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2012: extraordinary so far.

Calendars are full, airplane mileage accounts are growing, and I see more beauty and amazing-ness around us every day.  I’m learning to redefine “balance” as more of a blend, rhythm and flow.  There always seems to be some kind of imbalance, but in the big-picture it equals out.

I’ve been spending the vast majority of my time doing two things so far this year: sharing and traveling.  A brief update on each:

Sharing:  I continue to do a deep dive into the “Sharing Economy” which refers to new sharing-based business models and companies that are redefining how goods and services are exchanged, valued and created.  These models facilitate a shift away from the traditional “one person, one unit, one purchase” consumer mindset and towards a world in which access to a product, service or asset is more important — and more useful — than ownership.  They’re fundamentally enabled by new technology platforms to transact and build trust among peer communities.

If you’ve heard of Collaborative Consumption or Mesh-based enterprise, we’re talking about very similar trends.  My two favorite books in this space are The Mesh by Lisa Gansky and What’s Mine Is Yours by Rachel Botsman.  I plan to start writing more about this too!

From my perspective there are three key levels of analysis (and benefits to be had in) a sharing-based world):

(1)    Economic: what does it cost to make a given per-person-per-unit purchase, versus a shared resource?  Answer: sharing costs less.

(2)    Environmental: what’s the environmental impact of a given per-person-per-unit purchase, versus something that’s purchased and shared?  Answer:  sharing results in lower environmental footprints. (Note: price of the item might go up, if it’s higher-quality and made to last; net-net this is more environmentally astute, and the lifetime price is reduced.)

(3)    Community:  possibly most important, what is the community that you’ve created by a sharing-based platform?  Answer:  sharing creates and nurtures deeper relationships. Compare and contrast individual-purchase “experiences” to those in a shared economy:  who do you come in contact with, and who do you care about as a result? In my experience, not much…

The sharing economy attracts me for more reasons than I can count, though the two (related) areas that interest me most are policy and business development.  I see many parallel themes with my work in microfinance, catalyzing cross-sector collaboration and building social capital — and a future world in which sharing is a dominant economic force.

So, you can expect many more posts focused on the sharing economy here.  I may have to rebrand the site from “Borrowing Great Ideas” “Sharing Great Ideas & More!”

Traveling:  As usual, I’ve also been traveling a lot.  A bit too much, actually, but thankfully things slow down the latter half of the year.  Here is a recap of places visited, favorite experiences and things learned so far this year:

  • Ano Nuevo State Park: in January, watched the incredible nursing elephant seals along the Pacific Coast
  • Cambodia:  spent most of February in this gem-of-a-country, assessing potential WaterCredit expansion opportunities. Fell in love with the capital Phnom Penh (think Saigon, only smaller and more relaxed), traveled a lot of the country by road, and did handstands at Angkor Wat.
  • Atlanta:  I returned to Emory to give a keynote speech on Women, Water and Microfinance.  A nice article in the Emory Magazine came out shortly thereafter.
  • Harvard Kennedy School:  in March and early April, I returned to Cambridge for a 2-week YGL course on Global Leadership and Public Policy.  Hands-down this was the best professional experience of the year; I am still implementing the benefits.
  • Mexico and Bolivia:  the latter half of April, I headed first to the World Economic Forum / YGL annual summit.  In a word: amazing.  From there to Bolivia for more WaterCredit due diligence.  Returned home happy, having recouped some of my Spanish, and starting to get a little tired.
  • Jerry’s Retreat: Jerry hosted his 16th Retreat for 4 days near Tomales Bay, Point Reyes. As usual, a wonderful gathering with “good people, good ideas and good intent.”
  • Seattle and Colorado:  the day after the Retreat ended, I headed to the YGL Seattle Summit hosted by the Gates Foundation (Bill and Melinda themselves!).  Learned about the future of development, Microsoft’s home of the future, and sustainability at Starbucks.  From there hopped over to Colorado to run the Bolder Boulder 10K race (per tradition) with my nieces.
  • Austria:  in June, I attended a 4-day workshop in the Austrian Alps, hosted by the Austrian government and business leaders.  Titled Create32, and the questions we tackled focused on what business and innovation in Austria (and beyond) would look like 20 years from now in 2032.  Fantastic experience!
  • Indonesia:  also in June and early July, I headed to Indonesia with colleagues from Water.org for the last (for now!) reconnaissance trip focused on WaterCredit expansion.  It was a(nother) great trip; Indonesia is changing so quickly, and I barely recognized Jakarta from several years ago.

