Startup Service: Dance of Abundance
Every entrepreneur had a story. Growing up, Yash and his friends would often step out of his house at 3AM to get “idli sambhar” from a street fellow on a bicycle. More recently, he got to thinking about the styrofoam plates he ate from, and wondered if there was an alternative to stashing his trash in a landfill for 500 years. Two years ago, Aabha experimented with her diet, and after losing 12 kilograms, she discovered that her food habits had changed her lifestyle! Now, she wants to help others in similar situations. Ashish graduated from IIT, and with his wife Divya, they chose to move to the Himalayas and live very simply. What started out as playing with kids, turned into weekend retreats and now is culminating into a local school. As a professional photographer, and mother of a seven year old, Shaalini wondered if parents can be empowered with a fun and creative toolkit to teach values to their kids. For seven weeks, Meet decided to live in seven rural villages; meeting unsung heroes who have dedicated their life to service in remote areas, he saw the need for a bridge connecting them to Urbanites. A former designer and professor at CEPT, and a daughter of life-long art teacher, Lahar wanted to use the power of art to help people connect with themselves. Ketan brainstormed ways to make a humane cow-based culture relevant in today’s era while Delhi-based Shashank discovered that colleges need student-run clubs to cultivate empathy.
More than 20 such ideas had come together under one roof.
Before starting a project, an entrepreneur is usually asked for “business plan” that hangs on a fundamental “bottom line” -- financial sustainability. While that may seem reasonable for some ideas, it can be a crippling one for others. What about entrepreneurs for whom value creation goes beyond financial wealth? What if the desired outcome was to deliver intangible value that couldn’t be monetized? What if they weren’t interested in designing for scale? What if the goal of the enterprise was inner transformation of its stakeholders?
Startup Service, then, was a three-day gathering to ask such questions, innovate different frameworks, and build sustainable efforts with an eye towards multiple forms of capital. Or more fundamentally: how do we retain love in “labor of love” projects?
On the first day, all the initiators pitched their projects to the entire group of 50. Outside of the entrepreneurs, many others had come just to support. A dentist from Surat, business leader from Chandigarh, a banker who stood in Lok Sabha election and spent 14 hours a day walking the slums, India’s social entrepreneur of the year in 2009. Lots of young people, and lots of people with established mentors. Artists, technologists, businessmen, educators, poets, students, investors, philanthropists. One person had a company with 3 thousand staff, another was a CSR head of a Calcutta based outfit, a third was a professor at Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. In his opening presentation, Deven referenced how Steve Jobs planned his funeral before his passing, and gifted all his invited friends a copy of a book -- Autobiography of a Yogi. It turned out that one among us was a friend of Steve, who was at his funeral and got that book. All in all, there was a wide-ranging experience and talent in the room.
By the end of the first day, we collectively chose 8 projects to focus on and self organized into teams. Each team had a leader, a mentor and supporters with a diverse array of skills. The plan was to cultivate the idea, clarify the thinking, build a prototype, and then present on the morning of the third day. 24 hours left, sleep optional. :)
Deven and Neerad were the two anchors of the event, for whom, this event itself was a labor of love. Each had their own story of arriving here. After a long history with startups, particularly in the financial sector, Deven ended up at a 10-day meditation retreat in 2009; there, he had an experience that entirely changed his perspective on social change, financial sustainability, and innovation. Quoting his brother in law Ragu, he now felt that, “Money is like salt. You need some, but too much can spoil the sabji.” :) Similarly, Neerad was working at a big MNC with 300 people working under him; one fine day, he was given a mandate to layoff more than a hundred of them. “It was completely inhumane, but that somehow didn’t matter in the hierarchy.” It forced him to ask deeper questions, like “What is the DNA of an institution where ‘work is love made visible’?” “How can work environments be seen as a space for transformation?” “What are the personal practices that we can cultivate so we can be good trustees in our leadership positions?”
