#3: Conversation with Ujwal Thapa – Chairperson of Bibeksheel Nepali

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.

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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!

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#2: Conversation with Ram Krishna Rijal – Founder of The Bloom Nepal School

This is the second one in the “Conversations with Ayush” series. Ram Krishna (708 C) currently works as a Consultant at The World Bank in Kathmandu. Meanwhile, he is also the Founder of The Bloom Nepal School, established in 2013. The concept behind the school is based on magnet schools in the US. Magnet schools have specialized courses that allow students to focus on the particular subject that they are interested in.

Ram Krishna and I are from the same batch and thus I have known him since grade 4. We have also been involved in projects while at college, albeit none of which worked out. We along with Sandeep (7125 C) and Bishnu dai (568 C) tried to start a micro-finance bank in Nepal targeting the hilly region, in the summer of 2010. We did not make much progress and dropped off the idea. The following year we registered in MIT 100k along with Suniti (720 C) who went to Harvard, with the idea of a fresh/raw coconut water company. It was really my thing and Ram was only trying to help me and I kept on working by myself, post MIT 100k. I reached up to the point where the CEO of Zico (second leading coconut water brand in the US) Mark Rampolla offered to let me work on the idea and experiment under his brand. The only asset I would have would be the brand since coconut water is a commodity product and thus I decided not take that conversation further, eventually dropping off the idea for coconut water as well.

We had regular communications since then where we talked about the importance of education for the development of Nepal, where we had opposing views. Bloom Nepal is a manifestation of Ram’s belief of the importance of education (and I agree with that now). It also stems from his appreciation of the opportunity that BNKS gave him and here is the conversation between us.

Me: Let us start with your background; where are you from?

Ram: I am from Banfikot in Rukum which is a four hour walk from the capital of the district. I came as a scholarship student to the school. Coming to BNKS was like a switch that completely changed my family, for the better.

Me: I feel like even though I know you, I do not really know the story before you came to the school. I realized that I have no idea what process scholarship students go through before you come to the school. For example, I was tutored on my English for two weeks as part of the preparation.

Ram: My cousin (fupaju ko chora) told my father that I should appear for the entrance exam of Budhanilkantha School since I was good in studies. He then asked the District Education Officer about the test. Coincidentally, it was coming up soon and I appeared for it. I did not do any preparation. I did not get a question for Math right, which was on equations and I felt bad about it. In hindsight, I felt like I should have at least prepared and would have gotten that question right since it was fairly easy.

Me: What was your experience like at the school?

Ram: It was a very memorable experience, especially because of sports. I got to compete in many things and that was instrumental in developing me. I think those competitions also developed friendships and helped bring the best out of you. The competitive environment pushed me to do even better.

Me: My experience with the competitive aspect of school is quite the opposite. I guess I was a notch below the best students in almost everything at the school and I feel like I never really got a chance to do anything because only the best students got the chance to participate. Coming to Saint Peters allowed me to explore myself much more. Taking the example of debate, I never got a chance to participate in any of the competitions at school because only the best students got chosen. Here at Saint Peters, I joined the debate club and progressed tremendously over the years.

Ram: Let me make a note of that since what you said is very interesting. That is probably something we have to keep in mind for our school.

Me: Why did you choose to go to MIT? Why did you return to Nepal after that?

Ram: I wanted to go to MIT because all the people who went there were highly appreciated at BNKS. I was interested in Mathematics, and thus the luster for Harvard went away. Once I got accepted at MIT, I stopped all my college applications.

The experience at MIT was different. I was always a top 10 student until my time at Hastings – in the UK where I did my IB. I had to work very hard at MIT and I was not very prepared for it. My expectations for MIT were not set right and I had time management issues. It was hard to balance studies and everything else. There were times when I felt that it asked too much out of me. However, it also taught me humility and the value of education. It also instilled a culture of doing something in me.

I was not happy with the situation in Nepal and I wanted to come back. I was about to take a break from school but following the advice of Atul dai, I decided not to. After finishing at MIT, I got a job at the World Bank, which made it an easy decision to come back. It was purely an emotional decision.

Me: Since there were lots of things that you wanted to do in Nepal, why did you decide to start a school?

Ram: It was an idea I had while at MIT. A second year student named Keshab who was a computer engineer came up with an algorithm that was better than that of Netflix. He did not really have any college education yet and he had learnt all of that by himself. I realized that getting the opportunity to follow your passion is very important. Thus the idea for specialized education e.g. Maths. The impacts of the school are tangible. It also an inspiration from getting to study at BNKS since I would have become a Maoist had I not received the opportunity.

Me: What is your vision for the school?

