21+ Lessons from the Harvard Project for Asian and international Relations Asia Conference (HPAIR) 2021

It’s been about 18 months since in-person events took a hit, compelling leaders and organizers to shift their games online. Over time, people have become bored of attending online events and miss the in-person energies. But when an event brings on its stage several CEOs, policymakers, experts, governors, and even Nobel prize laureates, along with opportunities to 1:1 network and join group discussions, how could one skip it even if it was online?

What happened at the HPAIR Asia Conference?

I’ve spent the last four days at the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations Asia Conference 2021. I had the honor of listening to renowned speakers such as Anne Chow, the CEO of AT&T, Rich Lesser, CEO of BCG, N.R. Narayana Murthy, co-founder and former CEO of Infosys, Idris Jala, CEO of PEMANDU, Safeena Husain, founder of Educate Girls, a Mumbai-based NPO, Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, H.E. Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawai, the Indonesian Finance Minister, Aparna Bawa, COO of Zoom, Adam D’Angelo, CEO of Quora, Muhammad Yunus, the brains behind the Grameen Bank and several others.

Networking and Introvertedness

My experience also involved having 1:1 conversations with dozens of fellow delegates during networking sessions. As someone who usually does not hold fast-paced conversations with several people, this posed a bit of a challenge. However, setting goals on speaking to a set number of people and pushing myself outside my comfort zone helped me utilize this opportunity.

Apart from this, there were several other lessons and reminders I wish to amplify from this conference. Before that, I want to reverberate one of the simplest yet neglected lessons as said by Julian Tse, a vogue published Photographer.

Event + reaction = outcome

We often attend an event or do a course and expect it to transform us. However, the outcome doesn’t lie in acceptance or attendance, but the way we utilize the opportunity, our reflections, and act on the newfound knowledge after the event or course. Attending HPAIR and then going back to your day-to-day life isn’t going to yield many positive outcomes if you don’t pause to reflect, introspect, and actively seek development.

A similar action-based equation was also given by Aparna Bawa, stating, “Pain + Reflection = Progress.”

Appreciating and Conversing with Parents

Anne Chow, the CEO of AT&T, acknowledged her parents’ presence in supporting her despite various circumstances. It was a moment to reflect on the role my parents have played in my life. It is worthy of acknowledgment that they’ve always been supportive, even if sometimes understandably curious about my career path in the social sciences. My dive into Model U.N. conferences can also be traced to a recommendation by my mother.

Yet, for many, the journey is accompanied by scrutiny and resistance. It is essential to acknowledge that your parents want the best for you. If they oppose something, it is not because they want to limit you but because they aren’t seeing your side. In such cases, communicating, asking questions, and even presenting a 30-slide PowerPoint to explain your ideas may come in handy.

Leaders don’t always have it all figured out

One of the most powerful messages I heard on the first day of the conference was Rich Lesser’s “leaders don’t always have it all figured out.

We often think that leaders are know-it-alls and highly experienced people. While experience plays a role in effective leadership, it is also worthy of acknowledging that the journey of learning and improvement never ends, even for the most reputed leaders. 

In fact, although I’ve won accolades like Lead365’s National Leader of the Year Award (2020) and the competition at my university’s Leadership Conference 2021, I’ve looked for, completed, and am in the progress of completing many courses on leadership after that. Those awards did not stop my quest for learning; there is and always will be an endless amount of knowledge out there.

We have to go into our roles with a continuous learning mindset. The world is changing around us, and today more than ever, we need cross-functional mindsets” – Rich Lesser.

This also reinforces the message of Manny Maceda, the worldwide managing partner of Bain & Co., that mentoring and feedback is a two-way street; being a leader doesn’t mean you can’t take feedback from your team.

Take ownership of your life

N.R. Narayana Murthy, the co-founder and former CEO of InfoSys advised people in their early 20s to focus more on performance, not fancy words, open mindedness and tolerance, not rigidity, and to introspect and solve issues, instead of blaming external factors.

