All posts by ashleygood

When failure is part of the feminist process: In the midst of difficult changes, the head of a media house struggles to make new meaning of the values her organisation stands for.

This article is part of Failure Files, a special series conceived by India Development Review in partnership with Acumen Academy, where social change leaders chronicle their failures and lessons learnt.

This past year, one of the most exhilarating and exhausting in my work life, I failed to live up to a core personal and professional value. I failed to put into practice what a truly feminist organisation should be.

I lead Chambal Media, a feminist media enterprise run by a diverse group of women from different classes, castes, geographies, and ages. We are committed to create a space where everyone brings their own histories and visions to the table; their own languages, styles, and stakes, to create a living, breathing (even profitable!) idea of feminist media.

Chambal Media trains rural women to be journalists and publishes stories from small towns and villages across Uttar Pradesh. Our team comprises 30 women from rural and urban India. A majority of them are Dalit and Other Backward Class (OBC), and many have completed their formal education after joining the organisation.

Over the past four years, we have worked on making the organisation self-sustaining, by moving to a digital-first model, and experimenting with new revenue streams. In the glamour of designing and rolling out feminist business plans (those rare ventures that manage to raise questions about unjust social structures and make some money too), what suffered were the needs of individuals within this grand plan. 

What happened was this: We decided to shift from a nonprofit to a for-profit model. Within the first month of this transition, a co-founder and dear friend, one who had built our foundation in the field, quit. In the year that has followed, in the process of setting up the business model and culture of the new entity, I also lost two colleagues, who were to play key roles in operationalising this vision. I was left with a confused team, an insecure organisation, and a deep sense of inadequacy of being able to lead in an empathetic yet decisive way.

Power struggles

The process of shifting an organisation that had been a nonprofit for 17 years to a for-profit model was tedious, painful, and strained. It involved multiple risks: Shifting away from the familiarity of philanthropic funding, and making certain roles redundant. We made this decision due to our inability to stay afloat with only philanthropic funding, given the shifting media and political environment. I strongly advocated for this decision.

In the months before my co-founder left, we were immersed in covering an intense general election and were unsure of the organisation’s future. Our monthly leadership meetings were tense affairs. The leadership team comprised myself, another urban-educated co-founder who was on sabbatical at the time, and two rural, Dalit colleagues. Conflict about our way forward strained power dynamics between the three of us. My colleague, who ended up leaving, was older and more experienced, and had a deep investment in the organisation’s identity as it was known locally. She felt that we were moving away from its history, and was resistant to change. I was less experienced than both my rural colleagues, yet came with privileges of access, caste, and class. I was responsible for sustainability. I strongly advocated that if we were to stay relevant, we had to change. For the first time in our working relationship, the unequal balance of power made decision-making very difficult.

Slowly, she withdrew from engaging with decisions about the future, and the situation took a toll on her physical and mental health. I felt constant guilt and resentment, along with the pressure of being accountable to funders who wanted to see sustainable plans from us. Finally, armed with legal advice, we decided to move forward on certain difficult decisions—shifting to a for-profit entity and a restructuring the team. This was when my colleague put in her resignation.

An unsolved rubiks cube

The process of shifting an organisation that had been a nonprofit for 17 years to a for-profit model was tedious, painful, and strained. | Picture courtesy: Pixabay

Changing working styles

As we shifted towards a for-profit digital media model, we hired new colleagues—many of them urban-educated and living in cities—in roles that never existed before. We wanted them to be inspired, mentored, and a part of the future of the company. I was playing the role of their manager and mentor, and was (too) eager for them to learn our history and take ownership of our values.

I was simultaneously engaged in building a new company with a new ambition, new products, and a new culture that straddled efficiency and empathy. The nature of the work was exacting—both in the context of running an independent rural news channel, and making it sustainable. The work was never confined to office hours, and in many ways, it had no end. And so I was demanding, of myself and also of my new colleagues. I pushed them to see their own privilege; to try and make them more ambitious and efficient; to understand why certain ideas of ‘professionalism’ and boundaries were out of place when some of our team members were confronting structural oppression daily to do their jobs.

I was conscious that the expectations were high. I tried to be empathetic, and tried to redefine my very fluid boundaries between the personal and professional. For example, I would avoid getting in touch with team members outside of office hours. I would share my own vulnerabilities and leadership struggles to temper reviews of performance and deadlines. And I tried to make space for self-care. I tried to think about how diversity also meant understanding and adapting to the needs of team members across the lines of class. But I failed to detach my own consciousness of class and caste, from the way that new colleagues may negotiate this. I was too judgmental of what I perceived as an indulgence of individual needs, especially of my more privileged team members, over what I felt that the organisation or rural team members needed.

Biases. Internal conflict. Undue stress.

I gain stamina and stimulation and build resilience on the back of my commitment to a vision. It’s hard for me not to be judgmental of anyone who is not, in my opinion, doing ‘enough’ to take that commitment seriously. This is a very slippery slope. Where is the possibility of inclusiveness and co-creation of a vision then? What is ever enough, in our line of work? Is this a reason for the high levels of mental health issues and anxiety that are common across our ‘progressive’ social organisations?

For me, the collective’s needs and specifically the needs of those team members who came from less privileged backgrounds, were the reason why the organisation was built. And so, I did not accord as much space or attention to the needs of newer colleagues.

Additionally, as a tentative leader and a new entrant into the space of social business, I felt I had much to prove. I had always accorded people and process more importance than results, and now I ended up hovering around my colleagues, monitoring them closely, heightening the pressure. I felt that I could never do enough, either to support a new colleague or to hold that colleague to account. And I failed to manage or communicate this internal conflict of needing to be a leader who was open and inclusive about feedback, while also being able to effectively deliver feedback on performance and accountability. As a result, I made both working together and the exit process unduly stressful.

Failure takes different forms

Failure is often a feeling that comes and goes; it’s not a tangible car wreck. It may not look like failure at all on some days, when you have your Wonder Woman suit on. But I do see these losses as important personal failures, even if they involve others’ accountability and responsibility. They have shown me aspects of my personality that are difficult to work with.

