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Rohini Nilekani, Ravi Venkatesan and Friends: Reimagining Abundance

Societal Platforms | Others | COVID-19 | May 24, 2020

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with Ravi Venkatesan (Founder, Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship) and Nipun Mehtra (Founder, ServiceSpace). Joining them is Brinda Govindan (a teacher at San Francisco State University), Shaalini Srinivasan (co-editor of MovedbyLove), and Jordyn Alexandra (a teacher in Salt Lake City). They discuss how to respond with compassion while living in the times of COVID-19 and how we can explore Gandhian ideas of love and nonviolence, now more than ever. Awakin Talks is a series of webinars to explore a wide array of compassionate responses to our world today.

Today we are eight and half weeks into the COVID-19 crisis and I cannot help but feel that while all of us have recognised our interdependence, we have also let millions of Indians down. Post-partition India has never seen so many refugees on the road, looking to go home. As a country, we have a huge debt to make sure that they reach home safely, which is something similar to what Gandhi was concerned with, in his last year of life. Which is why I think it is a great time to reflect on what Gandhi would have done, and on how we can incorporate his lessons into our lives and work today.

The Responsibility of Wealth

Throughout my life, my grandparents have deeply inspired me, and this is especially true for my paternal grandparents. Athya, my grandmother, was feisty and fiercely independent. Despite the fact that she came from extreme wealth and had lived in the royal palaces of Gwalior, she gave it all up when she came to live in my grandfather’s humble home. She actually devoted herself to austerity towards the end of her life, and stuck by it even when her children became wealthy again. Then there was Babasaheb, my grandfather, who was among the first people to leave Belgaum and answer Gandhi’s clarion call in 1917. He was on the first train out, and stayed with Kasthurbaji for many months. In fact my aunt was born when Babasaheb was in Champaran, and it is through her that we have heard hundreds of stories about my grandparents.

When Nandan and I came into unprecedented, unimagined wealth in the mid-90s, I was thrown into the deepest personal crisis of my life. Until then, I was middle class, well-read, and leaning a little towards the political left. I used to think that wealth is bad, and that if you have it, you must have done something wrong. Which is why when I found myself on the other side of this fence, I began to wonder what I was going to do. It has taken me years to unpack this, to understand the responsibility of wealth, and my journey doing so isn’t complete even now. It’s important to understand the kind of wealth that today’s capitalist structures allow. The wealth people are coming into isn’t gradual – people around the world are becoming multi-millionaires overnight, and this really skews our understanding of societies and how they must be.

When thinking about how I would use this wealth for my personal life, I found thinking about Gandhi very helpful. Doing so helped me realise that it is simpler to think of myself as a trustee of wealth, and to see it as an opportunity rather than a burden. Using him as my framework I began to think about how I can give forward, share, and how I can hold onto the idea for a better society. With this as my foundation, my philanthropy started in earnest 30 years ago. I started building portfolios and working with amazing civil society organisations on issues of justice, environment, gender, independent media etc. While doing so, I began to think of the economy because it is an integral part of our society.

Here again, I began to think about Gandhi. Today we are seeing two crises unfold simultaneously – the pandemic and climate change. India has been hit by devastating cyclones in Orissa and West Bengal, and Bangladesh has been hit by one of the worst cyclones in the last hundred years. With these twin crises, we have absolutely no choice but to restructure the economy, and we need to do so from a place of genuine openness to the structures of the global economy.

Cultivating a Mindset of Abundance

COVID-19 has helped many of us who are privileged – we are doing our own cleaning, mopping, and taking out the waste – and are therefore understanding the dignity of labor. This in turn has allowed us to dwell on the simple pleasures of life and re-assign value to things that we didn’t before. If you expand on this idea, I’ve been thinking about whether the elite can learn to switch from the mindset of frugality, which makes us afraid and want to hoard, to a mindset of abundance.

