Celebrating Steve Jobs, we ask: Where are all the Asian tech mavericks?

Steven Paul Jobs (1955 – 2011): The Crazy One

In my own tribute to Steve Jobs, just published on Groundviews.org, I raise some pertinent questions about nurturing discovery and innovation in Asian societies.

Here’s an excerpt:

We might admire – even revere – mavericks like Steve Jobs from afar, but few Asians have any idea where mavericks come from, or how best to deal with them. Our conformist and hierarchical societies don’t nurture mavericks. Our cultures tend to suppress odd-balls and iconoclasts. That’s probably why we don’t have enough of our own Steve Jobses, Richard Bransons and Anita Roddicks.

Mark Twin said: “The man with a new idea is a crank – until the idea succeeds”. The question is: do we Asians hush down our home-grown cranks even before they have a sporting chance? Are we culturally too biased against individualism that propels useful – and potentially transformative ­ mavericks?

As a ‘maverick spotter’ and cheerleader for all types of innovation, I often worry that we are. I have come across bright young men and women who were ridiculed in the classroom (‘freaks!’) or scorned at home (‘losers!’) for not wanting to be doctors, engineers or lawyers.

This is the central argument in my latest op-ed, a tribute to Steve Jobs and a reflection on individualistic tech innovation in our own Asian societies.

Read full essay on Groundviews.org: Goodbye, Steve Jobs; Long Live Mavericks!

Remembering Anita Roddick, a year after her hasty departure

September 10 marked a year since Anita Roddick left us in hurry, with so much unfinished business.

At the end of our last encounter in the summer of 2003, she autographed for me a copy of her latest book with these words: “Remember me!”.

She remains one of the most remarkable people I have met. Especially in the past year, which has been eventful and tumultuous for me, I have often thought of Anita’s long and colourful journey from working class mom to one of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time….and onward to become an outspoken and passionate activist for social justice, human rights and the environment.

As she has written, it was not an easy ride to do well in the male-dominated world of business, nor was it any easier to do good in the greed-dominated world at large. But she not only did it, but had great fun doing so.

What would Anita do? I find myself asking this question every now and then when I seem to be struggling against enormous odds (which is increasingly often). I don’t always find the answers I’m looking for, but it’s always a useful reflection.

I now find that others have been asking this question. Visiting Anita Roddick’s official website this week, I read a moving post by Brooke Shelby Biggs, who worked with Anita for 8 years. She writes:
“I’ve lived most of this past year having conversations with Anita in my mind. What would she say when I told her about considering a move back to magazine journalism? How should I handle my role in the Free the Angola 3 movement? How would she get on with my new romantic interest? Should I move back to my parents’ home town to help care for my ailing mother? I’ve tried to spend this time living according to the philosophy of What Would Anita Do (WWAD?). It was a lot easier when I could ask her myself. But some part of me knows she gave me a lot of tools to figure the hard stuff out on my own. Sometimes I just wish I had her courage.”

website inspired by Anita Roddick
I am an activist: website inspired by Anita Roddick

Brooke links to a website called I am an Activist that draws information and inspiration from Anita’s many and varied struggles in support of various local and global causes. Prominently displayed on the home page are Anita’s now famous words: “This is no dress rehearsal. You’ve got one life, so just lead it and try and be remarkable.”

Well, we can honestly say that she’s one person who practised what she preached.

‘I am an Activist’ is also the sub-title of a DVD that celebrates the life of Dame Anita Roddick, which is available for sale and/or download from Anita Roddick.com. It compiles footage gathered on 23 October 2007, when thousands of thinkers, artists, activists, and other heroic saboteurs of the status quo gathered to celebrate the remarkable life and legacy of Anita Roddick. According to the blurb, it features key people from groups like Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Reprieve, The Body Shop, as well as family and close friends, as they laugh and cry and ultimately take to the streets to launch.

Anita’s daughter Sam is quoted as saying in her tribute: “My mother treated life like each day was her last, and this gave her the permission for incredible bravery. … Tonight I am personally pledging that I Am An Activist, and within that, I also will have a lot of fun, and I also will be silly. I will not be polite and I will never, ever, ask for permission.”

In the weeks and months since Anita’s death, more video material featuring her public talks and interviews have been shared on YouTube by individuals and organisations. I have this week watched several of them, and felt there still isn’t sufficiently good moving images about her. In her time she must have done hundreds or thousands of interviews for broadcast television, corporate audiences as well as community groups. At least some of these must have been recorded and archived. But we still don’t see enough out there, at least in easily accessible public video platforms like YouTube.

