Talent Development in the Global South

Serial Tech Entrepreneur Aravinth Panch on Effective Mentoring in Underserved Communities

Ser­i­al tech and social entre­pre­neur Aravinth Panch is mak­ing an impact in the world of sci­ence and engi­neer­ing in a sig­nif­i­cant and mean­ing­ful way. The Sri Lankan-born, Berlin-based engi­neer is the founder and co-founder of numer­ous projects spread across three con­ti­nents. Dri­ving him is the desire to make a social, envi­ron­men­tal, and edu­ca­tion­al impact by bring­ing STEMM knowl­edge to those most in need. Through his orga­ni­za­tion araCre­ate (Berlin, Ger­many), Aravinth is Glob­al South coor­di­na­tor for Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing. He is also co-founder of Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing part­ner Dream­Space Acad­e­my (Bat­ticaloa, Sri Lan­ka). In an inter­view with engage­ment spe­cial­ist Christin Graml, Aravinth opened up about the path that led him to start his STEMM enter­pris­es and how he thinks STEMM tal­ent devel­op­ment in the Glob­al South can be best supported.

Your work spans a wide range of areas and activ­i­ties. Can you sum­ma­rize what it is that you do?
I focus on two sec­tors: social entre­pre­neur­ship and tech entre­pre­neur­ship. In the sec­tor of social entre­pre­neur­ship, I have co-found­ed sev­er­al social enter­pris­es in Europe, Asia, and Africa that are help­ing the locals to solve some fun­da­men­tal chal­lenges. The projects are dif­fer­ent from region to region. In the sec­tor of tech entre­pre­neur­ship, I have co-found­ed sev­er­al orga­ni­za­tions devel­op­ing var­i­ous deep-tech inno­va­tions. Deep-tech is high-tech inno­va­tion that uti­lizes emerg­ing or dis­rup­tive tech­nolo­gies in engi­neer­ing or sci­ence. My work is often involved in build­ing the prod­uct or the com­pa­ny itself. I have worked with eight star­tups in Berlin and men­tored more than 120 star­tups glob­al­ly. Most of them are devel­op­ing deep-tech inno­va­tions in var­i­ous sec­tors, such as smart home, mobil­i­ty, ener­gy, biotech, nan­otech, prop­er­ty-tech, health­care, and space-tech—all dif­fer­ent domains. 
It sounds like you’re a very busy per­son! What prompt­ed you to start so many dif­fer­ent projects?
To give some back­ground on my sto­ry, I was born in a coastal town called Bat­ticaloa in Sri Lan­ka at a dif­fi­cult time when my fam­i­ly lost sev­er­al mem­bers as col­lat­er­al dam­age in the civ­il war that last­ed for almost three decades. At the age of 14, I escaped the coun­try in fear of becom­ing a child sol­dier. For ten years, I was exiled as a refugee in India, where things were still quite dif­fi­cult for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. I need­ed to find a way not only to sur­vive but to thrive as well. I already pos­sessed some tech­ni­cal skills that I self-devel­oped. I start­ed my engi­neer­ing ser­vice busi­ness at the age of 15 because I was not giv­en the same oppor­tu­ni­ties as those giv­en to oth­er kids my age. Because of the war, most of my rel­a­tives end­ed up in the Glob­al North and brought clients to me. That is how I start­ed my busi­ness. With that start, I found ways to devel­op oth­er enter­pris­es fur­ther. After mov­ing to Ger­many to do my research stud­ies, I gained extra­or­di­nary inter­dis­ci­pli­nary expe­ri­ence in sci­ence, engi­neer­ing, sus­tain­abil­i­ty, and art while solv­ing com­plex prob­lems out­side acad­e­mia. I can now call myself “priv­i­leged,” but it was a long road get­ting to that point. 

