This is a story about Vision.
Without vision or a point on the horizon, a sailboat can travel leagues without making progress toward a specific destination. We can allow our sails to be filled with doubt and despair, our heads down without ever seeing how we make a difference. Or we can spend our days looking out of the back of the boat contemplating all the mistakes in the wake of our past.
The world needs visionaries who are able to see beyond the grind of our daily work and look into the future, envisioning a better direction for the great boat of humanity.
The Nature of Tasneem Khan
Meet our story’s protagonist, Tasneem Khan of India. Here is how she was introduced to me by a mutual friend: “Tasneem Khan is one of the most charismatic and action-oriented people I have ever met and she has a mind-blowing approach to the environment. Her belief is that every aspect of life, but especially art and crafts, should be incorporated into the environmental effort.”
Ever since growing up in a beautiful region in western India, Tasneem has always had a fascination for the natural world. Even as a young girl, she knew she wanted to dedicate her career to wildlife. That interest led to a passion for reptiles and eventually ocean ecosystems. Her love of both science and art inspired her interest in photography and focusing her vision of nature through the lens of a camera.
After university, she found herself working in the open ocean between India and Myanmar where for eight years she directed the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Environmental Team, Centre for Island Ecology. The Ocean called her for a purpose beyond research alone. She used the center as a platform to educate thousands of Indian school children and she created residencies not just for scientists but for artists as well. See her amazing Tedx talk on Eyes, Island, Archipelagic Angles from this period in her career.
Connecting People with their Living Planet
Eventually, her vision grew beyond Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Tasneem saw an opportunity to bridge many disciplines to connect people and the planet. She brought together several of her passions (education and ecology, conservation and communication, art and photography) and joined with her most trusted colleagues to create Earth Colab in 2014.
Earth CoLab is an enterprise that develops new approaches to learning, academic communication, and business. The company’s mission is to “cultivate a sense of biophilia and a consciousness that renders positive actions between people and place.”
Earth Colab brings together researchers, artists, students, and others to create transformational learning experiences and connect people with their ecosystems. Given her sense of vision, I believe it is no coincidence that in the artwork on Earth Colab’s homepage pictured above, Tasneem is depicted as the visionary, gazing out the front of the ship towards the horizon.
As both an entrepreneur and environmentalist, I find Earth Colab fascinating for at least two reasons. The first is the critical role of place in creating learning opportunities that are deeply meaningful and long-lasting. The second is how a group 5 geographically spread out millennials organize themselves as a company.
The Power of Place
Earth Colab creates breakthrough learning experiences for students of all ages, researchers, artists, businesses people, and others. It achieves its purpose of “cultivating biophilia and consciousness” by creating an opportunity for people to get their feet wet and hands dirty in the great outdoors. The scientific learning and spiritual wonders of ocean and land can only be fully appreciated through direct experience.
The majesty of the outdoors is even more powerful when one considers place. Whether Earth Colab brings people from across the world to their ocean-based project near Thailand or the Earth Colab team sends their ideas and exercises to people in their home countries, the power of place is a key part of the company’s curriculum. Every square kilometer of the planet is unique, and people of all ages are eager to discover what is special about place the place where they live. Like an ocean swell growing into a wave, Earth Colab is creating a growing impact beyond its home country of India and has served clients from New Zealand to Sweden.
One of the struggles for the Earth Colab team is related to ownership of its intellectual capital. The team creates unique curricula and other products that have value in the marketplace. Like any company, Earth Colab has to pay bills and salaries and manage cash flow. There is nothing sustainable about running out of money, and so they must monetize their offerings through client fees and grants. Yet, sometimes Tasneem and her partners encounter clients who can benefit from Earth Colab’s curriculum but do not have the resource to purchase the services. Should the organization give away its intellectual property to parties who do not have the resources to pay? This question may be best answered on a case by case basis. Sometimes Earth Colab does repackage and share its products for free, but the ownership issue is still under discussion among Tasneem and her partners.
The Management Structure of Decentralized Unity
The Earth Colab founders are united by a company mission. Although all the partners are all originally from India, today they are geographically spread out. For example, when she is not on the ocean for extended periods, Tasneem currently lives in Thailand.
Like many modern, virtual companies the 5-person team must coordinate to making the business work. Communication is hindered by both physical distance and inconsistent internet, especially when several members of the team may be at sea at any given time. Despite the communication challenges, Earth Colab has created a strong sense of team based on trust, respect, and even love.
The founders have committed to always involving at least two partners on every project regardless of who brought the client into the company. Thus, they are constantly collaborating and problem-solving with at least one other person on the team, which helps strengthen the bonds among them. Five years into the experiment of Earth Colab, the team has maintained unity despite the lack of a central home office.
Not Stranded in the Shallows
Tasneem loves whales and she even took the photo above. In 2017, Tasneem wrote an article about the mass stranding of hundreds of whales off the New Zealand coast. Scientists are still working to understand the cause of the whales getting trapped in shallow waters, including exploring if human-made noise pollution or military use of sonar were factors.
The plight of whales provides us a metaphor for our own relationship with the planet. There is a risk that the great ship of humanity could become stranded by shallow thinking and short-sighted decision-making if we lose our natural ability to connect people and place.
Fortunately, in the depth of our challenge lies the seed of our future success. Science has enabled us to understand humanity’s impact on the environment, which has brought clarity to Tanseem’s vision of “biophilia” as a core value for people across the world. Tasneem’s efforts are not just one drop in a vast ocean. She is joined by millions of millennials across the planet who are leading us to a destination where people are connected to place and each other like never before.
Respect for both science and art are required to sail the ship of humanity into a sustainable future. With people like Tasneem at the helm, I believe winds of hope are filling the sails.