All roads lead to Rio

Next week I am off to Rio for the Paralympic Games and I wanted to quickly share the press release I have put together for Kit Us Out and the work we will be doing out there. The charity is very small and we need all the help and support we can. If you can share the charity with your network that would be amazing. You can find out all about the charity here.

A Caribbean network for young entrepreneurs 

It is not often you get to travel to Caribbean for work, but in December 2014 that is exactly what I was lucky enough to do!

I was invited by the Commonwealth Secretariat to take part in a 3day visioning workshop they were running in Barbados. The purpose of the workshop was to pull together key youth organisations from across the Caribbean region and Canada, (I have put a full list at the end of this blog), to see if there was a way they could work together to create a strong regional voice for young entrepreneurs. I was invited to share the lessons I have learnt through my work with the G20 Young Entrepreneurs Alliance and the European Confederation for Young Entrepreneurs.

Social enterprise lessons from Mumbai

NB: This article first appeared in the Guardian on 5 April 2013 and it can be found here

Recently I was invited to Mumbai by Young Indians to address the inaugural Commonwealth Asia Alliance for Young Entrepreneurs summit on behalf of Young Brits and the G20 Young Entrepreneurs Alliance. During my time in the city I got to visit some remarkable micro enterprises and meet some quite amazing social entrepreneurs. I wanted to share two of the lessons I learnt from these individuals, who from the outside seem to have the odds stacked against them, but all share a will, determination and ultimately a desire to bring about a real change.

From the moment you step off the plane you are hit by it, your senses are over powered by it and you will not escape it. It pulls you in and wraps you up. In a word, it’s ‘enterprise’.

Enterprise is everywhere, from stall sellers in the airport to the cabbies pitching for your business outside, the street sellers trying to get you to buy anything from leather jackets to balloons and the street food sellers with a dazzling array of dishes. This is a city where business is not just a part of its being, it is its being.

With a population of over 24m, 7m using the trains everyday (slightly less than the population of Switzerland), 5.5m using the buses daily (roughly population of Denmark) and the equivalent of a third of the worlds population making a train journey every year, this city is busy. At first glance it might seem chaotic, but it is organised chaos, everyone knows what they are doing, where they are going and there is a very real sense of a want to create work, business and money from them and their families.

This was the first of two lessons I learnt; it is all about the family.

I spent a day in the worlds most densely populated slum Dharavi, which sits in the centre of Mumbai, it houses over a million people and it wasn’t what I expected. It was safe, the people living there were welcoming and rather than there being a feeling of depression everyone I met was aiming to create a better life for them and their families. And by family I mean it in the widest possible sense.

Communities working together, creating a degree of financial independence through enterprise. In Dharavi alone there are over 10,000 businesses operating in sectors like leather, pottery and recycling. I came across larger business outside of Dharavi outsourcing the production of chapati’s to women within Dharavi, this not only provided a small income, but crucially it gave women a degree of buying power and therefor equality within the family unit.

And then there was the emphasis on education. The young children in Dharavi were immaculately turned out attending daily classes on English to math’s. Education was seen as a key way out, with the people I met seeing community enterprise as vital in helping their children to a brighter future.

Isn’t this what true social enterprise really is? Helping each other, providing support and opportunity for all, creating a better future for yourself, your children and the wider community.

There was no hiding away from it, life in Dharavi is tough, extremely tough, it left me with a lasting impression of how lucky we are. But what I did see was that through a community spirit that delivers practical solutions brought about by enterprise, there was a glimmer of hope.

My second lesson is taken from Mumbai’s world renowned dabbawalas.

So who are the dabbawalas? They transport home cooked food in dabbas (tiffins) from the homes of people who work in the city to their offices and back again. On a daily bases they move over 400,000 dabbas and have over 200,000 customers. The really interesting thing about the dabbawalas is two fold. First, they have no formal education, they are from poor backgrounds and they are recruited as dabbawalas to provide them with a skill and a career. Second, they use no form of telecommunication or IT system. It is all done by a coding system on the lid of the dabbas.

Now here is the amazing thing, they have an error rate of one in 16 million deliveries!

