19 Key Takeaways from HPAIR: Social Causes, Lessons, And Book Recommendations

Personal Takeaways From the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations (HPAIR) 2021

I had the chance of attending the prestigious Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations from the 15th of January to the 19th of January (or, 15-18 January in Eastern Standard Time). The conference was wonderfully sprinkled with numerous world leaders and powerful voices with a lot of lessons to offer, in life and in industry. The lessons to take away were many, even in fields where I did not think I would have interest, like, being a social sciences student, Artificial Intelligence was a field that I did not think I would touch even with a 10-foot barge pole but the panel discussion made it interesting anyways.

1. Death of Distance

A period that was known to be the death of distance (increasing online connectivitiy) was hastened by the pandemic which acted as a catalyst. While many people shifted from office spaces to working from home, on-site workers suffered.

The proportion of people that actually have desk jobs and need office spaces is small and the bigger issues are posed to on-site workers. The CEO and Managing Partner of McKinsey & Company, Kevin Sneader, calls the worry about office spaces luxurious and implies a redirection of our focus onto greater social causes.

The death of distance was best reflected in HPAIR itself. The presidents cited that this was their largest conference. Plus, without the hassle of transport costs, an easily accessible online event did call for greater diversity and reach.

Kevin Sneader McKinsey Harvard HPAIR
Kevin Sneader

2. Large Corporations and The Environment

Green and Sustainable Economic Growth

When we think of the concept of ‘green growth’, what is the image that comes to your mind? Most likely, apart from an environmentally secure world, you might be imagining the perils of slower economic growth and costlier goods and services.

The panel discussion on ‘US-Asian Climate Change Multilateralism: Feasibility, Best Practices, and Long Term Visions’ by Raekwon Chung, Daniel Bodansky, Dr. Robert Stowe, and Skyler Wu threw light on exactly that mindset. The speakers stated that for a more healthy outlook, a mindset shift is needed.

Janice Lao, Raekwon Chung, Daniel Bodansky, Dr. Robert Stowe, and Skyler Wu.

Valuing Start-Up and Innovation

The vice-chairman of Roche Pharmaceutical and a member of the Board of Trustees at the World Economic Forum, André Hoffmann, comments on the hindrance of innovation because of the multilayered and complex structure of large companies. On that note, he looks upon startup ideas as the scope for innovation in those is larger and startups create a new system that is not as environmentally damaging as the ones by many large corporations. Speaking of Start-Ups …

3. Self-Belief, Growth-Mindset, and Realism.

These were the ingredients that Xiaoyin Qu (Founder of Run The World) added to season the question of her valued values. Run The World is the online platform that HPAIR was held on. Recently founded, Xiaoyin was asked three values she would want to talk about.

The Stanford dropout, and budding tech-savvy entrepreneur listed those three values which can also apply for any other budding entrepreneurs who are looking forward to putting their business ideas into start-ups!

Self-Belief: A risky path calls for you to believe in yourself so you don’t give up. You also need to learn to filter what opinions you take in from others and which ones you don’t so you can avoid getting negatively affected.

Growth-Mindset: You will encounter many challenges, failures, dead-ends, and moments where you need to have back-up plans. A fixed mindset would fail your not even started up start-up.

Realism: Don’t think about the glass being half empty, think about what’s in the glass and how you can add to it.

Amaan Siddiqui, Xiaoyin Qu, and Julian Tse

4. Risk Taking Framework: When To Take Risk?

According to Xiaoyin Qu, As long as the worst-case scenario of taking a risk is tolerable (as in, you won’t starve yourself or suffer long-term setbacks), and the best case scenario is a jackpot, go for it.  

5. Networking

We come across a lot of content on the social media platforms and contacts we have but as an individual, there’s only so much we can find. HPAIR has been a platform that has brought like-minded people (of course, the like-mindedness is not in industry as much as it is in initiative, leadership, and the strive to self-improvement and making the world a better place) together to connect and be able to share their knowledge, expertise, and opportunities.

When Xiaoyin Qu was asked about how she managed to arrange the funds needed to kick start Run The World, she talked about how it was her network of people she knew and the professors she had connected with at Stanford that helped her get those Angel funds (early stage start up funding).

