norman. I think I can say for all our colleagues, that we were really taken care off and wherever we went or the people we met, we were welcomed and enjoyed our conversations.

Oklahoma University campus welcomed us grandly. The beautiful green campus consists of over 32,000 students and 2,800 faculty members. The university not only serves as an educational institution but also as a public research centre. Seeing students and researchers hustling around, trying to come up with something productive, was indeed a big booster to the whole experience.

Oklahoma University Campus
Oklahoma University Campus

Our Group – BBI Fall 2017 Participants

We were a group of 10 individuals, selected from Bangladesh, Myanmar and India for the fall program of October 2017. What was most interesting was how diverse the selection was. And to top it up how our hosts had closely matched all the participants with businesses in Oklahoma.

BBI Participants group photo (L to R) Varun, Abul, Affan, Sai, Shah, Khin, Htut, Trupti, Nasima, Elanie, Arjun.

Trupti Doshi, a sustainability architect from Pondicherry was matched with Mitscher & Associates Architects. Her motive to enhance sustainability & eco-friendly construction design not only inspired us but also gave her a substantial recognition in the U.S.

Arjun Mishra, the director of NABET India runs a skill development and employment generation program for differently abled individuals in Gurgaon. He was matched with New View, a non-profit which works with blind people in the US, employing them in their factories and call centres.

Abdul Rouf Khan worked as a trainer with Entrepreneurship Development Institute in Srinagar. He was matched to an incubation centre at the University of Oklahoma.

Shah Paran, Founder, Handymama, a tech startup offering handyman services in Dhaka, was working with WeGoLook, a high growth startup, providing the on-demand workforce for validating information anywhere.

Khin, a Burmese entrepreneur operates a community-based firm which produces hand-made wax statues, candles, gift items. She was matched with “A Date With Iris”, a unique firm in the Oklahoma city that provides gifting products & services.

Affan Mahmud, the founder of Boomerang Digital from Bangladesh, was matched with Trifecta Communications. Trifecta focuses on leveraging data to provide digital solutions to its clients. Affan to acquired considerable knowledge about building AR & VR solutions for his customers.

Naseema from Chittagong runs the first-day care facility in her region. She was placed with Captulsa and Educare in Tulsa region of Oklahoma. Unlike daycare facilities in our region, the one in Tulsa focused a lot on the development of the children.

Htut from Myanmar finds that there are not enough proofreaders in the Burmese language. She is trying to solve that problem. She was matched with Resolute PR, a public relations firm in Tulsa, which does tonnes of proofreading for their clients.

Sai, from Myanmar, has interests in forming farmers cooperatives back home. He is already working with Ginger farmers in his region. In Oklahoma, he got to work with the department of agriculture. Every day early in the morning he would dash off to look at new farms or attend a farmers market.

The firms that I got matched for the fellowship were – Mcmahon Marketing and Benali Marketing. Both the companies are offering digital marketing services which is one of my areas of interest.

Professional placements experience

Mcmahon Marketing

I spent 3 weeks with Mcmahon Marketing and had never thought that in just 3 weeks I would be able to explore a lot. Mcmahon Marketing is a digital marketing firm based out of Norman. Their office is walking distance from the university campus. A small team of 7 people were handling 30 clients of the firm offering inbound marketing services.

They had a smooth & well-organized system of working. Because of the pre-assigned tasks, everyone knew their responsibilities. They used Asana, a task management tool to get things done. After sitting with the clients to discuss their quarterly plans, they would prepare a month’s content and then schedule it for posting. Kalie, the Content Director, was especially good with this specialization.

Everyone at Mcmahon Marketing was open to sharing their experience with me. The level of transparency that they provided was a great gesture towards a trustworthy & long-lasting partnership. Even during their tight schedules, they took out time to help me experience the professional life in the US to the fullest. Not only did they welcome me at the office, but also for lunches, coffee, and office gatherings. The work environment was quite welcoming.

Key-takeaways from Mcmahon Marketing:

  • Importance of having a well-organized and smooth work system.
  • Timely execution & completion of operations through team-work.
  • Emphasis given to research & planning for enhanced business growth.
  • Focus on automation and making templates for services which are repeatable.