So why have I picked the dabbawalas as a lesson? They have been operating for 122 years, have a work force of over 5,000 people, operate a very flat structure with their board still doing deliveries and all pay is equal. So everyone is dependent on each other. Also every dabbawala is able to negotiate with their customer on the price point per delivery. They are trusted to be truthful and honest, to share all their earnings and negotiate sensibly.

It is an enterprise which has been answering a social problem for over a 100 years, they have been giving career opportunities to those in society with little or no education. And they have done this by trusting their work force and giving them real financial responsibility.

The lessons I learned in Mumbai where basic. But we often seem to forget the basics. We either focus on the next ‘big thing’ or we say it is up to someone else to sort out. Whereas it is actually up to us all to make a better future for ourselves, our families and our communities, be they local or far.

I recently said ‘all businesses will be social enterprises’ but I don’t think I got it quite right. All businesses need to be, but we all must be more social in our outlook. What I saw in Dharavi and with the dabbawalas shows what I feel is the true essence of social enterprise, delivering real change through communities and individuals addressing some of the countries toughest challenges. This is something we can learn from Mumbai. A collective responsibility and a shared awareness that will help make society better for all.

Thoughts from Colombo

I was recently asked to take part in the second Commonwealth Asian Alliance of Young Entrepreneurs’ (CAAYE) Summit, which this year was taking place in Colombo, Sri Lanka. I was asked to attend in both my role as Co-Founder of the Young Brits Network and as a Director of the Association of MBAs.

I was sadly only able to be at the summit for 48hours, but I had a hectic and insightful 2days and wanted to quickly share some of what I got to see and hear.

So why was CAAYE set up? Well I have been supporting the Alliance from its birth and it focuses on 4 key area:

  • To give a voice

  • To share ideas

  • To develop trade

  • To network

The forth area was the point that hit home most when I was with the delegates attending the summit in Colombo.  To network with like-minded individuals, regardless of where you come from and what your background might be.

I will go off piste slightly here, but I wanted to quickly share something that I heard from two of the delegations. India and Pakistan. Both been involved with CAAYE since the start, they have been working together to help create and drive a successful Alliance. Their governments don’t always get on, but the entrepreneurs representing their countries got on with each other, faced similar business challenges and shared common aspirations. This level of collaboration for me was cemented when I heard that entrepreneurs from India and Pakistan had managed to get the relevant visas and documents needed to cross on foot the border between each other’s countries and take part in a bilateral youth entrepreneurship event. For me this is what CAAYE and similar networks are all about. Putting people together that just want to get on and work with each other regardless of history or disagreements between nations at a political level.

This year’s summit took place directly before the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) and the signed communiqué at the summit was handed directly to the leaders attending CHOGM. The leaders meeting had attracted a lot of press regarding the recent civil war in Sri Lanka. The CAAYE Summit is not political, it is a network of, and the voice for, young entrepreneurs, which is driven by young entrepreneurs from across the region and it was really great to meet Tamil and Sinhalese entrepreneurs at the CAAYE summit. These young men and women from both groups, told me they just wanted to create a future for themselves, their families and their country that is strong, stable and ensures equal opportunities and equal rights for all. The more I go to events like these and meet young, dynamic, driven individuals, the more I feel sure that these are the type of people who will drive future change in their countries and their regions. From what I have seen and heard this change will be one that stands a very real chance of seeing people working together across borders, cultures and religions to create a positive future for all.

Now on to a few stats… I hardly need to tell you that the Asian market is growing rapidly, in the 1960s Asia accounted for 14% of the world total GDP, however as of today is it now delivering around 36% of the worlds total GDP. Asia’s population was circa 1.4billion in the 1950s and it is now in the region of 4.6billion, which is 60% of the world’s total population. However one stat really stuck out for me that a speaker at the summit covered, this is that on average at the moment Asian countries currently have only 8% of their GDP coming from cross border trade. This must be a huge opportunity to develop, allowing countries in the region to trade and grow together and this is exactly where networks like CAAYE have a very important role to play. Pulling like-minded people together and facilitating trade, because you would rather work and do business with people you know than starting out cold.

