I always tell people curious about my experience in New York that it was the best experience of my life. It was. And to explain why in one sentence, it was because I was in a room full of people who didn’t know me but loved me for my ambition for social change- they shared this passion with me and they had the same values as me. In the opening words of Adriana Pentz, the CEO of Startingbloc, ”This is your tribe. You will feel closer to these people than you will feel with most of your friends back home”. I cannot agree more. I have never felt more comfortable and supported in my life and I can proudly say, I went to US knowing I had a few friends in US but I came back knowing I had 110 more you will have my back no matter what. This was the power of Startingbloc.
Alot happened in those 5 days- most of which were moments of inspiration and solidarity; an overwhelming sense of kin. All of it was spectacular. Here are some of the highlights that I would like to share with you:
1- The Mighty Power of being +ve
The one thing I admired the most about my american friends was how they started every conversation on a +ve note. While in Britain we bond over how dreadful the weather is/was (as if it is any different any other day) or how late you slept last night, I was amused to find the conversation started on a roll. From things like ‘oh! You’re name is Hera. Wow. What does that mean? I have never heard it before’ to ‘You’re from Scotland! Awesome. Isn’t this place amazing’ – the conversation started off on a high. I sympathise with people who say ‘ I don’t want to go all american!’ when talking about being positive but I must say I looked around and felt that I had finally found home. It probably was more to do with the fact that everybody there was as enthusiastic and positive as me, rather than everybody in the US being like that. It does make me wish we can replicate that.
Another important lesson: Compliment. Compliment others when you think they are doing something right. I was amazed at how many times I felt comfortable going to others and saying things that would sound quite weird now- ‘Love your belt!’, ‘I love the way you speak’ . As a reminder to myself, I have written down all the nice things people at Startingbloc said to me (+ve feedback) and I look at it every time something goes wrong in my life. I invite you to do the same- you will notice the difference. Trust me.
2- Houston Spencer, Vice President of Strategy, Alcatel-Lucent : Hubris + Humility = Leader
It is hard to describe the opening session by Houston Spencer. Houston does a lot of work with AISEC and NACUE, as well as working at Alcatel- Lucent. The session Houston did for us at Startingbloc felt like going to a rock concert for social entrepreneurs with strangers who thought they were attending a conference. Apart from asking us to swish our hips and asking us to dream big, he then went on to tell us the story of Ancient Persian Emperor Xerxes (a fearless and magnificent- not like the 300 one) whipping the sea in punishment for breaking the bridge his army had made. Houston asked us what we thought of leadership and we gave responses as anyone would. My answers were influenced mainly from what I had written for my psychology exam- which is correct (I have to say). After asking us to build a list of the qualities of a leader, he then beautifully broke our list down and said ‘No. You have all fallen into the trap’. His answer to a great leader was this:
Hubris + Humility = Leader
It’s about dreaming big and believing you can achieve anything knowing that if you do achieve it, then you have the humility to know you are not responsible for the change- you are responsible for enabling change. Some of you must have heard me say this before that social entrepreneurs are one of the nicest people you will ever meet.
3-Ian from Recyclebank: You can retain dignity and be in business and Purpose: ‘change will come through the collective impact of active citizens’
Iain from Recyclebank talked ethical business but one thing he said that really struck me was that now we had a way of doing business and still retain our dignity. I remember growing up, coming from a very academic family- my impression of businessmen (notice I said men because women in business was alien to me) was that they were extremely selfish, greedy and slightly corrupt people who were ready to backstabbing their family for acquisition of assets. It sounds really harsh but its true- that’s what most families in Pakistan who did not have a history in business think about them. It will surprise many people that my parents still don’t know I want to be an entrepreneur, let alone a social entrepreneur despite having paid for my flight to New York. I grew up believing business was not an option as my mother said ‘our family is far too honest and simple to do business’. It’s only discovering the idea of social business/enterprise that liberated me- finally, there was a way for me to make social impact in a sustainable way through empowerment (my business idea is called enspirite) And that is what unites me with all the social entrepreneurs in the world. Thanks to Ian for putting all of my thoughts so eloquently in one line.
We heard from Jeremy Heimans, CEO of Purpose and co-founder of Avaaz, aswell as Al-Noor Ladha from Purpose on how they had achieved the impossible and unthinkable results from providing a platform for people to create change. But as they said, remember, it is the people that create change- you are just the platform- you simply empower them to create that change.
4- How will you know when you are successful? 500 tokens.
Houston asked us to write down all that we would like to achieve and then asked a question to which most people did not have an answer: How will you know you are successful? And he deliberately asked us to have a metric, a tangible outcome or milestone that told us that. I had never thought of this before. So instead of saying ‘when women will be able to enjoy then same liberties as men’ or ‘when there will be no honour killings’ – this question forced me to think precisely about how I will know I have made a difference. The first thing that popped in my head was that which i wrote down on the purple-White piece of paper Houston gave us: when I receive 500 physical tokens of acknowledgment from people I have empowered in one way or the other. I may sound very plastic and superficial but actually, now I have a preliminary target of motivating 500 lives. I invite all change makers to force themselves to do the same: have a precise outcome that can tell you have done your job. Anything after that is a dream come true.
