I didn’t make it to Gujarat, India, but thanks to modern technology, I got to work remotely with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) as an IMAGO Summer Fellow. SEWA is a union of informal women workers in India with over 2 million members, many of whom own and work in social enterprises, women’s cooperatives. IMAGO has worked with SEWA for around 6 years and recently commenced to support SEWA on  Project MOVE. 

MOVE is a 5-year project focused on empowering communities with sustainable social enterprises through the discovery and implementation of interventions enabling social enterprises to meet the twin goals of financial growth and improvement of women’s economic well-being and agency. The project was kick-started this summer and two other IMAGO Fellows and I got to partake.

My main tasks this summer included working on the development of a needs assessment tool and financial analysis for the social enterprises that are part of MOVE, collaborating on a literature review which included an exploration of enterprise support systems and e-commerce in China, and conducting  leadership interviews with SEWA team members.

I learned a lot of new things about, e.g., cooperatives and mentorship, but my key takeaways are less theoretical but centered around three themes: leadership and co-creation, the tempo and trajectory of social change, and working and connecting virtually (the drawing below illustrates the keywords from my Fellowship). 

Lessons in leadership and co-creation 

IMAGO and SEWA modelled distinctive leadership styles and cultures of co-creation that I wish to carry with me. All internal meetings in IMAGO and all workshops run with SEWA were characterised by a feeling of space – space to express humanity, space to be, space to connect. Practices like check-ins and check-outs helped us connect and ground ourselves on Zoom, while the break-out rooms and facilitation intentionally fostered dialogue, opened the floor, and built capacity (e.g., by encouraging more junior participants to take charge and synthetize). I felt that SEWA was on the same wavelength and confirmed it in my interview with Salonie Hiriyur, a Senior Coordinator at SEWA Cooperative Federation. The Cooperative Federation works with help-seeking cooperatives in the same way that IMAGO worked with SEWA this summer: not by prescribing and imposing a solution, but by helping the farmers/workers uncover, organise, and use their knowledge to arrive at one, and acting as a bridge to resources and platforms. This is a distinctive approach to development – bottom-up instead of top-down – or in Salonie’s own words:

“The majority of our organization is the grassroots workers and we are there to support them, support their leadership, so they’re the ones to show us where to go, tell us what is what, keep us honest, and we just act as their bridge to resources and spaces which they may not have been able to access”

Central to this approach is the belief that leadership is about building capability, not dependency – “you’ve failed as a leader if you are irreplaceable”– so the leaders at SEWA are focused on developing each member into a leader rather than leading in the traditional sense. 

Lessons in the tempo and trajectory of social change

I’m most familiar with straight-forward trajectories – transformations with a clear timed plan for getting from A to B, and projects with short feedback loops. Thus, a key takeaway from this Fellowship is an appreciation for the process of social change: slow, squiggly, and at times even undecipherable. There may be little movement on the surface while wheels are turning underneath. This was evident both in the MOVE project where a shared understanding and momentum took time to build and in the history of the chosen social enterprises themselves.  

Lessons in working and connecting virtually

Like many others, I expected to and did find working virtually challenging and frustrating. To my surprise, however, it also led to new opportunities such as meetings with stakeholders who would not have been able to meet otherwise, and moments of connecting that felt all the more remarkable and precious for being virtual. The use of check-ins, break-out rooms, and virtual team rooms allowed us to emulate “coffee machine/hallway chats”, sitting and working alongside each other, and having whiteboard sessions. With no end in sight for the pandemic, the steep learning curve this summer and the development and penetration of various technology tools make me hopeful.   

Written by Summer Siman Li
IMAGO Fellow 2020
MPP & MBA Candidate – HKS-MIT Sloan