For many years, I was unsure of what I want­ed to do in my career because I did not even know what was pos­si­ble. I exper­i­ment­ed and did things that I don’t focus on now, such as work­ing on sev­er­al projects solv­ing lux­u­ry prob­lems. After the war end­ed, I start­ed vis­it­ing Sri Lan­ka very fre­quent­ly. I was look­ing at a coun­try com­ing out of thir­ty years of war. From that moment, I knew that I want­ed to solve some fun­da­men­tal prob­lems and make a more sig­nif­i­cant impact than just solv­ing lux­u­ry prob­lems in the Glob­al North. So I start­ed look­ing at things from the per­spec­tive of Glob­al South ver­sus Glob­al North. The learn­ing process took me a few years, but in the mean­time, I co-found­ed a few social enter­pris­es and ini­tia­tives in Ger­many and learned from those how to run an orga­ni­za­tion for the social and envi­ron­men­tal good. 
Of your many dif­fer­ent projects, which one is most impor­tant to you and why?
I would have to say that Dream­Space Acad­e­my in Sri Lan­ka, one of my social enter­pris­es, is the project that means the most to me. My desire to help those who have shared the same life expe­ri­ences pro­pelled me to co-found Dream­Space Acad­e­my in 2018 with my co-founder Kishoth Navaret­nara­jah. Kishoth has been active in peace­build­ing and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion work since 2013 and has tremen­dous expe­ri­ence work­ing with under­priv­i­leged com­mu­ni­ties. Dream­Space Acad­e­my is a com­mu­ni­ty inno­va­tion cen­ter tack­ling com­plex, local socioe­co­nom­ic and envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges with chal­lenge-based learn­ing. We are empow­er­ing locals to solve local chal­lenges that are rel­e­vant to their lives. I am very proud of the pos­i­tive impact we made in Sri Lan­ka in the last few years. I can­not sup­port every­one, but at least I can help those in a place that I know, which is why I start­ed in Sri Lanka. 

Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing is proud to part­ner with Dream­Space Acad­e­my, which is a great exam­ple of hands-on men­tor­ing and tal­ent devel­op­ment in STEMM. Why, in your opin­ion, is hav­ing a men­tor so important?

Hav­ing a men­tor while grow­ing up is crit­i­cal because a men­tor equips young peo­ple with the nec­es­sary knowl­edge to make informed deci­sions for them­selves and also pro­vides the per­spec­tive that young peo­ple typ­i­cal­ly don’t yet have. When I was grow­ing up, I did not have a men­tor in the tra­di­tion­al sense. If I could have ben­e­fit­ted from a men­tor, I’m sure I would have made few­er mis­takes or tak­en a more direct path in my pro­fes­sion­al career. I first had to over­come many chal­lenges to get to where I am today. That’s why Dream­Space Acad­e­my is so impor­tant to me. I want to help young peo­ple who have had a sim­i­lar expe­ri­ence by giv­ing them the right oppor­tu­ni­ties for growth through guid­ance and resources that are most suit­ed to their needs and access to the tools and knowl­edge to make them self-sufficient.

Hav­ing a men­tor while grow­ing up is crit­i­cal because a men­tor equips young peo­ple with the nec­es­sary knowl­edge to make informed deci­sions for them­selves and also pro­vides the per­spec­tive that young peo­ple typ­i­cal­ly don’t yet have.
What are men­tor­ing and tal­ent devel­op­ment about in the con­text of a STEMM start­up or STEMM entrepreneurship?
For one thing, it’s dif­fer­ent in the Glob­al South than in the Glob­al North. Before I co-found­ed Dream­Space Acad­e­my, I start­ed an ini­tia­tive in Berlin where I trained kids, most of whom had immi­grant par­ents. I was doing this more as a vol­un­tary com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice for dif­fer­ent kids in dif­fer­ent age groups. After some time, I real­ized that the STEMM activ­i­ties per­formed by those in the Glob­al North are just a hob­by in many cas­es. Some­times the par­tic­i­pants would not com­plete projects because they viewed their par­tic­i­pa­tion as an extracur­ric­u­lar activ­i­ty that was not manda­to­ry. Why is this? Many of these kids are com­par­a­tive­ly priv­i­leged being based in the Glob­al North and will inher­ent­ly have a greater chance of being led into suc­cess­ful uni­ver­si­ty studies. 

