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.

Sri Lanka 2048: Business As Unusual

Sri Lanka 2048 - Nalaka Gunawardene moderating

Sri Lanka 2048 - Nalaka Gunawardene moderating

When our Sri Lanka 2048 TV debate series started a few weeks ago, I had no idea that I’d be hosting some programmes. But through an interesting turn of events, I’ve ended up doing just that.

The series, which TVE Asia Pacific is co-producing with IUCN and MTV Channel (Pvt) Limited — Sri Lanka’s ratings leading TV broadcaster — has been going out once every week from 22 May 2008. As I wrote at the time the series started, most programmes (8 out of 10) were hosted by Sirasa TV’s versatile and dynamic presenter Kingsly Rathnayaka.

Our plan was to do two shows in English, exploring the topics living with climate change and the nexus between business and the environment. We were still searching for a presenter for these two even as we produced and aired the Sinhala programmes.

In the end, the channel management as well as our production team all suggested for me to take it on. I’ve been hosting quiz shows on TV since 1990, and have been a regular ‘TV pundit’ on a broad range of development, science and technology issues for at least a decade. I’ve also been doing a fair amount of moderating sessions and panels at international conferences. Hosting Sri Lanka 2048 challenged me to combine all these skills — and to be informed, interested and curious about our topics under discussion.

I enjoyed being the ‘skeptical inquirer’, a role I’ve had fun playing for long years as a development journalist. Our viewers can judge how well I fared. My aim was to keep the panel and audience focused, engaged and moving ahead. My style is slower and more reflective than Kingsly’s fast-paced, chatty one. Direct comparisons would be unfair and unrealistic since we are very different personalities.

But I’m enormously grateful to the younger, more experienced Kingsly for his advice and guidance in preparing for my new role. The TV camera is ruthless in capturing and sometimes magnifying even minor idiosyncrasies in presenters. It has as much to do with style as with substance. Hope I made the grade…

Sri Lanka 2048 series branding

Sri Lanka 2048 series branding

Here’s the promotional blurb for this weekend’s show, titled Business As Unusual (yes, I borrowed the apt title from our sorely missed inspiration Anita Roddick). It was broadcast on Channel One MTV, the English language channel of Sri Lanka’s Maharaja broadcasting group.

Sri Lanka 2048 looks at Business As Unusual: How can companies do well while doing good?

The private sector is acknowledged as the engine of our economic growth. But how long can this ‘engine’ keep running without addressing its many impacts on society and the natural environment? With public concerns rising everywhere for a cleaner and safer environment, how best can businesses respond to the environmental challenges — and find new opportunities to grow and innovate?

These and related questions will be raised in this week’s Sri Lanka 2048, the series of TV debates exploring Sri Lanka’s prospects for a sustainable future in the Twenty First Century. The one-hour debate, this time in English, will be shown on Channel One MTV from 8 to 9 pm on Saturday, 19 July 2008.

Titled Business As Unusual, this week’s debate brings together concerned Sri Lankans from academic, corporate, civil society and government backgrounds to discuss what choices, decisions and tradeoffs need to be made for businesses to become environmentally responsible — and still remain profitable. Increasingly, there are examples of smart companies achieving this balance.

This week’s panel comprises (seated left to right in the photo below): Professor Sarath W Kotagama, Professor of Environment Science, University of Colombo; Renton de Alwis, Chairman, Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority; Dilhan C Fernando, Marketing Director, MJF Group; and Jeevani Siriwardena, Director – Product Management, Sri Lanka Export Development Board.

Sri Lanka 2048 panel on business and environment broadcast on 19 July 2008

Sri Lanka 2048 panel on business and environment broadcast on 19 July 2008

The wide ranging discussion — looking at both domestic and international markets, and covering a range of industries — notes that many companies already address not just financial but also social and environmental bottomlines. Adopting cleaner production practices have helped increase profits through being thrifty with resources and careful with waste.

The debate also looks at the findings of a survey that IUCN and the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce carried out last year of 45 companies on their corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies and practices. It revealed that a significant number of companies are actively applying CSR principles, with slightly over half (53%) already having environmental components in their CSR (known as CSER). The survey also found that local companies were stronger on CSR/CSER than the local operations of multinational companies.

As some panelists and audience members argue, embracing sound environmental practices goes well beyond CSR. With rising consumer awareness and greater scrutiny of how companies source materials and energy, ‘going green’ has become an integral part of responsible corporate citizens.

Sri Lanka 2048 debates are co-produced by TVE Asia Pacific, an educational media foundation, and IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, in partnership with MTV Channel (Private) Limited. This editorially independent TV series is supported under the Raising Environmental Consciousness in Society (RECS) project, sponsored by the Government of the Netherlands.

Sri Lanka 2048 - Nalaka briefing audience just before recording starts...

Sri Lanka 2048 - Nalaka briefing audience just before recording starts...

Wherever you are, Anita, I hope you were watching our show tonight — and hopefully nodding… When you insisted that businesses must care for community and the environment, you were so ahead of the pack. We’re still struggling to catch up.

Nalaka with panelist Jeevani Siriwardena

On the set of Sri Lanka 2048: Nalaka with panelist Jeevani Siriwardena

Photos by Amal Samaraweera, TVE Asia Pacific