Roshan Paul’s atypical learning

How disrupting higher education is just what the teacher needs

In our ‘Trailblazers’ series, we bring you perspectives on creative leadership, social innovation, and positive change from THNK’s worldwide alumni community. Today we hear from Roshan Paul, Co-Founder and CEO of the Amani Institute. ‘Amani’ derives from the Swahili word ‘aman’, which signifies peace and stability in every country in the arc from Morocco to Indonesia.

the pivotal moment

One day during my last year of college, I saw a bunch of people clustered around a TV screen. Planes were flying into the World Trade Center in New York. In India, 9/11 was followed by more terrorist attacks — it all made me feel like nothing I’d ever do in a bank or a management consultancy would be as important than the work of trying to make the world a better place. I turned my back on a corporate career and moved into the social sector.

For ten years after that, I worked in social entrepreneurship all around the world — until I realized that our biggest obstacle was a lack of talent in our sector. That was really holding us back. I saw a market gap, and felt that the education system was not producing the kind of people we need. We need people who can bring meaning to big endeavors, and big endeavors to meaning. There’s no equivalent to medical school or law school for social entrepreneurs, and I wanted to start one — an atypical learning place for social innovators. I was in the process of incubating the idea for The Amani Institute when I heard about THNK.

Students at the Amani Institute in Nairobi, Kenya

the challenge

The world is changing faster than human institutions can keep up with. Universities were set up in the 16th and 17th centuries as centres for academic thinking and learning — they were never intended to create leaders and professionals. We need a different model to prepare our world for new ideas and new ideators. We want intellectual exploration that’s grounded in the real world. We want the kind of spiritedness-of-mind that will make us adapt and grow. That’s what infuses the design of all our higher education programs at Amani Institute.

The THNK immersion was so different from all my previous education. At THNK, you get to work with people who are adding meaning to life. You walk with them through a process and come out the other side with such a strong sense of purpose. My ‘class project’ was to give people the chance to build careers with meaning, to train at a calibre that would prepare them to change the world.

There’s a really good blurring happening right now between the private, public, and social sectors. Some social movements will always need philanthropy to sustain, and some corporate products have no particular role for social good — but the overlap is getting bigger as people realize they don’t want to choose between making a living and making a difference.

“Social change can be economically sustainable.”

Young people will take a pay cut for a job that offers more social impact, and companies are starting to see their social citizenship as being hugely important. Today’s zeitgeist is to unite profit and purpose, and it’s happening.

We believe that peace is the ultimate outcome of a healthier, more human-oriented world. To achieve that, we need healthy, more human-oriented leaders. The Amani Institute amplifies the imagination and reach of these leaders. It’s a privilege that I get to do this for a living.

the THNK experience

THNK opened my eyes to all the ways the world is changing. A lot of the forum guests tend to be people who are not really famous now, but who will probably be — they are working on things that are at the forefront of innovation. It was so inspiring. It reminded me to shape my own projects for where we want to go, not for where we currently are.

“It’s a daily quest to build a more expansive world.”

I respect the THNK core value about creative leadership, of course, but what continues to attract me to THNK is this amazing network of exceptional individuals and the new model of learning that binds us all.

THNK has been immensely beneficial for my organization. A number of faculty and participants have directly helped me and Amani to grow; in just over two years we are already scaling from Kenya to Brazil. When you look back on your recent life and realize you’ve made one or two or three new friendships, that’s a pretty great year. In one year at THNK, I discovered 30 new lasting friends — friends that make my world and my ideas bigger. And I give back to the network that has given so much to me. It’s a priceless gift.

THNK is about staying open to serendipity — these are the people I didn’t realize I’d been looking for. They are such treasured friends and collaborators. Together, we do the most amazing things.

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About the Author: Roshan Paul’s Amani Institute gives tomorrow’s leaders the vision to see what needs to change, the courage to step into the unknown, the empathy to work effectively with others, and an ethos of change-making in the service of building a more peaceful world — through a master’s-equivalent program and a range of corporate training products. At THNK, Roshan turned Amani from an idea into a reality.