Floating Above the Boxes: Business, Nonprofit, and the Age of Falling Boundaries
Passion and Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders
John Coleman, Daniel Gulati, & W. Oliver Segovia
320 pages, Harvard Business Review Press, 2011
Nothing but the bleak darkness of a starless night. Deafening thumps of what felt like a thousand elephants marching into our living room. Shrieks of panic. My first reconstructed memory of life. “What did my father do? Why are all the soldiers after him?” In 1980, when Zia Ul Haq proclaimed a military coup, my parents, young aspiring revolutionaries-cum-physicians, escaped Pakistan with their two toddlers in the middle of the night to buy survival in return for a life in exile in Saudi Arabia. “It must’ve been something all the big, powerful people despised,” my five-year-old self thought. “Interesting … we’re all somehow alive and doing fine.”
My ten-year-old self, covered from head to toe in an ultraconservative Arabic garb, holding tight to my mother’s hand, walking and dodging strange men’s nasty stares. Sitting cross-legged on princely rugs in the vast, serene, open spaces of Haram-al-Sharif, observing rows of women in black and men in white, now heads on the ground, now standing upright, now hands on the knees, connecting with their creator on command. Makkah looked to me like an exotic and spectacular world of contradictions, a place where I clung to any opportunity to form, rather than find, an independent identity. With manufactured dreams and opinions, which the big people might honor or despise, I began to love the feeling of freely floating in thin air, right above the borders of right and wrong as defined by a people, charting out my own rules of good and evil. We returned to Pakistan after eleven years, when democracy was finally restored.
“Duck, now!” my father exclaimed to all of us in the backseat. I peered out the window, terrified. A growing crowd of angry young men, with clubs and arms. The driver hit the gas pedal. None of us said much. We didn’t play our favorite tunes. Just waited for the shrill silence to dissolve. Once we left the outskirts of the city, Karachi, we left the home we had built with half a decade of savings, yet the air felt more breathable again. Ethnic violence between the Sindhi-speaking and Urdu-speaking populations had reached a crescendo. Families were stopped, commanded to say words only Sindhis knew how to pronounce, and depending on which side the other side was on, were harassed, mugged, and often enough, shot on the spot. That year, the year I turned thirteen, we ended up making a life for ourselves by my father’s village, Akri, in a town named Badin. Some five hours away from the civilization I knew, Badin allowed our parents a life they had been wanting to come back to—one where, through their chosen profession, they could care for the sick and helpless who have no place else to go. We children were home-schooled and determined to prove to the world that we could and would go places.
I always liked intellectual exploration, but it was in the solitude of a life with virtually no visitors to host or places to visit, no cliques to try to fit into, and no norms to sport, that I fell in love with education for the sake of exploration and illumination of the mind. With squealing chirps of rodents as my backdrop and a gentle feeling of suffocation on warm summer nights, I’d sit on my bed and imagine my fifty-year-old self giving interviews, reflecting on a lifetime of achievements, a Nobel Peace Prize winner one night, CEO of a conglomerate that brought the country to prosperity another, while carefully name-dropping some of the world’s best universities, usually Harvard, that I was supposed to have attended.
I graduated from Cornell with a major in human development; married a wonderful, wise person who speaks Urdu and cannot pronounce those words only Sindhis are supposed to say; took a job in consulting and, in the wake of the dot-com bust, got laid off within nine months; and then fast-tracked my career with a company I fell in love with, Microsoft Corporation. Microsoft allowed me the freedoms to chart my destiny and be rebellious with reason. Outside of my job as a product manager, with strategic business management and P&L responsibilities at age twenty-six, I headed up Microsoft’s women’s employee group, representing over five thousand members and twelve thousand female employees around the world—and in the process fought for simple rights that questioned age-old company policies that did us no good. I felt I made a difference. That it mattered that I was there.
I traveled to the pits of Sindh and the brinks of Pakistan and Kashmir, working for an education not-for-profit and a microfinance organization. This was not part of my strategic life plan. No form of nonprofit was. During my third week of Harvard Business School, I was forced to take a medical leave of absence and rejoin the program almost ten months later. Unemployed in the United States, between a work and student visa, and eager to make something of the days handed to me, I took the first flight to Pakistan so I could force myself into a corner to do something I would never otherwise have done in my now interesting-on-paper life. I found myself among half-naked children running on the streets, with glimmers of rebellion in their eyes and dreams of doing something they will one day be truly proud of. I visited my cousins in our village, whose eyes and smiles reminded me of my four-year-old self, and that the life I was living now was alien to me as a child. I saw my aunts and uncles, who didn’t know what or who Harvard is or even how to spell that word, who had likely never owned an independent thought or harbored any reason to reason.
Crack of dawn. I was driving Mona, a dear friend, to Akri. No one outside my family—none of my friends, nor my husband—had ever visited my family in Akri. She had flown in from the United Kingdom after a brief conversation about whether she would join me in founding an organization that would plug into communities around the world, give them the option and ability to think for themselves, and create better alternative realities. We stood in the heart of my village—in front of children young and old. With glazed eyes in an inaccessible world, the older ones looked through us. We met with the village elders. They complained about lack of education. About the government. About the state of the country and how we’re all heading toward disaster. They complained, and my heart sank in my chest. I felt privately and acutely embarrassed.
