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Conscious Business Leadership: Alexandra Amouyel, Executive Director at SOLVE

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(This is one in a series of articles and interviews about conscious business leadership, which is about leaders creating and promoting workplaces of understanding, honesty, and compassion, for the betterment of their employees, their community, their organization and world.)

How do you use crowdsourcing to solve world problems? MIT has found a way.

Here, I speak to Alex Amouyel, Executive Director of SOLVE during the Em Tech Conference held in Singapore recently.

5 Oct. 2015, Cambridge, MA - MIT Solve conference at MIT.Photo by Dominick Reuter



What is SOLVE? How is it different from other crowdsourcing platforms or non-profits in this same space? 

Solve is several things: First, it is a community of private, public, non-profit, and academic leaders working together to solve world challenges.

It’s also a marketplace connecting and encouraging innovators to submit their solutions to our platform, where they have the chance to be selected by our judges.

Then, those innovators are connected with our community of business leaders, foundations, governments and academics, who have resources to help to make their solutions a reality. Our mission is to solve specific, actionable challenges– and at the moment we have four of these in the following pillar areas: refugee education, carbon contributions, chronic diseases, and inclusive innovation.

For our first round of challenges, we had 386 solutions submitted from 57 countries, including Singapore and other Asian countries. 43 of those were invited as finalists to Solve at the United Nations on March 7th, our live pitch event where our selected finalists pitch their solution in 3 minutes tell us why we should select them to become Solvers that the Solve community will then support and nurture.

We are redesigning the online platform, but it is currently solvecolab.mit.edu. This is where people can submit their solutions to the particular challenges we launch each year.

This seems to be, obviously, a very large skills collaborative project. What have you seen so far to be an indicator of success?

This is the first round of challenges, so we’ll have to wait a bit longer to see quantifiably demonstrated impacts. However, the partnerships we’ve already built are evidence of our early successes. We already have multiple sectors and multiple actors collaborating to solve very difficult global challenges, and we’re excited to see the results.

A key ingredient to success is open innovation– and that’s what we are doing at Solve. Nationally and across the world, we are currently not utilizing the talent and skills of people everywhere to solve global challenges. At Solve, we can use the good ideas of people in communities across the world and connect them with the resources they need to fully realize solutions to global challenges. We want to uncover and solve some of these challenges faster. There are already a lot of technologies that can positively impact particular communities, but many of those technologies are not affordable, deployable to the right targets, or distributed well.

At Solve, we are finding a way to take a great idea that is in, say, Singapore– or a great idea in Kenya– and deploy that elsewhere in the world. That can have a tangible, positive impact.

One of the best examples being used now is M-Pesa, a mobile money platform that was pioneered in Kenya. 75% of adults use M-Pesa – it is the main means of communication. The idea behind M-Pesa was to take two technologies that are currently in existence–fixed line telephones and bank accounts–but which are not currently available to the right people. Solve’s model is similar: While some of the solutions we are working with might be new technology, often they involve technology that already exists but isn’t scaled, resourced, or deployed to the right people in the right way.

How does SOLVE plan to be not so “agenda-ed”? When you start being like the United Nations or a government, there are sometimes political business agendas. How have you managed to be not so agenda-ed thus far, so that everyone has an equal voice in the receiving of funds or support?

Being an initiative of MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology really helps. It’s a very well-respected, cutting edge research academic institution, which is not seen as having a political agenda. It’s a non-profit and its mission is to advance knowledge and its applications. MIT has a huge convening power of expertise that we utilize to ensure we select Solve solutions from a pool of diverse judges. At the moment, we have 10 judges per challenge who are a mix of MIT faculty and other academic industry leaders from different businesses and NGO leaders, and beyond.

Do you intentionally go to look for innovations in the field?

It’s a challenge. In the area of development, we have 57 countries represented, but we know that’s not enough. We would like to get all 196 countries represented. For the Refugee Education challenge, we like to source solutions from refugees themselves, or from teachers in refugee camps. That way we encourage people from around the world to really submit solutions from different nationalities, social and academic classes, and genders.

If a person in your Solve campaign is successful, what does that look like?  What could be the difference to me, to them, or to the world?

