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From serving in the slums of Mumbai to building global movements at the United Nations General Assembly in New York with Marc Benioff and Prime Minister Narendra Modi – this icon is on a mission to unite world leaders and social entrepreneurs to shift the narrative around social impact and entrepreneurship.
Kunal Sood, Founder and CXO of X Fellows and Partner at X Impact Group, is an extraordinary citizen of the world. He’s earned five masters degrees while taking up residency at TED and serving as a fellow in Singularity University’s Global Startup Program. He’s now writing his first book on exponential leadership and happiness. He’s also a deeply kind human.
The first time I met Kunal was at the United Nations at the 72nd UN General Assembly where he launched the first-ever Novus summit. Earlier this year, he joined us onstage at the Forbes Impact Summit as a spotlight speaker and movement builder. This is our most recent conversation together.
Brendan Doherty: So, tell us your story – why do you gravitate towards the impact work you do?
Kunal Sood: Nothing in my life has been ordinary – its always somehow eventually become extraordinary, and I’m grateful for that. When I first arrived in the United States in 1997, never would I have imagined I would be a social impact entrepreneur working with the United Nations, SAP, Google, and X Prize. But it really started from rock bottom, which is where I built my foundation for the future. This country saved my life not once but twice. The first time was as a young adult from the depths of personal failure and the second time when I lost it all, after the tragic death of my late mentor and dear friend Dr. TJ Cherian. The first TEDx I ever curated was dedicated to honor his life and service to humanity.
Growing up, I thought I had what was considered a blessed life being born into a good family with strong values. I remember being a happy child, but a very unhappy young adolescent. I have ADHD and dyslexia, conditions that are still enigmas in Indian society. I was not diagnosed until I was 30 years old in graduate school. Nevertheless, my experience has taught me how to relate to people with compassion and extraordinary resilience.
Doherty: How did you get your impact work and how was the United Nations involved?
Sood: When I was at UCSF with Harvard School of Public Health in the slums of Mumbai as a global health scientist, I realized that all my life I had been living a life that was not true to myself – it was one that others expected of me. My most profound realization was that the people at the bottom of the pyramid need a voice on the global stage. In 2012, I discovered TED and their new initiative TEDx. When I visualized how I could make a massive impact to support resilient communities around the world, the most extraordinary stage on earth to allow these voices to share their stories of moral courage was the UN. It was then a leap of faith to organize the first-ever TEDx at the United Nations.
Having personal heroes like Astro Teller from Google X and Peter Diamandis come to the UN to engage and act, reinforced how important it is that I continue to work on solving these global grand challenges. They inspire me to collaborate with young people, global leaders and startup founders. Youth in the slums of Mumbai understand survival and joy better than many adults. Amid extreme pollution, lack of water, violence, and hunger, they go to school as long as they can. They embrace technology and new ideas with the same openness as American kids. Empowering the young people of the world is probably the most important reason I do the work I do. They may only be 25% of our total population but they certainly represent 100% of our potential future.
Doherty: Why did you start Novus and what exactly does it do?
Sood: Novus supports the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and gives voice to women and men who are leading courageous, life-changing global endeavors to protect life on land, achieve gender equality, and end poverty in all its forms. The point is to act and contribute. I am so honored that Novus is supported by the United Nations, and we are gearing up for 2019.
Creating Novus also allows us to build a platform that gives voice to unsung heroes alongside iconic leaders. Being intergenerational is important because the perspectives of elders and youth are key to shaping what our human legacy will be. Feeling a sense of hope and inspiring others to learn from some of the greatest minds on the planet is a way to help people globally find their chosen path. Just thirty percent of people around the world say they earn a living from their childhood dream job or a related field! We want to increase this through impact entrepreneurship.
Doherty: What makes someone a great social impact entrepreneur?
Sood: I believe the most successful social impact entrepreneurs are leaders who are authentic to his or her core values, and not afraid to do what it takes to realize this vision in their lifetime. They aren’t just global citizens but go the distance to become extraordinary citizens. They are creative and have the grit and perseverance to see their ideas positively impact the lives of those they serve.
Three traits really jump out for me. First, social entrepreneurs live a life of service and are deeply committed to a vision greater than themselves. Second, they’re driven by a massive transformative purpose – it guides all of their work. Finally, they focus on innovating and developing best practices, and have incredible insight and deep mastery of their chosen field.
Doherty: Tell us about X Fellows.
Sood: X Fellows is my personal Moonshot venture. Imagine a community where everyone has each other’s backs without fear or favor. This is at the core of being an X Fellow. According to Astro Teller, making something 10x better is easier than making it 10% better. 10x can light a fire in hearts and when human beings get excited, seemingly impossible things become reality.
I envision X Fellows as a technology meets real world experience platform to “unlock exponential potential” by creating the world’s first “league of extraordinary citizens” working actively to solve global grand challenges. The vision for X Fellows is like the real-world version of X-Men meets the Avengers – not that we will all be superheroes, but more like real world heroes in the field solving for X. A highly personalized and custom tailored lifelong UX that is codified to one’s signature strengths is the goal.
Think of the learning model as a new knights table. Accepting the challenge of becoming an X Fellow means exploring the limits of one’s inherent talents and putting them to use for the benefit of humankind.
Doherty: What inspired you to start X Fellows and what’s your investment thesis for X Impact Group?
Sood: Peter Diamandis changed my life and inspired me with a whole new vision of the future on my very first day as a GSP fellow at Singularity University. My eyes lit up as he shared how one must embrace their signature strength and use it for the good of humanity. Its remarkable! This belief is now a core part of who I am. While I’ve made it my purpose to live a life of service to positively impact a billion lives, I feel what’s most important is that we cultivate the right mindset. Hopefully, we can give future generations a world where extraordinary citizens thrive as stewards of our planet.
At X Impact Group we identify, advise and invest in companies actively involved in exponential technological innovation. Ranging from AI to Blockchain technologies, we are focused on leveraging companies that are driven by shaping the future. For instance, we may invest in a company that has the potential to eliminate 5+% of annual emissions or drawdown 5% or more of carbon debt. Restoring key ecosystems at scale given the negative effects of climate change today is an important outcome.
Doherty: So who is your X-Man or X-Woman, your Icon of Impact?
Sood: When I think of someone who is a real-world icon, I would say Professor Muhammad Yunus because he lives his values in action. Even though he is a Nobel Peace Laureate and SDG Advocate, he always makes prioritizes supporting the causes he champions. I witnessed this firsthand this year at the UNGA Youth Technology Forum where he cautioned our need for omnipotent power and wealth. He pushed people to reframe what it means to be a billionaire in this world.
Doherty: Kunal, what do you want to be your legacy for impact?
Sood: Projects that drive peace and prosperity locally and globally will shape our future. We live in both the most extraordinary and the most challenging times today. We have to think more about how we can leave a legacy. Not just as an individual or as a family, but as a species. Creating a vision that unites humanity is at the heart of everything I try to do. By including other great minds, we create a powerful narrative that becomes our legacy. Legacy for impact requires a great deal of grit and perseverance. I would like my legacy for impact to embody a quote that my mentor David Roberts once shared, “Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgment that something is more important than fear; the brave may not live forever, but the cautious do not live at all.”
December 22, 2018 at 08:29PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs