By Reilly Brooks
What is the defining skill for the 21st century? It’s not coding, says Ravi Venkatesan — it’s the ability to solve problems and lead change. Over three decades leading in the public and private sector, Ravi has learned from thousands of entrepreneurs navigating uncertainty and bringing positive transformation around the world.
Ravi is currently the Special Representative for Young People and Innovation at UNICEF and founder of the Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship (GAME), a coalition that aims to create 10 million local entrepreneurs in India and Africa by 2030. Ashoka spoke with Ravi at Safe Water Network’s global convening of hundreds of young changemakers, where he shared his insights and advice.
Here are our highlights.
Education and employment are generational challenges with new symptoms.
According to the World Bank, over 40% of the global population is under the age of 25. This generation as driven, ambitious, and talented, Ravi says, but faces extraordinary challenges. Two critical ones: reimagining the rigid education system, and ensuring that education leads to jobs.
“Much of the education system around the world is designed for a world that no longer exists,” Ravi says. Today, access to knowledge is now dependent on access to technology and internet—and many young people end up left behind. When it comes to employment, “There is no thing as a secure job anymore. And more and more, the idea of jobs and careers feels like an artifact of the last century.” Rather than a routine job that lasts a lifetime, “our lives are looking like a series of projects.”
The pandemic didn’t create a world of unprecedented change, it accelerated it.
Our world was experiencing an extraordinary rate of change before the pandemic, Ravi says — and it’s only sped up. The cause of acceleration, Ravi believes, is twofold: Technology and changing ideas.
“Change is the only permanence and uncertainty is the only certainty.”
“The way we think about identity, the way we think about globalization, justice, sustainability, who gets to [decide how] we run the world — everything is in flux,” he explains. “This disproportionately impacts young people.”
Learning knows no age limits— dare to dream.
Ravi recalls a world that was much “slower” when he was growing up, with plenty of time to wonder. His father was a scientist, and Ravi remembers his parents encouraging him to dream and explore.
“When I was very young, I took apart my father’s prized Grundig radio. When I put it back together, there were a bunch of parts still left. That radio never worked again. But my mother, instead of getting angry, said ‘my son’s going to be an engineer.’”
Ravi went on to experiment, building telescopes and microscopes, and earning a scholarship for studying the behavior of ants when he was 13. But once he attended university and started working, Ravi says he lost his sense of childhood curiosity, and it’s only in the last 10 years that he’s tried to improve it—by learning new things, like how to fly a plane and play the accordion. At any age, curiosity can be rediscovered.
Leadership will look different.
While changemaking is central to humanity, Ravi says it demands a new paradigm around leadership. “When you look at all the vexing and existential problems, it’s becoming clear that we’re making almost no progress towards solving them despite our technology, resources, and talent. The core issue is leadership.”
Many people grew up in a world where leadership looks like “people with formal authority, title, power, and wealth,” Ravi describes. Instead, society needs a new form of leadership that comes from “anywhere and everywhere and most of all, from young people.”
Youth are training for transformation.
Ravi believes the world’s greatest strength is the collective power of young people. To face great challenges, he calls for three things young people (and all of us) need to succeed:
- Agency: Realizing you can influence your destiny and having the confidence to act on it.
- Mindset of the explorer: Seeing life as an adventure to learn and grow.
- Skillset of a changemaker: the skills to lead people to solve complex problems.
We can’t learn how to be changemakers overnight, online, or even in a classroom. “Everything needs experimental learning — tackling problems wherever you are — in school, community, collaborate with others to solve global problems,” Ravi says. “We need to begin to think of these challenges as crucibles for leadership development.”
When we all inspire, enable, support, and encourage young people to lead change, Ravi says, “Then I think the world stands a real chance of solving some of the most pressing problems.”
Safe Water Network works alongside communities in Ghana and India to provide more than a million people daily access to safe water, envisioning a world with thriving communities all managing sustainable supplies of safe water. Ashoka was invited to participate in Safe Water’s Network Youth Convening for Water, Sustainable Living, and Communities by Venkatesh Raghavendra, who is a leader of Safe Water Network and current board Member of Ashoka India as well as former Ashoka staff member. Watch the full recording of the global virtual event here.