The New York Times hired a badass

posted by on 2010.10.01, under Academia, Entrepreneurship, India, Shameless Plug, Travel
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It took an evening in Louisville, Kentucky to realize this.  After 8 hours of studying theory, statistics, and banging my head against a library wall, I threw on my finest sports coat and ventured out for my first night on the town in downtown Louisville.

This weekend is Idea Festival.  It has been one of the best surprises this town has afforded me in my first two months here.  I was looking forward to the event after the kickoff event – Thrivals 3.0 – featuring Jackie Robinson’s son (David), Janelle Monae and her “motown meets silicon valley” label Wondaland Arts Society, Howard Bloom, who spoke passionately about public relations work with Prince and Michael Jackson and several other inspirational speakers who were handpicked by U of L’s Professor Nat Irvin.

I entered the theater with very little background information of the speaker who was scheduled to talk today.  I saw something about “Gandhi” on the flyer, and made an assumption that it was an Indian, perhaps someone talking about philosophy or yoga, or something I was half interested in.  Within 5 minutes I lost any buyers remorse for purchasing tickets for this event, and realized I was meant to be in this very room, in Louisville, Kentucky, at this exact moment.

Anand Girid­haradas was able to articulate everything I experienced in my short tenure in Hyderabad, while enlightening hundreds of us on insightful observations he had made as a journalist in Mumbai (Bombay) India over 6 years.  He spoke with charisma, poise, and conviction, and intentionally paused, keeping listeners in check with the realization that we might never get this education ever again in our midwestern/southern lives, before revealing a new idea that kept us asking for more.  None of his propositions were left undefended, but there was very little that was academic about his tone.

He clearly ordered his thoughts into a presentation that alluded to things his audience could understand.   It felt like I was learning with him – which is a quality I have attributed to some of my best professors and mentors.

I understand that up until this point, I haven’t said anything about his  actual message.  I am not sure how well I can share the perspective he donated to us tonight, but I will try to summarize what stood out to me.  I urge the reader to purchase this man’s book, that will be coming out in 2011.  He too has experienced the frustration of not being really an American or an Indian.  Referencing a comment made by someone in the audience tonight, Indian’s don’t know whether to charge us 100 rupees for entrance (US prices) or 50 rupees (indian price) so they charge 75.  Before I get to his presentation, I need to preface it with a list of the similarities between us, which is absurd.

1.  We were born in Cleveland, Ohio to parents who grew up in Bombay, India and visited India every 2 years as children.

2. We attended college in Michigan.

3. Shortly after college we worked in India.

4. We are both the son of a professor

5. This year, we both started Ph.D programs.

Anand described his fears of the future in America, while optimistically proposing what we should do to avoid them.  Giving examples of TATA cars that cost under $2000, he suggested we stop limiting innovation to luxury items like ipads and smartphones.  He gave a staggering statistic about how there are more people in the world with access to mobile phones (mostly “dumb phones”) than toilets. (6 billion)  Manufacturing jobs should be focused to serve the markets that demand products based on need instead of desire.   Instead of redesigning existing products by stripping away features to lower costs, we should start from scratch, building a lower cost and useful product designed specifically for the market it is intended for.  Not everyone in the US owns an iPhone.  Damnit.

The US has always exported culture to the developing world, but Anand argues that the world no longer sees our way of life as an end-goal, but simply as a “means to an end.”  Just like our movies, basketball shoes, and Yankees hats are knocked off, so is the culture, and Americans do not see a dime in return.

The brilliance of this speaker is exposed as he concludes his talk.  By this time, I have gotten over the fact that he might be a better dresser than me, and has found a more distinguished hairstyle.  I start thanking my stars that the New York Times selected him to share these pearls of wisdom with a much larger audience than the Hyderabadass could ever hope to talk to.  He talks about community, about culture, and changes in geography that is impacting them.  He proposes that our generation is becoming more and more ‘placeless’ transplanting to new places for work and losing identities.  We have less in common with each other because technology gives more options.  Tivo restricts watercooler conversation because we no longer watch the same tv shows on the same nights.  For the first time in the history of the world more people live in urban cities than rural communities.  We are desperately longing for communities, which is why our search tools focus on this (Yelp)  but we’ve lost a connection from this old way of life, and it will be difficult to recover.

It was a great speech, and I was overall impressed that this went down in Louisville.  The timing was perfect, with the controversial premier of NBC’s Outsourced, which was discussed briefly, but also a subject of Anand’s latest piece in the times.  A badass, indeed.

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