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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Corporate India vs Government of India

If you have read a few of my previous posts, you might recall that this quarter I actually embarked on a rather adventurous (and according to some desis both within Stanford and without) a rather heretical journey of trying to understand the organized retail sector in India. Both me and Rahil Kacheria (Stanford '08) have been working our asses off these past few days with Tom to get the final draft of the paper ready in time. This paper will be featured on the Stanford Technology Ventures Program website and will be available for download to anyone and everyone. We have read a lot of documents and reports released by management consultancy firms, both big and small, to get a feel for things and try to understand not only the what and how of things, but as Tom says, the "Why" as well. Because the fact that a kirana store waala Chotu will come to your house, open your bridge, stack the Rasna bottles in the right place and leave saying "bhaiya aapke khaate mein likh deinge" (dude am gonna add this on your tab at the store) - is just not comprehensible to people in the US!

But some interesting things happened along the way of coming up with this report. One of those I am going to share with you in this post. So since Mukesh and his Reliance Retail Ltd. are making a huge foray into the organized retail sector, we thought it only appropriate to do a case study on them. For any case study, you need data. And unfortunately for us, RRL does not have any publicly available data that we could make use of in our study. So I tried LinkedIn! (btw, if you are not on LinkedIn - now would be a good time to get on it). A few people in my network, I saw, were in the networks of the VPs at Reliance Retail. I did get my friends' references, but in a space of a few days I realized that I was on a fool's errand. Nothing came off it. So the next thing was to go to the website and go to the basics - call the receptionist at Reliance Corporate HQ in Mumbai. (Btw, I have this knack, i think (:P), of scaling up from the receptionist to the President of the company!) And so in a sweet voice and with a little bit of accent I spoke to the receptionist who directed me to another reception - this was the RRL reception. Again, I introduced myself there and got the receptionist to somehow understand that I wanted data on a study and not a job! Nonetheless i had to talk to the HR dept. as that was the max the receptionist could do for me.

The HR person was helpful, she went out of her way to get the number of a VP who she thought might be able to help me. With the number, i called up the VP. I did get him, and again I introduced myself and told him about the study, but he interrupted me telling me that he was the wrong person to talk to. He then gave me someone Else's cell number. This time, he had hit the hammer bang on the nail - Vice President, Corporate Communications! Finally, I had my man. I gave him a ring, and he was, to my delight, reasonably forth coming in his tone and attitude towards my description. He told me to email him the details that i required and he would get back to me same time the next day.

This was 3 weeks ago. Not only did he not get back to me the next day, he decided to forget about me, until I sent him a third email saying that we were running out of time. He responded immediately saying that he would have the data in a few hours. 2 weeks from that, I am without any shred of data from RRL.

I also needed data from the government, regarding some policy documents pertaining to the 51% FDI in retail, a few tax laws, and as such anything which could help me. Awantika was kind enough to put me in touch with a gentleman working in North Block. I spoke to him on the phone and in detail explained my study and its scope. He also asked me to send him an email. I did and after 4 days, I received more than i could have asked for. Not only did he give me what I wanted, being an economist by training the gentleman went out of his way to send me data which I should have asked for, but for my lack of background in economics couldn't get around to requesting them. He didnt stop there, he told me that he would be sending some documents via post as they are only available in hard copy format.

Government of India 1
Corporate India 0

My study now has a case study on Pantaloon, which, now that i think about it, looks more poised to soar the retail skies in India than others in the race. May be because they have retail formats which cater to a wide spectrum of the society, unlike the others. Anyways, that was that. Here is a video clip I saw on CNN-IBN which has a really interesting new format of retail coming up. This sure as hell is an innovative strategy. If you cannot view it here, go here.

And what is ironic is that the channel ran this story on the same day as the above story, man if India is not a land of irony then I dont know what it..here is the video.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The below average student and Prof. Dweck

There is a professor at Stanford, a psych professor - Carol Dweck. I think she is smart, not because I attend her classes but because the Stanford Daily (the campus newspaper) says so. And her opinions based on her research surely are enlightening. So here I want to share with you some of what she said in an interview to the Stanford Daily - "Everyone was at the top of their high school, probably feeling smart. Many Stanford students dont feel smart anymore. I want them to know that this experience is widely shared. Almost nobody coasts by and does well...Everyone puts in a lot more effort than you think or than they show...The important thing in your time here is to find something you love and work at it as hard as you can." I think this is possibly the best advice one could get while at Stanford. This place has so much to offer, so many smart people that if you started to fathom it all - you would dig a very deep abyss for yourself and later find it very difficult to crawl out.

