Recently, on a Colbert Show at Clinton Global Initiative University, President Bill Clinton said doing good was a completely selfish act. He stated that he did good because he wanted to leave a better world for his daughter and grandkids. More importantly, that doing good for others made him happier.
I get it. We should all be selfish enough to make this world a better place for ourselves and for all.
On April 30th, 2013, at the start of my day, I called a student in Sierra Leone named Susan Conteh to offer her an opportunity to join me at SciFoo (an amazing gathering for global technology leaders/hackers/makers/writers hosted at Google in California). Susan’s goal is to design fashionable accessories using locally available materials in Sierra Leone and she is a finalist in the high school innovation challenge we host there. She has however explored little beyond her town in the eastern province of the country and this phone call was not part of the package she was promised (as a finalist she gets cash to prototype, access to mentors and a network of other young makers). Susan will also join me in NYC to give a keynote at IDC about how she’s learning through actively problem-solving challenges in her community.
Before I finished telling her about the opportunity, she screamed with joy. She started speaking rapidly and I imagined she wanted to get off the phone to go and celebrate with her family. She was patient enough to answer a few follow up questions and then soon excused herself to appreciate what I imagine must have been a transformational event in her life.
12 hours later, as I retired to bed, I checked my spam folder in my email and just before I hit delete-all, I reluctantly opened an email with a subject line “Congratulations!”. It was an email from Rockefeller Foundation saying, “Innovate Salone has been selected as a recipient of our Next Century Innovator Award. You have been chosen under the Youth Category for your inspiring work with and for young people. You were selected from among many hundreds of amazing entrants from across the world. So, again, congratulations.”
My head sunk deep into the pillow and tears rolled off my cheeks as I absorbed the special news. My thoughts raced back to Susan. How special that we both felt something special given to us? Something we were not expecting but that would hopefully transform the way we implement our visions. That vision being finding ways to improve Sierra Leone in anyway possible. I called a loved one and fell asleep.
Quite often we don’t pause to appreciate the value of giving. That unit of happiness and joy that we share with others is the same as what we get when we receive. It is more than being selfish. It is being selfless.
It is always wonderful to come back to Sierra Leone, even in August when it rains incessantly. This is my second full day here and if the remaining 3 weeks can be predicted based on today, I am super excited. Working directly with Mahmoud Javombo (the GMin Head of Operations in Sierra Leone) has also been inspiring. A law student, Mahmoud is passionate about innovation in an unparalleled way and in people like him, Sierra Leone will get the leaders it deserves in the future.
Today, we met with the leading cell phone providers in the country who agreed to host our Finalists when they present their prototypes on the Summer Maker Camp hosted by Google+ and Maker Faire (Make Magazine) on August 22nd. Tune in at 12 noon PST to watch one team talk about an electronic broom they developed. Another team will tell us about a local FM station they built to empower youth and give them a platform through which they can debate. Hopefully, we can get a strong enough signal to log on through G+.
We then met with the “A De Mek Am 2012” co-sponsor in Sierra Leone, Life By Design and its entrepreneurial leader Joe Abass. LBD is a popular TV program that highlights innovation and development in Sierra Leone on Thursdays at 8:30pm local time. The prototypes the kids have developed over the past few weeks have been beyond my wildest dreams. I knew Sierra Leone youth were innovative but I was not sure they were ready to “mek”. Today, I could not have been more wrong.
We visited with one of the teams. The drama group from St. Joseph’s Convent is using arts and theater as a platform to sensitize youth about relevant information including how to protect themselves from HIV and other diseases. They are also role models to other girls and boys in their community. I have not met a more enthused group of girls than this team recently. I am very proud to have been a part of this project and I cannot wait to interact with all the other finalist teams.
The University of Sierra Leone has an office for Career, Advising and Placement Services. We were fortunate to meet with the director of the program, Lola, who is driven to help the university students understand how to prepare themselves for employers. Beyond that, how do you train students in high schools to understand the university system (admission, financial aid, etc) even before they enter college? To summarize her challenge, this service did not exist at any level before her office. We are hoping to have her present to our finalists during the Summer Innovation Camp we plan to organize between August 17- 19th.
Many a time, I get told to take a break from a problem. To go take a walk. To step back, breathe and see the big picture. I was promised that this would yield a surprising result. Something about taking my mind off a problem I was fighting to solve as a strategy of solving it did not quite seem logical.
However, recently, I got the answer from above. Well, not literally, but I solved a problem when I was not thinking about it and finally understood what logging off really means, especially in our increasingly connected world.
