Lately, it seems that I'm surrounded by thoroughly unreasonable people. I started the day reading an except from Share Our Strength founder Billy Shore's upcoming book, The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men, posted on John Hopkins Carey Business School's website. He talks about three philosophical underpinnings of breakthrough thinking: that good is not good enough; that most failures are failures of imagination; and that irrational self-confidence can be a good thing. Without these three convictions, says Shore, most efforts to solve our toughest problems will falter. 'Taken together,' he concludes, 'they affirm the wisdom of George Bernard Shaw who said, ‘the reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.''
I'm familiar with the quote, of course, since I'm reminded of it every time I receive updates from the Unreasonable Institute, which I blogged about last year. You may recall that Unreasonable is an accelerator and incubator for high impact social enterprises; it runs an online competition where for-profit and not-for-profit entrepreneurs raise money for ventures that seek to solve major world problems.
Recently, I've spent some time with one of the more unreasonable young men I've met. Ankur Jain, 21, is a senior at Wharton's elite undergraduate school, and the founder of Kairos Society, a global student organization that he founded when he was a sophomore. According to his dad, Naveen Jain, the CEO of Intelius, Ankur declared when he was just a lad that one day he would make more money than his father. Dad responded, 'okay, but what would make me really proud is if you did something to positively impact more people than I have.' Smart guy, Ankur's dad.
Years later, the young Jain founded Kairos Society to bring entrepreneurial students from around the world together. The goal: encourage them to form global startup companies to address huge issues like world hunger, clean water, green technology development, access to education, energy consumption, healthcare, etc. So at the second annual Kairos Summit, held in Manhattan last Friday and Saturday at the United Nations, the Rockefeller estate in Tarrytown, and the New York Stock Exchange, Jain brought together 300 or so 'Kairos fellows' and introduced them to mentors from industry, government, and the nonprofit sector (past mentors include Bill Gates and Bill Clinton). They included students from China, India, Saudi Arabia, Europe, Mexico and the U.S. who already have companies that do everything from develop new biodiesel technology (Solben) to help you find a parking space near Fenway Park (HelloParking). In a series of breakout sessions, experts described some of the world's biggest problems, and then set the kids loose to come up with business ideas to address them.
The hope is that the students will continue to be in touch with one another and with mentors to make those ideas come to fruition. What a thoroughly 'unreasonable' expectation! And yet, you could see the wheels turning. 'Irrational self-confidence' was everywhere and it was clearly contagious. What will come of it? Perhaps nothing. Or maybe the next Vestergaard Frandson, the Swiss company that is having a major impact on global health with products such as PermaNet (malaria prevention) and LifeStraw (clean drinking water). Those innovations were spearheaded by the company's 39-year-old CEO, Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen, who I learned about at the summit. No 'failure of imagination' there. I'm betting that some of Ankur Jain's Kairos fellows are cut from the same cloth. We'll be watching them and updating you on their progress.
DONNA FENN is the author of Upstarts! How Gen-Y Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success, an exploration of the ways Gen Y is changing the entrepreneurial landscape.
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