Talking Robots, Ice Desserts and Shining Stars

Warning, this is one of my longer posts so please allow approximately 10 mins reading time if you want the full story, allow 30 seconds if you just want to read the introduction and look at the pictures.
Do you want a trip to Kuala Lumpur in two weeks time to attend an entrepreneurial conference to help inform Malaysian government strategy?
This was the question posed by Indi Kaur from Impact Hub Birmingham who were selected as part of this event to identify suitable delegates from the UK to share their experiences of entrepreneurship in the following nine fields of interest: health, education, finance, biotechnology, smart cities, supply chain, sustainability, lifestyle and social innovation.
I had never visited Malaysia before, was up to date with my projects at work, had a relatively clear diary and could do with 13 hours of downtime on a plane to catch up with some admin.  And maybe I could even bolt on a weekend at the Westin in Langkawi afterwards.
Indi, it will be my pleasure.
Two weeks later I am sitting in the auditorium for the Global Entrepreneurship Community 2016 conference and a little unsure if this is the start of a conference or rock concert.
The event organisation was challenging with so much going on. The conference had different strands (aka “tracks”) and overlapping mini events that included a roundtable discussion with the Malaysian Prime Minister and key businesses leaders from South East Asia no less.  However, the organisers did a great job shepherding people to where they needed to be and responding to countless requests for the WiFi password. (NB. There was no delegate WiFi at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre where the event was held).
RobotThe conference exhibition itself was interesting with new innovation showcased across the full range of focal areas. Watching a Japanese delegate converse in broken English with a fast food staff robot about how many calories are in a cheeseburger was quite a surreal moment since I was the only observer who found this exchange rather amusing.
I only managed to listen to a handful of speakers due to other conference activities I was scheduled to attend.  The highlight was futurist Mike Walsh whose “mind grenades” and hi-tec PowerPoint made many delegates, including myself, realise that we are woefully inadequate and not currently in tune with current technology, regardless of the many new developments on the horizon that Mike stated would transform our society even further, and for the better. (!)
The main reason for my attendance at GEC 2016 was to contribute to the cluster labs and, in particular, the education strand.  It is here where I met some extremely passionate people who share my belief that the education systems in many countries is not developing the creative, leadership and enterprise skills that are needed by employers, or indeed entrepreneurs themselves who don’t have the safety net of employment to fall back on if their lack of skills and training eventually fails them.
The Malaysian education system is based on that of the UK and many of my new Malaysian colleagues were surprised at my derisory view of education here in the UK.  I had to remind them that all is not well in the land that is responsible for both Shakespeare and Jeremy Kyle.
A key feature of the project was that the strategic leaders had already identified some of our shortcomings and have the intention to make significant and immediate change to their education programme based on global consultation at GEC 2016.  The British flag was still safely flying in the hands of Adanna Shallowe (Global Manager, RSA) and Benjamin Reid (Head of International Innovation Development Programmes, Nesta) who chaired my Alt-Ed cluster lab group with consummate ease.  How Benjamin managed to culminate our tangential conversations into a meaningful project and presentation to peers the following day is still beyond me.
I would suggest that Benjamin’s achievement was aided in part by the cunning and guile of Paul Marca (Executive Director, Stanford Center for Professional Development at Stanford University) who managed to keep conversations focused and threaded key ideas together to create a concept that has real world value as well as universal support from his cluster lab colleagues.  This personal CPD experience was another big tick for my decision to spend over 30 hours sitting, standing and sleeping on numerous aeroplanes in the space of five days.
The projects designed by the groups within the  nine cluster labs were presented to the Malaysian government and I was pleased to recently learn that our Alt-Ed proposal was one of only five to receive support to be taken forward and developed further in the new year.
GEC 2016 culminated in a feast of food and entertainment which showcases a very different attitude to entrepreneurship than in the UK which is still unfortunately more David Brent than David Bowie. There was singing, dancing and even drumming on the centre stage whilst I was trying my best to enjoy chilli beef rentang and ais kacang dessert.