Here are two that I did find which are interesting:

Anita speaks on the lessons she learnt from running her own home business, which she started in 1976 to augment her family income. She talks about how she had absolutely no business training, faced many odds and put up with male sarcasm:

From University of California Television comes this video of Anita delivering the Nuclear Peace Age’s third annual Frank K. Kelly Lecture on Humanity’s Future in Feb 2004.

Taking it personally: Anita Roddick’s Arabian Nights

“I am overwhelmed by the potential of the web to link like-minded people and move them to mass-action,” the late Anita Roddick once wrote. “We are excited to experiment in other media too — perhaps subversive billboards, or a television program, or other print projects. As someone once said, we are only limited by our imaginations.”

In my personal tribute to Anita, written shortly after her untimely death on 10 September 2007, I touched on her extraordinary skills as an activist-communicator. It was in connection with a global television series that I last met Anita in person.

In the summer of 2003, I was invited to join a small group of people at Anita’s country home, Highfield House, in Arundel, Somerset, England. It was a one-day brainstorming on the future of Hands On, a global TV series that she’d been hosting for three years.

Hands On stood out as a beacon of hope amidst so much doom and gloom on television -– it featured environmentally-friendly technologies, business ideas and processes that have been tried out by someone, somewhere on the planet.

It covered a broad range of topics, from renewable energies, waste management and information technology to food processing and transport. The aim was to showcase good news and best practices so they could inspire others — entrepreneurs, communities or even governments — to try these out.

The series was first broadcast on BBC World and was redistributed to dozens of TV channels worldwide through my own organisation, TVE Asia Pacific, and others. It was backed by the reputed development agency Intermediate Technology (now called Practical Action).

Watch a typical Anita introduction of Hands On and a sample story in capsule form:

Anita brought her usual passion and dynamism to our discussion, energising the development and communications professionals enjoying her hospitality. Covering good news was already going against the media’s grain, but it was harder to keep at it year after year, especially when the media landscape was changing rapidly. It was a challenge to stay engaged and relevant to viewers across Africa, Asia Pacific, Latin America and Europe.

During the meeting, Anita asked me to sum up the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) which was coming up in a few months. Putting aside all the ‘developmentspeak’ of UN agencies, I described it as an attempt to put new information and communication technologies (ICTs) to work for the poor and disadvantaged of our world. Or get the geek tools to work for the meek. (I still think my phrase ‘Geek2Meek’ sounds better than the official ICT4D, where D stands for development.)

We agreed that civil society had to seize the opportunities offered by these new media tools. (A few months later, Anita presented two Hands On editions called ‘Communicating for Change’ on BBC World that profiled some initiatives doing just this.)

Always fond of analogies, I likened Hands On to Arabian Nights, which, according to legend, a young woman had spun from her rich imagination for 1,001 nights to save her life from an evil king. In Hands On, I suggested, we are telling stories to save not one life, but all life on Earth.

Read my July 2007 post: Telling stories to save ourselves…and the planet

Anita quite liked my analogy. She was always a good story teller, and had so many good stories to tell (A favourite opening line from her biography, Body and Soul: “There I was, with my panty down to my knees.” You’ll never guess why until you read that story…)

She challenged everyone at that meeting to make Hands On more interesting to younger viewers in different cultures. We recognised that offering one media product to a global audience was a tough sell: most people prefer a home-made, local story.

But then, she’d built the entire Body Shop chain with a largely common product offering, even if raw materials were sourced from different parts of the globe. She never imposed the Body Shop experience on our meeting, but it was sometimes instructive to look at how a globally available product could still be localised.

hands-on-in-asia.jpg hands-on-in-asia.jpg

This is just what we did in the months and years following the Arundel brainstorming. We rolled out the ‘Localising Hands On in Asia’ project, which saw several dozen Hands On stories being versioned into local languages and distributed through broadcast and narrowcast means in Cambodia, India, Laos and Nepal. The two-year project, generously supported by Toyota, was hugely successful in delivering the Hands On stories to millions of people who would never have been exposed to it in original English.

We were thrilled when our localising work inspired similar local TV shows in three countries (Cambodia, Nepal and Laos). Yet it was the narrowcast outreach that was more rewarding.

Read about one narrowcast experience in my April 2007 blog post: Anita Roddick, Angkor Wat and the development pill

Coming soon: Who killed Hands On, one of the most successful multimedia initiatives in recent years to communicate development?

