Namaste! I am Ujwal; pronounced – ‘Ooze-woll’. I am a Nepali. Here is a brief glimpse into my life; one full of sharp twists and contradictions.
To read a short version of my story, please go here.
I went to the United States to become an Astrophysicist. I returned a multimedia designer (artist). I set out to leave worldly life to become a buddhist monk yet became an entrepreneur (and more-so an die-hard activist for entrepreneurship).
I am most comfortable in solitude but my daily effort now involves actively connecting tens of thousands of positive Nepali citizens with each other and then align them in the same direction – towards prosperity and using ‘common sense’.
And here is my twist filled story of how a high school maverick turned into one who is daring to build 21st century leaders for my country, Nepal.
Twist 1: A boy becomes a “maverick”
I remember sitting for my O-Levels english literature final exams in that grand parquet assembly hall with 60 fellow students. Our high school Budhanilkantha was a British run boarding school at the foothills of Shivapuri a 2732 meter ‘hill’ north of Kathmandu Valley. I had not prepared enough for this ‘alien’ subject where memorizing verses of Shakespearean plays like “The merchant of venice” or details of american classics like “ Of mice and men” seemed a must. As I skimmed through my questions, I quickly realized I was in deep trouble. I was going to fail!
Two years before, I had developed a habit of obsessively drawing cartoons and caricatures to soothe my intense mental and physical suffering caused by a severe form of ‘acne’ which ravaged not just my face but my entire head to neck to back to shoulders to chest to arms (and horrendously even to my buttocks). Every morning, I would wake up to find my bed dotted with coin sized blood and pus stains. My friends, cleaners, cooks and teachers, would stare point black at me in pity and horror. Concerned relatives would take turns to recommend crazy solutions to my problems. Many a times, even strangers in public would stop me on the streets and give me tips on how to treat my ‘glaring problem’. This brought much mental anguish to my budding teenager mind. It was about then, I picked upon the habit of compulsively sketching strangest characters and cartoons all over my textbooks in my classrooms. The more I suffered while sitting still in classes, the more I sketched fervently to ‘forget’.
Back at that examination hall, I started to reason with myself. “Hmm! If I am going to fail, why the hell should I not illustrate my answers with cartoons? In fact the purpose of having an exam is to convince the examiner that I knew the essence of what was being taught, isn’t it?” Slowly such a rationale won me over and I convinced myself I would ‘illustrate” my english literature exam answers just like they do in comics. And I started off! I could see the expressions my friends few meters away, “Ujwal, have you gone mad!” A mischievous grin lingered on my acne scarred face and as I drew more and more, I felt strangely liberated. Imagination flew unabated! For sure, I had never enjoyed english literature as much as that day! When the last bell rang and we put our pens down, I looked around. My friends seemed far more worried for me!
In the ensuing months, I become a standing joke. And our results finally came back all the way from Cambridge University examinations board in the UK. We all scrambled to see our results. So there I was, nervously peeking at my own grades. As I glanced down at my english literature” grades, I was shocked! I had not just passed, but gotten better grades than many of my friends. From that day on, my friends labeled me as a ‘maverick’.
Some years later I heard some juniors inspired by my antics, tried the same. They failed.
Twist 2: A maverick becomes an “Alien”
Another life turning twist happened when I won a scholarship to study in an ‘alien’ world (the United States of America). I was 19 and I had barely traveled out of Nepal, when I arrived at Bennington College, which at that time, was one of the most expensive.
I quickly realized I was practically an ‘alien’ here. From almost exclusively boys high school where I hardly spoke to the handful of girls, I had ended up at an almost all women’s college (Bennington was 70%+ women). My first times playing along girls in the co-ed college football (soccer) team was a ‘surreal but interesting’ experience. From a strict boarding school wearing the same uniforms day in and out for 10 straight years I had ended up at the most liberal college in the world where even clothes were ‘optional’ in classes (I am serious here!)
From a life of thousands of graded exams one after another, I came upon a hostile environment where there were no graded exams ever (instead one had to defend practical projects which was reviewed by peers). From a high school reputed as one of the best for natural sciences, I was drowning in another renowned for its innovation in visual and performing arts. From Kathmandu where it snows perhaps once every 60 years, I was soon enduring snow up to 6 months a year in Vermont.
And to top all of that I was soon accused of lying by an american friend when I revealed I had never put pasta in my mouth till I arrived there(my first 19 years). These ‘surreal but true’ alien experiences on a brave new world gave me all the survival tips I needed for life!
Twist 3: An alien turns into an ‘wanderer’.
In my last year of college I became disillusioned with the materialistic life-style I was drowning into. So I started searching for a better way to live and I immersed myself in ancient religious and spiritual teachings. I contemplated dropping out of college. I flew all the way across the US to enter in a zen buddhist monastery in Berkeley, California. After searching an entire afternoon even after getting sound directions, I couldn’t find it. Exasperated, at about 8 in the night, I gave up and left. Maybe this was a sign. I decided to finish my studies yet wandered around for more than a year. After 5 straight years in USA, I flew back to Nepal with 2 baggage, one had an Apple Mac G4 computer in it, while the other had a big 21 inch computer CRT monitor. These were just about my only worldly possessions I brought back after 5 years in the US.
