For capitalists with a conscience

  • Education
  • Sunday, 07 Jul 2013

THE consultant holds an ankle boot in his right hand, gesturing as if it were a conductor’s baton.

Robert Reich, a business professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, the United States (US) is providing some blunt-spoken mentoring at the Unreasonable Institute, a summer camp for capitalists who want to change the world.

Facing Reich, a self-confessed entrepreneur, is Patrick Woodyard, whose Tennessee-based company markets shoes made by Peruvian craftspeople under the slogan: “Join us, and wear change”.

Woodyard has told Reich that with each pair of shoes he ships, he includes information about the makers he hopes to help out of poverty.

The Unreasonable Institute, was founded by Teju Ravilochan and Daniel Epstein, both graduates from the University of Colorado.

The objective of setting up the institute was to solve real-world problems by linking innovative thinkers from around the world.

The name was inspired by playwright George Bernard Shaw, who said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world.

The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable.”

Visit sparks interest

On a visit to India when he was a 10-year-old, Ravilochan, the US-born son of Indian immigrants, recalls seeing a boy his own age begging.

It sparked a conversation with his father, a doctor, about why most people looked away from poverty.

“He said people are sometimes unsure of how to solve problems that are so big,” said Ravilochan, 26.

That day, the seed of what Ravilochan calls a “medical school for people who want to solve poverty” was planted.

Ravilochan said Epstein came to him with the idea that would become their institute after attending an international leadership summit in 2008.

Their institute provides a way “to be a part of many different experiments,” Epstein said. “Some will fail, but the learning is invaluable.”

In its fourth year, the institute drew 21 entrepreneurs to the camp, which holds its sessions from an ivy-covered fraternity house abandoned for the summer, dubbed The Mansion.

Some were looking for investors to help them grow. Some wanted management or other advice, or just the support of a network of like-minded people.

Bringing change

Their ventures included campaigns to turn gang members in Chicago into community leaders; disabled craftspeople in New Delhi into design trendsetters; and failing students in Kenya’s Rift Valley into high school graduates.

Reich was among 50 mentors who volunteered to offer legal and design tips. Some mentors have ended up as investors after staying at The Mansion.

They’ve enjoyed its leather armchairs, sand volleyball court and other back-to-college-basics amenities.

Reich, who has been a part of every Unreasonable Institute event since the first summer, said mentoring is his form of doing his bit for charity.

The 48-year-old said he also participated because of enlightened self-interest, saying working with entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s keeps him in touch with new global concerns and the latest thinking in problem-solving.

“It keeps me active and in the game and aware,” he said.

Other mentors this year included Tom Suddess, a former director of development for the University of Notre Dame whose Suddess Group designs fund-raising campaigns for colleges and start-up companies.

Entrepreneurs wanting to join the camp submit written applications and go through a series of interviews. Applicants pay US$10,000 (RM31,800) and US$12,000 (RM 38,230) should a pair take part.

The institute helps participants raise the fee through crowd-sourcing and the support of donors like Hewlett-Packard and Vodafone.

Kago Kagichiri, a Kenyan mobile phone application developer, and Toni Maraviglia, a teacher, co-founded a company that provides tutoring via cellphone instant messages to schoolchildren in rural Kenya.

“Kids are very open to the world. If you give them the best content, they might decide to change the world,” Kagichiri said.

He added that when he first arrived in Boulder this summer, he wondered if the institute was the best use of his crowd-sourced funds.

However, his concerns disappeared as he listened to mentors and made connections with entrepreneurs who shared his vision.

They shared his views about the difference that could be made by viable businesses and new technologies.

Kagichiri said he learnt at the Unreasonable Institute that human connections were the most important factor. — AFP

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