Being a Change-maker with Karuna Rana

 Karuna Rana

Karuna Rana

Karuna Rana is co-founder of youth-led organisation SYAH which connects young people and collaboratively advances sustainable development across African and Asian Small Island Developing States (SIDS)

What is your project? Who do you work with?

My project, or rather organisation is called SIDS Youth AIMS Hub (SYAH). Founded in early 2014, it's a regional, youth-led organisation connecting young people from African and Asian Small Island Developing States (SIDS) so that they can collaboratively advance sustainable development across these islands. Our work consists of hands-on community-based projects and advocacy campaigns, as well as empowerment of young people to understand and participate in policy- and decision-making processes related to sustainable development at national, regional and international levels.

I co-founded SYAH with my good friend and colleague Meghna Raghoobar; I thus primarily work with her. However, we have national SYAH chapters / organisations in Comoros, Maldives, Mauritius (including Rodrigues Island), and Seychelles (with more currently setting up in Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Singapore). The credit of coming up with brilliant projects and campaigns goes entirely to those national SYAH chapters and the amazing young people who run them.

 The Indian Ocean Commission office in Ebene where SYAH is based

The Indian Ocean Commission office in Ebene where SYAH is based

Our primary partner is the Indian Ocean Commission, who is also hosting us within their premises as part of the three-year MoU signed with them in 2014. We also have local partners such as the ENL Foundation, U.S. Embassy of Port Louis and the Global Shapers Port Louis Hub, amongst others in Mauritius.

Some of our work includes:

  1. Mini workshops on the topic of SIDS, the Sustainable Development Goals, and climate change science, impacts and negotiations with over 500 young people in Mauritius and Seychelles.
  2. A "Free from Plastic Bags" campaign led by SYAH-Seychelles, which also includes a partnership with prison inmates to sew reusable cloth bags.
  3. A "Tap Water Revolution" to stop the use of bottled water by SYAH-Mauritius
  4. The #SeeingBlue initiative: an annual call for projects by young people to tackle the issue of marine debris, with financial and technical support provided to the winning projects.
  5. Inventory and conservation of local biodiversity by SYAH-Comoros.
  6. Participation in key policy making processes such as COP21 and the 3rd International Conference on SIDS.

"We can all be change agents"

What is your vision?

My personal vision is that of a world with more empathy, consciousness, humanity, fairness and a sense of civic responsibility between humans and towards nature. We can all be change agents. If one is unhappy with something, don't just complain about it from the comfort of your couch; go ahead and try to change it in your own small and big ways.

Caring, or rather respecting our nature and its rights is a key part of my vision. Blinded by our greed, material well-being and the need to economically grow at all costs, we fail to see the interconnectedness between humans and our natural environment, inclusive of the millions of species that we are lucky to share our planet with. We fail to see the impact that our greed, material well-being, apathy, and daily lifestyle choices have on our natural environment. For instance, that shampoo you're using - it may consist of palm oil derived from plantations that killed thousands of orangutans and cleared 300 football fields of rainforest.

I'm also a staunch feminist, which means I envision a future whereby no human being is discriminated or deprived of their human rights by virtue of their gender, and whereby casual sexism (which may be subtle but very damaging) becomes a myth.

  Karuna Rana and Meghna Raghoobar of SYAH

Karuna Rana and Meghna Raghoobar of SYAH

When did you begin working towards your vision? What made you start?

I guess I always had a sense of fairness, thanks to my parents. "When you grow up and become a Doctor, make sure you do not charge a fee to cure the poor" - these were my father's words. Even though I didn't pick a medical career, the values remained the same.

However, my journey as a change agent didn't start until much later and sadly, not for the right reasons. I grew up in a society whereby I was conditioned to believe that success was equal to a high-paying job at a multinational corporation, combined with marriage and kids by an "appropriate" age. There was little scope for becoming a social entrepreneur, let alone focusing on social and environmental activism during my twenties.

During the third year of my Bachelor's Degree in Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the University of Mauritius, I convinced a classmate to initiate a university-based paper reuse and recycling project for submission in a call for project by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Having that on my CV was the primary reason for initiating the project at that time. The project was picked and I got to attend a workshop on sustainability organised by UNEP in Nairobi, Kenya. One thing led to another, and soon the battle became real. Understanding the gravity of the situation, the need for a true sustainable development, combined with the thousands of young sustainable development advocates I had the chance to meet completely changed my life outlook and career discourse. It soon became clear that working towards my vision will be my primary life goal.

"Working full-time for a non-profit organisation is still stigmatised in Mauritius and not many people understand that this is a real job!"

What are some of the challenges that you have faced?

