Sometimes the best of outcomes comes from the most serendipitous of encounters.
*This post is a part of a series, vignettes really, meant to capture the work I’ve been up to in Sri Lanka this December & January and my own thoughts and impressions of the changes I’ve seen and the people I’ve met. Check back here daily for more :)
When I was in high school, I had the grandiose idea of planting a plant-a-row for the hungry garden at my school for my “personal project.” I drew up these elaborate landscaping plans, subscribed myself to all of these gardening magazines, and for months on months memorized all the names of my favorite flowers. I learned about vertical gardening and new horticultural methods, lasagna gardening and weed killing, and, trust me, everything in between.
Somewhere around the middle of August I started to really dig in– yes, pun intended. To start, I needed some seed funding to cover everything so I designed these elaborate (in retrospect, much too gaudy) donation letter requests and started ringing every local greenhouse to see if I might collect some in-kind donations. At first, inevitably, I was ignored. So I just kept on calling. And calling. Eventually a guy from the Lowe’s on West Broad Street called me back.
“We have a bunch of old flowers on the lot here – you come take a look and we’ll see if we can’t give you a good deal.”
It was my first breakthrough in a month. I was ecstatic. I forced my dad that night to take our little Honda Accord to buy some flowers. I’m pretty convinced he didn’t know the half of what he was getting himself into. I loaded up three trolleys worth of geraniums, soil, petunias, fertilizer, coleus, lettuce, tomatoes, you name it – it was in there. I was determined to nurse those damaged plants back to life. I rolled up my loot to the cashier’s desk where my dad was standing with the Lowe’s guy who had called me earlier.
My dad, shocked, just about fell over, shook his head, and said no way are we taking all those flowers home. I stood my ground and made my best determined face. The Lowe’s guy chuckled – “I’m afraid sir that she’s just like my wife – I’ll bet she gets exactly what she wants.”
That day we rolled home with a carload of flowers, a trunk load of soil and fertilizer, and one very happy 9th grader.
I tell this story mostly because the reaction my dad gave me that day – that you must be kidding-who the heck is this girl-half whimsical smile is one I haven’t stopped getting since.
So on an otherwise normal Thursday in Colombo when I pranced into Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Youth and Skills Development Office and somehow explained (and demonstrated) GrowLanka well enough to land me in the Director of IT’s office, I wasn’t so surprised when the Director gave me that look too.
I had bounded in saying, “Hi I’m Inesha. I think I have something that might be able to help your efforts. Let me show you.” And the rest is history.
I could tell he was amused. I do tend to talk realllllyyyy fast when I get excited. And when the Director started explaining that the Ministry itself had just launched a job vacancies database customized for youth but was having trouble getting people subscribed because they didn’t have access to internet, I couldn’t help but say Exactly! That’s where we can help!
I apologized, I swear, for my persistence. He was quite forgiving: “No, no it’s ok – you’re trying to help us for free,” he insisted. He asked to meet again soon so that our developers could have a conversation with the government’s about modifying our system to complement the larger audience we’d be serving if we collaborated.He didn’t roll his eyes when I said, “So can we meet tomorrow then?” At this point, I think he saw that coming. (In my defense, I was leaving town the following Tuesday so time was of the essence.)
And so like a whirlwind, I was back there the next day facilitating a conversation between our developers and their’s, talking next steps, and getting ready to sign an MOU with this Sri Lankan Ministry. Then suddenly, a gentleman entered from the corner office adjacent to the conference room we were sitting in. He was introduced promptly as the Director General of the Ministry. I hadn’t quite expected to be talking to him just yet. Nervous, I launched– and I mean launched, full motor mouth and all– into what GrowLanka is and does and believes.
He stopped me. Bemused. He pushed his spectacles to the tip of his nose so that he could look directly at me. It was that face again. That face I had seen before on the IT Director’s face, the same one that Lowe’s guy and my dad gave me so many years ago.
“Why are you doing this?”
I started to explain the bevy of reasons- the gaps we were seeing, the things I had learned about the labor market.
He shook his head.
“No, no, why are YOU doing this? I’m trying to understand why you care,” he told me.
If I have one regret from that day it was that I gave him all the reasons and explanations except the only one that really mattered.
Because really for me, making sure Sri Lanka has the economic and technological infrastructure to move forward is insurance to make sure she doesn’t turn back.
Looking back, I can’t help but chuckle. That Thursday was a rather normal Thursday in Colombo but a serendipitous encounter led to a conversation and a partnership that I hadn’t planned for. But as I sat in the Director’s office talking about what I had seen on the ground in the north, questioning him as to what he thought were the root causes of growing youth unemployment in particular, and asking him what he defined as success for a system like this, what he thought would be the best performance indicators, I realized his Ministry was the one that GrowLanka needed to be working with. I couldn’t be more grateful for those two gentleman there – patient enough as they were to listen to an over-excited college student and daring enough to take a risk on me.