A Brown British Business Woman

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The other day, I heard about a networking group for black British business women. And the question naturally arose whether such a group was essential and would it then be alright to have a white alternative and possibly one for every hue going. I was told that such a group was not exclusively for Black women but that any woman or man could come along, though I doubt if many others who were not of that ethnicity would take up their invitation.

And this is an ongoing quandary in my mind. Do such selective programmes and opportunities promote division or do they address specific challenges faced by the group of people it is targeting?

I was recently selected for a writer’s development workshop run by Kali Theatre in London which was aimed at creating new writing from playwrights of South Asian origin. It was a fantastic experience being trained by some of the country’s leading talent including the very celebrated Tanika Gupta MBE and Sharmila Chauhan among others.

When I asked Tanika if such a programme was necessary, she told me to take any offer of training that came away instead of questioning its raison d’etre as such hubs of training and development for writers was hard to come by. Sharmila Chauhan mentioned that as an Asian writer she was still expected to write about terrorism and poverty. That if she wrote anything different, no mainstream theatre would ever produce it. It was only in places like Kali that writers of our extraction could be heard, she felt. A writer from our group mentioned how she was considering submitting her script with a more mainstream pseudonym in order for it to have a reasonably good chance of being read and produced.

Perhaps there is still a need to discriminate positively. After all, how many black British business women have you heard of? How many plays written by British Asian women have you watched? Of which how many were not about poverty or terrorism?

May be with enough gender and race specific support, we will not have scratch our heads to remember a black British business woman’s name. May be it will be natural to watch a whodunit written by someone who’s name is a Gupta or a Menon or even an Arumbakkam.

unpaid work

You Get Paid In Different Ways

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Not long ago, I was approached by good friend and fellow BNI member Jo Horne who wondered very hesitantly and extremely apologetically, if I could make a video and help create a crowdfunding campaign to save a school for children with special needs which was facing imminent closure. A close friend’s child was attending the school, Jo added, and he had made tremendous progress and a closure would have an enormous impact on several children and their families. Couched in the polite, tentative mail were signs of despair. It was an appeal for any help from those that had been cast adrift.

I took a few hours to think it over. My instinct as a parent and as someone who looks to right any social injustice was to say yes. But my guise as an entrepreneur intervened and I wondered about doing something for no monetary returns. What’s in it for me? I found myself asking and eventually wrote, I am sorry, I have invested heavily in training and equipment that I have to look at the making money soon and although I would like to be able to help, I cannot be of more assistance on this occasion.

Jo was of course understanding and I suspect, a little gutted. I did not think much more of it until the following Friday when I met her in person and apologised to her for my inability to help. But hearing her speak, I found myself instinctively re-offering my services. I would ask someone to go over there to shoot and I’d edit it. Or if they could shoot it themselves, I could edit it. We could Skype together a plan. So on and so forth. Not once had it crossed my mind that I had a packed week ahead with three shoots and that the kids were home for summer holidays. I’d manage somehow, I figured. She would be in touch, she promised but time was fast running out for the school.

The following day, I attended a MasterMind workshop where local businesses bring a real life issue to the table and it gets picked apart and put back together by the rest of the group. How do I say no? I wondered aloud to those around the table. I don’t know how to say no when I get asked for help as my instinct is to say yes but I am afraid I am spreading myself thin.

There were several suggestions that were made but the one that struck me the most was when someone said, ‘don’t just look at monetary returns on your project. People get paid in different ways’. It was as if I had been shot between the eyes. What a blindingly simple way of looking at work.

In essence, it is that I had been grappling with all along. I wanted to do projects where I’d get paid money. But I felt uneasy simply looking at remuneration in money terms. And I was too inhibited to allow myself to do work that I didn’t invoice for. Plus, that would be volunteering, of which I did enough already.

But hang on, could I possibly be richer doing free work? Why indeed not, I wondered. If I did the work for someone who most needed it, wouldn’t that make me happy? After all, what is the point of making all the money? Isn’t that supposed to make me happy as well?

More money = more happiness (ostensibly)

Help people = more happiness

Same goal, different routes. I realised that I had always wanted to help those that come asking for my assistance. But having cast myself as a business and telling myself that the done thing (whose rules? where is it written?) was to say no to free work but in saying no, I was also denying myself of the huge rush of happiness that comes with helping others.

