Archive for April, 2009

Environmental Impact of Spam

Thursday, April 16th, 2009
Pollution By Another Means

Pollution By Another Means

McAfee Inc., a computer security company, has just released its study “The Carbon Footprint of E-mail Spam” in which it reports that spammers generated approximately 62 trillion junk e-mail messages in 2008 that consumed electricity sufficient to power 2.4 million U.S. homes for a year. This wasted energy, that computers consume while users are viewing, deleting or sifting through spam generates needless greenhouse emissions. Spam filters block out most spam from ever reaching their destination; nevertheless, because most e-mail is spam, people spend about 100 billion user-hours annually dealing with the spam that makes it through the filters to their inboxes. According to Microsoft, 97% of e-mail is spam.

What can we do? I like the suggestions put forward by Seth Goldin in his book, Small Is the New Big, in which he calls for accountability, as anonymous strangers have made our lives miserable. Anonymous e-mail messages that clog our inboxes would go away if it could be traced to those who send it. So he suggests a parallel Internet where the only participants are those who verify their identities. Google, he suggests, could sell its G-mail accounts for $1, requiring people to pay with credit cards to verify their identities. Then you would only accept messages from such verifiable senders. Let’s hope his suggestion is implemented by the tech companies; they would quickly build user loyalty as we are all eager to end this abuse of our time.

April Showers

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009
After the Storm

After the Storm

From my office window, I took this photograph of a rainbow across the Hudson River over Lower Manhattan. It is a beautiful reminder of one of the weather risks unique to this season. At any given time, more than 1,800 thunderstorms are occurring on the earth, more commonly in the spring and summer months, but they do happen year round. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, thunderstorms always produce lightning, which injures an average of 300 people and causes about 80 deaths each year. It is actually the flash flooding, most often associated with thunderstorms, that causes more deaths than lightning. The following are safety guidelines from the American Red Cross for protecting yourself and your employees from the risk of thunderstorms:

Before lightning strikes

  • Watch for darkening skies, flashes of light, or increasing wind. Listen for the sound of thunder.
  • If you can hear thunder, you are close enough to the storm to be struck by lightning. Go to safe shelter immediately.
  • Listen to the radio for the latest weather forecast.

The storm approaches

  • Find shelter in a building or car. Keep the windows closed.
  • Telephone lines and metal pipes can conduct electricity. Unplug appliances. Avoid using the telephone or any electrical appliances.
  • Avoid taking a bath or shower, or running water for any other purpose.
  • Turn off the air conditioner. Power surges from lightning can cause overload.
  • Draw blinds and shades over windows. If windows break due to objects blown by the wind, the shades will prevent glass from shattering indoors.

If you’re caught outside

  • If you are in the woods, take shelter under the shorter trees.
  • If you are boating or swimming, get to land and find shelter immediately!
  • Go to a low-lying, open place away from trees, poles, or metal objects. Make sure the place you pick is not subject to flooding.
  • Squat low to the ground. Place your hands on your knees with your head between them. Make yourself the smallest target possible by occupying the smallest surface area.

After the storm

  • Stay away from storm-damaged areas.
  • Listen to the radio for information and instructions.

If someone is struck by lightning

  • People struck by lightning carry no electrical charge and can be handled safely.
  • Call 911 or emergency medical services for help.
  • Give first aid. If breathing has stopped, begin rescue breathing. If the heart has stopped beating, a trained person should give CPR. If the person has a pulse and is breathing, look and care for other possible injuries.

Make certain that your employees are familiar with these safety guidelines and encourage them to share this information with their families.

Twisters Can Strike Anywhere

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

Over the past week, more than twenty deadly tornadoes struck in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas. Although typically associated with the midwestern part of the country, tornadoes have been reported in all fifty states. They can occur at any time of year but in the southern states, peak tornado activity usually occurs during the months of March through May.  Tornado activity increases in the northern states during the summer months.  Tornadoes can strike at any hour, but they most often happen between the hours of 3:00 – 9:00 p.m. Tornadoes are known as “twisters” because wind speeds can gust in excess of 200 miles per hour. A tornado watch means that a tornado is possible in your area; a tornado warning means that a tornado has already been spotted in your community. An approaching tornado sounds like a speeding freight train.

