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Featured Changemaker: TEJU RAVILOCHAN on Experimenting Boldly, Leaning into Fear, and Doing What Works

Philanthropiece Program Intern, Morgan Ferris, and Youth Global Leadership Program Coordinator, Alicia Conte recently sat down with Teju Ravilochan, CEO and co-founder of the Unreasonable Institute. The Unreasonable Institute is a mentorship program based in Boulder, Colorado that helps provide support and guidance to entrepreneurs around the globe working to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges. The Institute focuses on helping entrepreneurs scale up their projects to reach as many beneficiaries as possible. Each year, they unite two dozen entrepreneurs from every corner of the globe to live under the same roof for five weeks in Boulder, Colorado. There, they receive training from 75 mentors ranging from the Chairman of the Board at Whole foods to an entrepreneur whose enabled over 20 million farms to move out of poverty.  So far, 116 companies from 45 countries have come through Unreasonable’s  programs in Boulder, Mexico, and Uganda. Collectively, their products and services have reached more than 7 million people and 90% of them have raised funds, totaling over $90 million! In the following interview, Teju explains what remembering to dance has to do with creating a world where no one is limited by their circumstances.

What compelled you to start the Unreasonable Institute?

When I was 10 years old, I was walking in a market with my dad in India and a child asked me for money.  I asked my father, “Why is this child begging, and why am I not?”  My dad said that he was born into circumstances that make his life the way it is now.  That seemed unfair to me, and my father agreed and responded by explaining that it is necessary to use your privilege to help other people. As a doctor, my father learned to save lives in medical school; I wanted to know if there was something like medical school for learning how to end poverty. Since that event, the question of how to address poverty has always been present in my mind.

Years later during my time as a student at the University of Colorado, I traveled to India to learn more about how to address major problems in the world such as poverty. To my dismay, I found that most organizations involved in this type of work were doing a terrible job. They treated poor people like victims and handed out aid.  However, I also noticed that there were some really effective organizations.  These organizations treated the people they served like entrepreneurs capable of actively shaping their lives and making positive change in their communities.  I was inspired, and began to wonder if there was a way to support these people who had solutions for their communities.

After returning to the United States, I met with Daniel Epstein who came up with the general model of the Unreasonable Institute.   After I graduated in 2009, Daniel and I joined forces and started the Unreasonable Institute.  A few months later, Tyler Hartung joined our team as our third co-founder.

Why did you decide to focus on social entrepreneurship?

We want to solve the world’s biggest problems. However, no one knows how to solve them. The only way to solve a problem with no known solution is through trial and error, or experimentation. What kinds of people are willing to try solutions to big problems, fail, and keep trying? Entrepreneurs. So we decided to focus on working with entrepreneurs, specifically those targeting social and environmental problems. From their experiments or “start-ups,” we can learn about what might actually work to address some of the world’s biggest problems and help mobilize the resources and people to support and scale effective solutions.

What events in your life have shaped your values and how does what you’re doing reflect those values?

My experiences growing up in India helped me realize not everyone lives the way I do. For example, the boy I saw during my childhood while walking through a market with my father was concerned about whether he was going to have food to eat, while I was worried about whether I would get the next ninja turtle action figure. At the Unreasonable Institute, we strive to create a world where people are free of their circumstances, and can live the life they want. We want it to be possible for everyone to meet their basic needs and to live a life in which they have freedom, justice, and voice.   

The seven values at the Unreasonable Institute help us engage in the challenge of building this world and are reflected in everything we do. These values include treating everyone we meet like the messiah, militant transparency, leaning into fear, doing what works, experimenting boldly, getting shit done, and remembering to dance. We agreed upon these as a team, and their creation was shaped by the stories we have heard, as well as the ways we want to live our lives and do our work.

Can you elaborate on these values?

Here’s what each value means:

Treat everyone you meet like the Messiah in the room. We’ve learned that all people are capable of remarkable things and you never know what someone can do to help you nor who they will become. We prefer to treat people assuming that they might be one of the most important people in history, and to afford them that respect by the way we listen to them and communicate with them.

Militant transparency. To quote Louis Brandeis, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Most human challenges boil down to an inability to be forthright. So we try to get that out of the way by being as open and honest as we can.

Lean into Fear. This work is riddled with fear. But instead of letting it paralyze us, we try to move into it and learn from it by naming what we’re afraid of and pushing forward anyway.

Experiment boldly. We need to keep trying new things in order to learn and grow as an organization. This value reminds us to do so.

Do what works. We don’t want to get caught up in ideology. We want to figure out what produces results and do it.

