Friday, January 24, 2014

Professor Greg Dees: A life that bent history itself.

Robert Kennedy once said, “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events.” Although his life was cut short just a few weeks ago, Professor Greg Dees has undeniably bent the history of my own life and has radically changed more than just a small portion of events throughout the world.

During my first class with Professor Dees  "Social Entrepreneurship and Global Poverty" in the fall quarter of 2012 – he managed to introduce me to a very different side (perhaps the best side) of Stanford's Graduate School of Business. From the first day of class, he made it clear that this was to be an intimate community focused not only on critiquing development approaches  which is "what we are good at and trained to do"  but on "moving from tensions and problems into potential solutions, and re-framing the question in positive (action-oriented) ways."

Rather than discussing theories of change, he pressed us on what our own “personal theory of action” is, and personally encouraged me to explore launching a social enterprise in the education space. In one email, he wrote that "You are exploring an ambitious and challenging undertaking, but I have full faith in you.” I’ll never forget those last six words.

Professor Dees truly trusted and empowered his class. Despite his massive accomplishments – e.g., Business Week has called him “The man who defined social entrepreneurship” – he trusted us students to facilitate each (3 hour) class, without any guidance or input from him (unless we specifically requested it). He once told me over lunch (and reiterated several times in class) that he firmly believed “you should never do for people (including students) what they can do for themselves.” (An idea we are now trying to implement at Amal Academy in Pakistan).

Although Professor Dees is considered “the father of social enterprise education,” he was the type of person that was more concerned with “being interested not interesting.” For example, he was extremely quiet in class (he once even apologized over email for talking and taking up too much of our class time), but never failed to respond (at deep length) to our emails and coffee/lunch requests and would always send our class extremely thoughtful class summary emails (that were 2-3 pages long).

Author Maaza Mengiste writes that “Each of our stories pivot on a single moment; that short pause between what is and what could be.” Because of Professor Dees’ life of humility and immersion, I believe my story has pivoted several times.

The first moment was during my second course with Professor Dees, when he decided to compromise the class policy by allowing me to form a “team of one” (as he called it) so that I could explore the education sector in Pakistan. Professor Dees knew that this was an idea that I was passionate about and he believed in me enough to break his class policies (which he was typically super strict about). The second moment is when he helped Amal Academy get seed funding from the Center for Social Innovation, a program that Professor Dees helped launch in 1999.

Although his absence will be profoundly felt throughout the world, I find hope knowing that we are doing the work that he has inspired. And my prayer is that we can somehow find a way to bend history even in a fraction of the way that Professor Dees has (and still is).

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Dealing with the cracks: Art and entrepreneurs

Although I’ve always dreamed of being an artist, my stick figure drawings or Power Point presentations have somehow never quite qualified me. According to one of Pakistan’s most well known novelists, however, my dreams might not be completely hopeless.

In a talk last week at the Acumen Fellows Irtiqa conference, Mohsin Hamid painted a simple yet profound [re]definition of art:
Art is the unwillingness to accept the way things are.
We went on to share that he has realized that a part of him has always been a bit cracked, and that 
Dealing with that crack is what art is. 
As he spoke, I thought about the dozens of entrepreneurs I know who see the work that they are doing as a response to cracks, as an unwillingness to accept the way things are. I thought of my friend Neil at Zaya, who refuses to accept that low income children in India only have access to a rote-memorization based education. Or my friend Mario at Wedu, who refuses to accept that girls in South East Asia don’t have access to higher education. Or our own work at Amal Academy.

Repositioning entrepreneurship as art is powerful. 

As Jacqueline Novogratz later shared, choosing a life of impact can mean choosing a life of pain. And as I've realized this year with Amal, entrepreneurship is indeed painful. And it’s lonely. And exhausting. And can even be depressing. But in the end, it’s worth the labor pains, because ultimately art is born.

And the beautiful thing about art is that it defies the oppression of perfection, as there is no such thing as perfect art. Indeed, we might not ever know how it affects someone. Or who it affects. Or even when it affects them. 

But somehow we can know that art/entrepreneurship matters. That it inspires. That it changes "the way things are." And that ultimately, it makes the world a better place.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The impossibility of replacing a person: Life after a near death experience

Clipper and Douglas St, Noe Valley, SF
In his book “Man's Search for Meaning,” Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl writes:
When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude.

This past weekend, I came to realize this impossibility and responsibility perhaps for the first time after: losing control of my bike on an unforeseeable .5 mile stretch of deep SF hills, hitting a minivan while going about 50 MPH, and walking away 15 minutes later with only a scratch on my left arm.

Spiraling down those 3 hills – without a helmet and on a fixed-gear bike without brakes – was the scariest 60 seconds of my life. I’ve replayed it hundreds of times in my head and remember very clearly a thought I’ve never had before: that I was going to die. Right there – on Clipper and Douglas Street, in Noe Valley, San Francisco – I was convinced I was going to die.

But for some reason, I didn’t…

Still in disbelief, I’ve been thinking a lot about what that reason might be. And about what Frankl meant by the impossibility of replacing a person. And the magnitude of responsibility that comes with that realization. 