One of the other key topics that was covered and struck a cord with me was around education. This was highlighted across all member nations of CAAYE as being key to ensuring a strong and stable economic future. A number of core areas on education were bought up that needed to be encouraged and focused on:

  • Firstly, female access to education. Everyone I met talked about the importance of ensuring women in their societies have equal access to education at all levels and to also ensure that the employment opportunities are there post completion of the education journey.

  • Secondly, the need for education to be available for all regardless of where you might live and what your financial status might be. With key limiters being location, infrastructure and family economics. E-learning and virtual educational programmes were highlighted as ways this issue could be addressed and a number of best practice examples where shared.

  • Thirdly, issues around turning ideas into successful businesses. Areas around employability skills sets, executive education and business leadership were all highlighted. There was a very real feeling that there was a need to get the right people in at the right levels to ensure an idea can be taken from concept to a viable business

  • Finally, the topic of social enterprise was looked at. It was very encouraging to hear how there was a drive to try and get the message out into the CAAYE regions about the positive effects social enterprise have and ways it can be bought into wider understanding through education at all levels.

I will leave you with my final thoughts from the summit. I personally felt that networks like CAAYE, driven by individuals who are driving this network, have a very real opportunity to choose their own destiny. It is said that a true measure of a person’s strength is how they master a moment of change when it arrives. The moment to create meaning full and long term positive change is now and I believe there is real capacity and passion in the people driving CAAYE to meet this change, to act as a force multipliers and to truly create something that is impactful. But it is a long road ahead, the network must keep pushing itself and they will need to have limitless capacity to meet the responsibility that they now have. If they do this, which will be hard, they will ultimately achieve something great.

Barriers and networks

Here is my third and final blog about my trip to Mumbai where I was invited to attend the Commonwealth Asia Alliance for Young Entrepreneurs (CAAYE) Summit on behalf of Young Britsand the G20 Young Entrepreneurs Alliance. My first blog was on the amazing Dabbawalas of Mumbai who have an error rate of 1 in 16 million, it can be found here. My second was on some of micro and social enterprises that are creating real impact in the Dharavi slum and this can be found here.

I wasn’t quite sure how to follow these up, so thought I would take a wider view and share with you an area that came up numerous times during my visit and I felt was relevant for local entrepreneurs as well as entrepreneurs from the UK and from across the world. The area in question is that of barriers, be they political, cultural or historical and the impact they have can have on enterprise and new business.

To start with I want to share a quote with you from a close friend of mine and the Founder President of the CAAYE, Dr Rahul Mirchandani:

“CAAYE was born out of a realisation that though we believe the dawn of the Asian century is upon us, trade within Asian economies is very insignificant. Barriers to trade and political compulsions leave our economies cordoned off from our neighbours while we increase our dependence on the rest of the world. As young entrepreneurs, we have realised this lost opportunity in our own backyard and we hope that CAAYE and its projects, ongoing activities, bilateral events and capstone Summits will create platforms where networks are built and people-to-people contact sustained over time for the benefit of the young businesses and young in business in Asia.”

Rahul’s quote mentions barriers in the second line and it was an area that delegates mentioned to me, it came up the Q&As and was a topic of conversation during breaks and over dinners.

So I thought I would start with the big one first! Political barriers, these can arguably have more impact than any of the others, if our governments get then on trade can be easier, if they don’t then it can be anything but. However what I did see during the summit what that where there is a will there is a way. For example, Pakistan had the largest non Indian delegation there and I heard stories of it taking months for some of the delegates to get their visas. But the kept at it and here they were. The political difference between the two countries is an area I am not qualified to comment on, but the Indian and Pakistani delegations got on extremely well, conversations about challenges faced, ambitions and their dreams for their businesses were all similar. It was striking how they just saw each other as entrepreneurs and the respect was mutual.

As if to underline this the summit ended with the President of the Pakistani delegation giving a powerful speech praising the work of the Indian team and talking about the CAAYE being a great example of how countries that do have significant political barriers can actually come together through enterprise and entrepreneurship.