Ram: We want to provide specialized education to as many kids as possible. 15-20 years down the line, we would like to have 8 schools in various parts of the country; at an affordable cost. We want them to pursue a university education after that. We also want to move onto colleges and universities later. By doing all this, we want to create an army of people and leaders in specialized education that will lead the country.

Me: What has your experience of starting a company in Nepal been like?

Ram: It has not been that bad. Getting students has definitely been challenging. Starting a school requires a license and there was no new issuance then. We also had challenges around audit and legal issues.  Financing has not been a big challenge yet. I have been very lucky in finding an amazing team of people who go through the everyday grind to make it successful. Rabindra (776 C) – another graduate of Saint Peters University – deserves an even bigger praise than I do for the work he has done so far. Bishnu dai (568 C), Ajay (860 C) and Rajendra (705 C) are the other co-founders who have been amazing.

Me: What are your plans for the future – on a personal level and your involvement with the school?

Ram: When we get a proper round of financing, I want to switch working at the school full-time. I have one-and-half more years to go with the contract with The World Bank. However, I also want to get my Master’s Degree in Mathematics if I get a Fulbright type scholarship where I have to come back to Nepal after getting my degree. I will do that once we have smooth operations and have capable hands to run the school.

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This is the difference that an opportunity to study at Budhanilkantha School makes – between becoming a Maoist (and who knows what would have happened) and a degree from MIT followed by opening up a school to provide opportunity for education to more people. I think we do not fully appreciate the impact of an opportunity that BNKS provides to many of us. Ram is only getting started and I expect lot more from him in the future.

#1: Conversation with Sneedha Mainali – current President of SEBS

This is the first one in the “Conversations with Ayush” series. I wanted to start with Sneedha didi since she is the current President of SEBS. I first knew about her through her posts on the SEBS Facebook group page. She is a dentist at KIST Medical College, where she works with children. Since the conversation series is about talking to BNKS alumni, it seemed only fitting that I start with her.

Me: Thank you for talking to me. Let us start with your background since most of us only know you as the President of SEBS. Maybe some also know you as a doctor, but not much more than that.

Sneedha didi: I was born in Kanpur of Kavre, which is a 2-3 hour ride from Kathmandu. My family came to Kathmandu when I started my schooling. I studied in 7 different schools before coming to BNKS for my O Levels and A Levels. My father got posted to different parts of the country and I changed my schools wherever he went. You know, back then, O Levels used to be a year-long program and A Levels another one-and-half years. I had stayed in a hostel before that. I had never opened my eyes to anything beyond my hostel life and school. Thus, I had not even heard about the BNKS before SLC. I mean most of what I knew about education came from my parents. Having stayed at a hostel and studied in a school which focused mostly on just classroom education, I was handicapped further.

Me: What was your experience at BNKS like?

Sneedha didi: There are two ways of looking at my experience – educational and personal. In terms of education, it was a different planet for me. What I realized was that everyone who got in were at least a top 5 student in their previous school. Also that a student who was at the bottom at BNKS based on their academic performance would easily be a top 5 student anywhere else. From the perspective of personal development, it allowed for my all round development. It prepared me really well for what I was to face later in my life.

Me: When I was at the school, one thing that was generally accepted was that if you wanted to be a doctor, studying 10+2 was the best choice. If you want to go to study abroad, then A Levels would be best. But you studied A Levels and still went on to become a doctor. What is the story behind it?

Sneedha didi: Honestly, I didn’t know the difference. I had no plans on going to the US though, since that is what most students studying A Levels plan to do. During the farewell at school when tokens were handed out, I was named “Miss Nepal” since everyone knew that I was going to stay in Nepal! I guess I was influenced by growing up in a culture where being a doctor was considered prestigious and that stuck with me. An anecdote that I can share on this topic is when I was studying in Nursery, the teacher asked what everyone wanted to be later in life. I was the only one who raised their hand and I answered “mutuko operation garne doctor”.

Doing A Levels was definitely a very good decision for me since it broadened my horizon. It also prepared me really well for what was to come later. For example, I passed my entrance examination at BPKIHS the first time I tried without any preparation while most people undergo months of preparation and try at it at least a couple of times before succeeding. While doing my BDS, I also led various team projects which studying at BNKS had instilled in me.

Me: Now let us move on to the topic of how you started being involved with SEBS.

