Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Young Entrepreneurs bring back Memories at the HELIX Spotlight Event - Seneca College, Toronto

Being at the HELIX Spotlight event at Seneca in North Toronto on 20th August 2018 — honouring four of the already hundreds of young entrepreneurs the Applied Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (ARIE) Department of Seneca is supporting — brought me fond memories of the past.

I went back in time to 1985 when my cousin Viren Perera, a friend Pradip Jayewardene and I embarked on a journey to establish a pioneering solar energy business in Sri Lanka – to manufacture and market solar home systems to rural homes who had no access to the power grid.

A short story of that is here -

I had graduated from Seneca's, Mechanical Engineering Technology – Nuclear Option program in 1983 and a part-time Business Administration Certificate in 1984 and Viren with a degree in Commerce from University of Toronto - we  were intrigued and inspired by a novel by James Michener called The Drifters.

The Drifters - Viren and Lalith in Paris - 1984
We wanted to see the world before we started our ‘real’ life, so we embarked on this adventure to buy a Volkswagen Camper in London, England and followed the path of the book through Europe filled with our own adventures.

The journey ended where we were born – in Sri Lanka - to an idea of a solar powered water pump by a cousin Micheal Mustachi, which eventually led us to establish a business to manufacture and market solar home systems for lighting and TV for rural farmers. 

Having had a good foundation from Seneca and U of T, this venture ended up being the real education for us.  Apart from building a business idea from scratch, convincing the skeptics - and there were many – was our biggest challenge.

The other tasks of doing market studies, raise financing for investment and working capital, purchase the appropriate technology, establish the manufacturing plant, nurturing a team and the organization to make solar photovoltaic (PV) modules and balance of system, and the most difficult – to develop, market and sell the systems gave us an experience of a lifetime, that has turned us into serial entrepreneurs and educators. 

Dr. Sudh Varma of TPK Solar manufacturing the
first SUNTEC solar module in Sri Lanka - 1987
A chance meeting and an introduction to Ontario Hydro's New Business Ventures Division ensured that we kept our Canadian connections.  We purchased a solar PV module manufacturing plant from an Ottawa based company - TPK Solar established by a Canadian scientist and innovator, Dr. Raye Thomas supported by Dr. Sudh Varma, Jay Jayaraman and team.  They were well ahead of their time to develop solar PV cells and modules in the mid 1970s and also sold and installed the first solar cell and module manufacturing facility to China's Yunan Province in late 1980s.

Perils of Entrepreneurship

We encountered many challenges and barriers along the way, including irate politicians who were opposed to us taking their power away by giving their constituency a choice, where they became independent of the electricity grid.  Add to that, international coal and oil industry lobbies, surprisingly, felt threatened by a new technology where the sun was the fuel. 

We were demonized in the media and public platforms denigrating our pioneering efforts. They asserted that we were fooling rural people into paying money for an insignificant technology that will not serve their needs.  A newspaper article titled “Solar Power is for Lotus Eaters” cast aspersions that we were following a pipe dream and the smear campaign continued until we got to the root cause. 

We diffused the detractors by making personal connections with them to share our vision, values and understand their needs.

These lessons were most invaluable as we had not realized the power of vested interests.  No matter how effective an idea is when a new technology or a product is introduced, the status quo, the existing people invested in it always gets impacted and may resist. 

Therefore, we have to be aware of the big picture - understand the whole system and its impacts or get blindsided by them, no matter how irrational it may seem.

Taking these powers head on is like swimming against the current, one has to swim with it and patiently find ways out to connect with the detractors at a human level and appeal to their conscience.   All this requires thoughtfulness, time and effort.

The Inspiring Young HELIXers

This is why I was inspired by the four young entrepreneurs who were under the spotlight, as they seem to be aware of all this.  I applaud their courage to throw themselves in the deep end for a life of uncertainty – the excitement, enthusiasm and the passion was palpable.

They are also fortunate to have the safety-net of a home at Seneca's Applied Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (ARIE) Department and more remarkable as Director of Entrepreneurship, Chris Dudley explained that their services were free to these young leaders.

