On our last morning in India, Rachael and I flagged down an auto rickshaw to commute to the office. A young man named Raj Mahan picked us up, and we zoomed off. On the back of his seat, we noticed a plaque stating that he was a Three Wheels United driver. What were the chances!? Out of over 160,000 autos in the city, we had randomly found a driver affiliated with our company. We briefly chatted with Raj Mahan, then he turned up some dance music on his speakers. In a summer full of unexpected surprises, this one on the final morning hardly seemed out of the ordinary.
In the office that day, Rachael and I presented our findings to the Three Wheels United management team. Lively conversation sprung up about how to best serve drivers and structure a loan product for the New Delhi market. Afterwards, we were given a chocolate cake to celebrate the end of our summer. Later that evening, Rachael and I took an Indian bread-making class, learning how to make chapati and paratha from scratch. Around midnight, we left for the airport, and suddenly eight weeks of work, play, and travel had ended.
This final day contained many of the elements that made the summer in India so special. Serendipitous encounters, intriguing business conversations, joyful friendships, cultural learning experiences. Observations from traveling informed our work, and our work led us into a wide variety of new places.
In the past two weeks since returning to California, I’ve answered the question “How was India?” quite a few times, so I’ve been thinking about how I explain my summer. Capturing the heartfelt conversations, canceled plans, picturesque landscapes, friendly auto drivers, bland sick days, noisy cities, and hilarious coincidences in a few sentences is simply impossible. But after reflecting and sharing for the past couple weeks, a few themes have emerged. So, to satisfy this article’s social-media-ready title, here are the eight lessons I learned from working, exploring, and living in India.
1. India is naturally and culturally beautiful and diverse
One scorching day in Chennai, Rachael and I visited the home of Muthuvel, a driver participating in an electric vehicle pilot with Three Wheels United. We were warmly welcomed into a small apartment and offered mango juice. I was sitting on a bed, and was told three times to take a nap. After continually refusing out of politeness, I obliged (a nap did sound pretty nice). Five minutes later, two heaping plates of vegetable fried rice were brought into the room. Although piping hot and spicy fried rice on a 100 degree humid day shortly after breakfast didn’t sound particularly appetizing, the message was clear: we were welcome. Everywhere we went, Indians welcomed us with open arms and proud hearts.
As home to more than 1/6th of the world’s population, India contains an astounding range of languages, geographies, and people groups. Of the three major cities Rachael and I visited (Bangalore, Chennai and New Delhi), each has a different primary language. India is home to foggy mountains, lush rainforests, dry deserts, rocky hills, and rolling farmlands. Any descriptor of the people or country is likely to be partially correct and vastly insufficient. But underlying the India’s diversity is a sense of tradition, healing, time, and spirituality that infuses meaning into the bustle of life. I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity to see, feel, and absorb this eclectic energy.
2. Consulting process: Observations to insights to recommendations
I was a bit worried entering the summer that my experience would be overly focused on research and less on “consulting” than I had hoped. But my worries quickly disappeared when I realized that research and interviewing were deeply connected to creating consulting deliverables for Three Wheels United.
The process looked like a funnel. Notes from our 102 interviews were condensed from five handwritten notebooks into 60 typed pages, then into a 6-slide presentation and handful of deliverables focusing on market research, management practices, partnership strategies, customer experience, and promoting electric vehicles. The value that Rachael and I brought was in spotting, filtering, organizing, and curating concrete ideas amid the expansive landscape of our experience. This process helped me confirm that I want to work in some form of business consulting after graduation.
3. Juxtaposition of modern and old, rich and poor
What comes to mind when the average American thinks of India? Naan? The Taj Mahal? Yoga? Slums?
The real India is much more complex than any of these stereotypes. I saw modern office skyscrapers bordering tent houses. I would often walk out of an elegant restaurant, then trip over a big rock or wobble on a precarious bit of sidewalk. The lake near Three Wheels United’s office was a beautiful oasis and featured an excellent walking path, but half of it bordered a moat of trash and sewage. The influences of colonization, the caste system, a young government, poverty, global development, and rapid urbanization have all helped shape this patchwork of lifestyles and infrastructures.
A few notes in hopes of further complicating any stereotypes.
First, I visited primarily cities and tourist areas, so I don’t have the whole picture. I expected to see more slums than I did, but poverty is certainly a prevalent challenge in both urban and rural settings.
Second, I was continually surprised by the quality of the homes of the auto drivers we visited, most of whom earned $8-$12 a day. One area in Chennai that was labeled a “slum” was a street full of 4-story apartments. Small, but homey. I think suburban U.S. neighborhoods have a lot to learn from the tight-knit community fostered by families on this street.
Third, the hopes, dreams, and values of everyone we met were so relatable. The infrastructure of a city is much different than the hearts of the humans living within it.
4. There is inherent value in listening to someone’s story
The most meaningful interviews that Rachael and I conducted were always home visits, where we could learn the in-depth histories and values of a driver and their family.
