Starting of a 3 week long leadership program with 4 more fellow Indians throughout December 2015
It was time for second leg of my journey just after Thanksgiving weekend for a tailored trip across US to understand more about American Technology and its adoption by federal government, city government and the regular non tech savvy citizens of the country. It was an honor to be invited by the State Department of United States for a 3 week tour across the US as part of the their IVLP which stands for International Visitors Leadership Program. State department has been running this program for 75 years now wherein it brings in some potential future leaders to showcase them the real America and help them network with some key people across the country. Interestingly Prime Minister Modi, Ex PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai and Ex Presidents Pratibha Patil and KR Narayanan have all been a part of IVLP. This IVLP was special for me, as I was traveling with 5 other members from Cabinet Ministry, State Ministry and Policy influencers. Why me with the government officials? It was a question for all, but thanks to all the support of State Department through its local embassy in India, I have been fortunate to be hosting our startup events and have a routine engagement with them. American Embassy did find out about all the work I have been doing across the country be it with farmers or be it supporting our next generation of entrepreneurs. With Modi’s focus on Digital India, it surely had some synergies to empower the grassroots, connect the unconnected and advise the government on what all can be done with this digital technology. The trip was planned for 5 cities starting with Washington DC going through Boston, Kansas City, Salt Lake City and New York City. While there was excitement to learn more in this trip, there was some nervousness too thinking about the experience of traveling with some government officials, following certain protocols and the fear of being in a more formal environment than the usual startup madness. To my surprise, it turned out to be very different. I will narrate my experiences city by city through separate blogs.
The journey started on 29th November 2015 in DC, where we all gathered to meet early morning. It was a sunday and the State Department provided us a free day to explore the city. From visiting the outskirts of President Obama’s residence to the Capitol Building and few memorials, we started our day in DC. Till now, we had just heard stories about DC and I watched a bit about it in “House of Cards”, but what was the real city? You cant tell till you experience it. All I can say is, the city surely has similarities to Delhi when it comes to some historical monuments, but we surely have a deeper history. None the less, its a beautiful city with not too many high rises, super friendly people and the center of power of the worlds biggest super power.
Let me introduce my 4 other fellow travelers on this 3 week long journey. It was an interesting bunch of us, all between 28 and 33 coming from a very diverse background. It was a long trip and we all had to tolerate each other for the next 3 weeks, I am sure everyone was equally curious and nervous to be traveling with a bunch of strangers, with only 2 common things between all us that we were Indians and all from Delhi.
First person to be traveling with me was Saurabh Kumar, an IRS officer working as Additional Private Secretary and Chief of Staff to the Minister of IT and Communications, Government of India. Saurabh is the youngest civil servant to be at such a key position in the central government, which truly reflected how our Prime Minister and his cabinet our changing the methods of governance and ensure adoption of new technologies and tools for development. Saurabh has a very major task in hand which is to connect half a million villages across the country with fibre which needs to spread across 700,000 kms from North to South and East to West. While it all sounds fancy, trust me this needs an excellent leadership and implementation expertise and there is no doubt young dynamic and energetic officers like Saurabh surely have the ability to execute this vision.
Second person on the program is Vikas Bagri, who is Social Media and Civic Innovations adviser to Raman Singh’s government in Chattisgarh and is also currently working with MIT Media Labs on an experimental project to build social networks in rural parts of the country. My first meeting with Vikas was a funny one, he was looking for a coworking space to setup his office for the research project and ended up visiting us at CoworkIn. This was the day I was flying out to USA in mid of October to meet with Techstars team in Boulder, Colorado. While checking out the space, he found my name from the team and connected dots with IVLP, this surely strengthened my thought on the power of positivity and community. When you have to meet the right people, nature brings them to you through its on ways.
Third person was Sajid Idrisi, who had the most diverse background than all of us. Sajid is a conservation Biologist who is currently working with INTACH an organisation supported by Ministry of Arts and Culture. Sajid is an environmentalist and is actively working on wildlife conservation, soil conservation and mapping of our heritage monuments using some advanced GIS mapping tools. We too had many common links through his college juniors and some friends who have been closely associated with me in Startup Weekends.
Fourth person to be traveling with us is Kunal Bhardwaj who happens to be of my age and works closely with a person I closely follow. He currently works with Digital India Foundation as a Research Associate and has been recommending some key policies around Digital Innovations and IT to the Government of India. I met his boss about 2 years back for building a coworking space in Noida, but somehow couldn’t follow up due to hectic schedule of both of us, and here I was with Kunal for 3 weeks just to know that he works out of the same office now. I am sure by the end of our program, our plan for long due coworking space in Noida will also streamline.
We were accompanied by a young energetic liason officer Mr Philip Brown, who served with the State Department as a foreign services officer for over 30 years and have been retired for about 20 years now. He was still young and gave 5 of us tough competition in almost everything we did on a daily basis. Through his experience our trip was much more insightful and full of in depth learning about United States, its history and people.