Apart from the intense guilt, and distraction from the many things I was meant to be doing as a leader, I was conscious that the exit of my colleagues was not good for a new company’s morale. While I encouraged team members to bring their ideas and ownership to build the company, it was an example of both new and old team members being unable to make a space for themselves in the organisation. The team seemed to mirror my own conflict and strain. There was confusion around the expectations that I had of people. Confusion around what people were meant to be living up to, and when and how could they say that it was too much.

Towards creating a thriving feminist business culture

To be empathetic and also make necessary decisions in the interest of efficiency feels like a Sisyphean process. I often feel like I’m slowly moving backwards. I think my failure to incorporate diverse visions and styles has been a consequence of treating this business with far too much fastidiousness. The fact is that this feminist vision is never complete; it is not just mine, but is part of the collective failures and successes of team members from varied locations. There is much to be gained by holding on less tightly. 

Grand business plans and constant vulnerability notwithstanding, during the lockdown we put in place an externally facilitated process: Kya Khyal Hai? (What do you think?). The idea was to listen to and understand team members’ ideas of themselves in the organisation. We did this over a series of workshops with the rural and urban teams, through play and open-ended discussions. We tried to understand: What does relationship building in a diverse organisation look like? Whose realities take precedence in setting organisational goals and culture? What does taking care of ourselves look like? What does accountability to the organisation look like? How does the team see this balance working? How can this balance also be a shared responsibility?

We are now in the midst of weaving these processes into our day-to-day. It’s a day-to-day that is constantly fraught and perhaps always will be, but is constantly hopeful of creating a thriving feminist business culture. Not only with the rural women who were at the heart of our venture, but with womxn from a range of backgrounds who will take this company forward together.

Originally published by India Development Review September 25, 2020 as part of Failure Files, a special series conceived in partnership with Acumen Academy.

To bribe or not to bribe? A social entrepreneur takes a decision and finds his life turned upside down.

This article is part of Failure Files, a special series conceived by India Development Review in partnership with Acumen Academy, where social change leaders chronicle their failures and lessons learnt.

Being associated with the corporate sector for over a decade, I had always felt the need to build something of my own; to work for myself, rather than working for someone else. I had a few ideas, but unfortunately, I never had the opportunity, or the courage to start. This changed in 2017 when I was working at the Lahore office of Telenor, a multinational telecommunications company. They had launched a platform called ‘Ignite’ where employees could submit their ideas. If selected, we would be given an opportunity for both incubation and investment in launching the company or product.

Failing to make the cut in the first two attempts, two of my colleagues and I were finally selected in January 2018. After the incubation period, two of us were picked to join global venture capital (VC) firm, Antler’s six-month startup boot camp in Singapore. We pitched our idea and ended up raising a six-figure, pre-seed investment—a dream come true!

In September 2018, my co-founder and I formally launched AutoSahulat, a startup which uses digital technology to connect mechanics with motorists for road-side assistance and other vehicle-related services. As per Antler’s requirements, we had to register the company in Singapore, even though we were from Pakistan and our startup was based there. According to local rules in Pakistan, all foreign companies were required to register with the Securities & Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) and to get security clearance from the Ministry of Interior (MOI). We followed this, and registered our subsidiary company in Pakistan.

We opened our office in Lahore, hired a team, started building our app with a local tech development company, and began to register mechanics onto our platform. Within a few months of the launch, we were already collaborating with local brands, had won some competitions, and made an investor pitch to VCs and angel investors at one of the most prestigious tech forums in the world—the Google headquarters in Singapore. At the same time, I was also selected to be part of an entrepreneurship programme at Harvard University.

It all felt surreal. Everything was going well. Although we were a small team of five people, we were passionate and were scaling rapidly. By May 2019, our app was live in two cities—Lahore and Islamabad—and our platform had more than 900 automobile repair workshops. Additionally, we were also discussing seed funding and expansion with VCs based in Southeast Asia. We were making some money and building a loyal customer base, with a strong team and a product. I was flying high, feeling invincible. In that moment, everything felt possible.

Things suddenly started going south

It was June 2019, when the tide turned. One afternoon, I got a call from an unknown number. The person said he was from the local intelligence bureau and wanted to meet us to understand more about AutoSahulat and its funding. He informed us that it was part of the verification process for a company registered outside Pakistan. A little unsettled by the call, we invited him to our office.

Initially, he met with my co-founder as I was out of town. Though we suggested meeting in the office, he insisted on meeting at a restaurant. He brought few people with him and started questioning the business model, without knowing much about how things work in a startup ecosystem. The meeting ended with my co-founder paying for their food and the officer concluding that he would like to meet me as well.

A few weeks later he called me and showed up again, this time at my house. I answered all his questions patiently and politely, even though I knew that he already had enough information on both of us. He asked me about my professional background; about the companies I had worked in and in what capacity; my parents—where they lived, and what they did; about Antler, and how I had raised money from them. In spite of all this questioning, both my co-founder and I weren’t too worried, since we were both good, tax paying citizens, with no red flags, and a reputed corporate standing.

Come July, we received letters from the SECP and the MOI stating that we couldn’t operate in Pakistan because we had failed to get the security clearance. The reasons they gave for this were vague and unclear. Everything came to a halt. I started contacting close friends and people in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem who might be able to help in getting the MOI to change their decision. I even developed a contact within the MOI, but things didn’t work out.

Seeing no way out of this debacle, we closed down our operations, gave a month’s notice to our team, and let them go. Not only this, our organisation lost around USD 60,000 in the process of tech development, company registration, marketing, and salaries. We were devastated that we had to take such drastic steps, but what else could we do?two railway lines intersecting with grass at the side-corruption

The correct path—hard or not—takes you where you need to be, and perhaps I needed to be where I am. | Picture courtesy: Pixabay

My life was turned upside down

I went broke because we could not afford to make ends meet with just my spouse’s salary. I also had to pull out my 10-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter from school as we did not have enough money to pay their fees. I went numb. “Baba, why are we not going to school?” my children would innocently ask me. “You will go soon,” I responded, “Baba is in a financial crunch right now, but don’t worry it will be alright.” I told them this, but I was in doubt myself.

