Shantanu Paul: A tenacious spirit propelling youth development

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There are many social entrepreneurs in the world who all come from different walks of life and have different motivations behind getting involved, but they all share one characteristic; a passion for creating changes. Shantanu Paul believes in the power of empowering young people to be the change they want to see in the world, and upend social norms and expectations . Shantanu wants young people to develop change-maker skills such as empathy, critical thinking and creative problem solving to be able to push more boundaries and embrace, discover and indulge in the wonders that lie ahead of them.

Originally from Sydney, Shantanu came to Bangalore three years ago through the IDEX Global Fellowship program, an accelerator in Social Entrepreneurship for early stage professionals. He is now the Young Navigator Leader at Asia-Europe Foundation and a Consulting Intrapreneur at Ashoka Innovators for the Public.

Prior to this, Shantanu has worked for a number of aid organizations such as World Vision Australia and founded the Save the Children Australia Youth Movement. He started his own organization for Youth Mentorship and Youth Empowerment in Australia.

Shantanu spoke to Advance and shared how his move to Bangalore has opened doors for him to influence others in generations to come - handing the keys over to young people, open more doors and make headway into new ideas and adventures.

Interview by Tammy Lee, Marketing & Communications Officer, Advance

You’ve always have a strong interest in youth development and social impact. What motivated you to choose this field as a career?

I recall the dominant narrative growing up being, young people do not have the capability and the responsibility to create change. Whether it was school, in the household or local community, it has always been presented to young people that it was those adults who were elder, they  shaped the world we lived in and told  us how we should live. This type of almost ageism was always uncomfortable for me as I was seeing the power of young people around me being limited to social norms and expectations of them.

Contextually, my childhood to teenage years from 1990s to 2000s had seen a drastic change in the world, albeit just a short period of time. My experiences of growing up was vastly different from  my parents where they lived in  a world that was defined by repetition and efficiency through particular skill sets. I started to see problems around me and the problems of other young people through their eyes and noticed that so many weren’t equipped to address them. The education system I took part in was a perfect  compliment to the ageism narrative that I was brought up to believe, with the skills being nurtured not really addressing the realities of the current world. It was alternate experiences outside traditional education that really helped me develop and understand skills such as empathy, critical thinking and creative problem solving. I realise in hindsight that these change-maker skills are absolutely necessary in the world young people are entering into today where globalisation, infiltration of information and power dynamics are changing the rules of what it means to be successful. For me this is where my motivation lies and where I see the true definition of youth development. Young people are powerful and all they need is to give themselves the permission to solve the problems they see around them. In order to do this, new learning frameworks that encompass change-making skills need to be available for young people because I truly believe the earlier youth start applying and mastering these skills, the more powerful a position they will be in when navigating the world later in their lives. 

Can you describe your current roles at Ashoka and Asia-Europe Foundation? What’s the most interesting and rewarding parts of your job? What’s the not-so-interesting parts?

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I’m doing a whole bunch of different things actually and it just keeps getting more interesting every day.

Ashoka has really opened up so many doors for me and I’ve had the chance to contribute to a lot of different teams. My primary role at the organisation is to Search and Select the world’s leading social entrepreneurs as part of our lifelong Fellowship program. From the Search side, this means working with a huge network of social innovators, startups, and media partners, among many others, to create systems in which we can identify  creative approaches to tackling existing social problems. Where we see a lack of these ‘systems’ changing social entrepreneurs, my job is to help strengthen this ecosystem across South Asia by working with institutions who have influence to build these types of change makers. On the Selection side, I facilitate a very extensive selection process that is close to 50 hours of interaction time to find out if the idea is firstly powerful and then if it’s in the hands of the right person. Only 1-2 people out of every 100 will be selected for the Ashoka Fellowship.

Over the last few years I’ve had a number of different opportunities, including mapping the social innovation ecosystem in Bangladesh, re-launching our Search and Selection there as well as managing the whole team in South Asia in 2017. I’m now taking up a strategic role across Asia for our Search, Selection and Support teams. I also work with our Fellowship team, which is responsible for engaging the Fellows after election. At Asia Europe Foundation, I have for the past few years been representing Australia to present to our decision makers and world leaders the voices of youth across these two continents. This year, I’ll be heading to Brussels in conjunction with the ASEM Heads of State Meeting to present to attending world youth and industry leaders an intervention and call to action on the topic of ‘Ethical Leadership’ from a youth perspective and then working with a group of over 100 young leaders to establish some strategies where we as young people can practice and continue the conversation on ethical leadership globally. 

I think the most interesting part of the job definitely has to be the people that I continue to meet. I have realised that it’s people who continue to have the biggest influence on me and it is the actions of individuals that continue to shape the most powerful frameworks to follow tomorrow. Both Ashoka and Asia Europe Foundation continue to have this as a core of their work and strategies. 

The not so interesting part, that’s a good question. I would have to say that when you work for and represent such large organisations, you have to be flexible and empathetic to various time zones to accommodate an increasingly integrated global team. This often means late night calls or early morning calls and this sometimes is not fun! This team-of-teams approach is however a reality in this fast changing world we now live in. 

Has the social enterprise concept been widely recognised in Bangalore? What are the most common misconceptions you’ve encountered about social enterprise? 

I think it is definitely something that is widely recognised and appreciated across Bangalore and India. In fact, Bangalore is home to some of the most powerful social entrepreneurs anywhere in the world and individuals who are driving large scale systemic change through very unique insights, such as Harish Hande from SELCO who has been doing wonderful work on accessibility to clean energy and Akkai Padmashali from Ondede working to empower a whole new generation of leaders from the transgender community. I think however, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of social entrepreneurship globally and this is why there is still a lot of work to do. 