However, the highlight of the trip was not this kaleidoscopic feast of Malaysian culture. It happened on the short one hour flight back from Langkawi to Kuala Lumpur.
On the outbound flight we were surrounded by approximately 100 children aged between 7 and 17 who were on some form of school trip.  I thought back to my school trips which involved walks around local shopping centres and a week at Plas Gwynant in the rainy foothills of Mount Snowdon.  I was unable to recall a school trip to a beautiful island that involved plane travel and an idyllic honeymoon destination.  This school must be very well funded.  Or so I thought.
The children were the most happy and vibrant group that I had ever met.  They were polite, respectful, happy and a joy to share the flight with.
However, when this same group were there waiting at the Langkawi departure lounge for the same return flight with the same energy and unbounded joy as the previous day I could not pass up the opportunity to find out who they are.  And boy was I in for a shock.
These beautiful, happy and inspiring children are not the product of a progressive school or, indeed, educational system.  They were not demonstrating social skills and qualities as a result of cherished upbringings and nurturing support from their parents.  Far from it.
The group of children that I was fortunate to share the company of for two inspiring, but all too short, journeys are all in the Malaysian care system and have had the most challenging of childhoods imaginable. The children all live in the Penang Valley just outside Kuala Lumpur.  Some of them were abandoned by their parents at birth, often following conception after rape.  Others became orphans after their parents had been murdered as a result of involvement in the drug trade.  Certainly not the image that I had initially projected onto this group when my concerns about sharing a flight with them was instantly disarmed by their bright eyes and wide smiles.
The group are part of something called My Shining Star Foundation and this trip was a reward for 99 wonderful children who had honoured their individual commitments to make daily journal entries for the entire year.
The Shining Star project is the brainchild of a gentleman called Sitharather Moorthy who I had the pleasure of sitting next to for part of the return journey where I learnt more about it.  Sitharather very kindly and articulately explained how there is a very different attitude to helping the less fortunate in Malaysia if they are children or adults.  Sources of support do exist in Malaysia for vulnerable children but this quickly dries up when they reach the age of 18 and those bright eyes and wide smiles are soon replaced with a look of cynical skepticism about the world.
This is why Sitharather created Shining Star.  He did not want the circumstances that led to their poor start in life being the barrier to them leading successful lives.  By providing these children with the real world skills that they need to succeed in life and teaching them to take responsibility for their own destiny, Sitharather has achieved what a team of global experts were tasked to do at a glitzy two day event in the country’s capital.  If Sitharather can deliver positive outcomes for children in the most desperate of circumstances then I strongly recommend that he is asked to contribute to the development of Alt-Ed and other national projects that were kick started by a team of international consultants at the recent conference.
It was during this conversation when it eventually occurred to me what was sadly missing from GEC 2016.  Where was the voice of social enterprise that helps to recognise amazing community work like Shining Star?  How is the Malaysian government helping to ensure that their new systems create more Sitharathers?  Who is facilitating introductions between funders and life changing projects like Shining Star?
So when asked about my contribution to GEC 2016 I can say that I was fortunate enough to be in a position where I could introduce My Shining Star Foundation to a number of Malaysian businesses and the associated entrepreneurship community.  Hopefully, this will have a meaningful impact on Sitharather’s work and give Malaysian policymakers something to think about as their economy continues to expand.
And what was my personal take home message from these four days spent in Malaysia?  If children from the Penang Valley have hope for their future then children in the UK can learn a valuable lesson from their far eastern counterparts.  The future may not look as bright for our next generation based on recent political events in the western world but it is still a far more attractive future than what  those living in less fortunate conditions a mere 6,500 miles away have to face.
John Bishop
Let’s transform a generation!
Evolve works closely with schools, teachers and headteachers to enhance children’s academic achievement by bringing together mentoring, physical activity and classroom support. What drives us is the belief that putting wellbeing first will transform a generation.