Anita Roddick: “There was nothing like this dame”

Image courtesy Media is a Plural website

Citizen journalist, film-maker and media critic Rory O’Connor has written a moving tribute to extraordinary activist and entrepreneur Anita Roddick, whose premature death on 12 September 2007 has left her many admirers in shock and grief.

He recalls how colleague and fellow media-activist Danny Schechter and he first met Anita at a gathering of progressive business executives called the Social Ventures Network. Their shared background, vision and ideals soon turned them into friends and co-conspirators.

Rory recalls how their company Global Vision embarked on a new human rights-oriented TV newsmagazine in the mid 1990s: “Anita and her husband Gordon were key players in that series – ‘Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights Television’ – coming to fruition. They contributed their energy and enthusiasm, their ideas and information, their contacts and creativity (and oh yes, their capital!) and without all of it, the series would never have been born. But with their help, the award winning newsmagazine was broadcast weekly for four years, on more than 150 public television stations in the USA, as well as on channels and networks in sixty-one other countries. It remains the only regularly scheduled television program in history devoted exclusively to coverage of human rights.

Rory echoes my own point about how Anita was a communicator par excellence, driven more by intuition and inspiration than any textbookish theories:
“Although Anita wasn’t a media activist per se, she intuitively understood how media could be used for activism, and she did so shamelessly and in a cheerfully relentless manner. Whether she was supporting social and environmental causes through window displays, convincing American Express to pay her to appear in an ad promoting the Body Shop and its causes, working with Globalvision on its commercial and non-profit programming (or later writing books, blogging, running an activist website, contributing to the success of Mother Jones magazine, or working closely with — and donating millions to — media-savvy organizations such as Amnesty International,) Anita intrinsically ‘got’ the importance of characters and stories to selling anything—from cold cream to ideas and values – and she employed them cleverly and constantly in support of her principles.”

Watch Anita’s one minute on climate change for Friends of the Earth:

Watch QuantumShift.tv’s thoughtful tribute to Anita Roddick, better presented than the fleeting coverage of mainstream news channels:

Read the full tribute on Media is a Plural website.

Read my own tribute to Anita Roddick: We shall always remember you!

Read Danny Schechter on News Dissector website

Anita Roddick: We shall always remember you

Image courtesy Treehugger

“Remember me!”

That’s how Anita Roddick, who died on 10 September of brain haemorrhage, autographed for me a copy of her book Taking It Personally: How to make Conscious Choices to Change the World.

You’re hard to forget, I told her at the time. And suddenly, memories are all we are left with. And what vivid ones!

Dame Anita Roddick (1942 – 2007), founder of The Body Shop, is one of the most unforgettable persons I have met. And now that she has moved on, far too soon, her memory challenges us to persist with the social, humanitarian and environmental causes that she so passionately championed.

Media obituaries described her as the ‘Queen of Green’, but Anita was much more than just green. She stood for justice, fairness and equality in both business practices and her campaigns. From ethical sourcing of raw materials for her beauty products to agitating for human rights and humane globalization, she was one activist who walked the talk.

“I came out of the womb as an activist. I’m part of the 1960s; it’s in my DNA,” she wrote in Newsweek earlier this year. “So the idea of dying with loads of money doesn’t appeal to me at all.”

She added: “I want to use the last years I have to get my hands dirty working for civil change. I want to be able to see the positive difference that money can make by giving away what I have.”

It’s not immediately clear if she made much headway with that, but the recently set up Roddick Foundation is the latest of a long line of campaigns, social projects and charities that she founded, energised or supported.

Her business acumen and commitment to global justice have been eulogised for years. She was equally adept in using the media and communications to draw attention to a cause, issue or incident.

Without going to any business school, Anita built up a global business that had over 2,200 stores in 55 countries by the time she let go of the company in 2004. And without attending any communication school, she became one of the best communicators of our troubled times – speaking eloquently for her company’s ideals and various charitable causes.

It all came from the heart, and it was passion –- not cold facts or even colder logic -– that drove her to be a phenomenally successful communicator.

Anita loved to say: “The job of a citizen is to keep his mouth open.” And her advice to activists was: Get Informed. Get Inspired. Get Outraged. Get Active.

Never underestimate the power of one, she said. As she liked to put it:
If many little people
In many little places
Did many little deeds
They can change the face of the Earth

And like the Energizer bunny, but with lot more purpose, she kept going, going and going. She loved the Dorothy Sayers quote: “A woman in advancing old age is unstoppable by any earthly force”.