Interspersed within all that was also a delightful visit to San Francisco by my “Italian sister,” a family wedding in the Utah mountains, and a quick trip back to Colorado where Indonesian jetlag hit in full force.  Okay, now I am really tired…

Happily, I’m grounded for a month-plus as I get a new passport.  This gives plenty of time to water my local roots — best of all — and take some fun domestic trips: camping at Yosemite, Cape Cod and New York City coming up in the near future.  Later this year, I’ll complete my circuit of visiting all 50 U.S. states when I finally make it to number 50: Hawai’i.

Eager to share more soon…

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My 2010 travels so far have been blessedly less frenetic than in 2009.  I’ve “only” been to India twice, Canada once, New York City and Washington DC each twice, and a handful of other fun locales a few times.

Each trip has been memorable in its own ways.  India has seen me get really sick, twice, including my first-ever adventure to Indian hospital in July.  (Side note: Total cost for 1 doctor’s visit to hotel + 1 day in hospital + 4 prescription medications = $25.  With no mention at any time of health insurance.)  Colorado meant awesome fun with my nieces Ella and Amelia, who are growing up beautifully but so fast.  A much-overdue road trip through the Midwest, from Minneapolis to Kansas City via Des Moines, turned into one big highlight: great friends, time to catch up, perfectly-fiery fall colors, open space and local flavors.  Returning to Cambridge, Massachusetts to join the Board of Directors of the World Wide Web Foundation — a real honor and source of much excitement as I can get more involved in the technology-for-development space.  And of course, no travel series for me would be complete without spending time upside-down: here’s a favorite handstand photo addition, snapped atop Camelback Mountain (in Arizona) at sunrise last month.

I have really enjoyed being closer to home more often.  Not that it’s been any less busy, rather just nice to water my local roots and hold more in drawers and on shelves than in a suitcase.  But that’s about to (temporarily) change soon because…

I’m going around the world!

On November 12, 2010 I will board the first of ten flights (eight of which are international long-hauls) that will take me over the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans; across the Mediterranean and Red Seas; touching down in seven countries, from Thailand to Egypt; and bookend a variety of personal and professional dream-come-true adventures.  All in five weeks, but who’s counting? (I fully admit I’m in denial of how much I’ll miss some very special people back home, but hey — let’s focus on the fun stuff.)

I’d like to hold on to at least a few surprises, so check back here (or more quickly, my Twitter stream) for updates on my whereabouts and goings-on.  Trekking in the Himalaya, drinking yak butter tea, exploring temples and hill towns, holding in-depth meetings with microfinance institutions (MFIs), visiting water and sanitation systems in urban slums, figuring out how women and youth and marginalized communities are tapping into mobile and internet technologies for the greatest good…

Let’s go!

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It’s hard to believe my time in India has already come and gone.  It was a good trip, as always – full of hectic meetings + early morning flights + learning + sensory overload + wonderful people – but far from my best.  Though I was there 2 weeks, it felt more like one since the other was a blur spent in bed and doctor’s offices.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The key highlights of this trip were definitely World Water Day (March 22) and our inaugural WaterCredit Forum (March 26).  Each year one of Water.org’s partners, Gramalaya, organizes what we believe is the largest World Water Day gathering in the world.  More than 21,000 people – probably 99% of whom are women – come from over 400 villages throughout Tamil Nadu to celebrate their access to clean water and safe sanitation, and to advocate on behalf of those who don’t.

A sea of bright saris flooded my eyes, all sitting underneath a giant bamboo-lattice roof to protect from the searing heat.  WaterCredit loan group members had matching saris; that was a totally unexpected, absolutely thrilling sight to behold.  There were dances.  Children dressed up as animals and did pantomimes about good hygiene (“I’m a bunny. I like to play in the dirt. When I’m done playing, I must wash my hands before eating my carrots.”) and water quality (“I’m a tiger.  I roam around all day, looking for something to eat.  This makes me thirsty.  Sometimes I find water in a pond.  But I shouldn’t drink it if it’s dirty, because it will make me sick.”).

I sat on the dais as a guest of honor, a garland of freesia around me, and was overwhelmed by joy and pride.  Unfortunately I was too wobbly to do much more than smile (keep reading), but hopefully that was enough for my first time.  I plan to celebrate many more World Water Days in a similar setting.  It was incredible.  A few pictures here, and a fabulous Water.org video clip here.

The WaterCredit Forum was more staid in comparison, but still served its purpose and was a big success (if I may say so myself!).  We attracted a great range of microfinance, water/sanitation, banking, venture capital and development organizations.  Most participants came from India, though Africa, North America and Europe were represented.  The morning saw plenary sessions and excellent presentations by our MFI partners BASIX and Guardian.  In the afternoon, we split into groups for interactive discussions about opportunities, challenges and other innovations for WaterCredit moving forward.  The entire day felt like one big highlight.  Microfinance Insights has written an article about the Forum already; Microfinance Focus will publish a full report next month.

The one — but big — downer of the trip was a bad case of Bombay belly I got, which was double-whammied with a virus that left me woozy,  in pain, with a 104F fever and wishing I were not on the road.  Poor timing and then some.  Even so, it was an opportunity to learn about the kindness of strangers (and colleagues!) and gave some insights into Indian medical care.

The day after I started feeling nauseous and lost my appetite, I woke up barely able to move.  Nearly in tears, I wobbled downstairs to the hotel lobby, where my colleagues were preparing to go on a site visit.  They took one look at me and said, “to the doctor you must go – now!”

Next thing I knew, I was whisked away to a tiny, bird-chirpy corner of a residential neighborhood and plopped into a chair at the home of some Dr. G. Ganapathy.  I was told he was “one of the top physicians in all Trichy – studied in the US, very famous man.”  Sounded good to me.

Five minutes later, in walks a delightful elderly man – who we’ve clearly woken up early – with a gentle step and sparkle in his eye.  He asks me where I’m from; it turns out he spent 2 years in Sacramento, which in Tamil Nadu was as close as next door.  (Later, having recovered, I would accompany him to his home so he could proudly show me photos of him, his wife and Alcatraz.)

For the next two hours, I was poked and prodded, slept on his home-office-bench, got 2 injections, was force-fed honey with fresh sweet lime juice, and continued to feel awful.  Not to worry, said Dr. Ganapathy, I was going to get better.  I wasn’t sure I believed him – but the one thing that definitely did make me feel better was realizing that we’d made an appointment at a moment’s notice, had never once been asked for insurance cards, and I was being treated almost as if I were family.  It was comforting beyond words.  (Why can’t a “developed” country like the US understand this?!?)

For the next several hours, my colleagues Nayakam, Aananth, Damodaran and Jose kept close watch over me.  We ventured out once, for a couple of hours to see some Water.org work.  I got sick again, nearly fainted, and decided not to do that again.  Bed was the best option of all – I slept 17 hours in one day.

That evening we returned to the doctor, keeping him up both early and late.  Once again he welcomed us with open arms.  My fever had risen, so he kindly spent another 2 hours poking and prodding, and asked if I wanted to go to hospital.  My colleagues flatly refused and insisted on taking me to their home instead.  I will forever be grateful to Damu’s wife Viji and daughters Priya and Preethi for welcoming me with open arms, feeding me sugar-salt solution and (delicious!) rice porridge, and nursing me back to a semi-normal state.  The following morning, after some tender coconut – the local palliative of choice – I was allowed back to the hotel and we moved on to Chennai.  It would still be several days until I was back to normal (to be honest, I’m still not there yet) but the worst was over – and I’d had lessons in the kindness of colleagues, humanity of the medical profession (especially when not constrained by worries like malpractice) and a stern reminder to be kind to my palate in India!

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I’m wondering where the past 4 months (since my last post) have gone.  Tweeting is so easy in comparison to blogging. Alas.

Since Italy in November, I’ve been to Germany (Berlin), Canada, and taken 6 other domestic trips (mostly east coast – met Natalie Portman at the gym in Soho!).  So, it’s safe to conclude that a lot of the past 4 months have been spent on planes, in meetings and exploring other cities.

I leave for India in less than 2 days. This will be my fourth time there in less than 2 years. I am really excited, as I always am to return there. It’s a combination anticipating the sensory overload that awaits + exhilaration about new discoveries and places + a good dose of anxiety about all I/we have to accomplish while there.

The main reason for this trip is the inaugural WaterCredit Forum.  We’re bringing together — for the first time in the world, in such a setting, as far as we know — a crowd of peers from the microfinance, water/sanitation (WSH), and banking sectors to learn and discuss opportunities for innovation.  There will be MFI CEOs, WSH organizations and experts, catalytic philanthropists, commercial bankers, public WSH authorities, microfinance consultancies, and several current WaterCredit partners on hand.  The interest in attending has been outstanding; makes me both very happy, and a little nervous.

The WaterCredit Forum also coincides with World Water Day on March 22.  I’ve heard incredible stories about how moving and memorable the day is in places where water is a scarce, precious resource.  I’m going to be in Tamil Nadu then, in a water-scarce area, attending celebrations for how water has been brought to many communities — yes, proudly thanks to Water.org and WaterCredit.

Before all that happens though, a flurry of meetings in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and beyond.  I won’t even have an option to get jetlag, with our first appointment only hours after arrival.

And at the end, I swing through Cambridge (Massachusetts, not England) for presentations at Harvard.  Should be great fun to take a trip down memory lane and share what I’m doing now with others, that grew directly out of what I studied there.  I’m especially keen to catch up with professors who trivialized topics like microfinance, deeming it somehow inferior to “real” finance.

My tastebuds are gearing up for chai. My balmy-hot weather clothes are packed (there goes winter this year — by the time I return, it’ll be full spring).  I can’t wait to see my in-country colleagues again and meet many new interesting, inspiring people too.

Time for pre-dawn Kingfisher flights, Ambassador cabs, brightly flowing saris, and beautiful smiling faces like nowhere else in the world!

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The two months since my last post — and really, the past four months — have been intense, rewarding and at times I’d even have to say extraordinary.  Four continents, 12 countries (8 for work + 4 for layovers), 40+ flights (no comment on carbon footprints please — I’m trying to help the 2.6 billion people without water and sanitation) and more meetings with MFIs and watsan organizations than I can count.  Whew!

Here’s the big-picture overview — think maps, pins and where-in-the-world:

  • Trip 1 (July – August): Kenya – Uganda – Ethiopia – Sweden – Netherlands
  • Trip 2 (September): Singapore – Hong Kong – India (8 cities, north to south and east to west) – South Korea
  • Trip 3 (October): London, England – Frankfurt, Germany
  • Bonus Trips: Kansas City, Los Angeles and Washington DC
  • Trip 4 (now):  Italy (Rome, Bergamo, Cinque Terre)
  • Trip 5 (forthcoming at end November): Berlin, Germany

There are too many highlights to note here; hopefully my Twitterstream has done some justice to these over time.  In addition to my personal observations, I have a WaterCredit Twitterstream that’s focused specifically on water, sanitation and microfinance.  I talk a lot about toilets, poo and municipal water authorities these days… hmmm.  Well, given that we’ve got 2.6 billion people without appropriate WSH (that means Water, Sanitiation & Hygiene) today and — despite significant resources, time, money and efforts being expended globally — we’ll have 4 billion people like this by 2025, I’d say more people need to join these conversations.

But back to the travel theme…

Such awesome trips, all of them.  Professionally, MFI interest in WaterCredit is broad and sincere; I couldn’t be more pleased with how outreach meetings went.  The Water.org/WaterCredit team has a lot of follow-up work to do — hurray!

It was interesting and great fun to return to several places I’d visited in the past, but this time with additional work responsibilities and insights about “doing business” there.  My in-country Water.org colleagues were amazing hosts and enabled us to do, learn and experience things that I never could have done solo.  For example I will never forget the 11-course meal (including 4 rice dishes alone — with everything from coconut to cracked pepper, pomegranates and cardamom) warmly prepared by the Water.org India country director’s wife at their home in Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu, and then playing shuttlecock (aka badminton) with his daughters afterwards.  And not least, the tumble I took in the street trying to return a volley.

Alongside familiar places were several new ones too.  Among them:  Uganda; Bahir Dar, northern Ethiopia; and Frankfurt, Germany.  Uganda was a trip — navigating through slums to MFI headquarters, roaming Kampala‘s first 24-hour Nakumatt superstore, and eating my first matoke (yes, it tastes like wet socks).  Visiting Bahir Dar was like a step back in time, to a bucolic verdant community removed from the frenzy of Addis.  I did have to remind myself however that we were there during the short wet season, when the land is eye-poppingly green; for most of the year it suffers from drought (hence Water.org’s program there).  By the way, if you’re curious about the kinds of water-works Water.org does in Ethiopia, here‘s one example.  And Frankfurt = what an unexpected treat!  I’d only been there in transit before; this time I attended a “Financing Sanitation” conference hosted by KfW.  Alongside that, we had opportunities to explore the delightful city center and ride in a bona fide Paternoster elevator.

