Inclusivity can bear more answers to world problems – Madi Sharma

21 Nov 2014

Madi Group founder Madi Sharma told delegates at the Irish Research Council's recent annual conference at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin, to think more inclusively and gain different ways of solving problems. Photo by Jason Clarke Photography

Entrepreneur Madi Sharma challenged researchers and policy-makers to think differently at the Irish Research Council (IRC)’s annual conference in Kilmainham, Dublin, this week.

When you go for a job, or seek funding for a project or business plan, do you include your qualifications on your CV? Madi Sharma wants to break that mould, because it means the world is missing out.

“There are probably around 6.5bn people on the planet who don’t have qualifications – and I am one of those people,” she says. “And if we don’t include everybody in the policy-making, in looking for new ideas, in innovation and research, we are missing out on solving the world’s problems with a different kind of thinking.”

Benefits of thinking differently and inclusively

It was a strong message she brought to the IRC’s annual meeting on Wednesday, where she challenged researchers and policy-makers to think differently and more inclusively.

Sharma’s own story illustrates her point: a survivor of domestic abuse and a single parent living in poverty, she started a business in her kitchen, selling samosas.

“At first it was four products a day but I turned it into a company making 10,000 products a week with 35 staff, all long-term unemployed,” she says.

“Today I am running several international companies (the Madi Group of private sector and social enterprises, not-for-profit companies and NGOs focuses on combining innovation and local action to address major global challenges), and who is running them when I am on stage talking? My staff, whose CVs I did not look at when I employed them.”

An exercise for individual change

As ‘homework’ she set a challenge: each person in the audience to take a blank piece of paper and write on it their vision of what they want to be.

Sharma sees this exercise as a key starting point for individual change, but it is often met with a ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ response.

“When you ask people to do this, you see the fear in their eyes – 95pc of people don’t know what to put,” she says. “Yet we have got all these barriers in the way telling us we can’t do things, so it’s important to know what it is that we really want to do.”

The blank-paper exercise ties into what she refers to as the ‘seven F’s – the need to fantasise about what you want to put on that piece of paper, the feasibility of it, getting the foundation of knowledge, keeping positive and ‘fit for purpose’, embracing failure (and the related fear of success), keeping focused and also keeping the ‘face’.

The face? “If you don’t behave as that person that you want to be, people don’t believe in you,” she says. “But if you work through the other six ‘F’s’ (your behaviour will) change and you won’t even realise it. Once you know what it is you want, things start to happen.”

Meetings of minds at IRC conference

The delegates weren’t the only ones learning at the IRC conference – Sharma took from it a greater sense of awareness that small businesses and and entrepreneurs can “knock on the door of universities” for help.

“Researchers are looking for real subject matter and topics to work on, but as a small business you might be busy firefighting and you may not be aware that someone can help you there,” she says. “And universities also need to be aware that the SMEs need answers now, and that brainstorming can come up with new solutions.”

Though a practical suggestion is for the researchers and policy-makers to tone down the jargon and speak in terms that more people can readily understand, she notes.

Engage young people in policy

As well as being an entrepreneur and speaker, Sharma is a member of the European Economic and Social Committee, the EU institution representing civil society, and she wants more engagement with young people (“under-25s, not under-35s”) so they are involved in policy decisions.   

“How many people have actually worked inside a school with disaffected young people, how many have sat in a youth club with people who were using drugs because they can’t see their future? I do this on a regular basis, so I am aware of what these young people are facing,” she says.

“We need targeted objectives to have young people included in the decision-making process in research, in business, in everything. We need a policy mix that is inclusive of everybody.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication