Creative leaders embrace change

August 28th, 2014
Article by: Robert Wolfe
Creative leaders embrace change

THNK participants come to the Executive Program with a project, a dream, or a mission they are aspiring to fulfill. Naturally, they are all in different stages: some come with the kernel of an idea and some with a tangible product ready to be shared. The true watershed moments of achievement come later – sometimes years later.


Usha Venkatachallam from Class 2 joined THNK in 2012 with her Superbutterfly project. The name refers to the unbelievable, intergenerational journey the Monarch Butterfly makes from Mexico to Canada and back every year. The journey is so long that the Monarch, who normally only lives for six to eight weeks, takes four generations to complete it.

The journey of the Superbutterfly

Grandmother begins the journey in Mexico in the Spring; the mother continues from Texas to the Midwest, where the daughter is born; and it is the daughter who ends up in Canada. In Autumn, the granddaughter is born and she is a special one. She is the Superbutterfly: she lives for nine months and flies all the way back to Mexico for the winter and starts the cycle again in Spring as the new grandmother. This inspiring journey of four generations of females, one after the other building towards an achievement of greatness, became a story that inspired Usha to reach out to achieve her dream of turning girls into Superbutterflies in rural India.

Usha’s plan was to take bright young girls from the smallest villages and teach them cutting-edge I.T. programming and social entrepreneurship skills, allowing them to improve their own lives and that of their communities at the same time. Usha believes that the ability for women to earn their own income and gain financial independence is crucial in changing their status and improving their communities.

embrace change
The ability for women to gain financial independence is crucial in changing their status and improving their communities. Click To Tweet

Expect the unexpected

Usha herself is the first female in her family to go to university, with support from her mother and grandmother. With a thriving career at places like NASA and several dot-com companies, Usha undoubtedly had the drive and ability to turn her dream into a reality.

But something unexpected got in the way.

Usha had written a concept note on utilizing technology to fight corruption by using a website that uses crowd-sourced text messages. This idea was accepted by a special panel at the International Anti-Corruption Conference in 2012 in Brasilia. At the conference, she was immediately approached by organizations from several countries to try this idea out. When the concept found a partnership and a major source of funding in the Partnership for Transparency Fund (PTF), Usha was faced with a choice. Would she put the Superbutterfly project on hold?

The butterflies are part of her bigger dream, which she calls Appropriate IT, where the aim is to harness the power of technology to advance social justice. Developing a platform for social accountability fit right into her bigger picture, so she chose to accept the opportunity to bring her concept note into fruition. Now, more than a year later, Uganda has the first pilot of this Citizen Action Platform.

embrace change
We need to harness the power of technology to advance social justice. Click To Tweet

The vision remains

And the butterflies? Usha learned to embrace change and to accept that there would be detours, but eventually she found the time to continue with the journey. First, Usha’s company piloted weekend courses, teaching students how to use WordPress. This led to longer and more extensive programs in which the students learned to build a website for a social cause in their communities. Soon after, a software development company expressed interest in using this training to build the soft skills of their newly-hired employees — for a fee of course.

This led to the idea of mixing fee-paying students with other students who would learn for free. Usha citestwo main reasons for this pivot: the first is that for girls from rural communities, communicating closely with others from more urban and professional settings will enhance their social skills as well as their entrepreneurial abilities. “Women inspire each other so much,” Usha says. The second reason is that, in her eyes, the future lies somewhere in between business and social. “One day there will be no need for the term ‘social entrepreneur’ or ‘social business’ as all businesses will aim for good impact. But until that day, the term ‘social enterprise’ is useful,” she says. “We should consciously combine business and social, therefore getting Appropriate IT to also operate like a business with half of our customers paying makes sense.”

With all the pilots done and a real home for the butterfly school (one angel investor decided to support them with a school building), the Appropriate IT Development Academy, or AIDA, was ready to launch. Besides WordPress there is another course lined up this year in programming robotics, using drones and the Raspberry Pi for development. The skills taught are highly advanced and sophisticated, aimed at creating Superbutterflies. And it has already had an impact: a young woman in one of the pilots landed a job as a WordPress programmer.

embrace change
Learning to embrace change and accept that there will be detours will strengthen your vision and mission. Click To Tweet

The biggest challenges are of the mind

Learning programming or social entrepreneurship skills is far from Usha’s greatest worry. Breaking through barriers in thinking and rising above expectations is the greater challenge.

Many barriers remain for women in India, as they do in many other cultures. Because Usha sees this as the biggest challenge, and knowing that women inspire each other so much, she put extra effort into the AIDA launch event. On August 15 – India’s Independence Day – Usha invited women from all corners of the globe to the little town of Coimbatore for the future butterflies to meet. THNKers Yun Ming Wai and Heather Moore visited from China and Germany, respectively. Local independent filmmaker Geeta Ilangovan also attended. Together, these women bring a broad global perspective on the barriers women need to overcome in order to have a career and make change happen.

So AIDA is live, Usha’s dream is taking shape and the Butterflies are set to fly. It may not seem like a textbook path to achieving your dream, but that might just depend on which textbook you are using. At THNK — to the degree that we have a textbook at all — we believe in and embracing change and  “holding firm to the essence of one’s vision while being adaptable, where needed, on the form, mastering the execution cycle and allowing unexpected events to make things better.”

Congratulations Usha. To us, you are the ultimate SuperButterfly!

Discover how to achieve the dream or mission you’ve been thinking about in THNK’s Executive Leadership Program. Visit the program page to find out if you qualify or contact us at