Our guest of honour was Mr Jerry Godwin, whom I got to know over coffee afterwards. Our guest had spent five weeks in Mauritius, as part of the Fulbright program, and had been advising the University of Mauritius on the opening of a new Research Incubator in Ebene.
Drs Bissoonauth and Gopaul, chairs of the meeting, had prepped me before the event and encouraged me to choose a topic of interest to Entrepreneurs, Intrapreneurs and also SMEs. Having reviewed the slides from last year’s workshop, I noticed that the top answer to “Barrier to Innovation”, in the MRIC’s survey, happened to be cost. So, I called my presentation “How to Innovate on a Budget”.
The event was well-attended, with about 100 SMEs, Managers from larger companies and also Entrepreneurs in attendance. Of particular delight was Mr Chris Gunnoo, a high-school Computer Science teacher who was buying robots out of his own pockets to inspire his students. Mr Gunnoo is the reason that much innovation can come out of a high school, and the seed for a strong innovation culture in the first place.
My classmate, Avinash Meetoo had accompanied the Minister of Civil Service, who gave a speech before we did. Jerry opened, and told his amazing story of being an entrepreneur in Washington DC, which had no entrepreneurs when he started in 1999. Jerry explained how he built a local ecosystem, through systematic public-private partnerships, and a network of five incubators. Bruno Dubarry, co-founder of the Association of Mauritian Manufacturers (that owns the “Made in Moris” brand) presented some fascinating slides on how he got local manufacturers to chart a roadmap, through a Design Thinking Process. Anibal Martinez (founder of Careerhub) presented some fascinating statistics on the labour market.
In my 15-minute intervention, I had a vast topic to cover, so focused on stories that I thought might engage the audience. The book “10 types of Innovation” presented a great frame for the discussion (and for the panel later in the day). You can find the slides here:
Next, came a joint panel. Questions from the Audience included:
- “How do you protect ideas from being copied?” (we all were a little stumped: Mauritian Intellectual Property Rights doesn’t cover patent IP but trademarks for the moment, though Jerry did mention that a framework was being developed for Intellectual Property)
- “What if people don’t believe I’m making the right decision by becoming an entrepreneur?” (this question was asked by a former UoM professor-turned-entrepreneur)
The News on Sunday interviewed us, and published a nice piece. I believe I was so hungry at this point that I gushed out without much structure. There’s always a first time, I guess, even for interviews about Innovation.
The most exciting session was after lunch. Anibal, Jerry and I were each assigned a table, with about 20 attendees, and asked to run a forum. My table included 6 SME entrepreneurs, 10 company employees (including two thoughtful visitors from Air Mauritius and the UoM), students and managers.
Our theme was “Managing Innovation”, where we were asked to discuss “Planning Innovation”, “Managing Innovation”, “Innovation Teams” and “Tech in Innovation”. Quite a lot of touch points for 40 minutes! Fortunately, our forum “team” helped me. The 6 Entrepreneurs seeded a discussion, and finally most people at the table spoke up about their various interesting experiences, and these were the most memorable ones:
- Our Big Company representatives noted that often junior employees are never solicited as a source of Innovative ideas, despite being close to the customer. Surprisingly, it was suggested that CEOs are afraid that their ideas might be “too expensive”!
- Our SME members (three of them from South Africa!) felt that in Mauritius you had to be an accountant and a lawyer in order to hope to start out as an entrepreneur. Many agreed that a more frictionless experience (comparable to Singapore) would be helpful
- I noted that setting up Red Dot needed about a month’s paperwork. An entrepreneur at the table mentioned that many aspiring entrepreneurs are discouraged by struggling with the paperwork for 6 months, and end up not starting up!
- There was a passionate discussion about Labour Laws, which all agreed are a legacy of another era, and penalize inexperienced startup founders. Larger companies have strong HR expertise to allow them to navigate incentives without appearing in Labour tribunals
- There was a lot of laughter about the use of Machine Learning in interviewing candidates, and queries about whether privacy law would allow scanning a candidate’s emotions. Turns out, privacy law doesn’t cover what you can and can’t do with a video, after the subject has given you consent to record her!
What made me most happy is several members of my table asking for us to be connected on email to continue the discussion. I commend the MRIC for bringing together a diverse set of people to discover and find solutions to a set of complex challenges. Bringing diverse experiences to one place, ensuring each voice is acknowledged, and respectfully considered, is the basis of good facilitation. Keeping the conversation alive, with concrete action, and elicitation of the right questions is the basis of good community. Bringing good people together is the basis of nation-building. Thank you MRIC.