Do you want to understand the ‘Locus of Control’ and learn strategies to take better ownership of your life? Check out this post: Master Your Life – Taking Ownership 101.

Role of society in shaping children’s futures

Mr. Murthy also mentioned that it is not anybody’s responsibility to assign future careers to the youth. The responsibility lies in ensuring that the youth have different outlets and resources to test which career path they wish to take.

This also connects to a discussion during the executive seminar I attended with Dr. Arunabha Ghosh, the founder and CEO of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water. I asked Dr. Ghosh if he had any strategies to help the youth find opportunities and direction to develop a career in environmentalism and sustainability. His response did not call for environmental degrees but to ensure that sustainability needs to be embedded in every field.

A destination can be reached through many roads

During Justin Kan’s session, we talked about how experience can be gained through different routes.

  • If someone wants to start a business, they can do it fresh out of university and learn by experience as they go,
  • or join as an employee in a company to take things slow and certain. One con he stated regarding joining as an employee is that it may make it harder for people to quit as it becomes their comfort zone.

The decision is yours, analyze the pros and cons and see what works best for you and go for it.

Identify and hold on to healthy coping mechanisms

Several speakers at the conference talked about taking pauses in this fast-moving world and spend time in stress relieving, introspecting, and mindful activities. Our mind tends to resort to certain unhealthy habits, such as binging Netflix for hours or shutting ourselves out from people. It’s healthier to identify these mechanisms, find healthier ones such as meditation, journaling, mindfulness, and reaching out for help when needed and others.

Methods to enhance the probability of entrepreneurial success

According to Mr. Murthy, these pointers can help enhance success for entrepreneurs:

  1. God’s grace and external factors may play a role but hard work is the most influential factor.
  2. Ideas that can take the market by storm and are stunning and impactful attract investors.
  3. Entrepreneurs should do an inexpensive test-marketing exercise (prototyping) to assess if there is sufficient market for the ideas and if the product needs changes.
  4. The entrepreneur should be able to condense the power of their idea into a single simple sentence that isn’t complex or compound. This simplicity shows ease in the execution of the idea and attracting investors and customers.
  5. Passion, teamwork, competence, and the value system of the entrepreneur attracts investors.

Machines cannot wholly replace humans

While this message may seem off in the theme of my notes, it has a solid connection to the next steps you can take.

In my discussions with Crystal and Dr. Greg, who spoke about deep human skills and with the founder of Quora, Adam D’Angelo, it was established that even if A.I. and machines develop, they won’t be able to creatively strategically connect qualitative ideas. They won’t be able to ask good and unique questions, produce valuable answers. They can draw from existing knowledge, reword, and synthesize, but never replace the human element of creativity and insightful conversation.

Thus, it is crucial to constantly improve our creative skills, people skills, and emotional intelligence.

Discomfort is inevitable, especially online

Many speakers held roles that had a lot to do with the online space and creativity. Given the liberty on the internet, cyberbullying and harassment is nothing out of the ordinary. Speakers at this conference called for delegates to develop their confidence, self-esteem, and control over what affects them, as harassment online is inevitable regardless of how good or hardworking you may be.

It may help to filter out responses that aren’t constructive criticism and focus on the positive replies. You may even want to create a folder of positive reactions to read if online hate gets to you.

Be true to you. Do not let anyone’s view of you define who you are. YOU define who you are.” – Anne Chow

Mindful consumption of social media and news information

It can help ground you more to reality by being more mindful about the news you consume. Dr. Sweta pointed out that news channels shape risk perception by affecting viewers psychologically and not based on objective stats. As a result, people fear statistically less-lethal incidents like terrorist attacks or shark attacks than statistically more lethal risks like the flu or cardiovascular diseases.

