Nirmal's Blog

Nirmal's Blog

A Twitter Conversation with Marius Arter (Founder of Arniko Skateboards)

On the eve of Thanksgiving, I opened my laptop and logged into Twitter account of Parakhi. I had been excited about this moment for a few days now. I had been promoting this event on Twitter and Facebook pages of Parakhi, personal emails to friends and phone calls to people who would be interested in this. I wanted to cover Arniko because the idea of skateboarding in Nepal is still a new concept and more people should know about the cool work that Arniko is doing.

I emailed Marius a week ago to do this interview. The chance to do an interview over Twitter was appealing because it would be engaging our followers and making this conversation interactive, fun and different. We talked over Twitter and below are most of our conversation. My Twitter handle was @theparakhi and Marius was using the handle @arniko. When I wanted to message Marius, I would write @arniko and then state my point. For example: @arniko Thanks for joining us today. I used #parakhichat so people could follow our conversation by typing that hashtag on Twitter. Actual tweets can only be sent in 140 characters. I have combined tweets so its fluid for this blog. You can read the whole conversation by visiting our Twitter page.

@arniko Welcome to the Twitter chat with Parakhi #parakhichat
@theparakhi Namaste!
@arniko Namaste to you as well. Thanx for joining us here. We are very excited to talk to you (on the eve of Thanksgiving)

@theparakhi Thank you for the invitation!

@arniko How did you take your skateboarding hobby into making a company?
@theparakhi Actually I did not really planned to make a business out of it. I went to Nepal
a few years ago to try if I am able to produce skateboards in Nepal. So after three month
I had two boards which I brought to Switzerland. Everyone liked it very much. So I came
back to produce more. After a while it became a business.

@arniko How big is the company in terms of people working there in Nepal? In Switzerland?
@theparakhi In Nepal there are around ten people who are working for Arniko. In Switzerland we are a team with twelve members.

@arniko The response for Arniko has been great in Switzerland..what about in Nepal? Is there demand in other markets?
@theparakhi In Nepal we have about 70% foreign customers and 30% local people. The skateboard scene in Nepal is rising in Nepal so we think that there is potential in growing and getting more Nepali customers.

@arniko Wishing you all the best in establishing the park. Now lets talk clothes..are they made or designed in Nepal also?
@theparakhi Yes, so far we produce everything in Nepal.

@arniko You have a lot of dealers in Switzerland. In Nepal you sell through your store. Are you looking for dealers in Nepal?
@theparakhi No. We are fine to sell our stuff by our own, but maybe in the future we open another shop in Pokhara/Nepal.

@arniko Saw pictures of your store..it is unique and hip who designed it?
@theparakhi I designed it and made the things for the store by myself. That was easy for me because I am a carpenter.

@arniko Fantastic. Are you looking to expand into the US? Do you currently have customers from the US?
@theparakhi We get orders from the US and of course we ship there as well. If I get time I will go to California and do a shop tour.

@arniko We would like to thank you for taking time out of your schedule to do this interview and fun chat.
@theparakhi Thank you very much for your interest!!!
@arniko We had a great time learning more about Arniko and wish Arniko all the best going forward.

Feature Story: SecondMarket

As Barry E. Silbert, CEO of SecondMarket describes in the video, SecondMarket is a secondary marketplace for the trillion of dollars of alternative investments that are out there. In particular, SecondMarket has created a marketplace for private company stocks like Facebook, Twitter etc.

I first heard of SecondMarket when I was reading BusinessInsider’s 2010 The 20 Hot New York City Startups You Need to Watch. SecondMarket was one of them. At that point I did not read too much into it but these days SecondMarket has been getting a lot of press.  I recently signed up to receive updates from SecondMarket and enjoy following its success.

Have you used SecondMarket? What are your thoughts on it?


Your Grades Don't Matter (That Much)

First, I have to make this clear. I truly believe education is extremely important and getting educated is the single best investment you make in your life. While your academic success will help you to get admitted to reputed academic institutions and then to a great career in the future, you should also focus on gaining the knowledge and not only the grade.

In Nepalese culture, I believe we overvalue good grades. Students who get good grades get section promotions, top ten listings and perks around the school and in the community. I do understand the point of rewarding good students for their hard work but, what about the students who perform averagely in class and the students who are not good at test taking. Students are grouped in sections depending on their grades and this creates an imbalance amongst students in the same grade level. Also the society indirectly contributes more pressure to those students who are not always the best in their class.

I studied in Little Angels School in Nepal from 3rd to 7th grade and remember memorizing notes and lectures to get good grades. Yet, I don’t have much knowledge now of what I learned because the focus was on the outcome (grade) rather than the process (knowledge). I was driven to get A’s because the “school system” valued students who performed well in class and grades were the single factor that determined your class promotion. Factors such as leadership skills, presentation skills and interpersonal skills took a backseat to letter grades.

