Using his skills and knowledge as an architect, this entrepreneur set up an inspiring non-profit organisation, billionBRICKS, which uses architecturally sound building designs to create equal and sustainable communities.
What’s your story?
I grew up in a Delhi neighborhood surrounded by homeless communities and was exposed to the contradictions of urban development from a very early age. I became an architect and worked for over 10 years in firms across Asia, designing houses for people who already had at least one. After working on a slum project, I realised it was not possible to provide a balanced solution under a commercial firm and that there was no intention to provide quality housing for the poorest sections of society. I quit my job and I started billionBRICKS, a non-profit which aims to improve the life of the homeless through quality design and architecture.
What excites you most about your industry?
The potential of design has always fascinated me. Design is certainly influenced by people’s use of space, but the way a living environment is designed also greatly affects people’s behaviour. Architects play an important role in the promotion of an equal society and sustainable design needs to be accessible to all. Today, I take great satisfaction in working in close collaboration with NGOs and local communities, because I feel there is deep exchange at this level. They tell us how they live and what their needs are, we design with them and can witness first hand how quality design can improve lives!
What’s your connection to Asia?
My ties with Asia are strong; I was born and educated in India and I have lived in different cities across Asia. I now live in Singapore with my family and my children were born here. billionBRICKS has projects in India, Indonesia, Cambodia and Malaysia and I spend many days of the year travelling to these places for work. I love Asia, its cultural diversity and all its contradictions.
Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Hong Kong is probably one of the most efficient and resourceful cities in Asia to do business. However, I also like Phnom Penh, because although it is a slow-paced city, people are more open than in other countries and, in my experience, in Phnom Penh it is easier and faster to establish strong business ties there than elsewhere.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
As a young entrepreneur, especially in the non-profit field, it is easy to get overwhelmed by people’s comments and “useful” advice. Many come to me and offer praise for all the good billionBRICKS is doing, but often these comments come from people who don’t know what it really means. I learnt to be truthful to myself and focus on what I set out to do. I listen carefully to advice coming from more experienced social entrepreneurs, my co-founder and my wife.
Who inspires you?
Gandhi’s biography- “My experiments with truth” has been a great inspiration. I learnt that one needs to be truthful to oneself, believe in what is right, and persevere towards the goal with sincerity and love. Many times we are in a profession, because we studied something or we found that particular job, not because we truly believed in that we do. This motivation encouraged me to contribute positively through architecture to developing equitable cities. Even now that I no longer work as an architect, this keeps being my mission and my goal through the work billionBRICKS carries out with homeless communities.
What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Everyday I hear about new disruptive ideas in the non-profit sector. The latest one has been learning that Y-Combinator supports non-profits through grants. This excites me and motivates me, because it shows there is more and more interest in this sector and that we will be able to make a bigger difference.
If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have started when I was at least 10 years younger.
How do you unwind?
Spending time with my kids makes me feel young and alive and removes a lot of my work-related stress. I also go to the gym often and I watch comedy shows, because laughing is another activity that keeps me healthy and motivated.
Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Ubud, Bali is my current favourite place for relaxation. When I go there, I take long walks in the rice paddies and indulge in some good Indonesian food. Ubud is also Bali’s cultural and artistic hub and there is always an interesting exhibition, concert or festival to attend.
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This interview was part of the Callum Connect’s column found on The Asian Entrepreneur:
Callum Laing invests and buys small businesses in a range of industries around Asia. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is the founder & owner of Fitness-Buffet a company delivering employee wellness solutions in 12 countries. He is a Director of, amongst others, Key Person of Influence. A 40 week training program for business owners and executives.
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