Monday, 3 December 2018

Unlocking the spirit of Enterprise: Lesson from Swami Vivekananda

This is a summary of a talk I gave on the occasion of celebrating 125thyear of the Chicago address of Swami Vivekananda “The modern monk”.  The talk was arranged by the Vedanta Centre (Bourne End) and hosted at the Indian YMCA on 2ndDecember 2018.

It is not often I get a chance to think about the deeper meaning and purpose of my work and how it affects the lives of others. I hope that in sharing this I can connect with one of the teachings of Swami Vivekananda and how his message may have been helpful to many lives.

In 1986 when I completed my PhD I had concluded, that one way for Management and Business Schools to be socially relevant would be for them to embrace entrepreneurship development as this would make a difference at the grass roots. It was all very well equipping young people for life in corporate but what was the bigger purpose?  

My parents, in particular my father had been feeding me on a diet of philosophies throughout my childhood and early twenties. In fact, one of the strong memories of his words was that of being a “Karma Yogi”. While he was light hearted in the way he described this character of himself – he was very serious in the way he lived his life.  And I can also recall various in the 1970s and 1980s when my parents hosted musical concerts. They did not need to do any of this. It was not their job. But they felt it was their work – to promote Carnatic music and culture at the highest levels. 

What do I mean by this? To get ready for today I recalled  my memories but also looked up the “Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda”, a wonderful legacy of my late father-in-law. Luckily for me I only needed chapter one of volume one!! 

Karma is defined by the notion of doing work, the notion of constant activity and the effects of those actions.  Of course Swami Vivekananda goes much deeper into the definition but I want to focus only one small part of it. 

In defining Karma – Swami Vivekananda says the main goal of mankind is knowledge, rather than seeking pleasure or avoiding pain, because as we find that inner knowledge so we find our goal. He argues that pain and pleasure are transient and although they can mould character they are not the goal.  He also argues that good and evil help to mould character and.  it is the light and shade moments of life that help to shape us and sometimes the harder times, the pain and the disappointments can be more powerful in making us who we are.

What is it that I have learned from the principles of Karma that has enabled me to educate, mentor or inspire the students into either stopping or taking action?

One of the most common starting points of a conversation with me from my students – and there have been several hundred each year for the past 20 years – is “Dr Shai I have an idea…” Many of these ideas just fizzle out and a few take shape into ventures – which are either profit making or social enterprises. What is our role in this?

One of the lessons in understanding Karma Yoga is that we may be driven by the nature of who we are and this in turn is thought to be built on three characteristics;– being Sattva; Rajas and Tamas. In simple terms these are the desire of equilibrium; the pursuit of activity and the pursuit of happiness which itself can lead to inactivity or darkness.

When I see students who are seeking Sattva – or equilibrium – I feel they will find their own way into entrepreneurship or other form of employment that enables them to achieve the balance they seek. Their priority is to have and seek balance. What a wonderful gift.

An amusing side story is that I was a Visiting Professor in Denmark at Aarhus University, I learnt about their philosophy of Hygge – which is to strive to be content. I do not wish to oversimplify Scandinavian culture or misrepresent it in any way but I did get the “vibe” that the desire to be contented was a powerful motive. There is a bigger question, but that is outside the scope of this talk.

What is an enterprise educator’s role in this? Is there a common set of ideals that can inform us in how we can act? Are we even relevant to a society that seeks contentment? How does one unlock the entrepreneurial spirit in such an environment? Do we touch on the right motives if we say that those who seek a life through Sattva are to be introduced to the material successes of entrepreneurship? Unlikely. It may be more effective to help them see other forms of contentment that can be derived from entrepreneurship.  Possibly those who seek the path of Sattva are driven more by altruistic or quasi altruistic motives and we need to find out what these are or how they can be linked together?

For me the challenge of this drive for Sattva – or Hygge is that it somewhat flies in the face of the entrepreneurial character, which is driven so much by restlessness and need for action.  Is there not a conflict between desire for action and desire for contentment. I am still puzzling over this. 

Those who are driven by activity – Rajas if you like - only need guidance on the small detail and practicalities of making their idea happen. The inner drive is there – and the work ethic that goes with it. They are curious, strive for the knowledge and only need a gentle steer to help them on their way. 