There have been loads of articles written about film-makers being regularly asked to do free work. And how many of them jeopardize their chances as well as those of others who rely on paid work. Yet a survey done by Shooting People (a directory site for all kinds of film work) found that 81 per cent of the site’s subscribers wanted to see postings for unpaid jobs, that 86 per cent were prepared to work unpaid and that 78 per cent don’t want to be told that they cannot choose to work for nothing.

Why would that be? It could be one of many reasons. People may want to do free work which could lead to paid work. May be they are hoping to gain experience doing unpaid work. Or like me, may be they just want to help. And helping others sometime can be a reward in itself.

I have yet to make up my mind about how I would react the next time I get asked to do something for free. It wouldn’t be a straight yes but it certainly wouldn’t be an absolute no. After all, some work you do for money. Some work you do for joy. And they are both equally valid.

Addendum: Over the last week, the school has shut its gates for good, sadly. But the parents are hoping that they will be bailed out by a new bid. My offer of help remains.

(this post was amended to include Jo’s name after checking with her that it was okay to identify her) 


Abdoulaye Alhassane Touré

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There was a period in my early twenties when I used to listen to a lot of music from Mali. The label Music Today which was part of the India Today group was bringing out a series on world musicians at that time and I bought a fair few of the cassettes (yeah, that long ago) which featured musicians from Mali and would play it in endless loops.

I recently stumbled upon Niger’s Abdoulaye Alhassane Touré music on Free Music Archive (a brilliant resource if you haven’t seen it already) and his music reminded me a lot of the fabulous Malian Ali Farka Touré whose work I am familiar with. This track in particular, is one I love. Ecoutez!


If it’s not impossible…

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Nick Winton's statue at Maidenhead station Earlier this evening I learnt that Sir Nicholas Winton, the man so often described as British Schindler, had passed away at 106 years of age. I decided to pay my respects to this extraordinary gentleman, that I bought some flowers and took them to Maidenhead train station which has a statue of his reading a book.

As I drove there, I thought of the crammed day I had had. After tidying up some loose ends at work in the morning, I had changed into fancy clothes, thrown on a fascinator and had gone with a friend to Henley Regatta. We had sunned ourselves, had posh tea, circulated amongst others and in all and had had a spiffing good time. While there, I had had an opportunity to meet two women who were rowing across the Atlantic ocean. Yes, they were going to row all 3000 nautical miles of it and were happy to share the details of their adventure when quizzed by random strangers like me.

It was on my return that I learnt of Sir Nicholas Winton’s passing and was reminded of his incredible feat of rescuing over six hundred Czech children from certain death at Nazi concentration camps. And his famous reluctance to acknowledge the magnitude of his endeavour. His achievement remained hidden from public for a very long time until a chance discovery by his wife of a scrap book crammed with information about the children whose lives he had saved. At a recent ceremony to honour him at Prague, he jocularly remarked that the trouble with living so long is that people tended to exaggerate what he’d done.

Meeting the Atlantic rowers and learning of Sir Nick’s passing away on the same day, I was struck by the depth of kindness human beings are capable of and the lengths to which we are can pushing our bodies and minds to. However, the horrific circumstances that prompted Sir Nick’s rescue mission are also the evil work of human minds. We can embrace humanity just as easily as we can opt for violence.

I dropped flowers on the lap of Sir Nick’s statue on platform 4 at Maidenhead train station, bowed my head in remembrance and turned to leave. There were six others waiting for their train. Two young women and a baby, a middle-aged man telling another that this was the train he normally took to get back home from a late shift and a sixth man sound asleep stretched on a bench. Life, in all its dull, quotidian detail. And Sir Nick reading his book unobtrusively at the far end. Exactly how he’d have liked to have remained, I imagine.

*Apparently, Sir Nick used to say, ‘If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it’.


Crowdfunding – What I learnt – Moving On

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Some of the rewards we were offering our supporters.
Some of the rewards we were offering our supporters.

A couple of years ago, a colleague and I ran a crowd funding campaign to install solar panels at the sewing unit in India which we remotely manage from the UK. We did not reach our target. But we have learnt some invaluable lessons along the way and I have been sharing them over the past few posts.

