Alison Berry (the Celebrate Innovation Manager of Mars Wrigley Confectionery UK) recently spent a week with Pratham India at village schools. She experienced firsthand ‘transformative results in children’s education and vocational training’ and left her mark taking plenty of selfies with students!
My Passage to India with Mars and Pratham
By Alison Berry
One of the incredible programmes that Mars Inc offers its associates (what we call our employees) is the Mars Ambassador Programme – once a year associates can apply for an assignment; effectively a life-changing experience that connects Associates with communities and enables them to learn about the issues Mars face as a business as they develop leadership competencies in real-life situations. This is how I found myself applying to spend a week with Pratham Education Foundation in India – the Wrigley Foundation has been a long term supporter of the NGO, and with the integration of Wrigley into Mars Wrigley Confectionery, there was the opportunity to extend that support into a team of Mars Ambassadors using their marketing and communications skills to recommend some new and actionable local fundraising initiatives. Think of an extreme team building exercise – 4 people who’ve never met each other, never been to India, never worked with Pratham, and give them a few days to come up with some great ideas!
Prior to this year, my knowledge of India was limited to studying E.M. Forster’s classic, “A Passage to India” as part of my A-Level English Literature course, and more recently, the BBC series “The Real Marigold Hotel”. Clearly, I needed a little more than that to understand the culture and context that Pratham works in, so armed with a Lonely Planet Guide and the very helpful “East or West” by Vinati Sukhdev, I learnt that visiting India would be an assault on my senses and a place of extreme contrasts.
The reality showed my reading to be quite accurate! Arriving in Delhi, especially during Navratri just took the sensory overload up a few notches, combined with the pre-Diwali shopping frenzies that certainly surpassed anything I’ve ever witnessed in December on Oxford Street. The contrasts were obvious too – the beauty juxtaposed with the brokenness and the ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ (guest is God) vs endemic scams & dishonesty often aimed at visitors.
Meeting the Pratham Team I definitely saw the best of India. I saw committed, hardworking people. I saw real integrity and a trusted partner to many corporates. I saw efficiency, where 93% of all funding goes directly to the programmes. I saw innovative education programmes that have proven transformative results in children’s education and vocational training. I saw programmes which are cost effective, repeatable and scalable. And I saw children and young people whose lives are being changed. I thought it would be the primary aged children that really pulled on my heart strings…actually it turned out to be the teenagers who we met on a field trip with in Lucknow, at the Pratham Arora Center for Education.
Learning at PACE really is learning at pace
“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
– C. S. Lewis
In an inauspicious location, at the entrance to a residential vocational school fashioned creatively and sustainably from old containers, I received one of the most genuine and unexpected arrival greetings – it wouldn’t have felt out of place at the best 5* hotel; scented warmed towels, a refreshing juice drink and a tika on my forehead. The welcoming group were all students on the vocational hospitality course – giving a hotel style welcome to guests as part of the training to be work-ready for a potential employer.
The programme’s success is based on a simple but powerful formula; of interactive learning, breaking knowledge down into manageable chunks, group work, learning by doing, role play and “real-life” settings including a hotel bedroom with ensuite and a restaurant and bar.
To appreciate the huge value of this programme – I needed to suspend my British expectation of what’s normal…this vocational training is so essential to provide employment opportunities, as of course for these students their world view is totally different…a hotel bedroom with an en suite is alien to them – expecting them to secure employment straight from a village context is a little bit like asking me tomorrow to get in a space craft and fly to Mars (the planet – not the company!)
Grow a little each and every day
Our tour took us to the newest group of new intakes (10 days new) – even within this context we saw how the journey of growth had already started. We met the self-confessed shy one – yet the first to speak up to respond to the question of what has been the most challenging parts of the programme (learning to communicate with people apparently), and another whose ambition to work in Bangalore or even the United States. Life transforming stuff! We ended the tour with the most experienced students – after only a matter of a few months they welcomed us to their “restaurant”, where they demonstrated their communication skills, expertly took a napkin from the table and placed on my lap with a flourish or poured water deftly.
What an impact – learning really at a fast pace!
Leaving a little mark
Working for Mars, it’s so important to exemplify mutuality in every setting – and interrupting the students’ programme (and being late to arrive!) felt a little like we were taking more than we were giving. On reflection though…whilst I was gifted a tika – or a small red mark on the forehead – I hope our visit left a small mark in the form of an opportunity to practice their skills on real-life friendly but none the less intimidating overseas visitors.
Picking a favourite moment from a visit like this is always a challenge – but just before departing and taking the all-important group photograph – we just used one word and instantly the serious looking young adults were transformed before my eyes into excitable teenagers by the power of a single word….Selfie! They took many with us!
Better moments really do make the world smile