In the Glob­al South, it’s entire­ly the oppo­site. It’s cru­cial to offer per­spec­tive to under­priv­i­leged kids because it’s doubt­ful that they will have any form of high­er edu­ca­tion. That’s why I start­ed focus­ing more on the Glob­al South to see more of the impact that I was hop­ing for. In the Glob­al South, we can’t just go and men­tor young peo­ple in the same way that we men­tor kids in the Glob­al North. There are fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences. You can­not assume the kids will auto­mat­i­cal­ly under­stand some­thing. If you want to teach a young per­son in the Glob­al South some­thing about tech­nol­o­gy, you can­not assume that they under­stand the basics of math­e­mat­ics. The men­tor­ing needs are very different. 
What are some aspects that the Glob­al North tends to over­look when sup­port­ing tal­ents in the Glob­al South?
There are many inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions doing dif­fer­ent types of men­tor­ing pro­grams. The inter­na­tion­al aid orga­ni­za­tions based in Sri Lan­ka have been pro­vid­ing sig­nif­i­cant sup­port for more than 30 years, but import­ed solu­tions haven’t solved fun­da­men­tal prob­lems sus­tain­ably. Why haven’t these issues been solved? Because the deci­sion mak­ers in those orga­ni­za­tions are for­eign­ers with good inten­tions but with­out the com­plete pic­ture of the local chal­lenges. That’s why we have com­plete­ly changed our approach to teach­ing STEMM. We devel­oped a method­ol­o­gy that is chal­lenge-based learn­ing. Many STEMM insti­tu­tions use sub­ject-based learn­ing, and some adopt­ed project-based learn­ing. But we are using chal­lenge-based learn­ing, which we also call “Per­son­al­ized Empow­er­ment.” We have found our method­ol­o­gy to be much more effec­tive for our trainees. First, we look into the trainees to under­stand their socioe­co­nom­ic and envi­ron­men­tal back­grounds. Instead of teach­ing sub­jects, we train them on top­ics need­ed to solve a spe­cif­ic chal­lenge. We have seen that this method is very effec­tive and sus­tain­able based on our expe­ri­ence with our trainees. This is what we see as prop­er men­tor­ing in this context. 
How can chal­lenge-based learn­ing be effec­tive­ly imple­ment­ed in the Glob­al South?
Cus­tomiza­tion or per­son­al­iza­tion is the key. Any orga­ni­za­tion in the Glob­al South can eas­i­ly adopt our method­ol­o­gy and cus­tomize it to local chal­lenges. Such cus­tomiza­tion is only pos­si­ble if they have local peo­ple on their team to under­stand the local con­text bet­ter. Sec­ond­ly, relata­bil­i­ty is essen­tial. If we want to teach a top­ic, then we always try to find a chal­lenge that is relat­able to the per­son who is being men­tored. Then they can apply the the­o­ret­i­cal part to a prob­lem that they see every day. When we host elec­tron­ics work­shops, we nev­er start with the top­ic of elec­tro­mag­net­ic the­o­ry, which is very com­plex. Instead, we always begin with relat­able stories. 

For exam­ple, in Sri Lan­ka, peo­ple have water tanks and pumps at home to get water from their own water well. Every morn­ing, they switch on the pump to fill the tank and then switch it off when it over­flows. They use the water until the tank is emp­ty and the taps are dry in the mid­dle of doing some­thing such as tak­ing a bath. Then they have to switch it on man­u­al­ly. It is an every­day, relat­able prob­lem that can be eas­i­ly solved by automat­ing it with a sim­ple water-lev­el mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem. So we say to our trainees, “Here is a prob­lem, and we’re going to devel­op a solu­tion to solve that prob­lem.” We sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly work through the chal­lenge, teach­ing the nec­es­sary STEMM knowl­edge along the way to solve the prob­lem and go deep into the­o­ret­i­cal parts. This is the method­ol­o­gy we are using to make the learn­ing process more per­son­al­ized, relat­able, engag­ing, and excit­ing so that they won’t eas­i­ly for­get what they’ve learned. 

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