Also in hindsight when I think about the education system in Nepal, I was applauded for having the right answers and not on asking the right questions. The education system didn’t inspire me to imagine or question the dogma. Thus my knowledge of the subject was secluded to books and teachers. There was not much room to play around with my creativity, reasoning and arguments.

Then for my higher studies, I attended a public high school in New York City. At the high school, I quickly experienced some sharp contrasts in the education system in Nepal and the US. The discipline and work ethic that I learned in Little Angels School was valuable in succeeding in the classroom. However in my high school, there was no system where an individual who did really well would move to another section. If one did very well, you gained the eligibility of taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes, which can give you college credit while still being in high school.

In class, I had more questions rather than answers because the professor credited class participation and critical thinking. For example in my AP English class, my grade on papers and exams depended on content and critical analysis. If I wrote down everything I had memorized, it would have been called plagiarism. I was driven to think outside the box. The knowledge I gained from the class was important as was my grades but the emphasis was on the first rather than the latter.

What school you attended does matter when you enter the job market in the US. However, no matter what school you went to, your knowledge in your subject of interest is more important than the letter grades you get in school. Your grades will help you land the interview and then a job but it’s the knowledge that will allow you to advance your career, ask the right questions in your line of work and keep the job.

So, my point is that your grades do matter but they are not everything. Grades are only part of your personal achievement. The fundamental point behind getting an education is the knowledge. I believe taking the best of both worlds the discipline and work ethic taught in Nepal’s school systems mixed with the practical and out-of-the box thinking and emphasis on asking the right questions would be an ideal education system in the US.

Rebranding the concept of "Nepali time"

Last month the Prime Minister of Nepal was in New York for the UN General Assembly. In his weeklong visit he took the time to speak at the New School in Manhattan and at The Chian Federation in Queens. Both places drew a crowd and the concept of “Nepali time” seemed to get rebranded.

At the New School, the Prime Minister arrived on time and the program went as scheduled at 12:45pm. At The Chian Federation, the Prime Minister and his delegation arrived at 7:25pm and the event was scheduled to start at 7pm. The Prime Minster went on stage and immediately apologized for the tardiness. He stated that if he had known that getting to The Chian Federation would take long from Manhattan, he would have left earlier. I applaud him for acknowledging that he was late and apologizing to the audience.

The Prime Minister’s acknowledgement of his unpunctuality triggered a few thoughts to me. First, it showed that he valued time. When you acknowledge the value of time and especially other people’s time, you are being considerate and respectful to others who are there to listen to your speech. Second, he apologized for it. As a person of his stature, people could understand why he could be late but he did not offer excuses. Instead the PM acknowledged and admitted his part.

Nepali people are familiar with the concept of “Nepali time.” Generally the case is you tell someone that you will meet them at a certain time but show up 15, 30, 45 minutes or even an hour later. Of course, there will be times that you cannot avoid being late because of weather, traffic or some unforeseen circumstance but I am talking about the times when you arrive late for no valid reason.

The idea of “Nepali time” has paralyzed our culture and can be seen at its highest level of governance. This is a bold statement and I stand by it. The drafting of a new democratic constitution has been postponed several times from the original date. When we have created an environment where time is not highly valued, it should be little surprise to hear when critical government deadlines are not met and decisions not reached on time. The concept of time has definitely played a part in the decision dilemma. If as a culture, we regard time as a valuable commodity, meeting deadlines would not be such a monumental task.

My point is that we need to rebrand the concept of “Nepali time”. This new concept of “Nepali time” will mean that we arrive early rather than late. Why can we not arrive at least 10 minutes early to a meeting or an important event? Do we want to be known as a culture who does not value time? Are we teaching our youth that arriving late should just be expected?

There are major implications culturally that comes along when living by the “Nepali time”. In the Western business context, if someone says to their clients to meet at 2:30, coming later than that time will mean tardiness and a lack of consideration on the person arriving late. You will lose your client’s trust and most likely obliterate business opportunities. When at times you’re late because of certain unforeseen circumstance, it is good practice to call the other person waiting on you to let them know that you are running late. A simple courtesy can save the reputation of an entire group of people.

I believe the concept of time in our culture is generational and context based as well. I observe that most young people who have grown up in Western societies arrive on time. It’s much harder to change a cultural reputation that we have built so far. When you arrive late because you expect the other party to arrive late too, what is the value in that relationship? If we build a reputation on always being on time or completing work on time, I am sure we will be regarded highly for our punctuality and also build trust and credibility with the people we are dealing with.

I strongly propose that we work on rebranding the concept of “Nepali time” and establish a reputation that we are ALWAYS early than the scheduled time. This message is more for the younger generation who can change a cultural stereotype that we have built. As the saying goes, first impression is the last impression. Just imagine that first impression saving your culture face.

