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Telling a personal story of 


Embracing Ambiguity


Talking Less, Doing More. 

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I come from a family of well-educated engineers, doctors and civil officers. I grew up in a sheltered environment, learning about the significance of a credible education, of stability, and of planning as far ahead as possible. Most of my extended family relocated to study in the U.S, and have built comfortable lives there. If I was writing this a decade ago, I might have had a similar story to share.

But I have grown up in the “new” India, and in this land of expanding opportunity, I chose the road less traveled.

In my 26 years I have traveled the world, started a not-for-profit, spent a month in the Antarctic and have chosen a career that attempts at “good” business. Turning down several opportunities to continue working abroad, I chose to return to India. The emergence of a pulsating, dynamic new India has triggered a reverse brain drain. Indians living in different corners of the world, who had gone looking for opportunity, chose to return to a vibrant, exciting land of promise. So did I. I came back to an India ‘whose faith in success was far greater that her fear of failure’. An India that was poised as the fastest growing free-market democracy in the world. Globalization with all its challenges and opportunities had created a country of paradox, success, failure and hope. The development of a young, new India in the face of a globalized world economy has greatly influenced my thinking and life choices.

India opened its doors to the global economy, transforming the lives and aspirations of its people. This evolution came to life with A.R Rehman winning two Grammy Awards, Kalpana Chawla being the first Indian-born woman to fly in space, and Slumdog Millionaire winning an Oscar. The world was looking at India with curiosity, and inter-cultural connections multiplied exponentially. Consequently, my dream of traveling the world became a reality. I worked with an international team in Rotterdam that led a global organization to achieve 45% growth in results. Our mantra was ‘Connecting to Deliver’, and we leveraged technology that supported people across the world to learn, share and achieve. I developed programs that mobilized youth to experience new economies and cultures. Recognizing these successes, I was awarded a scholarship to participate in a sustainability leadership program in the Antarctic. This would have been unheard of for a young woman in the India that was. The world had literally become my playground, and these experiences completely changed the way I viewed my country, my future and myself.

Today, India is riding high on its so-called “demographic dividend”. While India’s youth hold significant promise, the lack of education, inadequate infrastructure and skewed employment prospects present a daunting task. Young India needs empowerment, training and access to livelihood opportunities. Being a young Indian, my work has focused on youth mobilization for social impact. Recognizing the need for ethical and sustainable leadership, my work in AIESEC was directed towards exponentially increasing the quantity of leadership experiences the organization provided young people in India and globally. While leading the Global Entrepreneurs Program, my team trained aspiring Indian entrepreneurs and gave them a platform to develop business skills by interning with growing enterprises. Today my work leverages India’s demographic dividend through social enterprise. The enterprises I support are transforming the lives of unemployed youth through door-step business training, providing technology-based interactive education to disadvantaged communities, and generating employment in rural India through BPOs.

India’s entrepreneurial spirit is being harnessed in whole new ways. The world is attempting to learn from Indian innovation or ‘jugaad’ in Hindi, as a tool to find uncommon solutions to common problems. Earlier this year, a business acquaintance from Accra experienced Dharavi, Asia’s largest ‘five-star’ slum as part of a global initiative on Urban Poverty that I managed. He reflects that ‘Dharavi’s future is different from the slums in Ghana because Dharavi has the ability to grow organically through the entrepreneurial spirit that is being nurtured there.’ This observation isn’t limited to Dharavi, but is the energy that drives India. The deep-rooted ambition, innovation and risk-taking ability of my people set them apart. As an actor in India’s entrepreneurial story, the traits that define the country, define me. I’m an innovator; I practice the art of lateral thinking, of resilient creativity and of improvisation in the face of adversity. I enjoy trial-and-error and making things work with limited resources. I’m excited by opportunities with an element of risk, which I believe is critical to unraveling the complex challenges of today’s world. India’s tryst with ‘jugaad’, as one part of its entrepreneurial success, has deeply influenced my development in recent years.