Sometimes they also need to think about the meaningfulness of their venture. Not all ideas are going to make meaning in society or touch humanity. Many ideas are just there because it has excited the founder, but if the idea did not exist no one would miss them. In other words, the idea has been driven either by the desire to get pleasure from bringing it to life – it could be a technological solution, it could be something aesthetic or it could be to make money believing that wealth will bring happiness. So the pursuit of happiness overtakes the desire for making meaning. 

Another aspect of being driven by Rajas is to overcome problems that we see on the planet. We are driven to, for example, deal with the UN -  Sustainable Development Goals – reduce poverty, provide clean water, care for human health and so forth.  These are more purposeful manifestations of Karma – when they are driven by some inner goals to make a difference.   Our work as educators and mentors would be to help find and define what these motives are that can make meaning.

Those whose nature is driven more by Tamas – is more of a challenge for us educators. It seems to us, that the entrepreneur is not motivated, nor takes the necessary set of actions. They seem not to dig deep into themselves nor to seek the knowledge they need to flourish. 

Beyond the lack of action, sometimes the Tamasik ideas, seem irrelevant to the needs of humanity.  For example, there is an average of over 6,000 Apps launched per day on the Android store!!  This is wonderful at some level as every so often there is an accidental gem that is launched but the vast majority is nothing more than ideas. They are, for me, a lazy form of enterprise creation. And if we look at the content of the App Stores, we have to ask ourselves,  in what way do they, if at all make a difference to humanity? Maybe they cause a sparkle of action among those who develop and launch the App and eventually the confidence and learnings results in more meaningful future directions.
The other element of Tamas, the darker side,  are clearly unethical. And it seems to take society a while to get a grip over them and to ensure that we do not just turn the other cheek and avoid conflict. The kind of conflict that will help erase them but cause upheaval on the way. I am referring here to betting websites, pay day loans, the uncontrolled spread of fake news and many other such businesses that prey on the weaker members of society.
How does the enterprise educator unlock ethical aspects of business ventures or encourage action from those whose motives are either Sattvik or Tamasik when our comfort zone is to attend to those who have a preference for action? This is a really big question and one tiny step towards answering this was provided to me at the top of a chapter in a book I saw in the library of the Ramakrishna Ashram in Bangalore in 1996.
There had been an issue of priorities that had been on my mind, so I was grateful to go to a quiet corner to reflect. And as chance would have it I found the answer in a short “soundbite”.
The statement is: When the mind is full of little things where is the space for the big ideas?

It is this message that caused me to ask myself and all the entrepreneurs I have met throughout my career; what is the big picture? What is the purpose? How does what you do help humanity? And what action will you take.

Not all at once, but these questions have informed me in ways to inspire and teach some 30,000 students and entrepreneurs about entrepreneurship 

I would like to thank Swami Vivekananda on behalf of all these people for having given me this knowledge and empowering their futures.

Monday, 25 September 2017

I came I studied I started a new business from my Cranfield MBA by Dan Bedi

Guest blog by Dan Bedi - MBA 2016-17

Dan came on the MBA at Cranfield to take a year out and develop his ideas. What Ihave learnt is how he has been single minded with his objective, drawn on all the resources and made friends along the way to enhance his chances! Go Dan.

Three years ago, I was sitting at my job feeling like I was not being challenged, I wanted more. I had always harboured ambitions of starting my own business and had several ideas I wanted to explore. I often used my commutes to work to watch TED talks, read articles and learn more about business and different industries. I wanted to engage with my entrepreneurial side properly and take time to learn as much as I could. I chose to complete a full-time MBA at Cranfield School of Management. By taking the year out and fully immersing myself in the MBA community I aimed to further develop and challenge myself. I knew I was taking a risk coming out of employment but at the same time was enthused by the opportunities ahead.

Here is what happened.

The more you put in the more you get out….so

This saying is one I apply to my life both personally and in the workplace. I knew that I wanted to explore my business ideas and learn as much as I could on the MBA.

Whilst on the MBA I launched an Entrepreneurship Club. Out of our cohort of 58 MBAs I knew there were a few with ambitions of launching their own ventures. Our cohort voted for various class rep roles and I felt it was important that there should be an entrepreneurial link. Once elected by the cohort I began running after class sessions where MBAs could come and discuss a business idea, pitch an existing business problem or discuss any entrepreneurial challenge they had come across in the news recently. This was an enjoyable outlet for the course from the volume of MBA work we faced. Soon the club extended across the entire School of Management involving, for example, students from the MSc in Management and Entrepreneurship. The spread of backgrounds, ages and gender between the courses led to a real positive safe environment where people could voice their business ideas and work them through with a wider audience.

Prior to applying to the MBA the VCIC (Venture Capital Investment Competition) had caught my attention due to mentions in my previous role. The competition asks teams of MBAs to act as VCs, reviewing businesses, choosing a business to invest in, pitching to an investment committee of external VC judges and then negotiating with the chosen entrepreneur.  The preparation for this competition is embedded into the timetable for the MBA to give students the best chance to compete.

Arriving at Cranfield I knew this was something that not only interested me but would provide a valuable learning experience considering the investment and funding route I wanted to take as an entrepreneur. During our first MBA week, I voiced ambitions of competing and winning the competition to some members of the cohort. Assembling a team of MBAs together in week one based on information from alumni we began training towards competing in the competition. Two members of the team including myself had some previous experience in this sector as well as negotiation training. We began training regularly throughout term one. Winning an internal competition and chosen to represent Cranfield at the competition the team flew to Barcelona to compete against other Business Schools, such as Insead, Oxford and LBS. Our Cranfield team managed to not only win the entire competition but also win the entrepreneurs choice award for the VC the entrepreneurs would most like to work with. After this success, the team travelled to the USA to compete for Europe against schools for the rest of the world. The entire experience was a fantastic journey and allowed some key learnings to be taken for application to my business venture.

The Bettany Centre for Entrepreneurship is another asset at Cranfield. The team at the Centre has helped enormously get my business venture off the ground and was a key reason for choosing Cranfield for my MBA. The focus on entrepreneurship helped through start-up weekends, investor days as well as introductions to key alumni who have provided valuable advice and support throughout the start-up experience. The equity free injection of £15,000 has helped in getting the demo ready to help secure further investment.

Currently having finished the MBA we have successfully launched the business. The Fan Area is a digital home for sports fans. We provide the latest news, views and games for sports fans based primarily on football (soccer). The Fan Area connects fans with fans, fans with content and fans with businesses. We have benefitted from free office space provided by the university in their incubation hub and have been accepted onto a competitive accelerator which has allowed us to propel the business forwards. Closing off our SEIS investment round currently there are exciting times ahead in discussions with several large organisations ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Key lessons for  future MBAs with an interest in entrepreneurship 

I would advise future MBA candidates to carefully consider what they want to achieve from an MBA. There is so much opportunity on any MBA course it’s easy to forget what your goals are.

It is important to stay focused in business as life throws challenges at you from all angles. The MBA has equipped me to handle challenges not only in the workplace but also personally too and I can sincerely say that I have developed academically, socially and personally during my time on the Cranfield MBA. 

I knew that I wanted to launch my own business and learn as much as I could whilst on my MBA. I consciously threw myself into extra-curricular activities like the entrepreneurship club and the VCIC competition alongside my studies. Driving toward my predefined aims throughout my time on the course helped me form the relevant network and get the advice and support I needed to get my goals off the ground.

Any MBA or one at Cranfield?

Build your own dreams or somebody else will hire you to build theirs” – Farrah Gray.

This quote resonates with me strongly. Pre-MBA I knew that I wanted to launch my own business. Cranfields links to entrepreneurship were apparent to me pre-MBA. Sarah Willingham and Nick Jenkins on Dragons Den TV Show as well as visiting the campus and seeing the Bettany Centre and focus on entrepreneurship showed me that Cranfield was a good place to develop the idea. The time was right for me as I wanted to take the risk associated with launching my own business early in my career and Cranfield provided the perfect opportunity to build my own dreams.

The breadth and depth of experiences of other students on the course means you will always find the right people with whom you can start a new venture. The physical facilities, access to equity free funding which you have to compete for and access to real business people who know how to build companies made it ideal from my point of view. Sure it is not in a city like London, Oxford or Cambridge but that too has its advantages – you get to focus on your intentions and get “time out”.