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How to Balance Purpose and Ambition to Craft a Career with Meaning

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Recently, students at the ASB MBA program had the privilege to have a virtual coffee chat with Tomohiro Hamakawa (or Tomo, in short), Co-Founder of two social enterprises – Mana Earthly Paradise and Earth Company – to talk about what inspired him to pursue a path in sustainability. Eng Vin Shern, from the MBA for Working Professionals (MBA-WP) Class of 2022, shares a few of his takeways from the coffee chat.

Having traveled around the global, from the Tibetan plateau to the Indian drylands, Tomo had a job and lifestyle that many would envy, working with international NGOs like UNICEF, Children’s Investment Fund Foundation and Kopernik, after graduating with a Master’s in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School. But he decided to give all that up over a decade ago, and since 2008, he has been living with his wife and children in Bali and running his own social enterprises.

In 2014, Tomo was awarded the Dalai Lama’s Unsung Heroes of Compassion Award for his charitable efforts. Despite his accomplishments, he still has the passion and drive to pursue an entrepreneurial lifestyle. Throw in a loving family in that equation and you have a most enviable life, desired by many. By the time he had finished sharing about his life journey, I took away some valuable lessons we can all learn from.

Takeaway #1 – Happiness and contentment can be found in simplicity

One of the major turning points of Tomo’s life is when he took time off his busy mid-20s lifestyle in New York and moved to Fiji for a period of time. This brief interlude shaped his values from then on and set him on a path of social service that eventually led him to where he is today. He observed that despite the stark contrast of lifestyles in Fiji and New York, Fijians are clearly the happier, warmer, and more welcoming bunch.

This experience led him to reconsider his priorities in life. Status, wealth, and a high standard of living eventually became secondary to well-being, happiness, and a sense of community. This led him away from the path of a corporate, capitalistic lifestyle and towards the fulfilling life he leads today.

Takeaway #2 – Resistance and roadblocks are part of the journey

Finding a life of purpose and meaning requires facing challenges along the way. Sometimes, those challenges are closer to home than we would imagine. In an anecdote that many Asian children can resonate with, Tomo shared about how his father, a veteran commercial banker, had a hard time comprehending with his unconventional pursuits at first. This was part and parcel of the journey to clarify his path and his own priorities, even while facing discouragement.

Takeaway #3 – An energizing purpose is one that goes beyond self

Throughout his talk, I was struck by how much of an impact Tomo and his wife has made on their community, through their social enterprise. One of programs they run is called “Impact Heroes”, and it identifies, coaches, provides consultation and even fundraises to provide generous support to individuals who strive to make changes for the betterment of their communities.

I was impressed by the account of how well the company has worked with Ms. Bella Galhos, one of the Impact Heroes from Timor-Leste, to improve the social conditions for the people of her country. The program has been ongoing for five years, and with many other Impact Heroes selected, I can only imagine the positive ripple effect it will cause around the world.

Takeaway #4 – Sustainability involves practical considerations that must be embedded in design

A big question that many of us MBA students had for Tomo was about Mana Earthly Paradise, an eco-conscious hospitality experience for travelers to Ubud, Bali. Can a green resort really be profitable? While images of the sustainably-sourced furniture Tomo shared was beautiful to look at and the growth-dispose-growth food cycle of the meals prepared in the hotel provides a great story to share with resort guests, many of us wondered how profitable such an operation is, from an economic standpoint.

In response to that, Mr. Hamakawa shared that businesses who embrace green design are able to manage costs and expenses very effectively by embedding the concept as early as possible. Retrofitting an existing operation will not only be more expensive, it is also disruptive. In terms of demand, Tomo found that by taking an eco-friendly approach, demand for his resort was higher compared to more conventional competitors.

Takeaway #5 – Being an entrepreneur is Invention + Commercialization

The “cult of the entrepreneur” and “hustle culture” of our generation makes it all too easy to get caught up with trends or perhaps peer pressure to “follow your dream”. I myself am guilty of that, having started a recycling operation early in my career only to realize having the guts to drive around in a 5-tonne truck doesn’t make you an entrepreneur.

Bill Aulet, Managing Director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and Professor of the Practice at MIT Sloan, recently highlighted the importance of commercialization in our MBA entrepreneurship class.

I think that was what I was lacking in my entrepreneurial stint, while Earth Company is thriving because they understand this. Earth Company has a wholesome commercialization plan to allow this social enterprise to sustainably carry out its mission of creating change for a better future for communities.

In conclusion…

While there is certainly no universal definition of success, for many of us, our guest speaker Tomohiro Hamakawa is successful on multiple levels, from work, to family, to personal fulfilment. In retrospect, it seems like his Fiji experience was a key turning point for him, personally and professionally. For those of us enrolled in this transformative and life-changing MBA program, many of us, I think, are hoping to encounter that one moment that will become the turning point for our lives.

The late Steve Jobs famously said that “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” In the case of my future, I trust that the DOT that I chose to place in ASB will be an inspiring and life-changing one.