Failure: It took me two trials before I successfully set up SYAH. The first two organisations failed due to many reasons, for example, a lack of clear vision, lack of commitment, lack of mentor-ship and most importantly, not having the right team. It's important for (co) founders to fully believe in it and give their undivided attention, rather than treating it as a secondary career option or a pastime until you get your "dream job". This should be your "dream job".

Building trust and credibility: It was initially difficult for funders, partners and simply the general public to trust the dedication, capacity and professionalism of a small group of young people to drive change and implement projects of this kind. Luckily, we had the constant support and guidance from organisations such as the Indian Ocean Commission and ENL Foundation, who believed in our potential and invested in us.

Human resources: Maintaining the interest and commitment of some of our team members has proven to be very challenging given the nature of our organisation. On one hand, we had a high inflow of projects to be implemented and on the other, our team mainly consisted of volunteers. This is related to yet another challenge: many non-profit funders in Mauritius either allocate a very minimal amount to payroll and administration, or sometimes none at all. This greatly comprises the quality of work delivered. 

The stigma: This has been the biggest challenge for me, especially on the personal level. Believe it or not, working full-time for a non-profit organisation is still stigmatised in Mauritius and not many people understand that this is a real job! In the beginning, I had to face a lot of stigma from family and friends and this subconsciously took a toll on my morale. Thankfully, I had my role models to draw inspiration from, as well as support from other friends, family (my mother is my biggest fan) and organisations such as UNEP, UNESCO, One Young World and the IOC. 

Every time things got tough or when in doubt, Meghna (the other Co-Founder of SYAH) and I would remind ourselves of the bigger vision we're working towards and that "If it was easy, everyone would do it".

 "Tap Water Revolution": Karuna with her reusable water bottle

"Tap Water Revolution": Karuna with her reusable water bottle

Who or what has been your inspiration? Do you have any role models?

Our Mother Nature is so majestic, beautiful and giving that it's hard to not draw inspiration from it and work towards its conservation. I do have role models though. These have been the numerous young change-makers that I've had the chance to meet and work with over the past few years (and continue to do so). Be it Erin Schrode who very actively started living and promoting a conscious, green lifestyle since her early teens in the US or the 28-year old PJ Coles who runs an organisation that helps former child soldiers in Sierra Leone.

I also love reading success stories of people who failed before they succeeded. It's funny how most success stories start with failure and how much people grow, learn and refuel their motivation from each failure.

What does your typical day look like? Do you have any habits or routines which have helped you?

I was never a morning person, but this has changed over the past few months and I'm loving the results! My typical work day now starts with me waking up at 7:30 am, spending time making my breakfast and doing some cleaning (somehow getting things clean and organised in the morning makes me feel happy and gives a great start to my day!). I don't reach office before 10 am, and that's when I actually start to check emails and work until 5-6 pm. My evenings are mainly down-time, although due to the nature of my work and a couple of other projects I work on, I often find myself working until late at night. Every alternate day, I go for a jog in the evening.

Being your own "boss" means you have the liberty and flexibility to work out your own schedules and practice self-discipline.  A few routines that have greatly helped me:

"An executive of a big multinational corporation once told me 'a smart young person like yourself shouldn't be wasting your talent in non-profits. You should be working for corporations like us!'"

Office start time: I don't get to office before 10 am unless we have early meetings. That's because I often work until late at night. I cannot survive on limited sleep. I've done all-nighters for work, but I usually function best when I have six to seven hours of sleep.

A heavy fruit diet: For a long period last year I would catch a cold almost every month. Needless to say that this was both physically and morally exhausting, and it started interfering with my work productivity. Then a friend of mine suggested to start this fruit smoothie diet and now my breakfast is two big glasses of fruit smoothie made solely with tropical and temperate fruits and a big chunk of ginger! I've been doing this for a few months and I haven't fallen ill since then. Fruits are definitely my new best friend.

Time management: No, I actually suck at time management but there's one habit that I've recently adopted. I do tasks that require a lot of thinking and concentration (e.g. writing a proposal) at a time of the day when I'm at my peak in terms of energy, concentration and efficiency. We all have that "peak productivity time" that we need to tap into for such tasks, and keep the rather "mindless" tasks such as replying emails at a less productive time.

"Being social" time: Because I'm so bad at keeping regularly in touch with friends, relatives and professional contacts, I've started setting aside an hour every alternate day to do exactly that. I use that time to write/chat/Skype with people I haven't recently been in contact with and this has really boosted my mental well-being, as well as my social life.

 The view from the SYAH office

The view from the SYAH office

Where do you usually work?

