When One Of The World’s Richest Man Wanted To Visit Asia’s Biggest Slum!

 

The Fascination for Learning from Local Experiences

It's 1pm. JD, the CEO of a large American company is wrapping up his third meeting. Him and his delegation have been in Mumbai for 3 days, scheduled to head down to Bengaluru on day 4.

Our Executive Protection team has been keeping them safe and comfortable. So far, so good. They have had a typical business visit - a crazy number of business meetings, social events in the evenings, usually ending late with little time to pause for a breather.

However, one of the things which JD is popular for is to have one authentic local experience. The idea is not to just experience it for the sake of a story but to take away some valuable lessons - be it business or personal.

JD's Executive Assistant shared a bunch of Mumbai specific options with him. However, they aren't meeting his expectations. He is looking for something more meaningful. His assistant needs to come up with something better.

 

Comfort Zone to Uncomfort Zone in 300 Seconds

It's time to head over to the next meeting. The delegation uses their travel time to talk through meeting points. In between intense conversations, time and again, some of the executives look outside the coach window to catch a glimpse of the city. The coach stops at one of the busy traffic lights. It's in the middle of an extremely populated area. Vehicles honking relentlessly, everyone seems to be in a mighty hurry, street vendors are busy selling their products - there is a ton of hustle!

In the midst of all of this, a kid, who may not be more than 7 - 8 years old comes up to the coach. He is selling books. Holding a big stack, almost covering his face, he offers his product with a radiant smile. Most of the books are the latest international bestsellers, available at knockout prices (hello pirated copies!). The kid rattles out the title names, also makes a couple of recommendations. Based on his profiling of the executives, it's clear to him that they are important business people hence the recommendations of the best selling business books.

He catches JD's attention. At the time JD was reading one of the books being sold by this kid. JD asks one of our protectors to check the price of the book. He does it and comes back to JD with the information. $3 for a book that costed JD $30 for his copy. JD throws in another check - how many for all those books. The kid recognises his golden opportunity. He says, it's actually about $100 but he could offer a 10% discount, an offer valid only till the lights turned green. Impressed with the kid's enterprising attitude, JD hands over $200 and buys all the books, just in time as the traffic lights turn green. As the coach starts moving slowly, JD and the others witness two things - (1) the little kid calls his buddies over in excitement and tells them all to say thank the executives by bowing down with a namaste (Indian greeting), and, (2) He hugs his buddies in sheer joy.

It was surely a day to remember, for the kid, his buddies and JD.

We sense that there will be questions on this. While the common questions by other executives were on child labour, pirated copies being sold etc; JD, made a point - thats the fastest that someone, let alone a kid, has sold something to me. We were at the traffic light for about 180 seconds. He is one of the best sales guys I've met! Can I meet him?

Within 5 minutes (180 seconds at the traffic lights and in the 120 seconds that followed), JD knew exactly what was the local experience that he wanted to dig into. And, we knew that it wasn't going to be easy.

 

Making Things Happen

When a request like JD's comes through, the initial internal response is a resounding no. Purely because the risks and uncertainties involved, most times outweigh the gains. However, when one takes into account the significance of the experience being sought by the principal, then it's always a good idea to slow down and explore all possibilities before saying no.

We tell JD that we will surely check and do our best to make it happen. Being the leader of the organisation, JD needs to factor in the risks too. He inquired if there were any particular concerns. The risks involved were explained to him. But, he was also given an assurance that if we could mitigate those risks well enough and most importantly, if we were able to find the kid then we could certainly make it happen.

Another team member of ours is instructed by the team leader to immediately head over to that particular traffic light and look out for this book selling kid. His description is passed on, quite frankly with great hopes that the kid be found.

Lucky us! Within the next hour, the kid is found. His photo is clicked and sent to the Team Leader who confirms his identity. We learn more about him - his parents, siblings, where he lives, any other job that he may be working, his medical condition etc. All of these questions to understand potential risks.

We gather that Raju is 9 years old. He is the older of the 2 children. His father works at a construction site, mother is a domestic help working at a number of residences. They live in Dharavi - one of Asia's largest slums. Raju's grandmother takes care of his younger brother whilst everyone is out. Raju sets out in the morning at around 0900am to get started with his work and returns home by 0700pm. He works 7 days a week.

We ask Raju if it would be okay for us to visit his home. He thinks for a second and tells us that we would need to talk to his parents. We request him to get us to meet his parents. He says that he is happy to but only after he finishes his work. It's almost 0400pm. If everything goes well then the delegation's visit would need to be planned for the next day. Time isn't our friend here. We have a very short window to run our “advance work” and gather as much as we can.

