Someway, Somehow

"Do you think it’s possible that he put diesel in the tank instead of petrol?”

From the Fall 2010 edition of Vanderbilt Business

Gest with Goonj Founder Anshu Gupta (standing) and Goonj Project Coordinator Ruchika Gandhi
Gest with Goonj Founder Anshu Gupta (standing) and Goonj Project Coordinator Ruchika Gandhi

“Do you think it’s possible that he put diesel in the tank instead of petrol?”

I asked Girish this question while we sat in our broken-down car facing three cows and a street vendor selling coconuts. Girish, whom I had met at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology during my Owen semester abroad, was taking me on a tour of his hometown of Delhi, India, by way of a two-hour gas station visit. Minutes later the guilty station attendant put one end of a hose in our gas tank and the other end in his mouth. Before I could say, “Please, whatever you do, do not do that,” he inhaled to create a suction that pumped the gasoline into a waste bucket. Meanwhile Girish looked at me, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Jugaar.

Jugaar is a Hindi term that loosely translates as “things will work out, somehow.” Is a man attempting to fix your car by sucking gas out of a hose? Jugaar. Or perhaps a shopkeeper does not have 7 rupees in change, so he offers you 5 rupees and a piece of chocolate instead? Jugaar. Or maybe it is too hot to sleep at night so you pull the mattress onto your balcony and wrap a mosquito net around the railing? Jugaar. I had to remind myself to be resourceful and remain optimistic during my visit to India—even when the clear path to success was either blocked or unavailable.

Those of us who are business professionals in the U.S. could certainly benefit from this line of thinking, especially during these lean economic times. Perhaps your company has slashed its budget and work force, and you are now saddled with extra burdens? Jugaar. Or maybe you are among those who were laid off and are now trying your hand at entrepreneurism? Jugaar. We are all making do with fewer resources and relying now more than ever on creativity and innovation to keep moving forward.

While in India, I dedicated my time to working with Goonj, an NGO (nongovernmental organization) with offices in seven cities, a network that spans 21 states, and partnerships with 150 groups, including other NGOs and the Indian army. The idea behind the organization, which was founded by Anshu Gupta in 1999, is “clothes for development”—utilizing donated clothing and other items as compensation for development work, like digging wells, building schools and constructing bridges in village communities. In this way Goonj enhances the efforts of other social entrepreneurs by providing a way to compensate village laborers without using cash.

Seamstresses in the Goonj sorting center
Seamstresses in the Goonj sorting center

The key to Goonj’s success is a lean business model fueled by innovation and resourcefulness. The clothing and other donated goods are gathered from affluent families at collection points in urban areas and then filtered through a complex supply chain that eventually reaches rural villages. Any donated item that arrives at the Goonj warehouse in poor condition is broken down into raw material, which is then used in making items such as quilts, bags and children’s toys. Even small threads that fall on the production-line floor are collected and sent to the seamstress team for product development.

To raise funds Goonj sometimes sells the items it receives. For example, if a donated book will not be used in a village, the team will sell it to a bookstore in the city to generate income. The NGO also sells the products it makes to clientele in the cities. These items include folders, purses, wallets, cell phone holders and greeting cards. I even witnessed a donated Michael Jackson cassette tape repurposed into other items, including stripping the tape out of the cassette and using it to weave handbags and mats. The Goonj team consistently finds a way to promote and advance its efforts by working with what it has and within its means.

In many ways Goonj provides a model not just for other organizations in India but for those elsewhere, including the U.S. The NGO is small enough to respond to fluctuations in donations and has kept its fixed costs low enough to ensure that profit centers keep the organization afloat. Its technology may be outdated, the office space cluttered and the sorting center dilapidated, but Goonj has effectively optimized its production and supply chains. Its warehousing model can compete with any corporate Six Sigma project.

Success comes down to whether we are willing to look at and work with what is in front of us. Rigid perceptions of how things should or used to be eventually give way to the certainty of how things are. Organizations that stay lean and remain creative with resources are the ones that will be standing when the smoke of the recession clears. It may not be easy, but things will work out, somehow. Jugaar.

2 Responses to “Someway, Somehow”

  1. Ruchika

    Nice portary.. Darren



  2. Rahul

    Very nice article, loved reading it. You have got the essence right.

    Even I have been associated with Goonj. I collect old clothes and other material from my colleagues and then take those to Goonj warehouse / collection center. This is my way to help them and ultimately help the poor. Some colleagues help me in logistics – they volunteer to take the material in their car. Together, we can make a difference. India, or any other country for that matter, needs a lot of efforts from common citizens, to reach a prosperous status.

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