Written by Maya Sankaran
ANN ARBOR—Nisha Patel had always hoped to work in the place of her family’s roots—in Gujarat, India. When she heard that the BLUELab India team, a student organization at the University of Michigan, was planning to begin working in Gujarat, it was an opportunity she couldn’t turn down.
In May 2017 and May 2018, Patel, a senior at the Ross School of Business, traveled with the BLUELab India team to the villages of Golapur, Dolatpura and Barola in the western state of India to assess the needs of the villagers. They discovered the community needed low-smoke cookstoves and efficient water carrying devices.
Patel got involved immediately, eventually becoming a co-leader on the Stoves BLUELab India Project. With the help of their onsite partners in Golapura, Patel and the team developed and implemented prototypes of sustainable low-smoke stoves.
While working with the villagers, Patel developed strong relationships with the local women. It paid off the next year when she returned.
“There were several women I had spoken to frequently during my first trip,” she said. “They quickly came to greet me and were as welcoming as I had remembered.”
Patel widely attributes the strength of these relationships to being able to communicate with the local women in the local language—Gujarati. She even facilitated communication between the team and the women on both trips.
“Being able to communicate made the process feel more organic than if we would have had to rely on an external translator,” Patel said. “It quickly built a sense of mutual trust that was critical to ensuring we were progressing in the right direction.”
However, implementing global change as a student-run organization comes with many challenges. For Patel, tackling the needs of a community was often very daunting. She worked with the team to acknowledge their limitations and focus on projects with needs they could realistically address.
Patel has passed down her title to sophomore, Nikita Pandya, who takes on the team’s water technology project. She hopes to leave a legacy of aggressive prioritization of their partner communities’ needs on BLUELab.
“Putting the community’s happiness, health and well-being, and cultural norms above the needs of our own team has been a consistent focus of mine,” she said.
Patel eventually hopes to work in communities with resource scarcity and leverage private-sector resources towards them. As a senior associate in the Zell Early-Stage Fund at Michigan’s Ross School, she wants to mix her business and strategy experience with her passion for sustainability and conservation.