The most difficult part of being an entrepreneur with a new idea, as mentioned earlier, are those naysayers – ‘it will never work’ brigade, who were playfully referred to by the young HELIXers as ‘shooting the puppy’.  

This is especially challenging coming from those who hold the purse – investors and bankers. 

Support for Our Idea

We were also fortunate to have some mentors and well-wishers to balance the naysayers.  Among them were family, friends and a few corporate leaders who gave us insights into business, organizations, leadership and especially, emotional intelligence - the need to know and manage self that is essential for an entrepreneur.

Sir Arthur C Clarke visits the SUNTEC factory - 1988
One prominent supporter was science fiction writer and futurist Sir Arthur C. Clarke residing in Sri Lanka - who’s endorsement counted for our reputation and to be taken seriously.   Our youth – being in our late 20s worked against us.

We were also fortunate to be signed onto a USAID sponsored Private Enterprise Promotions Project, where Coopers & Lybrand firm of accountants from Washington DC, USA and Colombo, Sri Lanka conducted a market and pre-feasibility study.  This would have normally cost US $ 40,000 in 1985, which we got for a mere application fee of US $ 200.

At the end of their elaborate study, which we played an active role in, the Coopers & Lybrand team’s Roger Manring, Michael Trevor and Thilan Wijesinghe invited us to their Colombo office to inform that the Internal Rate of Return (IRR) was only 4% and suggested we go back to Canada and get jobs. 

Marketing SUNTEC in rural Sri Lanka
We were shocked at this outcome. We knew the fact that 84% of Sri Lanka’s homes in rural areas did not have access to the power grid, were using kerosene lamps and car batteries for their lighting needs. There was a definite need and a demand. 

As an integral part of the market research process we spoke to countless number of people and knew there was a segment of households that could afford to pay for a solar home system, which would make this business viable. 

We passionately believed in this venture from making connections with our potential customers who were suffering with kerosene lamps – the horror of accidents, children breathing in fumes – our hearts were with them and we intuitively knew that a potential business was there. 

We also had the vision that solar PV used mostly for extraterrestrial applications at the time to power satellites, had an important role on this earth to make our world greener, not only for rural areas but as an alternative for thermal power generation as a whole.

Therefore, our vision and mission was clear as we pushed Manring and Trevor back when they advised us to pack our bags.
The next day, they called us back and handed us a freshly minted feasibility study and pointed us the page where the revised IRR was now 16%.  
The Coopers & Lybrand study

That is when I realized that even high finance is not an exact science.  It all depends on the assumptions - the enthusiasm, the passion, the reason and logic we brought to this venture also counted for a few percentage points.  In the revision, they also considered better, how a micro-financing program would expand the market with better affordability of the systems.   

We had to fight for all this and the C & L market and pre-feasibility study gave us a platform to raise $ 1 million through Sri Lankan development banks - true government owned development banks, which were established to foster innovation and new business.  Those banks have since been privatized, hence totally profit oriented and risk averse, which is now stifling new entrepreneurs, sadly in Sri Lanka.

Transforming Canada’s Entrepreneurship DNA

Canada’s young entrepreneurs will also need such support and goodwill from venture capitalists, investors, banks and mentors.

This is important as Canada, being a traditional resource economy, does not have an inherent culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in its DNA.  According to the Conference Board of Canada, Canadians are ambitious when it comes to entrepreneurship, yet that ambition is not realized when it comes to actual enterprise creation.[i]

Karen Sievewright in a Globe and Mail article writes;
What this means is we have not developed a codified model to train, develop and nurture our entrepreneurial talent. We simply don't have the innovation 'farm system' which can systematically lead entrepreneurs to success.[ii]

That is what David Agnew, President of Seneca addressed in his opening remarks where he articulated Seneca’s commitment to systematically bridge this gap.  Mr. Agnew, being there at the event, signaled its commitment from the top.

Vanessa Williamson, Dean of Applied Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (ARIE) and Chris Dudley, Director of Entrepreneurship, then went onto explain the HELIX process and philosophy designed to lead entrepreneurs to success and to change Canada’s DNA. 

