Just Run With It

Life has a funny way of making you be honest with yourself. It’s been three months since I left the Kumaoni Himalayas and I am infinitely grateful for the universe’s way of giving me a wake-up call. The past two years at Penn, I was significantly invested in research (both in terms of time and energy)—even sacrificing my academics at times to run experiments and feed my cells in preparation for motherhood. Why? Because it seemed to be the right thing to do given my Bioengineering major. I was convinced that if I didn’t like research I wasn’t in the right major/I had made bad life decisions. (I know, sometimes I can’t believe myself either!!). Now I realize there is no such thing as a bad major—every major is marketable in its own way and successful careers are almost 100% based on what you are willing to put into them, regardless of what you studied! That’s the best part. I have always loved, love, and will love technology, especially in the biotech/pharma/healthcare space– that’s why I studied Bioengineering. In fact, there is nothing that excites me more, and as far as industries go, life sciences is growing at a tremendous rate in the US. For me, there is something so attractive about putting technological innovation and business development in the same space. It combines my engineering background with my secret interests in strategy, commercialization, and management. I say secret because it isn’t until this year (after my internship) that I really took the time to explore the things I enjoyed but wouldn’t admit because I thought it was out of my realm. It takes courage and a lot of confidence in your own ability to adapt, learn-fast, take leadership, and communicate in an effective way.

This summer made me realize how capable I was (and how much I gained) in spaces of management and consulting. I developed infrastructures for trainings, mediated relationships between communities, worked in some of the most challenging team set-ups, and successfully implemented a plan to improve groundwater management in the Kumaoni Himalayas. There is nothing more amazing than realizing you are in love something that you have been exposed to all the time- it’s like suddenly falling in love with a friend you’ve known for a while. My relationship to business development and consulting work is very similar and the scope of my interests have grown to include consulting opportunities in the general and healthcare life-sciences industries, as well as in smaller biotech/pharma startups.

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So where am I at? And what are my interests and plans? I joined Wharton Undergraduate Consulting this semester to work on a project for a rising social enterprise in Ghana looking to expand their market and increase their brand equity. It’s an exciting project because I bring a useful experience-base to the team—I am aware (through CHIRAG) of the challenges organizations (NGOs, social enterprises, etc.) face in developing countries and I am also very much into technology-based startups and product commercialization. The other aspect of what I’m doing is much more informal and equally valuable. I am having conversations. As I eat dinner, grab coffee, walk on Locust, do HW, sit in common lounges, or wait for OH, I perpetually have conversations. I learn the most by talking and listening to people! I see students not as students but as future leaders, entrepreneurs, chairs, and CEOs and I value them for the time and interest they take in speaking with me! Being free from desperation on expectation is a beautiful thing. I think the most successful kind of networking is that which you do naturally and without any desire to get something out of the conversation—instead when you are authentic to yourself and express interest in just speaking with a person because you enjoy it; they too will enjoy it more then!

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I am happy to be in the place that I am in right now- which is 6 am in the comp lounge in Harnwell. But overall, I couldn’t ask for a better experience or support system as I go through the process to find an exciting and awesome summer opportunity which gives me access to the business side of healthcare/life-science industry. I have found advocates in the craziest places, people who are perpetually willing to help and advice. I want to thank everyone who has been with me and will continue with me on this journey of discovery.

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Much love,

Aardra

Photo Journal: Food

The food. Perhaps what I may miss most about India, haha. It is certainly a memorable part of my experience because:

  1. I found out I really like Indian food, and I can eat spicier than even some Indians (*cough* Reya *cough*)
  2. Somehow. SOMEHOW. By some miracle, Reya and I both ate hella street food / food in general and never got sick. I know, unheard of.

As well, Reya and I talked about how I should make a photo collage of all the food I ate, because that would be the most accurate representation of my time in India, so I have decided to dedicate my last post to the wonderful, delicious food of India. (P.S., Reya’s other idea for what I should blog about was an Aparna Wilder appreciation, with photos and quotes. Aparna, we really really appreciated you, as evident by Reya’s post and that blog idea, haha! But I figured a food photo journal would be more representative of my actual time in India ;))

Without further ado, I will now make myself and all of you readers miss / want to go to India.

