Thursday, August 5, 2010

Take, and give

After concluding my interview with Dineshbhai Charan, one of the most prolific dairy farmers in the Panchmal district of Gujarat, I closed my notebook and asked, through an interpreter, whether he had any questions for me. The conversation up to this point had been entirely one-sided; me asking probing questions about Dinesh’s family, his livelihood and his thoughts about the future and he answering candidly and thoughtfully to a virtual stranger. Though the warm faces around me gave no indication that they shared in my awkwardness, I felt somewhat sheepish and was relieved when Dinesh looked me straight in the eye and asked, “Well, what can you do for us?” At that very moment, the sky broke into a deluge of rain and a gust of grass-scented wind swept past us. I thought: this is a moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

“I realize I’ve asked you a lot of questions and I appreciate how wiling you’ve been to share”, I said, stalling. I went on to explain that I was interning for an impact investment fund that provides capital and technical assistance to companies like SKEPL and that impact investing is a growing field because people see sustainable business as a way of generating substantial and lasting economic opportunities for people. I waited for the translator to finish and saw that, though Dinesh and the crowd around him appreciated the sentiment, it wasn’t resonating as I had hoped. Feeling somewhat intimidated by the question and all of its inherent complexity, I turned up my palms, smiled and said, “I can tell your story.” Impact investing, I continued, isn't simply creative finance with an orientation towards social and/or environmental returns but rather a channel through which financial and capacity building assistance touch the lives of real people like you and your family. Storytelling is one way to make a concept that sometimes defies definition tangible and personal, and can attract people and funding to the industry.

Of course, I’m not entirely satisfied with my response and doubt I’ll ever be. But I believe that Dinesh’s question and the drive to get the answer right keeps us innovating, evaluating, taking risks and demanding more from ourselves and from the world.

- Lauren

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