Our proposal to Raju is that if he shows us around the place where he lives, we will compensate him for his time. He is a walking definition of the term - street smart. He wants us to clarify what we mean by compensation. We tell him that breakfast for him and his family on that day along with new clothes for all of them would be a thank you from us. A deal is in place.

Guided by Raju and another buddy of his, our team heads towards his home - Dharavi. A 20 minute ride and we are there, just outside the slums. There is simply no space to park our 4x4. Raju instructs us to drive to a nearby garage. He says that the vehicle would be parked there safely. There is no space visible but we follow his instructions.

On getting to the garage, Raju asks for $5. We ask why? He shoots back - parking charges! Raju pays the garage guy who returns to him the equivalent of $2. Parking is arranged. He tells us that we can park for as long as we wish with a proud smile. It's difficult to avoid noticing that Raju is incredibly confident, mature and of course entrepreneurial for his age.

 

Preparing For A Breakfast Meet In The Slums

It's time to head inside the slums. Walking through super narrow alleys which are bustling with people and activity, we follow Raju and his buddy. The heat combined with the smell is extremely uncomfortable. The concept of personal space is non-existent. Thankfully, it takes us just about 3 minutes to reach Raju's house. Well, house is not what one would call it. It's a makeshift room which is no more than 100 sq ft. Living room, bedroom, dining area are all rolled into one room. The bathroom and toilet are a common one which is outside and shared by 25 other residents.

Raju introduces us to his grandmother and his kid brother. We want to understand the surroundings better, so we tell Raju to show us around a bit. He takes us out deep into the slums. As we keep moving about - the maddening number of small businesses within Dharavi begins to unfold. Food products, leather apparel, pottery, plastic recycling et al, this isn't just a slum, it's an entire ecosystem with thriving businesses. It is so densely populated, widespread and almost a maize; without Raju, we would be lost.

After a few hours of understanding the nuances of the place, we are ready to now meet Raju's parents. We head back to his house. Raju introduces us and proudly tells his father how he had made the best sale of his life and that we were his customers. His father is proud of his son's achievement and is grateful for our generosity. Raju is quick to explain to his father the reason for our visit. His father appeared a tad concerned; he wasn't quite sure how to respond. Sensing his concern, we tell him that our boss was very keen on visiting him along with his colleagues. Raju's father shares his two concerns:

  • How would he manage his work schedule, and
  • How would so many people fit into his tiny home

We offer a solution. The visit would be planned well before he left for work. We would not stay for too long and also arrange for his transportation to work. That sounded good to him. A visit at 0700 am is being planned. It now needs to be run through JD.

As the delegation heads back to the hotel after wrapping up the last meeting of the day, our Team Leader briefs JD on the developments. He is mighty pleased and excited. It's clear to us that the visit to Raju's place is on!

Once JD had approved of the visit, it was vital that we optimised every second we had to identify and mitigate every challenge that could be anticipated.

 

Good Morning! It's Time For A Visit To The Slums

0600 am, next morning and it's time to get going. An early start to the day and hopefully one which would be absolutely worth it.

Our advance team is already in place preparing for the arrival of the delegation. Any last minute challenges will be taken care of before the delegation arrives. Raju and his father are kind enough to support our advance team.

Back at the hotel, the executives gather in the lobby. JD is excited and is looking forward to this trip. The coach is boarded and the journey to Dharavi begins. We use our travel time to brief JD and the delegation about what to expect. It is critical that we mentally prepare everyone for what lies ahead. Afterall, not everyone would look forward to visiting a slum first thing in the morning.

Along with what to expect, we also talk about the safety measures, the “flow of events” and what to do in the event of potential emergencies. It's visible from some of the faces that this visit is clearly the one that they deem as the most challenging.

The Team Leader takes out a large bag. It contains the presents that were promised for Raju and his family. JD is advised to give away those presents to the family. Obviously, being the leader that he is, JD wants him to be joined by some of his fellow colleagues too.

At Raju's house, the team has already bought enough breakfast to feed 30 people. As we approach Dharavi, the coach starts to slow down a bit. It is a busy morning. A lot of hustle and bustle. Thousands of people are moving about. We can see from some of the faces that they did not want to get out of the bus. Our advance team, accompanied by Raju and his father, guides the bus to the parking space. That's also where we all would disembark.

But, it's not just our advance team and our hosts; there are other curious locals too who are waiting to catch a glimpse of the “foreigners” visiting Raju. One almost gets a feeling of being a celebrity!

