Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Autumn-Winter correction

There are two kinds of newspapers - those which make you think and those which make you laugh.

You can guess which category Bombay Times belongs to. Long years of exposure to the paper have made readers immune but still. There are days like today, when one is compelled to stand up and salute this feather in the cap of frou frou.

Smell the smugness, dahlings, with every carefully selected Oxford English dictionary assisted word. Ergo.

"Somebody once told me that in fashion there is a persistent dichotomy between linear, architectonic design and design with a much stronger narrative element."

Wonder how many BT readers get it - at all. Even the sub editor didn't, coz the strapline to the article is 'What's linear and what's architectonic?' (Well I don't really know but anyone who can read would at least figure the two are one and the same!)

Ms Queenie, who's written the article, obviously believes that fashion - which is generally considered frivolous - will be taken more seriously if she can dress it up with oh so intelligent adjectives. Alas.

Fashion is interesting.
Fashion is fun.
But Fashion Week is mostly irrelevant to our lives.

The 'architechtonic' aspect of fashion is to indicate the kinds of silhouettes, fabrics and colours we should be wearing in the next few months. The latest Bollywood hit/ Hindi soap will decide what's in as far as 'Indianwear' goes. And the stock from Bangkok/ Hong Kong which our hip stores live and die on, will determine the rest.

So yeh fashion week ki zaroorat kya hai?

"You won't understand, my dear, it is an 'art form'".
Theek kaha aapne.

It's the art of making us believe that awfully constructed, impractical to wear clothes constitute fashion.

That models with unrealistic looks, expressions and proportions constitute womanhood.

That hacks like Ms Queenie who wreak havoc on the English language and leave you wondering 'what-was-that-I-just-read', constitute journalism. Even in its low, BT form. And I quote:

Besides a sip of champagne and a quite afternoon to see a friend in the city Naomi appeared 'perfect'.

Linearly architectonic, what say! I rest my case.

A previous article of mine on this subject: India Fashion Weak (Businessworld, May 2005).

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Adventure in Ri Hynniewtrep

It is my first evening in Shillong. I've just had dinner at a restaurant called 'Bombay Bites' (would you believe it!) and decide to take a stroll in the famous Police Bazaar area. It's close to 9 pm and the place does look a tad deserted. But to my Mumbai mind the night seems young.

Then I get a call from the only person in Shillong who has my cell number. A person I have never met but am hoping to interview the next day. "What? You are in Police Bazaar at this time?? Wait right there.. I will drop you back!"

And true to his word, Z lands up a few minutes later and I sheepishly get into a well-worn Maruti. "Is it really unsafe?" I ask my new found friend. "Well... probably not", he says."But just in case. Why take a chance?"

And sure enough Mahesh - the one man receptionist/ caretaker/ cashier who holds the fort at the Bonnie Guest House - is relieved to see me. "I was going to call and find out where you are..." he grins.

Okay! So lesson # 1 in Shillong. Early to bed and early to rise - in the North east consider that wise!

And quickly, I learnt a whole lot more.

Like Shillong is a small town but small is truly beautiful. I have been to many 'hill stations' and they are generally over run by tourists, touts and terribly unplanned new developments.

Shillong still has that untouched feel to it. Beautiful wooden bungalows, old-style churches, wider-than-expected roads! And oh, it is SO clean everywhere.

Old timers complain that Shillong is now crowded and even experiences traffic jams. Mujhe to bhai kaafi khaali aur khula khula laga. But then my point of reference is you know which crazy city!

And the air - it is so heavenly that I wish you could bottle it and take it home! Cool and crisp but without the chill factor, because there are no icy mountains anywhere near the place.

So what did I do? Well. Since I had only 2 days to spend in the city I decided to skip the various 'peaks and points' which tourists visit and just get to know the city. I walked around. Met some interesting people. Tried out stuff!

Like red tea. Sounds intriguing but it's really only lightly brewed black tea with lemon. Tastes better than it sounds, up there :)

Things that struck me
Shillong is far more cosmopolitan than I would have thought. The area I stayed in - Laban - had a fair mix of people from different communities. The shop signage is interesting to say the least!

