Death of an Entrepreneur: Part 2: “Grandiosity and Shame”

Café Coffee Day founder #VGSiddhartha death revealed the debt crisis in India. It also revealed an empathy crisis of the world we live in. 

Frozen TV Screen in a Cafe Coffee Day

When a self-made, socially-committed entrepreneur commits suicide, we are left with an unexplainable void. In my last blog (Death of an Entrepreneur: Our collective Blindspot), I explored how we all are becoming the part of the invisible forces, within our social ecosystem, that makes and breaks an entrepreneur.

I received many responses from other entrepreneurs, bankers, tax officers, psychologists and artist. They resonated with the blog and shared how they feel stuck and helpless in the ecosystem that accounts for the death of talented and conscious entrepreneurs like Siddharth. Some of the readers knew Siddharth personally. They shared stories of his commitment to uplift underprivileged communities, educating youth and his diligence to pay off all his debts. Yet, he ended up seeing himself a failure and killed himself.

Interestingly, some readers saw it differently. They hold Siddharth as a defaulter who took the system for granted and killed himself when questioned. They wonder how can one have empathy for those who default the system and fail their dependents. This contrast in viewpoints made me wonder why do we fail to see and feel the ecosystem that we are part of. How do we get obsessed with the struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor, while, the script and the scriptwriters go unnoticed?

Perhaps, how we see the world depends upon what lenses we wear. Do we tend to look narrowly at immediate parts or we look at the whole? Do we look mechanically at structural/ logical elements and externalise responsibility? Or we also look empathically at emotional/cultural dimension and take collective ownership of what happened?

This made me draw a matrix to map all response. There seem to be four distinct viewpoints:

Narrow mechanistic view (Fault-finding): Holding the entrepreneur accountable for his or her wrong decisions and lack of responsibility. From this viewpoint death of entrepreneurs like Siddharth is a result of their own mistakes and failure. They misuse the system and fail to deal with when questioned. This is similar to the patriarchal, alpha male paradigm that blames the entrepreneurs (the masculine provider) for defaulting the system and shames him for making his family or tribe suffer.

Systems mechanistic view (System-analysis): Holding the system accountable that’s victimising the entrepreneur. This viewpoint shifts attention from the individual to the whole system and analyses the structural and policy dimensions. Many business leaders and politicians have been speaking from this viewpoint, when they refer to tax-terrorism and insensitive policies by the current government.

Both the above viewpoints on left side of the matrix, are logical and persuasive. But they lack empathy. They look at the issue and try to quickly fix it by holding either the entrepreneur or the system accountable. They don’t put themselves in the situation. To understand the right side of the matrix, we need to step into shoes of the entrepreneurs like Siddharth. Something we were able to do when we created a Social Presencing Theatre based systems map (refer last blog)

Narrow empathetic view (Mental-wellbeing): Reflecting on the mental and emotional stress an entrepreneur undergoes that makes him take such drastic step. Those holding this viewpoint empathise with Siddharth and call upon other entrepreneurs to take care of their mental well-being. They advocate that entrepreneurs must have close friends and professional support to help them through these situations. 

Holistic empathic view (Co-sensing and transforming the ecosystem): Reflecting not only on the emotional struggles of the entrepreneur but the larger field that co-creating the suffering. Those holding this perspective are like gardeners who go beyond sympathising with the dying plant and attend to the whole ecosystem. They feel the collective pain and reflect on their own role in co-creating the mess.

The holistic empathic view reminds of something my teacher and systems thinking guru Peter Senge told me ten years back.

“You cannot change a system unless you see your thumbprint (role) in creating it”.

This quote changed my perspective in life. Unless we see how we are creating the current state of suffering, we will only remain helpless victims of the same. And victims have no power to change the system anyways. From a holistic systemic viewpoint, we all are interconnected. We can see how we are co-creators of the capitalist economy that creates, exploits and kills entrepreneurs like Siddharth.

