Take "no" as a question.

Well, another lesson learned while blogging (or, rather, working online). I knew the internet was completely slow at this hotel in Bangkok, but I was so inspired from one of our meetings yesterday that I typed my thoughts directly into Squarespace. As soon as I clicked “post”, the unresponsiveness foreshadowed that I might loose my work (both on the blog and on the other teaching fellowship prep things I was working on from Google Drive). Falling asleep due to waiting on the computer / internet to load, I woke this morning to find all of my work lost. The beauty of cloud computing is that your work is always accessible …. until it isn’t and doesn't save.

So, I’ll try to quickly retype this message before my mind is again filled with another day of meetings. One of the most impressive meetings from this Trek thus far was with Mr. Mechai Viravaidya, a former politician and activist promoting family planning and poverty reduction in Thailand and Southeast Asia. [Watch his TED talk here.] He started by sharing his guiding principles learned through his 41 years of work”

  • be innovative
  • think outside the box
  • empower the poor
  • take “no” as a question
  • ensure sustainability

Mr. Viravaidya then continued on by sharing his work, which he categorized into five “journeys”:

  • 1st journey - reducing births: he started a national movement to reduce the unsustainable population growth through normalizing and humanizing the conversation and use of condoms and birth control. Through his efforts, the number of children per family decreased from 7 to 1.5 between 1974 and 2000, reducing the overall population growth from 3.3% to 0.5% during the same time period.
  • 2nd journey - reducing deaths: when the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit Thailand in the 1980’s, the government refused to acknowledge this as a problem and banned any media coverage. Seeking alternate routes (a partnership with HKS, grant from Rockefeller foundation, and another partnership with the Thailand military (using 300+ radio station and 2 TV stations) and the new Prime Minister in 1991), his work helped to decrease new HIV infections by 90% between 1991-2003.
  • 3rd journey - reducing financial dependence on donors: Given the numerous initiatives within 1 and 2 above, Mr. Viravaidya created a number of business enterprises to support these initiatives. Balanced between optimizing profit (ex: running hospitals for the community) and maximizing profits (such as the "Cabbage and Condoms" restaurants or "Birds and Bees" resorts), the income generated has helped to continue the support and development of this work throughout Thailand.
  • 4th journey - reducing poverty: this work has helped to empower the poor to become social entrepreneurs in a project he called the "Barefoot MBA". In training two sets of 3 Harvard MBA students, they developed a method for providing the poor business skills, access to micro-loans ($1.25 per each tree planted), and empowerment to make a difference in the families and communities in which they reside. 
  • 5th journey - eradicating ignorance: in this last initiative, he aims to re-engineer rural education to help kids become social entrepreneurs, in turn teaching each family how to sustain themselves. Through creating The Bamboo School, students participate in a fully democratic education by having a voice in the school governance, student admissions process, and teacher selection and evaluation process, among other learning.

In short, this work wasn't easy. Mr. Viravaidya met with many "no's" along the way, yet took that as an opportunity to ask a question and work from a different angle. I left yesterday again questioning what it means to be a leader, or enact leadership qualities. This is a topic of great interest to me, and something that I've observed, thought about, enacted myself at times, studied in grad school, and now am again questioning. Mr. Viravaidya arguably has enacted leadership through his 41 years of service, as evidenced by the number of lives reached (or saved) through these various initiatives. Yet I find it interesting that in a quick pass through the Thailand Stock Exchange public library, the book on moral leadership that I picked up fell open to the pages defining what it means to be a moral leader - one who acts in service of others while balancing actions leading from the head AND heart to honestly move forward in the best way possible. Yet doesn't this mean something different to every person? Yes, we are all inspired by the work of people like Mr. Viravaidya that is done in service of other people. But this is balanced with meetings (in every country thus far) describing the immense political challenges that arguable serve as a detriment to the greater population and societal good. We each have the opportunity to contribute our slice of impact, yet how do those slices come together for the complete pie, especially with such differing views about what it means to lead with morals? And what happens when people are afraid to speak up, especially in politically charged situations where one might be assassinated, and the view of successful and ethical leadership is no longer upheld as a primary value? Or, who are we to impose something “better” on someone else, just because a certain lifestyle right not be what we desire as acceptable? Do all members of poor populations want to have their lives changed by someone from the outside coming in to tell a community or village what to do? Or, are the poor satisfied with how their lifestyle really is? And if so, why is that not acceptable? On the flip side, where are the change agents that challenge corruption and the lack of moral leadership, especially in sectors governed by money (not just politics)? Where is our own individual understanding and development of empathy, continued education, and listening to others to hear what really might be our challenge to collectively solve? In doing good with our work, we refer to ourselves and the impact we make on the human race .... but what is the race we are truly running?