Sneedha didi: I returned from India in June 2011 after finishing my Masters degree. I used to go for health camps with BNKS alumni while at BPKIHS. Once I started working at KIST Medical College after my masters from India, I found co-workers who were BNKS alumni. Since there were already a couple of doctors at one instution who had gone to BNKS, I decided to find out more. I ended up finding 193 doctors and thus decided to organize a gathering. Around 30 Kathmandu based doctors showed up and we decided that we wanted to start SEBS Medical personnels chapter. We talked with Suresh Acharya, the President of SEBS at that time. The chapter was then started with Dr. Bishwaraj Dawadi as the President. While trying to start the chapter, I also had the chance to have conversations with Dr. Tejsu Malla. During the election for the next ex-comm of SEBS, I went to vote for him as the new President. Meanwhile, I was nominated for a position in the ex-comm and was elected as an Executive Member.

I have always been interested in social work and this was the perfect platform for me to do just that. I also got the chance to get the love of kids at the school especially after the dental health camp organised in September last year. This year in June, I got the chance to be a part of the SEBS Exchange Program and got to travel to the US. It was a leadership program and that further helped me. During this period of involvement with the organization, I felt a serious lack of involvement of female alumni of BNKS with SEBS. I felt I needed to step up and and I thought I can do it. So, I declared my candidacy for the President.

Me: I looked at your Message posted on SEBSOnline.org where you have listed what you want to do over the course of your tenure. Could you please go over those and tell the progress you have made so far?

Ten Past Six has not started with this excomm yet. We will have a discussion and plan the strategy on how to move forward with it soon. We are looking to organize homecoming picnics during either of the school vacations. I organized the event on Teej for female BNKS alumni and it was more of an external event. There is a gap and hesitation between senior and junior alumni. The event was a start and provided a spark for future events. We now have a Facebook group page for just girls and that has added a lot of positivity.

Regarding the National Scholarship Program (NSP), we have formed a committee to investigate and find out what happened within the next 3 months. Previous members of NSP have been suspended. The idea about involvement with the local community in Narayansthan will probably start with the students being involved in conducting events, led by SEBS.

The tennis court at the school has now turned into a dumping site and one of the PE teachers specializes in tennis. Thus, we have formed a committee under Vidhan and Sharad to repair that. We also think that there is a need for teacher evaluations at the end of academic session. We do not have a system for that yet.

Me: I definitely agree with all the programs that you proposed. I also think that teachers evaluation is a must and I hope that you get to implement all those initiatives and more. It took a long time for us to have the first female SEBS President which says a lot about the gender issues in Nepal. What has your experience been with gender issues – in SEBS, as a doctor and perhaps the country as a whole?

Sneedha didi: One simple example – the problem starts in classroom at the school. We all know how bad that is and the problem at my time I saw in the mentality of everyone – both the teachers and the students. There is already a culture of separation of boys and girls where teachers are suspicious if they talk to one another, which is tough. Similarly, the school has not completely metamorphed to a co-ed school. In fear of getting ridiculed in front of their friends, students avoid talking to friends of the opposite gender. But things have definitely improved. On the SEBS level, I am being encouraged by everyone and has been a good experience so far. As a doctor, I do not see any gender issues and it is much easier to work compared to other professions as a female. However, the gender problem is really bad in Nepal. Whatever laws are present for females, if you try fighting for your rights, the law victimizes you so much that it’s better to withdraw at times. Let me say, “its almost a lawless country”. I hope things are going to be far better for generations to come.

Me: Is there anything that you are passionate about? Anything else that you want to mention that I might have missed out?

Sneedha didi: You know I am passionate about children. I also love to travel and want to travel all over Nepal and maybe world some day 😉  I would say 90% of my passion is children and 10% is the rest.

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SEBS has become much more active than they used to be. They are also more transparent, making well use of technology i.e. SEBSOnline and their Facebook page. I feel like we have people in SEBS who actually care about the organization, something that I had not felt before. They are also organizing activities that is helping connect more people.

I am optimistic about where SEBS is heading and having the first female President clearly adds diversity to the team. The SEBS Board has been more active than any other previous boards; or at least they have been successful in communicating what they have been up to. I have started feeling greater affinity towards the organization and I hope that continues in the future. Good luck to Sneedha didi and her team!

PS: Thanks to Semiray Kasoolu for editing it!

Announcing “Conversations with Ayush”

I am excited to announce that I am starting a series of conversations with alumni of Budhanilkantha School, my alma mater. I will be talking to people who are either in a leadership position with the organization they are part of or are entrepreneurial. I am starting with Sneedha Mainali, the current President of SEBS – the alumni organization of BNKS. The series will be published every two weeks on Sunday 5 PM EST, starting this week. It will also be published by the Journalism Club at the school so that the students get to read it too. My intent with this series is to appreciate the work done by our alumni and inspire the rest of us to do more; especially the current students to dream big. I already have a list of nine people that I will be talking to. If you have any suggestions for me, those would be welcome. You can reach me through email: ayushneupane at gmail dot com or on twitter: @AyushNeupane.