As investors, we are only invested in higher returns on the capital we invest in. We create pressure on enterprises to take the risk and return higher dividends. We don’t care anything about sustainable practices of the enterprise or well-being of the entrepreneur. Together with banking system, we have co-created a short-term, individualistic growth culture cares little for people or planet.

As the government, we want to control and claim higher taxes. We citizen elect governments and become part of the impersonal machinery that puts undue pressure on entrepreneurs. I recall how voters celebrated the demonetisation and GST policies while so many small scale entrepreneurs struggled to survive. It was painful to see an entrepreneur friend of mine breaking down financially and emotionally during that period. 

As employees of these enterprises and banks, we want job stability, salary raise and secure lifestyle. We don’t know the risks and burden an entrepreneur takes to feed his enterprise. As family and friends, we often want the status quo of lifestyle to continue. Praising the patriarch and never letting him off the hook. As a community, we shame and blame if they fail their role as providers. Makes it difficult for entrepreneurs like Siddharth to retreat, surrender or restart.

As a society, media and consumers, we have co-created a narrative of “grandiosity and shame”. We feed on rag-to-riches, alpha, hero stories. We inspire our youth to think big, dream big, and leap beyond their own bearings. We have created systems that seduce them do so through low-risk loans, venture capital and so on. 

We first feed them to the “grandiose” narrative. A few may succeed, temporarily. Sooner or later they fail. Then we trigger the “shame” narrative. Shaming them for failing the system, the family, the community, their own image. Some sneak away unceremoniously out of the limelight. Some bear it all and commit suicide.

 

Something in this story reminds me of the 2017 biopic “The Mercy“. It is a real-life story of a  businessman, Donald Crowhurst, from the United Kingdom. He had a beautiful family and a decent lifestyle inspite of his struggling business. He got seduced by the grandiosity narrative and, in spite of being an amateur sailor, he applied for the Golden Globe Race to sail solo around the world without any stop. Media made him an instant hero. Investors put their money to help him build a new boat. Rest of us projected our unlived hero dream on his frail shoulders. A few weeks before his journey he realised that he has bitten more than he could chew. As a technologist, he was certain that his new boat would fail. Yet the media refused to listen, investors got hold of his house mortgage, everyone put pressure on him, and he, himself, could not fail his family. And so he went on the expedition. Though he sailed half way around the world, impressive for an amateur, he could not return as a failure and face the shame. He jumped in the sea and committed suicide. When the news of his suicide reached his wife and children, media surrounded their house, hurling insults and demeaning him. At one point his wife opened the door and said

“I don’t know if my husband slipped and fell, or if he jumped… as you’re now saying. But I would like you to rest assured, that if he did jump, he was pushed. And each and every one of you here had a grubby hand on his back. Every photographer, every sponsor, every reporter, every sad little man who stands at a newsstand to feast on the scraps of another’s undoing. And once he was in the water, you all held him under with your judgement.

Last week you were selling hope, now you’re selling blame. Next week you’ll be selling something else.

But tomorrow and every day after, my children will still need their father. And I will still need my husband.”

 

Manish Srivastava

http://www.sacredwell.in

——————-

Gratitude & Dedication:

I was inspired to write Part 2 of this blog by Shamnad Basheer. A spirited soul, a legal academician, social entrepreneur and innovator. I had met him and fourteen other inspiring legal professionals at a gathering in Kerela organised by Agami last month (some of work is reflect in Part 1 of this blog). 3 weeks back, Shamnad was travelling in the region where V.G.Siddhartha came from and shared inspiring stories encouraging me and others to “step beyond atomistic thinking and reconnect with the whole we are part of”. Unfortunately, Shamnad died in an accident on way back from Chikamangaluru on 8th Aug 2019. In a short span of few weeks, he inspired me to keep activating the ecosystem of goodness. Unfortunately, he is not here to read this piece. 

