We don't often tell them as innovation stories, but history is full of examples of faith communities and institutions developing new ideas for addressing social problems. All the destructive things done in the name of religion or by religious people and leaders notwithstanding, when one looks to where good is happening in the world, one will often find people of faith. From building social movements to building schools and hospitals, faith communities have been innovating solutions, often quietly, for the good of humanity for millennia. And they are still doing so today, though the scale of these efforts sometimes feels small under the weight of today's complex problems.
Until one learns about Akshaya Patra.
On a trip to India recently, I asked a colleague if she knew of anyone working at the intersection of Hinduism and social innovation. She handed me a book, God's Own Kitchen, by Rashmi Bansal, which tells the story of Akshaya Patra, an organization started through the unlikely collaboration of Hindu monks and executives at Infosys (a multi-billion-dollar Indian technology company), which now serves a nutritious mid-day meal to over 1.7 million Indian schoolchildren a day, most of whom might otherwise eat only once a day. In reading the book, I was struck not only by the incredible story of this organization and its rapid growth but by the lessons the story surfaces for anyone setting out to create change.
1. Find the purpose that aligns with your vision, values and capacities. When the CFO of Infosys paid a visit to the President of the ISKCON temple in Bangalore, he brought his own inspiration. Having appreciated the education he received at a Jesuit school as a child, he wanted to support ISKCON to develop quality schools as well. When a top executive of one of India's largest companies offers funding for this endeavor, surely the temptation would be to say yes. But the monks said no. And that "no" allowed both sides to explore other options that led to the realization that "feeding programs had always been a part of ISKCON." They fed all those who came to temple, they fed people at festivals, they took food to slum areas. They could feed schoolchildren as well.
2. Build a team, but treat doing so as a value, not a task. And your team is not just the people you hire. Find your allies and then let them lead. The popular narratives of social entrepreneurship, especially in the West, are generally the stories of individuals leading change. But the truth is nothing of significance happens without a whole lot of collaboration. The Akshaya Patra story is not the story of one monk and one executive, it is the story of hundreds who, inspired by the vision, stepped up to lead and innovate. The many monks deputized to start kitchens in diverse regions of the country, the workers who brought new ideas to address daily challenges, the students and teachers who provided feedback to solve problems such as how to reduce costs, the parents who formed teams to monitor local kitchens, the machinery designers and manufacturers who helped create the kitchens that enabled scale, the funders who helped make it all possible, the government officials who supported the program to spread, and many more. Akshaya Patra is the story of many leaders.
3. Get started, and then iterate constantly. More specifically, empower your team to iterate constantly. "There was no business plan, market study or excel sheet projection. Just a meeting of minds, flow of emotion. … In those first few days and weeks, the food was cooked, it was transported, it was served. There was no great technology or scientific method. It was a bunch of dedicated young men using their common sense." And once started, everyone involved with Akshaya Patra has been empowered to offer ideas and problem-solve. For example, monks setting up operations in areas where the centralized kitchen model wouldn't work rapidly innovated a decentralized model. Or when there were complaints about rice sticking together, they developed a vibrating machine to fix the problem. As a result of this empowerment, the Akshaya Patra story is one of constant iteration that enabled success - and the overcoming of failure - at every step of the journey.
4. Spark creativity through learning. Learn. Learn more. Keep learning. One is struck by the almost unbelievable creativity that has carried Akshaya Patra to its current scale, but it's really no mystery. When you build an expansive team with a shared vision and empower everyone to solve problems, creativity already has fertile ground. Add to that the humility and openness to learn, and suddenly the veil of mystery is lifted. Creativity in problem-solving is not “aha” moments. It grows from being willing to face a problem and having the curiosity and humility to learn what you need to solve it. In the Akshaya Patra team, "no issue was too small to address. And no problem was too big to solve." When they didn't know how to do something - e.g. run an industrial kitchen - they went to learn from those who did. When the price of dal skyrocketed, the monk running operations for one of the kitchens went out to learn everything he could about the lentil supply chain and was able to cut out the middlemen to reduce the cost and get better quality lentils.
5. Work with culture, not against it. Except… Through your actions, gracefully challenge the barrier walls that culture erects. To succeed and grow across a country as large and diverse as India, the monks of Akshaya Patra have creatively leveraged culture in their work in local communities. For instance, in a community where people were not in the habit of bathing regularly, maintaining hygiene standards in the kitchen presented a challenge. So they built into their process an offering of the food to a deity before serving it to the children. As one must be clean before making an offering, a new habit of regular bathing developed among the cooks. At the same time, when the opportunity emerged for Akshaya Patra to serve a Muslim school in a "sensitive area" where Hindu-Muslim tensions had been known to run high, they didn't let this cultural barrier stop them. It was a risk they were willing to take to serve their mission of feeding children. Or when some of the women who made chapatis in one community didn't show up one day, the monk in charge didn't hesitate. He jumped in to do this traditionally women's work himself to make sure the children were fed.
And perhaps most importantly:
6. Don't commit to excellence. Instead, commit to the good of all. And never compromise on that. Akshaya Patra did not invent the mid-day meal itself. The idea already existed when they started. But various efforts that existed before and after Akshaya Patra started were plagued by all sorts of problems. It's easy to say that Akshaya Patra just had a deeper commitment to excellence. But I would argue it isn't as much a commitment to excellence as it is to the health, wellbeing, and happiness of all those involved, starting with the students the program was created to serve but including workers and partners as well. Excellence is the byproduct of that commitment. It means they keep growing quickly and organically because there are more children that need them, that the highest hygienic standards are maintained, that the meals not only feed the children but please them, that they attend to the health and convenience of their workers, that they employ people from vulnerable communities. It means that when finances were dire and most companies would have substituted cheaper, lower-quality food products (because really, what's the harm, they're still providing food the children wouldn't otherwise have, right?), doing so was "not an option" for Akshaya Patra.
Of course, the heart of all of this has been the monks' uncompromising commitment to serve, which has allowed them to persist through more challenges than most would be willing to endure. The book tells the story of one community where some locals with guns showed up to intimidate the newly arrived monk setting up operations. "Suvyakta [the monk] shrugged. The local goons must have thought it would be easy to get a mild-mannered swami off the property. They had obviously not read the Bhagavad Gita…"
And the Akshaya Patra story continues, with the goal of reaching 5 million children by 2020. Follow and support their work at www.akshayapatra.org and their US organization www.foodforeducation.org. And buy a copy of God's Own Kitchen by Rashmi Bansal.
Author: Danielle Goldstone