It was on one of her many world travels that our paths first crossed. In the summer of 1991, I was invited to give a workshop at Youthquake, a Canadian environmental conference building up momentum for the Earth Summit scheduled for the following year. It was here that I met two of my all-time favourite activists: geneticist-turned-TV presenter David Suzuki, and Anita Roddick. The celebrity guest was Mutang Tu’o, a representative from the Penan indigenous tribe from Sarawak, Malaysia, whose jungles were in imminent danger of being logged.

Youthquake was part conference, part youth jamboree and altogether a great deal of fun. Anita turned up with her youngest daughter Sam, and spent hours just telling real life stories in her inimitable way – full of laughter and making fun of power and pomposity. After all these years, I can’t remember anything about what I myself spoke, but I know Anita’s remarks had a lasting influence.

In those heady days before the Earth Summit, email and the global Internet, activists had an easier and simpler choice of adversaries — Uncle Sam and World Bank usually came up among the top five. When economic globalization gathered pace, things became more complex and nuanced. Ah, for the good old days!

Anita marched fearlessly into this new world where corporate fortunes are being made at the speed of light, governments are waging wars to the tune of media-entertainment industries, and certain development agencies have turned poverty reduction and HIV/AIDS into cottage industries.

Marshall all facts, get analysis right, take your firing positions and never give up the good struggle, she seemed to suggest: there’s a war out there, and it wasn’t just in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In fact, Taking It Personally was her rough guide on how to tame run-away globalization. For it, Anita invited the top thinkers in the struggle for humanitarian trade policies to weigh in on the problem, and to give citizens the tools and inspiration to do work for constructive solutions. Among its contributors were Vandana Shiva, Paul Hawken (Natural Capitalism), Naomi Klein (No Logo), and Ralph Nader.

When she autographed a copy for me, she added with a mischievous grin that the book’s US distributors had been coerced to withdraw it. She showed a possible reason: that famous photo of President George W Bush reading a book with a young child — while holding it upside down!

It’s this topsy turvy, cruel world that Anita Roddick tried to make slightly better in a thousand different ways. We fellow travellers will sorely miss her, but there is ‘no bloody alternative’ but to just slog on.

— Nalaka Gunawardene; Kathmandu 12 September 2007

Read my earlier post: Anita Roddick, Angkor Wat and the ‘Development Pill’

BBC Online: Dame Anita Roddick dies at 64

Anita Roddick, Angkor Wat and ‘development pill’

Dame Anita Roddick would have been proud of her mastery of Khmer.

There she was on a large screen, speaking in fluent Khmer, watched by over a thousand Cambodians women, children and men.

Time: One evening in December 2005
Place: A village temple close to the historic city of Siem Reap, Cambodia

There we were, practically in the shadow of the massive Angkor Wat temple complex, and trying to reach out to rural Cambodians on practical ways to live more sustainable lives.

anita-roddick.jpg cambodian-audience.jpg

The event was an evening of variety entertainment laced with some information and education. Colleagues at Action IEC, our Cambodian partner, knew exactly how to get this mix right. Amidst songs, drama, comedy and live competitions, they screened Hands On video films versioned into Khmer.

As the loudspeakers boomed and (Hands On host) Anita Roddick appeared on screen speaking in a strange tongue, I watched the audience closely. They were spell-bound: especially the children belied a sense of wonder.

But sustaining their attention is a big challenge. That evening’s 4-hr programme was the result of over a dozen Cambodian colleagues planning and working for days. It was part of the public outreach activity for Hands On films that we versioned into Khmer under a 4-country, Asian project called Localising Hands On in Asia.

The young and not-so-young in our audience that evening were there mainly for the fun and games. Rolling out Anita and Hands On was a clever ploy by Kosal, Cedric and other Cambodian colleagues. Call it ‘sugar-coating’ the development pill.

Oh yes, we also had the Khmer versioned programmes broadcast on Cambodia’s most popular TV channel (CTN). That engaged a different kind of audience. A passive broadcast can never really produce the kind of audience engagement we saw that evening.

In our efforts to engage Asia’s eyeballs and minds, we’ve made modest progress by proceeding parallely on broadcast and narrowcast fronts — but there is a great deal of unfinished business.

For details, visit Localising Hands On in Asia website

Added on 11 Sep 2007: Anita Roddick:We shall always remember you