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Poha for breakfast at a local food cart manned by a really nice lady and gentleman

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Rajasthani Thali. The food is never-ending, and the waiters speed-walk around the restaurant asking you if you want more of their item like every 2 minutes. Their briskness naturally made me eat really fast, so I ended up eating soo much. I didn’t regret it.

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“Chinese Indian” food — its own category of food. Manchurian with gravy and hakka noodles. (Fun fact, the first time we ate dinner at a Chinese-ish restaurant, I almost teared up because I missed Chinese food sooo much.)

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Hmm corn roasted over a coal fire. Crunchy.

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I ate hella chilies.

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Some sweets.Processed with VSCOcam

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Mango Smoothie with dried fruit. So refreshing.

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Dosaaa

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Bombay masala paratha with the most delicious chutneys. I cleaned up.

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Happiness. Bread pakora (double fried) with potato curry — Delhi style. (My health definitely took a toll from eating to many fried foods and too much potato.)

Yum.

The Benefits of the Untraditional Path

An internship at an NGO in India is certainly a unique way to spend the summer. While most of my peers in Wharton seemed to be doing some sort of corporate internship at a known company in the States (usually finance), I admit that many times during my time in India and as well as when I returned to Penn, I fretted over my decision of how I chose to spend my summer – not just because of the nature of the internship, but also simply because what I did seemed so different.

After many weeks of reflection and conversations though, I have resolved that I am grateful for going down an untraditional path. Experiencing a new culture, working in a unique environment, and exposing myself to so many different challenges has broadened my understanding of myself and of this world. This perspective is one that I would have never gained if I had stayed in my comfort zone and not broken out of the larger “Penn bubble” of people and experiences.

For one, it influenced my thoughts on my future career. It is so easy to follow the step-by-step map that our peers and society tells us to take; however, along that path, it’s hard to get the guts to swim away from the current, because all other possibilities seem so uncertain and so precarious. “Do something you’re passionate about,” has become a tried cliche that few follow, very much for the aforementioned reason. Heck, it is so difficult to even find what you are actually passionate about, when society tells you to try only a, b, and c instead. However, spending time in India and thinking about my future has helped me to recognize for myself that I rather go down an untraditional, seemingly risky path of uncertainty, in pursuit of a life that I find meaningful, then blindly follow the traditional path, with its own, often discounted, risks of dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

Importantly, this untraditional path has exposed me to more of the world — a different culture, different people, different experiences, paths, and perspectives. The “Penn bubble” is not just about spending all your time on campus or being surrounded by Penn students. It encompasses, as well, being exposed almost solely to how people at Penn think and what people at Penn do. With all the chaos in the news this summer that is still ongoing (Ukraine-Russia and the crisis with ISIS is just two of many, many issues), all that I, as a typical student, usually worry and obsess suddenly becomes ridiculous and steeped in privilege. Does getting a internship instead of b internship or this grade instead of that really matter in the grand scheme of things? I don’t mean to simply trivialize what happens at Penn and what we students think about and do. There is always chaos in the world, and there are always “greater” things to be concerned about. Our lives, and the real personal challenges and joys we have, are important too. I’m not saying it’s wrong to worry about what we worry about and do what we do. However, I maintain that it is important to take a step back and maintain a healthy perspective that is grounded in the greater realities of the world. Taking a trip down an untraditional path has helped ground me by exposing me and reminding me of life outside of Penn. It has added nuance to the way I think and what I do.

It is impossible to pinpoint the innumerable ways an experience can influence you, for better or worse, in subtle or dramatic ways, but these are two of many interrelated thoughts that particularly stand out during these weeks of reflection.

For anyone who may be reading this who is debating whether to try something “untraditional” consider this: whether the experience turns out to be “good” or “bad,” there are important benefits and always something to learn from trying things outside of your comfort zone. I know, for me, I am grateful for how this experience has changed my perspective and my appreciation of the untraditional path.

Through the Eyes of a Local

“You went to India this summer!??” The surprise and near wonder I hear in people’s voice is almost universal to the reactions I get when I tell people I spent my summer in India. Their reaction is very natural. There is something wondrous about traveling to a foreign (perhaps “exotic”) country, and moreso to spend an extended period of time there. Although, I really enjoy traveling, I don’t love it, and I am cautious to overly romanticize it. I read an article about how to travel long-term, and I think most people who have traveled a good amount (as I have) would agree with the article that traveling is worthwhile, but it is filled with many of its unique downsides as well.