~Manish

 

Death of an Entrepreneur: Part 1: “Our Collective Blindspot”

When a plant dies, the gardener does not blame the plant. He checks the soil, water, sunlight, in short, the ecosystem that helps a plant nourish or perish.

VG Siddhartha, the founder of Cafe Coffee Day (CCD), committed suicide. He has been known as role-model, self-made, successful business entrepreneur. Industry leaders remember him for his sincerity, dedication, and commitment to social upliftment. CCD grew rapidly and became a brand known as Starbucks of India. Newspapers say that he was under heavy debt and broke down from continuous harassment from government and banks. Three days back, he went missing and left a letter on social media. The letter reflects his good intention and his breakdown to the institutional pressures.

Maybe there is more to the business story that we will know in days to come. Right now, as a social witness, I am saddened to see a life gone. Like many entrepreneurs of the capitalist economic system, he took too many risks, grew too fast and collapsed.  We can blame him for impractical decisions and being too aspirational. He blamed himself for the same and took away his life. I wonder why he did not use his political connections and flee the country like many others. Maybe he was too thin-skinned to not take responsibility for his actions. But wait a minute. Is he the only one to be blamed for what happened? Is he the only one failed in this story? 

Coincidently, two weeks back, I was working with a group of social entrepreneurs and innovators from the legal field. They were convened by Agami to reflect on how we could transform the current legal system in India. One of the cases we worked with was about “how Alternative Dispute Resolution could help financial institutions resolve disputes with loan defaulters?”. 

We used Social Presencing Theatre (SPT), a contemplative social art practice, that helps in making visible the hidden dimensions of our current systems challenges. After understanding the complexity of our challenge we identified key stakeholders and co-created a social sculpture (a systems map) representing how these stakeholders are stuck in the current reality.

Our systems map had two main players— “the bank” and “defaulters”, who were influenced by other stakeholders including lawyers, the justice system, financial institutions, family etc. While we mapped the inter-relational dimensions of the legal system around the bank and defaulters, the map also illuminated the systems blindspot— the powerful financial system that produces and promotes capitalist web and punishes when one falls out of it. Somehow the players representing “finance system”, including government & investors, remained almost invisible to other players. They were powerful and kept controlling others indirectly, while the rest of the system struggled to work with the stuck between demanding bank and struggling defaulter. This made us wonder— who creates the defaulter in the first place? 

In the case of CCD, VG Siddhartha was the good-hearted “defaulter”. He was created and destroyed by the crony capitalist systems that we are part of. Unfortunately, we have co-created a capitalist economic system that thrives on rapid growth and risk-taking of individuals like Siddharth. And when they struggle, we call them as “defaulters” and suck every ounce of spirit till they drop dead.

We all are part of this system. We don’t think twice before demanding high dividends from our shares invested in these corporations. We want our coffees and products cheap and of high quality. We, just like those impersonal banks and demanding tax authorities, are least invested in the success or failure of the one who is creating value for us.

No loan-seeker goes to banks intending to become a defaulter one day. No bank professional wakes up intending to harass an entrepreneur. We all are equally stuck in same system. We need to ask— what are the deeper systems that are promoting the values of unchecked growth that leads an entrepreneur to a point where they have no option but to fail or flee? A change at that level would ask us to step beyond our current sectoral role into larger systems transformation role. Something that is much more complex, collaborative and necessary.

Afterthought: (added on Aug 3, 2019, after a conversation with few friends): While entrepreneurs and bankers are obvious stuck players in this situation, there are powerful, impersonal Invisibles. This includes demanding investors, regulating government and mindless consumers. All demanding higher returns, seeking higher control and extracting higher value. None of them cares for the well-being of the entrepreneur. They need “more” and are “happy” as long as the business entrepreneur serves their demands. Together they promote and control the ego-driven, limit-less growth paradigm that seduces, creates, exploits and kills an entrepreneur.