Prabal Gurung: A Cultural Icon

Prabal Gurung is a recognizable name in the fashion world. His success is even more remarkable when you consider that he is from Nepal where most people are encouraged to pursue careers in the sciences rather than the arts. I could only hope that his success gives everyone to believe in their talent and pursue the work they are passionate about.

At this year’s New York Fashion Week, Prabal launched his spring 2012 collection at the modern IAC building on Manhattan’s West Side to huge applause and press. Adam Glassman, the creative director of O, The Oprah Magazine was quoted: “Loved, loved, loved it. Super fresh and chic. He obviously worked very hard on it. Polished and well made.”

If one were to follow Prabal on Facebook or Twitter these days, you would see celebrities from Reese Witherspoon to Michelle Obama wearing clothes designed by him. Now I’ve started to think who has not worn his clothes yet.

The brand Prabal Gurung is strong and culturally iconic. His background is unique and I think they show in the eclectic designs of his clothes. He has attained a great amount of respect and press from the fashion industry and the mainstream media. We have not seen a fashion designer from Nepal take over the fashion world before as Prabal has done. This is a great accomplishment for Prabal and in which Nepalese everywhere can be proud that he represents one of the best qualities of Nepali culture: ambition and humility.

I don’t follow fashion religiously but I am more fascinated with personal brands. I’m extremely intrigued with how Prabal has established himself as a brand in the fashion industry and what he represents. I believe he has inspired a generation of young people and pushed the envelopes of a culture where a career in arts had almost always taken a backseat to a career in academics. It’s great to see Prabal pursue a career path that was different from the cultural norm.

In Nepal, there is still a cultural emphasis for students to pursue careers in the sciences more than the arts. Individuals whose talent resides in the arts and crafts can get lost and their potential never realized. I hope there will be other fashion designers from Nepal or individuals pursuing careers that would be different than the typical career paths.

Someday it should not even be news to see a Nepali person becoming a musician, a chef, an author or a fashion designer and make a living off of it. The ultimate measure of someone’s success should be their talent, work ethic and how much passion they have for their work. At the end of the day we are all trying to be happy or lead a meaningful or purposeful life. And if that means following a path not taken, then dare to be adventurous and you might even push a whole culture to follow in your footsteps like Prabal.

Government Can't Solve Everything

Government is not to blame for everything and not the answer for all the problems in Nepal. Although I’ve not been happy with the people running our government for a long time, respective authorities in media and journalism should also adhere to higher standards and aspirations. I want my country to be in a better situation and read inspiring headlines rather than the recent Times feature: No End in Sight for Nepal’s Political Dysfunction.

It’s extremely depressing to read headlines like the one above from abroad. After getting frustrated for some time, I then take a step back and try to think about it logically and face a dilemma. From one perspective, I see Nepal’s quandary as a chicken and an egg problem. In one hand, thousands of individuals who have left Nepal and pursued their education abroad, the prospect of going back to Nepal and pursuing a career and earning a good salary is bleak. On the other hand, the knowledge and experience gained by these individuals abroad can help the country tremendously. But what should come first? Should the government first provide the best prospects for someone to earn a modest living or should people educated abroad return to Nepal and drive growth in the private sector?

We all agree there is great potential in Nepalese educated locally and abroad. How can we motivate and inspire the next generation of youth to pursue their dreams in Nepal or have them contemplate about returning to Nepal after completing their education abroad? What can be the incentive for some of the brightest students and professionals to return to Nepal? Nationalism cannot be the only reason.

This debate can go on for a long time. The brain drain phenomenon is a national problem. If we keep exporting some of our brightest minds to go overseas and pursue their dreams but never give them incentive to come back, then the country faces a bleak future due to a lack of human talent.

At the Rockefeller Foundation Innovation Forum, I listened to Muhammad Yunis, founder of Grameen Bank and 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner who said that governments structurally are not innovative thus the private sector has to take the lead. Innovation is a key element of job creation and industry growth and its basic economics that people will go where they are opportunities. Thus the responsibility of attracting and encouraging talented Nepalese living abroad cannot be only left to the government. Equally, the big responsibility should be placed on our national media. The national media broadcasts what is happening in Nepal to the rest of the world and thus plays a key role in presenting the country’s internal workings to the Nepalese living abroad. Their news coverage and subjects covered can significantly impact how Nepalese living abroad view their native country.

News organizations can indeed help tremendously to counter the brain drain phenomenon. News organizations should shift their focus from mostly political news to highlighting innovative and growing industries in Nepal and occupations that cater to the educated Nepalese diaspora. I frequently visit national Nepali news sites and am drained with political news. I would like to read more about the state of the economy, entrepreneurship, eco-tourism, inspiring media and sports figures etc. By covering a wide array of topics including politics will not only help the news organization grow their market but also provide an overall state of the country and can encourage people living abroad to think about returning to Nepal.

