Good Evening everyone. How is everyone feeling? Inspired? Ready to change the world? Well, it is a real honor to be here tonight. Particularly as the last speaker, because by now you should be inspired. You should be feeling a bit like super man or wonder woman ready to change the world. You have seen the amazing work of others, and are already thinking about issues that you have a personal interest in and are wondering what it would take for you to take the same step as those who have preceded me. A fire should be brewing inside of you
A fire that is fueled by a problem that has been nagging away at you for a while, and is now smoldering as you comtemplate taking action. The problem though, is that the minute you leave ths auditorium, the majority of yo uwill see that fire begin to extinguish itself. The buzzz will wear off, and your “normal” life will go on. A normal life where a couple of dollars can’t really help, where ,shutting off a light aswitch won’t cave the polar bears, and telling your boss that shark fin soup isn’t acceptable isn’t worth the risk. Because as your brain looks to find a way to take your inspiration and move it to action, your instinct to question yourselves and your abilities, will take over and all you can see is a see a stop sign A stop sing that says STOP
One person can’t make a difference. It’s a stop sign that tells you that you shouldn’t, you couldn’t, and even if you did it wouldn’t make a difference. One person couldn’t possibly make a difference. The problems are too big. The dynamics too complex.
So, you pass. You convince yourself that whatever idea you had is unlikely to succeed, or have any impact at all. It is a head game that I know you all know well. Which is why it is my honor to be standing in front of you. Because there was a time where I was once apathetic. Where I once turned away from action. Because I thought anything I did would simply skip off the surface. Until I took my first step.
A step where I forced myself to overcome the reasons why I couldn’t or shouldn’t, and I saw the power of individuals to make a difference. It was a step that changed the path I was on to one where I am now entirely focused on helping others take their first steps.
But then I arrived in Shanghai. A place that was, and still is, abuzz 24/7. It was the place to be, where everyone was looking for an angle into the China miracle. It was a time I was supposed to be focused on building experience, amassing wealth, and preparing myself for marriage by saving up for an apartment. It was time where I was working 60 -80 hours in the office, networking 2-3 days a week at lunch events, and then spending my free time blowing off steam in the pub with my friends.
During this time, I was traveling throughout China. Bearing witness to the dynamic changes that were taking place across the country. Cities that were once populations of 1-3 million in size, were growing to 5 million, 10 million, and building for a lot more as china’s economic growth continued.. and I was building my China dream. To make a name for myself as someone who knew (and had access to) China. Things were going well. I had a team. I had clients. I was 30 years old and being interviewed by CNBC
But I was looking for something more. A way to give back. A way to engage the local community. Volunteering had been a part of my life since I was in high school, and it was something that I found really difficult to do in Shanghai as no infrastructur existed to support community based volunteering. Sure, I could help organize a Gala dinner, or donate some money to a scholarship program, but I was looking to personally engage myself. Like I had when I lived in other cities.
So without much thought, and without a real plan, I set up a website with the help of a few friends, and got started. It is a simple platform. A platform based off the U.S. HandsOn Network model, an organization that I had volunteered with in the US. one that partners students, corporates, and individual volunteers with local non-profit groups in need through a calendar based website. and have a team of volunteer managers who ensure that the experience is one full of impact for the volunteer, and more importantly the beneficiary Now, bear in mind that at the time there were very few foreigners engaged in similar activities at the time, and a culture of volunteering didn’t really exist in China. For the Chinese, at the time, volunteering was highly organized large groups with tshirt and hats that would be “engaged” for a day, or was of the retired person working for free variety. Which didn’t suit my interests, or my time availability, nor would it have for the large group of young professionals who were interested in volunteering Which presented a problem as most of the organizations we spoke with were skeptical. Didn’t understand why anyone would be interested in volunteering, and didn’t see how volunteers could help them solve problems. Even for them, one person could make a difference
centered around, the actions of the individual to engage themselves at a time that is convenient for them and in an issue that they are concerned with. The platform does not force commitment, nor does it push volunteers into programs that are of no tangible interest to them. IT is a platform focused on the volunteer experience so that volunteers maintain their commitment over a longer term. Allowing the organization to maintain its commitment to its partners and over the last 8 years we have gone from a small group of friends painting walls in schools, to a platform where more than 7500 individual volunteers actively engage each year in their local community.
And over time, particularly because we realized our partners needed more support, and because many of our individual volutneers were students and office workers, we began a process of developing student and corporate volutneer teams as well. Teams that, not unlike our average volunteer, have been looking for ways to give back to their community but had different time constraints and were more willing to settle into a single program. The volunteer side of our platform was scaling fast
Which has over time allowed HandsOn to grow in scale. From 1 partner to 50, from 1 project a week to nearly 75 weekly projects that engage more than 400 volunteers. And where we were once simply painting schools and assisting children rehabilitate, now our volunteers are teaching math, English, and science to students, bringing activities and joy to the elderly, are ensuring that the play rooms of children’ hospitals are open and those recovering from illenss get a bit of a break to play and feel like children again.
Which, when brought together, looks like this.
A platform that was designed to be scalable across cities, and within Greater China has full offices in Shanghai, Chengdu, and Hong Kong, and project site in more than 10 other cities. Each similar by design, in that they engage local volunteers, but each with their own local flavor as program partners are brought online based on the local needs to the community.
