Digital Orthopaedics Transformation Tour India Part 2

Digital Orthopaedics
Transformation Tour:
India Part 2

Making a world of difference, one hug at a time.

A short while ago, while visiting the Director of a center dedicated to Artificial Intelligence in Kerala, India, I met a woman who, in one improbable lifetime, made a world of difference in the lives of 10’s of thousands of people. Here’s a quick summary of her story, which I found inspirational.

Let’s take a step back to the early 1960s. Half of the world’s population lives in poverty (according to the World Bank) including your family. You are a very young, dark skinned, uneducated, and female. Your family of 5 shares a tiny cottage in a fishing village in southern India. You speak the local dialect; your English is very limited, and you have minimal formal education. Your likely life trajectory, at this point, is limited.

After seeing the plight of your fellow villagers, people in your community who are even less fortunate than your own family, you decide to dedicate yourself to their assistance. It seems you have a skill for providing hope and sympathy and, over time, you gather a following of people who are willing to help you help others.

Fast forward to today and this young girl with a massive heart has grown up to cosign treaties to end poverty with Pope Francis, sent a check for $1M dollars to help the Katrina effort, and given the keynote addresses at international organizations. The deeds that earned her the right to be on those stages are outside the ordinary (www.amma.org).

Today, at 72, Amma, as she is known, leads a spiritual community of hundreds of thousands of followers around the world, Her charitable organization has opened 2 major state of the art hospitals in India totaling 2500 beds, and providing free care to as many as 40% of the patients they care for. Furthermore, she is Chancellor of a top rated University with 5 campuses offering undergraduate and graduate degrees to tens of thousands of students. She opened a business school, a college dedicated to biotechnology, a second to cybersecurity, and a third to AI and digital Health (which is why I visited). Each of these is focused on using those skill sets to support innovative approaches toward bringing the poor out of poverty (teaching business practices to small business owners, applying biotech to crops, using AI to support education, etc.).

Once launched and funded, all of these institutions have become self-supporting, thriving organizations allowing Amma and her team to tackle new projects. Such solid financial footing will ensure the short term survival of theses organizations for decades to come.

Along the way, she has championed disaster relief, the environment,  and women’s causes. She has donated nearly 2B dollars to help the poor and helped countless people rise out of poverty. Amma and her followers have become trusted first responders (they show up by the hundreds when called upon) in any major disaster in India and abroad.

As many people continue to seek spiritual guidance, direction and blessings from Amma, dozens of monasteries around the world provide non-denominational spiritual support to those who seek it. She has two principal tenets: Love and Science (NB: these are not connected to the academic endeavors and in no way is attendance to the spiritual events required of those who work in the educational).

Amma has touched (literally: hugged) millions of people as part of her signature gatherings with her supporters. In each brief encounter she listens attentively, offers thoughtful advice and provides comfort and support. She is seen, in parts of the world, as a saint. Amma focuses her teachings on bringing out the best in people, and particularly that side of people that loves, cares for and cherishes our fellow man: the instinct of motherhood. This gets interesting and took me a second to get my head around: Amma interprets and promotes what some define as the divine feminine. The divine feminine for Amma is not an attribute that belongs to men or women, but rather one that represents the “caring side” of humanity, a side that is found in both men and women and which both can nurture. Such reframing turns the acrimonious conversation pitting men vs. women into a simple statement that the world could use more nurturing, more caring, more “mothering”. These are attributes we mostly consider part of our “feminine” nature, as opposed to our “masculine” nature, which is often combative, dismissive, and aggressive. This message that we need to love more, to celebrate our feminine (caring) side resonates with a lot of people.

Thus, from my reading and spending time with her and her team, Amma has at its core the importance focusing on Love (for one’s fellow man) and Science (as deployed in the service of the common person) to lift people out of poverty and providing them with necessary services. Love and Science is literally all she preaches. While the outer shell, the construct if you will, is anchored in Hinduism and spirituality which can be a little “foreign” for some, all religions are welcome, and none are shunned. If you want to work for the good of your fellow man, you are welcome regardless of your theological convictions.

Amma herself works 20+ hours a day. She leads a truly spartan life, and is devoid of expensive jewelry and the trappings of power. She has several assistants dedicated to her cause who are willing to work as many hours as it takes to help the foundation succeed. I had the opportunity to formally interview three of these selfless leaders who are working to help Amma implement a digital health strategy on behalf of their patients. While still in its nascent stages, there is good reason to believe they will be very successful in their quest to leverage technology to help their cause. An ROI measured in lives saved from poverty, care delivered, and nurses trained rather than Indian rupees or US dollars. The endeavor is of course not unprofitable, it is just that the profits are reinvested into the core mission rather than paid back to the market.

So: what’s the take-home message? There are several. It is truly, to me, incredible what Amma has been able to achieve despite starting from such an incredibly challenging place in life. No education, no startup funding, no connected lead investors. She was born in a backwater village in the middle of nowhere, with a gender and skin color that in the 60s certainly were not considered a “plus”.  Conversely, one could argue that that is the only person who could have done what she did. An outsider could not possibly have understood the plight of the poor in south India or garnered their respect. Only someone deep inside the problem can understand how to unravel the gordian knot or cut straight to the solution. Clay Christiansen showed us how disruptive innovation often comes from outside an organization. This is true. It is also true that lack of innovation is very frequently tied to leadership that is either incremental or favors the status quo. On the other hand, there are many leaders that successfully disrupt an organization from inside. The time has to be right (generally a time of acute challenges to an organizations’ survival) as does the person. Yet time and again, some of the greatest change agents come from within, consider everyone from Caesar who reorganized the Roman Empire, Napoleon who gave rise to the modern state, or in my own experience Robert Pearl who redesigned health care delivery at Kaiser Permanente.

Another message is that a life of selfless service can be very rewarding and that the impact can reach global proportions. Amma truly lives the life she preaches. She is the real thing.

A third is that focus matters and tenacity rewards the determined. From what I can see, her work has gained in impact in nonlinear fashion. Amma’s relentless focus on helping the poor, the underprivileged and those whose lives are impacted by natural disasters, took time to have an impact… a good thirty years. The last 20 on the other hand, have seen her impact grow rather quickly.

In our podcast, we will feature the interviews with the technology team working with Amma and their digital health hopes and aspirations. However, Amma’s life story touched me profoundly and I wanted to share it in case one or more of you find it inspirational or want to help. If the latter, please reach out to them through their website.

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