Each of the teams were working hard on the projects. Some teams had divergent ideas before ultimately converging. One team chose to disband because they couldn’t settle on a cohesive vision. Sheetal and Reena, whose musical “Maitri Festival” project didn’t originally get selected, found a way to bootstrap a “Maitri Fest” on-site itself. Ketan’s Girej team went to a local ‘gaushala’ (cowshed), engaged with the community, and brought back some fresh milk for everyone. :) In conversations, Parag and Aabha realized that they want to experiment with radical generosity while Sachi and Yash became clear, for the first time, about the foundational values of their budding company. Shaalini’s team was crafting up a kindness board game and a sample value-kit. Lahar and Priya were co-creating art in the spaces on the retreat campus itself. Meet’s team literally pulled an all-nighter for their presentation.
Outside of the diligent work, the second day also included thought leadership from industry veterans. In the morning, Michelle Long and Birju Pandya skyped in from the US. “Trees make noise when they fall, but not as they grow,” Birju said to encourage young entrepreneurs to create selflessly. In the afternoon, we had three remarkable local speakers -- Madhu Mehta, visionary of the STD-PCO movement; Jayanti Ravi, nuclear physicist who is now labor commissioner of Gujarat; Sridhar Rajagopalan, founder of Educational Initiatives. Each was asked to share anecdotes of cross-roads when their values were tested. In just an hour, they touched everyone with their candid and diverse stories of honesty, courage and compassion. Moreover, as the speakers left, they themselves were very moved: "We never get asked such questions." Jayanti Ravi closed the session with a beautiful Kabir song.
In the evening, Jignasha, Khushmita and their dedicated volunteer team, hosted a picturesque, outdoor silent dinner. It made room for teams to pause and reflect deeply on their entrepreneurial intentions. After dinner, Sheetal and Reena offered an optional "Maitri Fest", under the moonlit night and artful candles and flowers lighting the open space. Everyone joined. Bhumika opened with a song that moved her (and many of us!) to tears. In fact, throughout the hour, many tears of compassion were shed as stories, songs and poems were shared with a transcendent grace.
A lot can be said about each of the projects. Shunya, biodegradable tableware. Sahaj, alternative school in Himalayas. Gram Setu, bridging urban and rural. Co-create Art, inner transformation through art. Onus, empathy in colleges. Girej, cow-based culture. Health for Life, change your diet, change your mind.
And a lot more will be said over the coming months, as everyone continues to support all the projects.
Startup Service, though, was not just creating content but redefining context. As a previous participant reflected: "I always thought fear and greed were the only way we could motivate people to create value and the spirit of competition is what drives us to perform better. But for the last three days, I've come to see the true potential of cooperation and compassion." Couldn’t be better stated. We all felt the love. Shukantu, a former football player whose project didn’t get selected, wrote: "This was the most blissful and memorable time that I have spent in my life so far." Divya, while working on the Sahaj project, had a breakthrough: "Up until yesterday, my project felt huge and my personal transformation felt small. Today, I’m feeling reverse."
Day Three was presentation day. By design, there would be no "winner". Everyone got eight blank sheets of paper; after the presentation, each person would write whatever form of capital -- connections, time, money, ideas, synergies, prayers -- they wanted to offer, and drop into a beautiful ‘matka’ for each project. As each team completed their heartfelt presentation, they were asked to stay on stage until the clapping ended. Sometimes they stood up there for more than a minute. :)
By the end, all the projects felt like a giant family. Deepa Iyer, an economist turned poet, said this of her time: "After the 3 days, what I found myself experiencing was a deep sense of community support that goes far beyond ideas and implementation. I felt as though my soul journey was being held in a space of love. When we are all leading with love, entrepreneurship of a new kind follows, which looks and feels very different." As a poignant surprise, Siddhant and Bhumika surprised everyone with slideshow featuring a photo from the weekend, alongside their quote from the opening circle:
In the after-hours, the entrepreneurs opened their pots. One would be hard-pressed to find such smiles of being so deeply supported. “Everything I have,” someone offered to a project. “500 bowls of sugarcane tableware for future retreats.” “Whenever you need a vacation, use our home in Goa.” Financial capital too. Everything was offered like you would in a monk's bowl -- no strings attached. Laced in one-way-love.
We can all give, create, care. There is always enough to regenerate love in the world.
Over these three days, we started the dance of abundance -- and it hasn’t yet ended.