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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.