Like ours, a substantial number of crowd funding campaigns fail. We don’t know exactly how many, since the platforms that host them are so varied, but it would be safe to say that more campaigns fail than meet their target.

This happens for a variety of reasons, it could be that there wasn’t enough planning behind it, there wasn’t enough engagement with the supporter base, it was too ambitious in its target, it was too ambiguous in what it was setting out to achieve, the campaign did not include a video (ahem!) and so on. It was most likely a combination of all of it.

When our campaign failed, we took it badly. The result did not surprise us entirely but still, it was not pleasant knowing that our supporters had not backed us all the way. And that impacted the entire project. We trundled along the next few months listlessly wondering what to do about the critical shortage of power which we were hoping to address through the solar panels.

We eventually found our mojo and got back to our usual energy levels but not before it gone through a definite slump. Since then, we have also done an autopsy of the campaign to find out where we went wrong and how we’d do it differently.

While it is natural to feel upset and even bitter about the unfavourable outcome of your campaign, it is important to remember that you could try again and again. With the benefit and time and hindsight, you should be able to include the learning from your campaign to attempt to reverse the earlier setback.

So much so, I have become a keen advocate of the crowd funding model and often suggest that as an option to small charities struggling to keep afloat. What’s more, I offer to do the video for their campaign while acting as an unofficial crowd funding consultant at the same time. How’s that for a putting lessons to good use?


Crowdfunding – What I learnt – Involving

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Women from our sewing unit in India. We crowd funded to raise cash to install solar panels at the unit.
Women from our sewing unit in India. We crowd funded to raise cash to install solar panels at the unit.

Over the past few posts, I have been documenting my experience of  running a crowd funding campaign for the social enterprise I am part of. Some campaigns offer equity, some others debt for their projects but ours appealed for donations from our patrons in order to buy and install solar panels at our sewing unit in India. We only managed to raise a quarter of our total ask and in the two years since we ran the campaign, I have thought about why we were unsuccessful and this series elaborates on the lessons learnt.

I have mentioned how crucial preparation and timing are to any campaign. Involving your patrons in the progress of the project is just as important. Over the four weeks or so that we ran our campaign, we sent out a few tweets at the random rate of a tweet every few days or so asking people to get behind our efforts. It was half-hearted, a little reluctant and to be honest, awkward. I did not want to be seen as pestering people, bombarding their timelines with tweets and incessant calls to sponsor us.

In retrospect, our slightly stand-offish stance must have been confusing. We had a project, well researched and well presented and yet oddly, one we were shy to promote. I am not suggesting that you about bleat constantly about your campaign urging people to back it. But do consider involving those who are already backing the project so they become ambassadors for it. It is about appealing to their networks who will in turn inform their crowds. So the whole enterprise gathers energy and steams ahead.

That is all very good, I hear you say. But how does one go about including the patrons and getting them to spread the word? Simple. Ask them. Put a call out to your backers asking them how they can help you. Suggest that they hold their own offline events. Pass on some of your ideas for promotions and encourage them to take up your cause. Remember, these are people who have already bought into your project. They believe in it. They want to see it succeed. Why not let them help it reach its goal?

It will not be easy. You will think of a hundred reasons why people won’t do it. However, most people would like to participate in the success of something they like. Whether it is voting for a reality TV contest or whipping up support for a crowd funding campaign. Allow people to become part of your team and let them delight in its positive outcome.


Crowdfunding – What I learnt – Timing

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The women from our Indian sewing unit which was severely hit by power cuts and for whose benefit we crowd funded solar panels.

Apart from directing videos, I am also one half of a social enterprise duo. And in 2013, we ran a crowd funding campaign to raise money to install solar panels at our Indian sewing unit. It was not successful, missing its target by a few thousand pounds. We had done a fair amount of research into the various platforms that could host our campaign and into the rewards that we would be giving our backers. We had not considered the timing of our campaign.

Our campaign went alive almost two years ago to the date and it is only now, looking back I realise how lucky we were with our timing. That it was not April when people would be away on Easter holidays (much of our patrons are/were still in the UK and hence thinking local calendar) or in August when they may have gone away for the summer. It wasn’t in December during the furious shopping periods leading up to Christmas or during the lean days of January. We were lucky to have timed it in June.