Instead of building a bright future in the richest nation of the world, my parents were horrified to find their son wobbling back home searching for meaning of his life. Back in Kathmandu I lingered on to try to discover myself. In 2001, Nepal was going through a vicious civil war. My curiosity led me to train to become a conflict resolution trainer. I set out to use my new skills by exploring remote conflict regions of Nepal like Rolpa and Surkhet, where I tried to train warring sides and different stakeholders on how to start a ‘dialogue’ between them.I must confess, I learnt much more from my ‘trainees’ than they ever possibly did from me. They changed me, more than I changed them.
After much wandering and anguish, I realized, I was going to build my future here in my home, Nepal.
Twist 4: A wanderer turns into an ‘entrepreneur’.
On the first day of 2003, my wandering officially ended with the awakening of my entrepreneurial spirit. I started a one man company, a website design and development firm, safely called Digital Max Solutions (DMS). I thought I was the last person to start a company as I had never studied business, accounting or management. On top of that, I had never even worked anywhere continuously for more than 3 months. Slowly I built my company and as I hired more people, I saw the potential that we had a real chance of building a pioneering IT industry in Nepal just like they had done in India. So for the next 5 years I shut myself from my past and any other ‘distractions’ and gradually built a 35 person strong company. Unfortunately Nepal’s situation at the time, guaranteed an extremely hostile environment for IT firms to scale up (civil wars, tyranny, electricity shortage, internet cuts, brain drain, to count a few). My hope of building a company that would employ thousands of Nepali never materialized. Yet one thing we did accomplish that I am still immensely proud of. As of 2015, 30 employees have become entrepreneurs themselves. Most of us stay close allies. I believe this alumni group has played a vital role in building up a vibrant web design and software development industry in Nepal. We have even created an alliance to help create more IT entrepreneurs through our open-source community called “WordPress Nepal” with thousands of members. With similar networks building simultaneously in Nepal, I am confident, Nepali IT software industry is becoming a viable alternative to India to serve the needs of global small to medium business. I know before I leave, I will witness some Nepali genius making this nation proud by building the next global companies like Google or Apple!
Twist 5: An entrepreneur starts to ‘experiment’.
I have always been a curious bloke. I usually resort to experimenting when things start getting mundane for me. While I was running my IT firm, we often started pet projects to solve problems we saw in Nepal. One big project we started was we built an online travel help community ‘exoticbuddha’ for foreigners and local tourism firms-professionals. After investing on this project for a few years, we shut it down. We then tried something that aggregated all Nepal related news into one site (think of it as a Google news for Nepal). That too failed. We even tried making a site where all Nepali worldwide could find jobs but that too failed.
One of my continuing experiment has to been to help revive my slowly dying village in Western Nepal, by turning it into an “organic coffee village”. It all started when I organized my fellow villagers who were small farmers and convinced them to start a cooperative to grow organic coffee (arabica). This coffee tourism village project is a long-term project that I hope, will create opportunities and bring back all those youths who have left to work abroad. I am determined to make my village world-famous for its organic coffee and exotic home-stays and one of a kind fresh bakeries with tourists often found buzzing idly around in its coffee gardens!
It all starts with a dream, doesn’t it?
Twist 6: Experimenter molds into an ‘activist’ for ‘entrepreneurship’
“When we arrive in this world, each of us comes with a destiny to contribute something amazing before we leave. And If we don’t do what we came here to do, we will waste our entire life wandering restlessly until the day we die.”
As mentioned in the hindu epic “Bhagavad Gita” I believe in becoming a “karma yogi’ (one who is disciplined in action towards his or her duty without holding any expectations from it). I have come to realize I carry a tough “Karma”. I believe, my “karma” or duty in life is to provoke others to become better. One of my favorite slogan in Nepali is, अहिले नगरे कहिले, हामीले नगरे कस्ले? “If not now when, If not us, who?”
This underlying philosophy led me on a path to start an entrepreneurial movement in Nepal aptly called, “Entrepreneurs FOR Nepal (E4N)”. Here’s how it all started.
Back in 2008, a friend invited me to his small gathering. There I met an impressive group of Nepali who had studied at some of the best universities around the world and all of them wanted to started their own ventures in Nepal. As we talked, an interesting “chiya guff” (a typical conversation that usually goes nowhere) ensued. “Why is there no forum for Nepali like us with ideas that we want to carry out in Nepal?”
Someone blurted out, “Well, why don’t we just start one? It shouldn’t be too hard. We could just meet in a café, go over problems and solutions over few cups of tea or coffee?” This ‘chiya guff” was meant to be forgotten but 3 among us took it literally and met for the first time at a café. This is how “Entrepreneurs for Nepal” a tens of thousands strong forum( growing by 100 a day) was born. When we invited Bhatbhateni supermarket tycoon, Min Bahadur Gurung there were only 7 of us to hear his priceless stories of how once, his entire shop went up in flames, he had nothing left except massive debts and how he came out of it to become what he is now!
