Berkeley-Haas Part-Time MBA students Ellie Erickson, Katherine Foos, Cecilia Mui and Tamara Patterson worked with Indian nonprofit organization Bombay Teen Challenge to craft a sustainable and actionable plan to generate profits from products created by women saved from Mumbai’s Red Light District.
Set Beautiful Free
A Typical IBD Workday
On the day of our final presentation, we experienced the following: 4 hours of sleep, gave a sad farewell to 20+ inspiring ladies (more on them later), drove 4 hours on monsoon-worn roads bogged down with traffic while attempting to finish up our slide deck, held down car sickness, got a flat tire, ate granola bars for lunch (again), presented our final results to the board for 3+ hours, Skyped with the CEO of our client’s oldest customer, ate dinner with the organization’s founder, and at 10 pm decided we should wait to tour the Red Light District another time. That was Wednesday.
Set Beautiful Free is the customer-facing campaign of Bombay Teen Challenge, a non-profit working to prevent sex slavery. Mumbai is home to Kamathipura, the 2nd largest Red Light District in the Asian continent with over 40,000 women working in 14 crammed lanes. When we visited the neighborhood we were overwhelmed by the sheer number of “Johns” swarming the streets. Our guide informed us that the ratio of men to women in India is 7 to 1, which aligned with what we were seeing on the streets (but contradicted what we found from a quick google search). We saw women standing outside dimly lit doorways with painted faces attempting to make them look fair skinned, waiting for business. Our driver told us there were many Bangladeshi women, a desired ethnicity. These women likely started out as girls in their home country with a promise of a desirable job in India. That fate is true about 50% of the time. For the other 50% of girls, they are sold to a brothel, locked up and forced into sex slavery. BTC restores hope and dignity to these women by rehabilitating and empowering them through education and vocational opportunities in a safe environment. We were tasked with trying to make the sales of the goods made by these women into a sustainable and growing venture.
The initial project scope described the creation of a B2C marketing plan. While in Berkeley, we discovered B2B was more appropriate and less than a week before leaving we uncovered critical operational gaps we then had to prioritize and address. Our 20 minute Day of Arrival presentation turned into a 3.5 hour meeting, which established our credibility with the board members, and subsequently, staff were instructed to help us any way possible. Over the next 6 business days we managed to build trust and gain invaluable insights into the organization. Everyone recognized our objective participation and tried to help us in order to help the larger mission. We stayed in Mumbai and at their campus in Badlapur to both learn about doing business in India to test rapid prototyping, as well as work alongside the women to understand their operations and how to best describe their message. In the end, we completed a marketing plan, the core elements of a business plan, and strategic recommendations and specific contacts for which to follow up. We even found a local store in Mumbai for them to sell their goods!
Work Hard, Play Hard
When describing what we initially planned to do in India we said, “We’re basically going to go shopping.” While we did do that, the expanding scope, long travel time, and monsoon rains kept us from exploring much of the city. We visited the Gateway to India, had tea in the regal Taj Hotel and even saw a movie (for $3!).
Seemingly with everything in India, there are too many more stories to tell about our experience so below are a few highlights and photos that encapsulate our time there:
- When meeting each other at our first class in May, before we received our project assignment, we joked about a group of all women probably working with a non-profit or in fashion; we ended up doing both!
- Meeting for over an hour with the General Manager of the Oberoi, a luxury 5-star hotel, provided an insightful conversation about Indian culture and its economic development—more than any research or study could have provided.
- Meeting with the Consulate General of Iceland and getting his advice on business success, “Go ask my wife!”
- Interviewing the Founder of BTC in the car for an hour after the 3.5 hour day of arrival presentation while in a downpour through roads flooded with 3+ feet of water, and only 30 hours after having landed in India. Talk about jet lag!
- Laughing at how the ladies could make a bracelet in 5 minutes while Katie struggled to just start one for 15 minutes.
- Having a focus group with the women to learn about their dreams, feelings about each other, and favorite movie stars.
- Eating delicious crab caught at the local waterfall, cooked by the boys from BTC.
- Giving each other DJ names – you’ll have to ask one of us to find out what they were 😉
- Braving Mumbai roads for over 15 hours/week during the Monsoons.
- Learning that if you’re the only one awake in the rural countryside area, all the bugs want to greet (and eat) you.
- Seeing individuals, who have overcome so many obstacles in their lives, thrive in their element and really come alive when asking for their advice.
- Opening a new product line and rapidly prototyping with one of their key customers.
It isn’t often in business school that we get an opportunity to work in a group of all women. We also got to learn more about India and Indian culture than any tour guide could have exposed us to. The hospitality, warmth and recognition of human traits across socioeconomic boundaries were amazing to experience. For instance, some girls told us they liked to spend the money they earned from making jewelry or chicken fried rice and joked with us about snatching vegetables from the garden. Can’t we all relate to that? As a reality check however, one of those girls ended up at BTC because of a coincidence when she was being shopped around to be sold to a brothel by a family member. This is just one of many stories of the amazing women hoping to benefit from our work, earn a dignified wage, own a humble home, and provide a future full of potential for their children.
To quote one of the many beautifully decorated trucks we saw, “India is great.”