Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Story in Person: Reinventing Me

About a year ago, I set out to do what I always wanted to do: To create a technology-led network of global colleges, offering competence based education abroad. I was fully aware that this is a challenging project, having spent more than four years thinking and planning for it. However, doing it was always going to be different, and it was - full of new insights, unexpected turns and opportunities, and learning, which no amount of planning could have prepared us for. I am coming to the end of the bootstrap phase that we had to live through to get things going. It is, therefore, time to reinvent myself.

One of the great rewards of doing something like this is that I come to know how much I wanted to do this. There should have been no doubt, given the time I spent thinking and talking about how this could work. I took on a rather unappetising job of working in a chaotic private college environment for a period to build my network and ideas: Those two-and-half-years of my life was not the rosiest time, but it was an useful induction into the muddy world of private higher education. I started and completed a Masters in Education from UCL - I thought I needed to understand education to do this as one would need an Engineering degree to do a software venture - giving up my social life and weekends for at least three years. However, living through a period of bootstrapping thereafter, one without income and supported by myriad part time work to pay my bills, was more intense than even all of these. The intensity of this experience made the first part look like picnic on the beach.

Hopefully, now, the elements of the plan are coming together. The courses are ready. The accreditation is complete. Some partners are getting started and soon there will be students. We are talking about an ambitious geographical diversity - once the partner centres open - with outlets in India, China, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Vietnam. We are in the final phases of negotiation with institutional investors, and this may give us, finally, the financial platform needed to make this happen. This is a moment of start of a new phase of my life - and this time, not just an imaginary one - which must be lived anew. 

My life, so far, is all agency and no structure: I have become that kind of person doing various things and creating things for myself, rather than living the usual happily ever after scripts most of my friends prefer. I am always full of long term plans and ideas of big projects; I would like to believe that I am that sort of hardworking dreamer one does not find too readily. The dreamer bit is all too obvious, indeed; but I would always point out that I have followed those dreams diligently, and often made them happen. I have changed careers, gone back to school, earned professional qualifications and lived in three different countries, which is quite a journey from my suburban beginnings which seemed to have clearly defined, or at least attempted to, what I could or could not do in life.

This boasting, though, is not about claiming that I have arrived, but just about pacing myself for the next plunge. And, at this point, it is indeed the next plunge: I am, at this very moment, trying to imagine my life anew and setting goals for what I want to achieve. This is an useful exercise, because what I achieved is only part of the story: At the same time, I know that my original goal was to see the world and indeed get back home, and I have so far done neither. Coming and living in England was only a step in that process: What must follow is a stint in another country and then eventual return. Indeed, this whole global education project was about this: This is my way of finding my way back to the world.

So, as I build now, hopefully, the networks of global colleges, I am ready to move to Asia or Africa, wherever work will take me. I shall indeed be seriously looking at moving to South-East Asia, as I see that region to be critical for U-Aspire's success. This is also the region which will help us maintain close connections with India and build our network there. From my previous experience, I know this is possibly the world's most dynamic region, with the exception of silicon valley; and I am one of those people who believe in a powershift within a couple of generations. This is also a great base to do business in India, with my home in Calcutta being 4 hours away from Singapore. 

Surely this is an aspiration rather than a plan right now, and I am not going anywhere this Christmas. We are talking about a start-up here and not a huge global bank, where people can move with an week's notice. By announcing the intentions here, I start a long and elaborate process of planning, getting ready, just as I did for my business: It took me more than four years to come to the point of launch. However, this is a goal that I intend to pursue - this is in alignment with what I always thought and spoke about. I am not yet sure what path this will exactly take, and how it will really play out: But I know that if this is what I really want to do, I have to work for it and start working for it now. This may include sharpening my understanding of the region, learning Bahasa Indonesia and developing a network of contacts there, all of which may take time. But, as I have come to see it, this is the logical next step in building my global expertise.

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How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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