Even today every last Thursday of the english month, hundreds of us gather to network, share ideas, seek help and find the right partners, employees, even employers! By the end of 2014, we crossed 6 years and are still going strong inspiring many chapters and similar models on subjects beyond entrepreneurship all around Nepal. Looking back, I believe our persistence and simple focus on one small event every month for which we could easily free up our time, was key to it’s longevity and success. I am glad we stayed away from trying to do too much.
Building from this experience, I came to realize, Nepal’s progress and prosperity depends on how strong we build similar networks of ‘hope’ where positive Nepali are able to come together to create opportunities for others.
Twist 7 : Entrepreneur’s activist turns into ‘citizen’s activist’.
I am blunt, stubborn,, eccentric, moody (some might say anti-social). The list goes on. I have since realized that I am full of deep flaws. One of the flaws is I can be quite stubborn when I am forced to do things that I don’t want to do. I am fiercely protective of my freedom, even in simple ways I lead my life. That is why I hate the culture of “Nepal bandhs” ( a form of total shutdown that political groups enforce with violence closing down entire towns, cities, and even the entire nation thereby creating a culture of deep fear among Nepali citizens).
Back in 2010 these ‘bandhs’ terrifyingly became an almost daily event in Nepal. I was humiliated to see a handful of thugs shut down the entire country while tens of thousands of police along with millions of citizens watched helplessly. Just because they happened to be goons of vicious syndicate of the ruling political parties, we all would keep quiet.
One morning when the entire city was being forced to shut down, I along with few like-minded young Nepali rose up to protest on the streets of Kathmandu against these thugs. We set out to organize citizens to deal effectively this vicious culture once and for all. Slowly we took further steps, provoking and helping shopkeepers open their shops, then getting citizens to drive vehicles to work during Bandhs. We ourselves started holding bold vehicle rallies defying these bandh enforcers.
We branded ourselves the “Nepal khulla cha” (Nepal is open) activists. To this day, we come out to challenge any of these forced strikes that happen (at least in the capital city, Kathmandu). Networks of like-minded citizens on similar actions are organizing themselves around Nepal. One day, we will keep all of Nepal ‘always open’.
Twist 8: Activism turns into building a ‘civil movement’.
In 2011 I happened to go together on a trek with an eclectic mix of influential citizens from different walks of life. After a few days together, we all found out how deeply each of us worried about the current state of the nation. All of us were exasperated by the bickering sociopolitical forces who were dividing us all in the name of building a constitution. So we came together to build a unique Nepali civil society movement aptly called “Nepal unites” परिवर्तनको लागि हामी नेपाली एक। Our movement slowly brought together students and professionals, celebrities and rights activists , house-wives and entrepreneurs, all to press for a timely Nepal constitution. With the slogan, ज्याला पुरा लियौ, अब संविधान देउ “You took the full dues, now deliver us our constitution!”, we took the fight to the streets on the political forces who were taken aback at this united ragtag diverse group.
We pressed hard every week turning up the heat a notch. The city was abuzz seeing Miss Nepal beauty queens unite with award-winning social entrepreneurs, social activists with Bank CEOs protesting on pavements some days, while cleaning temples and bridges on others. It was then, when I learnt an achingly important lesson in life.
“In Nepal the key to winning is to “out-tire your opponent”
I believe this to be the most powerful guide for anyone pushing for positive change in Nepal (and possibly everywhere). Our year-long civil movement fizzled out when we got tired of politicians playing their classic ‘stalling’ game by repeatedly promising and then lying, After months on the streets of Nepal, one by one, we limped back to our comfort zones tired, battered and feeling betrayed by our own fellow citizens and rulers.
Twist 9: A citizen turns to building the next ‘leaders for Nepal’.
On May 28th, 2012 the Constituent Assembly tasked with building the new constitution of Nepal collapsed. 4 years of work amounted to nothing! This awakened me to another painful realization, to clean this dirty pond, one has to jump in (and survive long enough to clean it).
I turned all my energies to clean Nepal’s toxic political culture which is the root of many evils here. I along with thousands concerned citizens, started a long, hard path to build a grassroots political movement built on restoring ‘common-sense’ back to Nepal. We call ourselves, ‘BibekSheel Nepali’ (Nepali with common sense and wisdom). We are on a quest to build at least one hundred ‘bibeksheel’ leaders to defeat the most corrupt and incompetent ones that rule over us today. On the other hand to build a bibeksheel society that can produce such leaders continuously, I am also helping provoke Nepali citizens to be ‘bibeksheel’ in nature and bring positive change within them.
This has been by far the biggest twist in my life for it shapes not just my destiny but that of each one of the 28 million Nepali citizens spread all around the world.
There is a proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. But If you want to go far, go together”. So come with me on this wild adventure (twist) to build a prosperous Nepal in our life-time! Now this would be the twist I will be looking forward to!
So will you join me?