Another thing you notice is the long shadow of the Indian government. All over the place! From rozgar yojanas...

... to public sector banks (the Khasi language which uses English script adds an exotic touch to their names!).

And of course, at every turn, there is the Army.

There is no local bus system in Shillong (or perhaps I failed to notice it!) but there is a very efficient share a cab facility. Black and yellow Maruti Altos and 800s criss cross the city, constantly picking up passengers and dropping them off. They charge you ten bucks wonly unless your destination is out of the way or you want to 'reserve' the entire cab.

I wonder if the base model nano might eventually replace them. You really don't need an air-conditioner here!

IIM Shillong
Any batch which enters a newly set up institute - even an IIM! - generally has a tough time. Ask the folks in 'IIT Rajasthan'and so on who are operating from existing IIT campuses.

But IIM Shillong is different. The first batch of 64 students who joined last June actually have a lovely campus! Located in the Nongthymmai area of Shillong this complex earlier housed NEHU (the North Eastern Hill University, which has relocated).

You walk up a winding driveway, past fir trees gently swaying in the breeze. Green lawns and pure air - ah! this could be a holiday resort. Actually it was the summer palace of the erstwhile Mayurbhanj kings. No wonder! There's solid wood flooring and even gazebos which remind you of the 'I am sixteen' song from Sound of Music :)

However it's all quite functional - classrooms, faculty offices, dormitory, auditorium, guest house and what have you. The blackboard I was told is 'the most hi tech' across all IIMs.

And hey, they serve Maggi noodles here... for breakfast!

On the flip side, location is a constraint in attracting quality faculty. When profs visit, they like to cram in the course into as short a duration as possible which means longer hours of classes.

There are some unique aspects to IIM Shillong. Instead of a summer internship, students go on a winter internship program in January and February. That way they not only beat the weather but avoid the maara maari for good roles and profiles in the summer.

IIM Shillong hopes to differentiate itself by positioning itself as a bschool which focuses on sustainable development. That sounds great on paper... but I doubt most companies in Indiacare. Right now at least, it's all about sustaining profits!

The logo of IIM Shillong (designed by NID) is rather nice and has a local flavour. But will IIM be able to impact Shillong in any other way?

The institute is running some short duration programs for locals and soon-to-retire defence services officers. But judging from the numbers taking CAT, overall interest in getting into a management career is low in this part of India (which may not be such a bad thing :)

People are what you may call 'chilled'.

Memorable encounters

* A taxi driver with an MA in Political Science. He also runs a hatchery - this is just his spare time job. He related the story of how a friend landed in Mumbai and was robbed off everything but the shirt on his back, that very day.

"I told him it's not Shillong... things are different in India." Which begs the question: Is Shillong not part of India...??

* I visited the office of Chillibreeze, a content outsourcing company which runs a 20 strong office in Shillong. Chillibreeze is one of the two occupants of a 'Software Technology Park' set up by the government a couple of years ago.

"It is a new thing here," says Teddy, the amiable manager at Chillibreeze who shows me around. To be able to find employment of this kind - in Shillong - is rare.

I traipsed around the place shooting pictures, taking video, asking Teddy questions and none - but none of them! - looked up from their screens. Extreme dedication or phobia of strangers? A little of both methinks.

"We Khasis are shy.. we don't speak so much," explains Teddy. Ask a question, you get a concise answer - not a conversation. English speaking, hardworking staff at a reasonable price. So why can't there be more such companies in this part of the country? 24 hour electricity and net connectivity used to be an issue - the software park takes care of it now. The facility is set to expand soon - it should attract more such ventures.

(A word of advice to whoever manages the park: please also take care of the loos! They are the only dirty place I have seen in Shillong - a disgrace!).

* While most tourists hang around Police Bazaar Laitumkhrah is actually more buzzing as far as the local youth are concerned. My friend Z took me to two happening joints - 'The Little Chef' started by 'Oz', a Shillong native who trained with the likes of Oberoi hotels before returning home to floor everyone with divine desserts.

I vouch - the cheesecakes are to die for.

