Philosophy of Engagement

I am often asked why I work with “poor people” in “third-world countries.” Sometimes I point out how “poor” is such a relative concept and “third-world” doesn’t sound very respectful either. Other times, I don’t engage in that semantically-charged conversation. Words are spiritual vehicles first, and literal vehicles next. Let’s rise above words and focus on ideas, concepts, feelings and intent. In this brief essay, I have explained why I work with some amazing people living in resource-constrained environments, mostly in developing countries.

Empathy, Equity and Ecosystems form the cornerstones of my philosophy of entrepreneurial engagement with developing communities. Here are two quotes that capture this sentiment:

“When we grow in spiritual consciousness,
we identify ourselves with all there is in the world.
Then there can be no exploitation.
It is ourselves we are helping. It is ourselves we are healing.”

– Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, Founder of the Aravind Eye Hospital in India.

If you come to help, don’t come. But if you see that your struggle is our struggle, then come and stay with us for a while. After some time we may find something to work on together.”
– Gustavo Esteva.

I am a philanthropist – I love human beings and want to alleviate human deprivation and suffering. However, in this quest for poverty alleviation, I reject philanthropy through traditional charity since it is neither sustainable nor scalable. Through stories, scholarly publications and first-hand experience, I am convinced that donation-based solutions are fundamentally ineffective and disrespect the dignity and intellect of the people. I believe that hand-outs should be reserved for humanitarian disasters and emergencies while social entrepreneurship should be the preferred approach for addressing global development challenges. Social entrepreneurship, in this regard, refers to the development of solutions that prioritize the social outcomes while ensuring that they are economically self-sustainable. It is extremely important to systemically and systematically assess the solution’s outputs and outcomes to confirm the accomplishment of the venture’s goals.

I engage with people to satisfy my ego and nourish my soul. It makes me happy to empower others. I want people to realize their full human potential. I know that realizing human potential was cliched long time back but we have still not developed a business  model to make it happen. I want to look back at my life and honestly feel that I made a difference. I love those moments when someone, a student, an entrepreneur, a person living a day at a time, looks into my eyes trying to find words of gratitude and then realizes that words are not needed. I love that human connection. It bothers me when we refer to acts of helping others, “service.”  I don’t serve anyone nor do I expect anyone to serve me. Rather, I strive to build equitable relationships and work shoulder-to-shoulder with partners to develop technologies and launch social ventures. In this quest for learning, creating knowledge and developing ventures that improve the human condition, my students are my primary partners and collaborators. Together we explore, together we engage, together we learn, together we succeed, together we fail, together we strive to make a better world.

I think that focusing one’s efforts on helping individuals is a good thing. However, life is short and there are umpteen problems that impact millions of people. I want to maximize my impact and hence I prefer to invest my scarce time, money and energy on solutions that are sustainable and scalable. I chose to become an educator to prepare a cadre of innovators and social entrepreneurs with the knowledge, competencies, experiences and mindsets to envision, realize and grow social ventures. Ideas, presentations, patents or prototypes don’t necessarily solve problems. I want my students to learn how to launch ventures that actually solve the problems. I want them to assess the impact, and I want them to build ecosystems that further sustain the venture and amplify its impact. It is all about getting things done and achieving that higher equilibrium.

My concept of philanthropy is incompatible with the reality of geographical, political, cultural or social boundaries. I don’t believe in countries and that is one of the reasons why I do not see my engagement in other countries as cultural imperialism. The most compelling needs and greatest potential for improving the human condition are in developing countries and hence I prefer to work there. I  grew up in India, live in the US and work on ventures in Africa. I have traveled extensively across 40+ countries and never have I failed to identify with the people. There is no ‘me’ vs. ‘them’, it is all about ‘us’. It is about us getting into each others’ shoes and understanding the lives we live and choices we make. It is about trust, respect and co-creation of a new reality. It is about us understanding our interdependence and seeking others who want to play the game with us, so that we can all reap the rewards – the dollars and the smiles. It really is about us working together to build a freer, fairer, friendlier, and more sustainable world. As Dr. V said, it is ourselves we are helping, it is ourselves we are healing.