by Indira Kaur Ahluwalia, an EO DC member and President of Development & Training Services, Inc.
An entrepreneur has infallible passion and has to have an almost delusional sense of reality. There is only one outcome. Success. Risk is understood, on an intrinsic level, but belied. When I started dTS, I was clear only about one thing. I had to. I had to do my part to somehow make the world a better place. Naiveté. I still do my best to retain as much of my sense of wonder and ingenuousness. It keeps me humble in a world that is so much larger than my passion, and also acutely aware of just how much I still have to learn. Fundamentally, it keeps me wanting to try to innovate success.
In this age in development, however, where innovation is critical but a sacrosanct ideal, and failure intolerable replete with dire consequences, the climate is not conducive to taking risks. By definition, innovation implies success by trial and error. The investment in the process of developing a new “thing” or “way” of accomplishing an outcome is the cost one has to pay for learning, and to ultimately have the desired result. The price in international development cannot be somebody’s health or rights. Nor can it be stakeholder – be it the Hill or the media – disapproval. And it certainly can’t be a bad performance reference, or worse, perceived retributory actions that limit full cost recovery.
A key challenge in this innovation–failure paradigm is vulnerability. Unless we make ourselves vulnerable to a cacophony of competition of new ideas to find that singular opportunity just in time that makes clean water accessible in a remote village or gets a woman a loan without collateral, we will not be able to make the world a better place. With vulnerability to mining the unknown to charter new courses, comes a deep need for collaboration based on trust. The economies related to budget cuts; fixed price lowest price technically acceptable contracting; a compressed marketplace cluttered by the strong, the new, and the weak against limited opportunities; and tight margins inhibits mutual transparency and cooperation which would enable learning from each other’s “failures” and building on each other’s successes while hastening and enriching innovation. Further, communications are mutually protected from the perspective of demonstration of compliance against line items rather than an open-ended dialogue for improving outcomes.
As an entrepreneur, risk is second nature. Innovation is the game. Improving the world with a patented technology or a new approach – ideally a combination of both – is the reward. The largest companies in our industry were started by a man or a woman wanting to make a difference while making enough money to pay the rent. At dTS, I try my best to applaud “effort” not achievement. I try to own the failures while sharing the learning. Ultimately, we must learn passionately on-the-job, risk ourselves to reach the next apex, protect our vulnerabilities by recognizing the common goal, trust in the greater good that is a shared commitment, and start again the next day.