Then there is 'A Matter of taste' - a delightful hangout which brews much more than coffee. AMOT is a place where creative types congregate. The walls and display units showcase paintings and CDs by local artists, as well as handicrafts. On Sunday evenings there are live performances.

The show is managed by Sharon, who studied in Delhi and worked as Jet Airways cabin crew before returning home because... get this. As per Khasi tradition the youngest daughter is responsible for looking after her parents.

It looks like she is having her cake and selling it too :) But seriously, since Sharon's family owns the building and her brother is the architect I can't say if it is a hugely profitable business in its own right. But surely, it is about doing something new, making a difference.

Ah, despite my best laid plans of not getting touristy, it happened otherwise. Divine intervention extended my stay in Shillong by a day. Gauhati airport was hit by a dust storm which reduced visibility to such a low that planes did not take off for almost two days.

Not that I was complaining. I set off for Cherrapunji - the name imprinted in my brain by geography textbooks as as the 'wettest place on earth'. Alas - no more. It still rains, of course, but the quantity is said to be falling with each passing year.

In any case it has not rained for a while in these parts (abhi season nahin hai) hence there was absolutely NO water at any of the famed waterfalls in and around Cherrapunji. More brown and yellow everywhere than green!

Among other attractions, the Mawsmai cave is pretty cool - my daughter would have loved it coz you enter from one side and exit from the other after negotiating some rather spatially challenged rock formations. It was more of an adventure I am told when the cave earlier - now it's nicely lit up so you don't get spooked or need to carry a torch.

And yes, the drive is nice although I can't say if this really looks like the 'Scotland of the east'. Scotland of the West hi abhi tak dekha nahin hai.

I also spent a bit of time at Ward's lake (pretty but hardly spectacular!).

The next morning I called Gauhati to confirm flights were leaving. A part of me was hoping the answer was "no".

There's a lot more to see and do in Shillong - and in the rest of the Northeast - but at least I got a glimpse of Ri Hynniewtrep - land of the seven huts.

I will be back - sometime soon!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Visiting Guwahati & Shillong

Starting tomorrow. Am speaking at an entrepreneurship event organised by IIT Guwahati and then going to Shillong (just! this is my first ever trip to the North east).

The exciting bit is I don't know anyone in this part of the world.. but would love to meet some interesting people. Entrepreneurs, artists, musicians - whatever. Would also love to visit a couple of local colleges and of course IIM Shillong.

And if anyone has suggestions on what to do/ where to eat/ hang out etc please feel free to share... I will be checking my mail on gprs (God willing) so drop me a line at rashmi_b at yahoo.com

Interview subjects wanted

Am looking for folks with the following profiles to do a short interview on UTVi 'Cracking Careers':

* Any MBA/ engineer from a reputed school who has worked with a PSU (or is still working for one). This is in the context of so many current graduates joining PSUs.

* Anyone who's done SAP certification and can talk about who should go in for it, does it make sense in the current environment and so on

* Anyone who'd completed the international CFA. Again, is it something you would recommend to others? Has it boosted your career?

As always drop me a line at rashmi_b at yahoo.com. Would prefer people based in Mumbai as it is easier logistically but if you are based in any major metro it should be ok.

EOA (End of Appeal)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Love thy neighbour

My nose is a little pink. My fingernails purple. Yes, I played Holi today!

I know many of you didn't. Kuch log kehte hain, "I'm allergic to colour". Others feel "Gosh... too old for this". Many, including me, long for the good old days when we played Holi with our chaddi-buddies. What's the fun in chasing a neighbour you barely know with water balloons?

More of us need to find out - like I did. I think Holi is the one festival which gives us all an excuse to be kids again. And I might be imagining it, but I think the few adults who came out to play Holi this year in my building had a lot more enthusiasm than previous years.

And this might be stretching it but perhaps it is a sign of the times. As a cousin who is an investment banker with not too much work at hand these days observed over dinner last night,"Facebook is exploding... Everyone has so much free time!"

Even the gosh-do-I-really-need-to-connect-with-KG-classmate types are getting onto the bandwagon and discovering they're lovin' it.