I mean I was not necessarily smart - I mean I didnt think of myself as smart when I came to Stanford. Probably the only time I considered myself smart was in middle school. That myth began to sway during early years of high school, and this sway turned into frantic oscillations as I was graduating high school and finally shattered in me any thought of being a smart guy after I left for Allahabad. So I approached college on a fresh slate, and tried to build the smarts in me. But alas, same results as in high school. I mean one would think I would be near top of the class for having made it to Stanford - but I was just barely in the top 10 - in fact there were 9 people in a class of 66 who were head and shoulders ahead of me - but some how I made it to Stanford ( I know - weird huh!). In fact let me digress here and share with you a joke my friends make about me. My friends from my alma mater who are now making big bucks at Microsoft and other big companies happened to see my resume on my Stanford CS Dept website and saw an unusually high GPA listed there (this was only after first quarter - i took only 2 courses). So one guy says to the other -"Thank God we didnt end up going to this university - it seems their bar is very low!" - HAHAHA :)) But running after grades in college really left me with no time to atleast try to find what i really want to do or would love to do. So now while at Stanford I am trying hard to see what I would love to do with my life. But this comes with a cost - grades!

I guess that is my approach to education here - I am trying hard to understand what they teach in class, try to experiment with stuff outside of course-curriculum. But sometimes it doesnt pay off and you find yourself staring down that grade which is also how you would call a flying insect which makes honey! Anyways, I am trying to follow the advice of Prof. Dweck - find that one thing I really love and go after that with all my might. Sometimes its discouraging to see a dismal standing in class, but at the end of the day - I try to keep my conscience clear and be true to the task - and if it does yield returns - well too bad, tomorrow is a brand new day! And at the very least, a below average student is better than a below average human being!

Being an Indian grad student on campus, one of the things which is oft discussed in boring conversations is - "So dood what is ur GPI?" or "Where are you interning?" or "How much are they paying you?". I mean not that often, but desis cant help but bother about such things. I bet if you ask people "Are you doing what you love?" - the answer would be difficult to produce (not in all cases though). Viewing graduate education only from the angle of GPA is being myopic. Well at least this is what I feel anyway. What do you feel? Have you already found what you love?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Piss for a Piss, an arrest warrant for a Kiss

Yes, welcome to India in the 21st century my friends. Welcome to a country where it is absolutely ok to take a piss anywhere at anytime under the sun, in the rain or on the snow - but when someone kisses a lady in public - we will thank you with an arrest warrant. Welcome to a country where it is ok to worship the temples of Khajuraho but if an arts student make full use of his imagination or a world renowned artist paints naked Goddesses - they get harassed by the police. What the hell is happening? Probably these should be the last things on my mind in the middle of the week approaching the finals, but somehow time and again I feel the freedom that comes from being an Indian and living in India is really slowly being chicken necked by unemployed people who have nothing better to do than to hold the artistic thought hostage to their lack of tolerance and respect for other peoples' views and ideas. This is what will happen when high school dropouts will do the thinking for the country. Anyways, these thoughts sort of came to the overflow point when I read the following piece by Taslima. And makes me sad..
India is a vast country. From the beginning of history, innumerable people ended up in this cul de sac. Some have visited and then left, others have stayed, sending their roots firmly down. India has always warmly embraced every stranger, people of different colours, languages, religions, ethnicity and opinions. The door was ever open to an outsider. With hundreds of languages and cultures, India is unique in its generosity to the stranger. So why is there no place for me?

I’ve never asked for political asylum from India. All I want is to be able to live here. I might breathe in a distant land somewhere, but my heart is in Bengal. So why is my appeal to live here dealt with politically? Some argue that if India were to grant me citizenship, then her relationship with Bangladesh would worsen. As if I were a common criminal wanted back home that India is harbouring! Fact is, Bangladesh doesn’t want me.So if India gives me a home, why should it concern Bangladesh at all? When I stay in Europe and America, does it worsen their relationship with Bangladesh? Instead, I imagine Bangladesh heaving a sigh of relief if India grants me shelter, like going to an aunt after fighting with your mother.

I can’t help recalling those days when authors from the West joined together to save me. They not only put pressure on their own governments but also prevailed on the European Union to save a writer from oblivion. It was thanks to their efforts that governments in the West were compelled to save me from being hanged. Then followed a kind of tug-of-war between various countries. Norway, Sweden, Germany, everyone wanted me to live with them. Granting me residency or even citizenship was a prestige issue for them: it would ensure them fame.

I don’t know who decides whether or not I stay in West Bengal. Some say the government wants to please the Muslims. Some say it’s the intellectuals who’re afraid, or jealous. Did West Bengal ever love me? Yes, she did. Annadasankar Roy, a famous free thinker, once said affectionately that “Bangladesh is Taslima’s mother and West Bengal her aunt”. When I talked of women’s rights, I got a hard kick from Bangladesh and a kiss from West Bengal. Actually it’s not the country which kicks or kisses, but the people. I have noticed that the number of secular and rational people here is far more than in Bangladesh.

And just as I love East Bengal, return again and again at its door even when I’ve been thrown out, just so do I love and return here to West Bengal.

The whole point is - Hey dudes up there in the government and polity, leave us citizens alone and away from your vote bank politics.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Grad Students Notes in Black and White

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you, the latest master piece from the master lensman, Rahul Thathoo, of the Department of Computer Science - any correct guesses of the course during which these notes were taken will be rewarded with a surprise gift!