5- Prof. Scott Sherman, Executive Director, Transformative Action Institute: ‘you can train people to be lucky’ scientific research
If you ever have a chance to attend a talk by professor Scott Sherman- do not let it go. He is loud, sometimes brazen but immensely inspiring. From being beaten up an inch close to his life in a gang initiation ritual in his first days at college, Scott Sherman started his journey to scientifically study what ticks us and empathy. Scott talked to us about the inadequacy of most university education which is so true. Most people I meet say they never Use what they learnt in university out of its Walls. And you know what, I agree. To me, education is an expensive experience – a luxury that I indulged in to enlighten myself and give me the escape route if all goes down. Universities are meant to be emblems of enlightenment yet if you look at most people who work in universities they are nowhere representative of that higher purpose. What puzzles me the most is that man created structure to discipline and stifle creativity. Religion and governance have reinforced this imprisonment in society and left us destitute of the spirit of the explorer man. Anyway, I went off at a tangent there. Scott claims you can train people to become lucky. I agree with him. What do you think?
Scott shared the story of story of Tom Watson, IBM. From how he paved his career path to founding one of the most phenomena technology organisations, we pay tribute to his memory in a very famous incident that is both inspiring and humbling.
One of his employees had made a major mistake that had cost the company ten million dollars. When called into Watson’s office, the fellow said “I suppose you want my resignation.” Watson looked at him and replied: “Are you kidding? We just spent ten million dollars educating you.”
Most people would have fled into a fit of rage and would have fired their employee. What this incident proved was that the greatness of Tom Watson shows itself in his understanding that it was a genuine mistake and the money had already been lost. The best thing at that time was to make sure everybody learnt from the situation and that learner was not lost.
7- Tanya Fields, Founder, BLKGRL on How to fight through troubles
We heard from Tanya Fields from BLK Project on her life story and it was just riveting to hear her humorously sharing the difficulties she faced. The strength of the woman was awe-inspiring and I hope one day if I can find the video, to share it with you. Her personal brand oozes out of every word she says!
Since I don’t have the video right now and I am lost for words to describe her session- I am copy-pasting something from the Startingbloc agenda so you can find out more about her:
Tanya has used her life experiences as an underserved, low-income woman and mother to inform and enrich the work of several high profile local environmental organizations such Sustainable South Bronx and Majora Carter Group. Tanya utilized her network, resources and knowledge to create the BLK Projek. The BLK ProjeK was created in 2007 to address food justice, environmental justice and public and mental health by empowering underserved women of color through political education, beautification of community spaces, urban farming and holistic health programming.
8- Yao Hui-Huang, Co-Founder & MD, The Hatchery: the importance of action and
Alexia Vernon, Sustainable Career Coach: Know yourself. Know your values. Align your goals to it.
Yao spoke about overcoming fear by building a minutiae of steps into a plan. The importance of networking, having a plan but being open to change and knowing your pitch really well. Simple, practical things but for all those who have seen Apprentice- we know it is often neglecting the obvious things that becomes the downfall of the candidates.
Alexia on the other hand forced all of us to actually chose the top 3 values we had. It was almost painful to do that but then she asked the deadliest question ever: Is what you want to do aligned to your values? Is what you are doing aligned to it? I learnt it is so important to know yourself and have empathy for yourself. The relentlessness inside me to change the world has not gone and may never go but her session made me aware of how to be at peace with the restless soul inside of me.
9- 40 mins to learn to something from each other
This is an exercise that the lovely Sarah Bishop and Rithesh Menon from Startingbloc made us do. They got us to sit with people we had not spent too much time with. Once people were in groups, we were asked all to teach or share one skill/information with others. It has to be one of my favourite moments of those 5 days. I got to learn salsa, how to click my tongue, a word in Khmer and how to get a press release. It was the most productive 40 minutes of the day. This should be part of every conference, staff day or training event.
10- Welcome to my tribe
This is my favourite moment. Adriana Pentz, CEO of Statingbloc saying: ‘we are all here to build an opportunity that celebrates social values and sustainable values….People sitting in the room have more in common with you then many of your friends. Welcome to the tribe.’
So, to the world- this is my tribe. They are full of enthusiasm, ambition, arrogance, humility and a burning desire to change the world for the better. I went to New York and found my tribe.
A big hearty thank you to Dell Social Innovation, who made it possible for me to go to New York, especially Marybeth. Thank you to SIE for supporting me on my way there. Gratitude to my father for paying for my stay and travel there. A hug and kiss to Neeta, my friend for looking after me while I was there (waiting for me in Grand Central for an hour while I was lost).
Thankyou to Adriana, Rithesh and Sarah for making it possible and making it awesome! And the biggest thank you of all- to all those amazing people I met at Startingbloc. Social Innovation will change the world with these minds!