My connection to India’s complex growth story is best described in these lines – ‘There are 2 India’s in this country. One India is straining at the leash eager to spring forth and live up to all the adjectives that the world has been showering upon us. The other India is the leash. One India says give me a chance and I’ll prove myself. The other India says prove yourself first and maybe then you will have a chance….’ The two India’s are slowly drifting apart – one rich, the other poor; one living in luxury while the other struggles to sustain itself. The future of our country depends on closing this gap. My work in social enterprise aims to increase conversions from one India to the other side. I co-create sustainable solutions with grass-root innovators to transform the less advantaged to assertive customers, thus contributing to build a more sustainable growth curve for the country. I support enterprises that provide low-cost sanitary napkins to rural women, deploy easy-to-use water wheels in villages, and empower rickshaw pullers to be owners. Choosing social enterprise has been a natural career path. With all its challenges, I draw immense satisfaction and learning from my work. The India phenomenon and my choice to return to it, has been a profound influence on my thinking, learning and actions.

You joined Rob for his first ever youth expedition 12 years ago. What inspired you to come back for a second time?
In the expedition 12 years ago, I was totally inspired by the beauty of Antarctica, by Robert Swan, and by the whole team. It was a truly amazing experience, because at that time we (in Vietnam) did not have internet, we did not have much information from the outside world. Everything I saw or heard in that trip really changed my thinking, my perspectives at the world, and took me to a great level of awareness about the environment that I had never had. The trip was so inspiring, that it made me quit my current job to switch to working for the development and environmental field.
For the last 12 years since I came back, I have been giving talks, and working on numerous environmental projects in the country, but somehow I still felt lonely. Being the first and only Vietnamese person to set foot in Antarctica is “cool”, but later I came to realize I needed more than that. I want more people to have the same experience as I did, so I can have more friends to work on the mission together with me. That’s why I decided to come back with a whole team, Team Vietnam, because I know that together, we can make a bigger impact.

What is your dream for Team Vietnam?
We have been talking about what we are going to do when we come back. Six of us have different jobs, live in different communities, so we will be able to deliver the message to totally different audiences. One part of the plan is to set up a website in Vietnamese, to inspire people to change the way they think, and take small changes in their daily habits, to become more environmentally friendly. The problem in Vietnam is not that we consume too much energy as the developed countries do, but with bad habits, we waste a lot. I really hope we can change that with our presentations, the website, and through working with the local media. That’s the least we can do.

Based on the intense experience that you have had, what is your message to young people in India?
I just would like to say this: you are going to be the leaders of your country. Don’t make the same mistakes as they did in the developed countries. Be aware, be motivated, and be ready for any opportunity that might drop on your head any time, such as an expedition to Antarctica like the one we are having. However, you don’t need to go to Antarctica to be able to save the world. Anyone can do something good for the environment. The warrior is already in you, so be proactive, start to think green, act green, and remember, Asia will be the solution to the world’s current problems. So inspire, and be inspired! The future of the world’s second biggest country is in your hands.

The first story on my list is that of Laurie Dexter

Laurie is an extreme adventurer whose feats include skiing for 91 days from Russia to Canada through the Geographic North Pole, skiing and sled hauling to the South Pole, traversing the ice caps of Greenland, Baffin Island, and King George Island in Antarctica, and numerous other polar region expeditions. As a runner he also goes to extremes, including having run 100 km in 8 hours, over 200 km in 24 hours, 600 km in 6 days, and 10 marathons in 10 days.

He lived on Baffin Island for 13 years where he learned the survival skills of the Inuit (Eskimos) and speaks their language. Since 1993 he has made over 90 ship based trips to Antarctica and more than 50 to the Arctic as an expedition leader and lecturer.

In recognition of his international contribution the Canadian Government has honored Laurie with the Order of Canada.

I had the honor of asking Laurie some question about his life and his role as our expedition leader –

What is your relationship with the Polar Regions?
I have lived in the Polar Regions most of my life. As a boy I grew up in the Shetland Islands, north of Scotland, so learned to love the sea, the isolation, the outdoors, wildlife and all of nature. A lot of my early reading was about explorers and after I first learned about the Inuit (Eskimos) I knew I wanted to meet them. I ended up living with the Inuit on Baffin Island for 13 years and still live in the Canadian north although now in the sub-Arctic.

What has been your inspiration? Why have you chosen this path in life?