So, the media as powerful as it is has to refocus its audience and cater more to the Nepalese diaspora. Then can we start envisioning a future where a reverse brain drain takes place in Nepal. We cannot continue to export our biggest asset: human capital and not provide incentives for them to return home.

Feature Story: Zipcar

Zipcar has been around for over 10 years but it has the feel of a startup company. The car-sharing company is on a mission to redefine the way people think about transportation. With technology and a member-driven user  experience, Zipcar has taken the simple idea of car sharing into new heights. The concept will mean less traffic and less pollution in our cities.

I better understood Zipcar’s concept when hearing Robin Chase, Founder and former CEO of Zipcar talk at the BRITE 2010 Conference at Columbia Business School. She talked about new business models based on sharing like CouchSurfing and Chatroulette. She elaborated on using other people’s excess capacity and creating a platform that end users can make use of it.

In April 2011, The New York Times reported “with an initial public offering on the Nasdaq, Zipcar, Inc. raised more than $174 million. The company has yet to make a profit, but investors are betting its lead over competitors will pay off.”

Zipcar is currently in 14 cities across the US and is also available at colleges and universities through North America.

What do you think about Zipcar? Have you used it?

Join Ascend. Be Involved. (Published on Competing in a borderless world – Ascend blog)

Ascend’s vision is to enhance the presence and influence of Pan-Asian business leaders and to serve as a collective voice for those business communities.

Ascend is very active in putting programs that benefit both their student and professional members. I have derived a lot of value by being a Professional Ascend member since joining the organization in January 2010.

The Ascend National Convention is their flagship event. The Convention features panel discussions, sessions on leadership topics, professional networking, case competitions and corporate and career fair just to name a few. Besides the main national event, there are also regional conferences and local chapter events.

The professional Ascend members are helpful and approachable. This provides a great opportunity for students to build their professional network and seek mentorship. There are multiple avenues to become involved with Ascend from volunteering at events to joining a committee. The National Convention serves a great opportunity for volunteers to become involved with Ascend and also gives them a chance to meet professionals.

Ascend offers a wide array of programs for professionals. From the Signature Series, Business Roundtables to the Lead Series and Executive Insight Series, professionals have various ways to get involved with Ascend. The Mentorship program is a great way for professionals to contribute to Ascend. The professional mentors can work with students and young professionals and provide them guidance and invaluable assistance.

Ascend is a community of professionals and students who are there to help each other grow and succeed in the corporate world. The organization also provides multiple avenues for students and professionals to meet through social mixers, picnics and other out of the office events.

So join Ascend and be involved.

Feature Story: Gilt Groupe

I am fascinated with Gilt Groupe’s business model. Gilt’s About page states they “provide instant insider access to today’s top designer labels, at up to 60% off retail. Become a member and find something new every day for women, men, kids and home as well as exclusive local services and experiences, and one-of-a-kind travel packages. Sign in and see what inspires you today.”

I remember I went to a retail event put together by Chicago Conversations on December 2010. A representative from Gilt Groupe was a panelist at the event. He shared with the audience the changing retail environment, profit margins and mentioned that Gilt had sold an authentic car the day before through its website. I was thrilled to learn more about Gilt and went home and did research on the company. Although I have not used Gilt myself, I know a few friends who have and Gilt has been received very positively in the market.

As more discount oriented businesses flood the marketplace and even established giants (like Google) are entering the market, I enjoy being a consumer more than ever. Brick and mortar retail stores are facing a new competitive front through the explosion of online coupon merchants. At current, it is an exciting time to be a consumer or an online retailer.

The Nepali Dream (Published on Parakhi.com)

The Nepali Dream is a concept. America has a beloved saying called the American Dream. For most people, living the American Dream means to be financially successful and owning a home. The Nepali Dream is about the aspirations that Nepalese living outside of Nepal have. Most Nepalese living outside of Nepal want to contribute something meaningful to Nepal whether it is in their field of work or through nonprofit work. We should aspire to have a Nepali Dream.

Thousands of people, mostly students leave Nepal and go to foreign countries every year- primarily for educational purposes. Each individual leaves Nepal and take with them their goals and aspirations to a foreign land. They also take with them a sense of determination and will to succeed in the new world.

Through my travels and conversations with Nepali people living in different parts of the US, I have found that most of our aspirations are very similar. Many of us hope that we can someday go to Nepal and contribute in our own way to a country we left years ago. Others think about contributing in some way while living abroad. After having achieved some level of career and financial success in a foreign country, most Nepalese want to someday go back and contribute their time in helping the country. Dreams like these resonate amongst many Nepali people living abroad.

