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BW Businessworld

The Inclusive Power of Responsibility

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Pragnya Sesai felt unsure and unsettled. Everything she had been encountering was like nothing before. Even Trendian India, where she was an assistant trainee seemed like a new world. Well, it was nothing like her brothers or father ever said, or did.

Pragnya kept going over the stiff encounter of yesterday. And yet there was a small curiosity to know what this kind of living was about, a sense that she might soon understand all this.
Yesterday, Pragnya was provoked, and for the first time in 18 months she had spoken her mind, albeit artlessly. Yesterday, people at Trendian saw more than a guest trainee. Except that Pragnya was now filled with anxiety and fear that maybe she had crossed limits.

Pragnya was 30, and belonged to a reputed business family. Youngest among five siblings, she had been rescued from a tricky marriage and her three brothers had decided to set her on her feet. First, she was put through an MBA, which she struggled in between adjusting to a demanding college routine, a young child who remained mostly ill and a meandering court battle for little Tula's custody. Her brother Parthiv, who ran the family's fabric export business, knew Shiv Dorje, the owner of Trendian. Dorje in turn, sent Pragnya to Krishnaa Kaushik, the COO.

Trendian designed and crafted a wide range of fabric, etched tiles and dhurries inspired by Indian heritage and folklore. Dorje worked closely with many weavers and printers across India, and nurtured their art as his stock-in-trade so that they lent Trendian the feel of a family-managed business.

Trendian did not think of its work as employment creation as much as keeping a very old chapter in an amazing book alive and current. Dorje's team used ancient art forms to decorate office interiors, floors and walls — which were his forte. Few knew that 25 years ago, Trendian was a small initiative led by four design graduates who sourced rural carpets and weaves and sold them out of a garage in Baroda's MG Road. Today, Trendian continued to reach out to weavers and printers in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Bihar, with a clientele in the hospitality sector and large corporate houses.

Pragnya recalled her early days at Trendian. That had been her baptism into the Trendian ethos. Krishnaa put her on the Morena Hotels job, for whom Trendian was developing carpets and curtains. Krishnaa had approved the design and placed an order for 1,800 metres with Mansoor Shaikh, a weaver from Bhagalpur. Following up on this project was Pragnya's first job.

In a hurry to prove herself, Pragnya went on to approve a lot of dyed yarn because that helped cut timelines. It seemed to her that minor deviations will be acceptable to Morena when faced with the choice of either a huge delay in delivery, or accepting something that is 5 per cent off on colour. But Mansoormiya wouldn't compromise. Calling him stubborn, she reported to Krishnaa, "I am not sure you should waste time working with one guy. Why don't we trash him and develop some new weavers?"

In slow measured tones, Krishnaa had said, "We don't just abandon people like that. We develop these craftsmen not only to supply us but because we wish to set them free, so that their dependence on us is reduced. The passion Mansoor feels for his art is similar to what we feel for management strategy.

"Trendian is a business initiative all right, but its ethos goes deeper. And you need to mine this depth, Pragnya. We provide the design intervention and the commitment to buy their produce; we seek to free the art and not trap it. We are working with them not for our bottom line, but for their own betterment — that is as far as the business goes. But underlying this is an attitude, that attitude is what defines us. And that attitude is a must for working here Pragnya."

In that end note, Pragnya had felt stung. But as the weeks passed, she kept feeling that this business was different, or that she was not learning anything about business. Often Krishnaa's moves appeared to lack business sense. Yet, she had to admit that Trendian was a success.

The next time it was four months later, about a young design trainee, Lila Sanyal, who Krishnaa was sending to Ajrakpur, Gujarat to work with the Ajrakh printers to urge them revive their work.

This is what had happened: During the Gujarat earthquakes in January 2000, Bhuj suffered severe destruction. Trendian resettled the Ajrakh printers there and helped them set up from scratch. This grabbed Pragnya's interest, being a student of sociology. Krishnaa said, "But strangely, after all that, we found their desire to get back to work had gone."

There it is again — that mind boggling non-business attitude! Why were they going to spend so much on this? Pragnya was unable to get this commitment aspect.

Krishnaa explained, "We are committed to keep dying craft forms alive. This printing technique is languishing. No one is doing any path breaking work here anymore, and the printers were not particularly interested either. That was when Robin, who was volunteering weekends there, observed the community. He told us that the earthquake followed by the relocation had led to a certain shutting down of the past. The children had grown up and wanted to do other jobs, which are better paying as well. They didn't see logic in hanging on to a family tradition. The general feeling around was, ‘it's time to drop it'.

"Robin was of the view that we must provide design direction to the group even though  many others were offering a similar product then, because "we must keep them together with their art."

That was how Lila was sent to Bhuj to work with the printers. "Not that the student is welcomed by them; they see it as a nuisance," Lila had said, adding to Pragnya's confusion.