We initially ran a pilot project where we selected four people as Solvers. On example is Katie Zani. Originally an American, she currently lives in Bulgaria and volunteers in a Bulgarian refugee camp. She is not a certified teacher, but she wants to build a platform that connects volunteer teachers in refugee camps to qualified teachers in the US, or Singapore, or anywhere in the world. What’s nice about her model is that the technology is not that complicated.

Refugee camps face barriers, such internet connectivity and access. The teaching volunteers usually need ideas for lesson plans for particular subjects and topics, which qualified teachers already have. In Bulgaria, there are a lot of refugees, and what Katie needs is funding. But what is more important, and what she is hoping to get, is a technology company or consultancy to build a prototype platform for her, free of charge. That’s where Solve jumps in. We have introduced her to a number of engineers who have agreed to help distribute the platform. We have also connected her to teacher associations in the US.

We are matchmakers. We would love to be connected to more NGOs who are helping in refugee camps and introduce Katie to these people. So we are working on being connectors, accelerators, and brokers.

The goal outcome for us is that the education platform gets implemented, that volunteer teachers get better resources, and that refugee children have better learning outcomes and quality education. We ratify a partnership and people like Katie can say “Great, I have tools to make this happen.” Then she works to implement her solution and we get to help tell the world about her success.

Where does funding come from for Solvers? From MIT or from partners?

We are a broker, so money doesn’t flow directly through us. There will be funding for partnerships but we can also help with other types of resources that are not just financial– such as mentorship, business acumen, organizational introductions, office space, lab space, equipment, and so on.

This year has been the most intense year for our involvement in terms of selection,  brokering, a pitch competition, partnerships, and codifying partnerships.

Do you encourage entrepreneurs of big organizations to also apply?

Anybody can submit a solution. There is no restriction about who can apply, so it could very well be a big company. But it could also be a sixteen-year-old or, as I mentioned before, a refugee. We do not have restrictions as part of our open innovation platform. We’re trying to build a marketplace to connect innovators with people and organizations who are willing to provide resources. Our members might be corporations, foundations, or multilateral organizations. So we do see that a corporation’s role is probably more on the scale side than on the innovative side, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible.

Do you see clear traits of which types of companies are willing to innovate as well as do social good?

The people who seem to be most interested are those who see social good not as a sort of philanthropy, but as part of their actual business model. It is about solving a problem, and solving social impact issues and customer needs, so that mentality and approach are crucial.

There’s a lot of opportunity for companies looking for new customers within segments of the population who might not have access to financing and therefore don’t have access to mobile phones or other essential services. Giving them access could unlock billions or trillions in the market.

Last question, who is a Solver? What is MIT looking for?

Anybody. Anyone can truly apply to be a Solver, but you are judged on the quality of your solution.

Your solution should be complete and you should be willing to be the one driving it or implementing it. It should be well composed and put together, and the research needs to stack up.

Solvers will be people who believe that partnerships are important for their solution’s success. We don’t give you a check for X amount of money. We give you the contacts, but in the end, it’s partnerships that will really get your solution off the ground. It also depends on how much money you’re getting, but a theoretical five or ten thousand dollars probably doesn’t get you that far in the end. It helps, I’m sure, but what’s more important is meeting the people who can help you deploy a solution, even if there’s no money involved.

Anything Else?

Right now technology is advancing human progress, but it also causes a number of negative disruptions. Whole industries and entire job categories are disappearing as a result of automation. But historically, although technologies have created new industries and jobs, it’s taken time, in terms of geography lag, time lag and skills lag.

On one hand, we want to limit the negative disruptions caused by technology, and on the other hand, we want to accelerate all the brilliant things and the opportunity it creates. We want to put technology in the hands of the lowest income, remote and vulnerable people, to improve their lives.

At Solve, we believe that humanity’s challenges can, and will be solved– through the collective intelligence and innovation of the entire planet, not just a few.


 

Callum Connects

Benjamin Kwan, Co-Founder of TravelClef

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Making music to create a life for his family, Benjamin Kwan, started an online tuition portal and his music business grew from there.

What’s your story?
I am Benjamin and I’m the Co-Founder of TravelClef Group Pte Ltd, a travelling music school that conducts music classes in companies as well as team building with music programmes. We also run an online educational platform which matches private students to freelance music teachers. We also manufacture our own instruments. I started this company in 2011 when I was still a freshman at NUS, majoring in Mechanical Engineering.

