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Eradicating Needless BS

Mar 5th 2024

Sian Sutherland, CoFounder, A Plastic Planet + PlasticFree, shares her experiences of Wavelength’s Power of Purpose Programme in India in February 2024.

Describing our Power of Purpose trip to Tamal Nadu in South West India could easily read like a travelogue, with a daily itinerary of our in-depth personal tours of the Aravind Eyecare System eye camps, hospitals and extraordinary manufacturing facilities. But this would miss the mark by a mile.  Witnessing the result of 50 years of Dr G’s dedicated, selfless entrepreneurialism was deeply inspiring of course. But what happened on this unexpected and wonderful week was not about what we did.  It was about how it made us feel. A transformation starting deep inside each of us, viscerally altering our views on what is possible, on what has made us who we are today, and the realisation that we have the power to change our own course.

I’ll be honest. I boarded the plane with hand luggage, buckets of curiosity and zero expectations. Just clear that I loved the Wavelength team and their mission, that for some reason I was meant to be on this trip, feeling thrilled to be included.  How often do we ever get a week to raise our heads from our daily responsibilities, our inboxes, our zoom calls, to be ignited educated, inspired by the example of others. Such an opportunity must be seized.

As a serial entrepreneur I have always felt a little outside the corporate world. A degree of purpose in everything I do has perhaps been intuitive, never analysed or unpacked. Having an ex-nun and a doctor as parents explains this pretty easily. But I have always been troubled by the prevalent metrics of business success.  Because however we try and dress it differently, the only metric that really counts still is profit. Business, even if destructive, exploitative, extractive and pollutive, is excused in the name of profit. Many of us are forced to leave our humanity at the office door, believing this is the only way for mankind to thrive. Business jargon now is especially obscure with a new acronymised language that pays lip-service to ‘good and sustainable business’- OKRs, KPIs, CDPs, ESGs, SDGs. We are obsessed with productivity metrics, with carbon accounting, with satisfaction indices. We have created such an industrial-sized cluster that it is easy to avoid simple and true accountability.

But at Aravind we witnessed something different. So pure. So radical. So successful. It starts with the clarity of their purpose – to eradicate needless blindness. These three words can be found on the wall of every department, followed by a sentence explaining how that department is contributing to this purpose. Equally simple is the business strategy – eradicate waste – wasted time, wasted resource – in order to give essential eye care at such a low price that many can afford it; whilst still generating sufficient profit to offer the same care to millions for free.  Wholly self-sufficient; family owned and managed; answerable to no-one but their patients and their consciences. So successful that in 2024 they will invest almost half a billion dollars from cash reserves to expand beyond their 14 eye hospitals.

What struck me hardest was their bravery and total self-belief, being passed down from one generation to another. It was clear that their obsessive focus on their purpose and incredible expertise built over 50 years, gave them a superpower that elevated them above business norms. Because they think totally differently, the old rules don’t apply. In a world where we are lost and fearful, paddling in the shallows of status quo, knowing change is essential but clueless on how; we can learn so much from this simple principle.

We ended with a day putting a similar focus on our own purpose, a rare time to speak about crucible moments in our childhoods, careers and relationships. A rare time to be truly heard and not judged. And to come away with an even clearer idea of not what we do but why we do it; and a burning energy to make change and to be changed.

It is said that words are cheap.  But I think words are incredible. Little chemical missiles that can heal or harm us. Having this week to find the words to describe my own personal purpose was a forever experience I will always cherish.

 

Sian Sutherland, CoFounder, Chief Changemaker and Status Quo Arsonist

A Plastic Planet + PlasticFree