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Social entrepreneurship to solve wicked problems: a life or death matter

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Dr Rahul Gandhi is a University of Auckland alumnus who is currently helping lead Wellington’s pandemic response. He has been entrusted with this responsibility after proven leadership in a range of life-saving endeavors around the world. Rahul’s wide-ranging experiences have made him uniquely qualified to comment on the importance of social entrepreneurship as being critical for enabling healthcare professionals to deliver healthcare at scale.

While at University, Rahul took part in Velocity (then called Spark) the student entrepreneurship programme delivered by the Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Rahul says it was there that his awakening to the potential of innovation and entrepreneurship happened. “My friend and flatmate Dr Priv Bradoo, was a founding member of Spark. We would have many philosophical rants over many years over all sorts of issues. Our whole flat would go along to Spark and Chiasma events and it was there the seeds were sown.”

Theory soon met practice. “I was doing an internship in a busy hospital in a low-income country. I had to shut the door on a screaming child in a hospital for lack of morphine. Walking away, it hit me that I understood pain at a molecular level, and yet myself and the entire establishment was unable to fix a supply chain issue that didn’t allow for a cheap drug like morphine to become available to this kid. I had spent 8 years at university and ostensibly, was powerless. This feeling came back to me whilst holding the hand of a dying 26-year-old in Whangarei hospital who had rheumatic heart disease: a preventable illness in New Zealand.” These are examples of wicked problems: those that do not have a singular cause, and are often incompletely characterised, difficult to detect, and have large consequences across sectors.

Rahul is driven by frustration at what is, and faith in what could be. This is the contradiction and conundrum common to both medical professionals and social entrepreneurs. How do you develop the objectivity necessary to be able to withstand the hurt of witnessing life’s cruelties but continue to care enough about what you are doing to keep going and affect change? “More than once I have had to walk away from a medical tragedy for lack of infrastructure, resources, and things that were ‘out of my control’. The feeling of sheer helplessness was overpowering. I think the desire to not remain disempowered is a powerful motivator. Social enterprises have made lasting impacts in many ecosystems. A friend, for instance, started New Story Charity, a social enterprise that 3D prints houses within 48 hours for the impoverished in Central America. The downstream effects of this have been wide – including better health outcomes! Learning about these sorts of endeavours has been very inspiring.”

Rahul made the decision to pursue an MBA at Oxford followed by a Master of Public Health at Harvard. His conviction in social entrepreneurship increased. “Imagine being able to marry the idealism of the socialist principles of healthcare with corporate efficiency, innovation and speed”. In his role as Innovation Fellow at the Healthcare Transformation Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, Rahul worked on developing a cost-effective solution for optimising rheumatic heart valve disease screening in East Timorese schoolchildren. The global economic repercussions of rheumatic heart valve disease complications are in the trillions annually. The clinical trial for the solution Rahul and his colleagues developed is currently underway.

Rahul is aware that the term entrepreneurship can invoke a lot of cynicism. “There’s a feeling that it relates to the ability to monetise or bring some sort of a commercial spin to things. Professor Stevenson at Harvard famously remarked, ‘Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled’. So, if you are remotely curious, and are looking for any sort of solution to any kind of problem, you are already displaying an entrepreneurial mindset.”

An entrepreneurial mindset also involves flexibility and pragmatism. Rahul points to the case study of a failed partnership begun on behalf of a multilateral agency to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria he was analysing a couple of years ago. A multinational alcohol company was interested in supporting the work but sparked a very public backlash and the partnership was severed. “Consider though that one can get a bottle of beer in a war zone but not a cholera vaccine. So potentially leveraging existing supply chains that the beer company had built to deliver vaccines would be far more efficient than creating new ones. Is there a way for instance to collaborate but not endorse? These boundaries will be challenged more over the coming years.”

Rahul’s advice to students who want to develop their capability is to read widely (“Read everything you can get your hands on – from the Economist, to the London Review of Books, to the Lancet”), to continue to strive and to not limit your thinking. “You can be a healthcare professional and a social entrepreneur, an activist and whatever else you want. Open your eyes and look around: there are urgent calls to restore the dignities of populations and the ecosystems of our planet, but also in our workplaces and communities. We all have a role to play, and it is as large or small as our minds will allow. I once had the honour of meeting Bryan Stevenson, a social entrepreneur and lawyer for death row inmates, who said what he probably says to everyone, but it still shakes me to this day. ‘The opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice’. That kind of motivation is infectious. When you convince yourself, then others are convinced by this, and before you know it, you’ve created a movement. So, find your tribe. If you can’t, then start one.”