We collected plenty of numbers and opinions, but as we would scribble notes and ask questions, the process was much less scientific than human. I realized that even if I had crumpled up the notes and ignored any insights gleaned from the conversation, the time would not have been wasted. I was a privileged guest inside the physical homes and ethereal stories of these drivers. Paradoxically, the most insightful ideas emerged from prioritizing connection over survey, process over outcome.
For some drivers, vehicle ownership was a path into the middle class. Many drivers enjoyed the freedom of being their own boss and having control over their work. For others, driving was a stepping stone to bigger dreams. Themes of trust, fear, volatility, autonomy, challenge, family, and satisfaction constantly surfaced. Listening to the stories of drivers had clear business value for Three Wheels United, but it also infused the research portion of my work with a deeper significance.
5. Self-knowledge: mental and physical health while traveling
Traveling to three different regions of the country for work enabled lots of fun weekend trips in touristy and picturesque areas. In our 8 weeks, Rachael and I visited 10 cities and took 6 flights, 4 overnight busses and a train. In a span of 43 nights, I slept in 22 different places. One week, Monday night was spent in a hut with a mosquito net, Tuesday night was spent sitting in a bus, and Wednesday night was spent in one of the nicest hotels of my life that served a complimentary dessert with a welcome message written in frosting. I loved it, I chose it, it was exhausting, and it was an excellent learning opportunity.
- I learned that constant travel gave me plentiful opportunities for discovery, learning, and exploration, but that I didn’t feel the same creative energy or thoughtfulness that I often feel at home.
- I learned how the effects of sleep, diet, and exercise were manifested in my energy levels throughout the day.
- I learned how adaptable I can be to different types of social situations, and that I often act extroverted in one-on-one conversations, and more introverted in larger groups.
- I learned to be flexible with cancellations, delays, and last-minute changes. More often than not, spontaneity led to memorable stories: one of the most valuable currencies of a joyful travel experience.
6. Collaboration on steroids: working and traveling with Rachael
When choosing a project for the fellowship, I primarily looked at the company descriptions and project proposals. Little did I know how much other factors like culture and collaboration would contribute to my experience. The largest source of growth for me was from constantly working, traveling, and spending time with Rachael.
After attending a project-based high school, and taking dozens of business classes at Santa Clara, I’ve easily done more than 100 group projects in the past eight years. But this summer took collaboration to a whole new level, one that future work projects are unlikely to match.
Rachael and I climbed a steep learning curve: figuring out how to interview together, support each other in tough times, make decisions, discuss what we were observing, have fun, plan our travel, give space for alone time, shape our deliverables, make new friends, and respond to unexpected setbacks. It wasn’t always easy, but I’m so thankful for the fresh perspectives, funny surprises, and deep friendship we built throughout the summer.
7. Electric vehicle adoption: Perception, infrastructure, incentives
Which came first: the electric rickshaw or the charging station? It’s a chicken-and-egg problem.
One fascinating element of my project with Three Wheels United was learning about the current state of electric vehicles (EVs) in India. Because of the heavy pollution, everyone in India intuitively understands that EVs will dominate the future. But, like a drive through traffic in Bangalore, the journey to EV adoption is chaotic.
The Indian government has vowed to make all new vehicles electric by 2030, but it does little to walk the talk. Economic accessibility, charging infrastructure, and range anxiety are the primary barriers. But, there’s certainly hope. Dozens of companies including Uber, Ola, Mahindra, Sun Mobility, and our very own Three Wheels United are working towards electrifying transport, starting with two and three-wheelers. At the end of the day, people respond to incentives. It’s up to private companies and governments to collectively make choosing electric vehicles logical and easy.
8. Home and away: I can do this again
During a weekend in a charming mountain town in the Himalayan foothills, I had an idea while sitting in a café. What if I were to come back here and stay for a couple weeks, working or learning, traveling, and spending time with friends and loved ones? What if I could take a few months off between jobs, or spend a while working remotely while exploring a new region at a comfortable pace?
It’s a privileged option for sure, but one more attainable than I had previously imagined, especially in cheap countries like India. As I feel the pressures of getting a buttoned-up job with a big-name firm and working tirelessly for an imaginary American dream, I want to actively choose my path based on first principles of my values.
In describing my feelings about travel to friends, I often used this line: “The more you travel, the more you want to travel. But also, the more you travel, the more you appreciate home.”
Both are true for me. The comforts, opportunities, climate, and lifestyle of California feel like home. But, travel opens new dimensions of the human experience that my routine in my college or hometown bubbles keeps hidden. I value travel, and I value home.
In my last week in Bangalore, a man gave me this metaphor:
“Imagine a vegetable garden. Over the past few months, you have been collecting vegetables of all different shapes, sizes, and varieties. Now as you go back home, you will have the opportunity to use what you’ve gathered to make a soup—to integrate what you’ve learned into your life, work, relationships, and decisions. It might take a few tries to get the flavor right, but you have the ingredients you need to begin.”
My vegetables from the summer took the form of spontaneous friendships, illuminating interviews, comforting nature, stressful challenges, relaxing reflection, deep conversations, and new ways of seeing the world. I’m incredibly thankful for the experience, and for all the doors it has opened in my soul and future.
Now I’m home, and it’s time to start making my soup.