They highlighted HELIX’s dedication to developing the entrepreneurial mindset through sharing knowledge, mentorship sessions, workspace access to like-minded peer community and experiential opportunities.
According to the website, HELIX focuses on two important outcomes:
  1. The development and launch of successful, scalable and sustainable, young entrepreneur-led ventures.
  2. Nurturing the entrepreneurial mind set to allow participants to become intrapreneurs and innovate from within companies.
The process begins with a series of four entrepreneurial workshops and sector specific support activities provided free to any interested person starting from; ideation, Business Model Canvas, customer validation, pitch development and it continues to provide support as required.

The follow up support includes; mentorship, introduction to seed funding, conducting experiential activities such as Startup Weekend, providing incubator space and facilitating links to the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Seneca is reaching out to the wider community and participating in international events such as the European Innovation Academy’s (EIA) summer program for students bringing people together from 75 countries and leading schools around the world.

The HELIX Spotlight event featured four of those who attended the 3 week intensive program at EIA. 

Seneca's Chris Dudley mediating the four Helixer's dialogue
Each of them; Kim Ng, Stephen Bourne, Cliff Benson and Christian Navarro had great stories to narrate as they led 5 member interdisciplinary, multicultural teams at the EIA to work together and come up with an innovative idea and bring to a stage for presentation to potential investors.

Inspiration, Investing and Sharing Risk

As a Seneca Alumni, I am so inspired by this program, especially as the approach seems holistic and it is grounded on great values and principles, and mostly the process seems to have an open-hearted approach, as that is what is required to change the Canadian risk averse DNA, especially in the finance sector.

I was happy to see Scotiabank sponsoring HELIX and a contingent of TD Bank representatives at the HELIX Spotlight event.  I trust that they will not assess these new ventures on a set of tangible numbers alone, but be open to a much broader vision for the future.

They will have to also look at the entrepreneurs for their passion, enthusiasm, fearlessness, talent, capability and a commitment to hard work, apart from numbers.  That means investors and banks have to share in the risk and be willing to lose in the process too, as failure is an inherent component of the entrepreneurial process.  Learning through failure is the only way Canada will change its DNA.

I am confident from seeing what I saw, the commitment of the Seneca team, and who they had gathered for this spotlight event from the community and within – a selection of alumni-entrepreneurs, the private sector, investors, banks, non-profits and the government - the HELIX community is on the right path to helping Canada foster its culture of entrepreneurship.  

With the multicultural participants in this program, this is also an opportunity for Canada to look well beyond North America to the world out there as especially Asia, Africa and South America which offer vast opportunities and markets as they grow and develop.      

I wish the HELIX program much success and look forward to playing a role to make Canada a leading nation of innovation and entrepreneurs for the future.


Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Politics and Democracy - Think Critically, Be Vociferous and Take Action on Things that Matter

I certainly enjoy writing blogs, yet it takes time for a self employed entrepreneur/consultant/trainer and parent to write – even though I can write fast – doing the research, getting the flow, edit and put it out there is an effort.
I write when I get prompted by a current event or something that has been gnawing away at me about the way the world is or has become.
                                     Image -BuzzFeed
I am inspired by Martin Luther King when he said;
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Therefore, I get outside my comfort zone to write on politics, religion, leadership, business and spirituality - pushing boundaries based on my own experience, knowledge and wisdom, realizing that I may not have it all right. 
I share my opinions and ideas to inquire - provoke thought and educate in a way that is not combative and judgmental, but to look at all angles.
My Vested Interest
As I write and inquire, I attempt to get to the root causes as to why we are where we are in the world today. I also want to think critically in a world where vested interests rule and a political system that appears to be broken.
My own vested interest is to help people gain power by thinking critically to make mature, reasonable decisions. To do that one has to step back, gain space to see the whole picture and be objective. 