James Hutchinson
James Hutchinson

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Dr Rahul Gandhi is a University of Auckland alumnus who is currently helping lead Wellington’s pandemic response. He has been entrusted with this responsibility after proven leadership in a range of life-saving endeavors around the world. Rahul’s wide-ranging experiences have made him uniquely qualified to comment on the importance of social entrepreneurship as being critical for enabling healthcare professionals to deliver healthcare at scale.

While at University, Rahul took part in Velocity (then called Spark) the student entrepreneurship programme delivered by the Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Rahul says it was there that his awakening to the potential of innovation and entrepreneurship happened. “My friend and flatmate Dr Priv Bradoo, was a founding member of Spark. We would have many philosophical rants over many years over all sorts of issues. Our whole flat would go along to Spark and Chiasma events and it was there the seeds were sown.”

Theory soon met practice. “I was doing an internship in a busy hospital in a low-income country. I had to shut the door on a screaming child in a hospital for lack of morphine. Walking away, it hit me that I understood pain at a molecular level, and yet myself and the entire establishment was unable to fix a supply chain issue that didn’t allow for a cheap drug like morphine to become available to this kid. I had spent 8 years at university and ostensibly, was powerless. This feeling came back to me whilst holding the hand of a dying 26-year-old in Whangarei hospital who had rheumatic heart disease: a preventable illness in New Zealand.” These are examples of wicked problems: those that do not have a singular cause, and are often incompletely characterised, difficult to detect, and have large consequences across sectors.

Rahul is driven by frustration at what is, and faith in what could be. This is the contradiction and conundrum common to both medical professionals and social entrepreneurs. How do you develop the objectivity necessary to be able to withstand the hurt of witnessing life’s cruelties but continue to care enough about what you are doing to keep going and affect change? “More than once I have had to walk away from a medical tragedy for lack of infrastructure, resources, and things that were ‘out of my control’. The feeling of sheer helplessness was overpowering. I think the desire to not remain disempowered is a powerful motivator. Social enterprises have made lasting impacts in many ecosystems. A friend, for instance, started New Story Charity, a social enterprise that 3D prints houses within 48 hours for the impoverished in Central America. The downstream effects of this have been wide – including better health outcomes! Learning about these sorts of endeavours has been very inspiring.”

Rahul made the decision to pursue an MBA at Oxford followed by a Master of Public Health at Harvard. His conviction in social entrepreneurship increased. “Imagine being able to marry the idealism of the socialist principles of healthcare with corporate efficiency, innovation and speed”. In his role as Innovation Fellow at the Healthcare Transformation Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, Rahul worked on developing a cost-effective solution for optimising rheumatic heart valve disease screening in East Timorese schoolchildren. The global economic repercussions of rheumatic heart valve disease complications are in the trillions annually. The clinical trial for the solution Rahul and his colleagues developed is currently underway.

Rahul is aware that the term entrepreneurship can invoke a lot of cynicism. “There’s a feeling that it relates to the ability to monetise or bring some sort of a commercial spin to things. Professor Stevenson at Harvard famously remarked, ‘Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled’. So, if you are remotely curious, and are looking for any sort of solution to any kind of problem, you are already displaying an entrepreneurial mindset.”

An entrepreneurial mindset also involves flexibility and pragmatism. Rahul points to the case study of a failed partnership begun on behalf of a multilateral agency to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria he was analysing a couple of years ago. A multinational alcohol company was interested in supporting the work but sparked a very public backlash and the partnership was severed. “Consider though that one can get a bottle of beer in a war zone but not a cholera vaccine. So potentially leveraging existing supply chains that the beer company had built to deliver vaccines would be far more efficient than creating new ones. Is there a way for instance to collaborate but not endorse? These boundaries will be challenged more over the coming years.”

Rahul’s advice to students who want to develop their capability is to read widely (“Read everything you can get your hands on – from the Economist, to the London Review of Books, to the Lancet”), to continue to strive and to not limit your thinking. “You can be a healthcare professional and a social entrepreneur, an activist and whatever else you want. Open your eyes and look around: there are urgent calls to restore the dignities of populations and the ecosystems of our planet, but also in our workplaces and communities. We all have a role to play, and it is as large or small as our minds will allow. I once had the honour of meeting Bryan Stevenson, a social entrepreneur and lawyer for death row inmates, who said what he probably says to everyone, but it still shakes me to this day. ‘The opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice’. That kind of motivation is infectious. When you convince yourself, then others are convinced by this, and before you know it, you’ve created a movement. So, find your tribe. If you can’t, then start one.”


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