Remember the basic precautions for tornado safety: try to go to the basement for shelter. Avoid the elevators and take the stairs. If you do not have time to make it safely to the basement, move towards the center of the building, away from the windows. If you are in a car or a mobile home, get out of there immediately. Remember to bring any equipment that is outside indoors, such that it cannot get swept away by high-speed winds and used as an instrument to cause harm. Power outages are common in the aftermath of tornadoes, so don’t light matches as there may be gas leaks of which you are unaware. Make sure that all of your employees are familiar with basic safety practices to exercise when a tornado warning has been called and encourage them to share this information with their families.

No Thanks, We’ll Take Care of It Ourselves

Monday, April 13th, 2009

We'll Restore Access Ourselves

We'll Restore Access Ourselves

Polihale State Park on the Kauai Island of Hawaii has been closed since last December when severe flooding destroyed the access road to the park and damaged other facilities. Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources estimated that it would cost $4 million to repair the road and other facilities and that it would likely take two years to secure the necessary funding and complete the work. The delays threatened the existence of the small businesses that rely on park access, such as small businesses that operate kayak tours, photography businesses and food service businesses. So the affected small businesses and local residents contributed machinery and manpower and began and completed the repair work within eight days – for free. When I read of their extraordinary work, it reminded me of the importance of learning from the experiences of our peers in the small business community. In Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Businesses (Wiley, second edition, 2008), I cited the example of small businesses in Europe that relied on access to a local theme park to operate. Their restaurants and other concessions were at risk when the theme park could not recover quickly from a major disaster, underscoring the importance of business interruption coverage. Entrepreneurs in Hawaii came up with an even better solution.

Russian Entrepreneurs Face a Crisis

Sunday, April 12th, 2009
Russian Nesting Dolls

Russian Nesting Dolls

As Russia struggles with the falling price of oil (its chief hard currency export), increasing unemployment and the global economic crisis, native craftsman are struggling to preserve a cultural tradition: the matryoshka, or Russian nesting dolls. To assist artisans and small merchants in this difficult economy, Russia’s Industry and Trade Ministry announced that it will spend close to $30 million for the Kremlin and government agencies to purchase matryoshka and other hand-painted Russian crafts to give as diplomatic gifts. I had occasion to work in Russia on a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which was one of the most professionally and personally rewarding experiences of my life. In addition to the matryoshka, I also purchased the hand-painted Russian laquer boxes depicting scenes from Russian fairytales. As difficult as economic conditions are in the U.S., they are much more severe for entrepreneurs and the self-employed in less developed economies. At least the Russian government provided direct aid to those truly in need. This year, I am making all of my gift purchases from smaller, locally-owned businesses to help those entrepreneurs and hope we can all show support for the small business community globally. There are retail sites on the Internet, such as Ten Thousand Villages, where you can purchase fair trade goods from local artisans to support their work.

Inspiration from India, Part III

Saturday, April 11th, 2009
SEWA Pride

SEWA Pride

The greatest inspiration I drew from my meetings with women entrepreneurs in India occurred during the “visioning” exercise. As new members join SEWA, they participate in facilitated training sessions to identify their means of self-employment (such as needlework, growing vegetables in small plots of land, paid childcare in their homes for other workers and other home-based businesses). The training sessions help them to build the skills required for the success of their businesses, such as budgeting, a challenge for many members who are illiterate. (The ATM’s of SEWA bank have graphic icons for illiterate users and are hugely popular with members, who are some of the most enthusiastic adopters of technology I have ever met.)

At the last of the training sessions, the group participates in a “visioning” exercise. Each member shares her vision for a better future. For women mired in extreme poverty, envisioning a better future is a challenge. Their lives are spent on tasks for basic survival. But with the encouragement of the other members of the group, each woman, often in a very shy, reluctant manner at first, begins to articulate her dream for the future: perhaps a new roof for her shanty, or a new well for fresh water or other amenities that her increased income can provide her household.

