Encouraging Wisdom Of Farmers: Neil Patel
Posted by Audrey Lin on Jan 19, 2012
Last Saturday, we had the honor of hearing from our own Dr. Neil Patel, as he shared some colorful insights from his service journey! Kicking off with a "love letter" from his early twenties, Rahul moderated in a way that teased out the blend of innovation and soul behind the life he leads. Throughout the call, you get the sense that Neil's a guy who can really do anything. From leveraging technology among rural farmers to volunteering his time creating websites of goodness, the guy is a man of action. And with Computer Science degrees from UC Berkeley and Stanford, a nominee of the Tech Museum Award, and Founder of Awaaz De, he sure doesn't waste any time! But through it all, he keeps a steady eye on the greater picture and rhythms of life. And it's this down-to-earth sense of priorities that brings him to share meals with strangers and write reflections on stillness.
Rahul: You've had this strong influence of generosity and kindness and service since your childhood. Can you tell us a little more and who some of those early influencers were?
Neil: For me, definitely, my journey in service started young because I was around people who imbibed values of generosity, compassion, and kindness. So I saw that growing up. Two people in particular are family members. So the first person, who really was my first teacher in generosity is my mom. I still think my mom is probably the most generous person I know. She's incredibly giving. Anybody in my family would tell you the same thing. She's the member of our family that's really the glue. She keeps everybody together. She's the one who calls everybody regularly and checks up on people, and just goes the extra mile for people. For me and my brother, it was a huge privilege to be around somebody like that. She really set an example for the depths you can go and the lengths you can go for your family. That certainly made a big impression on me.
And the second person who really influenced me--and he probably wouldn't even know it--was my cousin, Ashish. Ashish was four years older than me. He was really my idol. Everything he did I would try to mimic. He was a normal kid, but he's a very, very big hearted person himself. Very generous. And when you're a kid, it's rare to see generosity being practiced, but Ashish was definitely someone who would always make sure all the other kids got to eat, got whatever they needed, before himself.
Rahul: You started volunteering with Service Space as a teenager. How did those experiences with your mom and your cousin lead you to connect with service space?
Neil: I first got inspired after reading the SF Weekly article that Nipun was featured in. I wrote this really long email telling him that I really wanted to join the Tigers Team. I was just super pumped up and went to the meetings even as a teenager. One of the things I really remembered is this concept of "selfless service". There is a real distinction between service for selfish purposes and selfless purposes. It struck me that this group of people was really committed to selfless service, which struck me as more pure. That was something I really resonated with.
Rahul: How do you define that distinction between selfish service and selfless service?
Neil: I wouldn't define it so much. I've had experiences of both. The most vivid was in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit. I got really inspired and felt really moved that I wanted to serve in some way. So I volunteered with the Red Cross and got stationed in Mississippi. Everyone was there to serve, but it was almost like they were on a service vacation. They were there to serve, but then they also wanted to make sure they got the best sandwich; some would grab three sandwiches, or complain and this and that ... I almost felt that people were there to put a badge on their sleeve. A lot of people hopping from disaster to disaster, talking about how they had this experience or that experience. And it just struck me as losing the spirit of why they were there. That trip, and interacting with different volunteers who had come to serve in this capacity but from different agendas and different backgrounds, to me, was a real eye opener of what it really means to serve in a selfless way. So from that experience I was really committed to exploring service in the most selfless way possible. You talk about humility-- and that's, to me, one of the most important aspects of service. And serving humbly, serving in a way that dissolves the ego, I think to me, is a better way to grow through service.
Rahul: Along with service, it seems like technology has played a long-standing role in your life. Can you tell us a little more about why you chose to go into computer science and then grad school? And what has all of that taught you about your purpose?