We weave the carpet for our heroes to rise
We set up the guillotine for them to be sacrificed
While the higher throne remains unchallenged and smiles
Who needs a warrior once the kingdom survives!

Manish Srivastava

http://www.sacredwell.in

 

Gratitude:

I am grateful to the Agami team including Supriya, Keerthana, Artika and my co-conspirator, Sonali Ojha.  In these moments of sadness, Agami brings hope by gathering 15 path-breaking young social innovators who are committed to transforming legal ecosystem in India. The pictures above show them in action— mapping the ecosystem by activating the wisdom of the social field. 

India- Its time to own our own shit!

This poetry-prose is triggered by recent uprising of dalits (permanently untouchable low castes) as a response to increasing atrocities and injustice they have faced in recent times. Indian society is at another verge of evolution. This is an opportunity for us to clean years of shit that we had conveniently put under our archaic carpets!


It’s time for those
dancing on white marble floors–
To know where our shit goes,
who wipes our streets,
and mops our floors
Cause those who were
systemically condemned
to live in hell,
have awakened
and won’t do it anymore!

It’s time for all of us
to own our own shit!

While we dipped our fingers
in sandalwood with care,
They were neck deep
in our gutters and sewers
While we donned our white kurta
and self-righteous ego
They were stripped of their shirts
And dragged naked in streets…

Now the dirt inside
is staining the white

It’s time for all of us
to own our own shit!

As long there is a task in our mind
that we look down upon
And a part in our psyche
that we shudder to own
Or a longing in our vanity box
Thats too comfortable with low-cost helps…
There will be untouchables!

Untouchability is a social innovation, created by & for, all of us!

Ensuring guaranteed supply of cheap slaves generations after generations!

High castes download it as their birthright. Finding nothing weird in expecting a fellow human being to live on leftovers, forever. Neo-rich and middle-class play another game. On surface they try to look good by giving their used clothes and old electronics to their domestic helps (not very different from skinning dead cattle). However, deep down they also enjoy the convenient and low-cost labour that cleans their shit and supports their life while they pursue their big dreams. Thus they also collude with the existing system that cares nothing about equality, education and progress of dalits.

Lets face it…
Are we providing employment benefits and respect to maids, drivers, cleaners just like employees in business or public organisations?
Can we imagine them sitting on same table for dinner with us?
Why are the jobs like cleaning, sanitation, service, least valued and least compensated?
Why do we strive so hard to gather and show the power and influence but absolve ourselves of any responsibility to change the life of those living in slums and streets? Are we really curious? Or too quick to justify their condition as not our business?

We need to look within..
Each one of us
To shift the paradigm
From our homes, to our streets and the state

(Watch this video and read more below or click on this link)

 

A quarter of India is Untouchable
A quarter of India is systemically oppressed, dehumanised, suppressed–
to serve rest of us,
to clean our shit,
skin our dead cattle,
from generation to generation..
Keeping their mouth shut!

A quarter of India
Is excluded from the GDP growth saga
A quarter of India
Is not counted in great story of Indian compassion and humanity

This quarter of India is 300 million people.
As large as entire population of USA.
This quarter of India is boiling right now
Gathering like a human tsunami
Asking for justice
for generations of atrocities
Calling the facade off our faces

They have thrown the wrench
They are showing the mirror
and awakening the conscience of our country
its another service
This time they are helping us
clean our conscience!

Wake up India!
Its time to clean our own shit

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.sacredwell.in
manish srivastava
03/08/2016

—–

Some references:

Who are dalits? 
An assault on Dalits may have triggered the biggest lower-caste uprising in Gujarat in 30 years
Dalits pledge not to lift animal carcasses in Gujarat
Descent into hell: Mumbai’s dehumanised sewer workers 

 

 

Provoked

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As I was entering the barber shop, I noticed tension on the street. Generally its a busy street especially after the construction of the Mumbai monorail pillars. Over last 2 days, I have been noticing a new addition. A police van, parked right in between a mosque and a chapel. Policemen dressed in khaki uniform, standing outside the van. I assumed that its either for pre- 15 August security or post- Yakub caution.