No Visit to India Would Be Complete Without a Visit to The Taj Mahal

Almost as Beautiful as SEWA

And the dream always includes an education for her children, as her first priority is to pay the school fees to invest in a better future for the next generation. By the time the session is over, everyone is in tears as we each imagine what a better future would look like for the families of women entrepreneurs. I am sure that in these difficult economic times, that is what sustains each of us.

Lessons Learned from India, Part II

Friday, April 10th, 2009
SEWA Styles for the Next Season

SEWA Styles for the Next Season

The second of SEWA’s two for-profit businesses develops clothing for women and children, using traditional Indian designs. SEWA is fully vertically integrated, with SEWA businesses doing everything from designing the clothing to weaving the fabric to sewing the garments.

SEWA is achieving change on a significant scale. In just the western Gujarat State, SEWA has 500,000 members. More than 100,000 women are policyholders in SEWA’s health and life insurance plans. SEWA bank has 350,000 depositors and, like most microfinance organizations, a very high repayment rate of 97 percent on loans ranging from $100 to $1,100, on which members pay an average interest rate of 15 percent. SEWA’s loan portfolio is entirely funded by the deposit savings of its members.

SEWA Kiosk

SEWA Kiosk

Many SEWA members also grow vegetables on their small plots of land which they sell, either to agribusinesses for processing or directly to consumers, such as from this SEWA kiosk. At the annual meeting of the SEWA cooperative members, which I had the privilege of attending, SEWA’s iconic founder, Ela Bhatt, outlined her vision for the future of SEWA members. At age 76, Ela continues to innovate to ensure that the poor women who are SEWA members capture a fair share of India’s expanding economy. She urged SEWA members to consider capturing the value of SEWA-branded agricultural products rather than selling nameless commodities for which other processors would capture higher rents.

Annual Meeting of SEWA Members

Annual Meeting of SEWA Members

SEWA Shop in New Delhi

SEWA Shop in New Delhi

The strategy for branding SEWA is impressive for its sophistication and its mission of improving the lives of SEWA members. This was the second of the lessons I took away from my exchange with women entrepreneurs in India: our common need to capture the value we create in fair pricing. We work too hard to see these margins captured by other players in the supply chain.

Lessons Learned from India, Part 1

Thursday, April 9th, 2009
Luncheon Speakers at the Indian Consulate in New York

Luncheon Speakers at the Indian Consulate in New York

A recent article in the New York Times reminds me to share three of the lessons I learned during exchanges with women entrepreneurs from India. The second annual International Women’s Entrepreneurial Challenge (IWEC) was held last June here in New York. The competition celebrates outstanding female-led small businesses that are expanding on a global basis. Mine was one of the three women-owned small businesses selected to represent the U.S. in the IWEC program. Three women-owned small businesses were selected from each of the other participating regions: Spain (Barcelona), India and Africa. We had three very full days together, including a case study taught by IESE Business School (Barcelona) Professor Paddy Miller and a luncheon at the Indian Consulate in New York. The photograph shows the panel of our luncheon speakers, including Ambassador Ruth Davis of the U.S. State Department. Our hostess, Ambassador Neelam Dao, Consul General of India in New York, was an excellent speaker and unusually candid for a diplomat. She remarked about the embarrassment of Wall Street titans having to go to sovereign wealth funds of “third world countries” (remember this was in June of 2008, before the collapse of Lehman Brothers) for bailouts after they had enriched themselves while mismanaging their institutions. She added that in finance it is usually “last in, first out” and worried about the fate of smaller women-owned enterprises and microfinance clients who would, she correctly predicted, be unable to access financing to continue to grow their businesses, notwithstanding the fact that their businesses, our businesses, are sustainable and provide broad benefits to the world economy. I could not have agreed with her more and was delighted with her frankness.