Now I will move on to historical barriers and a question. Why up until fairly recently has the UK been doing comparatively little trade with India? Is it historical? Are we embarrassed about our colonial past? If this was the reason then all I can say is I am glad that we are now putting significant resources into helping UK companies, large and small, get into these exciting and dynamic economies. My recent experience with UK Trade and Invest and the UK India Business Council has been excellent, the proactivity of the staff before and during my visit was top class – the UK’s Deputy High Commissioner to India,Peter Beckingham, even cut short his holiday to attend the opening ceremony of the CAAYE Summit with less than a week’s notice.

Also during my time in Mumbai speaking to delegates and visiting different businesses I didn’t once meet someone who was negative towards the UK from India or any of the other Commonwealth Asian countries present for that matter. Actually it what quite the opposite, all the entrepreneurs and business people I met wanted to know why more UK businesses weren’t in their respective countries – there really was a desire to work and trade with British entrepreneurs. So if our trade barrier with some of these nations has been historical then we need to move on. We must trade globally regardless of company size or sector, the business opportunities and partnerships are there waiting for us to arrive.

Thirdly, I wanted to briefly cover cultural barriers. I am very lucky to have gone to some very different countries across the globe on behalf of Young Brits and the G20 YEA and I always come away realising that we are not that different. Our colour and creed might differ, but on the whole we all just want a strong, stable and safe future for our families and each other. I personally believe cultural differences are key to having a strong vibrant society, however sadly far too often we have a tendency to be afraid of the unknown and a different culture from one we are used to can scare us. Rather than seeing the similarities we are conditioned to seeing the differences, this breeds mistrust and can end up leading to lasting long-term damage.

As we all travel more and technology increasingly means we are all becoming more connected, these culture barriers are being broken down. But we must always make an effort to understand someone’s culture and beliefs, because if we don’t understand someone’s background how can we ever expect to create a lasting friendship, be this business or personal, in the future.

As I sat on the plane back to the UK I remember thinking how Mumbai was truly a city where enterprise is everywhere. Be itmicro enterprises in the Dharavi Slum, the street food sellers, the multitude of market stalls everywhere you go, theDabbawalas, the multinationals, the community industries, or the balloon sellers on the street (don’t ask!). Everyone is selling everything to everyone and it creates a buzz like no other.

India as a nation will have to face significant challenges as she develops and grows going forwad, but the people I met all wanted the same thing: a better future for themselves, their families and their wider communities. The overriding feeling was that this common positive future can only ever be delivered by the creation of jobs, wealth and skills through education, enterprise and hard work.

If the government of India listens to it talented young entrepreneurs and helps them create a equal, fair and just society where a person’s background, sex or caste doesn’t stand against them and corruption can be removed from the norm, then quite simply nothing will hold her back.

I have made some lasting friendships in India and with the delegates from the other Commonwealth Asian countries; I know it isn’t a case of if I go back to the region, but when and how soon.

I will leave you with the thoughts of my G20 Young Entrepreneurs Alliance colleague from Italy, Luca Donelli, who is the Sherpa for Italy to the G20 YEA and attended the CAAYE Summit with me. I felt his comments summed up the important role that these types of international networks can play in all our future:

“As a member of Confindustria Y.E., I am involved in various international projects similar to CAAYE such as G20 YEA – G20 Young Entrepreneurs’ Alliance. These are based on the need to create platforms enhancing cooperation amongst Associations of Young Entrepreneurs. These efforts are fundamental towards building up global awareness about young entrepreneurship and a tremendous growth opportunity for the participants and their Associations.”

You can follow Alex on twitter here.

Micro-enterprise in the Dharavi Slum

My first blog focused on Mumbai’s Dabbawalas and this one is going to have a more social enterprise focus.


During my time in Mumbai I spent a day in Dharavi, which is in the middle of Mumbai, has over a million people living there and is the worlds most densely populated slum. 


Before I went there I had a lot of preconceived perceptions of what a slum would be like, however I couldn’t be more wrong. It was safe, the people living there were welcoming and instead of a give up type feeling there was a get up and go feeling. Everyone I met wanted to create a better life from them, their families and their wider communities.