One way I know how is by being mindful - to take a few breaths, say “observe” to myself, become present and rational. This helps me to step away from the emotional grip of the message and put some perspective, so I have more choices in the way I respond.
That is important in today’s politics as the decisions we make at the local, provincial, national and even global levels are crucial for our happiness, well-being and the future. 
Coming back to my vested interest - I want to live in a world that is at peace - diverse cultures living in harmony, a world where everyone has a chance to live with their basic needs met – check Maslow 
That is why I am not silent about things.  If I educate and move a few people with my advocacy, I can say “I was not silent about things that matter”.   
                                                                           Getty Images
Democracy and Politics
Politics, which is so dominant in our lives, has become bigoted, corrosive, divisive and irresponsible, according to John Feldsted, Political Consultant & Strategist .
He goes on to say;
“We don’t need politics to run a democracy. Political parties are a modern version of stone-age tribes. We don’t need political parties, but political parties can’t exist without a democracy to prey on”.
Democracy, which means “rule by the people”, has been recorded in history as far back as 599 BC in Vajji,  Vaishali, India.  
Ganarajya  was the term used for a republic where the head of state or the king was chosen by people's votes.
Greeks of ancient Athens also described their city-state's system of self-rule as democracy around 430 B.C. under the skilled orator and politician Pericles.
However, only a small proportion of the Athenian community could vote in that 5th century BC direct democracy, as opposed to the representative democracy of modern western societies starting in the 18th century.
Modern representative democracies enshrine the rights of the citizens, curtail the power of the state, and grant agency through the right to vote.  
While today’s democracy engages people with some level of decision-making, they are defined by the premise of distrust in the ability of human populations to make a direct judgement about candidates or decisions on issues.[i] 
This is how we get self obsessed, insensitive and manipulative leaders like Trump around the world who are not fit to lead  modern interconnected democracies with its complexities. 

The paradox is, Trump supporters do have legitimate grievances related to the system for which he has found scapegoats in immigrants and trade. This tack combined with his emotional bluster taken too far could whip up a frenzy to tear the US apart.  This is alarming many reasonable people. 

As such, Trump and others are awakening and mobilizing a normally apathetic citizenry in the US and around the world seeking to change the status quo, which is timely.  
Image - Mises Institute
American poet Walt Whitman would not be happy to see what is happening today as he wrote in the 1870s in his work Democracy in the New World;
 “I can conceive of no better service in the United States, henceforth, by democrats of thorough and heart-felt faith, than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.[ii]
Unconscious Incompetence
The Dunning-Kruger Effect explains how we make poor choices in electing leaders: as many people in any given subject tend to overestimate their own capacity.  As the psychologists behind the theory, David Dunning and Justin Kruger succinctly stated, “difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.”
If voters, who are inevitably uninformed about most issues government deals with, do not recognize the fact that they are uninformed, then they are easy prey for manipulation. 

This unconscious incompetence leads us voters to believe we understand matters we don’t. We think our judgement is based on facts and reasoning, when in reality it is based on manipulation through spin via the various media.  This delusion is so apparent in today's mass support for extremist megalomaniacs around the democratic world.

Having learned this, I have to be mindful myself of my blind-spots.  For that, I have to stop my thoughts and reflect to seek my own biases and prejudices that have been nurtured and drummed into me to colour my worldview.  

That gives me the space and the power to not blindly follow someone, no matter how famous or prophetic they are, even if they promise to 'make things great again'.    

Only then can I assess the impact - the causes and effects of 'making things great' on the larger system as a whole and be more strategic about my decisions in the common interest, rather than follow a herd and let it happen.
Beware of the Media
We have to safeguard the free media, yet being aware of their possible biases is also important - to think critically about what we hear and see.  Media owned by private individuals, corporations and even governments may have vested interests - whether its corporate and/or political.
I remember, watching the same story on the US invasion of Iraq on CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera and hearing three different versions to realize who that version of the story will benefit.
In my last article Illusion of Self and the Truth of Non-Self;
I quoted the father of public relations Edward Bernays who wrote in his 1928 book Propaganda
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.“
Our limbic mind is an open loop system. Everything we see,  hear, taste and feel gets embedded in our psyche - consciously and subconsciously.  We form our worldviews and opinions based on these consistent and reinforced messages, whether they are fake or not. 
It then becomes difficult to discern the real truth.  That is why, we as individuals, have to take responsibility to be mindful and reflect - think critically to be more informed to act.   