I was born to a lower income family, my father drove a taxi and was the sole breadwinner to a family of 7. I have always dreamed of becoming rich so that I could lessen the burden placed on my father and give my family a good life.

After working really hard in my first semester at NUS, my results didn’t reflect the hard work and effort I put in. At the same time, I was left with just $42 in my bank account and it suddenly dawned on me that if I were to graduate with mediocre results, I would probably end up with a mediocre salary as well. I knew I had to do something to gain control of my future.

During that summer break, I read a book “Internet Riches” by Scott Fox and I knew that the only way I could ever start my own business with my last $42 would be to start an online business. That was how our online tuition portal started and after taking 4 days to learn Photoshop and website building on my own, I started the business.

What excites you most about your industry?
Music itself is a constant form of excitement to me as I have always been an avid lover of music. As one of the world’s first travelling music schools, we are always very eager and excited to find innovative ways to a very traditional business model of a music teaching.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore and I love the fact that despite our diversity in culture, there’s always a common language that we share, music.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Hands down, SINGAPORE! Although we are currently in talks to expand to other regions within Asia, Singapore is the best place for business. I have had friends asking me if they should consider venturing into entrepreneurship in Singapore, my answer is always a big fat YES! There’s a low barrier of entry, and most importantly, the government is very supportive of entrepreneurship.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
I have been blessed by many people and mentors who constantly give me great advice but right now, I would say the best piece of advice that I received would be from Dr Patrick Liew who said, “Work on the business, not in it.” This advice is constantly ringing in my head as I work towards scaling the business.

Who inspires you?
My dad. My dad has always been my inspiration in life, for the amount of sacrifices that he has made for the family and the love he has for us. He was the umbrella for all the storms that my family faced and we were always safe in his shelter. Although my dad passed away after a brief fight with colorectal cancer, the lessons that he imparted to me were very valuable as I build my own family and business.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
You can not buy time, but you can spend money to save time! With this realisation, I was willing to allow myself to spend some money, in order to save more time. Like taking Grab/Uber to shuttle around instead of spending time travelling on public transport. While I spend more money on travelling, I save a lot more time! This doesn’t mean that I spend lavishly and extravagantly, I am still generally prudent with my money.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have taken more time to spend with my family and especially my father. While it is important to focus our time to build our businesses, we should always try our best to allocate family time. Because as an entrepreneur, there is no such thing as “after I finish my work,” because our work is never finished. If our work finishes, the business is also finished. But our time with our family is always limited and no matter how much money and how many successes we achieve, we can never use it to trade back the time we have with our family.

How do you unwind?
I am a very simple man. I enjoy TV time with my wife and a simple dinner with my family and friends.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Batam, it’s close to Singapore and there’s really nothing much to do except for massages and a relaxing resort life. If I travel to other countries for shopping or sightseeing, I am constantly thinking of business and how I can possibly expand to the country I am visiting. But while relaxing at the beach or at a massage, I tend to allow myself to drift into emptiness and just clear my mind of any thoughts.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Work The System, by Sam Carpenter. This book teaches entrepreneurs the importance of creating systems and how to leverage on systems to improve productivity and create more time.

Shameless plug for your business:
If you are looking for a team building programme that your colleagues will enjoy and your bosses will be happy with, you have to consider our programmes at TravelClef! While our programmes are guaranteed fun and engaging, it is also equipped with many team building deliverables and organizational skills.

How can people connect with you?
My email is [email protected] and I am very active on Facebook as well!
https://www.facebook.com/benjamin.christian.kwan

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Entrepreneurship

Before you enter a Startup or before you choose your founding team or new hires read, “Entering Startupland” by Jeff Bussgang

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Before you enter a Startup or before you choose your founding team or new hires read “Entering Startupland” by Jeff Bussgang.

Jeff knows how to spot and groom good culture, as the book session was held in Zestfinance a company he invested in and now, “The Best Workplaces for Women” and for “The Best Workplaces for Tech”, by Fortune.

These are the questions during the Book Launch.

How to know if a hire including the founder is Startup material?
Jeff says to watch for these qualities.