One thing I was careful about when I came to India was to not just allow myself the easy, tourist experience. I am grateful for Reya who had a similar heart, and who as well had family in the area that could give me a taste of what it is like to live as a local.  Of course, simply spending 10 weeks in a city helps to give you a more “local” experience of India — or at least as local as you might be able to get, as a clear, temporary foreigner who doesn’t know the language. As well though, during my time in India I also got to spend some time with Reya’s family in Mumbai — an overnight stay where I got to know her family and cousins, in an experience that gave me just a bit of insight into what a parallel, nuclear family in parts of India look like — and Pune — in which I flipped through wedding photo albums with Reya’s great aunt. I also was able to some time at a local church in India, filled with English-speaking youth (Indians, but not locals to Pune, a young university city). Through this church, Word of Grace, I was able to talk to people my age and get to know about their lives. I was invited over to the pastor’s house on several occasions to eat a home cooked meal or study the Bible, as I met his young children and spent time with the church community.

Perhaps, the most standout of these experiences was when Reya and I agreed (perhaps foolishly) to take a 27-hour non-AC sleeper class train ride from Pune to Delhi. 27 hours. Sleeper class. Almost everyone told us not to do it. Our co-workers, who are definitely better-off than the large majority of India, would not take the sleeper class themselves, not only because of the duration of the trip and the non-AC, but also, to be frank, because the type of people that you would encounter in the sleeper class are much different. These people tend to be the lower-class and the middle-class (middle class being very different from what it is in the States), and most of the people we talked to had concerns for Reya and I whether we would be comfortable or even safe traveling on this train.

I was pretty adamant about taking the train though, justifying to myself that this is how the majority of India travels! And I wanted to experience it too, rather than just coming to India as a wealthier foreigner who avoided anything uncomfortable or potentially dangerous. Granted, it definitely could have been dangerous (getting harassed, getting our things stolen, simply getting lost because we were traveling by ourselves…), and there certainly needs to be caution in undergoing these “adventures” as well (caution that we took), but in the end I am grateful for the experience.

The 27-hour, non-AC part of the train definitely was not great, haha, but it was not as bad as we expected either. We got through it, just as the thousands of Indians who travel by train everyday get through it. And through it — even if, objectively, it was not a “pleasant” experience — we were able to experience for ourselves India more as it would be for a local.

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A young man looking out the open train door, as we drive through the varied states of India.

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The family of four and two other men who shared the same carousel with us. It was very small, but we made due. I am grateful for a nice (but relatively quiet) family to share the ride with.

These are not the exciting, exotic stories that people may want to hear about my trip to India. They are not the amazing adventures or the sensational sights that some people may associate with foreign travel. But they reflect a real, normal, and a times mundane part of India, that I am grateful to have experienced. I am grateful for these experiences, the people I met, and the insights into Indian culture in and of themselves, but also as well for how they ground my perception of India into something that is closer to reality.

For me at least, seeking for a genuine experience of a country is more honest and respectful of the country that I am visiting, for it leaves me with a more accurate picture of what life is actually like for the people of the country. It leaves me a better picture of what “India” actually is.

Goodbye, Hello, and Thank You!

So I’m back at Penn now, and have been for a month. Sometimes summer in India seems like an odd, if vivid sort of dream. Real life is surely not quite so chaotic, so colourful, or so crazy.

The last large project we did before we left India was working on I-gate, a web portal for the facilitation of B2B trade among STSC MSMEs in the country, spearheaded by one of DICCI’s partners. I-gate is still a nascent idea, and our work mostly involved planning the design, features and implementation of the portal. It’s always interesting to apply a theoretical framework to a real problem (and see how well it holds up) and we had a lot of opportunities in this project. We performed almost every strategic analysis in the book, from Porter’s Five Force analysis to a Feasibility study and even applied a little bit of Game Theory. We also worked on strategizing the implementation of I-gate, which involved everything from researching potential partners to deciding which state the portal would first launch in.

Unfortunately our time at DICCI was up before we could see our plans for Igate move toward becoming reality, but I’m looking forward to seeing how it all turns out in the future. Honestly though, by Week 9.5 after our internship, I can safely say that both Sarah and I only had the idea of home and Penn in our minds. Thoughts of Rajput Dairy turned to thoughts of  Wawa, samosas lost their favour. I left with highly mixed feelings on a rainy Saturday night.