Critical thinking is about weighing the pros and cons as objectively as possible, assessing the 'facts' - where, how and who the message comes from and reaching an informed conclusion, knowing that this conclusion is dynamic too depending on the ever changing conditions. 
Smoke and Mirrors

My inquiry on democracy then begins with the notion that it has been hijacked - it is not working as it was originally intended.  We do not consider other options as we are limited by our worldviews based on recent history – communism, fascism. Nazism - which have been proven wrong.  

So, we accept the status quo and turn a blind eye to how countries like Switzerland and Singapore are run. 

Switzerland's direct democracy allows any citizen to launch a popular initiative to change the constitution.  It also has a referendum process to gain popular consent for any significant changes to its policies and laws.  

Singapore's unique brand of representative democracy honor the rights of the community over the individual's for the common good.  Switzerland and Singapore have some of the world's highest indices for quality of life and well-being.  

These nations are by no means perfect, but politics is not based on personalities - hero worship, as we do not even know who heads the government of Switzerland, for instance. 

The point is, apart from these and the Scandinavian nations, our modern western democracies seem broken today, seeing the separation of people, violence and wars, the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor, climate change and the sheer poverty and misery in which many people live – not for the lack of resources, but for the control of those resources by a few.   

Check out Skid Row in Los Angeles, never mind Dhaka, Nairobi, Mumbai, Jakarta or Mexico City.

                  Image - Rex/Shutterstock
This is why American writer and filmmaker Oliver Stone urged, especially the younger generation of writers. to be critical of their government and society at the 2017 Writers Guild Awards.

 “You don’t have to fit in,” Stone said;

“It’s fashionable now to take shots at Republicans and Trump and avoid the Obamas and Clintons. But remember this: In the 13 wars we’ve started over the last 30 years and the $14 trillion we’ve spent, and the hundreds of thousands of lives that have perished from this earth, remember that it wasn’t one leader, but a system, both Republican and Democrat.

Call it what you will: the military industrial money media security complex. It’s a system that has been perpetuated under the guise that these are just wars justifiable in the name of our flag that flies so proudly.”

Privatization of Government
Oliver Stone hit the nail on the head, as our modern democracy turned for worse when corporations started taking control of politics, especially after World War II by way of favours to politicians, political party and campaign contributions. The wars he speaks of are waged to control resources, in turn spurs related businesses and economies.
On Jan. 17, 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower gave the nation a dire warning about what he described as a threat to democratic government. He called it the military-industrial complex, a formidable union of defense contractors and the armed forces.
"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist."[iii]
It is not only the military industrial complex - it is the oil, pharmaceutical, chemical, agriculture and other large industries that dominate the world by way of money, power and political patronage. As long as limited liability laws give these corporations a license to operate as individual persons, support and fund politicians, lobby governments to suit their profitable ends, this will not change.
In the USA, it is the likes of the Mercer and Koch families - and most “democratic” nations have their own versions of Kochs and Mercers controlling its political establishment.
Quoting a Washington Post article,
“The Mercers laid the groundwork for the Trump revolution,” Bannon told the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer in March 2017. “Irrefutably, when you look at the donors during the past four years, they have had the single biggest impact of anybody, including the Kochs.”
The article goes onto state about Robert Mercer;
“Bob believes that human beings have no inherent value other than how much money they make,” a colleague told the New Yorker. “If someone is on welfare they have negative value. If he earns a thousand times more than a schoolteacher, then he’s a thousand times more valuable.”[iv]
What about all those mothers and homemakers who nurture and bring up children to be responsible adults?.  What about the millions of volunteers around the world who help humanity in the time of need?.  What about spiritual leaders, monks and nuns who help so many to stay grounded and sane in a frenetic world?. 

If this is what democracy has come to, this inhuman global system has certainly failed most of its people.
What do I Espouse?
Learning the history is as important so we become more enlightened rather than fall prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect. We need to think critically, understand better in order to take responsibility for ourselves and make informed decisions and take brave action.
Being silent is not an option, as we know so many people get impacted by decisions made by populist leaders who exploit fears of the uninformed to get themselves into positions of unchecked power. 
This is why we, the people, have to continue to be mindful, inquire, discuss and oppose this kind of democracy, which is based on the Darwinian notion of “Survival of the Fittest”, while the world is filled with a diversity people of different capacities and capabilities, playing so many roles to keep the balance.
My Optimism

Yet I am not a cynic even though the "fake news" that abounds makes me wonder why I am such an optimist. I am an optimist, as I think us humans are smarter than to just focus on the superficial - the impermanent objective material world that arises and ceases.   