Now checking in from Rome, it’s as lovely as ever — especially with the crisp autumn air and thinner tourist crowds — though also surprisingly expensive.  (Notwithstanding the awful $:euro rate, what’s happened to the local economy in the past 3 years?!?)  I made the delicious mistake of ordering gnocchi al tartufo bianco at a local trattoria (simple family-run locale) and got nailed $40. The cafe’ next to my hotel charges 9 euro ($13.50) for a double espresso (“only” 5 euro ($7.50) for a single). The metro is still a steal at 1 euro ($1.50) per ride, but trains are dear (80 euro ($120) for a 3-hour journey up north) and it’s better to walk around town and enjoy the sights anyway…

Which I’ve been doing whenever possible.  Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Forum, St. Peter’s, Campo dei Fiori, all my favorite places already ticked off.  Especially enjoyed wandering the backstreets of Trastevere (stumbling upon a hole-in-the-wall forno with steaming-hot fresh bread, gawking once more at the stunning mosaics of Santa Maria in Trastevere), quaffing my first in-country cappuccino at Caffe’ Sant’Eustachio, and doing a handstand in front of the Colosseum.  That makes handstands at 6 of the 8 Modern Wonders of the World (Great Wall of China, Pyramids of Giza, Petra, Macchu Picchu, Taj Mahal and Colosseum) — Chichen Itza and the Giant Jesus in Rio, here I come!  Flickr photos up shortly.

Of course the most important reason I’m here is the IDLO law-and-microfinance “grand finale” gathering.  It’s like a family reunion with participants from 30+ developing courses whom I’ve been fortunate to meet and teach over the past 3 years.  We’ve come together to discuss lessons learned and the way forward; it’s truly a humbling experience, and as usual (it feels like) I’m learning far more than contributing.  Simultaneous tracks in English, Spanish and French covering topics ranging from regulatory structures to consumer protection and branchless banking.  Wow… and makes me very excited for what could be next up for IDLO’s microfinance team.

On that note, back to microfinance credit ratings and (shortly) another espresso… Ciao for now, a presto!

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Namaste!  Hard to believe that since my last post, exactly one month ago, I’ve taken some 17 flights and been to 7 countries.  Quite the globetrotting, but not exactly sustainable travel statistics — at least not long-term if I value watering and tending to local roots too!

You can find photos from my time in east Africa here, and Stockholm World Water Week here.  The Swedes have such a good thing going in summertime…

Today I embark on the next phase of WaterCredit travels: India.  Over the next 2+ weeks I will be in Delhi, Lucknow, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai and Tiruchirapalli.  Hoping (and fingers crossed expecting) to find MFI feedback and interest in WaterCredit equally if not more encouraging than was the case in Africa, and very excited to see what may result.  As always you can find out more about what I’m up to on a daily basis — travel notes from the road, adventures and random observations — on Twitter.  Until the next post, off to experience life and the world to their fullest!

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No sooner than I returned from the Middle East, than it was time to dive deep into WaterCredit and prepare for initial strategy, business development and outreach trips.  In less than a month I was (am!) back on the road — this time in east Africa for MFI meetings, followed by Stockholm for World Water Week later this month.  (I’ve got at least one significant international trip every month for the rest of this year which keeps me busy, happy and my passport in good form.  Next: India in mid-September.)

My time in Africa is going extraordinarily well so far; we’ve worked our way through Kenya (Nairobi) and Uganda, with time in rural Nyanza province, western Kenya (where Water.org has its regional office for Africa) and Ethiopia still to come.  The response received from MFIs about WaterCredit is both very encouraging and exciting — there is no shortage of interest! I’ve also had opportunities to see water and sanitation (watsan) projects on the ground; a very eye-opening experience, not least given the oftentimes dire water circumstances to be reckoned with.  Being able to provide small-scale finance to individuals and groups to take ownership of, and accountability for, their own water needs through WaterCredit is tremendously rewarding; the amount of demand is astounding, however, every drop counts!

Other favorite trip experiences so far include flying over Lake Victoria, meeting up with dear IDLO friends in Kampala, receiving an amazing massage from a strong Congolese woman (hearing her tale from Goma was truly inspiring), eating ugali na sukumawiki and fresh mandaazi, and visiting hippo pools.  There’s not a lot of non-working time, but somehow each day brings adventures and explorations that could keep up with the best of my travelogues anyway…

As usual, the best way to follow my day-to-day observations, impressions and Notes From The Road is on Twitter.  I’ve been tweeting up a storm on this trip, so hope you will find it fun to track me there.  I’ll be sure to safari njema!

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