Some of my fellow colleagues have spent their summer vacations in Nepal volunteering at Maiti Nepal or working on wireless projects with visionaries like Mahabir Pun. These are some of the ways individuals living abroad have become involved in Nepal. Some even have left their jobs and gone back to Nepal to concentrate their full efforts in doing something for the betterment of the country. Some are also contributing their time and resources through established nonprofit organizations such as Help NEPAL Network (HeNN) and Nepal Youth Foundation (NYF).

It is great to see people who have lived abroad for many years devote their time and resources to help their motherland. It’s easy to become immersed into the foreign country’s culture and lose sight of how much difference each one of us can make to Nepal even while living overseas. I am very proud to see Nepalese living in different corners of the world and still finding ways to help the country. I feel that we have a responsibility to contribute in some form to the country that we all love. No matter where we are in the world, we are all from the same land. The Nepali Dream is definitely something to aspire to.

What is your Nepali Dream?

Grassroots change in Nepal (Published on Nepalnews.com)

It was a proud moment to see Anuradha Koirala being chosen as the 2010 CNN Hero of the Year. Her work has already impacted the lives of many girls and women through her organization, Maiti Nepal and now the world has had a chance to hear her story. The CNN Hero award was a remarkable accomplishment and it showed that an individual with compassion, determination and drive can create a magnitude of change.

Change is a hard process. It is difficult to change habits much less a tradition or a culture. Yet, change is necessary because in order to survive, we have to evolve. The only thing constant that we all know is change. Survival should not be our only goal; living for a purpose should instead drive us forward. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, ideas and talent have become prime commodities. In order for a country to stay competitive in the global marketplace there needs to be a constant exchange of ideas, increased opportunities and growth of talent.

Simon Anholt, a British branding expert said that in this modern era nothing is more important than reputation. Simon conducted a survey asking people around the world on how they perceived 50 countries and found that a country’s admiration falls under three factors: technology, education and environment. People nowadays find it hard to respect a country when they lag behind in technology, education or environment.

For Nepal to build a stronger reputation, we have to embrace more foreign direct investment and less foreign aid. In March 2011, the Chinese government provided military aid worth Rs 1.42 billion to the Nepal Army. Recently, as per the request of the Nepalese government, Japan approved Rs 6 million for sericulture development. This project is believed to develop and strengthen cooperatives and private entrepreneurs to establish income generating Seri enterprises/cottage industries in rural areas. We should welcome assistances such as Japan’s because it creates opportunities for local people and stimulates the local economy.

External actors playing the role of change agents in Nepal might not be the best way to go; the initiative to change has to come internally. Thus, I am wary of foreign aid for multiple reasons. First, it has a negative impact on a country’s image. The recipient of foreign aid is generally looked upon as an underdeveloped country. Second, the aid rarely comes without any strings attached. The donor country usually has political or economic interest in giving the aid. Third, when a country is the recipient of aid, the money can be misused or improperly allocated as it was detailed in an article titled “Low road through the Himalayas” in The Economist. It has been known that giving precipitates more consumption than saving and investing. When the money is earned, it is used more properly and is less likely to be misused. Fourth, aid continues the cycle of dependency for the recipient country. Aid ultimately reflects how a country is looked upon.

Considering my points above, I believe grassroots change is one of the most powerful and effective form of change in Nepal. We should provide more support for people who have taken an initiative to create positive change in our society like Anuradha Koirala, Mahabir Pun and Sanduk Ruit. I could only hope that their work inspires the next generation of entrepreneurs, leaders and visionaries.  They have definitely inspired me and there are plenty of talented individuals in Nepal and living around the world who want to make a difference and are making one every day.

One such organization that is empowering citizens of Nepal worldwide is the Grassroot Movement in Nepal (GMIN). The New York based volunteer organization supports and initiates Grassroots movement focused on bringing sustainable social and environmental change in Nepal. Currently GMIN is renovating and rebuilding government schools in remote parts of Nepal and envisions helping to improve all government schools nationwide.

I find GMIN’s work important and effective because they are investing in students and building intellectual capital which our country needs dearly. By educating students, we are empowering them to create a better future for themselves and their families and thus shaping communities. Thus at a grassroots level we are planting the seed to our country’s biggest asset: human capital. The students’ knowledge and expertise will help build stronger communities and enable the country to compete in the global marketplace. Since its inception in 2009, GMIN has renovated five government schools in Dang and rented a house for an additional school. One can see the transparency of their work in their website (www.gmin.us) or by visiting their work sites in Dang. GMIN UK was launched on May 29, 2011 with a fundraiser and awareness campaign.

