Wheeler Institute project team collaborates with Dharma Life to transform their model in response to COVID-19

You can see the last time we posted about this project was announcing the project here.

COVID-19 has affected many people in many ways in 2020. Geric and I are very lucky that the biggest personal impact has been that our post MBA employment was delayed by six months. When this happened in May, I quickly started to look for a temporary role to make the most of this unexpected free time and was connected to the Wheeler Institute by a classmate who had worked there. In a conversation with Professor Rajesh Chandy and Dharma Life CEO Gaurav Mehta, I learnt about Dharma Life and how COVID-19 was impacting the company and rural India. The opportunity to help people in desperate need using skills developed during by MBA was exactly was I was looking for. I quickly accepted the offer when it came and started working with the Wheeler Institute in May.

The Wheeler Institute has a long established relationship with Dharma Life and has been working closely with Dharma Life to carry out their COVID-19 response. Dharma Life has also helped develop new products and services to aid recovery from the pandemic and build resilience for a successful future.  As part of this collaboration, Professor Rajesh Chandy and a team of London Business School students working as Project Officers at the Wheeler Institute have supported Dharma Life over the last five months on these initiatives.  The team includes your co-authors Oliver Sloman and Geric Dunfordboth MBA2020s. Working directly with Dharma Life’s leaders and employees, we have contributed to the ongoing success of Dharma Life in several ways:

Data Analysis and Visualization

With its extensive DLE network, Dharma Life is in a unique position to collect quantitative and qualitative data across a vast area in rural India. However, this data provides little value until insights can be drawn out through analysis. We have been responsible for analysing quantitative data (e.g. survey data) and qualitative data (e.g. interview transcripts) and visualizing it to tell a compelling story. For example, a recent project, the Business Impact Survey, looked at the effects of COVID-19 on rural retailers (e.g. individuals who owned general goods or “Kirana” shops) to understand how they were coping with the sudden changes brought by the pandemic. By analysing the data from over 250 shops, the team was able to identify specific pain points retailers were facing, changes in supply and demand, and government interventions that were or were not working well.

Transforming Insights into Products

Going beyond analysis of data, we are assisting in the transformation of these insights into products that Dharma Life can bring to market. After completing the analysis of the Business Impact Survey, we built a research report that outlines the key insights from the study. This report will serve as a standard moving forward as Dharma Life launches more initiatives and campaigns through their extensive network.

Project Management

We have also stepped into project management roles to bring together individual initiative and activities and formulate cohesive and compelling storylines. By engaging with a cross section of Dharma Life employees, we have led efforts to unite disconnected activities under a single message and produce client- and donor-ready narratives in the form of executive presentations, case studies, and data shorts. For example, the Clean and Connected Homes initiative was established to bring together several sustainability programs under a singular message. Bringing together Dharma Life employees that had done filed work for the individual programs, as well as data collection and analysis, the team produced a comprehensive presentation that was shared with one of Dharma Life’s major funders, Unilever.

Diffusing the Samvitti Mentality

The development of Dharma Life Labs has brought about new ways of working with digital first processes and thinking at scale which are being applied to existing activities. One example activity was beneficiary sourcing: finding people for Dharma Life to talk to and work with. During COVID-19, Dharma Life decided to create a 2,000-person panel of migrant workers, an at-risk group during the pandemic. Traditionally, one employee called field team managers who would talk to DLEs to find beneficiaries. This worked to source 10 beneficiaries not 2,000. Therefore, we designed the first field team manager survey which asked 150 managers to each name DLEs that were most likely to know migrant workers. This survey produced 469 DLE leads in 10 days, each who could introduce 4/5 migrants, yielding between 1900 and 2400 migrant workers in total. Utilising the Samvitti Mentality has allowed Dharma Life to move more quickly and more scale more effectively than before.

Training DLEs for Research Roles

The initial Dharma Life Labs studies focus on learning directly from DLEs. For example, for the Business Impact Survey study, Dharma Life sourced DLEs who also owned Kirana stores to interview and survey. In the longer term, Dharma Life Labs will need a wider reach. To do this DL Labs will train DLEs to survey and interview beneficiaries for themselves. In the previously mentioned Migrant study, the first DLEs are currently being trained to communicate with their assigned migrant workers asking them questions and filling out digital surveys on monthly basis.  We have designed a training session and recorded a walkthrough video to facilitate the training. This has been rolled out this week with the ongoing training.

Process definition and formalization

As studies and initiatives are scaled up, defining and formalizing process is key to avoid bottlenecks and delays. One Dharma Life example of such process formalization is Teams interviews. Every week, Dharma Life speaks to DLEs and beneficiaries over Microsoft Teams to gain qualitative insights that drive studies and surveys. As the team reduced preparation time, covered more sensitive topics and involved less experienced staff, the value of structure increased. We have worked to develop purpose, role definition, call structure, and script documents to standardise relevant sub activities and created a tracking system so the valuable content of each call would be documented and accessible to the entire Dharma Life team at any time.

Next Steps & Outcomes

Dharma Life Labs has come a long way in a short time and the virtual roundtables in the coming weeks will be a good opportunity to present the wide range of studies and initiatives that have been implemented so far. A number of these studies are ongoing, such as the migrant panel and the business confidence study, and the aim will be to progress these further in the coming months, The virtual roundtables will also showcase the Lab’s capabilities which Dharma Life hope will attract stakeholders from the public and private sectors to partner with the Lab in new studies in areas of mutual interest. In the longer term, Dharma Life Labs aims to expand its reach by training DLEs to work as researchers in their communities. Training DLEs in quantitative and qualitative research skills will allow Dharma Life to reach every aspect of rural Indian life. With this reach, Dharma Life Labs will be able to maximise its ability to understand and help rural Indians through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.


Oliver Sloman and Geric Dunford are both Project Officers at the Wheeler Institute and MBA 2020 alum at London Business School.

The Wheeler Institute, individual faculty and PhD students at London Business School, have been working with Dharma Life for nearly 10 years, almost since the inception of the organisation. The Wheeler Institute collaboration with Dharma Life, thanks to Gaurav Mehta(MBA2010) the founder and many others at Dharma Life, covers all three pillars of the Wheeler Institute: conducting rigorous research, forging communities of practice and shaping business education.

The Dharma Life IMPACT Project is part of the Wheeler Institute’s portfolio of internships and consulting opportunities – offering students a professional experience to support the development of applied research, often in collaboration with external organisations.

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