We have all had a chance to experience abundance, be it in the form of fresh air or our roadside gardens blooming, we have experienced the purity and diversity of the natural world. If we dwell on this abundance, what kind of world could we shape? If we realise there is an abundance of people and energy, and if we could make that abundance effective, what would the economy look like? Instead of exponentially consuming the earth’s resources, could we align ourselves better to nature’s linear production ability? That’s a question I think Gandhi would have loved to dwell on. Shaalini Srinivasan mentions honouring the subtle and invisible capitals that we have around us in abundance, be it nature, time, or community, which is an important aspect for us to consider. As she explains, wealth and money, which is what we most commonly equate with capital, breeds a lot of scarcity in our hearts and minds. Especially in these times when business units are being shut down and the salaries of employees have been cut down by half or more.

But there are a multitude of other forms of capital. For example, a lesser talked about form that is abundant in Auroville, where Shaalini lives and works, is nature. She recounts that during the pandemic, one of stewards of a farm began sharing seeds and saplings with people, along with natural farming methods, and helped anyone who was interested learn more. All this was done with the aim of creating abundance for the long term. Similarly, she asks us to look at time as a form of capital. That too has been available in abundance during this pandemic, and since Shaalini’s community is made up of volunteers, many people offered their time in service. Be it in the form of helping with essential services (cleaning, sanitising etc), delivering groceries to the eldery, or segregating community waste, people used the time they had to work with and for each other.

Yet another form of capital that she highlights is that of community, and again this has grown in abundance during the pandemic. In the absence of being caught up with their individual lives, people have come together to clean the gardens, sweep the pathways, and engage with each other more often, which has resulted in deeper relationships being formed. Lastly, Shaalini talks about spiritual capital, which has been the guiding force in Auroville for the past 52 years. As a result, during this time many people have come together in silence, have prayed for the world, and have even gone online to chant the Gita and reflect on it. In essence, Shaalini reiterates that looking at the different forms of capital we have available to us allows us to feel the abundance, and as a result, to feel grateful as well.

The Need For Good Entrepreneurs

When talking about the economy and the need to invest in good entrepreneurs, Ravi Venkatesan mentions being drawn to the work of Ned Phelps, a Nobel Prize winner and Economics professor at Columbia. His work explored why some nations find themselves on a path to incredible prosperity. Why did this happen in Britain in the 18th century? Why did that mantle of prosperity then move to America and why is America now losing it? To answer this Phelps talks about the central importance of values in society. He goes back to the Age of Enlightenment, when values began to change in Western Europe. Suddenly things like individualism, self-determination, creativity, imagination, risk-taking, and exploration, became more important. As a result, we saw this amazing flowering of human endeavour and the renaissance. Great explorers like Magellan, Vasco da Gama, Cook, and Cortés started exploring the world, and the industrial revolution began in Britain.

Importantly, all the greatest inventions, right from the steam engine to the locomotive to the automated loom, were not inventions by the elite, but by ordinary people, who began thinking and tinkering with things. As Ravi notes, this has a huge relevance for India, where we’re struggling to find economic dynamism. We had a giant problem of employment, even before COVID-19, and this was the motivation for Ravi’s endeavour, the Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship (GAME), which aims to create millions of new enterprises, at least half of which are women-owned. As he explains, if you want a good crop, you need good seeds, soil, and climate. Similarly, if we want a good economy, we need good entrepreneurs and inventors. GAME’s aim is to work with government businesses in areas like Punjab, Shillong, and Karnataka, to create more fertile conditions for entrepreneurs, in terms of better infrastructure and connections.

Finally, we need to change our value systems. We need to create environments in local setups where risk-taking and failure is okay. As Ravi puts it, entrepreneurship is just a Trojan horse for something much more important, and that is societal leadership. The things that you need to be a successful entrepreneur are exactly the same as the things you need to be a leader in the world – a sense of self-determination, ambition, resourcefulness, tenacity, and the ability to sell your ideas to others who become followers. The hope therefore is not only to encourage successful small enterprises that grow and flourish, but also to begin to tackle problems in communities and thereby change society.

One way that Ravi does this through GAME is by putting the would-be entrepreneur at the center. As he explains, the trick is to not tell the entrepreneur where the best opportunities are, or what problems they should be solving, but instead to leave it to the imagination of the young person while being encouraging of their ideas and journey. The approach here, as he explains, is to find individuals, encourage them to dream, think, solve problems, and find small ways to make it possible for them to do so. So, while you could help them connect to a customer or make introductions at a bank, the real heavy lifting is done by the entrepreneur themselves. And by following this structure, the pyramid is inverted, with the top spot now being occupied by the individual themselves.