Discussion led to debate. Radhika, an MBA trainee, asked, "Why do you think this effort will sustain Krishnaa? At one level, the printers don't show enthusiasm to return to their art. The newer generation cannot be forced to stay in the past; it is unfair to keep them grounded in a reality that they clearly wished to give up. My own kid brother is going to be a Bollywood dancer and not an MBA! So, at one level we are spending so much, and at another we are creating a false dependence on a creative form, which need not survive. Then why all this? What is the profit justification for all this effort, worse when they have seemingly chosen to not pursue their art form?"

Pragnya had felt vindicated. But Krishnaa said, "It won't look like business, because this is often not a business, but a commitment; the sort that comes only when there is no ego in the relationship. So, primary impetus comes from a desire to protect the art form, to restore."

There had followed a tenuous four days when Pragnya battled with all these messages, which conflicted with all that she knew of business.

Lila herself had said, "Well, working with just what they have can be restricting. I had to give a whole new twist to an existing technique to keep it relevant. And this was against a completely altered sociology: their new geography, lives being rebuilt, business not promising, coping with loss and lots of restlessness."

Heard through the filters of her own business upbringing, her MBA and her own confusions, Pragnya admitted there was need for social intervention. But Trendian's moves did seem excessive  in the face of the emotional stress of generations arguing with generations. The young wanted to wrench away, the grandfather wanted that tradition be sustained, and the generation that was caught between these two, the father, was the real generation that Trendian had been working with all these years, and this one was getting milled and minced in between.

Everyone at Trendian was celebrating the return of the Ajrakh printers, but to Pragnya, Trendian's mission did not make sense. Yet, there were occasions when Krishnaa was tough as nails, in situations that Pragnya felt called for mercy. As when Radhika brought Sindhi thanka samples from Bikaner, Krishnaa rejected them. "They have been producing and supplying these embroideries to us for years. There is no longer a distinct edge in design, Robin. Tell them we are done with the "look" and unless they are able to show us something new, we will not be able to continue to place orders." Pragnya felt there had to be another way.

Or, when Dharma Kant was rejecting a complete lot of upholstery fabric that had a weave defect. He averred, "We must have stringent quality control." This time Krishnaa had taken what to Pragnya seemed a business approach. "Beyond physical quality, I believe there has to be quality in relating and managing. Rejecting can also encourage the vendor to sell our product in the open market to recover cost! How about, we salvage the batch at a lower cost, add value with over-printing and mask the weave defect? So that they don't get complacent — discount the shipment by 25 per cent."

To Pragnya, who thought this was emotional, Krishnaa had said, "There has to be a significant business opportunity even in failure. Our actions must enable them, not prop them up."

Which was why yesterday's scenario led to a severe confrontation.

What had happened was this. Munnisami Narsayya, who supplied 2,000 metres of fabric every year was a long-standing vendor. He wanted an advance as his daughter's wedding was approaching. Kailash, another buyer, had told him that trendian did not give advances. And he reported this at yesterday's order review meeting. Surprised, Krishnaa had asked, "But why did you do that? You should have found out why he wants an advance." To that Kailash said, "We cannot encourage this ‘daughter's wedding' kind of nonsense. And if we give him once, he will ask again!"

Robin disagreed with this reasoning; "The city-bred resistance to daughter's wedding cannot be applied to the rural folk whose security is founded on tradition. Sitting here, we must not judge their lives, but find out how it measures against his next delivery."

Krishnaa: Munnisami is a steady supplier. I would want to help him. He has been with us for 15 years; set up more looms over time to be able to stay relevant and competitive. Haan, he did get carried away once when he offloaded surpluses in the open market, but we know he was most apologetic and has not repeated that.

Krishnaa then pulled out Munnisami's cumulative records folder and placed it on the table where Pragnya and others could see it.

Krishnaa: This is his family — wife, parents and five children. The boys have been through primary school; the girls never did. Munnisami is struggling to get appreciation for his work; his sons are not keen to join him.
Radhika: Krishnaa, listen. The daughter whose marriage he is planning is 16!

Krishnaa was silent. Radhika's emphasis on 16 was not lost on her. The recent entry of professionals and trainees had begun to raise debates on core issues.

Trendian bought fabric from different regions. Each region had problems that were unique to their history. And some like Munnisami faced their geography. He and his family had to relocate after the Tsunami destroyed their region, as well as the core of the extended family who helped Munnisami in the weaving work.

And now, he wanted an advance, over which they were haranguing. Sajal Swaroop, the financial manager, resisted this as well; "This is too much, Krishnaa. He has no serious bank account, servicing him is expensive, he has not upgraded. We have told him to use vat-dyed yarns but he won't, yeh sab drame baaji hai... to take advantage of the organisation, I know them.

