We met with Manisha Patil, Amazon’s CSR Lead – Community Engagement.
Here are some excerpts from our delightful discussion.
How did you end up in the social sector?
I come from a family of teachers and was the first to study social work. Initially, I always wanted to explore the field of teaching, but it didn’t work out very well. I followed the advice of my uncle, a development sector professional, and explored the field of social work.
Growing up, I always volunteered at an orphanage nearby. The experiences I gathered helped me understand that I belong to the field of social work. My journey kickstarted when I enrolled myself at Nirmala Niketan College of Social Work, Mumbai.
Being the third daughter in my family, I experienced the stigma that surrounds a girl child. My opinion was rarely taken into consideration which often led to fights for equal importance and to feel a part of my family. Gradually, I understood the deep-rooted gender inequality in our society. I, therefore, decided to not only raise my voice but also reduce gender inequality.
How did the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), where you studied, help in shaping your views?
TISS was a transformative journey for me. It shaped my perspective on the deep-rooted inequalities in society. I specialized in Dalit and Tribal Studies at TISS. I undertook extensive fieldwork during which I stayed with tribal communities that changed my perspective towards them. My education has definitely changed my view of life and has pushed me to become a responsible citizen.
There are several career choices you can make in the social sector. Why did you choose to be a CSR professional over working with NGOs?
I completed my education through scholarships from various organizations, Fair & Lovely being one of them. While interning at ActionAid, I got the opportunity to act as a consultant for Fair & Lovely to reduce the negative image of the brand due to its association with fairness. Being a direct beneficiary of the scholarship from Fair & Lovely, I was best suited to provide advice based on my own experience and business requirements. I suggested a few fundamental changes to the scholarship process to make it more inclusive. For instance, the scholarship screening events used to take place in 5 Star hotels, which could be very unnerving for young girls coming from humble backgrounds. I suggested that they take up smaller but functional venues and channel the saved funds towards increasing either the beneficiaries or the scholarship amount. I further recommended inviting distinguished female leaders like Kiran Bedi and PT Usha, on the scholarship panel, so that their stories inspire the young girls.
My journey in CSR began with the realization that the corporate sector is very different from the theoretical knowledge that I gained in college. It was a constant struggle to truly unlearn theory and understand business requirements. I had quite a journey, handling different stakeholders – Branding, Marketing, PR as well as external stakeholders. I always made it a point to think from a brand’s perspective and took up social issues in order to create a win-win situation for all. Over time, I learned how to walk on a tightrope while trying to balance the company’s goals with the needs of the community.
What would you say are your biggest accomplishments so far?
I feel my biggest accomplishment is getting a sense of fulfilment whenever I am on the field. Witnessing my efforts bringing in a solid change in people’s lives is much better than any reward and recognition.
I feel sheer joy in interacting with the beneficiaries of my CSR projects. This feeling keeps me energized and motivated to work harder.
In a corporate setup, quick results are expected while CSR projects take significant time to show impact. How do you manage such expectations?
It’s true that in today’s time, everyone wants fast results, while CSR projects lack that pace. Over time, Amazon has reached out to 1.8 million beneficiaries through its extensive CSR programs. To showcase impact, I ensure that I communicate the impact of our initiatives to the Board and our employees. I also often take them for field visits.
I believe that interacting with beneficiaries on the field really makes one understand the time required to change people’s minds and bring in deep-rooted impact. I constantly ensure that all our employees are aware of the various CSR initiatives we undertake and we give them opportunities to volunteer. I believe in joining hands with our employees and making a large-scale impact.
How do you handle multi-stakeholder relationships?
I believe that one should live a vision and that vision needs to be disseminated to all the stakeholders. There are organizations that focus on doing short-term projects. However, Amazon looks at collaborative work where we involve all the stakeholders for a longer duration. Our programs are inclusive and follow a sustainable model. We make sure to include the community in all the programs. We identify the key influencers of the community such as the Sarpanch, influential youth, ASHA workers, and elderly people to understand their needs better. We believe that investing in sustainable, collaborative programs is the key to achieving large-scale transformation on the ground.
What do you think about ‘mandatory’ CSR?
Businesses are accountable to the environment. Since companies use natural resources and operate within communities, they must give back.
Mandatory CSR helps companies bring in their expertise and push them to design robust, innovative programs that have a high social impact.
How has Goodera contributed to Amazon's CSR journey?
Goodera has never been just a vendor or partner. Rather, we are a team.
We have worked together in this collaboration, and we have learned from each other. Amazon had the vision to reach out to a large number of beneficiaries and Goodera has provided us with the platform to do so. Goodera has helped us get accurate data with multiple levels of checks, training NGOs for data entry and this helps in fortifying our programs further.
What message would you like to give to young women who wish to look at CSR as a career option?
‘Stay connected to your roots.’ The field of social service has been glamorized recently but, in order to actually create an impact, one should be passionate and empathetic. Because, in the end, it’s not about fancy presentations, it’s about creating an impact on people’s lives.
Inspired by Amazon's CSR programs? You might like to read: Archana Sahay: The Woman behind Dell’s CSR Project