If one is mindful - align mind, body and spirit - we can be smart and balanced in how we perceive the world, we gain power and make the right decisions in our lives.
Walt Whitman was also optimistic amidst his fears about democracy;
“Though I think I fully comprehend the absence of moral tone in our current politics and business, and the almost entire futility of absolute and simple honor as a counterpoise against the enormous greed for worldly wealth, with the trickeries of gaining it, all through society in our day, I still do not share the depression and despair on the subject which I find possessing many good people.
There are people of the past and present who have inspired us and continue to do so – the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Che Guvera, José Mujica of Uruguay, Juan José Torres of Bolivia, Salvador Allende of Chile, Bob Marley, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Wangari Maathai of Kenya,  Anita Roddick, Naomi Klein, Ken Soro-Wiwa of Nigeria, Vandana Shiva of India and many more.  

As diverse as they are, they are/were not silent, stand/stood for what is right and some paid the ultimate price for their brave voices.  
Taking Responsibility for Self through Mindfulness
The current system does not encourage people to think critically, nor take responsibility for self. The information overload keeps most people occupied, meeting their immediate needs in their professional and personal lives.
My work is about educating those people to find space for some sacred time - to stop, breathe, meditate, reflect,  inquire and act. 

Then we are not restricted to the conditioned material world based on the 5 senses, but become aware of our unconditioned inner world too, which gives us so much more power, however, subtle it is, through a deliberate practice of reflection and mindfulness.
It enables one to move away from emotion to become more strategic by being logical and rational, see the causes and effects, to put things in perspective rather than be emotionally manipulated. 
At least then, we can make up our own minds on important areas such a politics and our democracy from a place of knowing and awareness whether to take action or not, rather than taking action or not through ignorance.   

Tempered Radicals and Taking Action

As economist Joseph Stiglitz said in his book Globalization and its Discontents - "change has to be sequenced and paced" - meaning one has to take into account the weakest that may get impacted by rapid change.

Therefore, this democracy of ours has to be changed within the system thoughtfully and mindfully.  I like the term Tempered Radical, - as it is about small wins that begin with our own behavour and action and not taking the world head on, all at once.

For that, 'we the people' have to make skillful decisions for manageable action to shape our democracy to meet its original promise of our ancestors. They would be shocked to see how regressed it has become in the 21st century to honour money and material wealth at the cost of human happiness and well-being.   

The first step in that is not to give our power away by electing self serving, self obsessed leaders who will tell you what you want to hear, to gain and stay in power to meet their own selfish ends.  

Do a simple test - will you tolerate a particular behaviour demonsated by a political candidate in your child, a parent, a family member, a friend, a teacher, a boss?.  

When we compromise on our Values the very foundations of our society becomes unstable.     

Next step is to come together to research and inquire into corporate patronage of our democratic political system.  

To quote The Guardian article by Simon Tisdall on 7th August 2018; 

"According to the campaign finance watchdog Open Secrets, a whopping $6.5 billion was spent by US presidential and congressional candidates in 2016."

We, the people, pay the price for this.

How do we seek more transparency, expose them and develop conversations around them to create more reasonable policies for corporate influence of politicians and governments?.  

This issue is key to changing our democracy and it is endemic in every democratic nation including Switzerland.

The other pillar of democracy is the independent judiciary which is also being compromised in many nations through politics of ideology, xenophobia, business and money.   

These are complex issues with wheels within wheels and much vested interests. Yet, unless we decouple business and politics, corporate patronage will continue to look after its need for short term profits, at the cost of the well-being of society and its people.

We cannot be silent on things that matter. Our work as citizens of the world is cut out as sitting on the sidelines lets people and institutions hijack our lives and well being for their short term selfish gains. 

[i] Olson, M. (1993). Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development. American Political Science Review, 87(03), 567-576.