Neil: Technology and computers, I backed into it. I didn't really have an inclination when I was growing up. I wasn't indoors a lot when I was growing up-- I was playing sports and outside a lot. And then when I went to college, I thought I was going to study economics because my cousin Ashish was studying economics. But then I took the very first introduction class to computer science in college, and I just fell in love. I knew this was what I wanted to do. I really got excited about writing computer programs. While I didn't have any experience with computers before college -- I didn't even have my own email address -- I really felt attracted to computer science. That passion was always there and continued to grow in college. After college, I wanted to continue to stay in technology and I wanted work in software. So I got a job in Silicon Valley writing code and so it began.
Around the same time, I was reading philosophy, and getting into spirituality, and really hard questions of myself. Mostly around what my life path was, where I was going, why I was here and what I should be doing. I started experimenting with service in various ways, like serving at Katrina and all of that. I realized that, on the path where I was at, I was going to be able to do work I liked, but it ultimately wasn't going to completely fulfill me. I was still lacking that aspect of service through technology, or through whatever career path I was having. I wanted to not just be about enriching myself and the small society slice of the world around me, but try to make it a more inclusive kind of work. And try to reach the un-reached. And not contribute to a kind of "digital divide" that I was kind of witness to. So I wanted to do something more. And around the same time a bunch of researchers in academia were exploring this area of communication and development. So applying IT for development problems. And among them was a young researcher named Tapan Parikh, and I really got inspired by his work. I really wanted to do what he was doing. So i decided to go to grad school and pursue this research.
Rahul: Can you tell us a little more about Awaaz De, and what the journey has been to come to that?
Neil: When I got to grad school, I knew I wanted to do something with using technology in development. And I really didn't know what technology and in what development. So the first thing I did was I went to India. I just hung out, and kind of just observed. And in that process, I came into contact with a bunch of organizations, and also local people. I spent some time living in villages and understanding people's problems. I just tried to observe and learn as much as I could. And through that, I got into touch with a lot of farmers and agricultural communities. And I tried to really get to know farmers and what their challenges were, particularly from an information access lens. In that process, a couple insights came out.
One was that there was a gap in terms of access to locally relevant information in local languages. People didn't have access to the internet and even if they did, they didn't speak English. Some may not be comfortable using computers; some may not be able to afford computers. Or maybe they're illiterate. So there's an access gap. That was one insight. The other insight is there's a lot of latent expertise in the communities themselves. In meeting hundreds of farmers, I came to find out that these are really accomplished, experienced, savvy, innovated, and creative people. They just didn't have a way to share what they knew with each other. It was all kind of informal or ad hoc.
So what if they had something like the internet, where they could share information in an efficient way, and learn from each other? In that way, it's very practical and relevant because what if there's somebody who shares your problems may have an insight that you don't? That's really beneficial as opposed to some kind of imported information. So with those insights, we came up with a simple idea: to leverage the mobile phone, which was already in most people's hands, as a device for people to be able to access and share information. And we used voice as the medium. To be able to overcome some of those constraints I mentioned (literacy, language, etc). So, basically, we set up a service for farmers to be able to access what was basically a voice message board. So we have a phone number, and people recorded a question in their own language into the system. Other people could browse it and potentially even respond. So in that way farmers were able to exchange information with each other. It's kind of like a public voice message board. So we deployed that with a local organization in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, and it quickly took off and was quite popular. That was our first system.
This system--the design and use of it--was the focus of my thesis. And as we were doing this, other organizations in India took notice. They said, "Hey, this is actually cool technology that we could also use for our own purposes. Can we use it?" And, by the way, these were not just agricultural organizations. These were organizations that worked in public health, human rights, labor, education, you name it. Basically they just needed a way to reach disconnected people, and this is what we were doing. So this enabled us to start this company, Awaaz De, which basically provides this technology as a hosted solution, so that any organization in India can take advantage of these tools for their own purposes.
Rahul: You are quite drawn to farming and agriculture. Why is that?