Which is ultimately what this platform is about. Community. Building bridges so that individuals can give back to their community, step by step, and rebuild some of the fissures that have come with dynamic growth over the last 15 years as more than 400m ppl have moved to China’s cities. While at the same time expanding the mindset of the volunteer to have a deeper understanding of community, and their role in it. These are people who were once apathitic, but now through volunteetring are able to see how individual action could make a difference. Even if that differnece was a small one.
And with that. Honestly speaking, I could have said to myself that I had done my part. I had built, managed, or incubated four affiliates across Greater China, engaged more than 20,000 volunteers who donated countless hours of their time for the community. Had I wanted to I could have wrapped a bow around it, updated my LinkedIn profile, and proably won an award or two for my “innovative” efforts to match community need with volunteer capacity.
instead what I found was that the more time I spent with HandsOn and the more time I spent traveling for work, the more I began to understand the fact that my work had just begun. I was seeing where the gaps between China’s rapid economic transformation was beginning to take its toll in other areas, areas that were once far outside of my professional scope, but concerning none the less as I began to question the sustainability of China’s model.
It wasn’t that I was concerned about the polar bears, or saw a link to the wider discussion on climate change. In fact, Al gore and polar bears for me were too intangible or emotinoal for me that didn’t offer a place for me to take my first step. I just saw a system that was barely able to feed itself, keep the lights on, or manage its waste. The movement of people and raw materials, the issues of water, the failures of supply chains. The speed of the economy were creating problems that were growing larger and more tangible by the day. At some point a larger failure was going to occur. A failure that would have a far wider impact than just China There was more for me to do. There were more steps for me to take.
The process is a path that I have set out as I myself have over time been flummoxed about the best path to take when tacking some of the most difficult/ largest issues that we as mankind face. Environmental destruction. Social degradation. Economic implosions. There is no silver bullet, or single platform, that I have seen that would fix any of these problems separately… much less when trapped onto a single eco system. For me it is a puzzle, with many pieces. Which has led to a process whereby I am constantly looking for next step, big or small. Incremental and disruptive. Which creates cycles of studying the terrain, aligning interests, and doing my best to move forward towards a single goal. Buiolding platforms, capacity, and developing a legacy that ultimately will have an impact on the world has become my sole focus. A focus that I have only grown more passionate about over time
It lead me to Shut down my “traditional” consulting practice, and recalibrate everything I was doing so that I could better understand the problems that China face, and proactively help others take steps forward to solve some very difficult problems. I hired a new staff, built a new website, rebuilt my client portfolio. None of which was very easy, because I was once again taking a first step. It was a far more difficult step, because to have an real impact, I needed to put myself between a number of different stakeholders at any one time and get them to work together. Again, there were many who said I couldn’t, I shouldn’t, and even if I didnt’ I couldn’t make a difference. Yet, 3-4 years in the process now, I am speaking with global CEOs about the strategic implications of sustainability in China, I am building programs that engage employees and government agencies at the same time to create innovative science programs across 20 cities, and helping other socially minded entrepreneurs learn how to maximize their efforts and build organizations with impact as the opportunities for products and services grows in China In essence, I am now acting to help others build capacity to take their first steps.
It is a process that has also led me to join the China Europe International Business School as an Adjunct Professor of Sustainability and Responsible Leadership for 4 months a year I teach 200+ MBA students about sustainability though a project based course. A program where they not only learn about the issues of sustainability and responsibility of leaders, but engage in an off campus project whereby they addresses an issue of sustainability as they define it. Students who have partnered with multinational corporations, government agencies, and local NGOs to act on issues of economic environmental, and society instability. TO build business plans for Shanghai’s food bank, to take their school off the grid, to improve elderly care, and .. It is program that was once met by heavy skepticism and pushback from students who felt that their time was better spent studying finance, marketing, and operations, but as the issues of environment, society, and economic grow in tangibility, the projects have born fruit, we have begun to see a change in our students. A change that we believe will alter the way that they as individuals lead other. In the corporate environemtn, or in the family unit.
Because that is what this has always been about for me. Impact. Develpoing platforms that have a positive impact on the communities I serve, the students I teach, and the firms I advise. For me, tt started with a single step of developing a website, and at times seemed like im running an obbstacle course at marathon speeds, but ultiamtely thorugh this process.. A process started by a single “normal” person was a lasting legacy that has engages thousands of volunteers each year, changing the way that stakeholders work together, and reclaibrating the minds of future business leaders. It is process where hurdles exist. Sometimes brick walls, where you will hear that you shouldn’t, you couldn’t, and even if you did… it wouldn’t matter. But this is where your resolve is important, and where even in the worst of times it is important to have something beyond passion catalyzing you. It has to go deeper than that, and no matter what, you cannot question your ability to change the world. Because the reality is that you can, even if you are early in your career, straddled with debt, and a “foreigner” to your environment. As we have seen through each of the presentations tonight, a single person felt compelled to take a step forward to action. To be a part of the solution. Instead of debating whether or not they should of, they could of, or what impact they would have. Yes. At times you lose sleep. Yes. At times your team loses sleep. But ultimately, it is all worth it because when the focus is clear, the tasks are tangible, then goals are achieved. Impact occurs. The world is changed.
So, as we wrap up this evening of stories of inspiration and action, please remember that none of the presentations would have been possible without someone taking that first step. Seeing someone in need. Extending their hand. And in each case, they are having an impact on the world. Saving sharks, delivering food, ensuring ancestral land rights, feeding and educating girsl who otherwise would have very different futures, and engaging volunteers to bridge and repair issues of community Each started with a single step A single step by a single person
TEDx Presentation - A Single Person Can Take a Single Step
one personcan make a differenceRichard BrubakerJuly 2012
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