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MBA mission in New Delhi: Risk, act, learn, repeat

Heidi Krauel
Heidi Krauel is a principal with New Island Capital, a mission-focused investor that strives to accomplish environmental and social good. On June 15, 2010, at 10:00 pm (check local listings), PBS will air the documentary film The New Recruits, starring Heidi and two other 2009 Acumen Fund fellows who traveled overseas to work in the social-enterprise sector.

WATCH THE TRAILER: 'The New Recruits' documentary

When I joined the legions of Ivy Leaguers on Wall Street, I told myself it was a means to an end. I was driven by a passion to use private-sector tools to drive positive social change. How much of those years that followed were spent understanding how those tools actually worked or just enjoying the perks along the way is hard to say.

Yet, that passion endured. It led me to work in the edgy redevelopment zones of West Oakland and San Francisco's Bayview and then took me across the globe to work for a start-up that caters to customers earning less than four dollars a day. However, I never anticipated that this passion would evolve into a fascination with leadership or that my story would be told nationwide in a PBS documentary.

In 2008, I left my job, throng of friends, and steady salary to embark on a year-long fellowship with the Acumen Fund, of which nine months was spent in New Delhi, India. Acumen invests patient capital in market-based solutions that provide basic goods and services -- water, healthcare, housing, nutrition, and energy -- to the working poor.

The goal is to help create sustainable businesses that provide long-term solutions to the problems of global poverty. Acumen's approach replaces the culture of day-to-day handouts with the dignity of choice. It supports new business models that provide poor consumers with a voice that has the power to influence everything from price to product design. This is a voice that traditional markets can no longer afford to ignore.

As the third set of fellows, we were guinea pigs for a new leadership training program that Acumen offered as preparation for our time in the field. From Hobbes to Martin Luther King, Jr., to Amartya Sen, we debated and discussed the deepest reasons for the work we were about to do. In six weeks, I was headed to D.light Design, a social enterprise offering solar-powered LED lights as a safer, cheaper alternative to kerosene for the millions of people living and working without regular access to electricity. I was confident that I could hit the ground running in helping D.light get its lights into rural shops and households. Instead, the cultural divide I met as a younger blonde woman in a senior management role in India -- mixed in with my own naiveté -- stopped me cold.

Introducing the idea of a "leaderless orchestra" management style to employees that thrived on being told exactly what to do, how to do it, and reminded every 15 minutes? Sorry, Center for Creative Leadership -- I think I left those workshop handouts in a rickshaw my first week. Trying to systematically track D.light's progress in creating a new brand, in a new category, in a rural market, was Sisyphean at best. "Ma'am, yes, the data is here. All of it," our sales head would say while gesturing over his shoulder to a dusty stack of handwritten notes submitted, as he explained, "over some time."

I was managing a team for the first time -- a team that fluctuated in size from one to 15, ranged in age from 25 to 52, and hailed from India, US, France, and beyond. My boss told me in my first review, "Whatever you're doing isn't going over very well, but I don't really have any advice for you." An Indian coworker encouraged me with this advice: "Traditionally, men in India are used to having women soothe and calm them. Try to be quiet more." When I made a trip to India's "Wild West," with the goal of connecting directly with village-level entrepreneurs (known locally as "jyothis" or "sakhis,") I learned that just drinking chai and wearing the right kurta were not going to cut it. By encouraging D.light salesmen to ask our distribution partners how they liked selling our lights, some folks back at HQ felt I had caused "more damage to the company than [I] would ever know." Fantastic.

For working at a lighting company, these felt like fairly dark days. More ironically, I found myself falling back on the voices of the far-removed, Good Society authors we discussed during training in New York. It wasn't that I was comparing my days to those spent in a Birmingham jail or on Robbins Island, it was more about the basic concept of resilience. It was remembering, "There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the floor." In other words: risk, act, learn, repeat.

Effective leaders in the social sector are resilient: First in finding their voice, then in using that voice to bring others along with them. If there's no one standing close enough who cares, it doesn't matter how right you may be, or how passionately you believe. Leaders must be tireless in fine-tuning their message until they finally get or build that platform to make their big idea happen.

WATCH THE TRAILER: 'The New Recruits' documentary

By Heidi Krauel

 |  June 15, 2010; 4:04 AM ET |  Category:  Social entrepreneurism Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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