Neil: I think there's something very special about farming. If I compare a farmer to me. For me, it's very indirect, how I eat. I type, using my fingers, I type keys on a keyboard. And they show up on a computer screen. Something happens where I get money for doing that. And then I can use money and buy it at a grocery store and then eat it. So it's very weird. There's a long chain that involves me typing keys so I can feed myself. It just seems very inelegant.
Whereas a farmer goes out into the field everyday and is literally feeding himself with his own hands. He's working the fields, working the soil. He's harvesting crops. And that whole chain--that connection of work to feeding his belly--it's a very short chain. I found something very elegant about that. There's something to that. So that's what originally drew me in.
And then, also, just speaking and getting to know farmers--in India in particular, but also in the US. It's a very hard life. it's a very difficult thing. It's sometimes, nowadays, kind of glamorized. It's very hard work. But I think there's something ultimately satisfying when you can do physically taxing work, but there's also a creative and intellectually challenging component to it. And it's a green job, and it feeds yourself with good, clean, healthy food. It's really got it all.
Rahul: You're one of these guys who "add value" in so many dimensions. Anyone who reads your blog can tell that you've got your thumb in so many fantastic "service pies". How do you integrate work with relaxation?
Neil: I think I remember a Gandhi quote, where someone asked him: "You work 16 hours a day, 18 hours a day. It's during the independence movement. All these things are happening. You're running this entire movement for an entire country! There's all these people, and you're always constantly busy. Don't you ever take a vacation?" Someone asked this to Gandhi. And Gandhi said, "Actually, I'm always on vacation. This is my vacation." He answered to that effect, meaning he didn't look at it as work. He was totally aligned with it, so it was natural for him to put that amount of time and effort and concentration into it. I feel like I've been blessed to align myself to the same kind of work. I do work that I am legitimately passionate about. Everything that I do on a daily basis--all of those things are things I love. I really derive a lot joy and satisfaction out of those things. I just feel like I've been able to maneuver myself to be in a situation where I can work 18 hours a day, or whatever it is, but spend those 18 hours doing whatever I feel is worthwhile. So it doesn't end up seeming like so much work.
Rahul: A lot of people don't seem to feel like they're blessed with having that alignment with themselves and their work. What would you say to them? What's your process for getting closer to that level of alignment?
Neil: There's no shortcut to that. My experience has been that the way you get to that point is you work really, really hard. And you keep working until you find out what those things are that really make you come alive. And that means trying a lot of things, and really taking risks, and putting yourself out there and being honest with yourself. And questioning yourself. For me, I'm not the smartest person. I definitely don't have a lot of god-given talents or skills in many things. But I do know that one thing that I have is a really strong work ethic. I feel like I can outwork anybody. I feel like that's my biggest strength. And that's allowed me to try to push the envelope towards work that is meaningful.
The other thing I would say, along with doing work and working hard, you need to take time out and reflect and introspect. And hold a space of silence for yourself. So you can let that work absorb. You can feel what that means to you and what directions you want to take it in next. Also, I just feel like complementing intensive work with taking time to calm yourself and be in stillness-- that itself is also hard work, and ends up feeding into your active work, and makes it more worthwhile. ...It's an iterative process. I remember Birju and I were talking some time ago. And he said something interesting about how he was thinking about aligning his life more towards gift economy. And he said that the way you do it is in small steps. So, you can't just all of a sudden decide that you're going to live in a gift economy way. You have to start eliminating particular requirements and needs, so that you can live with less. If you start living with less, then you need less, so it's more feasible for you to live on others' kindness. I don't know if I would live on gift economy tomorrow, but I could, you know, do without my gym membership tomorrow. Maybe that's one less thing.
Q&A from Around the World
Urmila (Mom): I'm very proud of my son. He's a very dedicated, loving, caring human being. Thank you.
Ram: My work is in sustainability and one of the things that comes up repeatedly is technology vs. cultural values, in terms of changing behavior. So where do you see values and culture fitting in with technology, in terms of relative importance?