Our week started with induction by FHI360, our hosting organisation which has been working around the world on developmental issues be it environment, health, financial inclusion or digital literacy amongst many other projects which they manage. While we had a planned handbook, it was important for us to understand the reason for us to travel to these 5 cities, our proposed meetings and the expected outcome. The 2 hour welcome and induction clarified all of it. Kudos to FHI360 and State Department’s International Visitor Team for understanding the profile of all 5 of us and accordingly setting up our entire itinerary. A special thanks to Shawn Davis, Program Director of FHI360 for crafting this program along with Irina from State Department and Maria Khan from FHI360 for all ground logistics and hospitality.
Our first official meeting started at State Departments Headquarter in DC with an American Indian gentlemen Manu Bhardwaj who is the key advisor and chief of staff to Under Secretary of State Department on all technology and internet related policies and has been leading Obama’s initiative of Global Connect to connect the next 4 billion unconnected people onto internet. His task in hand is to see how Global Connect can support countries like India with networks, tools and technology to bring its next billion people onto the internet.
Next day was another marathon, we had some key meetings starting with the person who created the National Broadband Plan for United States. It was important specially for Saurabh to understand the mapping and layout to lay 700,000 kms of fibre. This keeps exciting me as the day we have this network, the power of India would be beyond imagination but more than that, I can foresee how our farmers would connect with us, how the food would reach to us and how we would supply the best of our commodities, art and skills around the world in a matter of a few seconds. Our next generation would always have a smile on face and would get the best of education in any part of the country. Families would stay together and the villages will develop as model villages for the world. All of this is only possible when we have the backbone, and for startup entrepreneurs like us, this fibre will be our backbone.
Next meeting was with FHI360’s team mStar which has been working on digital inclusion and digital payment solutions along with USAID. mStar has done some great work in many countries across Africa and now in India they have been trying to support organisation in bringing all current e-tailers, banks and FMCG companies in bringing the grassroots communities on digital payment platform. While India has already made quite an advancement in the digital wallet space specially with my friends at PayTM leading the country on this front, however it is important to collaborate in order to understand bring the unorganised and unconnected community on the digital platform in order to empower them and advance them into the white economy. My recommendation for them was to support initiatives like PayTM in taking it to all corners of the countries and capture small businesses through this channel. We are looking forward to hosting them all in Delhi towards end of January 2016.
Next in line was a crash course on understanding the Federal Judiciary System, which is very different from the Indian judiciary system and provides alot many powers and authority to the states while the Federal government could focus on development and advancement of the nation. This did reflect a few things, specially on the efficiency of the judiciary and its linkage to overall advancement, however as one says its all about setting up the foundation which becomes your constitution, and amending it isn’t an easy task.
Our last meeting for day 2 was around net neutrality and zero rating issue which has been a big controversy across the country. While it has its own advantages and disadvantages, it is important to understand our freedom and in some ways, we have got this freedom after much of struggle with the telecom carriers till Mid of 2000’s. While Facebook is trying to bring Free Basics, its not something we would want. As a country, we are much advanced when it comes to our telecom policies and regulations and we enjoy free internet, which has been provided to us post 2006. Remember the guarded portals of Airtel and Vodafone before open internet was provided? Airtel Live and Vodafone Connect used to be those wall guarded portals and now facebook is trying to move us back into that age with “Free Basics”. I have been a personal victim of this as an entrepreneur and after understanding a bit about economics, I think it will be interesting to see how our regulators can strike a balance between zero rating, affordable and sustainable access to internet for all.
Third day was again meetings with some key government officials from various department, the best one being on understanding US’s strategy during recession on broadband adoption and digital literacy which has probably led to adoption of technology across the country specially the small businesses usually seen engaging with customers on social media and accepting digital payments along with high tech CRM’s.
In the evening we got some nice Indian hospitality from Mr Sanjay Puri and his family. Mr Puri has been very active in US politics and have been lobbying for getting American Indians into US parliament as Senators. He has also been instrumental in helping Indian get some strong support from United States included the famous and one of the most important Nuclear deal. He is now launching an automobile focussed startup accelerator in Pune, and would be directly supporting entrepreneurs through this accelerator. I will keep you all posted with more details about it.
Our final day in DC was probably the most powerful day where we started the day by meeting President’s Innovation fellows (PIF) residing in the US Administration building where they developed inhouse tech development centre and an open coworking space to provide all of Federal government departments with in house technology development support. This small team is probably the most powerful team within the government which surely provides energy and completely new vision for all the departments to look into technology and innovations. With some hackers, ex investment bankers and entrepreneurs in this team, the government has been able to revive and execute some of its projects in a much less budget and much more efficiently.
The final meeting was with Ms Sonal Shah and Mr Irfan Nooruddin at Georgetown University to understand the role of universities in innovations and entrepreneurship. Education is one of the key to entrepreneurship and innovation, and its important for us to provide the next generation with the right knowledge, ability to think, innovative culture and skills for sustainability. All of this is only possible when you provide these skills in educational institutions and thats the key to most of the innovations coming out of USA. With the support of professors like Mr Nooruddin, a university is able to conduct the research to assess the needs of this changing complex world while the leadership skills of Ms Shah actually lay the foundation for the next generation to think big and deveop a innovative environment within the smallest of places and spaces. We have agreed to get some Georgetown university students to India and provide them some real exposure to our startup environment which mutually benefit both the ecosystem of both the countries.
With this we concluded our first leg of IVLP in Washington DC and took off to our next destination, one of the oldest cities of United States, Boston in Massachusetts.