As I entered the salon, I was surprised to see an deserted shop with hair scattered all over the floor and chairs standing in a mess. It felt as if the salon was busy few moments ago and suddenly everyone disappeared.

A young man in professional salon uniform followed me and asked me to take a clean seat. He was shivering and disturbed. I asked him if he was okay. He replied in a disturbed tone “mujhe bin baat maar rahe hain (they are hitting me for no reason)” … Then he looked out and ran shouting “malik (owner) has come”.

It’s a nice air conditioned hair cutting salon. I still call it a barber shop. New in this area. The owner has another high end salon near by. While the owner is Muslim, his team is comprised of both Hindu and Muslim boys. I like them. They are stylish, hardworking and professional.

I walked out sensing some tension. Policemen, shopkeepers, young barber and his owner were in a mob. Some intense conversation was on. I learnt from other barbers that a policeman came in the shop and asked for some change for Rs 100/-. The barber at the counter had none. Policeman insisted that barber must give change and soon got angry. He started slapping the young man. The young barber was shocked, angry and deeply hurt.

The owner generally sits in high-end salon. He came rushing to the shop when one of his boys went running to call him for help. He maintained his posture and tried to get his boy out of the skirmish.

Sometime later, I heard policeman say “ok sorry. Now go!”, dismissing the matter. Young barber was still agitated and wanted to explain his truth. At which his boss shouted. “Enough. Sir said sorry. Now go inside.”

He came in even more agitated. Fuming with anger. I was already on chair now with another barber combing my hair. I could see his face in the reflection of the mirror. He saw mine and our eyes met. He burst into a violent mix of rage and tears. “H-H-How can he touch my face. how can he h-hit me? I am trying to make a good living. Struggled so much to come out of all that shit. Got married. I am earning a decent living. And he hit me and got away. Just cause he has a uniform. Just cause he is government. If I was in my old world, I would show me. I would teach him…”

It was heart-breaking to see a young man with nice build and heavy baritone, crying. His ego crushed. His ideals questioned. His boundaries deeply violated.

Two of his protectors had deceived him. The police and his own boss. The law-keeper and the king. He was left vulnerable and alone.

I could sense that owner was also concerned but hid his emotions behind a boss-like sternness. He said to the young barber– “why do you have to get in this mess. I know you are right but now its over. He can’t take out the slap from your face. Water has fallen on ground. You can’t pick up and drink… Cool down… You are supposed to please police men not argue…”

None of this made sense to this young man. None of this was making sense to his colleagues. None of this making sense to the owner either.

Yet the show went on. Barbers were quietly cutting hair. Owner was sitting on cash counter. Our young man was standing, looking blank in the mirror. As if, he could not see his own reflection. The silence, with only sound of scissors cutting, had a piercing quality. With such an unsettled air around us how could they resume the business of grooming. I felt suffocated in the white cloth tucked around my neck and body. I guess all of them felt the same. Young men coming from harsh slum reality to make a career as barbers, were confronted by the barbarianess of the police system.

As they completed my haircut, some more young men gathered around the shop. I learnt that the policemen who hit the barber is considered short-temered and insane by his own colleagues. I looked at the area around police van. There was no shelter or chairs. These policemen were on extra duty, standing, in sun all day due to anticipated communal tension. If I was them, I would have my own pent up frustration. We all know that frustration mixed with power leads to insane aggression.

I wondered, would adding police force on street help? Will they help check the communal tension or aggravate it?

Another little piece of data was sitting on the salon mirror. The policeman happened to be a hindu. The barber was a muslim. And the young men gathering outside the shop, to support the young barber, were not barbers. They didn’t seem trained to groom their barbarianess. They were “provoked!”

 

Manish Srivastava
Aug 9, 2015
(from the sacred well…)