In many ways, Frankl goes on to answer what that reason and responsibility is:
Being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself— be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself— by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love— the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself...

No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.

So, on the eve of my 29th birthday – having never felt more grateful to be alive – my prayer for this year (and really the rest of my life), is that I can learn how to forget myself by discovering and loving others, that through that love I can understand (and help others understand) their potential, and that by realizing this potential we will make our world a better place.

I know it won’t be easy, but I also know that it’s my responsibility to try, and that it’s the reason why I’m still alive today.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Beautiful Struggle

The beautiful struggle: a lone fisherman
tries to catch a meal in Ali Bagh
One of my biggest challenges living/traveling abroad has always been the transition back to the US. 

Even after making this shift dozens of times, I still fail to maneuver between the realities of the two worlds I find myself in: for example, the fact that 22 out of every 25 children will drop out of school by the 5th grade in Pakistan while I’m at school with 800 classmates who are now apart of the 2 out of every 25 American citizens with a masters degree.

As I boarded my flight yesterday – physically and emotionally exhausted from three weeks of piloting an education venture in India and Pakistan – I prepared for the transition to be as difficult and confusing as usual.

During my stop over in Abu Dhabi, however, I was reminded of a powerful lesson. While waiting for my connecting flight, I met the nicest 40-something year old woman who was traveling from India. We talked for some time about what she was doing in India, the business she started and the work her husband does, her daughters studying in college, etc. It was only after the never-ending 15 hour flight, as I was helping her get her bags, that she told me the real reason she was traveling to India: her beloved mother had tragically passed away after falling down a large set of stairs, and her beloved father had then committed suicide because he couldn’t manage to live without her.

…I was speechless...

Over the past few hours, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this woman, the struggle she is going through, and a quote from a friend’s email signature: 
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

The beautiful struggle: Two of my friends,
Raj and Indu, from the Dharavi slum in Bombay

Over the past few hours, I’ve begun to realize how easy it is for me to get caught up in my own problems, or even the profound problems that I am apart of in India, Pakistan, Kenya, etc., and to forget that everyone around me – even in the US – is also fighting their own struggles. They might not be fighting HIV as a single mother in a Nairobi slum, but perhaps to them, their own struggle feels just as equally heavy. As my mom once said, we all have some kind of a battle, and it’s not our right to judge whose battle is bigger or smaller.

Instead, perhaps our responsibility should be to offer a smile, a hello, a thank you, or even a free-pass / benefit of the doubt the next time someone seems to not care about the same things by which we are burdened. Because the reality is, they are probably in the middle of fighting a battle of their own, and they might actually need our support (or at least our understanding). 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Relearning how to smile in an Arizona Indian Reservation

The day after Thanksgiving break, I found myself on an Indian Reservation about 45 miles outside of Phoenix, heading down an empty road lined with cactus, giant tumble weeds, and San Tan mountain tops, all of which were leading us towards a pasty blue school known as Blackwater Community.

From the outside, this school didn’t seem much different than the schools around my neighborhood in Palo Alto; after looking deeper, however, it sadly began to resemble the schools I taught at this summer in Nairobi. For example, according to the Blackwater principle, only 50% of her elementary students go on to graduate from high school. And sadly, Blackwater is one of the best schools in the area: the graduation rate only gets worse amongst other Indian Reservation schools.

The goal of our trip, therefore, was to play a role in addressing these inequalities, specifically through the power of mobile technology. I was traveling with a professor from the Stanford School of Education, Dr. Paul Kim, who has developed a tool called the Stanford Mobile Inquiry-based Learning Environment (SMILE). Put simply, the idea is that students use their mobile phone to engage with their curriculum (and each other!) in new and exciting ways.

While the tool has enormous potential (and Dr. Kim has run dozens of successful pilots), we unfortunately faced a number of technical challenges during our three day pilot test, and I began to question if we were really making a big difference.

On the flight back to SFO that night, I asked Neha Taleja, the Executive Director for the nonprofit that houses SMILE, if she shared these concerns. She agreed that the technical challenges were extremely problematic, but that we would work through them. More importantly, she reminded me of a little 5th grade boy we had worked with that day, who decided to stay in during his lunch break to use the phone to create a quiz for his classmates.  According to his teacher, this was something he’s never done before. And that, to Neha, was what SMILE was all about: Generating excitement and engagement that has somehow been misplaced along the way.
Although it’s a simple anecdote, I’m realizing that there are profound insights and reminders to appreciate, particularly as I spend the next 3 weeks in India and Pakistan exploring entrepreneurial opportunities in mobile learning.

Reminders such as the gratitude found through appreciating these “small victories.” The hope discovered while focusing on why something could (and should) work, and not on why it won’t work. The liberation of not allowing perfect be the enemy of progress: of not trying to develop a flawless solution that addresses all the problems at once, but rather starting somewhere (even if it’s a simple start that has complications) and allowing the work to teach you.

And lastly, the importance of being able to smile along the way.