International Vibe: Louis Leonidas (India)
From Harvard to South Africa to China to India, Louis Leonidas chats about India as a laboratory of innovation, mentors, and his favorite book. Louis is a special projects lead at The Global Education & Leadership Foundation (tGELF).
Tell me a bit about your story. Where did you go to college, and what was your major? What made you transition into entrepreneurship?
I graduated from Harvard in 2014, with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Studies. My area of focus was Ethnic Conflict and Development. I completed a senior honors thesis on the interplay of race and violence in recent student protests in South Africa.
I got the inspiration for my thesis during a study abroad program in South Africa. When I was there, there were many student protests about tuition costs and the education gap between Black and white student. The media depicted the protests of white students to be peaceful, and of Black students to be violent, which led to my analysis in my thesis, about the history of race relations in South Africa, and how it manifested in the recent student protests.
The thesis got me thinking a lot about the following question: what does entrepreneurship mean in a developing country? To which I answered: A lot starts at the education level. Entrepreneurship is about solving problems; it's a spirit of doing, being innovative. The African Leadership University where I was studying was in charge of building leaders, work with corporations, to then work on hands-on projects and encourage student-driven entrepreneurship. This launched my career trajectory.
Tell me more about your career?
After college, I worked at a startup in Atlanta. But I realized I wanted to go abroad and help students with the college education process. I moved to China to work in education. In China, I realized that the educational system is linear—with not much room for creativity, innovation, and critical thinking. Then, I worked with the American Psychiatric Association doing education programming inside of mental health. I met Shiv at a conference, and that’s when I decided to move to India to work at the Global Education and Leadership Foundation.
What makes The Global Education and Leadership Foundation different?
We go by a framework called LEAD, which stands for Leadership, Ethics, Altruism, Decisive Action, which drives all of our decisions. tGELF has 3 main projects that they undertake: the Leadership Curriculum, focused primarily on grades 8-12, but also have K-12, that reaches about 1.5 million students, and has mostly had an impact within India but now increasingly in Nepal and the UAE; the Live Conference; and the Leadership Development Program. My project within tGELF was the Shuruaat Bus.
Tell me more about the Shuruaat Bus?
The Shuruaat Bus was an initiative to take people to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, which was initiated by President Obama, and last year was held in India. What we did was to create events towards the GES while on the road there. For example, there was an activity to pitch ideas for 100 seconds, with a prize award at the end of the competition. Shiv served as a mentor for this program, and we ended up going to 6 cities and conducting many interviews. The marketing for the Bus was done with the support of the government (a branch that was organizing GES) and the NDTV network also got involved.
What are some of the activities/workshops you had within tGELF and the Shuruaat Bus?
Some of the activities we have are:
Ethics on a Plate: We discuss the ethics of entrepreneurship over lunch.
Answer the question of "What does it mean being a leader?" With an event like GES you can get caught up in the big names (Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk) and companies, but it is essential to show people that being a leader is much more than that.
Launching in May: We want to tour "tier 2" cities in Central India to create a more impact.
What was it like moving to India? How is the Indian entrepreneurship vibe in comparison to the US, Latin America, and other parts of Asia?
I have to say, there are some fantastic entrepreneurs in the Indian space. In my opinion, India is a laboratory of innovation, it's a testing zone; there are so many people, it's a democracy with a lot of stable institutional frameworks and structures in place, but it's still a developing country.
The legacies of the socioeconomic structures of India's past of wealth tied to politics undoubtedly persist. Since the ruling class was wealthier, to get things done there is a big culture of frugal innovation- you have to find a way around. There is some corruption and dealing with it is very hard. The shortest route can sometimes cross the thin line of ethics, but at tGELF, we always try to engrain and preach internally is that you can't ever put your ethics on the line.
I think that if you can start something in India, you can start it anywhere. Here, you never know what's happening next; you have to be agile, flexible, learn how to fly blind. My time working here has taught me that no day is the same and that you never know what partnerships or conversations can lead to.
What do you think about having mentors? Do you have a mentor?
One of my biggest regrets in school was not finding a mentor and not building strong enough connections with professors. I think that having mentors is extremely important. I'm new to India, and to the entrepreneurial system, and many times I feel that I need some advice and structure.
Something I have learned is that if you want a mentor, no one is just going to be this person for you without you asking. You have to go out and find people and tell them "I want you to be my mentor and guide me in this." Mentors don't have to guide you long term, it can also be on a project-to-project basis.
That being said, this is up to each individual and to how they want to seek advice. As long as you're taking the initiative to ask questions and find the right people, you will do great. Having a problem-solving mindset is even more important than having a mentor.
What do you think of the idea that we have to should job every 2 years?
Personally, my average time at a job has been around 10 months. Although I would never change any of my experiences, my advice would be to maybe not do that…. I feel that you need to give enough time to the place you're in.
There is a culture now of if "I don't like something, let me change jobs" instead of working to change the structure in place. Something I have realized is that you can be an entrepreneur even in the context of a formal company. At each job I have had, the more natural way out was to move somewhere else, but I know now that I can also be a changemaker within the space that I'm in.
Any crazy advice or stories? What would you tell someone who is a woman or under-represented minority trying to make it as a business person or entrepreneur?
I come from a very diverse context. My parents are from Haiti, I was born in Atlanta, studied in South Africa, and have worked in China and India. I would say that you can't be unafraid. As minorities, a lot of things are stacked against us. Having fearlessness is what is required as a minority, and an understanding that one has to be true to oneself. My view is that you have to listen to your experiences in the past and to your gut when making decisions, but you shouldn't hold yourself back and should always keep an open mind. For example, moving to India was never on my radar– I had never even visited– but when the opportunity appeared I decided to take it rather than leaving it.
What is your favorite book or movie?
My favorite book is Daring Greatly by R. Brown.