Look for opportunities that avoid wealth concentration

The founder of the Grameen Bank system, a microcredit lending system in Bangladesh that sought to alleviate hurdles of securing loans from banks in rural areas, Muhammad Yunus, recommended viewers to start their own businesses if possible, or seek employment in institutions or companies that don’t contribute in wealth concentration.

Of course, such ideas will draw resistance in a capitalist world. But, we should not give in to the resistance and continue fighting for social equality.

Resistance is part of the game.” – Dr. Muhammad Yunus

One of my other favorite things he said regarding the conventional banking system and its inability to alleviate social inequality is: “if banks can call people non credit worthy, then the people might as well call banks non people worthy” (paraphrased).

Don’t be a ‘know it all’ and always seek learning

Not much to say here except to repeat the words of Randy Freer, the former CEO of Hulu.

If you think you’re the smartest person in the room, change rooms.” – Randy Freer

There is great value in making leadership transformational

Leadership is no longer about dictatorship and command-oriented work where “subjects” only execute orders. There are different types of leadership strategies, and transformational leadership is one of growing importance.

In simple terms, transformational leadership is a leadership approach that facilitates change in individuals and social systems. Its ultimate goal is to convert “followers” into “leaders.” In today’s fast-changing world, such leadership will also help keep the team ready for pivots and bring holistic and independent growth void of dependence and painful shocks.

A good point to look into for developing your transformational leadership skills could be on how to incorporate coaching into your leadership and different psychological factors you can bank on to develop a good relationship with your team.

A message against being apolitical

While the original message of H.E. Sri Mulyani Indrawai, the Indonesian finance minister asked citizen to be active players and not just passive users in the context of digital transformation, the need for this active role also resonates in political activity so we can continue guiding governance in the right path by utilizing our constitutional rights.

Did you know, being apolitical has several negative implications in the long run! Interested to know what they are and how you can be more involved even in small ways? Read this post: ‘The Cost of Being Apolitical.

Interpret challenges as growth and avoid perfectionism

If life was all roses and petals, and we didn’t have an opportunity to fail, we wouldn’t be able to progress.” – Aparna Bawa, C.O.O. of Zoom.

Don’t let perfection be your enemy.” – Safeena Husain, Founder of Educate Girls.

Onto more realistic ways of implementing these lessons, it is worthy of mentioning the SWOT analysis technique recommended by Shannon Kalayanamitr, the CEO of 5G Catalyst Technologies in Thailand. What is the SWOT analysis?

Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) Analysis


Listing down your strengths, weaknesses (internal factors), opportunities, and threats (external factors) will help you understand your current standing better and assist you in identifying pivots and next steps to take.

Book Recommendations

  1. Unconscious bias (Anne Chow) – Anne Chow
  2. Give & Take (Adam Grant) – Rich Lesser
  3. What makes a champion! (Allan Snyder) – William Tan
  4. The last word on power (Tracy Gross) – Idris Jala
  5. 55 Pillars and red wall – Safeena Husain
  6. The untethered soul (Michael Singer) – Justin Kan
  7. Awareness: The perils and opportunities of reality (Anthony) – Justin Kan
  8. Shōgun (James Clavell) – Justin Kan

List compiled by: Kodchakorn Khemtonglang

Out of several hours of sessions, it’d take a book or more to include everyone’s wisdom, and practical strategies to implement them. I’ll leave that for another day, but I hope you benefitted from reading this post and can step up your life by taking positive actions.

If you were also a fellow HPAIR delegate, I’d love to hear some of your favorite messages in the comments! If not, there’s no gatekeeping in learning so still feel free to share some of your favorite life lessons or advice.

Remember, just attending an event, doing a course, or even reading this post isn’t enough. Your outcomes will be defined by what you do after it.

Special thanks to these Harvard delegates for helping collect learnings, pictures, inferences, and quotes: Hendri Surya, Phoebe Chan, Ankita Sharma, and Sunakshi Jain.

Enjoyed this post? Don’t forget to sign up for post updates and commit to staying vigilant!

Join 913 other followers


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s