Looking back then, with rose tinted glasses:
– Food food food. God I miss the food. I’ve lost weight here for sure, but please someone give me a bread pakora and chai.
– The cheapness of everything – I nearly cried when I had bhel puri the other day and cried again when I saw it was $7.
– The colours everywhere, especially in the fashion – Ann Taylor Loft insults me with its perpetual grayness as I walk past it everyday. And everyone at Penn seems to have entirely black wardrobes.
– The amazing chaos, Indian standard time, and other assorted facets of Indian bureaucracy: Okay, I don’t miss it. But everything seems absurdly straightforward here. Am I playing on easy mode?
– The Taj Mahal, the Gateway of India, the Ellora caves, the Tung fort, the monsoon rain, the yoga classes, the rickshaws. I really want a wooden rickshaw to put on my bookshelf.
– The memorable friendships with both locals and international interns, and the shenanigans which will not be published on this blog.
– The wonderful, warm DICCI staff, the lunch routine, the chocolate runs in the middle of the workday, the second cake on our farewell day because we all love cake that much.
– I can’t end this list of wonderful things without two huge shoutouts – Aparna and Sarah.

Aparna had basically been rock, lifesaver, confidante, resource and friend all in one – all the way from America (god bless Whatsapp). Sarah and I frequently squeal about how much we adore her. Aparna I know you’re reading this, so
a) You’re the absolute best, really you are
b) Thank you, thank you so much for everything
c) I kind of want to text you throughout the semester too because your support was incredible and I feel a little lost without it.

And Sarah. Well, we’d been together 24×7 for ten weeks. Same job, same room, same commute, same friends. For two very different people who didn’t know each other before this internship, that’s a big deal. We differed on many things – but we also had so many adventures together, laughed so much, had intense debates, ate a ridiculous amount of food, conspired, gossiped, travelled, complained, commiserated and basically lived together. It was awesome. So Sarah, if you’re reading this, thank you so much for showing me a lot of different perspectives to a country and lifestyle I thought I knew. I truly respect you so much.

I was sitting in the Philadelphia sunshine a few weeks later when I realised it was August 15th. The date is a sad irony for me – I left India for the first time and for forever on August 15th 2002, and every year while I wore my saffron, white and green dupatta, I still felt a little further away from the country where I was born.  After this summer, I feel like my connection is renewed. I am excited about the country’s future, and invested in its present. Looking back at my first post just confirms it – I am, and forever will be, in love with India.

Jugaad Innovation and the New Year Ahead

When I first returned to Philadelphia at the beginning of August, I was amazed. The streets looked so clean and the cloudless sky radiated. Students had not yet arrived on campus, so Philadelphia was a welcome respite from my last few days in Delhi, trying to shove my way through crowds and hail autos.

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India challenged me in many ways and taught me about my own resilience to difficult circumstances. Traveling through Agra during my final week exposed me to indescribable images – of children playing naked in the streets and houses visibly deteriorating behind piles of trash. I still find myself reflecting on my gratitude for the abundance we have here at Penn – in opportunities, resources, and comfort.

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This year, I am researching jugaad innovations in India for my Wharton Research Scholars project. Jugaad innovation describes the process of searching for solutions under resource constraints, while exceeding quality and performance standards. Examples include:

  • Aravind Eyecare, a network of eye hospitals founded by Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy that performs around 1,000 cataract surgeries per day for $30 each (US price: $3000)
  • Jaipur Foot, a high-quality rubber-based prosthetic leg that retails for $28 (US price: $8000)
  • Dabbawalas, a hot meal system run by bikers in Mumbai which delivers 175,000 tiffin boxes per day with a rate of 3.4 errors per million
  • Vortex Engineering, the producer of solar-powered ATMs that bring banking services to remote villages
  • Mitticool, a low-cost, eco-friendly clay refrigerator that runs without electricity
  • Tata Motors, which produced the Tata Nano, the world’s cheapest car launched for $2000 in 2009
  • The Indian Space Research Organization, which sent the Mangalyaan space craft to Mars for $73 million (less than the cost of Boeing’s cheapest commercial airplane)

After reading around 30 books and articles and creating a database of product, process, and business model innovations, my current plan is to return to India over winter break to interview companies and produce case studies. From a business perspective, I am very optimistic about India’s future – it holds so much potential – and look forward to further incorporating the lessons I learned this summer into my academic pursuits.