Gandhi's Ashram in Ahmadabad, India

Gandhi's Ashram in Ahmadabad, India

I was even more delighted to read the report in the New York Times of the operations of SEWA, the Self-Employed Women’s Association. I had the occasion to visit SEWA in Ahmadabad, India, when I served as the Senior Policy Advisor to a program of the United Nations Capital Development Fund. SEWA is a network of more than 100 Gandhian-style, women-owned and led cooperatives, which do everything from offer childcare to sell produce to Indian agribusinesses for processing. (Gandhi’s ashram is also located in Ahmadabad.) Like more than 90% of Indians, SEWA members are employed in the informal economy, where most earn less than twenty cents a day and have no social safety net. They are vulnerable to what economists call “external shocks”, an antiseptic term for life’s calamities, such as illness or unemployment, for which they have no protection.

Printing a Pattern to Embroider

Printing a Pattern to Embroider

SEWA’s microfinance institution extends to credit to allow women in the slums to build small businesses, such as hair salons. It also offers retirement accounts and health insurance to the SEWA members to give them some protection against the unexpected, job training to enter non-traditional fields (such as women gas station attendants) and distribution of the handcrafted products of SEWA members to major retailers.

Pride in SEWA is shown in the flower petals arranged in the form of the SEWA logo and colors to welcome visitors. SEWA’s Trade Facilitation Centre supports two for-profit businesses that develop and sell traditional needlework products, an art passed from mother to daughter in the state of Guarat in India. SEWA develops designs that their marketing research show appeal to consumer tastes and then distribute these design imprints with individually packaged needle kits, containing all necessary supplies, to participating SEWA members. The members do the needlework in their homes, while tending to their small plots of land, caring for their children or elderly parents or raising a few small animals for feed.

Cleaning and Drying

Cleaning and Drying

The finished products are brought to the SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre for processing, where they are spun dry, to remove any dust or particles they may have acquired, and properly cleaned. They are then sent to SEWA retail shops in New Delhi and Ahmadabad for sale to consumers. SEWA hopes to have an e-commerce site available in the near future.

Experts Predict an Average Hurricane Season in 2009

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009
Hopeful Outlook for 2009

Hopeful Outlook for 2009

The hurricane forecast team of Colorado State University recently released their predictions for the 2009 hurricane season: they expect twelve named storms in the Atlantic basin, with six of them to develop into hurricanes. They expect two of those six to develop into major hurricanes (meaning Categories 3, 4 or 5 with maximum wind speeds of 111 miles per hour or greater). Since 1950, there have been ten named storms (of which six became hurricanes and two of those six major hurricanes) in the typical Atlantic hurricane season, which would make the forecast for 2009 to be an average storm season. The current forecast estimates the probability of a major hurricane making landfall along the U.S. coastline to be about 54%, which is roughly equal to the 52% occurrence of this past century.  The National Hurricane Center has assigned the following names to the 2009 Atlantic hurricanes:

  • Ana
  • Bill
  • Claudette
  • Danny
  • Erika
  • Fred
  • Grace
  • Henri
  • Ida
  • Joaquin
  • Kate
  • Larry
  • Mindy
  • Nicholas
  • Odette
  • Peter
  • Rose
  • Sam
  • Teresa
  • Victor
  • Wanda

Tragedy in Italy

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009
From Zurich to Milan

From Zurich to Milan

Yesterday, central Italy was struck by an earthquake which registered 6.3 in magnitude on the Richter scale. Nearly 150 people are believed dead as a result of the tragedy, which is Italy’s deadliest earthquake since November 23, 1980, when a 6.9-magnitude quake hit the southern part of the country, leveling villages and causing about 3,000 casualties. Emergency responders in Italy have reported strong aftershocks in the affected region. Compounding the tragedy is that relief aid to effectively respond to a disaster of this magnitude is limited by the weak economy. The American Red Cross has set up a site to collect donor contributions for this critical need.

The photograph accompanying this blog entry is one I took when I lived in Switzerland, showing the Cisalpino, the high-speed train that connects Zurich to Milan. As a senior executive of Swiss Re, I often had occasion to travel to Italy on business and of course, I also enjoyed spending weekends in Milan, Florence, Venice and Rome. I have very fond memories of my time in Italy and have contributed to the Red Cross’ relief efforts.