The date was August 15, Independence Day, in India.
This was the first time my friend, John, or I had been to this exotic land on the other side of the world from our Alabama home. We woke up early to meet our Indian friend, Marin, who had volunteered to be our tour guide for the day. Since businesses were closed for the holiday, we had no work to do at the Business Development Center on this sunny Wednesday. A trip to the countryside was a perfect way to see more of this beautiful land. Marin was taking us to a rural girl’s school for an Independence Day celebration.
After more than an hour’s drive in Marin’s comfortable, late-model SUV, we arrived at the base of a dusty road that led up a sunny hillside to the small yellow concrete school building. Two beautiful, middle-aged Indian ladies wearing colorful, flowing saris came shuffling down the hill to greet us. They were escorting three young middle-school girls in tired looking red school uniforms. Two of the precious girls were carrying shiny metal serving trays which contained small cups filled to the brim with scalding hot chai. The chai was sloshing over as they trotted down the trail toward us. On their trays, they also carried fresh cut roses from the school’s flower beds – one flower for each of us – and small bowls of brown and red powder. I would soon learn that the powder, part sandalwood and part flower pollen, was there to dot onto our foreheads as a sign of warmth and welcome. We, the honored guests, were eagerly led up the dirt trail to the school.
All over the dusty school grounds, were signs of the hard work these girls had put in for the occasion. Not a weed could be found in the flower beds. Even the dirt road and sidewalks had been swept and brightly decorated with chalk drawings and flower petals. For the next few hours, we were to be treated to an elaborately planned Indian festival of food and performance that the girls in the school had obviously spent weeks or months preparing for. They performed with poise and precision eager to please us in honor of our presence. We were honored to be there. They were honored to have us.
About mid-way through the morning, it occurred to me that we were the only audience for this grand performance. Other than a local reporter and a government leader, we appeared to be the only adults there that did not work for the school. I leaned over to Marin who was seated next to me and asked where the girl’s parents were. Anytime my own children had been involved in a school performance, hundreds of moms and dads showed up to support the hard work of our cherished little ones. I couldn’t imagine the Indian parents would want to miss what we were witnessing. Marin didn’t seem to share my surprise that parents were missing – it was as if he expected the parents to be absent.
Marin then explained that this was a girl’s school. These girls are actually fortunate, he said, to even have an opportunity to receive an education. You see, their fathers are often absent or disinterested in their lives – in some cases, even abusive. “After all, these are just girls.” Their mothers are mostly “day laborers” making the equivalent of about $2.USD per day. They wouldn’t miss a day’s wage for something like this. It takes every penny they can earn to afford even basic food and clothing. My heart hurt as my eyes brimmed with the fullness of what Marin was telling me. All I could think of was my own precious daughter whose life couldn’t be more different than this. That very week, my daughter was at her sorority house in Charleston, SC – a veritable paradise – preparing for a week-long party to recruit new members.
Commerce Can Change Cultures.
I knew then that the work we were doing at the Business Development Center was going to transform cultures. We were there working with aspiring entrepreneurs who were starting small to mid-sized companies. These philanthropic entrepreneurs were leaning on our business knowledge and experience to learn how to raise capital and build businesses. They were then going back to the villages and towns, just like this one, where they had been raised. They would start businesses to hire young men and women in order to pay them a fair wage and teach them a useful trade. We were not just giving them a fish. We were teaching these people how to fish. This is a work of great worth that will make a difference for generations.
As we were preparing to leave the girl’s school, I commented to John that I wanted to take these beautiful girls home with me. I wanted to share the blessings of my life with them. One of the teachers understood my English and translated what I’d said to the girls. Several of the girls raised their hands excitedly and said, “Pick me! Pick me!” in their native language. I couldn’t understand a word they said but words weren’t necessary. I’ll never lose that image.
That night, once we were safely back at our hotel, I sat down and wrote an e-mail to my daughter. I wanted her to know how much I cherish her. She sent a response that was waiting for me when I woke up the next morning. In her response, she said, “I love you so much and I am glad that those girls could feel wanted, even if it was just for a moment in time. I wish that they could have had a Daddy as amazing as you and that they could have had the opportunities you have given me. It breaks my heart that you couldn’t take them home!”
I couldn’t take them home but I can play a part in transforming their culture and their lives. Commerce is powerful. Entrepreneurial philanthropy, the work that we are doing through the Business Development Centers, is bold enough to bring fair wages to villages like this one in India. Someday, it is my goal that these girls will proudly watch as their daughters perform for Independence Day at their school.