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TEDxPerth shows its social impact

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Charlie Gunningham
// // In its eighth year, TEDxPerth showed no signs of slowing down, with 16 talks, most with a strong social impact theme

// In its eighth year, TEDxPerth showed no signs of slowing down, with 16 talks, most with a strong social impact theme

If ever a startup founder needed a ‘pick me up’ during a long and difficult day, they could do worse than turn over to and watch an inspirational talk, or allow their brain to be opened up to a new idea, worth spreading.

The annual TEDxPerth event did not disappoint, with 16 varied speakers, comedians and musicians entertaining all corners of the cerebral cortex, plus a few short films, installations, food and drink for good measure.

The Australian of the Year Craig Challen (one of the rescuers of the Thai soccer team last year) emplored us all to take more risks, and live life. Yoke Mardewi told us how baking sourdough has restored and given depth to her life (“Men and marriages let you down, sourdough does not.”). 85-year old Brian O’Brien told stories of his dust gathering machines which were used the Appollo landings.

TEDxPerth shows its social impact
Brian O’Brien (left) and Yoke Mardewi (right) on stage at TEDxPerth 2019

The final talk was from local social enterprise startup Pankaj Sharma (Toast my Curry). It was powerful stuff, as you could have heard a pin drop as he asked everyone to do social good (“Act now! Why wait for your trigger or the end of your working life to give back?”).

His good friend Paromita Sen-Mukherjee takes up the story…

His messy salt and pepper hair cleverly conceals the enterprising youthful spirit, the unkempt, unshaven ruffled look with the boyish grin and the twinkle in his eyes make for a carelessly crazy ‘nothing matters’ attitude to life but dwell closely and one will find an undisputed method in his madness.

Meet Pankaj Sharma, the first person of Indian origin from Australia to have been chosen to speak at TEDxPerth as a Social Impact Entrepreneur and Advocate.

Unlike most migrant stories of toiling through a significant passage of time and endless hard work to go with, of innumerable struggles of disappointments and failures, Sharma’s short but strong narrative is of act now and deliver.

A comparatively fresh migrant of having spent just 6 years in Perth, the opportunity of a TED Talk was nothing short of a dream come true.

Sharma and his wife, Kim, arrived in Perth, Australia in 2013 with nothing but a dream in their eyes of travelling the world and gathering experiences through meeting new people, exploring new places.

The bubble of comfort that they lived in back in Mumbai, India, a city that never sleeps, the commercial hub of India, was left behind, not in search of finding something extraordinary, but of quitting the rat race and doing something different.

“Within days of arriving here in Perth I started looking at everything with a completely fresh perspective. I saw abundance in everyday life. I felt abundance is a way of life. This is where I discovered poverty,” he said.

A stark reality begins to unfold as Sharma now understands the concept of poverty from a completely new angle.

Sharma and his wife had been living in the heart of one of the most busy Asian cities, Mumbai.

“We were leading a good life, had our own business and I was working for a Bollywood Production Company as Associate Vice President moving up the corporate ladder,” Pankaj said.

“We had good life, great salaries, own house, car, the works. We had become somewhat immune to poverty.

“We would carry on unaffected, with our lives, our aspirations, our desire to achieve more. We would seldom stop and look at people who had nothing, no food, no shelter, no clothes.

TEDxPerth shows its social impact
Pankaj Sharma: Australia taught me to act, in India I was in my bubble.

“An unfortunate reality but that is the truth. But Australia taught me otherwise”.

Sharma’s first encounter with poverty in Perth came in the form of homeless people living on the streets, yet having sleeping bags, sometimes with mobile phones and a burger and a coffee.

This image was, by far, a striking contrast to poverty in India. The magnitude of poverty in India did not compare. Not that homeless people here had a good life but the severity of the situation back in the other parts of the world was shocking.

“Australia taught me to acknowledge poverty,” said Pankaj. “People here will say hi, have a quick chat and buy these less fortunate ones a coffee or food. This made me think about poverty and discovering the same in the process.”

The fact that ordinary normal people would do their bit in helping others made Pankaj think of ways and means to start creating a social impact.

He and his wife started participating in various events such as Mothers Day Run or the Lock me Up for a Cause in Fremantle prison for fundraising for charities.

“It was astonishing to see how small communities, school kids, young men and women got together to give back to the society to help others,” he said.

And yet, again, the contrast with India was profound. Places like Op Shops and Salvos do not accept clothing that are torn and too worn out. Similarly, during verge collections only stuff that is in working condition is picked up.

For Pankaj and his wife Kim, there was no one defining moment that led to the concept of social impact entrepreneurship.

The triggers were happening since early days of arrival in Australia and with every new experience, lessons were being learnt and with this came the burning desire to give back.

That’s how Toast my Curry was conceived – a unique food product making the world’s first Naan Toasties (aka NAASTIES). Indian curries toasted in Naan bread. (They are delicious too.)

For Pankaj and Kim, this had to be a social enterprise in that it would pauy its way and also do good for others. Impact and profits had to go hand in hand.

“We took responsibility from day one to bring about change by supporting a cause which tackled two issues, hunger and education, but more importantly without costing the customer a dollar more,” said Pankaj.

With the 2015 launch of Toast my Curry, Sharma incorporated the simple ‘Buy One Give one’ model which meant that for every meal purchased, they donated the value of the curry meal to few grassroot charities in Mumbai which run street schools there.

To get the kids off the streets, they were offered a meal at school. It would provide education by enticing them with food.

To date, they have been able to donate more than 43,000 curry meals through various charities in Mumbai.

“But we’ve only just begun,” said Pankaj, “We want to do a million. This is just they beginning.”

When asked if there is a risk associated with such ventures, Sharma brings back his charming self , in measured excitement and said, “ I have taken the biggest risk of uprooting myself from my own country to a new one, any other decision is pale in comparison.’’


Interview by: Paromita Sen-Mukherjee

Paromita, a mother of two overactive teenage boys, is a post graduate in mass communication with a background in journalism having worked as a corporate writer and senior subeditor in The Economic Times [India]. She also was one of two Birmingham entrepreneurs selected to the Oxford Business School workshop, for her startup “Cha Cha Cha – a Tea Lounge”.

From India, she spent a decade in the UK and then supported her family’s move to Perth 7 years ago. She now calls Perth home and does freelance articles for various organisations, while contemplating her next venture.

Toast my Curry can be found in the food court at Yagan Square, or in food truck at various outdoor events around Perth.

MAIN PHOTO: Pankaj Sharma on stage at the Perth Concert Hall speaking at TEDxPerth, 7th September 2019.

Disclosure: The Author is an adviser to TEDxPerth.

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Picture of Charlie Gunningham

Charlie Gunningham

Former co-founder, GM, CEO Business News and Accelerating Commercialisation adviser. Charlie has spent 20+ years in Perth's startup scene, as founder, mentor, adviser, writer and investor. There's nothing he likes more than helping early stage tech startups ... and drinking coffee, shiraz or playing in a blues band. Email Charlie here.
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