 

A Tough Walk, A Warm Welcome

Stepping out of the bus, we are greeted by a super excited Raju and his father, with the rest of the crowd throwing in their hellos too. “Hello Sir!” A chirpy Raju clearly recognises the leader of the pack. “You must be Raju” - a pleasantly surprised JD responds with a handshake, followed by exchanging a handshake with Raju's father. The delegation is now being guided into the slums and towards Raju's home.

The crowds, the smell, the noise, the pollution - all of this is clearly overwhelming but the executives do a great job of hiding their emotions. More people mean that a 3 minute walk is now a 5 minute walk. People zooming past, kids playing in the alleys, a lot of blank stares, persistent street vendors trying to sell their stuff and the occasional accidental push - it's all part of the walk.

Finally, after what may have seemed like an eternity to some, we are at Raju's home. At the door is Raju's mother waiting to greet JD and the delegation in traditional Indian style. A steel plate has a small lamp burning on it along with some vermillion. JD and the rest of the executives are welcomed with a small ‘aarti' and a pinch of vermillion touched on their foreheads.

Our hosts are apologetic that they don't have enough space to comfortably accommodate everyone. JD asks some of the female delegation members to sit on the 3 chairs which were available, some of them sat on the bed on which Raju's grandmother and brother were seated, the rest were fine standing.

 

Recognising A Hidden Gem, And, The Steve Jobs Fanboy

JD kicks off the conversation telling Raju's father that he is extremely grateful to him for hosting them, especially on such a short notice. But, it was important to meet the parents of such a talented young boy. Raju's father did not quite understand what JD meant, for he had never looked at his son as a talented young boy.

JD explains that his son was supposed to be a child going to school but he fully understands that circumstances would have prevented that from happening. However, him not going to school did not prevent him from deciding to work and he chose to become a bookseller - something that he was really good at. JD said that he was curious to know how did he learn it, despite growing up in such tough conditions.

Raju's father had a proud smile. He explained that he wanted Raju to go to school, study and have a successful life. However, he could only afford to enrol him into a vernacular medium school (non-english speaking school). But, Raju wanted to go to an English medium school. He shares that Raju's hero was the boss of an American company whose name he couldn't recollect.

JD and some of the other executives are quite surprised to hear that. No wonder that a few of them queried at the same time - Who do you want to be? Raju responded with his unique confidence - Sir, Steve Jobs! JD queried Raju, “how did you know Steve Jobs?”

Raju reaches for his bag and pulls out the Steve Jobs autobiography from it. This was a powerful moment. JD and the executives go silent for a few seconds. It was not just about a young slum dwelling kid in India knowing Steve Jobs' name but his dream to become someone like Jobs despite all the odds. From where they came, it would be close to unimaginable to have a kid living in absolute poverty, let alone dreaming of becoming like Jobs.

Curiosity takes over. Sally, one of the other executives asks - why do you like Steve Jobs? He is quick to say - iPhone, madam. He points to their phones. Every single one of them has an iPhone. In his broken English, Raju says - “Madam, Steve Jobs do magic.” The English isn't perfect but the point is driven home.

Watching these American executives listen carefully to his son, Raju's father, is simply awestruck by the scenes. His mother is clearly filled with pride. At the door, a whole bunch of neighbours are hanging around.

 

Rewarding Potential

Our Team Leader advises JD to hand over the presents and probably start breakfast too. He is cognizant of the fact that in some time, Raju's father will need to head out to work. JD acknowledges and gets his team to join him in distributing the presents and the neatly packed breakfast boxes. Raju and his family are overjoyed.

In the midst of all this, JD makes a proposition. He says that he wants to help Raju and his kid brother receive good quality education. Their educational needs will be taken care of by him personally. He expresses that he wants Raju to go after his dream and not work on the streets anymore.

This is something completely unexpected. Raju's family is overcome by emotions. A little tear rolls down Raju's cheek; it is almost as if he is able to see his dream being realised. Raju's father walks over to JD and touches his feet. JD doesn't know what it meant but our Team Leader is quick to explain that it is a mark of respect.

 

Lessons, Emotions and A Visit to Remember

Within a span of 24 hours, a high profile CEO and his delegation:

  • Witnessed one of the best sales
  • Experienced what it meant to live in poverty
  • Not get bogged down by challenges but remain resilient
  • Dream big, and,
  • Have a heart to help someone deserving chase their dreams.

A lot of emotions are flowing through but it's time to wrap up and get going. Right from Raju's door to the coach, JD and his delegation are applauded by Raju, his family and the crowd that had gathered. Farewells are being bid, Raju's father's transportation is arranged too and the coach starts its journey out of the slums back to the plush hotel.

For us, it's not just a beautiful feeling of Getting The Job Done, but also somewhere deep within a sense of pride that we played a part in possibly changing the destiny of two young lives.

 

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