Other organizations such as Help NEPAL Network (HeNN) and Nepal Youth Foundation (NYF) also bring together Nepalese people living in and around the world and raise money for philanthropic activities in Nepal. I recently connected with Raj Maharjan in New Zealand through my earlier Nepalnews article “Brand Nepal.” Raj is taking part in the Auckland Marathon on October 30th to raise funds for health and education projects of Help NEPAL Network.

A grassroots phenomenon has powerful implications for the society and the country. When a few people are engaged in a cause and are empowered, the impact is much greater and can accomplish more. Positive change is taking place as we see in the remarkable individuals who have become CNN Hero and recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Award and Overall Social Innovations Award. Their accomplishments have given Nepalese people around the world motivation to contribute in their own way to Nepal.

Ultimately, we are shaping the future of our country. It is in our national interest to support individuals and groups who are bringing positive changes and there are thousands of people who are doing whatever they can to help Nepal. While we’re working to create a stronger and sustainable Nepal and relying less on foreign aid, we will be improving our international image and building a stronger reputation.

(This article was published on June 28, 2011)

Simon Anholt – Nation Brand Specialist

Simon Anholt, a British branding expert said that in this modern era nothing is more important than reputation. Simon conducted a survey asking people around the world on how they perceived 50 countries and found that a country’s admiration falls under three factors: technology, education and environment. People nowadays find it hard to respect a country when they lag behind in technology, education or environment.

Living with a Purpose

I might need Oprah’s help on this one. Perhaps she can help me answer some of these questions. How do you find your purpose in life? How should one go about finding what they are meant to do? Then there is that one question that I would personally love to discover is How can one live a fulfilling life. These questions have both captivated and perplexed me for some time.

The American Dream

Remember the time you got on the plane to come to America; you probably felt a ton of anxiety and excitement at the same time. Yet, no matter how much research you have done on America or how much information your friends and relatives have conveyed to you, it’s not until you land on American soil that you know how it really feels to be in America. This is a common immigrant beginning.

Feature Story: Startups with Idea & Vision

My passion lies with startups. I love to be part of something from the beginning and help it grow. I’ve noticed that very successful startups mainly have two important attributes: a unique idea and a vision.

Going forward, I will highlight a startup that is changing the business landscape with its unique business model.

There is such a thing as free lunch

The word “free” strikes a magic cord to people. When something is offered for free, people tend to pay more attention to it or gravitate towards it. In business, the “free” business model brings in traffic and customers. In the online space, businesses have to combine unique content, provide some sort of an experience and even offer something for free to stand out in the crowded marketplace known as the World Wide Web. There is such a thing as free lunch in the online space.

The online world is a competitive arena and free continues to serve as a thriving business model. It’s gold to have customers coming to a website and becoming engaged with the brand. In the last couple of years, businesses have changed drastically and competition for customer attention in the online space has significantly increased. Companies are offering countless opportunities for visitors to interact with them. They are rolling out the red carpet via free trial accounts, invitations to webinars and subscriptions to newsletters for their site visitors.

In a crowded marketplace, a brand needs to stand out. The surest way for brands to do that is to create buzz for its product or service, gain attention and compel consumers to interact with the brand. Companies are going above and beyond in hopes of getting customer’s attention, time and eventually money.

It was monumental to see social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn grow exponentially in the online world. By giving people simple ways to open accounts and tap into their social network, these social media outlets provide great value by bringing people together. Facebook had 600 million active users as of January 2011 and the exponential growth was mainly due to its free, easy to create accounts. Now with their sheer size in user base, they have started to monetize it by allowing businesses to place Facebook ads.

Offering free content or service brings people to the website thus leading to an increase in traffic and user base. What better way to get people through the door than with an old trick of offering something for free.

Digital Fire

Dave Carroll. Keenan Cahill. Ted Williams. These are some of the names that have blown up on YouTube and became instant media sensations.  They had suddenly found a platform for their creativity or talent and leveraged it: Dave Carroll on his guitar fiasco with United Airlines, Keenan Cahill with his lip synching videos and Ted Williams with his ‘golden radio voice’. These stars have captured an audience big enough online to get noticed in the mainstream media.  I termed this phenomenon: catching the digital fire.

I met Dave Carroll at the BRITE Conference. He spoke about his experience with United Airlines and how his customer compliant video posted on YouTube went viral. It shows that in this digital age a customer service complaint when not properly addressed can have a major impact on a company. It taught companies that a customer complaint cannot be ignored and reminded them to serve their customers best. Dave Carroll’s popularity took off on YouTube as he released three versions of the song, United Breaks Guitars. These days, he continues to play guitar with his band, Sons of Maxwell. So far, his most popular video on YouTube is United Breaks Guitars with over 10 million views.

