A vision for social entrepreneurship

Ashutosh Syal and Daxal Desai.GreenHouse wordmark

It’s exhausting to change the world — but it’s also exhausting not to.

UWaterloo grad Ashutosh Syal has friends who followed similar co-op trajectories as he did, but who found permanent jobs right after graduation. When Ashu is tired from the work he chose, he reminds himself that his friends are also tired, and that starting a career — whether as an employee or a social entrepreneur — can often be tiring.

For Ashu, though, the fatigue is more than balanced by a sense of excitement about what he and his team at EyeCheck are doing.

Ashu and his co-founder Daxal Desai were third-year systems design engineering students at UWaterloo when they took on a design challenge to develop a mobile phone-based solution to assess vision problems in the developing world.

After learning about the massive challenges of vision problems for large numbers of people — one in four children in Singapore, for instance, has trouble seeing the blackboard at school — they decided to continue working on this project for their fourth-year design project and to develop a social enterprise company after graduation. Their goal was to reduce barriers to improved vision through technology.

Ashu acknowledges the wider social entrepreneurship and academic communities as partners in their venture. “We didn’t expect to be where we are now and it’s only possible because of community. Waterloo is a kind of incubator itself that brings people together to work as an engine for change.”

Ashu and his team (now seven people, from a wide variety of disciplines) rely on a wider network of advisors too, and finds their insights powerful. “Collectively, our network has a tremendous amount of experience.”

He has learned about the value of failure from the community too. “We’ve learned that when someone fails, it helps those who come afterwards know what they don’t have to try. It can take a thousand tries to get something right.”

Speaking as a keynote speaker at the January 21 Social Entrepreneurship Exchange, Ashu’s goal was to make a case for social entrepreneurship and to show others with ideas that “Daxal and I are not born leaders or genius engineers. Creative thought and conviction are what have brought us this far. Not having talent is not an acceptable excuse to avoid thinking about important problems.”

Ashu said, “I wanted to emphasize that applying to an incubator was one of the defining moments in our company's short history. I realized that maybe what's needed to push someone down the route of entrepreneurship is for someone to reveal an alternative path. For us, it was an incubator director casually recommending an application. For many others, GreenHouse is that beacon in the desert that I never had. It is a place where people can be safe to dream big and take practical action towards solving problems.”

Ashu met a wide variety of students that evening who had insightful questions and great business ideas, or who were interested in volunteering with EyeCheck. While Ashu had felt slightly nervous about presenting at the beginning of the evening, “I learned that it was important to have people like EyeCheck or Rockstar Café there — people who are currently facing hardships and whose future is uncertain. I think it may have made the journey feel more in reach.”

- Susan Fish is a Waterloo-based writer who operates Storywell, an editing company, and who has two published novels (Seeker of Stars and Ithaca).

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