Social Entrepreneurship as defined by its pioneering organisation, Ashoka, is a broad field that encompasses solutions that range from but are not limited to market based solutions, strengthening value chains, bringing full economic citizenship to marginalised communities, and influencing policy to ensure vital goods and services become available to all. Some of the most common misconceptions that often undermine its power are: 

  1. That social enterprises are only organisations with a for-profit business model tocreate social impact. This is in fact not true at all and social entrepreneurship is played out across a spectrum of for profit, non-profit and hybrid models. 

  2. That any organisation that creates social impact, even if it is secondary or tertiary impact, is a social enterprise. This also isn’t true. A case in point is UBER which has created mass employment through it’s game changing platform but this wasn’t the primary purpose it was built for. Social enterprises always put impact over profit and all decisions are based on what will create the biggest impact. 

  3. Social Entrepreneurs are only focused on market solutions and the biggest problems of our time can only be solved by addressing power problems. Social entrepreneurs are in fact addressing the issue of a lack of organised citizenry and political action and in turn enabling millions of people all over the world to get access to vital services and rights that would otherwise elude them. A powerful way social entrepreneurs do this is to tap into the power of individuals to create pathways and opportunities for new people to contribute towards civic action. 

  4. Every NGO or organisation doing social good is a social enterprise. For an organisation to be a social enterprise, it should be changing the very system which perpetuates social problems in the first place. So this wouldn't mean building schools and providing education to communities that don't have access to education but to really addressing why education is being eluded in the first place and changing the system around it. A good quote to understand this is from Bill Drayton who says that 'Social Entrepreneurs are not just content with giving a man to fish or teaching him how to fish, they will not rest until they revolutionlise the fishing industry.’

Why did you choose to relocate to Bangalore? 

I moved here actually on a global fellowship program, IDEX Accelerator. IDEX provides early to mid stage professionals the opportunity to take part in the Social Enterprise sector through an immersive six-month placement with a social enterprise. My preempt was to work at Ashoka and when the placement matched, this was the catalyst for me to come. I have always followed the work of Bill Drayton and the thousands of Ashoka Fellows globally and admired from a distance how Ashoka has been able to create powerful networks and identify innovative ideas at an early stage. So when the door opened to come to Bangalore and represent Ashoka in its largest hub, I knew I had to make the move. 

The move however was only meant to be for six months but now has been close to three years in total so far. I think what keeps me here is definitely the work, which is directly tied to what is happening in India from a political, economical and social point of view and the increasing relevance an organisation like Ashoka has in the country. I’ve had immense professional growth while in India, including sitting on the Board of Advisors for IDEX after finishing my tenure, taking continental roles at Ashoka and leading global projects with various stakeholders. I have also been taken away by the lifestyle in Bangalore and over time it has really become like a second home where I continue to feel more comfortable every day. 

Did your Australian background bring you an advantage when working overseas? If so, can you tell us in what ways?

I think so, yes. One thing I notice about living overseas and constantly travelling to new places is that Australians are everywhere. There aren’t many of us but we do seem to work well together to make our presence in every corner of the globe. This makes it very easy to relate to all types of people, especially in India where we share so much in common with this powerhouse nation. Even if I am communicating through broken English with a local, we will always understand the change in body language when we speak about cricket or the common love for local food. As Australians, especially those who have spent time in India, we are known to be full of enthusiasm and have a willingness to connect with locals and that is definitely appreciated. It has helped in a professional capacity in many ways where I am able to bond easily with so many of our partners such as our Fellows . I think the immense diversity in cultures that you get in Australia also really helps when you need to connect with so many different people while working overseas. Australia is known worldwide to be a multicultural country and having grown up in the lower Eastern Suburbs of Sydney, I definitely got to experience this. I also have to travel throughout the year to many places outside of India. Being an Australian the ease of x entry requirements into a lot of countries does certainly help with that travel.

What surprised you most when you first arrived in Bangalore?

I think definitely how multi-faceted the city is. Globally Bangalore is known as the tech hub of the world, where big business happens and IT is outsourced to. So when I got to Bangalore, I expected to meet this type of crowd and for the city to be dominated by a few industries. I was pleasantly surprised to see how diverse Bangalore is in terms of arts, culture, sports, music among various other things. The people you meet have such varied interests and there is almost something to do for all types of crowds. The city really has something to offer for everyone at any given time. When you couple that with the extremely friendly nature of South Indian people, it really does set the tone for a wonderful road ahead. 

Could you share with us the best way to experience the real Bangalore that tourists often miss?

I always feel the best way to explore Bangalore is to go as local as possible and take part in the daily grind. The best memories I have of the city are the interactions and bonding at the local chaiwallah (teashops) or heading to one of the hundreds of sagars (cheap local eateries) and getting my hands dirty with a delicious masala dosa. This really gives you the experience of locals and helps you understand the beauty of the local culture and way of life. It’s something everyone in Bangalore does and takes part in. Similarly, often the best, hidden treasures are found by exploring the city without really looking for a place to go. The most beautiful places I have found and the experiences I have had are through walking through local neighbourhoods and happening to cross something wonderful. A friend of mine from Connecticut was once having a dosa for lunch at a streetside stall and he happened to see from the corner of his eye someone eating what looked like a ball of play dough. Fascinated by this, he went over and asked what it was and the friendly local offered him some of this millet based ‘ragi ball’ lunch. For the rest of his trip, my friend only had ragi balls for lunch. This is how Bangalore should be explored. Oh also, go to Toit and have their wonderful craft beer there (if that’s your thing) or a nice meal. Definitely don’t miss that!