When Zia Imran first called me two years ago to update me about his new role at SPRING I was a bit skeptical. Did we really need another accelerator? What could a new one possibly do that others hadn’t done already?
Over the next two years as I met the many teams mentored by Imran, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of talent picked up by SPRING and their commitment to making impact. SPRING had a clear mandate – improve the quality of life for young, teenage, adolescent girls and women in emerging and frontier markets. Businesses accelerated by SPRING worked on ideas that delivered on that mandate in their countries. SPRING didn’t work with young and fresh startups – it picked up teams that were more mature and on their way and emphasized customer centered product development initiatives that were an offshoot of the original business.
For instance, in Pakistan Sehat Kahani focused on women and maternal health, Dot&Line on afterschool math education, Edkasa on providing supplementary educational support through online tutorials to those who need it most, Rizq on eliminating hunger from the streets of urban cities in Pakistan. In all of these instances the team from SPRING helped founders expand their product offerings in alignment with the SPRING mandate. Make life better for young girls and women in Pakistan.
SehatKahani, Dot&Line, Edkasa and Rizq are just four of the eleven teams that SPRING accelerated in Pakistan across two cohorts in 2017 and 2018. But these four could go toe to toe with founders anywhere in the world with what they achieved with whatever little they had.
The flydubai flight to Nepal was uneventful. Kathmandu airport was small, functional and quick. At 10 pm, the immigration counter for foreigners was empty. The visa on arrival formality took 6 minutes. Three hours later, after a ride across some really bumpy roads I had reached my destination.
A small hill resort that looked down on Kathmandu valley from its perch on top. At 1 am I couldn’t see much except for hints that when morning came the next day the views would be breathtaking.
I had intentionally left curtains open in my room. My first meeting with the SPRING team was at 7:30 am, followed by a 3 hour lecture on pitching and story telling to 19 businesses being accelerated by SPRING at the boot camp. I didn’t want to risk sleeping through the four alarms I had set.
Nepal is one hour 45 minutes ahead of Dubai. First light was at 4:45 am. I had finally gone to sleep at 2 am after catching up with Imran Zia on the agenda for the morning. I don’t think I have ever jumped out of bed with as much energy after 2 hours of sleep as I did that day when I glimpsed magical views peeking out of my windows. Nepal despite its many challenges was breathtakingly beautiful.
After two decades in the field, I consider myself a jaded and cynical mentor. My default reaction now to most pitches and teams is no. I have seen my fair share of impact investing ideas as well as starry eyed founders and I have gotten really good at shooting all of them down. Which is one of the reasons why I stepped back in recent years from my mentoring and public facing roles. Just so my cynicism and negativity doesn’t contaminate the pure of spirit who are still blessed with dreams and hope.
But let me tell you that the fire burned bright in all the teams at SPRING, not just the ones from Pakistan and not just the four I mentioned above. Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar all came to the boot camp with a zeal that is rare. Young, dedicated, married to a cause bright. Bright enough that despite my world weary armor and my dark shades, I had to look away as my many filters were burned off, one by one.
It is rare that as a mentor I feel humbled by the drive and spirit of teams I work with. The last cohort of SPRING in Kathmandu did that to me. From helping homeless communities living out in the open in Nepal after the disastrous earthquake in 2015 to teaching children math, science and the value of play time; from answering unanswerable questions for young women in Bangladesh to feeding the hungry in Lahore and reclaiming civic spaces in Yangoon, team after team, walked in and showed me how little difference I had made in my life compared to work they had already done. Humbled is not the right word, I felt inadequate and ashamed of my selfishness, indifference and blindness to the misery on my roads. I had gone to mentor them. They showed me a thing or two. They punctured my balloon well and good.
All this before you met the charismatic Roo Rogers (Roo to his friends) and his team that led the charge at multiple SPRING boot camps in Kathmandu Nepal. Using Human Centered Design (HCD) and a core focus on understanding not just customers but interaction and engagement of each business with society at large, the SPRING boot camp changed the outlook for most founders. If it was possible to take them higher, the SPRING team took them higher.
Imran being Imran was generous enough to invite me to the final boot camp in Kathmandu in August 2018 as a pitch coach. This was the deal I had cut with him. If he could give me a place to stay and feed me for two days, I would come and see what the fuss was all about. I would take a look at the pitches and see if I could help out the teams. I had even throw in my pitching lecture if they had a slot for me.
In the end I could only manage to spare a day and a half between training engagements but those 36 hours were the most memorable mentoring I have ever done. There is always variation across teams and founders irrespective of where I go. We have seen enough of that at the Asia Pacific ICT Awards. It certainly was true at SPRING. But just like judging and mentoring at APICTA charged my batteries for thirteen years, SPRING’s boot camp in Nepal was an equally fresh breath of air.
36 hours. 19 teams. 6 hours of sleep. Kathmandu, Nepal. Would do it again in a heart beat.
A farewell to SPRING is a short 2-minute clip that I put together as a tribute to those 36 hours. A tribute to the teams that moved me and woke me up. And a long over due thank you note to Zia Imran, Roo, Alina, Sam, Carolyn, Rob, Julia, Susan and the many unnamed members of the SPRING team for their hospitality and kindness. Footage was shot in my last hour at the Haatiban resort in Kathmandu in between packing my bags, saying goodbyes and grabbing last looks at the gorgeous views of the valley below. It doesn’t do justice to the two-week boot camp experience, but it is all I have.
I did an initial cut last year and then forgot all about it. Till this morning. Never got round to finishing it. Shaky, grainy at times, out of focus quite often and not the best of jobs I have done and yet…