I was in Brooklyn visiting with a friend and I had brought a problem with me to solve. I wanted to understand how the forces and moments at specific points in a prosthetic socket varied during the gait cycle of an amputee. I needed to understand this in order to make a more structural socket to withstand those forces. So, I spent all day, while my friend was at work, trying to solve the problem. I had references to consult with. I played some Jay-Z songs. A little bit of Coldplay. Then some jazz from Mali. I switched off the music. Sat in a different chair. Moved to the floor. Then I spread everything on the bed while I stared at the pages from above. Still nothing. Got a new paper to solve on. Got another. Then on my seventh page, over 6 hours later, I gave up. I was frustrated … more than a little bit.
My friend got back home. We went out to dinner. Took a long walk around the park. Got some coffee. Talked about politics. Then we went to see the comedy movie Ted. Laughed out loudly all through out the movie. We met and had a conversation with her friend about the judicial system in NYC. It was past 1am. We walked slowly but purposefully back to her place. I had not thought about my physics problem for any part of this latter experience.
We got into the house. My friend disappeared into her room. I sat down on the table where my physics problem was. The light was off. I turned on my computer, which provided enough brightness to see what was written on the scattered papers. I took my pencil, still not thinking at all. Then I started scribbling. Wait, there it was. Problem solved. I smiled, maybe laughed out loudly. It was unbelievable to both my friend and me. But I had, without thinking about it, solved the problem.
I get it now, after all these years. It is wonderful to do something completely different from a problem you are trying to solve after a persistent blockage. You might just be surprised as I was when you log off.
Last weekend (June 8-10), I was in Sebastopol, CA as a guest at Foo Camp 2012 hosted by O’Reilly Media. I had little expectations beyond the realization that I would be there with people who were leaders in all fields possible. I knew for certain that I would be interacting with celebrated geeks who had founded companies and were engaged with some of the most interesting projects out there. What I didn’t imagine, however, was that I would be playing Werewolf with these people well after 4am. The environment was lively. I had a sense that every conversation would lead into a start-up company and the sense of humility among attendees was astounding (maybe the fact that we all camped outside helped). People openly shared their experiences and there was an overwhelming amount of learning.
For me, I took advantage of the unconference format of foo camp and attended talks well outside my specialization as a Biomechatronics graduate student. I also facilitated a session on a very interesting topic which focussed on enabling young innovators around the world. In addition, I was fortunate to be one of the guests selected to give an ignite talk. Find my talk about our work in Sierra Leone below, courtesy of Bradley Horowitz of Google +. My talk starts at 29:20. Let me know what you think.
This post is a follow-up to my Vision Talk at the Sloan Africa Business Conference at MIT Media Lab on April 14th 2012 which you can view here
Our challenge as Africans is to ensure that the young generation is able to envision, design and create their own solutions. We need to embrace the culture of innovation and change the development paradigm from Aid to Africa to Made in Africa!
As a PhD candidate at the MIT Media Lab, I see where technology is heading before it is even created. I understand the potential smart designs have on how we communicate and understand the world. My colleagues are among some of the most ingenious people I know and the environment screams “Creative Freedom” which can only broaden the possibilities of our inventions. Those inventions are based on the most advanced tools and platforms that are not readily available to many people in Africa.
The future we image and create is greatly limited by our understanding of the present. This is why it is important to equip Young African Inventors with a platform to fail and tools to promote their own inventions to the challenges they so well understand. It is only from failure that they will succeed.
Here are some ways you can make that happen:
- Mentor a young inventive student!
- Provide resources to young inventors (many more than financial resources)
- Innovation is a way of life! Help change the culture.
I love people. I cherish my friends. They have continued to embrace my crazy ideas and have contributed to helping/working with/embracing people I call my own.
2007: Jacob Lennheden’s mother (Ann-Marie) gave us all her 50 birthday gifts converted into USD to buy mosquito nets in Sierra Leone.
2007: Mathias Esmann donated over $1,000 towards nets
2009: Jamie Appleseed donated over $1,500 towards nets
The long list goes one.
Now, those are just my buddies with whom I run our internationally recognized 501(c)3 NGO Global Minimum.
At the same time, dozens of other friends (many choose to be anonymous) including Emil Wyss, Paul Sengeh and more have donated hundreds to thousands of dollars that led to the distribution of 16,500 bed nets that covered over 30,000 people in Sahn Malen.
But that was then. And Now?
Two weeks into launching Innovate Salone: a high school-oriented innovation competition in Sierra Leone, my friends continue to surprise me.
Desmond Mitchell and Paul Sengeh immediately donated significant amounts two seconds after I shared my idea with them. The reason? They believe in unleashing the innovative minds of young people.
Emil Wyss, Nikhil Balaraman and a few more have pledged to this cause. I am sure they wont be the last.
Now, my birthday is coming up soon: February 25th. I love facebook posts from my friends. But one thing I certainly love more is pledging to help young innovative minds in Sierra Leone tackle local problems. Send me a line at dsengeh[AT]gmail.com to contribute.
I love you, my friends!