NEW YORK—Diversity and empowerment are the path to innovation for an Indian college training rural, largely illiterate women to become solar engineers. The school’s out-of-the-box approach to who it trains and the challenges it surmounts may offer lessons for HR.
Barefoot College in the village of Tilonia in Rajasthan is training women—mostly grandmothers—to become solar engineers and bring light back to their villages. In 2013, the program will have trained more than 700 women, reaping benefits for women and communities alike.
Delivering the keynote address at the 2013 Global Diversity Leadership Exchange, held Feb. 6, 2013, at the New York Stock Exchange, Sanjit “Bunker” Roy, founder of Barefoot College, drew laughter when he explained why the focus is women.
“Men are untrainable,” Roy said. “Men are restless. Men are compulsively mobile, and they all want a certificate. The moment you give a man a certificate, he leaves the village within days looking for a job.”
Barefoot is a college for the poor who live on less than $1 a day. Its curriculum is taught by the poor, many of whom also are illiterate. The school doesn’t give paper certificates or degrees.
“We think that someone who has the skills should be certified by the community itself, not by the college or the university you go to,” Roy said.
Attendees said they were moved by the program and the insights it offers HR.
“Maybe the greatest lesson here is how Barefoot values people,” said Greg Jenkins, a senior consulting partner and veteran service practice leader for inQUEST Consulting, a Chicago-based diversity and inclusion firm. “Barefoot values the very people who many other people don’t even see as potential talent.”
Jenkins said the program looks past societal norms and beneath the surface to find talent, dedication and an eagerness to learn new skills in “the common people.”
“Barefoot provides an example for all of us to stop disregarding the very people who are all around us, people who we may take for granted or may believe are uneducated or untrainable,” Jenkins said.
A Closer Look
The college, located 500 miles southwest of Delhi, was founded in 1972 but had its beginnings a decade earlier when Roy left a privileged upbringing to do something bigger after witnessing a famine.
“I wanted to do something out-of-the-box, something challenging, something that would make a difference,” Roy said. He spent five years digging wells and quickly saw the skills and wisdom the very poor possessed. He set out to demystify and decentralize that knowledge and redefine what it means to be a professional.
Today, Barefoot College has a host of public and private partners, including the government of India and UNESCO’s Global Partnership for Girls’ and Women’s Education. Its work has been featured by the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and in a TED Talk. It also offers a night school for children and has trained women in other skills, including midwifery, hand pump repair and dentistry.
Benefits and Challenges
During each “semester,” 40 women—from 10 different countries largely in Africa—are selected by their village to undergo six months of training at the college. They learn to assemble charge controllers and inverters, install solar panels on roofs, connect them to batteries, and electrify homes with solar power. Then they return to their villages and install solar power systems.
Training is not without its challenges; students often don’t speak the same language as their instructor or fellow students.
What HR Can Learn
Conference attendee Kizzy M. Parks, Ph.D., president of K. Parks Consulting Inc., a Melbourne, Fla., diversity consulting firm, said she loved that the program doesn’t evaluate a person based on traditional credentials.
“For HR, what they can really learn is sometimes there may be a need to step back and reflect on what are some of the job requirements and do those requirements best represent what is needed to be minimally competent in the role?”
Parks said she also liked the nontraditional training, including rudimentary sign language and even puppets to convey social messages.
“Sometimes we view these diversities as barriers, and I think we need to look for creative ways to overcome these perceived barriers and to really get at leveraging what a person brings to the table,” Parks said.
Barefoot College is working with Silicon Valley designers to develop a “Barefoot” tablet that will include a Facebook-like application to keep in touch with classmates and provide visual updates and an installation manual.
“Putting tools in the hands of women will go a long way to having them be respected and effective in their community,” said Meaghan Carnahan, a senior advisor to the college.
In many villages, the women train assistants to help them. She said the impact is big for both boys and, in particular, girls.
“Many girls have never seen these possibilities,” Carnahan said.
In the End
Attendee Scott A. Hoesman, CEO of inQUEST, said too often organizations have this view of “they can’t”—whoever the “they” is.
“Especially for diversity and inclusion, we think that often front-line employees can’t carry the message or that we need to spend more time with managers or senior executives, versus spending more dedicated time with the folks who are really making a difference,” Hoesman said.
Hoesman said people should, metaphorically speaking, figure out who the “grandmothers” in their organizations are and ask “why aren’t we reaching them and why are we not charging them to help drive change versus having this view that ‘they can’t’ because they don’t have the right job level or leadership experience, or they’re not in the right job.”
“Barefoot College is a great example of what can happen when we challenge all of our assumptions about what’s possible for people,” Hoesman said.
Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.