The first time I saw Ujwal dai was at the school while playing football, in 2003. I was in grade 8. (Most of this part is based on sketchy memory and I have tried my best to patch it all together). I have always been a big fan of the game and used to play frequently at the school. It was during one such moment while playing football that I remember seeing him. I saw him more frequently after then and he even played with us during our PE classes. I recall conversations among my classmates regarding who he was and what he was doing at the school. I found out that he was an alumnus and thought it was weird that he had the time to play with us when he clearly should have been “working”. Nobody knew what he did for living and I naturally assumed he was jobless. I also found out that he studied in the US and had returned to Nepal. I thought “returning to Nepal from the US + jobless = LOSER”! I mean who in their right mind would return to Nepal if you studied at Budhanilkantha School and then the US, no?
This is the third one in the “Conversations with Ayush” series.
Ujwal Thapa (552 B) currently is the Chairperson of BibekSheel Nepali – a political organization – in Nepal. He is also the founder of Digital Max Solutions, which has gone on to produce employees who themselves have started companies renowned in their niche. He also started Entrepreneurs for Nepal, which is a platform for entrepreneurial Nepalis who are interested in starting business in Nepal. They recently organized the 50th Last Thursdays with an Entrepreneur event and have over 15,000 members on their Facebook group. He blogs about leadership and creating prosperity in Nepal through WhyNepal.com.
I found out about Entrepreneurs for Nepal and their Facebook group, after I came to Saint Peters for my undergraduate degree. I was very interested in entrepreneurship (this was when I was running around with my coconut water idea) and thus joined the group. I also got the chance to read his blog posts and got connected to him on Facebook in early 2011. Since then, I have been reading his posts on WhyNepal and followed him closely. I visited Nepal during my winter vacation in 2011 (December-January) and met him in front of Sherpa Mall to talk. Then, he described himself primarily as an advocate. Now, he is leading a political movement to change the existing political culture of Nepal. It has been great to see a part of his journey and this was a conversation that I had been looking forward to!
Me: Many people know about what you have been up to lately, but not so much before that. Could you please tell me about your background, going back to the days you joined Budhanilkantha school?
Ujwal dai: I was born in Kathmandu. I joined Budhanilkantha school in grade 4, when there were 60 students; all boys. I did my A Levels and then went to Bennington College for my undergraduate degree. The college had good programs in Creative Arts – modern dance, theater and visual arts. The college had no grades but we had to submit a project that would be judged by peers (which was harder than studying for grades alone) and 70% of the population was women. It was a complete opposite to the environment I came from in BNKS since there were more women than men. I experimented with studying History, Child Psychology, Japanese and Genetics. I ended up majoring in Multi-Media Arts. I went to study Astro Physics, but came back a designer / Multimedia artist.
I stayed in the US for one-and-half years after graduating, before returning to Nepal. I became interested in Zen Buddhism and wanted to become a monk. I went to San Francisco, California to become a Buddhist monk but unfortunately couldn’t join.
I returned to Nepal, for good, in May 2001 amidst some of the worst human tragedies occurred in the few months that followed. The Maoist insurgency was in full swing and the Royal Massacre happened a few weeks after I arrived and then we had September 11 later in the US that year. I volunteered with SEBS for one-and-half years. I also got trained in conflict resolution and went to Rolpa to teach people how to create a dialogue. I worked on creating dialogue between the local Maoists, the Police and the Army and the political parties.
After that experience, on my own, I started a web site design company which kickstarted my journey in entrepreneurship. I hired people and trained them. At one point we reached 35 people. However doing this was not enough for me as I wanted to contribute more to the environment around me. Then I started Entrepreneurs for Nepal in 2008 as a manch (platform). It is a platform that encourages and helps entrepreneurs. After seeing politicians being unaccountable and citizens being irresponsible by not holding them accountable. Thus I and few others came together to start Nepal Unites – a citizens movement targeting the middle class, upper-middle class and working professionals. However I learnt that these movements do not last a long time as people get tired after sometime. It was a rude awakening for me. I realized that movements like these do not affect the people on the inside. Everyone, including me, was waiting for a Superman to come and save us all.