While we had considered how long to run the campaign for (4 weeks) and when to install the solar panels (after the October monsoons), if we were successful, we had not really thought long and hard about when to schedule our campaign in order to give it the best possible shot at reaching its target. That happened by chance. Should we r another crowd funding campaign, this factor about when to launch our campaign, will be part of its design.


Crowdfunding – What I Learnt – Preparing

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I had first heard about crowd funding and crowd sourcing at Brighton Documentary Festival in 2009 when documentary film-maker Franny Armstrong talked about how she funded her film The Age Of Stupid. It seemed such a simple and yet brilliant idea that I wondered why no one had yet thought of it.

Well, we had but this was one of the earliest examples of formalising what had always been a way of making a project a reality. That is, harnessing the power of your supporters to propel you forward. I squirrelled ‘crowd funding’ under the ‘May Need It Sometime’ folder in my head and got on with life.

Fast forward 2013 and now, I am now a social entrepreneur who remotely manages a sewing unit in India along with a colleague. We hear about crippling power shortage affecting productivity at our unit. I wonder if we could crowd fund for solar panels. My colleague and I do some research to identify suppliers and work out the costs. It is not very expensive but it is not so small an amount that we can self-fund it either.

We look at several crowd funding platforms and decide on own whose tipping point model appeals to us. Their fee for hosting the project seems reasonable and after deciding and sourcing the various rewards for the different tiers of patrons, we launch our campaign and then wait for money to start coming in. Little happens. We post on Facebook and Twitter hoping to jumpstart activity and nothing seems to rouse the campaign which seems to be fast slipping into a slumber and we don’t know what to do.

Here’s what we should have done. Prepare. We saw an opportunity, we had a need and we went for it. Of course, the world was waiting for just this project. And once we unveil it, people will be clambering to support us, we had tacitly assumed. But nothing could be further from the truth.

People have lives and their lives are busy. A crowd funding campaign for solar panels is not their priority. What we should have done is spent as much time and effort in gathering our support network and talked to them, individually or collectively and prepared them for what we were about to do. Instead, we sent them cold emails. I bin any unsolicited email asking me for money or indeed, offering me money. Chances are, our emails to our supporters went the same way.

If we had picked up the phone or invited them all to a wine and nibbles evening and played the video we had created and then passed the (metaphorical) hat, then I have little doubt that the results would have been different. But instead we rushed into it headlong and predictably, fell short of our target.

(more learnings from an unsuccessful crowd funding campaign to come)


Lessons From A Workaholic Father

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From the celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of my father's (seated third from left)  enrolment to the Madras Bar Association with the Chief Justice in attendance.
From the celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of my father’s (seated third from left) enrolment to the Madras Bar Association with the Chief Justice in attendance.

A personal story. My 78-year old dad works everyday, 7-days a week for at least 12 hours each day. And he has done so for the last half-a-century and more. That is because he does not consider what he does as ‘work’ in the sense of slaving for someone, spending your waking hours doing something you can scarcely like but are too scared to turn away from for fear of the unknown, suffering Monday morning blues, regretting missed opportunities and planning long, indulgent retirement years.

For Appa work is fun, challenging, exciting and exhilarating. He is a criminal lawyer who thrills in dodging the legal minefield on a daily basis. He can spend hours telling you about such-and-such case and such-and-such loop hole and he will expect you to keep up with all the nitty-gritties of the criminal matter he is grappling with (he would regularly stop to check that I am following and I nod gamely even if I have been lost for a while). Retirement is not an option he has ever considered. It is only ever for other people on fixed income and limited work lives. Plus, what would he retire from? From the buzz of attending courts, preparing his case, presenting his arguments, awaiting the judgements and appealing further, if need be? Not a chance.

As I was leaving for my weekly BNI meeting at six o’ clock this morning, my father who is visiting us called out ‘have fun!’. I stopped to tell him that I was out for work and not leisure to which he replied, ‘but work is fun, isn’t it? Go have fun!’. To him that is the only way to work and if you are not enjoying it, then there’s no point doing it. So blindingly simple, I cannot imagine how else work can be.