Monday, February 4, 2013

When a Business Exists to be More Than a Profit Generator

Once a friend asked a senior leader at Rocket Internet, "how did you manage to assemble such an elite team of ex-consultants from the most renowned firms and fresh grads from the most reputed universities to work in your ventures?"  The leader simply replied, "Money."  For the author, there was not a sadder moment since joining this global firm than upon hearing this little anecdote.  It is not only he who is not understood, but a whole group of people, that whole group of "ex-consultants from the most renowned firms and fresh grads from the most reputed universities" that was just ruthlessly labelled as "shallow" with one word.

More than 7 months have passed since the author set out from the other end of the world based on a couple of Skype calls from unknown people in an unknown destination.  And another two months have gone by as he enthusiastically answered the call to head for the Philippines.  Pay rise has stalled, but responsibilities have not.  The challenges and job scopes have increased so much that there is no longer much time to enjoy the cheapness of increased living standards in a developing country, or to even properly budget for maintaining a healthy account of his paychecks.

To comment on the successes and failures, accomplishments and disappointments of these 7+ months would still be too early and too biased of an exercise, but there is one point of pride that the author cannot help but declare to the world, over and over again.  It is that, after years of so-called maturing in a changing environments and situations and inevitable loss in his own battles against flow of time,  he has not meekly accepted mundane humanly concerns as a foregone conclusion.  Despite feet and stomach that can no longer adapt to everything at brisk speed, the mind and the heart remains as adventurous as ever.

For some, such declaration of personal "purity" is but another way of expressing ego-centrism.  But the author, albeit filled in self-pride, never failed to concede certain inferiority of his own lifestyle and work.  Yes, the foreign colleagues at Rocket, as another points out so directly, are lonely souls.  Far away from families, friends, romantic interests, and all the trapping of their nostalgic homelands, they are stuck with local colleagues whose tongue they do not comprehend and mindset they cannot penetrate.  The social isolation faced at a daily basis cannot be compensated by standing on an often condescending moral high ground.

Nor can it be compensated with money.  He who declares that growing financial expectations of the company and, indirectly (at least, expectantly) for these foreign individuals associated with the company perhaps has a little bit too much optimism with regard how a human being uses materialistic pursuits to drown out emotional emptiness.  No amount of out-of-this-world profit-making can become a person's chief pillar in supporting evidences of an ongoing meaningful life.  Maybe for a few short months (as most Rocketeers choose to tenure) but not for years of commitment that the leader expects of his core elite team.

So the only thing that still stands as reasonable is that damned egocentric notion of "purity."  Adventurousness not only serves to provide a sense of short-term adrenaline rush, it provides an excuse for one to dig deep into the dark, underdeveloped heart of the Third World, where physical manifestations of modernity is still an exclusive reserve for the well-connected minority, but an unreachable luxury for the rest.  Every businessmen will see potential for growth, but only a risk-loving few would be convinced that "potential" is worth the serious investment of on-the-ground research and trial-and-error implementation.

For this, we the adventurous are lucky to have met Rocket Internet.  Not that Rocket obsessed with making money at the ends of the world where nobody else thought is possible, but that Rocket with the sheer audacity of going to the ends of the world where nobody else even thought of going.  In lieu of pursuing growth and financial targets, it has provided all of us with a platform to not just observe, but also make broad stroke that would, little as it seems, change the course of development in the local society.  The senior leader's pursuit of cash is gnawing at the very foundations of locally-found economic conservatism.

It is this, no matter how condescending it seems, that drives these ex-consultants and fresh grads to head to exotic locales around the world to slave away for Rocket, earning a half or a third of a pay they could earn had they not left their home countries.  It transcends beyond just "help to improve the efficiency of a business."  Instead, it is fundamentally an experience in social improvement, an episode in society-building.  The business is just the superficial tool, a stage with a facade for experimentation.  It is for this, and not for giving us money, that we should thank Rocket.

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