It was the suicide of a young man that turned Vivek Garg toward using business as a means of fostering peace and reconciliation.
As a 25-year-old infantry officer in the Indian Army in 2005, Garg was leading combat operations to fight militancy and insurgency in the highly contested region of Kashmir. When a foot patroller was killed by an explosive device, Garg and his fellow soldiers quickly located the culprit: a shell-shocked 19-year-old man who was holding the detonator in his hand. He'd been paid mere $10 by militants to operate the device without understanding what the consequences would be. After being taken into custody, knowing that he would not be able to go back to his society without a crippling stigma, the young man committed suicide in jail.
“I realized right then that military action was not the solution to conflict,” says Garg. “Even if you eliminate militants, the war continues in people's hearts.”
Now a Sloan Fellow, Garg is attending the Stanford Graduate School of Business this year to amplify his business and financial knowledge so that he may further develop an innovative social venture he has founded to reconstruct local economies in conflict-ridden regions of India. His enterprise, Business Alternatives for Peace Action and Reconciliation (BAPAR), is providing an incubator and impact investment funds to promote entrepreneurship among local people.
The Road Out of Ruin
It was the Indian army’s core value of “service before self” and its inclusion of economic and infrastructure development as part of its work in local regions that inspired Garg to create BAPAR. As the officer in charge of one particular town, Garg went above and beyond his duties, taking economic leadership by inviting local people to get involved in improving their lot. He first authorized shops to stay open until 10 PM under military protection, which allowed them 4 more hours of commerce a day.
The persuasive and gracious lieutenant then went about organizing landowners and taxi drivers to create a taxi hub that would allow the town to avail itself of its strategic position on the highway to larger cities. As a result, new shops and restaurants opened up around the hub. “There was a buzz in the town,” says Garg. “I saw those who supported conflict now getting engaged in constructive things to improve their lives.”
In 2008, Garg took over as a manager of a government aid portfolio of $2.5 million for economic assistance in conflict regions of North East India and there started to envision a way out of the mess for communities caught in inter-tribal conflict. It involved, quite simply, creating good employment opportunities.
In a village where a local narcotics ring had a firm grip on economic life, Garg organized Muslim and Christian women handicrafters in an unprecedented collaboration with wholesalers in Delhi who were willing to take their authentic goods. “Women from communities who couldn't look one another in the eye were suddenly hosting one another in their homes and working together to produce the goods,” he said. “There was no hatred anymore.”
“The transformation happens one entrepreneur at a time,” says Garg, who works by identifying “impact entrepreneurs”––those in local communities who show promise for creating or expanding their businesses. “It's not microlending,” he clarifies, “it's about building entrepreneurial ventures around these people.”
Stitching Peace Together
Rehana, for example, is a 21-year-old resident of one of the most volatile towns in Kashmir. The daughter of a local militant commander who was killed in an encounter with the Indian Army, she was hand picked by Garg to lead an entrepreneurial initiative because of her strong desire for change and her selfless focus in life.
After overcoming initial resistance from the society around her, Rehana has established herself as the first woman entrepreneur in her community to set up a successful handicraft enterprise, with capital, market, and operational support from BAPAR. She currently employs 28 local women artisans, who earlier used to work through middlemen and suffer massive exploitation, earning a mere $4 for up to 15 days of intricate needlework.
In a place in which women are not even allowed to work, let alone own a business, Rehana has not only broken the accepted norm but has brought around a change in the social and economic stature of these women. Artisans in her enterprise now earn at least 3 times more for their work.
Moreover, among many other initiatives, she led the women of her town to play a pivotal role in controlling stone pelting and firing incidents by brokering peace between local youth and state forces, which in many other towns of Kashmir claimed innocent lives. She is also funding her brother's education and inspiring others to follow suit to keep youth away from joining the militancy.
At Stanford, Garg is working to build a sound business plan and organizational structure that can drive BAPAR to scale its operations and deliver economic and social impact even more effectively. His courses focus on economic development, social impact, entrepreneurship, public-private partnerships, and private equity. He is also communicating extensively with the Center for Social Innovation and the Stanford Institute for Developing Economies (SEED) at the Graduate School of Business and Design School, and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies to participate in practical applications.
In addition, Garg is working with faculty members and industry practitioners on specific aspects of the BAPAR plan, such as the framework for evaluating enterprises and measuring impact, the investment model and exit strategy, and approaches to public-private partnership. That work includes an independent study with Professor Saumitra Jha.
“My vision is to change the face of conflict through entrepreneurship around the world,” says Garg. In the midterm, he intends to continue the work of BAPAR in India. His next step will be to scale the model so that it may be applied to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the entire Southeast Asian region. Eventually, he hopes to bring the model to Africa and other continents.
“Even before a military intervention is made into a conflict region, the economic infrastructure for supporting entrepreneurship should be in place,” Garg says. “You can't come into a place and leave it in ruins, or you will create even worse conflict. So reconstruction must be a primary goal of any intervention.”
And, he concludes, “It takes patience.”
- Marguerite Rigoglioso