Saturday, May 05, 2007

An interview with Hema Phadke

HP: Welcome Mr. Rahul Thathoo, nice to have you in our studios!
RT: Oh, the pleasure is all mine. Nice to be here actually.
HP: Just to remind members of our audience who might have just joined us, Rahul is a bright computer science student at Stanford University...
RT: Just wanted to add to that.. (looking at the camera), when Hema ji said bright, she was actually referring to my complexion, which btw is actually pale..so I am a pale computer science student at Stanford.
HP: (ahem ahem)...yes, and today Rahul is here to discuss one of his two master pieces in the field of applied sciences. Rahul recently published findings in the renowned science journal "Birds of the Same Feather Flock Together", which have startled the scientific community - and that is probably the understatement of the century!
RT (laughs): Thanks Hema ji! Well yes, the findings have been quite startling and in fact even though I expected something new, I never knew it would be such a stark contrast to what we humans have always believed to be true.
HP: So lets dive straight into your work, what have you been up Mr. Thatoo
RT: (ahem) Its Mr. Thathoo...so basically my work, for the past 2 months, has been on trying to find exactly those places on a piece of clothing, where a person, who had previously worn that particular outfit, dirtied the clothing by his/her sweat. So, in a nutshell, trying to find out areas on a piece of clothing where people sweat is what i have been upto for a long time now - 2 months to be precise.
HP: Wow, so how did you go about this sort of research?
RT: Well, Hema ji, you have to note that the research community for long has been trying to do this in a way which does not destroy the piece of clothing in the first place. If you go back to the time when all of us were still in kindergarten and were still learning about Heisenberg uncertainty principle - you might remember that our class teacher told us about the fact that you cannot observe a particle without disturbing it! And that was the reason why the research community couldnt measure those spots exactly on a piece of clothing.
HP: And then you came on the scene! Tell us your methodology Mr. Thathu
RT: (ahem) Its Mr. Thathoo...well so I knew there was no way one could deceive the Uncertainity principal - there are somethings in nature you really cannot defy. So I just decided to play Holi!
HP: Holi??
RT: Yes, the wonderful Indian (Hindu) festival of colors, Holi. And boy, did I play Holi or what! I mean I just went on a rampage, throwing people in water, after throwing a ton of color on them. But of course people colored me black and blue, actually more like yellow and green! The bottom line is - I was looking like a "red-Indian" at the end of it all.
HP: So how is that related with you research?
RT: You didnt let me finish..
HP: Oh, I am sorry..please continue Mr. Thattoo..
RT: (ahem ahem) Its Mr. Thathoo...so after the Holi thing, I came back and threw the dirty/colored clothes into my laundry basket. This laundry basket also contained a wonderful shirt which i wear to all my interviews. That shirt cost me a fortune, it was totally white in color, and I actually wore it on a hot day - that was my previous interview with Amazon.com. After the interview, I came home and had to throw the shirt in my laundry basket as I had sweat a lot!
HP: ahaan...and then what did you do sir?
RT: Well the next week, when I was out of clean underwear and on the verge of re-cycling old/dirty ones, I rushed to the Rains Laundry room and did my laundry. After about an hour, when I came back to throw the wet clothes into the dryer, I found - to my horror - the white shirt which i used to wear to all my interview - was no longer white. It was red! It had gullal all over it. But I was keen enough to notice that it was not red everywhere, only at specific places.
HP: ahaan!! So those places where the shirt was white were actually...(RT interrupts!)
RT: Dont even try to steel my thunder...so contrary to what you might have been thinking... the places were there was red on the shirt was actually the places where i had sweat!
HP: But that was what I was also...
RT: Forget it girl...next question please..
HP: So what were your findings?
RT: Well humans have always thought that we sweat at all the odd places, but my experiments revealed that we sweat in our armpits the most! And that is what got me the publication in "Birds of the Same Feather Flock Together" titled - "Detecting Human Sweat Regions on Clothing using Butea monosperma, from the Faboideae/Papilionaceae family". And I am invited to give a keynote address at their upcoming annual conference which is being held at University of NewFoundLand this year.
HP: Wonderful!
RT: Yes and actually to validate my findings, I tried this experiment again, I threw in a wonderful tshirt gifted to me by Prof. Hector Garcia Molina of the InfoLab, at the Computer Science Department here at Stanford (for being the second best joker in the class) with those dirty clothes which got colored in Holi and to the world's amazement and my contentment, the results were re-produced!! The armpit area on the tshirt was red! That is when I decided to finally publish my findings for the benefit of the rest of the world. And immediately, I knew that all the books on this topic would have to be re-written now that I had come up with this finding.
HP: That is just super. So with one stroke you have put India on the world map for bleeding edge research in human-textilo-hyperhidrosis.
RT: (Hehe) Well thanks, you are too kind Hema Ji!
HP: Thank you Mr. Rahaul Thathoo for joining us this week. Stay tuned next week for more exciting breakthroughs in applied sciences!

....(camera's go offline)
RT: You bitch, why cant you get my name right, its R A H U L T H A T H O O. Somebody get me the President, I mean the Producer!!