People I knew started pointing out how I had made the wrong decision by leaving my job and risking everything towards creating this startup. The days were stressful and restless, the nights sleepless, and I felt as if the whole world was crumbling down on me. Initially, my brain stopped working, suicidal thoughts came pouring in, and my self-confidence took a beating. I started questioning every decision of mine. But with few close friends, and especially my spouse, believing in me, I started searching for jobs.

I had to go through some tough months, but today I work at a unicorn in Pakistan. It’s a senior position as compared to my last job, with good remuneration, and in a field that I am passionate about.

I learnt how to embrace failure

In hindsight, when I think about this event, I realise that all this might have happened because we didn’t bribe the local intelligence officer—a cost of doing business in developing countries. Why didn’t we do it then? Because we did everything by the book and thought we didn’t need to.

The question that keeps coming back to haunt me is, ‘Would I have taken the easy route by paying?’ At that point in time, I think yes, I would have bribed him and gotten away with it. But during my journey since then, I have learnt a lot, one of which is to do things not because they are easy, but because they are right. Now, I know that I would have never bribed him and would have kept on fighting. The correct path—hard or not—takes you where you need to be, and perhaps I needed to be where I am.

The experience taught me a great deal

  • It made me realise that society often stops us from taking risks and tells us to follow already laid out plans. Going against this is challenging, but rewarding. I went from being someone who was, in essence, a salesman selling products in small, unknown towns of Pakistan, to meeting and working with entrepreneurs in places such as Google, Facebook, Apple, and Harvard.
  • I learnt that you need strong connections when doing business, especially in developing countries.
  • An initial team that takes ownership is more important than your idea or business model. You need them to guide you to take the right route during times of crisis.
  • The importance of being sure of what you want to do and assessing your own ability to stick with it. Sometimes, I think that since the idea of AutoSahulat came from my co-founder, I wasn’t as passionate about it as him. Maybe I lost interest somewhere along the way because of this.

My own startup is still in limbo, but I have not given up on that. Many people have asked me if I will continue down this path. The short answer is, yes. Running a startup teaches you a lot and working for my own company is something I continue to strive for. But I will give it some time before jumping ship.

Managing your own startup takes a lot out of your life. It needs time and planning, especially if you have a family—they go through the same things as you. Right now, a little stability doesn’t hurt and it also gives me time to gain clarity on what my next steps will be.

My concluding take is to not give up on yourself, keep moving forward, and embrace failures. If nothing else, they will teach you to be much better at failing the next time—every setback is an opportunity for something better.

Originally published by India Development Review September 11, 2020 as part of Failure Files, a special series conceived in partnership with Acumen Academy.

No right time for hard decisions: A nonprofit co-founder gets caught in an unhealthy power dynamic with a funding partner

This article is part of Failure Files, a special series conceived by India Development Review in partnership with Acumen Academy, where social change leaders chronicle their failures and lessons learnt.

I am the co-founder of Sukhibhava, a behaviour change focused organisation with a fundamental belief that ending the stigma around menstruation is the most sustainable way to make menstruation a non-issue. We started working on this in 2014, and after multiple pivots, landed on a convincing model in mid-2016. Once this model was validated in June 2017, there was immense pressure to scale it across regions.

In order to do this, we developed a concept note to run a fellowship programme, which garnered significant attention in a short period of time. It was a first of its kind fellowship programme. A leading sanitary pad manufacturer funded the fellowship pilot, and the results were impressive. They also promised to fund the fellowship. In October 2017, we launched applications and selected the best talent. Fifteen days before the fellows came onboard, we had a value-based conflict with the manufacturer. They expected us to promise and deliver on sanitary product conversion through our programme, and hence, the collaboration fell apart.

In that moment of desperation, we entered another partnership, this time with a philanthropic agency. It started on a collaborative note and we decided to implement the fellowship together.  Since we had worked with them earlier, there was an assumed sense of trust in taking this journey forward together. We agreed to kickstart the project as we were promised that contracts would be signed and funds disbursed within a few weeks.

Soon after we began implementing the fellowship, the philanthropic partner suggested that we change the programme design entirely. In a span of two months, we went from being a small organisation in Bangalore aiming to work deeply in a few regions, to one that had expanded to six states across India. We went from working in Tier-I cities to rural parts of Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Gujarat, and Uttar Pradesh.

The 16 fellows who had signed up for an urban fellowship were suddenly expected to work in rural India, mid-way through their induction. Some of the fellows were placed with the collaborator’s partner organisations, and once they hit the ground, issues such as differences in work ethics and organisational values started to emerge. This, layered with the lack of safety and support systems in extremely rural parts of the country, led some of the fellows to develop mental health issues.

Whenever there was a difference of opinion or way of functioning, we were told that the collaboration would come to an end if we did not follow the collaborator’s structure. The power dynamics with the funder did not allow us to negotiate the communication and reporting structures, and even after six months, the funds were not disbursed. I was put in a place where I had to decide the fate of the fellowship. I could either choose to end it or make alternate arrangements from different sources to make it work.

Sixteen individuals had made difficult life choices to come on board, and my commitment to them forced me to borrow money from almost every friend and mentor to sustain the programme. I was also very scared to shut down the fellowship or change its structure because I was not confident enough to pull it off without the collaborator. I felt so lost that I could not take a step back and look at the means I was adopting to reach this end.

Overall, the partnership was marked by constant reinforcement of power and fear, and a number of issues including fund disbursement, cultural mismatch, and unrealistic demands. Ultimately, we became nothing but vendors, with no contracts, no official acknowledgement, and no control over our brainchild. My team did not have the capacity to manage and they were not paid for months, which led to physical, mental, and emotional distress in the organisation. Eventually, after following up multiple times, just before the end of the financial year, the funder said that they did not have permissions from their board and hence, they would not be able to process most of the payments.