Tapan: I think technology is a conduit for the transmission of values and culture. It's not a perfect conduit--you know, nothing's a perfect conduit--but it's one conduit. So the kind of work that Neil and I have been doing (and mostly Neil) with Awaaz De is an opportunity to bridge different cultures. The culture of farmers to the culture of this call to the culture of the diaspora to the culture of organizations serving farmers. So, as a conduit of values and culture, I think the kinds of technologies that we want to bring will help different groups understand each other better. And hopefully allow people to work together better.
I think the second part of the question is, obviously when we design technology and we design services and organizations to support that technology, we bring our own values to that process. So, in the work we've been doing with Awaaz De and a lot of our other projects, there's a lot of our own values that we bring to that work. And people like Somik have helped us externalize and understand that value system. And hopefully we represent it in Awaaz De, in the organization and technologies that we build.
Neil: In my experience, every person literally has a different context from which they're approaching technology. We've been working with rural communities in India. So you have to totally rethink how technology works and how people approach it. There's intimidation, there's lack of experience. And you have to really throw out the door, in some ways, your assumptions about how people approach technology and start from the needs-up.
Prakash: The other day I had a conversation with one of our farmers. He said that he did not want his children to follow him. He wants one son to be a computer science person. Another one to be an economics person. And another one to be doctor. And his reason wasn't just the hard [physical] work. But the influence he sees in his life, with the future being really bleak...with the influence of chemicals and so on. So I wanted to hear what you had to say about that.
Neil: That's actually the case here in India as well. The next generation is trying to get jobs in the cities. And you can't really tell them "No, you can't do this." They're going to make the decisions that's best for themselves. What I've seen is that it's a trajectory. In the US, we're starting to realize the downsides to consumerism. Well, people in India are just starting that journey. they're just starting to experience consumerism. It's not something I can tell them, they'll have to experience it themselves.
Lavanya: I'm in the research field, so I keep trying to have a balance between research as well as doing something that's relevant, while doing something that's useful and practical in the field. Plus, something that's cutting edge and trying to develop technology. I guess both are required. Do you have any comments on that?
Neil: Yeah, that's a really good question for anyone who's doing research. I struggled with this my entire career as a PhD student. Which was basically, "How do I balance doing something which is practical and relevant on the ground, while graduating (which required me to extract general knowledge from the work)? For me, there were a couple parts of the equation that helped. One was that I had supportive advisors: Tapan Parikh (at UC Berkeley) and Scott Klemmer (at Stanford). They were both supportive of me doing something that was relevant, that people were using. And then, using that as a backdrop to start asking research questions. So we were able to take what we were doing and ask really deep and important questions around the provision of technology in under-served areas. And we were able to answer those questions. So that way worked for me, but that's not necessarily the only way. I don't think there's only one way.
But certainly the model in this whole game is Louis Pasteur. Louis Pasteur invented pasteurization. At the time it was invented, it was something that saved millions of people's lives. At the same time, pasteurization was the end result of a long body of research that he endeavored into, and was fundamental to the field of microbiology. So he did something that was of practical relevance, but of deep theoretical value as well. That's what we've tried to strive towards.
Nipun: What have you learned about the wisdom of the farmers?
Neil: What I've learned is that everybody has wisdom. Everybody has something to share. That's been the key motivation for the work that I've been trying to do: to amplify people's voices. Each and every farmer has a seed of wisdom that they can share. In my experience, I've come across farmers who are really, really remarkable. In a different context, they would be very famous inventors, scientists, or just creative people. But they've been put in a different situation. It's really important to give these people a voice and have them participate. To really call this technology a "Global Village"--to call the internet a "Global Village", it really requires us being inclusive of everybody. What I find is that you often learn a lot of lessons for yourself from these people. People who live very simply. With frugality. Trying to make the most of the resources they have within nature. All these things with environmentalism and trying to conserve. You go to a village and you'll see how conservation really works. And these people have real inventiveness, real creative ways of expressing themselves. So I would just say that real wisdom is in all people. And it's our responsibility to listen to that.