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More than 7,900 miles. That’s the distance separating 15 Booth students in the Global Social Impact Practicum course from our partner organization, Tata Trusts, in India. Our project focused on access to clean water and coming up with recommendations to scale tech innovations developed by engineering students at MIT and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).

But how do we do this from thousands of miles away? By spending some time on the ground. Our class spent 10 days in India in December 2017 meeting with Tata Trusts staff, social entrepreneurs, government leaders, nonprofit organizations, and customers to learn about the needs and challenges associated with access to clean water.

Site visits were a key component of our trip. We made three major stops: Dharavi, Mumbai (an urban slum that is home to about 700,000 people); Yadgir, Karnataka, (a city in southwest India); and rural communities in Guwahati, Assam, in northeast India. Yadgir and Assam were chosen because of the high prevalence in the water of fluoride and arsenic, two major chemical contaminants. Navigating complexities across cultures and languages wasn’t easy, but we found the following practices and themes helpful to make the most of our site visits:

Define roles and objectives early on.

Each day, we designated two student facilitators who were in charge of identifying objectives, communicating with the class, introducing the group at external meetings, and ensuring the day’s discussions built on previous learnings from earlier in the week.

Context matters.

Throughout the trip, we were exposed to both rural and urban communities. Dharavi is a major urban slum in Mumbai, and the sheer size hits you as you’re walking around. The sights and sounds of the city served as a backdrop to our conversations, which centered on the lack of government support for residents. Yadgir was a rural community with more limited access to clean drinking water, since large cities were far away. Because of that, NGOs and other organizations played prominent roles in addressing the needs of local communities. One of the most interesting things we saw was how these organizations are working to create demand for clean water through children. Kids have access to clean water at school, are taught the importance of it, and then go home and demand it.

Follow the water and talk to the customer. 

Before arriving at a community, we were debriefed by a local partner on the sources, uses, and quality of water. Once we were there, however, we quickly saw we had an incomplete picture. A water pipe that was supposed to serve five families, actually served 20. Another pipe that was supposed to be active daily worked once a week, at most. A well that should be monitored for contaminants every six months had never been analyzed. And so on. It was our job to talk to users to uncover these issues and develop a clearer picture of the problem.

Learning happens anywhere and everywhere.

We noticed that learning happened formally during scheduled meetings and informally through observation. We listened with our eyes and ears during meetings, and we leveraged our travel time and meals to check in and debrief as a group. Some of our favorite moments were in transit or while eating meals together, when we had time to debrief. We had deep discussions about what surprised us, what frustrated us, and what we wanted to achieve during our trip.

For example, while visiting a treatment plant, we went in with the goal of learning from the plant owner. But as customers started to arrive to pick up their water, we were able to interact with them as well. Those conversations shaped the context of our work. Another unexpected learning moment occurred in Dharavi, where we were surprised to see a washing machine in a home. This observation shifted our expectations relative to what users value and how they spend money.

Addressing improved access to clean drinking water and other issues requires a rich ecosystem of public and private players. We respect and were impressed by the commitment of Tata Trusts and their partners, who are committed to this work every single day. We were humbled by the families we met during our trip, who were working to provide the best for their children. At the end of the day, the impact of organizations—like Tata Trusts—and their initiatives depends on strong relationships with—and understanding of—local communities. This approach was crucial throughout GSIP and will continue to shape our future endeavors at the intersection of business and social impact.

Shruthi Subramanyam is a second year student at Chicago Booth. She is pursuing the joint MBA and Masters of Public Policy (MPP) degree. Prior to graduate school, she worked in urban education and at a behavioral science research startup in Boston.

Lexi Zarecky is a first year student at Chicago Booth. Prior to graduate school, she worked in consulting and at an education technology startup in Chicago.

Luis Sanchez is a first year student at Chicago Booth. Prior to graduate school, he worked in consulting and directed a startup dedicated to financial inclusion in Latin America.