Eight weeks in a village goes a long way in making compassionate leaders -- Hindustan Unilever's Rural Immersion program
Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) is one of India's largest fast moving consumer goods companies and is owned by the European company Unilever, which owns a 52% majority stake. HUL began its operations as Lever Brothers in India in the summer of 1888, when crates full of Sunlight soap bars, embossed with the words 'Made in England by Lever Brothers' were shipped to the Kolkata harbour and it began an era of marketing branded fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) in India. HUL was formed in 1933 as Lever Brothers India Limited and came into being in 1956 as Hindustan Lever Limited through a merger of Lever Brothers, Hindustan Vanaspati Mfg. Co. Ltd. and United Traders Ltd. It is headquartered in Mumbai, India with an employee strength of over 15,000 and contributes to indirect employment of over 52,000 people. In June 2007, the company was renamed “Hindustan Unilever Limited”.
Hindustan Unilever's distribution covers over 1 million retail outlets across India directly and its products are available in over 10 million outlets in the country making it a distribution behemoth in a country with fragmented retail trade. Two out of every three Indians use its many home and personal care products, food and beverages. HUL is the market leader in Indian consumer products with a presence in over 20 consumer categories such as soaps, tea, detergents and shampoos amongst others with over 700 million Indian consumers using its products.
In 2007, Hindustan Unilever was rated as the most respected company in India for the past 25 years by Businessworld, one of India’s leading business magazines. The rating was based on a compilation of the magazine's annual survey of India’s most reputed companies over the past 25 years. HUL was one of the eight Indian companies to be featured on the Forbes list of World’s Most Reputed companies in 2007.
In the words of some of the recent participants, the program has left a lasting impact on their young impressionable minds and imparted lessons that they have carried through their careers. Reproduced below are some of their views and opinions on the rural program.
Deepali Agarwal - BLT 2006
Being a woman, I was initially quite skeptical about going to a rural village. However, 5 years on I remember it as one of the most treasured and enriching experiences of my professional career. The stint made me see the human side of a corporate, one as large as HUL.
I was in an HUL factory in a small town. The factory had undertaken several projects for villages around it to help them build a sustainable livelihood. One such project was the women empowerment project. In my stint I also worked with some NGOs who worked towards starting cottage industries to be run by village women. These industries would capitalize on the strengths of these women - making traditional Indian condiments or food, sewing, handicrafts etc.
Women formed self-help groups with the guidance of these NGOs and were able to draw a regular income. The NGOs guided them with the procurement of raw material and sales of the product in the market. The HUL factory would regularly monitor the financial health of these groups. Some self help groups supplied material to the HUL factory itself. Trainees were regularly a part of these projects. Such initiatives made me realize that being a large corporate comes with added social responsibility.
Sriram G - BLT 2010
I have very fond memories of my own Rural Stint. From visiting an orphanage to play with the kids to winning idli (an Indian breakfast rice cake popular in South India) eating competitions, it was one amazing journey.
The most striking thing about living in Rural India is the simplicity of the lives of people there. It's been said so often it appears clichéd, but then it hits you very powerfully when you are there. Wake up, work hard, exchange opinions about the happenings in the newspaper, drink lots of coffee/tea/coconut water/sugarcane juice, catch up on the events in the houses of everybody you know (with or without their consent!) & then a bit of TV & off to sleep! It teaches you that the more complex life seems, the simpler the answers are, if you can find them.
Aswath Venkataraman - BLT 2006
I remember the time I was in Khamgaon in rural Maharashtra. Since most of the work for the actual project happened in the morning, we were left to our own devices in the afternoon. So a couple of colleagues and I started going to the village school to teach. I was very surprised to see a top-of-the-line computer in what was essentially a 2-room school. The computer wasn't working because a couple of wires had not been plugged in correctly, which I rectified. Thanks to this the school teachers decided to anoint me the 'computer expert' and asked me to take classes for the kids. My colleagues and I were very skeptical about the whole thing, given that these were kids who were probably 9-10 years old and could barely speak a word of English. Once we gave it a shot, we were we pleasantly surprised. The kids picked up the nuances really rapidly and by the time my stint was ending they had understood how to use MSpaint, open files, save files etc.
One thing that this taught me very clearly, was that as a leader, the worst thing to do is to be intellectually arrogant and underestimate your own team's or your people's potential. If a below-average teacher facing a language barrier like me was able to impart some computer skills to these kids, I am certain that with better access and coaching they could really have gone places. This one realization was totally worth the month of staying in Khamgaon (besides the great food that our host gave us).
Sairam Subramanian - BLT 2007
I stayed in a remote village called Parkhed in Maharashtra, and lived in a hut for 6 weeks and ate the food the grandmom of the house cooked on an open fire. My projects were to teach English at the government school, and to increase the productivity of agriculture in the village by coming up with ideas on how HUL can help make irrigation and water conservation techniques better. What the rural stint taught me was how 65% of India was actually living. Trainees like me are typically from large urban cities, and we picture an India in our heads that constitutes only 25-35% of reality. During my rural stint, the first feeling that occured to me was this feeling of being humbled. Spending time with those people in the village gave me a different perspective on life. The people there have more aspirations than an average urban citizen. The amount of work those people involved in agriculture did was a true learning, because we are all from a protected environment, while for them every day is a challenge.
Overall I feel the Rural stint made me a better person, a better leader and marketing professional and gave me a good knowledge of the country we live in and the consumers and customers we cater to as a company.