Thus I started another campaign – Bikalpa kurera hudaina, aafai garnu parcha. The pattern I recognized was that if we do not get involved in politics, it won’t work. But who will take the first leap? I understood that it is a compulsion for me to get involved in politics.
So we started Bibeksheel Nepali. It is growing organically and based on the effort of the last one-and-half years, we were able to get four candidates to contest in the election for the Constitution Assembly (Dog symbol). We now are on the process of becoming a full fledged political force. This election campaign was a talking point for us and my work next with the organization will be to make it in to a political platform that influences and infects the political culture of this nation positively.
Me: That was a really good background as you covered through most things I was going to ask you about. Let’s go back to the part where you talked about BNKS being an all boys school since we have not had that conversation yet on this series. Sneedha didi talked about how the school was still trying to adjust to being c0-ed. What was it like back then?
Ujwal dai: I was part of the transitional period. The environment was completely different. Girls were alien creatures for us. I was in grade nine when girls were admitted and no one taught us remotely, how to deal with girls! It was like laato bungo le bolna khojeko jasto! Kahile kaanhi saano dhunga faalda thulo ni faalinthyo! Most of the girls were from St. Mary’s. Since the girls too did not have a lot of experience dealing with guys, it was difficult for both the groups. There were a few girls from my batch that I did not speak to at all throughout school. I think one of the reason was the teachers not being trained on how to handle the change.
Me: Thank you for sharing that. Now moving onto Digital Max Solutions, what happened to that? Are you still involved?
Ujwal dai: The company is still around but I have moved on to nurturing BibekSheel Nepali We have a small good leadership team to run it.
Me: When you started in the web industry in Nepal, what was it like?
Ujwal dai: There were no peers and I was pretty much the only one doing a web company that I knew about back then. Since then, the people that I hired have gone on to start their own businesses and the ones they hired too in turn opened their own. We also started WordPress Nepal (2000 people platform) and it has proven to be great for us. Since we were involved in Content Management System (CMS), WordPress was the appropriate tech platform for us.
Me: What about your future role with Entrepreneurs for Nepal?
Ujwal dai: One of the major problems in Nepal is there is no change in leadership. I do not want that to happen. We now have a second generation already leading with Manish Jha from Sambriddhi Foundation and Vidhan Rana (300C) from Biruwa Ventures. I want to let them manage it.
Me: You said a couple of interesting things about some of the things you realized like how movements do not last for a long time and thus you need to be directly involved in politics to bring about change. The second one that struck me was the problem in Nepal with a lack of change in leadership. Could you share two main things you have learnt about Nepal?
Ujwal dai: The first big problem in Nepal is everyone seeks credit for what they do. Especially leaders care too much about getting the credit. As a lesson learnt,recently on the bandh called by the Maoist force (Baidhya faction before the elections) when we went out on the streets to defy bandhs, we did not seek credit for the campaign. We were there as citizens. After the third day, there were no signs of the bandh at all. You can get a lot done if you do not seek credit for what you do!
The other problem is leaders think that politics is a zero-sum game when it is not. The leadership in modern Nepal is about creating Win-win environment.
Me: To wrap up, what does Nepal need next?
Ujwal dai: Nepal needs more people to join the bureaucracy, entrepreneurship and politics. There are three pillars to build a country – political leadership, entrepreneurs and bureaucrats. Bureaucrats build a country through the government which is there to serve the people directly. Entrepreneurs build prosperity. Politicians drive the nation forward.
Thus we need more talented and educated people to join the bureaucracy, entrepreneurship and politics.
Ujwal dai is an inspiration for me. He has left behind a trail of projects which have helped build him to this point. He has proven with his work with Entrepreneurs for Nepal by creating a win-win situation for all. I was hoping he would do better in the recent CA elections. However, that is a journey he has just embarked on and he knows very well that he is in it for the long haul. He is doing things that does not have a precedence and no one to look up to for inspiration and leadership, in Nepal. He is constantly creating new paths and leading others to partake in the journey. It is a no-brainer that many people will feel intimidated and scared. Nonetheless, he has proven that he can execute. I hope that he will also be an inspiration to many more of us!