I usually work at the SYAH office very kindly hosted by the Indian Ocean Commission at their HQ in Ebene. We're lucky to enjoy a lush green view of the Moka Range from our office balcony, which definitely helps boost our energy at work. However, similar to any start-up, we very often take work to our homes, cafeterias and sometimes homes of colleagues. There's this one thing which me and Meghna want to try: spend a day at the beach once every month to stock-take and brainstorm on SYAH: what would be a better and more inspiring/creative place to do that?!

Which tools, gadgets or applications do you use to help you in your work, if any?

I'm still experimenting, but we use the basic ones: Google Drive (we use that a lot to create and work on documents together, store documents, create forms, etc.), Dropbox, Skype and Facebook (we have an internal group which we use to discuss most of our work). We also sometimes use AnyMeeting should we have to host webinars.

On a personal level, I'm obsessed with the Calendar app on Mac as it helps keep track of my schedule. I also use Evernote and other basic note-taking apps on Mac to jot down ideas as and when I get them, and reminders! I still use the good old paper diary to work on my daily to-do lists.

Do you have any anecdotes or stories from your journey so far which you’d like to share?

I have many; most of those stories come from my travel experience which have shaped me as a person and helped confront my fears. But for now, here's two:

An executive of a big multinational corporation once told me "a smart young person like yourself shouldn't be wasting your talent in non-profits. You should be working for corporations like us!". This happened during a leadership session with that company meant for young change agents like myself. While many corporations need sustainability conscious employees and decision-makers, the stigma associated with working in the non-profit sector was offensive. This reinforced my determination to drive positive change using the non-profit sector.

On a more positive note, I was kicked out of the premises of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP17) during the Occupy COP17 protest in Durban in 2011. As the climate talks were stuck in deadlock, protesters decided to make their voices heard. The funny thing about this story is that I didn't even know the protest was taking place. I was walking towards a meeting when I saw a group of protesters shout for climate change for SIDS. I don't know what came over me, but I was soon at the forefront of the protest. Getting kicked out may not be the best strategy to get across your message at climate negotiations, but there was something very empowering about being able to shout your lungs out and fearlessly stand for a cause you believe in, supported by other protesters.

How do you spend your down-time, when you’re not working on your project?

When I'm not working on SYAH projects, I'm mostly working on projects of another amazing youth-led group that I'm part of: the Global Shapers Port Louis Hub. The Port Louis Hub is part of the wider Global Shapers Community, initiated by the World Economic Forum, and organised in over 450 city-based hubs globally to positively impact the local communities. Our projects range from oceans to employability skills to global dignity to mental health to women in STEM. This doesn't feel like work due to the amazing individuals who are part of this Hub and with whom I share a strong friendship.

Coming to actual non-work downtime, I value that a lot. I need a healthy work-life balance and do not believe in working 24/7. Being productive is all about achieving more in less time, so I often throw in compulsory downtime to trick my mind into believing that I have less time to complete a task, and thus less time to procrastinate.

I'm quite a people person and a party animal, so my down-time does include going to parties, dancing and spending a lot of quality time with family and friends. We try to find time to explore the beaches, and Mauritius as a whole - there's so much to discover! I'm a foodie, so I love trying new restaurants. Besides that, I'm a huge karaoke fan and love to paint and make cards during the quieter evenings at home (I find it very therapeutic!) Oh and I often need time when I'm just lazing around and doing nothing.

Do you have any tips for aspiring entrepreneurs? Or what advice would you give to your younger self?

Meghna and I often call SYAH our "baby", and I quickly started to realise that it's actually a good metaphor. So here are some tips for expectant parents, a.k.a. aspiring entrepreneurs:

Be bold, but take calculated risks: A decision to have a baby can be quite expensive, especially in the beginning. Do quit that job if you're serious about your start-up, but not before you have your business plan ready, made a few savings and are ready to live on little money in the beginning.

Be patient: You can't have a baby and expect it to start schooling, let alone become independent within months. Similarly, it might take a few years before your start-up starts to hit high revenue and a peak which you've wanted it to. Keep working; don't give up.

Focus: Imagine having a baby and then having another one while your first-born is still very young and needs your undivided attention. It is not uncommon for start-up founders to lose interest and move on to new projects while the start-up is still in the developing phase. This often happens when the start-up excitement dies down a little or when it's taking some time to show results. A start-up, similar to a newborn, requires your undivided attention until it's grown enough to look after itself.

What's next for you?

A lot actually! But I'll stay true to my own tips and put my focus on further developing SYAH. Given the regional scope of SYAH and the fact that it's only 2 years old, we still have a lot to learn and unlearn in the way we operate, still many projects to implement and impacts to make, and still a lot to grow until it becomes a full-fledged organisation as we envisioned it to be.

You can follow SYAH on their Facebook page.