As I mentioned my early heroes were explorers and mountaineers – Magellan, Cook, Scott, Shackleton, Peary, Nansen, Amundsen. But my inspiration was probably more taken from some of the early missionary explorers who worked for justice, such as Livingstone in Africa, and Wilfred Grenfell in Canada.

As a result I first worked with the Inuit as an Anglican minister, and continued to go on expeditions in the Arctic while living there, and later moved into full time work in the adventure industry.

What has been the most challenging expedition you have been a part of?
The hardest expedition both physically and mentally was the Polar Bridge Expedition in which we skied from central Siberia (Cape Arktichesky) to Canada (Ward Hunt Island). This took 91 days from shore to shore over a thin crust of frozen ocean that is always moving under the influence of wind and ocean currents. It is rarely flat but has large pressure ridges and also areas of open water. As we did this in winter it was also very cold, often between -40 and -50 degrees Celcius.

Could you share one of your best moments while exploring Antarctica?

One of the best trips I have done was skiing the length of King George Island pulling sleds, but to pick out best moments is difficult. Many of the highlights have been watching the response of people we have introduced to Antarctica and to see their minds open to new ideas and possibilities.

What have been some of the tougher moments in terms of navigation and zodiac operations on the IATE 2009?

We haven’t had any very difficult navigational challenges, but we did have two tough zodiac operations. When the team camped on Hovgaard Island we knew the forecast was for winds increasing overnight to around 30 knots. 30 knots is normally our cutoff point for driving zodiacs because when a driver is alone driving into the wind there is a chance that the wind can get under the zodiac and flip it. Because of the figuration of the islands the wind seemed to be funneled and when it came time to pick up the campers it was blowing over 40 knots. Fortunately it was slightly behind while driving to shore empty and coming back against the wind the zodiac was full, so there was no danger of flipping. But I was very relieved when we had everyone safely back on board and all the zodiacs safely back up the hook and lashed down on deck.

The second time was at Almirante Brown in Paradise Bay. We landed in almost flat calm conditions with a few patches of brash ice around, but after an hour or so the wind began to pick up from the north. Soon it drove the floating ice right onto our landing area. The point of land where Robert and the camera team landed became totally surrounded and they had to walk to the station where we were loading everyone as quickly as we could. The zodiacs were completely hemmed in with ice but it was not too closely packed and we were able to push our way slowly out. By then the wind was strong and we returned to the ship in choppy waves with spray occasionally breaking over the boats.

The coolest part about being in Antarctica was of course, the continent itself. No words can describe her majesty. The feeling of standing at the top of a mountain and looking out at an endless expanse of blue white ice dotted with the black and orange of penguins, is pure magic.

The other cool part about being in Antarctica was the people I met on the expedition. Two weeks of exploring the continent were made incredibly fascinating, new and intense by my fellow expeditioners and team leaders. I would like to share some of these brilliant stories; of lives lived with courage and humility, risk and focus.

Antarctica is a whisper, the most marvelous and extravagant of whispers; as it entails the most pristine of beauties, it can suddenly and without notice, turn into the most hostile of environments.

It’s a whisper that let’s you feel what heaven’s like, as a whale dances peacefully right besides you. Timeless, as the most magnificent of sceneries surrounds you, with all possible combination of blues and whites; it’s a poem.

It’s a whisper as it diffuses and disappears before your eyes, before you even notice. It thus forces you to be present, as each moment might be your very last chance to enjoy such beauty. And yet it inspires you to look for, to imagine and to generate other moments of connection with nature of such beauty, so as to attempt to resemble them in the future, to live once again or for the very first time what these words I write cannot describe.

It’s a whisper that goes so fast that it is truly irrelevant if you’ve been here or not. It is a cry to live life as presently as you can. It reminds you, and does no more than that, of the fragility of every moment, of how these moments can entail the most radical of beauties or be as harsh as you can imagine.

Live life to the fullest. Antarctica cries out loud just that. Look for such beauty on every sunset, on every walk on the woods, on every drop of water in a calm lake or a wild river. It does nothing more than remind you that you are nature, and that you have been longing to reconnect with this reality that lies within you.

Antarctica is a whisper of life
(written by Max Olivia)

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