In Dharavi alone there are over 10,000 businesses operating in sectors like leather, pottery and recycling. The leather products they produce can be made from design to fit in 24hours and are sold all over the world. No space is left empty in Dharavi and the picture at the top of this blog is of the roofs of Dharavi showing at least three different types of industries operating there.


In addition to the core businesses there were some excellent examples of bigger firms supporting micro enterprises in Dharavi. One such instance was a large business outside of Dharavi outsourcing the production of chapati’s to women within Dharavi, this gave a small income, but most importantly gave a degree of financial independence and control of the family finances.


One other interesting case study I came across was a social enterprise run by an inspiring young guy called Krishna Pujari. Krishna is Co-Founder of Reality Tours a company that takes people round Dharavi and shows them what real slum life is. It ploughs is profits back into support community and education projects in Dharavi and is making a hugely positive impact. I recorded a short interview with Krishna and if you have a moment please have watch of it here.


One striking thing from my time in Dharavi was the emphasis on education. The young children were immaculately turned out attending daily classes on English to math’s. Education is rightly seen as vital in helping children towards a brighter future.


However it shouldn’t be forgotten that life in Dharavi is extremely tough and it left me with an impression of how lucky we are and how often we take the basics for granted. But what I did see was enterprise thriving in the tough surroundings and helping to deliver a ray of hope for the families and their children in Dharavi.


My third and final blog on my visit to Mumbai will be on theCommonwealth Asia Alliance for Young Entrepreneurs (CAAYE) Summit and I will be sharing some thoughts from some truly remarkable young entrepreneurs from across the commonwealth countries in the Asian region.


You an follow me on twitter here.

The Dabbawalas of Mumbai

From the 13th to 17th December I was invited to Mumbai, India by Young Indians to address the inauguralCommonwealth Asia Alliance for Young Entrepreneurs (CAAYE) Summit on behalf of Young Brits and the G20 Young Entrepreneurs Alliance. This is the first of three blogs I have written on the trip, this one will focus on the Dabbawalas, the second one will focus on social enterprises in the slums and the third will focus on the CAAYE and the wider role and importance of such alliances.


Let me start by trying to quickly put Mumbai in context. A city of 24million people, huge growth in recent years, enterprise is happening everywhere, the people are extremely welcoming and there is a real buzz/ can do feeling from the moment you step off the airplane. It feels like a city that is going places and going there fast, yes it has its problems, one of these I will try and cover in my second blog, but is trying to resolve them.


I commute every day to Central London, and I thought it might be interesting to put Mumbai in commuting terms… Over 7million passengers use the trains in Mumbai every day, just slightly less than the population of Switzerland and 5.5million use the buses, roughly the population of Denmark. This means that over 2.54bn people use the trains in Mumbai every year, roughly a third of the entire population of the world!


So who are the Dabbawalas? Well roughly translated it means box people, they transport home cooked food in dabbas ‘Indian style tiffin boxes’ from the homes of people who work in the city to their offices and back again. 


They transport over 400,000 dabbas a day and have over 200,000 customers. The Dabbawalas on the whole have very little formal education and they don’t use any form of telecommunication. Instead to ensure the right dabba gets to the right person they use a coding system on the lid of dabbas that tells the Dabbawalas everything they need to know from the home to the floor in the relevant office block.


The Dabbawalas have been going for 122 years, growing to a work force of over 5000 people and there has never been a strike in their history. They operate a very flat structure with their board being voted on by the whole workforce and all pay is equal. Also every Dabbawala is able to negotiate with their customer on the price point per delivery.


And here is the fact that have made them world famous. They have an error rate of 1 in 16million deliveries. This is classed as six sigma level, actually above!


I left my half day with them feeling utterly blown away by their organisation, professionalism and focus on service. Quite rightly Mumbai and India should be proud of them and I know that I got a chance to see something very special and truly unique.


I will finish with a quote from the President of the Dabbawalas Association Mr R Menge, which I felt summed up the attitude of all the Dabbawalas I met:


‘Work is worship , food is god. We deliver come what may, the customer will never go hungry’