In late 2014, I was part of a small humanitarian effort that took me and a few Intuit colleagues to rural India for two weeks.
When we first arrived, it was clear that we would be receiving much more than we could possibly give. I’ll always remember the feeling of great anticipation as we walked up to the village where dozens of locals waited. After months of preparation, we were finally here.
On the streets were written “Welcome.” The children were shy, but couldn’t hide their smiles as we thanked them for their warm welcome and hospitality. Most of them didn’t know why we were there, but nevertheless, they were all kind.
The goal of our first fews days in the village was simply to meet with a handful of the women who would be attending our workshop. We wanted to meet the participants in their village to have better context. Months prior — and 10,000 miles away, we developed the workshop’s curriculum (almost like building software for customers you’ve never met). Needless to say, we spent the whole night updating our plans. Already, we were learning so much.
After 30 minutes into our interviews, I stepped outside to talk with a few of the men that spoke English. The guy to my right was the one who helped arrange our visit.
Taking pictures turned out to be a great way to break the ice. It was a conversation starter. They asked me about my family and where I was from. It was an odd feeling being the center of attention among so many people. You couldn’t help but feel like a celebrity. But you also knew you were just an ordinary person — excited to be learning about a new culture and meeting people on the other side of the world.
I’m so grateful for my colleague, Nicole, for taking this picture (below) with her phone. It’s one of my favorites. When I spoke, it was translated to Hindi. The women would answer, and then I would receive the translation back into English. This lasted for over 30 minutes. I honestly don’t remember anything that was said — just the feeling of intensity. No matter who was talking or translating, we just looked at each other. Everyone had incredible presence.
After the interviews, we spent time at the school. They had prepared some singing and dancing — led by the elementary students.
Anne, one of my favorites, stood up to teach the children, “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” It was classic Anne — and a fun moment for everyone. The kids learned quickly and everyone was smiling and laughing.
Once we started to sing, everyone who wasn’t already with us, came out to watch.
The outdoor schoolroom was small, but it seemed to fit the entire village. People were looking over their fences and watching overhead on their rooftops. It was quite a scene.
I remember asking Anne what prompted to her to share the song. She said “every kid needs to know Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” I completely agreed.
A couple days later — and many more hours of prep, the workshop began.
Before the participants arrived in buses from the nearby villages, we had a ceremony of sorts. Roli and rice were applied between our eyebrows as a way to welcome us to the community center, where we would hold our classes. The roli and rice are believed to imbue energy and focus.
Whatever it did, we knew it was it was game time — there was a nervous energy between all of us.
I love the image above. I had to laugh at this scene because it was all too familiar. No matter what kind of workshop or conference I’ve attended, they all start like this — long lines, disorderly, and confusing. But these women were super patient. For the most part, they all seemed happy to be there.
We taught in circus-like tents. I loved it because everything — every detail — was so different from anything I’ve participated in before. The whole experience was incredibly unique.
Every day for the next three days we came back to the community center — back to the tents to teach the fundamentals of marketing, sales, and finance. I honestly don’t think they learned much from us. Even though most of these women didn’t have a formal education beyond elementary school, they were street smart. They already understood many of the concepts we taught — we just gave them names.
At the end of the program, the women and locals put together another celebration, a closing ceremony. There was a band, cheering, and of course, dancing.
The day before the workshop ended, we received a few gifts. The men received hand-made “kurta” suits and the women in our group received saris. Earlier in the week, we were measured. We weren’t sure what it was for until they presented us the gifts. We all wore them on the last day and finally felt like locals :)
When I got home, I got a lot of questions about my experience. But, it was difficult to explain in words. Most of what I shared were pictures — but even the pictures didn’t do the experience justice. I remember wishing my wife and daughters could have been with me.
During the closing ceremonies, I wondered if we had any impact on the women we taught. In the end, I concluded that we didn’t teach them much — they already knew and practiced most of the concepts we taught.
In some respect, that was a little frustrating. Selfishly, I was explaining a bit of my concern to one of the locals helping us. He then shared with me more about these women — that many of them lived in abusive situations, many had seen little outside of their village and had little support. He said that our visit, specifically, meant so much because now they knew they had a group of people on the other side of the world that believed in them. He said that was our gift to them.
A year later, we jumped on a Skype call with a few of the women from the workshop. The goal was to simply share our support and listen to them about their progress as entrepreneurs. I loved how it felt to be connected to a group of people from a few small villages in rural India on the other side of the world.
I’ll forever be grateful for those two weeks in India.