The increasing loans, ambiguity, and toxic power dynamic made me question myself multiple times over the year. From being a confident risk-taker, I had become fearful of my own decisions. Even now, more than 14 months later, I catch myself being my own barrier, having to remind myself to not operate from a place of distrust. It has been an incredible test of persistence and resilience, with some takeaways for life:

1. The importance of hard decisions

I was too attached to the original plan, people, and partner. I was not ready to let go of any of them, and was paralysed by a fear of loss. I was unable to step back and realise that the journey is much longer. Though we eventually let go of the first funder, we avoided taking this hard decision until it was too late and we had been burnt. Now, I have learnt to keep the women and girls in the communities we work with at the centre, and comfortably say no to stakeholders who dilute our and white picture of people in a tug of war_rawpixel

Whenever there was a difference of opinion or way of functioning, we were told that the collaboration would come to an end. | Picture courtesy: rawpixel

2. The value of a community

It is so beautiful to be surrounded by people who believe in you, even when you are at your lowest. I am absolutely grateful to have those people. I wouldn’t have survived without the community around me—people from AcumenN/Core, and my own board, team, and fellows. The emotional, financial, and moral support I received from them made me redefine what a support system means. The unconventional work we do demands unconventional lifelines. How can we make conscious efforts to build communities for ourselves?

3. Role of self-care

As the co-founder and CEO, there were many moments when I was unable to differentiate my needs from that of the organisation’s. There was a point when almost all my friends had loaned me money so that Sukhibhava could survive. I spent most of my time with my team; I was living and working out of the same space; the concept of personal finance did not exist; and I had no life beyond work. I truly believed the accountability for everything that was happening in the organisation was Dilip’s and not Sukhibhava’s. At the end, I was tired, broken, and burnt. After seeking professional help and giving myself time, I have learnt that it is a skill to differentiate the role from the person, and we don’t emphasise this enough.

4. Staying true to core vision and values

While so many things were falling apart, the team stuck together because we were aligned to Sukhibhava’s core values and vision. In spite of all the churn, 14 out of 16 fellows completed the fellowship programme and 7 out of 8 management team members stayed with the organisation through a very difficult phase. It was fascinating to see what a clear vision and a shared culture can do to a team. This phase validated our belief that ‘work doesn’t drive culture, culture drives work’.

5. Security before scale

We have decided that we will not start any programme without money in our accounts, and this has brought in a lot of stability in the organisation. As much as we believe in the potential of our work, we need to acknowledge that unless we feel secure, we won’t be able to deliver to the best of our capabilities.

In June 2019, we decided that we would scale down and pause for one year. We prioritised professional capacity building, self-care, and organisational readiness for scale. After 12 months of preparation, we were all set to scale in April 2020, when the global COVID-19 pandemic hit—forcing us to relook at everything we have been doing for six years. It has only been a few months, but I can already see a stark difference in how we are approaching and handling the situation, as compared to before. This time, I can say that we have survived and are ready to thrive.

Originally published by India Development Review August 28, 2020 as part of Failure Files, a special series conceived in partnership with Acumen Academy.

A crisis among co-founders: Growing incompatibility with a co-founder over prioritising short-term targets causes a social entrepreneur to step away from their organisation.

This article is part of Failure Files, a special series conceived by India Development Review in partnership with Acumen Academy, where social change leaders chronicle their failures and lessons learnt.

After working with The World Bank for many years, my impatience to lead social change rather than be a small part of a large organisation resulted in my co-founding a social enterprise, Svadha. Our focus was on organising the unorganised rural sanitation market, to ensure quality access to consumers.

In just three years, Svadha did very well and won many accolades. We were close to breaking even and had improved access to sanitation for close to 100,000 consumers.

However, by the fourth year, things changed and I had to take the decision to move on from Svadha. It became clear that deep cracks had surfaced in the business partnership as well as the organisation, moving me away from the mission I had started the company with.

There are a few reasons for this.

Misalignment with my co-founder

I started Svadha along with a co-founder who I found through an extensive online search of experienced people working in the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) space. We had multiple discussions on our long-term vision, ideas around the model, potential avenues for funding (at least for a period of two years), operational and financial viability of the model, and the terms of our partnership as co-founders. My co-founder and I also complemented each other’s working styles—he was more of a big picture person and I was the one with tactical skills to get the job done. With all boxes being checked, it seemed like the perfect partnership.

However, slowly, this complementarity became the cause of growing incompatibility, both at a strategic as well as operational level.

While we were busy chasing immediate monthly and quarterly targets for our rapidly growing business, strategic differences started to emerge. I could clearly see us moving away from the impact for which we set up Svadha. For instance, in order to be financially sustainable, we focused excessively on our B2B model, and deprioritised the aspect of demand creation among communities, for quality sanitation access. As a result, our patience to invest time in looking for more impactful institutional partnerships and hiring experienced team members, reduced. In spite of multiple discussions, we could not reach a consensus on how to re-align our current model to fit our larger, common vision.

Operationally, challenges started emerging in the third year, when Svadha began to expand rapidly, and hence demanded the dedication of both co-founders to raise more funds and build a strong management team to drive scale. Again, we couldn’t agree to set the innovation work aside for the time being, so that my co-founder could instead support our fundraising and growth.

Once differences between us started surfacing, it affected my drive towards the cause. Moreover, it significantly impacted the morale of the management team, and their trust in our commitment towards the cause. This, in turn, resulted in an atmosphere of doubt and negativity, and a decline in patience to stay the course and try new things—a clear sign of things going downhill.

