Sumana was in America planning for her backpacking trip to Europe. Her destination shifted to Nepal after the massive earthquake hit Nepal on April 25th, 2015.
Born and brought up in Kathmandu, Sumana Shrestha while talking to us remembers what a problem child she was and how she never fitted into the pre-determined traits for a girl and expected behaviors of girl child of any typical Nepali family.
She also shared that she had been always a back bencher in her school days at Saraswati School, Chhetrapati.
Someone who questions a lot and in constant search for new answers, Sumana has degree in Economics from Bryn Mawr College and MBA from MIT. After the earthquake 2015, she came back to Nepal.
After earthquake, Nepal had a severe fuel crisis due to unofficial blockades of India. She started a platform where a person could comfortably ask for ride to another person with the initiation of “Carpool Kathmandu” a facebook group. She also initiated medication for Nepal which aims to make health service easily accessible. Medication for Nepal was mentioned by Barack Obama during his speech in Global Entrepreneurship Summit.
Currently she is involved in tourism related startup and continuing with her work for medication for Nepal and Carpool. An aspiring entrepreneur is what she calls herself.
I was born and grown up in Samakhushi, Kathmandu. I went to Saraswoti School. Those days the facility of the vehicle was not very accessible and roads were also not pitched.
Every morning with the massive backpack I used to walk about an hour to reach school, so basically two hours a day. The walk was very fantastic. You would see paddy fields, fresh air, buffaloes herd.
I have always been a problem child.
In School, I was a first girl ranking wise but I always feel I never fitted in the first girl category image. I was always a back-bencher, and this is also the reason why I feel and can say very authentically that our education system fails.
I have lots of friends who never came first in class like me. They had learning disabilities, had few issues when it comes to ranking and passing the exam but they are very smart. Our education system does not realize that.
I had a friend who could not pronounce properly. She could not say the letter “S” it would automatically become “t” and there would be teachers who made fun of that.
I also had a friend who had learning disability in terms of writing she couldn’t memorize stuff. But the only way our education system works is by passing the exam anyhow.
So from that sense, my childhood definitely shaped me to question a lot of established rules. I completely despise the way we are taught, it’s very rote learning.
I lost a friend of mine in 9th grade because she did not pass the exam. She thought it was so bad that it was worthwhile to die rather than to say “Screw You education system. Just because of ranking, I won’t believe I am not capable enough.”
A lots of reasons why I am the way I am it’s because of what I have seen while I was growing up!
These incidents have shaped me to be the rebel that I am.
Money: Good to have
Leadership: Making decision
Favorite Book: Harry Potter
Who is Sumana Shrestha for you?
Sumana is a person who has very strong opinions of how she views the world.
She is a fun person. She loves just chilling and relaxing but at the same time she realizes that there are so many problems that each of us can solve. And it would not just be worthwhile to continue living without even trying to tackle some of the problems.
I definitely question a lot. I never accept answers that this is how things should be. I am a straight shooter.
The easiest way to do business or handle relationship is – when information is not asymmetric the outcome is always the best.
How did you decide to return back to Nepal and be a social activist?
I was in Washington DC and I was supposed to go for backpacking trip to Europe then earthquake happened before one week of my scheduled departure date. Then, I canceled everything and came back to Nepal.
As soon as commercial planes were allowed to land, I talked to several natural disasters related experts and they suggested me not to go. I am not a Doctor, not engineer so it’s not worthwhile to go. Therefore, I waited for a month, and then I came. There are lots of reasons to come back and build again.
First three months, I supported World Food Program. My company sent me to support world food program. Then the blockade begun and I decided something has to be done. That’s how I got into it. It is very much need rather than I aspired be a social activist. Also, as a fact that we are in Nepal I feel like we don’t have much choice other than to be a social activist in one form or the other.
After coming back to Nepal, another journey has begun.
What is your approach for social problems?
I felt like there needs to be innovation in social side. For too long, we have been working with the same problematic approach. We have been working with the same philosophy looking for silver bullet and I don’t think that’s the solution.
The solution I think is innovation. One should try, switch gear and try again. The point is, solving the problem should be the heart of the issue not the approach.
How did Carpool Kathmandu start?