Distributing the Ability to Solve

Over the years a lot of my work has been about retaining a dynamic balance between Samaaj, Bazaar and Sarkaar. Samaaj, or society, is the foundation, and the markets and state were developed to serve society’s larger interest. However, this order has become very convoluted. Instead of being citizens first, we are sometimes subjects of the state or consumers of the market first. This is a big threat to us as people and as communities. To fix it, the Samaaj sector must take it upon itself to ensure that it remains the foundation, and thereby keeps the markets and the state accountable to the larger public good.

Another aspect I’ve been working on is changing how we think of the people we serve as the last mile, be it through consumer goods or state services. What we need to do instead is look at them as the beginning, the first mile, and build accordingly. One thing the Bazaar sector can do in this regard is distribute the ability to solve. For this, our team has come up with something we call societal platform thinking, the core value of which is the need to create more agency, across the spectrum. To this end, distributing the ability to solve, instead of pushing one or two solutions down a pipeline, will enable us to see the abundance that Shalini was speaking about.

A societal platform does this by creating open-shared public digital goods. For example, when we co-founded Pratham Books in 2004, we wanted to put a book in every child’s hand. We also knew that there was an abundance of writers and storytellers in this country. So what we did was, we found the storytellers, writers, illustrators, translators, etc. and put their work on a Creative Commons platform. In this way it involved the market, the state, and society. Similarly, at EkStep we have used societal platform thinking to unlock the potential of 13 million teachers in India to co-create and share content. Never before have we seen such an accumulation of power, even in the oil industries or other natural resource industries. This makes it all the more important for us to unlock and distribute capital of all forms. As Ravi points out, the problems we are trying to solve are very complex, and require collaboration between all three sectors. No one sector, be it the private sector or the government, can do it alone.

Another factor we need to consider is whether this distribution of power is possible within the existing paradigm. Based on his experience working with and looking into the state, business, and entrepreneurship, Ravi doesn’t think it is. As he explains, in India, like in many other parts of the world, the state has become extremely predatory on businesses. There are too many rules and regulations to comply with, in addition to the millions of agents who are rent-seeking and trying to collect money for every possible deviation. In this way, instead of the state empowering businesses, it has actually become a parasite on these businesses, both big and large. Therefore he goes on to say that if we cannot make the shift to a place where the state is serving the citizen, and serving businesses and helping them flourish, the distribution of power is never going to happen.

Imagining a Post-COVID-19 World

When thinking about the world post-COVID-19, there are many people who say they want to go back to the way things were, which they considered normal. But as Ravi points out, those times were anything but normal. We had accepted and institutionalised things like inequity and the exploitation of nature, and we were living in unsustainable ways. Given this, we now have a chance to reimagine a very different way to live and operate. Here, he asks us to go back to what Gandhi used to say, which is ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’ While we may not be able to get others to make changes in their lives, as individuals we can make different choices ourselves. Once we begin to do so, others will emulate it and we can potentially create a movement.

Gandhi also said, “There cannot be a system so good that the individuals in it need not be good.” I think this is one of the most important things to understand as we design for this new world. It’s a joyful responsibility to really seize this COVID-19 moment and use it to design a good society and the world that we crave. I think it’s possible. We are connected by a pandemic, by climate change, and the threads that bind us have become visible. Now is the time for us to spin a marvelous new conversation with our future.

As we try to reshape our own selves and the world, in a similar way to people saying “Occupy Wall Street”, we should occupy the heart, and with the heart, make movements towards the head and the hand to serve people, as Gandhi did. Now is the time for personal action making ripples out into the universe. Ravi echoes this sentiment when he says that the world today is very much at a tipping point, and we have the opportunity to nudge it towards something amazing. At the same time we also have the risk of regressing, and whether the world tips this way or that doesn’t depend on others, but on our collective action. To sum up, Ravi quotes the famous words of Hillel the Elder, “If not now, when? And if not you, who?”

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