It became clear to me that our strategic priorities were simply not aligned. For instance, rather than focusing on Svadha’s core model in its formative years, my co-founder chose to invest his time, energy, and financials in related innovations, such as clean water or low-income housing, which to me, seemed like a diversion. According to me, what Svadha needed back then was a 100 percent focus on making its own sanitation model resilient. I felt that we could always branch into adjacent areas after we had established the core model. Plus, it would be practically impossible for one co-founder to run all facets of the company, especially when the managerial team was still being formed and trained in critical decision making.

illustration plug not fitting into socket-failure

Slowly, this complementarity became the cause of growing incompatibility, both at a strategic as well as operational level. | Picture courtesy: Pixabay

When I thought hard about the reason for these misalignments, I realised it was because I hadn’t done sufficient due diligence around the ‘adaptive aspects’ of the partnership with my co-founder—aspects which go beyond technical compatibility and revolve around ‘how’ we achieve our long-term vision. In hindsight, I feel that going ahead with my business idea on my own would have been a better route to take. I could have partnered when the roadmap was clearer, or when I could identify tangible gaps that needed to be filled. It would have been a better strategy to bring on a business partner after having tested our ability to work together for some time, and having assessed the key aspects of the partnership.

Or, since I was initially more comfortable starting off my business with a partner, I could have spent more time discussing a more detailed roadmap of the model (at least the first two years), along with demarcating clearer roles and responsibilities between us to support our growth. This way, we would have been able to envision a more certain path for our partnership, and would have also managed our respective priorities better.

Over-dependence on certain key members

My second big failure was my inability to assess the changing commitment and interest of some of my management team members, in our model. Given limited budgets, start-ups have to remain lean with a high dependency on a few key team members. I, as the leader, misjudged the commitment levels of these members, and when one of them left, it ended up costing the venture dearly, affecting its growth and stalling day-to-day operations.

As a start-up leader, I couldn’t change the fact that I had to have a lean team. What I could have done better was to pay closer attention to the changing commitment levels of these few members; and slowly minimise dependence on them. This would have avoided the vacuum created in our operations and the overall dip in the team’s morale, following the sudden departure of these members.

Wanting meaningful and sustained impact, fast

I always wanted to see our model creating sustained impact, fast. But here’s the catch—‘sustained’ and ‘fast’ are two aspects that can either complement each other or be in conflict with each other, and this depends on how we set our short-term targets vis-à-vis our long-term goals.

With Svadha, we theoretically always wanted to achieve the two together. But in the sprint to achieve short-term targets, we, as co-founders, were not able to collectively agree to take a pause by the third year. This pause was necessary not only to align with the current team and financial situation, but also for us to re-adjust towards a more long-term, high-impact model, aligned with our mission. We kept delaying our plans to run a marathon, which for us meant investing time and resources in building a stronger management team, as well as reducing dependence on a few people.

Originally published by India Development Review July 31, 2020 as part of Failure Files, a special series conceived in partnership with Acumen Academy.

Learning to be a better, braver leader: An uncompromising leader learns about the importance of compassion and listening, the hard way.

This article is part of Failure Files, a special series conceived by India Development Review in partnership with Acumen Academy, where social change leaders chronicle their failures and lessons learnt.

I’d like to write about my year as the executive director (ED) of Mentor Me India (MMI)—March to December 2016.

Even though I’ve failed before that year and since, that one year will always stand out most starkly in my memory. If you trim the complex web of explanations, what remains is the simple truth that I failed as a leader at various levels. My actions not only caused me (and others) a lot of emotional distress, but also contributed to the organisation’s failure to meet its objectives. My failure that year taught me a lot—about leadership, compassion, and perhaps more importantly, about listening—but not before my actions caused at least three people to quit the organisation. One of those three people was me.

What went wrong?

I came to MMI less than fully prepared to take on the role of ED. Having previously led teams of different sizes at the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) and at the Indian Navy, I assumed that this was adequate preparation to lead an eight-member team of people in their early 20s who had chosen to build their careers around children. I came into MMI in a blaze of glory: ex-colleagues cheered me on, expressing fervent hopes to see me create a national-level organisation; and my new team greeted me with the warmest welcome I had ever received in my career. So, when it started unravelling, it was that much harder to deal with.

My challenges were primarily related to my inadequate capacity to lead and motivate my team. I do have a tendency to be authoritative, and if I’m fully honest, even when I think I’m being collaborative, I’m actually being directive. Partly due to some expectations that the founder had created and partly due to my leadership style, the team and I ended up creating a ‘me vs them’ structure very early in our working relationship. Our ambitions for the organisation were also dramatically misaligned. Most members of the team believed that we should assess and consolidate the existing work before expanding. I was convinced that consolidation and expansion could be done together—I wanted us to take our programme from three classrooms to at least ten schools in my first year at the organisation. How else would I know that I had been successful?

My team struggled to keep up with my expectations; they grew increasingly stressed, tired, and finally, sullen and uncooperative. My response was to become even more authoritative, until things reached an impasse. Ten months into the role, I was diagnosed with anxiety and was advised therapy. Eleven months into the role, I resigned. Two other people on my team resigned as well. We all claimed that we were resigning because we were leaving the city, but we all knew the truth was that we could not work together anymore.illustration showing two people talking at a distance-communication

My failure that year taught me a lot—about leadership, compassion, and perhaps more importantly, about listening. | Picture courtesy: Rawpixel

My failure that year taught me a lot

Even in the early days, I had noted that the team and I seemed to have different goals for MMI, but I hadn’t really tried to understand why. I also hadn’t been open to believing that their view of what MMI should be may have been a more realistic option than mine. In hindsight, I know that it wasn’t just a mix of hubris and ambition that stopped me from seeing some pretty obvious truths; it was also my reluctance to engage in what I saw as soft skills—those that involved forging interpersonal connections.

Spend time understanding team dynamics

Often, it was unclear who the leader was (me or the founder), and the team struggled as a result. Knowing what I know now, I would have spent more time trying to understand team dynamics and causes of conflict. Had I paid attention to those team dynamics, I would have understood that our conflict around ‘to scale or not to scale’ was a symptom of the team feeling unheard in multiple instances.

Be open to different working styles

Not everyone works at the same pace, and everyone’s pace can be accommodated in a way that works for the team and the organisation. I used to roll my eyes in frustration when a co-worker spoke about her unwillingness to work on a weekend. Three years later, I’ve designed a 4-day work week for myself so that I can invest time in creative projects. I have to acknowledge that she was right to protect her weekends, and I was wrong to assume that my work ethic was the only one that was ‘professional’.