Everything that I did in Nepal was mostly because there was a need for it. During the blockade, I was walking around and I couldn’t find public vehicles. I saw lots of empty private vehicles passing by and I thought – why not?
I would not hesitate to ask for the ride but lots of other people might hesitate. The sense of awkwardness that we had, I felt we need to break it and that was the platform.
I was pretty sure that there must have been some kind of similar platform in Nepal. I was searching for it and asking my friends about it. They said, there is not any such platform. Then, I said I am gonna start it and that’s how it all began.
During this journey after you came back to Nepal, were there any frustrating down moments?
Several! Let nobody say there are no down moments. There are plenty of down moments and I wish people talk more about it.
In carpool, when there was lots of spam happening in Carpool and people were actually trying to sell something in the group. I was like “Seriously? Common People”. It was not the best moment. I was spending lot of hours removing spam.
Similarly the next was when I was organizing for protest movements and the polarization that happened during the blockade and even now that is definitely down moment.
Sometimes I feel, “regardless of my effort, how do I bring people together”. Sometimes I don’t have answers and I don’t know if my efforts will bring results. But somehow I feel like I can’t give up.
During Stressful moments, do you ever feel like you should not be doing what you are doing?
No Never. I feel, everybody has responsibility towards the society. I feel everybody is doing their part. No, I never feel like giving up.
What motivates you to push yourself through those hard times?
If you think about the work or the goal and you know you need to move towards the goal that’s what keeps me going.
If I start to think of all the bad things that has not been working then it’s very easy to give up. If you keep your focus on the prize, it’s much easy to realize that your work is lot more important than how you feel right now.
As an inspiring individual to youth, what major challenges do you see for youth in Nepal?
I think the education system of Nepal doesn’t prepare students in Nepal to make decisions. It doesn’t teach youth what it means to take responsibility.
Unfortunately, our education system has made everybody “ Jagire” ( job holder). All they want is a job. You are taught exactly what to do. I think education system have failed us massively in Nepal.
Secondly, the amount of energy you need to put to work in Nepal you don’t need to that much effort in developed countries. We literally have to struggle for very basic things. No lights, No vehicles.
It’s just very grunt work people need to do and those are the challenges.
First they are not prepared and second there are problems you want to solve and even you need to create foundation by yourself to solve that problem.
If we keep our focus on the goal, then it really does not matter if there is no batti(electricity), we will figure out the alternative.
When I started, I was going around from café to café to work. Now I’m sharing work space of Nepal share and there’s no point in setting all things on my own. So thing is, You need to start being creative, How can you keep your cost low? How can you inching towards your goal ?
What do you enjoy as recreation?
I play futsal, badminton. I do lots of crazy sports. And I feel my heart is at peace when I am hanging out with my grandmother. Thankfully she doesn’t know as many world problems that I think I do which means her world perspective is very much like “Did my granddaughter eat? Is she sleeping well?” And I sometimes love that simplicity in life.
Do you feel things are more difficult for you just because you are female?
Absolutely, the situation is similar in abroad too but in Nepal cultural boundaries are more. Women are expected to behave in some pre-determined way both at home or outside which is very annoying. Its more as an annoyance factor to me rather than inhibitor. But, for lots of girls it’s an inhibitor which I wish I could change.
What message would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
When I think of entrepreneurship, I don’t necessarily think of a business. I think it as a lifestyle based on innovation, additional information, When you think – ‘I am willing to change the path I am taking to make sure I am optimizing all the decision I have, all the data I have. Even If I fail, I will learn, pick myself up and move again.’
Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t let anybody discourage you. Figure out what you are passionate about.
Entrepreneurship is not for everybody it’s a very uphill battle and affects lots of aspects of life but at the same times it’s super exciting.
It takes few years before the idea matures, before it gets picked up by the market, before you see monetary result. But, more than that there are lots of thing that you can solve, that you can learn during this journey. Entrepreneurship does not mean you just work for money.
Even if you wanna work in social issue like tackling child labor problem, you can use entrepreneurial approach instead of old developmental approach. So, try your level best.
What is your Mantra that you live by?
You should not be married to your approach that you refuse to change based on new information. Also, failure does not mean you are stupid, you will learn.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I hope I will be travelling by then. I hope I would have done whatever I want to do.