First, do the hires think like an owner?
Second, do the hires test the limits, to see how things can it be done better?
Are they problem solvers and are biased toward action?
Do they like managing uncertainty and being comfortable with uncertainty? And comfortable with rapid decision-making?
Are they comfortable with flexible enough to take in a series of undefined roles and task?

How do we know if we are simply too corporate to be startup?

Corporate mindsets more interested in going deep into a particular functional area? These corporate beings are more comfortable with clear and distinct lines of responsibility, control, and communication? They are more hesitant or unable to put in the extra effort because “it’s not my job”.

If you do still want to enter a startup despite the very small gains at the onset, Jeff offers a few key considerations on how to pick a right one.

He suggests you pick a city as each city has a different ecosystems stakeholders and funding sources and market strengths. You have to invest in the ecosystem and this is your due diligence. Understand it so you can find the best match when it arises.
Next, to pick a domain, research and solidify your understanding with every informational interview and discussion you begin. Then, pick a stage you are willing to enter at. They are usually 1)in the Jungle, 2) the Dirt Road or 3) the Highway. The Jungle has 1-50 staff and no clear path with distractions everywhere and very tough conditions. The Dirt Road gets clearer but is definitely bumpy and windy. Well the Highway speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

Finally Please – Pick a winner!

Ask people on the inside – the Venture Capitalists, the lawyers, the recruiters and evaluate the team quality like any venture capitalists would. Would you want to work for the team again and again? And is the startup working in a massive market? Is there a clear recurring business model?

After you have picked a winning team and product, how would you get in through the door?

You need to know that warm introductions have to be done. That’s the way to get their attention. Startups value relationships and people as they need social capital to grow. If you have little experience or seemingly irrelevant experience, go bearing a gift. Jeff shared a story of a young ambitious and bright candidate with no tech experience who went and did a thorough customer survey of the users of the startup she intended to work with. She came with point-of-view and presented her findings, and they found in her, what they needed at that stage. She became their Director of Growth. Go in with the philosophy of adding value-add you can get any job you want.

And as any true advisor would do, Jeff did not mince his words, when he reminded the audience that, “If you can’t get introduced you may not be resourceful enough to be in startup.”

Startupland is not a Traditional Career or Learning Cycles

Remember to see your career stage as a runs of 5 years, 8 or 10 – it is not a life long career. In Startup land consider each startup as a single career for you.

Douglas Merrill, founder of Zestfinance added from his hard-earned experience that retention is a challenge. Startup Leaders to keep your people, do help them with the quick learning cycles. Essentially from Jungle to Dirt road, the transition can be rapid and so each communication model that starts and exists, gets changed quickly. Every twelve months, the communication model will have no choice but to break down and you have to reinvent the communication model. Be ready as a founder and be ready as a member of the startup.

Another suggestion was to have no titles for first two years. So that everyone was hands-on and also able to move as one entity.

Effective Startupland Leaders paint a Vision of the Future yet unseen.

What I really enjoyed and resonated with as a coach and psychologist was how Douglas at the 10th hire thought very carefully what he was promising each of his new team member. He was reminded that startups die at their 10th and their 100th hires. He took some mindful down time and reflected. He then wrote a story for each person in his own team and literally wrote out what the company would look like and their individual part in it. In He writing each of the team members’ stories into his vision and giving each person this story, it was a powerful communication piece. He definitely increased the touch points and communication here is the effective startup’s leverage.

Douglas and Jeff both suggested transparency from the onset.

If you think like an owner and if you think of your founding team as problem solvers. Then getting transparent about financials with your team is probably a good idea. As a member of a startup, you should insist on knowing these things
Such skills and domain knowledge will be valuable. There is now historical evidence of people leaving startups and being a successful founder themselves because they were in the financial trenches in their initial startup. Think Paypal and Facebook Mafia.

What drives people to enter a startup?

The whole nature of work is changing. Many are ready to pay to learn. Daniel Pink’s book Drive showed how people are motivated by certain qualities like Mastery, Autonomy and Where your work fits into big picture. Startups do that naturally. There is a huge amount of passion and the quality of team today and as it grows then the quality of company changes.

The Progress principle is in place, why people love their startup jobs is not money rather are my contributions being valued? Do I see a path of progress and do I have autonomy over work and am I treated well?

Find out more about StartupLand on Amazon

And learn from Zestfinance

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