Ask for help

I also learned that leadership isn’t a magical label that you can acquire the instant you put a designation after your name. It is a very tangible set of authentic, courageous actions that have the potential to move people. I used to think that leaders should never seem short of fully competent, so I hid all my doubts and vulnerability under layers of fake bravado which made it harder for the team to talk to me. If I had known what I do now, I would have done the more courageous thing—admitted my fears and asked for help.

When I did ask for help, it was after I had left the organisation, and it was to understand what I could have done differently. Through conversation after conversation with leaders I admire, I’ve learned that what I went through is so common that they actually have names for it—one coach called it “the classic founder/director conflict around scale-up”. Knowing that others have experienced the exact same brand of failure is very comforting now, and it could have empowered me then.

Be kind to yourself

Finally, I learned to not only be kinder towards myself, but also to take my own needs seriously. A few months after resigning, I was sharing my story with someone and I summed up my stint at MMI as less than successful—I wasn’t even able to say the word failure. That has changed. The way I see it now is that I made mistakes, absolutely, but it was a complex set of factors that contributed to that dramatic fiasco of a year. A year that made me a better, braver leader and a more interesting person, I hope.

Originally published by India Development Review July 10, 2020 as part of Failure Files, a special series conceived in partnership with Acumen Academy.

Teachers vs tech: An intervention built on the assumption that teachers can be easily replaced by technology quickly goes awry.

This article is part of Failure Files, a special series conceived by India Development Review in partnership with Acumen Academy, where social change leaders chronicle their failures and lessons learnt.

It was the year 2014. As Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellows, we were working with the local district administration in Jamui district, Bihar to improve learning opportunities for students of three residential schools. Our experience of working with government schools over the past two years had reinforced our belief that teachers were simply a resource in the school system; and an easily replaceable one at that.

The answers lie in technology, or so we thought

Our initial belief was that educational technology (EdTech) was the solution, and would work independently of the teacher’s role in ensuring quality education to the students. We saw both the teacher and the tech simply as platforms for disseminating information. So, we designed our programme based on these assumptions. The two were compared on metrics such as the quantity, quality, and delivery of information, and on the way in which a student might benefit from the design advantage that technology offers—variety in type and use of content. For instance, ‘What information should I watch?’ (type of content), and ‘How should I engage with the information?’ (use).

We pitched this idea to our friends, and though many of them were skeptical, they donated 60 tablets to us. Once the tablets were in place, we searched and partnered with a quality content provider, who provided us content free of cost. Next, we mapped the content with the state government’s syllabus, created groups of students who would be using them, installed apps that would monitor content use, and placed these tablets in three government residential schools. This intervention was designed based on our initial hypothesis that an EdTech platform will function independent of the teacher’s participation, as we thought factors associated with teachers (quality of instruction, lack of interest, absenteeism) were the major reasons that learning was not happening.

However, once the initial euphoria and the real work set in, we started to realise that our intervention had several loopholes. This resulted in almost 50 percent of the tablets breaking in the first four months of the intervention, and the EdTech platform being used poorly by the students. Our learning from this intervention made us realise how our assumptions stopped us from considering what we now see as the five fundamental pillars of designing an EdTech intervention.

1. Information is not knowledge

The idea was to use technology as a platform for disseminating information which would be of a better quality, and would therefore help overcome the limitations of a teacher and the boredom of a textbook. We thought this would give students a chance to learn better, and at their own pace. However, we failed to realise that information is not knowledge. For information to become knowledge and be valued by the child, it has to go through processes of reasoning, dialogue, questioning, and sharing. A teacher, not technology, is best placed to facilitate this.

2. Forming a learning group doesn’t ensure accountability

Our intervention was built around the idea that a group of five students would share and learn from one tablet. These students were grouped based on their grades, and we assumed that since they shared common spaces, they would be more likely to support one another. This assumption turned out to be wrong. We realised that until a strong common identity, shared purpose, and regular reinforcement of values are built in, merely bringing people together and forming a group doesn’t lead to accountability.students studying in a classroom-edtech

Merely bringing people together and forming a group doesn’t lead to accountability. | Picture courtesy: Ajaya Behera/Gram Vikas

3. Technology doesn’t automatically create agency for users

One of the central ideas of the intervention was that giving tablets to a group of students will ensure agency to all members of the group. This, however, was not how things panned out. In many groups, we found that certain members had emerged as decision makers, and they would decide what content would be watched, when, and how. This created a hierarchy within the group.

While we measured access to tablets at a group level, we ignored lack of access within these groups. We also ignored the importance of reinforcing the common purpose. What we failed to do was envision the influence a peer group leader could have and think of ways to identify and engage them in the intervention.

4. EdTechis a system, not an individual platform for disseminating information

Our intervention was focused on the platform and content, and all our energy was spent putting a tempered glass and a leather cover for protection, coding, and adding quality content to the tablets. We paid very little attention to understand our EdTech intervention as a system, with many components linked to each other.

We failed to ask, for instance: How many charging points were there in the schools? For how many hours did the school get electricity? What were the voltage fluctuations? How could we link speakers and audio splitters, which were necessary for some aspects of the content? This ignorance led to many of the tablets becoming dysfunctional within a short period, mainly due to high voltage fluctuations and using very poor-quality chargers to charge the tablets.

5. Teachers and EdTech are collaborators, not competitors

Throughout our intervention, we ignored the role of a teacher, believing we could circumvent them and link students to what mattered the most—a good content platform. This was our biggest failure. We failed to build on the possibility of bringing teachers and technology together. Doing so would have allowed the teacher to use EdTech as a powerful tool to expand their capabilities, and envision a learning ecosystem that breaks the limitation of textbooks or other resource constraints, creating endless possibilities.

We believe the power of EdTech lies in creating and expanding these possibilities, not only for the students or the teacher, but for all stakeholders. This is possible only when stakeholders have a stake and a voice in the intervention design.