Krishnaa was not discounting Sajal easily — he was hugely valuable to Trendian. He was seeing Munnisami as a male businessman; as men saw men. But Krishnaa was staring at Munnisami's family pictures. The older girl was Margatham, and Krishnaa had tried to get her into school. But Munnisami's mother would not hear of it. "How much does he want?" she asked Sajal.

"The order is worth Rs 12 lakh," said Sajal. "We would have given him two lakh, which is what we do in such situations, like we did for Mansoor. But he wants five, because it is his daughter's wedding and he cannot afford to lock up money in buying yarn." Krishnaa leaned back and said, "I would give him the advance."

Sajal: Look, at other times, I would have agreed even if reluctantly. But money is already tight. All our product lines are interiors enhancement products and people are not spending on beautifying offices. How can we lend? We are using bank overdraft! Krishnaa, we let our village vendors give us emotional spiel, and give the city guys a raw deal — how fair is that?

"Last month, Parmen Printers wanted payment before due date and you refused. Or even take Mrs Gomes (who produced the Trendian labels), kabhi advance nahin diya, and she is single! Then why make exceptions, and set precedents? Then again, jacquard mein inconsistency kitna hai. How many of our customers actually even appreciate it as a look? Why would you want to bend the rules so much?"

BW Illustration By Saurabh DebKrishnaa was not expecting the argument to take a new twist. She said, "We can't throw in the towel and say, arre yeh to ab bikta hi nahin, isliye band karo! That is an easy call, but then that is not what we started off wanting to be. In our business, when I preserve their technique, I preserve their livelihood. Then again, jacquard is what Munnisami believes in, and if he believes in it I can be sure I am getting the best. His work is very good, and we have to tap people like him to invest in design, print surfaces, etc. And we know we can bank on him to give it his best shot.

"The next time I want to send him design students, he will go all out to give them the space and advice. So you see, eventually I am not really compromising on the commercial objective."

Silence followed. Then Krishnaa said, "See, this business we are in is also about marketing those parts of India that have no means to find expression because the distances between villages and the city have not been bridged yet. What we can do is invest in his business, upgrade his tools, and provide him washing and finishing facilities… why not Sajal? Think of Munnisami as a small unit and think of the investment as an enhancement of our business."

And then Pragnya spoke, "Don't you see he does not want the advance for work? Sajal said he offered him 15 per cent, but no. Munnisami wants close to 40 per cent for the wedding.

Robin: No, I think he is saying, I will use my money for the wedding, but you advance me money for the material.
Pragnya: Munnisami is doing what most Indians do and regret — make a fashion statement of their daughter's wedding; offer money to have her led away so that he can put a tick on his list. Would you not be guilty of encouraging dowry? How do you know where the Rs 5 lakh is going? He may buy gold, diamonds or a car! In our homes, we battle and resist all this, but a Munnisami is forgiven because he is a vendor and relevant for business? Let me tell you Krishnaaji, marriages that seek to bridge businesses are dangerous for the girl.

A stunning silence followed. Everyone knew Pragnya's story…

Krishnaa: There are different angles here, Pragnya. Munnisami's life and that of Maragatham hang on this marriage taking place. I am not giving money for dowry. I am giving Munnisami a chance to live life the way it works for him. My relationship with Munnisami is largely professional, but outside that I only help the human being in him meet life squarely. My commitment is to his profession, and his economic welfare. I have no right to his belief system or his thoughts. That is his private space. I do not imagine we are here to influence people's social or moral values. But yes, we are committed to protecting their art and their economic welfare.

Pragnya: So, what have we achieved finally? Economic welfare! But not education! We could not get Maragatham into school; now we don't have the courage to denounce idiotic social norms because we feel by doing so Munnisami will be ‘neglected'. So, what use all our sustaining of tribes and communities?

"At the business level, I feel a lot of energy is going into a lot of things, so that nobody knows what part is business and what part is your social responsibility. Granted they are all supplying great fabrics and that adds great beauty to homes, offices and hotels; but how can we mean only something to a community and not all things? How can we say ‘yes we will take care of your economic growth', but not tie that in with social growth? How can we, in fact, link their backwardness to only their economy and choose to believe we are enablers?"

That evening Krishnaa called Shiv Dorje, "I feel responsible to answer Pragnya…

"Firstly, is our business about social responsibility? But I thought we do what we do because that is what defines us and our ethos, not because we want to be members of an elite club. Two, now that you are going to be hiring trainees and professionals, we need to have a clear script about our vision, our mission and our boundaries, because frankly I don't know how to communicate our ethos to our employees. Somehow, I see that they feel the need to change all this."

Classroom/syndicate discussion
Is social responsibility in your organisation a division or a vision?

casestudymeera  at gmail dot com