Keenan Cahill is a proven star. He has the online charisma with a great personality and a powerful story. He became famous after posting a video of him lip-syncing to Kate Perry’s “Teenage Dream” song on YouTube. Soon after, he appeared on the Chelsea Lately show, shot a commercial with Jennifer Aniston and posted more lip-synching videos with players from the San Francisco Giants, 50 Cent and Nick Cannon among others.  He has MPS VI, a rare inherited lysosomal storage disorder which makes his story very powerful and inspiring. His YouTube channel is #22 most subscribed (all time) for musicians and #49 most viewed (all time) for musicians.

Ted Williams caused a media storm when he was discovered on an Ohio roadside with his “golden radio voice.” His short video quickly caught fire online and landed him interviews at major media outlets such as ABC, CBS and CNN. He also landed a job with the Cleveland Cavaliers and a house. It was even reported that Oprah wanted Ted to become part of her Oprah Winfrey Network. His discovery video on YouTube has received over 12 million views.

It’s fascinating to see what goes viral aka catches digital fire. For something to catch digital fire, it does have certain similar elements to it. First it has a good story to it. Dave Carroll’s guitar was mishandled by United Airlines so instead of writing a letter to the company, he wrote a song about it. Second it is unique in some sort of way. Keenan Cahill took lip-synching and made it catchy, collaborative and interactive. Third, people have some emotional attachment to the video.  I’m sure people have felt some emotional attachment to hear stories like Ted Williams. Finally, these online stars are creative or have some sort of talent.

For these YouTube stars becoming famous is one thing but maintaining that limelight is another matter.  Although it seems that the YouTube videos made them stars overnight, it’s harder to maintain that popularity online. As David Rogers, professor at Columbia Business School puts it: to thrive online they have to offer a personal voice, show some out-sized personality, pull back the curtain a little and show the face of your customer.

Whether you are a company or a personal brand, it’s important to build a community around it. A community makes the brand more interesting and relevant.  To stay relevant beyond the viral videos, YouTube stars have to ace the fundamentals of branding: creating a community with unique content and engaging their members.

Networking Your Way To Success

On December 9, 2010, I walked into the Barclays Capital auditorium in New York to find professionals and students gathered for an ALPFA event. After a few hours, I walked out with a handful of business cards and a sense of motivation and inspiration.

ALPFA stands for Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting. Their annual event, Encuentro took place at Barclays last year. My brother was involved with ALPFA for some time and told me to come to the event. I attended the event and listened to professionals enthusiastically talk about diversity and its importance in corporate America. When ALPFA’s CEO Manny Espinoza spoke at the event, I could sense his passion and pride in the organization. At the networking reception afterwards, I immediately connected with professionals and students. I heard stories of students who received job offers at the ALPFA convention and professionals who switched jobs through their ALPFA contacts. I was impressed to hear their ALPFA stories.

ALPFA’s New York Chapter includes 13 student chapters, and is the second largest professional chapter in the country. The chapter is led by 14 professionals, who volunteer their time to develop and execute events and programs that realize the mission of ALPFA for Latinos in New York. In the last few years professionals from a variety of fields other than finance and accounting have joined the organization.  Although I have a marketing background, I have been involved with ALPFA since that event at Barclays.

In today’s competitive job marketplace, there are multitudes of avenues one can take to get a job. In my opinion, the most effective one is networking. Networking is a two way relationship; it will not work if you only consider what’s in it for you.  Although it has become a cliché that it is not what you know but who you know, this sentiment is still very true. The popular job avenues such as online job posting sites do not distinguish one’s unique skill sets and background. It is important to get noticed and the best way to do that is to get in front of people. Whether this means going to job fairs, networking events or attending conferences, it is crucial to meet people who can hire you or help you in your career. Professional organizations such as Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting (ALPFA), Ascend and the American Marketing Association (AMA) are some of the best avenues to professional development. They help expand one’s network as well as increase industry knowledge.

I encourage students to become involved in professional organizations early in their professional careers.  Students can join various professional organizations at a reduced fee while in school. If your school does not have a student chapter for a professional organization, take the initiative to start one. Besides putting that achievement in your resume, you will gain valuable experience that will be beneficial in the long term.  Various professional organizations also have an annual convention where professionals participate in panel discussions and presentations. Some of those conventions also have career fairs and this is a major opportunity for students to meet professionals in the field, learn more about their career interests or even get a job offer.

Upon attending a career seminar, I learned that one of the best ways to stand out from the competition is to take the initiative and ask professionals or senior personnel to have a conversation over coffee. A majority of the time, it might not come to fruition because senior professionals are very busy or they will refer you to HR but it does not hurt to try. I have taken that step and met a few professionals over coffee. Once you have a chance to meet someone face-to-face, you can learn more about the company, talk about your background and unique skill sets and impress the professional as much as you can. Who knows the next time a position opens up at the professional’s company, you might be the first one to get that call.

