My Experience Of Working With Sex Workers During My Summer Internship – Reckitt Benckiser PPO Holder, Rajan Burman

Students of the coveted MBA course, in coveted B-Schools like the IIMs, strive to earn a coveted position as an intern within the coveted annals of a coveted corporate establishment. I consider myself lucky to have been able to achieve the same by securing berth in  Reckitt Benckiser during the Summer Placement season at IIM Lucknow in 2017. An internship which I thought would give me a strong foundation in the practicalities of sales and marketing, with executive level exposure to broaden the horizons of my learning.

I ended up with much more than just that. And here’s my story.

My internship was spaced over a period of 8 weeks in the months of April and May, 2018. It started with 2 days of induction, wherein we were exposed to the various verticals within which RB currently is, and had the opportunity to interact the Divisional Managers and Divisional Heads responsible for driving each of them. Being in a morning to evening corporate schedule for the first time (yes, I am a fresher) was surely tiring, but all the information gathered in these sessions were helpful in channelizing cross – functional deployments during the course of the internship. On the third day, all of us reported to our different Divisional Managers and subsequently to the Sponsors of our projects, the latter being the Divisional Directors of one’s particular domain. Therein started my association with two electric, dynamic individuals – Mr. Pankaj Duhan (Chief Marketing Officer, RB South Asia Health) and Ravi Bhatnagar (Director, External Affairs & Partnerships – AMESA) – under the direct supervision of whom I could walk the critical terrain I was assigned to.

For starters, I was assigned the portfolio of Durex. The name itself is synonymous with passion, the brand has a rich history of being the category leader in almost any geography imaginable in the world. I was enthralled, however, when I was presented my problem statement – crack the Sex Worker segment with Durex. Period.

Jaw dropping as it sounds, the experiences associated with it were more impeccable in every way possible. It started with understanding the world of sex, from reading the Global Sex Surveys to consumer insights and personal accounts of expectations. Vivid descriptions in the various nuances surrounding the act of love helped me decipher subtle passion profiles to ultimately work with. Prior groundbreaking work in the sex worker segment by Mr. Bhatnagar helped expose me to this taboo-ed industry thriving in various parts of India. I took charge of all resources available at hand and worked in synergy with the German and American Durex teams who have had considerable experience in the sex worker category. That completed, I set to understand the differences the Indian sex worker community has with the Western ones, their aspirations, issues, and experiences. In Marketing one cannot hope to achieve that without getting to hear the customer out.

This took me to the densest sex worker settlement in the world, right in the heart of the bustling City of Joy, Kolkata – SONAGACHI.

Accompanied by Pankaj and Ravi, I landed in Kolkata on a soggy mid-May morning, and checked into a luxurious suite at The Park. The trip was to be short and beneficial, hence we got to work after just an hour of kit-up, so to speak. A taxi trip took us to Shobha Bazaar, from where the crazy by-lanes into a completely different world begins on foot. Through wet streets littered with hawkers and hastily built, cramped building, we made our way into the world of Sonagachi, having more than 15000 sex workers (if documentations are believed) in an area of just 1 square kilometer. First thought – blank. We were swamped by not less than 15 middlemen. “kahan jaana hai?” “Best hai saab, idharaao” “Russian, Malaysian, anything, you tell me I take you”. We paid one of them asking “Neel Kamal lejao”. Neelkamal, Raj Kamal, and Night Lovers are the three main brothels inside Sonagachi. Prima facie, an apartment, not more than 4 floors tall, and lacking bare furnishings like wall plasters. In short, deplorable from the looks of it. However, the three steps leading to the front porch made us enter a place whose lights and colours one already knows, courtesy Bollywood. Keeping reservations outside that gate, I knew that if answers were to come, it was within these portals, these rooms with lingering smells of unwashed lined fused with incense, and solicitors standing on the doorway calling us in.

We went to the top floor and were led into a room by a girl not more than 20 years of age – first acquaintance with harsh realities of this place. It was difficult to make her believe that we had some questions we wanted answers to and not services, and even more difficult for her to realize that the next one hour and 3400 bucks entailed her to just sit back and talk. The gravity of this understanding needs to be appreciated; these are people who’ve never been heard. A few prodding questions and they lay bare their life’s saga. Born and brought up in Lucknow, she entered into this profession following in the footsteps of her only childhood friend, who happened to be just across her building now. Her parents don’t have the slightest indication of how she earns her living, as their queries were muffled by a good dine out, and apparel sent home from time to time. Her words gave a stark insight into the grit and determination preserving her in a body ravaged by the demands of her daily profession. She thumps her chest in exuberance when she declares that none alive in Kolkata today can even pay her rent – at 75000 per month for a room which can barely hold a queen size bed, a wall cupboard, a half ton AC and some party light. Over and above, she pays a 30% cut to her ‘manager’, a lady somewhere in Delhi who runs the solicitation. From whatever that is left, she has to take care of her health, food and sanitary requirements. For everything she had to say, she came across as one of the best people to interview for consumer insights anywhere in the marketing universe. Since she has seen the rock-bottom of life, there are no reservations and apprehensions in discussing the issue which is very private to her – be it talking about her body, her problems in every ‘encounter’, and fears in being part of the everyday society. Her profession forces her to be averse to the idea of love, but she never kisses everyone she does ‘business’ with – her idea of differentiating those she likes from those she doesn’t. The interview ended with a graceful Indian parting of ways with a graceful “Dhyan rakhiyega”.

From therein we went to meet members of the Durbar Mahila Samiti, an institution for sex workers by sex workers which takes care of the health, education, and financial needs of the sex worker community. We understood the various problems faced by them in isolating and solving intermittent requirements of a society usually hung out to dry by the so-called civilized society.

Returning to Delhi, I prepared a go-to-market strategy for pilot execution in Sonagachi, with improvised SKU specifically catering to their requirement of protection depending on the average frequency of sexual encounters and specific needs of a typical sex worker, along with a tailor-made distribution plan to get slow-moving inventory into the hands of the target customer.

I eventually landed a dream PPO with this 205-year-old startup Reckitt Benckiser truly is, with an impressive package to boast about. However, deep in my heart, I’ll always revere the fact that the hefty paycheck landing in my e-mail at the end of each month is all because somewhere lost within the dingy streets and musky odours halfway across the country, a 19-something beautiful girl chose to do something polar opposite to the profanity of her profession. She chose to believe. She chose to talk.

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This article was originally written by Rajan Burman.

An aspiring Marketer by passion and a writer at heart, I am a lucky confluence of IIT KGP and IIM Lucknow, where I am currently pursuing my MBA. Conferred with a PPO from Reckitt Benckiser, I have been an active author on WordPress, a National Medallist and Black Belt holder in Karate, and an ardent swimming enthusiast. A rolling stone on the path of inspiration and learning, I look forward to engaging discussions in the world of marketing, and beyond.

Pratik Ranjan

Pratik is an MBA candidate at IIM Lucknow. He is an ardent aspiring marketing strategist. His passion for marketing multiplied multifold post his internship with Unilever, where he was conferred with a PPO. Bitten by the entrepreneurial bug & seized by afflatus to read, write & explore, this twenty-something believes in the power of dreaming with his eyes open. He is a columnist in various newsletters and is up for any discussion that involves the nuances of marketing and strategy. P.S: He's charged by the fuel of caffeine.

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