Manisha Patil: The Woman Carrying Amazon’s CSR Banner
We met with Manisha Patil, CSR Lead – Community Engagement at Amazon. Here are some excerpts from the delightful discussion that ensued.
How did you end up in the social sector?
I come from a family of teachers and I am the first person in my family to have studied social work. Initially, I wanted to explore the field of teaching but that did not work out. I followed advice from my uncle, who is a development sector professional, and landed in this field.
While growing up, I used to always volunteer at a nearby orphanage. Those experiences told me that I belonged to this field. My journey in social work formally started when I enrolled myself at Nirmala Niketan College of Social Work, Mumbai.
I have also experienced the stigma that surrounds a girl child. I was the third daughter in my family so my opinion was rarely taken into consideration, which used to anger me a lot. I used to always fight to get equal importance in the house and to feel a part of my family. Gradually, I began to understand the deep-rooted gender inequality in our society. That’s why I decided to not only raise my voice but also work towards reducing gender inequality.
How did Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), where you studied, help in shaping your views?
TISS was a transformative journey for me. It helped a lot in shaping my perspective on the deep-rooted inequalities in society. At TISS, I had specialised in Dalit and Tribal Studies, for which I undertook extensive fieldwork during which I stayed with tribal communities. The whole experience really changed my perspective towards them. My education has definitely changed my view of life and made me want 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 finished my studies leveraging 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 the 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 channelize the saved funds towards increasing either the beneficiaries or the scholarship amount. I also recommended inviting distinguished female leaders such as Kiran Bedi and PT Usha, on the scholarship panel, so that their stories inspire the young girls.
This is where my journey in CSR began. I realized that the corporate sector is very different from the theoretical knowledge that I gained in college. It was a constant struggle to truly unlearn the 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 have learnt 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 in the field. The feeling of witnessing my efforts bringing in a solid change in people’s lives is much better than any rewards 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 as well. 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 which focus upon 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 really 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 are using natural resources and operating within communities, they must give back. Mandatory CSR has helped companies bring in their expertise and pushed them to design robust, innovative programs that are high on social impact.
How has Goodera contributed to your company's CSR journey?
Goodera has never been just a vendor or partner. Rather, we are a team. We have worked together and, in this collaboration, we have learnt 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 helps us to 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 the young women who wish to look at CSR as a career option?
I would like to tell them to stay connected to their roots. The field of social service has been glamorized recently but, in order to actually create an impact, one should be passionate and empathetic. At the end of the day, it’s not about fancy presentations, it’s about creating an impact on people’s lives.