Your next job might only be a coffee away, so go ahead and keep networking.

Brand Nepal (Published on Nepalnews.com)

On January 1, 2011, Prabal Gurung, a New York based fashion designer went online and send out a couple of tweets encouraging his thousands of Twitter followers to consider visiting Nepal in 2011. On the eve of Nepal Tourism Year 2011, Prabal used his celebrity status and promoted Nepal to his online followers. In my opinion, Prabal could be the best brand ambassador for promoting Nepal in the Western world. He is widely recognized in the Western fashion industry having dressed the likes of Michelle Obama, Demi Moore and Oprah Winfrey. Prabal’s short messages on Twitter have definitely given visibility to Nepal’s tourism campaign.

When a country is promoting tourism, it is the best time to see country branding taking place. When I visited the official website of Visit Nepal 2011, I noticed the tagline that the tourism board was using to advance the tourism campaign. It was “Naturally Nepal Once Is Not Enough.”The goal for Nepal Tourism Year is to bring in at least a million visitors this year. According to the Government of Nepal Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation’s Nepal Tourism Statistics 2010 (Provisional Report), there were 509,956 tourists in 2009 and 602,855 in 2010. This is an 18.2% increase in tourism and October ranked the highest in tourist arrivals with 72,522 and 79,186 in 2009 and 2010 respectively.

Place branding has been around for a long time and Simon Anholt, a British branding expert states that “in today’s globalized, networked world, every place has to compete with every other place for its share of the world’s consumers, tourists, businesses, investment, capital, respect and attention.”  Simon, who coined the phrase “nation brand” in 1998 explains that the way places are perceived by people around the world has a direct impact on their ability to export products, services, ideas, culture and people, and their ability to attract investment, tourists and talent.

The way Nepal is perceived around the world will correlate to how many people decide to visit the country in this tourism year. Simon acknowledges that places are judged by what they do and what they make, not by what they say about themselves. Thus, the country’s brand is what others are saying about the country. The official website for Visit Nepal 2011 consists of quotes from renowned international news sources on Nepal. The National Geographic Adventure Magazine called Nepal “one of the best countries for adventure destination in the world” and BBC Holiday called it “one of the 50 Places to see before you die.” The National Geographic Adventure Magazine and BBC Holiday have placed the limelight on Nepal’s natural beauty of mountains, rivers and lakes and its traditional culture with numerous festivals and languages.

A report titled Branding Your City was published on March 2006 by CEOs for Cities, a civic lab of urban leaders working to advance the next generation of great American cities. The report mentioned that although the most common reason for a place to have a brand strategy is to stimulate economic growth; a strong brand can shift the perception of a place that may be suffering from a poor image among external and internal constituents. A brand strategy can also provide a consistent representation of a place or enhance its local, regional and/or global awareness and position among others.

Promoting tourism is a national undertaking, therefore including multiple perspectives and ideas as well as weighing the issues is crucial to make buy-in and execution easier. The inclusion of a variety of stakeholders is necessary to assure the success of the project. Empirical evidence shows that it is prudent to include cultural and heritage institutions, local media, and business leaders besides the Tourism Board in the planning stages of a tourism campaign.

Nepal has outlined 5 major objectives for this tourism year. They are: (1) Establish Nepal as a choice of premier holiday destination with a definite brand image, (2) Improve and extend tourism related infrastructures in existing and new tourism sites (3) Enhance the capacity of service providers (4) Build community capacity in the new areas to cater the need of the tourists (5) Promote domestic tourism for sustainability of industry.

In order to meet the aforementioned objectives, for a successful tourism year, Nepal’s government and the Tourism Board should continue to stress the security and safety of the visitors to the country. On January 12, 2011, the U.S. Department of State updated its travel warning advisory to Nepal on its website. Other foreign governments have also highlighted the security risk to their citizens when traveling to Nepal. The tourism campaign would not bear fruit if the country is perceived unsafe to travel. Therefore, utmost care has to be taken to reassure the prospective tourists that it is safe to go around the country.

I am thrilled to see how many people will visit Nepal this year. It is crucial to create brand awareness and let people know that it is Visit Nepal Year 2011. The best place to create awareness in this age is in one’s social network. I have seen a number of my friends talking and encouraging people to visit Nepal and posting videos of Nepal on Facebook.

It is great to have brand ambassadors and Prabal Gurung has leveraged his popularity and encouraged people in his social network to visit Nepal. In this digital age, everyone has a voice and one can take to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or other social media outlets and promote Nepal in one’s own way. When an enthusiastic person creates personalized content promoting Nepal, he or she becomes another brand ambassador to Nepal Tourism Year 2011.

This article was featured on the Guest Column of Nepalnews.com.