The long and short of it is, recession is not a nice thing. Most people I know are worried... "Foreign banks will soon start downsizing", says one batchmate. "Wish I had never taken such a big home loan," mutters another.

From manufacturing to media, we're slowly seeing not just a freeze on pay but salary cuts.

And yet, I think there is a valuable lesson in it for all of us. Too much of our happiness had got hinged to the ability to spend money. Too little came from spending time with the folks we love and live with.

As Suze Orman would say,"People first, then money, then things." If takes a crisis to understand the truth in that simple statement - so be it!

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Make your own road

What goes up, must come down. But just how much - we finally have some idea!

Placement statistics from IIMA confirm the worst fears of the graduating MBA class. The average domestic salary is down 32%. Foreign offers have dried up. Big recruiters are missing or making just a token offer or two.

The placement process was officially closed after 8 days but rumour has it a few students are still looking for jobs. Or maybe they have jobs, but are still looking for something 'better'.

The same stories are coming in everywhere. Top bschools like XLRI, MDI and IIFT are reporting 70-90% of the batch has secured placement. The rest I am sure will eventually find jobs, although at salaries much lower than expected.

Naturally junta is not in the best of spirits. But you know something - I think good will eventually come out of all this.

For some years now the MBA had become not a stepping stone into a corporate career but a kind of express elevator.

Now it's back to basics. Start modestly, learn the business, figure out what really works outside of textbooks. It may not be out of choice but more MBAs are moving out of their comfort zone into new and uncharted sectors.

Stories like this one are especially heartening. The Economic Times reports:

Manishbhai Patel went shopping, and came back with an IIM graduate. Patel, who runs the Rs 3-crore Varun Radiators in Kalol, Gujarat, had been scouting for a chief executive to spearhead his ambitious expansion plans...

He made his pitch, convinced the 26-year-old IIM student of all the possibilities that a growth-hungry company had on offer, and bagged his new CEO for Rs 6 lakh per annum. “It’s a breakthrough. He will add value to our company, and we want to touch Rs 15 crore within a year,” says Patel, elated at his prize catch.

It's not going to be easy for the CEO. Or for Mr Patel. But if this 26 year old can adjust his attitude and apply his aptitude, he can work wonders. I say this with confidence because I've heard stories like this from a previous generation of MBAs. Among them, super successful people I interviewed for 'Stay Hungry Stay Foolish'.

In the 70s and 80s, many IIM grads joined organisations such as FAIR - Foundation to Aid Industrial Recovery. The concept of FAIR was to take a sick industrial unit from a bank, put a young MBA in charge as the chief executive and turn around the company in two years. Retaining all the existing employees.

Sunil Handa, who later set up Core Healthcare and Eklavya school (but is of course best known and loved as the professor who's inspired so many towards entrepreneurship) said of his stint at FAIR:

"To take a 23 year old fresher from IIM-A and throw him into Bhavnagar to revive a sick unit, required a lot of guts and the density of learning was very high. If I had spent 19 months in Hindustan Lever as a management trainee, I would not have learnt even one per cent of what I learnt in 19 months as a chief executive of a sick unit".

Others like Vinayak Chatterjee (founder of Feedback Ventures) worked as executive assistant to Raunaq Singh and became part of the team which turned around Apollo Tyres.

So to the graduating class of 2009 I have one simple advice. Wherever you work, whatever you do, and no matter how lousy your take home...

Treat the next 2 years as if enrolled for another degree. Awarded by the University of Life.

Strive to learn, to grow, to polish the rough edges. Make friends with the salesman, the doorman and the chairman. Good relationships can take you a long long way.

Be humble yet do not be subservient. Understand the ground reality, gain trust and you will definitely get a chance to challenge the status quo.

You, the graduating class of 2009, are brand ambassadors for the animal known as the 'MBA'. Prove the critics wrong. Show them that the education you receieved was more than a ticket to a fancy paycheque.

What goes down, must go up. When the economy recovers - as it definitely will - you will be a valuable and wise asset for any company. Until then, enjoy each day. Struggle is the sweetness we stir into our souls as we brew our own special brand of success.

A brand bigger than the bschool you graduate from. Or the very label 'MBA'.

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