Think - AT LONDON BUSINESS SCHOOL

Reasons to be hopeful

Smruti Sriram MBA2018 on being inspired by many acts of kindness during the crisis

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The poster is beautiful, simple and powerful. Exquisitely drawn faces of children of various ethnicities are accompanied by slogans such as “reduce loneliness”, “spread positivity on Instagram”, “self-isolate to protect others” and “send weekly cards to OAPs who don’t have access to the internet”.

Created by teenagers, it is one of many impressive initiatives that have sprung from the Wings of Hope (WOH) charity during the Covid-19 pandemic. And it has particularly touched the charity’s co-founder, London Business School graduate Smruti Sriram.

“What the kids have shown during this time has been incredible; whether a simple drawing of a rainbow stuck on a window or little care packages being donated,” she says. “From the business side, we’ve been sending out care packages to doctors and bags to put their scrubs in and [things] to ambulance staff – small things that people are realising they can give generously.”

People are certainly giving generously. WOH recently raised £4,000 for a slum project it runs in Chennai, India, where lockdown has been severe but there has been little government support.

Practical help now

“Normally we fund these children, who don’t get an education, and their families,” says Sriram. “But now there’s a call for basic items, such as food, sanitary products and hygiene items for impoverished families.

“To raise the funds we put a call out on LinkedIn and within a week we hit our target. The £4,000 is now aiding 565 families. Rice, sugar, oil, soaps and other products are being distributed in emergency centres where WOH evening tuition is also conducted. It’s been a mammoth logistical exercise and I’m so thankful to everyone who has made it happen.”

WOH supports educational projects and gives free scholarships to disadvantaged young people in India and Malawi. It’s not just a matter of literacy and numeracy, Sriram stresses, but also giving children life skills – showing them how to be resilient and creative and acquire leadership qualities and communication skills.

In the UK, the charity runs an annual Wings of Hope Achievement Award (WOHAA) in which students aged 14 to 18 form teams that fundraise for the children in India and Malawi. Over 15 years, nearly 40,000 students across 420 UK schools have participated. Team Asymptote (who created the poster), Team Halo, Team Nebula and Team Impact are just some of the teams currently hard at work. There is also a global twinning side to the charity, through which UK students can connect with less-privileged counterparts in India.

“They’re inspiring each other,” says Sriram, who last visited India in February. “Digitally, we’re hoping to introduce virtual speed-mentoring alongside a digital penpal service to give them real connection.”

Before the pandemic, the UK students were planning sponsored marathons and events in local schools and church halls. But when lockdown kicked in, they became “super creative”, says Sriram, starting up their own enterprises, learning new skills, and even streaming home-grown versions of The Great British Bake Off.

“They’re doing live bakeathons,” she says. “One girl does it from her kitchen, another girl joins in and does it in hers. They write out the ingredients and say, ‘Guys, if you don’t have this, here’s some alternatives.’ They’re also writing Covid poetry, sending tips to motivate students overseas, telling them not to put too much pressure on themselves. They write notes to the elderly. Teenagers often get a bad rap from wider society – that they’re selfish and don’t care. But these are model students from all sorts of backgrounds and they’ve stepped up, shown such a willingness to be creative and really shown kindness.”

The shortage of PPE has been an ongoing critical issue during the pandemic. “We put out a call and Dulwich College in London, who are participants in our award scheme, immediately got in touch and said: ‘We’re making visors and distributing them to local hospitals. Why don’t you come and pick some up?’”

Rapid response

In addition to Wings of Hope, Sriram is also CEO of Supreme Creations & Bags of Ethics. With an award-winning factory in Pondicherry, India, it’s the world’s largest ethical manufacturer of reusable bags and eco-packaging for retail, events and promotional use, with 50,000 global clients including Nike, Google, Tesco, Topshop and John Lewis. The business responded quickly to the Covid crisis.

“The challenges have been absolutely massive,” says Sriram. “We had to retool our factory to produce reusable masks made out of fabric. We normally work a lot within the European market, but now we’re mainly supplying the masks to Indian clients, Indian pharmaceutical companies and charity organisations.”

Two years on from finishing her MBA, Sriram maintains a strong network with fellow alumni and has found the LBS community and LBS volunteering club invaluable sources of support. “A lot of the MBA students have become mentors for the teenagers in my scheme, offering them guidance and support,” she says. “We also have alumni who work in the NHS who are inspiring them to consider becoming doctors or pharmacists.

“The alumni are outstandingly positive. One, who runs a business in India, gave some really interesting insight into the pandemic at the start of the crisis, from the future of business travel to rewriting business plans. Others, based in the UK, including CEOs and CFOs of high-growth startups, are sharing the critical decisions they’re facing about staff, difficult decisions you have to make as a leader. It’s great to be able to speak candidly about these issues.”

Can-do attitude

A can-do attitude and an understanding of the opportunities out there that were inculcated by LBS helped prepare Sriram for today’s challenging times. “They are things I really value,” she says. “So much of our work is reliant on our learning and using data, and Covid is a situation where you just don’t have data.

“The pandemic webinars led by Julian Birkinshaw are really generous – it’s a Covid-specific series about management, forecasts and organisational behaviour, and they’re fascinating.”

Sriram didn’t find it difficult to adjust to working from home. “You just have to switch,” she says. “You can’t ease into it. There’s still intense pressure, but you look at everything in a different light. You can achieve a lot from just a table and chair, a mobile phone and a laptop. So much can be achieved from limited resources and by staying connected to your community. You get nuggets of information which can provide really helpful insights.”

Sriram’s motto is “Don’t be boring” and she uses it to great effect to galvanise people to get on board. “Don’t feel that you need to fit in a box,” she says. “You can be innovative, you can be creative. Just go for it.

“I hate solo projects and I’ve learnt from experience that you can’t do everything yourself. It falls apart.

“Regarding the future, I have hope – simply hope.”

Support this work via www.bagsofethics.org or  www.thewingsofhope.org

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