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India at Last

Left to Right: Prabu- Jr Engineer R&D Maanraj- Computer Scientist Sudhakar- Electrical Engineer

Left to Right:
Prabu- Jr Engineer R&D
Maanraj- Computer Scientist
Sudhakar- Electrical Engineer

First of all, super excited to be here in India! It has been a long awaited journey here to Madurai and I am finally ready to begin my project. I hate talking about myself, but a little about my past and my intentions through the Sobti Fellowship seem in order.

I was born in Philadelphia but spent a good part of my childhood in Tamil Nadu, India with my grandfather where I picked up Tamil, the local language. I eventually moved back to the US after my parents were able to kick start their careers, and I have been in the suburbs of Philadelphia or proper Philadelphia city since. At UPenn I studied bioengineering and was also pre-med. I had numerous interests in Penn, including teaching through Weiss Tech House, volunteering my time at CHOP, and working in the Lazar Lab at Perelman. However, it wasn’t until I was a senior that I truly understood what it meant to be an engineer. I took some upper level electrical engineering classes and had the opportunity to create what I think was a cool medical device through senior design my senior year. Originally set on solely focusing on medicine, these projects really sparked my interest in creating medical devices.

As the first Sobti Family Fund Fellow, I will have the opportunity to pursue several of my career interests here in India. My interest in medical devices really stems from how I like to interact with the world around me. I like using my hands and all my senses when working on something meaningful, and to me it doesn’t get much more meaning than making a product out of my own two hands that can help save lives. After working on my senior design project, I came to an important realization. Innovations that are going to be used to create the most advanced devices of the future like Watson or the iPhone 6 can also be used to bring down the cost of health care, and my hope is my career will land me somewhere in that happy medium. Innovations like the 3D printer are making it possible to increase accessibility of basic medical devices (such as Enable the Future – http://enablingthefuture.org/). As a Sobti Fellow, I will be working with Aravind Eye Hospital to create a phacoemulsification device at reduced cost. This is used for cataract surgery, a very common surgery in India and throughout the world. I will be working with Aurolab, the device company partnered with Aravind that provide cheap and quality medical equipment to Hospitals within India and Africa.

Aravind Eye Care System is a hospital in Madurai, India. It is a World Health Organization Hospital known for its many training programs and unique business model. It operates a free clinic that has given thousands of free surgeries here in India. It is self-sustaining but has obtained help from generous donors and volunteers for about 30 years. However for the first half of the year I will be focusing my efforts at Aurolab. Aurolab provides surgical equipment to Aravind and hospitals throughout Asia and Africa. They provide simple products such as blades and sutures, simultaneously producing more complex items like lens’ replacements for cataract surgery. Aravind is also working on creating surgical medical devices like a phacoemulsification device. This is primarily used in cataract surgery to remove the patients lens and replace it with an artificial one. By creating medical devices and surgical equipment, Aurolab and Aravind work together to bring the cost of surgery and those provide cheaper services for area like Madurai. My hope is to complete the phacoemulsification device with the team already working on the product.

For the second half of the year I will be working with doctor and patients to expand surgeries to rural areas. I hope to have the details hammered out soon as I learn more about Aravind’s operations.

Now that I have been in Aurolab for about a month, I have set several tangible goals that I would like to set out and accomplish come next summer that align with my career objective and can really help Aravind, India and other developing countries. If everything goes according to plan (fingers crossed).

My immediate goals for the phacoemulsification device include creating the user interface and user manual for the device. I have already created most of the user interface of the device and am now working on getting the device ready for clinical trials. This is a long process and one I would like to oversee throughout my duration here in Madurai. I will also help create the mechanical design of the final product. The goals centered around this project for Aurolab are all about cost and quality. These values are essential to my future goals in global medicine and low cost medical device. I look forward to learning from my Aurolab and Aravind mentors while I am here, and exploring India too!

I promise the next post won’t be so dry! Enjoy these pictures from Kanyakumari (Southern Tip of India)!

Kanyakumari Rice Fields

Kanyakumari Rice Fields

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dolphins:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/h0r445btuvl2g9g/IMG_0261.MOV?dl=0