And then we met the little ones. Girls and boys five, six years old, in their orange shalwar qameez and big, wide-open eyes. Some with their hands on their mouths covering their giggling teeth. Others elbowing their neighbors, pointing at us. I stood in front of them all, taking in the distinct energy in the room. Mona threw a question to the room, “So, can anyone tell me what you want to be when you grow up?” A little voice at the back said out loud, “A heart surgeon.” Mona and I stared at each other. Other voices joined. “A teacher—for the little children,” said a little girl, fixing her head scarf. “A lawyer, like in the movies, to arbitrate justice.” We found that for the little children, the realities of Akri and of their destined life in this village had not yet set in enough to convince them how unreasonable their dreams sounded. Images of young Bill Gates flashed before my eyes—with big, round eyes, and too much energy for his slender little body to hold in, saying, “We will have a computer on every desk!” Gates morphed into Sam Walton, who faded in and out with Warren Buffett. “We will make a school for you here,” I blurted out to little Atta, “so you become all that you said.” “Really?! Here? When?!” he exclaimed back. And we never looked back.
Thedreamfly.org, the organization we founded that day, exists to bring together communities in conflict to co-invest in each other’s success for a better common future, one where drive for personal distinction, appreciation of differences, and thoughtful, independent reasoning prevails. It exists to create a human connection that’s inviolable by culture, religion, and politics. We chose business and education, not charity or literacy, as the means to achieve this goal.
I was on one knee, looking at young Nazeem through the eye of my SLR camera. We had gone for a stroll in the village and I wanted to capture the moment. “Remind me what you want to be when you grow up?” He smiled at the camera, looking calm and confident; he must’ve grown several inches since the last time I had seen him with Mona several months ago. “Last time I wanted to be a pilot but I now want to be a scientist.” I was moved. You, Nazeem, are why we’re doing what we’re doing, I thought to myself, and looked to find my voice. “That’s fantastic! Do you know what kind of a scientist?” Looking straight in my lens with his beautiful smile that belied his words, Nazeem said, “Ones that know how to make bombs. So I can bomb India.” And you are why we’re doing this.
August 2008. I had returned to HBS, completed my first year and I was now standing on the ground inside the dreamfly school in Akri. I could hear uncontrollable excitement and energy everywhere. Kids were laughing, signing, playing, learning. My throat kept lumping up with overwhelming emotions of excitement, astonishment, and gratitude. I stepped into Class One, Section Blue. The class seemed to be having a discussion about whether kids should ask the teacher for permission before they have to step out of the class. “If anyone can go at any time, there will be no rules,” one said. “That’s a good point, but why do we need rules?” asked the teacher. The class paused for a moment. And my eyes immediately teared up. They weren’t just learning A-B-C’s and 1-2-3’s. They were … thinking. “Maybe to avoid chaos?” said another student, “because sometimes when there are no rules, every man thinks he’s the boss.” The class fell into a fit of laughter and applauded. I was seeing the HBS case study method in action in Akri in Class One. We weren’t imparting knowledge to our children, we were merely inviting them to learn for themselves. As the class settled down for a bit, a hand went up in the air: “Teacher, why did we all clap this time, when we didn’t clap when Syed had the right answer earlier to your question?”
We are now looking to take dreamfly to Afghanistan. Adopting a for-profit business model that can help us ensure that our efforts can be self-sustainable and self-propelling, we want to establish an organization that outlives its founders. We are using technology and social networking to sew the seams between communities at war, giving each exposure to the world outside the one they most comfortably fit in—connecting Pakistan with Afghanistan with the United States, humans with humans, really, regardless of where they live or stand.
Graduating from HBS, I didn’t explicitly consider going into the not-for-profit sector. Neither was I thinking I was going into the for-profit sector. The incredible freedoms that come with floating across and above boxes—the boxes of business and social good, of cultures we must fit in, of beliefs we must abide by—and the courage and power to look through sacred norms, that’s what I care to build into myself and the world around me.
I decided to come back to Microsoft Corporation, to a rebel organization within the company that runs internal groups like external start-ups unhindered by the large-company mentality and practices. We’re looking to break a few rules, fall on our faces, pick ourselves up, learn, reason, and march ahead. I take my dreamfly spirit to work and my work ambitions to dreamfly. I take my ability to manage with near-zero resources to my Microsoft start-ups and my business savvy to Afghanistan. And my anxious energy to do more, my fervent desire to make an impact, my unsystematic at-the-edge-on-the-border-of- boxes thinking to everything I do.
More and more, I feel, we must define ourselves by who we are, our deeply personal naked self, and what we want to do, rather than by which professional hole the peg fits best. And we must find our way to our vision through our own crooked path, exposing possibilities we never imagined might exist.
I don’t know where the fullness of my life will take me. If I will become that CEO. If I will win any accolades. If I will die when I’m forty. But I know I want to live a life that gives people reason to reason; to pause and question the comfortable assumptions, to form and inform beliefs, and never give up common sense for common opinion.
This is just one of many voices from a new generation of leaders featured in Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders (Harvard Business Review Press). To find out more, visit Passion & Purpose on Amazon.com.
Reprinted with permission by Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders. Copyright 2011 John Coleman, Daniel Gulati and W. Oliver Segovia. All rights reserved.