The Tata ISES Experience
In Lent term 2008 I was studying Part II Biological Natural Sciences. I knew very little about India or its culture, and I had never even heard of Tata (beyond them acquiring Jaguar and Land Rover). I was searching for summer jobs relating to NGO or charity work, hoping to spend my summer in a worthwhile manner contributing to a development project. The Tata ISES internship stood out as a real chance to undertake meaningful and positive development work, but also as a chance to immerse myself within the Indian social and commercial environments.
Suddenly a few months later I had just graduated and I found myself sitting in a Tata guest house in Mumbai. It was my first time in India (actually my first time out of Western Europe). I couldn't speak the language, I was still in slightly in shock from what I had seen driving through Mumbai, I knew nobody in this strange country and I felt I knew nothing about development. It was a daunting task ahead of me when I was sent out to the Tata Chemicals Plant in Babrala.
Once in Babrala (working with Tata Chemicals Society for Rural Development (TCSRD)) I immersed myself in the task of my project: to increase the household income of the rural poor through devising an alternative method of milk sales in the region. From day one the task involved going into the villages and understanding the local lifestyle and culture. Only once I was in the villages did I begin to get a feeling and understanding of exactly what daily life involves in a rural village in Northern India. Overtime I collected information from academic papers and through primary data from field visits to draw up an action plan for TCSRD to take forward into the future. The project was not trivial, but was a real question which Tata wanted answering. Encouragingly, senior management really seemed to buy into the findings and recommendations I had generated and are looking to take the project on more seriously early next financial year.
For me, the most rewarding part of my Indian experience was the fantastically warm welcome I received by everybody I met. I really felt part of TCSRD team, and never felt I was an extra limb. I learnt so much about the different culture, and made some real friends during my time there. I will remember my Tata ISES 10 week internship as a huge rollercoaster ride of emotions and experiences of trying to conduct a difficult project in a completely different social environment. Tata ISES really was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to experience life in India with Indian people, and I am so thankful for the opportunity I was given. Coming home was really hard, and I'm already planning my next visit back to India.
Grant and Selene with local women and children from the Babrala villages in which they were working
In spring 2008, I was a Cambridge MBA student with a keen interest in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), international development, and social enterprise. I also had a burning desire to travel to India, a place that came up constantly in both my business and development studies as a paradox: a rapidly growing economy with the largest population of poor people of any country on earth. The opportunity to experience all of these things: India, CSR, development, and social enterprise by working for one of the world's leading companies drove me to apply for the Tata ISES programme.
The experience did not disappoint.
Serious work that's taken seriously by Tata...
Tata ISES is not the kind of internship where you spend all day in the office doing research. It's not the kind of internship where you're given menial tasks that don't matter much to senior management. We were given real projects on which serious business decisions will be made.
The Community Development initiative on which I worked is the Rural Entrepreneurship Development Programme (REDP), through which Tata staff train poor villagers how to start and run small businesses. The goal of the programme is to equip people with skills that will help them generate additional income for their families and hopefully move them out of poverty.
One factor that influences the likelihood of an individual starting or upgrading a business after completing REDP training is the availability of a micro-loan. My project was to determine how to improve delivery of micro-loans to REDP graduates. This required me to spend time understanding and evaluating REDP and its links to finance sources. Almost daily, I was out in the field, attending REDP sessions and interviewing REDP graduates, local government officials, and bank managers. I also had ample opportunity to research and learn about how microfinance works in India and abroad.
At the end of the summer, I presented my findings and recommendations not just to the Community Development staff in Mithapur, but also to several key leaders from all the Tata companies. Even Executive Director of Tata Sons Alan Rosling took the time to meet with us and learn about our experience.
First time in a developing country ... no problem
Prior to Tata ISES, I had only travelled in Europe and North America. Not only was this my first trip to India, it was my first trip to a developing country. It was not easy at first. On our drive into Mumbai from the airport, I remember looking at the slums on the side of the road, thinking, "Oh my ... what on earth do I know about this? Am I going to be of use to anyone? Will I be able to cope?" But, the Tata staff took very good care of us. Our accommodation was comfortable and nice. They helped us with transport and provided us with meals and drinking water. They helped us connect with our families. They incorporated us into the local team and checked in with us regularly. It did not take too long to adjust, and in fact, Tata really valued the fresh perspective of someone who was not accustomed to life in India.
The unforgettable bits
By the end of August, I was ready to go home. But within a week of being back, I was missing India. The people I met - especially the villagers and local people I befriended - changed my life. I now understand some things about the world, about people, and about life that I could never have known without this experience.
Today, I am getting ready to start a job in a global poverty relief organisation. The experience at Tata not only informed my decision to pursue such a career, but it also renewed my hope in the corporate world's ability to contribute to development in very significant and positive ways.
In short, Tata ISES is perhaps the most comprehensive and relevant internship opportunity out there. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
Valerie and Lee with some of the local women they worked with on their Tata ISES projects
Stepping off the plane from London to Mumbai, the subcontinent's monsoonal humidity immediately enveloped me and clung to my airplane-weary clothes, dampening them. Finding it at first difficult to breathe after the hours in an air-conditioned cabin, I thought the pervasive humidity an apt foreshadowing of my internship-to-be: the wet, sticky air would prove to be a direct outflow of the country itself. This is to say that India is vibrant and alive in every way imaginable; it holds you close and forces you towards its beating, pulsing heart so that you cannot remain at arm's distance.
And so it was that I spent the summer of 2008 in Mithapur, Gujarat, at the site of Tata Chemicals working alongside the Tata Chemicals' Society for Rural Development (TCSRD) team. They welcomed me as one of them, incorporating me into both their meaningful work and their lives; we went into the field together trying to find practical solutions to everyday problems villagers face, we took tea together, and ate together. Almost everyday I found myself in someone else's home, farmers, widows, nomads and engineers, talking with them about their lives, listening to their joys and troubles.
What I am trying to say is that the Tata ISES internship is more than development work experience in a rural setting, though it is undoubtedly that. Rather, it is an invitation to share another culture, another language, another way of seeing the world and learn from it. These learnings you will take with you forever and they will change your way of seeing the world.