Originally published by India Development Review July 10, 2020 as part of Failure Files, a special series conceived in partnership with Acumen Academy.

A donor relationship gone wrong: How a misalignment of expectations led a programme to fail, and an organisation to lose a funder.

I tried to understand where I went wrong, what I could have done better, and also what I did right. | Illustration: Priya Dali

This article is part of Failure Files, a special series conceived by India Development Review in partnership with Acumen Academy, where social change leaders chronicle their failures and lessons learnt.

It is said that failure is a stepping stone to success. I don’t know if that holds true in every scenario. But I know this much: Two major failures that shaped my outlook, attitude, and perception of life were when I lost a semester in the final year of dental college—an academic failure—and when I got divorced—a personal failure.

Both these failures dented my self-confidence and the road to recovery was long, arduous, and not without long lasting damage. After bouncing back from these, however, I was convinced that I had the innate ability to handle missteps and failures. I was filled with hubris that I could not be shaken easily by life. Little did I know, I would soon be proven wrong.

It started with me taking on a new project

Towards the end of 2018, I volunteered to take up an additional project with my organisation. I had worked on projects relating to tuberculosis for four years and was eager to learn about managing other disease portfolios, as well as keen to increase my technical expertise on non-communicable diseases.

The project involved remote management of field operations—an area I wanted to return to after many years of technical advisory work. A big incentive was also the opportunity to work with a funder who counted as one of the leading global health donors. The role was primarily a front-facing one with the donor, and at a strategic level. I assumed I would be able to balance the project with my existing work responsibilities.

Our initial discussions with the donor went well. Trouble started brewing when they wanted us to operationalise a digital tool they had developed. Based on my field teams’ initial ground work, and the local intelligence we had received, we understood that our target audience—doctors—were not keen on using an app or digital platform to streamline their health records, and for subsequent follow-up.

We communicated our apprehensions to the funders about going down this route, but they were not amenable to our suggestions. They had invested millions of dollars in software development and designing the user interface. This, coupled with mixed uptake of the application in other settings, made them keen to try it in our setting as well. So, we went ahead.

From that point onwards, all discussions were just a series of arguments between me and our point of contact within the donor office. And because we had a very timeline-driven donor, we were faulted every time deliverables and project outputs did not meet their expectations.

Initially, I did not take many of these issues seriously, and felt that they were a part of the regular challenges we all face in operations and project management. I simply had to learn to take it in my stride and work better and smarter.

As the months progressed, however, our relationship—specifically my relationship with the funding agency—deteriorated. I could not shake away the thought that ultimately many projects tend to be donor-driven and top-down, without the necessary grounding in reality. It was clear I was becoming more aggressive than required, perhaps due to a disproportionate level of attachment to the project and my strong ideas against donor-driven, top-down projects with a dash of neo-colonialism.

The project was designed to change the existing practices of patients with respect to management of a disease. As with any implementation project, the initial few months of operations took longer than expected to establish, and were not showing numbers in terms of patient enrolment as per the project plan and donor expectations. The donor came down heavily on us, forcing us to change strategies every month. As the project lead, I stuck to my guns on how we needed to allow each activity to take root before we switched to another strategy. Needless to say, I only became more defensive and aggressive, not just with the donor but also in the way I was working with my teams.

After nearly seven months of operations, the donor expressed frustration over how we hadn’t achieved milestones at the rate we had committed in the proposal, and threatened to close down both the project and the pipeline funding for other initiatives as well.

I tried to understand where I went wrong, what I could have done better, and also what I did right. | Illustration: Priya Dali

This phase was both organisationally and personally very turbulent for me

As a well reputed international organisation, we had to swing into damage control mode. For me, it was a huge feeling of loss and failure; that I had let down my team and my country leadership, who had faith in me. It was also a loss of face for me personally, because in the past I had never led a project that had drawn so much flak. During this entire ordeal of project implementation, I had persisted and soldiered on—making as many changes in the project design and team management as possible. But it was clear to me and the others that I was caught in a vicious cycle of negativity and was unable to be productive. The stress manifested as anxiety attacks and insomnia.

After a month and a half of being in the eye of the storm, I introspected and decided that I would step down from the project, because I was unable to cope with the increasing demands, and the toll it was taking on my physical and mental health.

When I drafted the email to my directors explaining my stance, I was overwhelmed with a sense of relief once the email left my inbox and the country leadership accepted my decision.

A day or two later, when I was zipping away on my scooty, I fell into a familiar pattern of humming and riding. At that moment I realised that I had stopped humming entirely in recent months, ever since I had taken on the project.

After I stepped down, I reflected on my failure

I tried to understand where I went wrong, what I could have done better, and also what I did right.

I realised I had strong biases against the donor’s approach; my ego tussle with the point of contact and my stubbornness of wanting to do the project like it was my very own start-up didn’t help either. In retrospect, so much emotional investment was perhaps not warranted. During the course of this project, I had also neglected my main workstream, and deliverables had suffered. I realised I wasn’t very good at multi-tasking.

Some other key lessons I derived from this episode were:

  • Over-promising and under-delivering. In the quest to secure grants, it is general practice in our sector to commit numbers we know we cannot easily achieve and without sufficient understanding of the context.
  • Much to my ire, but honestly, I realised that the relationship between a donor/investor and recipient will always remain asymmetric. To assume otherwise is to be naïve, and the fight to turn the tide the other way is a long haul one.
  • Donor management is an art and skill that I should have perhaps honed long ago. As one grows in a leadership role, it takes enormous work to ensure that the interests of the organisation and the teams take precedence over the leader’s ego.

In due course, I made my peace with the whole phase and moved on. I am glad I prioritised myself over a project though, and I walked away with the core belief that nothing is worth the cost of my own well-being.

From an organisational stand-point, I was replaced with someone who had more operations experience and a better knack for managing donors. Sadly, despite all the efforts put in by everyone, including the leadership, the donor pulled the plug on the project earlier this year. To paraphrase them, “There is no point in flogging a dead horse.”

Originally published by India Development Review July 10, 2020 as part of Failure Files, a special series conceived in partnership with Acumen Academy.