Get shit done. Impact doesn’t come from just having good ideas. It comes from execution. No matter how polished our brand or how eloquent our words, it all comes down to action. That’s what this value reminds us of.

Remember to dance. There are so many obstacles in our way that if we don’t stop to celebrate the small wins, we won’t have the steam to keep charging into the difficulties we face ahead. This value reminds us of how important this is!

What key relationships have shaped your life path?

My father was influential in shaping my life path, in that he often had meaningful conversations with me and would give thoughtful answers to the questions I asked. He would explain concepts that are challenging to confront in a way that I could understand. He was also very supportive and patient.

My mom has also been a huge influence in my life. She is absolutely amazing and expresses an infinite amount of love for me and my siblings. She has played a huge role in shaping the way I build relationships with other people.

I also look up to the entrepreneurs we work with because of their immense courage. The work they do is often lonely and difficult. They are living in difficult places. They have endured malaria, bombings, government corruption, and have had their operations shut down. They have endured so much in their efforts to make a difference, yet they still show up despite the obstacles they encounter. They are hugely inspiring to me.

What is the most exciting part about your work?

We have the opportunity to manifest our values every day in the work we do, and to see the very real, tangible impact of our work on the ground. I’m constantly able to witness the relationship between values and impact. To me, the values we hold and practice are pivotal in our ability to create the impact we hope to see in the world.

Our practices in the office and with our partners are crucial. If we don’t embody the vision we have for the future on a scale of 10 people, how can we expect create those realities on a scale of millions? It’s exciting to think deeply about what our values are and practice them with our team and in the work we do. I’m not sure what differentiates the Unreasonable Institute  from others who do the kind of work we are involved in; however, I do know that our values are part of the reason why the we’ve attracted so many amazing mentors who fly around the word to visit entrepreneurs in other countries.

It’s also so exciting to see that our work is having an effect on the ground worldwide. People we work with come from all over the world and from all walks of life—from doctors to child soldiers. Among this diversity, there is a unifying goal, which is to bring about the world we hope to create. The connections our Unreasonable Fellows build with each other is invaluable, and I can see this in the very tangible partnerships that are formed.

We love the Unreasonable Institute’s practice of “militant transparency,” and appreciate how you list “Our Failures” as a section on your website.  Can you speak to why the Unreasonable Institute chooses to highlight it’s missteps alongside its successes?

We are a human centered organization that mobilizes people; to that end, we’ve paid a lot attention to how relationships get built. We build relationships by acknowledging our vulnerability instead of bombarding people with a litany of our achievements. Just because we are doing the work we are doing doesn’t necessarily mean we are doing it right. Exposing our vulnerabilities and the very human quality of our work keeps us humble. It’s easy to get caught up in what’s going well. However, it is important to remember that at one point, we didn’t know how to do the work we do now.

Despite our successes there are still mornings when I wake up and am tortured by the question of whether we are actually having an impact. Over the years, we have figured out a lot but there are still so many things we don’t know how to do. It helps us remain humble, to approach every situation as learners, and to empathize with others confronting similar challenges. Since we support entrepreneurs, it is also important to share our failures so others can learn from our mistakes.

What projects are the Unreasonable Institute currently involved in?

The biggest project we are currently involved in is the Unreasonable Labs. The goal of this initiative is to establish 100 locally based Institutes in 100 countries so that we can find the best entrepreneurs in different localities. We want to see how quickly we can train those teams to work effectively. For each Unreasonable Lab, we will provide a small amount of capital, a play book, training, and assistance to run programming. We will evaluate programs and teams.  From there, we will decide which teams we want to work with to develop full fledged institutes. We will train these teams in Boulder and then dispatch them to the countries they will be working in.

It’s really a process of distributed curation. We curate funders, mentors, partnerships, and entrepreneurs. If we had to do this by ourselves, it would be impossible. However, if we can share the responsibility of doing this work with other people, our impact and the impact of the projects we support is able to scale and grow.

Other projects currently underway are the Unreasonable Group, Unreasonable Capital, and Unreasonable Media.

What are you best known for around the office?

I’m best known for giving hugs, laughing, and for my love of puns and bad jokes. I’m a huge fan of Asana, our task management software and openly vocalize my feelings about the program. It’s awesome because it’s structured enough to be useful but allows for enough freedom for you to create what you need to. I’m also known for being opinionated—and if I’m not expressing an opinion, it’s because I’m holding back!

Want to learn more about the Unreasonable Institute, apply to be a Fellow, or get involved as a Partner or Mentor? Spend some time on their website, like ’em on Facebook, or read great articles like this one on their blog. 

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