Recently I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in India and China seeing some of the work The Coca-Cola Company is doing with their Sustainability and Foundation initiatives. To say it was a life changing trip is an understatement. The people, projects and sense of purpose we experienced is one I will never forget. Imagine… one day your grandmother comes to you and says she is leaving your hometown to participate in Bunker Roy’s Barefoot College in rural India to learn how to become a solar engineer.  If my grandmother told me that I would be stunned. And yet, Bunker Roy, Founder and Director of Barefoot College and one of the 100 most influential people in the world, has brought over 600 illiterate and semi-illiterate grandmothers from around the world to rural India and trained them to be solar engineers. After six months, these grandmothers travel back to their villages with the knowledge to fabricate, install, repair, and maintain solar units. This program started as an alternative energy play and has quickly become a pathway for pervasive opportunity.

The Gutsy Grandmother

When you walk onto the Barefoot College campus, there is tremendous energy. All of the grandmothers are working on solar controllers. I was in awe. I started speaking with one from Belize, Florentina, and asked her how she learned to work on the solar panels and how difficult the process is to learn. She said, “When I started learning, I learned by doing. Very slowly. I now know how to make a charge controller, solar lantern and LED lamp.” Wow. That is what, as Bunker calls them, a “Gutsy Grandmother”.

Every year Bunker selects 35 grandmothers from 10 different countries, speaking different languages and trains them to make charge controllers, solar lanterns, and LED lamps. This skillset is something that takes engineers 5 years to learn in school, and yet these grandmothers master the skill in a mere 6 months. Bunker’s perspective on rural development is that “It has to be community managed, community driven, community controlled, or it won’t be sustainable.” These women are the matriarchs of their families and oftentimes their villages. The skill to bring “light” to the community empowers the woman and her family literally and “lights” the future for her fellow villagers figuratively.

The Gutsy Grandmother

With women speaking languages from Spanish to Hindi to Swahili, how do they all communicate with one another? Florentina said, “By sign language”. When I asked her if she could actually communicate with the other women she had a huge smile on her face and said, “It works!” Amazing. Before we left, the women sang us a beautiful song, “We Shall Overcome”. These women from around the world, speaking more than 10 different languages and leaving their family, have truly overcome. With this training, they become entrepreneurs – independent, self-reliant and self-sustaining.

I asked Bunker, what is one piece of advice you would give to the younger generation? His response, “make mistakes while you’re young. Get out and do something to make a difference.” And Bunker’s legacy you might ask? That “every grandmother is a walking, talking Barefoot College.” This approach has the potential to leave enduring positive impact on the women, their families and communities as well as their countries and economies.

Elizabeth Davis works on the Global Sustainability team at The Coca-Cola Company. You can follow her on Twitter at @eldavis8.