Failure: Fired from Detroit Compact


Winter 1996, 7:30 a.m.
So, here I am, seething, trudging down East Jefferson, heading toward the Belle Isle Bridge, taking the first of many morning walks, designed to slake my anger and help me figure out what went wrong.

One minute I was the Executive Director of one of the most ambitious, organized and aggressive business/education partnerships in the history of the city, and the next minute my staff and I are out. The staff was mostly picked up by the local school district, while I and my administrators were given half a year’s salary and shown the door. Yes, it was called a re-organization. Yes, it was purported to be a way that the school system would continue to build, with help provided more closely at hand, and yes, the business community would still support the program with funds and jobs and such. Right.

It had been a near-perfect program with serious heartfelt commitments from each partner. Then, a perfect storm began to develop. The former Executive Director had done a great job of building an effective machine. I entered a program already running effectively. I was more representative of the community, to the chagrin of the business partners. Then, the highly-regarded school superintendent left abruptly, replaced by one who was not so highly regarded. Then, some of the most activist board members – those who were the conscience and fundraisers of the group – changed. The big funders- business and the state — began to question the success of the program and resent the money and resources provided for the program over the long term. Some of the developments occurred because opportunists were able to step into a fluctuating situation and manipulate them to whatever goal they were getting at.

There were many other events that ultimately led to this day of angry walking, but, as I said, it was a perfect storm. The program continues, unrecognizable from the flagship program it had been. I walked for many days, year long. My anger has gone from a high fire to an easily charged electric undercurrent.


Board Relationships: I was not new to working with a board, having been a head of two community college campuses and required to regularly report to the public board on my campus’ progress, but our president was the ultimate conduit with the board. At my new job, I didn’t build board relationships as closely as I should have. I didn’t know the process of pushing my agenda, and knowing where my votes were prior to board meetings.

Commitment to the Community: Despite the fact that there was a perfect storm of events leading to this “reorganization,” I personally felt that I had let the community down through my own lack of leadership in keeping the program running. At the end I sent an open letter to the community, touting the value of the program for the students, and predicting a critical mass of strong students as a result of the program. Most of my administrators tried to tell me that they shared in the program’s demise, and one even admitted to subversion, but I continued to believe that there was something else I could have done.

More Community Involvement:
Things might have been different if I had understood community involvement better. Hence, this class.

I am a doctor and I fail to pass AHA ACLS course


I attended AHA ACLS course at local training center called thaicpr and I as the only one who failed the test. To my knowledge, it is quite impossible to fail this exam as you can remediate couple times before you really fail the test.

The instructor who graded me had personal bias to me and terrminate my algorithm once I did the wrong step while he encourage the other participant to continue the algorithm eventhough they should have failed multiple times. As I encounter this unfairness, I became so frustate that I could not focus on my next trial.

I was an MD graduated from top tier medical school and never fail any exam before. I was offered a PGY-1 position in one of the best residency program in the state so that guarantee my competency as a doctor. I used to work as intern for a couple years ago and I quite remote from ACLS algorithm, so I studied real hard on the 300 pages ebook they gave in advance.

But yes, I failed the test due to bad luck and too much frustrated about the unfairness.

I felt embarrassed as all the participant passed this exam, most of them are nurses.


I accept  the fact that when I get emotional, I lose control of my concentration and ability to focus on the work. Basically, sometimes I cannot seperate my feeling from my duty. But it was quite difficult for me to get that level of emotions. So unjustice and unfairness are the issue that can trigger me to that point.

I think sometimes, we just met the wrong people who intentionally tease us when they are in the position that they can.

What I learnt is that I don’t let just only one test failure define me. I know what I can and cannot do. The  main reason that I fail this impossible to fail test is that.. I didn’t focus on it, I lose my mind to that trigger.

It was a mistake and I have to forgive myself. There are many ACLS course in different training center available, I will enroll to another instructor. Maybe I will find the better one that fits me and allow me to perform well without those unfairness distraction.

Most importantly, I need to learn to control myself more in the situation that I cannot control what kind of people I ran into, and that needs a lot of practice in the long run.

Here we go again .


So I’m going to tell one of many failures I have had when raising my family . first we start at our child’s birth , nothing is easy when raising your child , so we start off with all the right foods , proper clothing , and education . for me it started off easy , the main thing was having family around to help when the going got tough , we cruzed threw middle school with the usual problems , but kept moving forward . Then came highschool , another tough part of growing , the teenage years , I can write a short story on the things to teach your teenagers so your life will become easier in your golden years , I made to many mistakes to list them all . Now life is hard , even doing every as right as possible still won’t make raising kids easy , but when they get to adulthood , you should be able to breath a sy of relief. Now here we go again is the best way to describe what happened to our lives after the second hurricane swept threw our home and made us homeless . The storm that hit one year earlier did not put us on the street , but the second one did . Now years had passed since my son was born , he was a teenager now , most of my friends and family were either gone from this world , or moved far away , so when it came time for me to look around for some help , I was all alone , now I was always a hustler , never a quitter , so I did what ever I could do to put a roof over my family’s head , I used every resource possible to try to keep it as normal as possible . now for three years I struggled to keep it together , and did a good job considering I was only making minimum wage . well that’s where I went wrong years earlier .Because when the house we were living in went into probate court , my landlord passed away , and his wife and six kids had no where to go , it put us back on the street , now with no family left , and all my resources used up years earlier , I had no where to turn , and don’t believe it when they say there’s help from the state you live in , that takes years . So here we are again , homeless , living anywhere we can , and the only thing I’m concerned about is my teenager , whom I should have saved every penny I made years before he was born , for unforseen disasters that happen . so looking back you need to save as much as possible when your young , and never think you can depend on friends or family , it just doesn’t happen , now a days everyone has to many problems , so plan for your future now , and you will be good , never put off till tomorrow , what you can do today . so at ends note , here we go again , one day at a time , thank you ,


Save from your earliest days living , education is most important , and keep friends and family as close as possible .