Knowing how much networking has helped me get to where I was before HPAIR, the conference and the people I’ve come across through it has expanded my access to diverse opportunities. Take the lesson. When you come across valuable people, form bonds that remain with you for a long time.

Run The World Networking Cocktail Mixer
One among many one-on-one networking events\

Networks and connections aside, making new friends is also a valuable takeaway that shouldn’t be ignored! Admittedly, the sudden exposure to hundreds of delegates through tens of group chats was overwhelming but eventually, I was eased in.

6. Be part of the RIGHT networks

While commenting on the gender pay gap and salary negotiation, the CEO of Candor, Niya Dragova, reminds us that it isn’t solely the college you join that decides how your pay and knowledge turns out but whether you join the right networks, clubs, connections, and take adequate initiative.

7. Not everyone who is in your field is competition

A Vogue-published professional photographer, Julian Tse, also emphasizes further on the lines of networking and making friends that collaboration and knowledge-sharing will save you time, and give you beneficial exposure which otherwise would not happen if you always treated others as competition.

8. “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” ~ Winston Churchill, after World War 2, forming the United Nations.

The biggest lesson 2020 taught us was resilience and adaptation. Thinking on a bigger level, it makes us realise that the current system is structured in a manner that is not resilient.

Therefore, it is important that we not just take these lessons but also act on it and build a more sustainable and resilient future. What is more important than failures and disasters is the lessons we take from it and what we do tomorrow.

9. Feminism and Equality

Many speakers cited the existence of gender biases. Political and corporate systems still have male-dominated spaces, and women face questioning for entering the field of STEM.

Yet, any fight for equality will last forever. The circumstances change and things may get better but different communities will always be fighting for some level of equality and what is important that we remain standing strong, says Janice Lao, the ESG Director.

In the age of roaring Tik Tok, Twitter, and social media culture of convenient activism and reposting, it was also notable that no speaker at HPAIR represented any value, belief, idea, or strategy even remotely close to misandry. Their focus on the cause looked at realistic solutions and a sustainable way forward.

10. Fashion, Activism, Cultural Appreciation, and Cultural Appropriation

The inspiring talk by Bandana Tewari, a sustainable fashion warrior brought out the essence of clothing. She reminds us that clothes are more than just styles but are important in the way we define our identity. Corporations need to move beyond using cultural clothing as gimmicks and profitable fads and acknowledge the contexts behind them and truly appreciate them.

Further speaking on the subject, she threw light on gender fluidity and how magazines cover that. If they want to truly support that social cause, their cover pages should represent a person that has made that choice and give due credit to the struggles of their lives instead of picking cishetero males and giving them skirts.

Corporations need to have a more diverse and inclusive workforce in order to be able to gain insights from different cultures to be better equipped for intercultural interactions.

Recommended Watch: What Gandhi Can Teach Us About Slow Fashion.

11. Artificial Intelligence for Social Good

“Sometimes, 5% of the narrative occupies 95% of the oxygen in the room,” said Amit Pradhan, the Co-Founder of the Silicon Valley Blockchain Society.

Often, statements made in sci-fi Hollywood and paranoid people clouds our thinking about A.I. We are still very far from being taken over by A.I. and there are a plethora of other fields where A.I. is being and can be employed to serve social causes. Our focus should be redirected from a Hollywood interpretation of A.I. to a realistic one that supports and empowers society rather than frightens it.

12. Critical Thinking and Avoiding Giving In To Misleading Narratives

Wonderfully, that quote also resonates in contexts beyond A.I. If you think about it, the structure upon which stereotypes and many forms of discrimination is built is the same idea where a small narrative ends up being blown out of proportion. With greater awareness, inquisition, and critical thinking, questioning, and independent research about tricky situations and questions, I believe we can avoid falling to the trap of misleading yet popular narratives. A talk on data science and data quality also adds to this learning.

13. Happiness isn’t about not having failures but living with it.

Yang Lan, one of the Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women, along with the other speakers (Anla Cheng and Lesly Goh) at the Gender Equality and Philanthropy Fireside Discussion backed that concept and offered advice for you if you’re finding your passions, remain patient and gentle to yourself while also taking care of yourself with enough sleep, food, and drink.

