When I was in the midst of job-hunting over the past few months, one thing I was very clear about was choosing a CEO and company that I really connected with, in terms of values, and mission. Which is why, rather than apply for jobs the traditional way, I looked up companies I thought were solving interesting problems, and asked for a conversation with the CEO. Some of these requests had very interesting and memorable results. I am reminded today of one such interaction with the CEO of an ed-tech start-up in India. I happened to speak with her on another unrelated occasion, and found her so motivated and engaging, that I had to reach out later. After weeks of back-n-forth and cancelled meetings from her end, we finally met in her posh, new-agey office in the center of the business district. After the initial pleasantries, and exchange of information, I asked her what germinated the idea of the company she had now been running for 5 years. Her answer was immediate – “Because I want to create a dent in the universe. And I felt education was the way to do it.” Probably a 10/10 answer, if she were pitching to a potential investor.
I’ve been wondering for a few days now – it is almost mandatory nowadays for CEO’s to use words like innovation, cutting-edge, and disruption while describing their idea. If you cannot use the “Uber of XYZ” phrase to describe your start-up, you’d rather shut it down immediately – you’re clearly not doing enough. Right? But is this desire to innovate and disrupt, the birthplace of real innovation? Is that where one starts, or is that more of a by-product along the journey – one that should begin with the desire to solve a real problem?
When I first spoke to this CEO, I loved the ambition behind wanting to create a dent in the universe – it sounded purposeful, and motivational. But on deeper thought, it told me nothing about the real driver behind the company and the CEO’s mission. It seemed more like an external image that needed to be built – that of being a disruptor and dent-creator. But what is Step 2 here? How does one go about doing that? And if I were to work for her, how do I, as an employee, help her with her mission?
As I spend more time interacting with people in the start-up and social impact space, I am growing increasingly uncomfortable with terms like “changing the world”, “ending poverty” etc. The fact is, one individual or organization cannot possibly know how to do that. It takes years of consistent effort across multiple interconnected systems, some of which, we have no visibility of. What one can begin with though, is the intention to create a positive impact in our sphere of influence, however small that may be – commit to go as deep as possible to understand the issues at play, and then choose a starting point for an actionable step. While this may not sound flashy and inspirational, it begins with humility.
Humility to accept that we do not have all the answers, that we would make mistakes and need to start all over again. But as long as the intention is exploration and then continuous small actions, there is no shame in admitting failure and retracing your steps. Imagine starting with wanting to create a dent in the universe, and then realizing you have the wrong weapon in your hand!