Swiss Hotel Management School (SHMS) alumnus V.R. Hari Balaji is no stranger to training for disaster relief management in India. He has been featured prominently in various broadcast interviews, print articles and also worked with authorities such as UNICEF and the Government of Tamil Nadu. In 2012, Hari received the ‘Youth Achiever Award - Vision 2020’ for his contributions in the field of Disaster Management from Mr. V. Ponraj the Scientific Advisor to Former President of India, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.
So how and why did Hari with over a decade’s experience in hotel management make a career switch?
“Choosing to study hospitality is one of the best decisions I made as it opened a world of opportunities for me. I still put to practice things I learnt in school as the skills you gain studying hospitality is easily transferrable and relevant to different industries outside of hospitality.”
What inspired you to get involved in this field of work?
On 11 September 2001 I was on my way from Zurich to Atlanta to start my Management Traineeship with Westin Peachtree Plaza. My flight didn’t land in Atlanta and instead returned back to Zurich. It was only when I switched on the television back in the hotel room that I understood the devastation that took place at the World Trade Centre in New York. That marked my first encounter with a disaster.
Following my traineeship, I stayed in the US working in various hotel management positions for about five years. In one of my roles, I was deployed to work on a hotel project in Louisiana that was badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina. I got to see firsthand how the US managed disaster relief efforts with a clear and concise approach. It was after this project that I felt a need to do something similar in India and that this was an area in which I could contribute to my country.
How challenging was it to make the switch?
I had to undergo certain aspects of technical training and for this I went to Kuwait gain practical knowledge in hospital preparedness during disasters. I also completed an MBA in Hospital and Health Systems Management.
Aside from the technical knowledge, people might think disaster relief management and hospitality are two varied fields, but it’s actually very similar. Team work, collaborating in an international environment, being mindful of different cultures and most importantly communicating with people and empathising with their situations are skills that I picked up working in the hotels, which are very relevant to disaster relief management. In fact people trained in hospitality are much sought after in disaster relief work!
You’re currently residing in Chennai and in December 2015 the city experienced its heaviest rainfall in more than 100 years. How did this calamity impact you?
I served as a disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) consultant as part of Sphere India’s Flood Response Coordination team for Tamil Nadu. My initial goal was to help people who were distressed around the area I live in. I eventually managed to find a corporation willing to sponsor 2000 dignity kits (essential personal hygiene items to help restore women’s dignity and increase their mobility during crisis situations), to women living in the flood affected pockets of Tamil Nadu.
This event inspired me to change my mindset into thinking on a larger scale nationwide and how I could work with companies, organisations and government agencies on proactive measures to build infrastructure in flood prone areas to minimise the damage during natural disasters such as this.
What was the most valuable experience for you during your time in Switzerland?
When I was studying, I often wondered what was the point of what I was learning. Why study subjects that you’re not interested in?
“You don’t realise the value of the training you get at school, until you are out in the working world. Your perception to work and life will completely change and it’s then you will fully appreciate everything you learnt at school.”
Before I went to Switzerland, I was quite an introvert. I never thought I’d be interacting with politicians, government officials and conducting disaster preparedness training to various organisations and education institutions.
I am able to do what I do today thanks to the constant encouragement from the academic staff at SHMS. I eventually came out of my shell because of the time they took, especially outside of classrooms to help me with my presentation skills, confidence and just generally being around whenever I needed a moral boost. I learnt to face every obstacle with a positive mindset and embrace failures as stepping stones to my eventual success.
How do you think you can make a change to managing disaster relief efforts in India?
My goal is to prepare every Indian citizen to be confident and ready to confront a disaster. By working with institutions to set up proper disaster management cells and providing training in this field, I do believe India can become a global leader in disaster management and mitigation.