14. Media, Digital Literacy, And Activism

Debbie Stothard (Director of ALTSEAN) and Thiago P B Bessimo (Institutional Director, Observa China)’s talk on Progressivism and Activism in Asia shared the growth of activism and the need to identify false news in the current era. If you are unable to find a community in the physical space around you, you can always fall back on taking your cause to the online community. The same message was reinforced in the session “Navigating A More Polarized World: Division and Faction in International Politics” led by the Senior Editor of the South China Morning Post, Chow Chung. In the age of information, what excuse do you have for not voicing your thoughts when you’re in a position to do so?

15. When you participate in politics, hold on to your values, vision, and causes.

The former prime minister of Thailand, the Right Honourable Abhisit Vejjajiva also highlighted, apart from the message in the title, that it is possible to maintain your honesty and integrity while surviving in politics.

Being passionate about politics and knowing the levels of risks and corruption in Indian politics, I’ve always considered taking part but the fear of what might happen to me because of the atmosphere still floats around. Listening to the previous affirmation by him was truly comforting and is a call for all of us passionate young activists.

16. Embrace Change

Adam Cheyer, founder of Siri and Change.org tells us that life is like a book. Your life is divided into chapters and each chapters represents a different mini-journey in your life. Oftentimes, it may even represent a totally different you. Change is inevitable. Embrace the different parts of life and continue navigating through your rough and beautiful transitions.

17. There is no pride in selectivity

Being selected for a conference, actually participating in the conference, and taking great learnings away from the conference can be explained through the metaphor of a journey. You sit in your car, you start driving it, and you reach your destination.

A delegate from Philippines, Camille, shared her experience states two important lessons from events like HPAIR, where there is a selection process to participate: the journey and the destination is what matters most. Just sitting in your car isn’t that big of a deal. Take pride in what you take away from the conference and not mere selection.

We reached this realisation when one of the presidents of HPAIR, Zeel Patel, responded to the many queries about the acceptance rates with “there is no pride in selectivity.”

18. Your success is a culmination of not just your hard work but also privilege

Camille also mentioned that her selection was not only because she worked hard and developed a profile worthy of it but also a disparity between her social and economic standing compared to many others who never had the opportunity to afford opportunities or connections that would help them build a profile to be worthy of being selected for a conference like this let alone actually even finding out and applying to HPAIR. While this isn’t a lesson I learned from any of the keynote speakers, coming across her post was really impactful as recognising our privilege is a major step of working towards some of the most important social issues.

19. Book Recommendations*

By Hari Nair, Vice President, Procter & Gamble:

  • Carol Dweck – Mindset
  • David – Range  – Why generalists triumph in a specialized world.
  • Prof Karim Lakhani — Competing in the age of AI
  • Michael Horn — Choosing College

By Janice Lao, ESG Director:

  • Capital in the Twenty-First Century Book by Thomas Piketty
  • Green Giants by Freya Williams

By Bandana Tewari, a Sustainable Fashion Warrior:

  • Sapiens
  • Big Ideas Simply Explained Series  

By Lord Nat Wei

  • Restoring Democracy in an Age of Populists and Pestilence by Jonathan Manthorpe

By Lan Yang

  • A room of one’s own by Virginia Woolf

By Former Prime Minister of Thailand

  • Did not name anything in particular but recommended books that focus on new economic and market systems given the degree of inequality and the threat of market monopoly and domination.

By Adam Cheyer, Founder of Siri and Change.org

  • Deep Learning Course on Coursera

*Listed names might not be identical to the actual books.

If you attended HPAIR, what were some of your takeaways? Be sure to share them down in the comments below and share the post so others can benefit from it too!

Be sure to support the blog and sign up for email updates for future posts! Stay tuned as I’ll also be releasing a list of leadership development lessons I took away from HPAIR 2021 soon!

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  1. Thank you Amaan
    fantastic summary of the 5day HPAIR event ..
    I really liked the car metaphor to this conference journey …there is no pride in selectivity ..
    Thank you thank you thank you
    Om Shanti

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an amazing summary Amaan !
    I really like the way you comprehensively stated all the important takeaways from not only the conference but also your observations from the forums !

    Great job 👍


  3. Wow…worthwhile content … Much appreciation for the way you have compiled… congratulations dear Amaan, and all the best for your future endeavours…


  4. Awesome work! Really appreciate you taking the time out and summarizing the key takeaways of the conference!


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