Korey Mcmahon, the director of Mcmahon Marketing, became more than just a professional partner for me. From taking me to client meetings to his daughter’s preschool, he made sure that I get to see and experience life in the U.S. as it really is. And as generous as he was, he welcomed me to his home as well.

We also went for a meeting at the Rotary Club, which happens to be the home club of Ron D. Burton, the president of Rotary International. In another meeting, Korey introduced me to Martin Holland, who was his business coach. After meeting Martin, I realised that business coaching is huge in the US and how effective it is in bringing focus and growth to a business.

Benali Marketing

Benali Marketing is another digital marketing agency in Oklahoma where I spent a week working with Khalil, the founder of the business. Benali Marketing focuses on bespoke marketing services that include marketing consulting, digital marketing as well as project management training. I had to say, The meticulous planning and documentation before executing a marketing strategy was what I loved about this firm.

Khalil Benalioulhaj, the founder, loves to share! His trust over people, constant zeal to explore business associations, and most importantly, his warm-hearted nature; certainly has helped forge a long-lasting relationship. Khalil, would pick me up every morning and take me to different co-working spaces, restaurants, cafes and bistros, just to help me experience life in Oklahoma.

Key-takeaways from Benali Marketing:

  • Importance of meticulous execution of all operations.
  • Well-defined documentation of strategy, plans & processes.
  • Emphasis is given to personalization in every step of customer acquisition.
Conversation with Khalil
Conversation with Khalil

The debriefings & the weekends

So from Monday to Thursday, we all used to be working at our respective placements. On Friday, we would all come together for debriefings session at the OU campus. The sessions would comprise of two components. One was to bring an industry expert to talk to our group and then follow up with the group meeting about that weeks’ experience. Since everyone was sharing information about their placements, it was kind of helpful to see how people were gaining from their individual placements experience.

The weekends were always an outdoor activity. We travelled to various places of interest across Oklahoma city and state. One of the weekends was well spent as a homestay experience. I and Shah got to stay with a senior lawyer and now judge, Ken Stoner. I will be writing another blog about all the fun stuff we did together sometime soon.

Friday debriefing session, Professional Fellows Experience
Friday debriefing session, Professional Fellows Experience

The final week

The PFP program had about 260 participants from 45 countries, spread across the US. In the final week, we all came together for a conference. It was a good opportunity to interact with our hosts and other fellows, building a global network of participants. The then National Security Advisor of US, Lt. General H.R. Mcmaster was one of the keynote speakers at the event.

People who made the experience possible for us

The overall experience would not have been such, without the efforts put in by the staff at OU. Dr Elanie Steyn, the program coordinator, Jeff Moore, Kathy Adams and Imran Hasnat, went out of the way to ensure, our stay was comfortable and yet enriching both professionally and personally.

In the end, would like to thank, Prof Joe Foote, Dean Emeritus, Gaylord College of Journalism at Oklahoma University and his wife Jody Foote, who hosted us on a number of occasions, sharing insights from their days spent in South Asia, especially Bangladesh and India in the 80’s and 90’s. It was his foresight and perseverance that such programs are conducted by Oklahoma University in association with the US state department for last many years.

I will be writing more blogs about my experience in the US. Some of the titles to follow are:

  1. Challenges faced by entrepreneurs across the ocean
  2. Fun stuff to do in Oklahoma
  3. What did I learn the most living an American life?
  4. Insights about the program from my fellow participants

Country kya hoti hai?

Like all of you, I too have been receiving ‘Republic Day’ best wishes messages since yesterday. I did think of reciprocating, but eventually, junked the idea of adding to the bulk of ‘Forwards’ that are bringing the internet down and thereby sparing the low memory smartphones from crashing. After all Google is angry about it. But, here’s some food for thought, triggered by a real life anecdote which happened today. I am sure friends who have raised children will understand the nuance better.

So Aadi, my elder son — barely four- and a half- in age — was up early this morning to watch the Republic Day parade on TV. This probably is Aadi’s first parade which he will remember. So to give him company, Shilpa, my wife sat down with him.

Soon, the tanks, aircrafts, missiles, soldiers in their regimental glory paraded on the Rajpath. The four-year-old’s curious mind had too many questions. And here they came one by one: Read More