Donating business acumen is a powerful and effective way to give back to society. I recently witnessed this while launching an intercollegiate business plan competition to help Tibetan refugees. While the student teams endeavored to help others, many expressed that their involvement was also a deeply satisfying and transformational personal experience.
The origins of the competition began two years ago when I met with Thubten Samdup, the representative of the Dalai Lama. We discussed the Dalai Lama's concerns about younger Tibetan refugees leaving their communities in search of gainful employment and how this deepening diaspora threatens the vitality and future of Tibetan culture. As a professor of Social Entrepreneurship, I suggested crowd-sourcing business plans from MBA's and donating them to the Tibetan refugee community. Thubten Samdup gained approval for the idea and we established the Tibetan Innovation Challenge business plan competition - the first of its kind.
Funding the competition was the next challenge. I had begun work on the follow-up to the Art of Peace Foundation's somewhat controversial benefit album Songs for Tibet. We decided that proceeds from the second benefit album, Songs for Tibet II with Sting, Peter Gabriel, Lorde, Of Monsters and Men, Kate Bush, Elbow and others would help fund the competition. Both the album's release and competition's finals would take place around the Dalai Lama's 80th birthday as a gift to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people.
Student teams from Case Western Reserve University, Syracuse University, UCLA, University of Maryland, Texas Tech and the University of Rochester participated in the competition. Texas Tech won the top prize with an internet-based platform to support and promote authentic Tibetan crafts. The Dalai Lama presented the awards in front of a crowded room of supporters. Next year, the competition will include dozens of universities from across the globe.
The competition not only delivered business plans to Tibetan refugees, however, but it was also a meaningful experience for the students. MBA's develop skills that could be used solely for their own financial gain. Yet instead, these student teams donated their business skills, time and energy for the benefit of others. This process - developing the plans, presenting them and giving them freely away - helps cultivate a happiness that only acts of compassion can provide.
Human psychology is not as linear as some profit-driven modes of thinking may suggest; making unlimited amounts of money does not neatly equate to more happiness. Consequently, nearly every wisdom tradition teaches that material wealth alone cannot make us happy. Rather, our actions in the world hold great potential for deepening our authentic personal happiness and fulfillment. Current academic research supports this ancient insight. Focused self-interest may have served a purpose at one point in our evolutionary development, but the profoundly interconnected nature of modern society demands something more from us.
This is reflected in Eastern psychology, which views the donor as a primary beneficiary of the act of donation. Through giving we experience compassion and the essential, self-evident understanding that our happiness is inextricably linked to our kindness towards others.
In a related way, I have always appreciated the symbolism of Tibetan prayer flags. Prayers are written on colored cloth and hung with the hope that the wind will carry the prayers through the world for the benefit of all sentient beings. Our compassionate outreach is not materially based alone, the flags remind us, but reflect the intentions of our hearts.
The students donating their business plans to Tibetan refugees is akin to hopes inscribed on a prayer flag. Their plans are gifts for the benefit of individuals and a culture to which they may not have a personal connection nor receive material benefit - offerings to strangers living across the world.
The participants of this inaugural competition illustrate the energy of change that originates in the heart and is harnessed by the mind to help address societal and environmental issues. Rather than sitting idly by waiting for others to act, the participants put their hands up in the air to be part of the solution. In addition to helping the Tibetan community, my hope is that the competition encourages these students and others to pursue a path that reduces suffering and increases happiness in the world - and as studies have shown & Tibetan teachings cultivate - to deepen their own happiness.