Blurring The Lines

This article was one of my MicroSoft Small Business Forum pieces.  

It’s only a matter of time before the juggler drops a ball. For the past few months, I’ve been running my small consulting business, writing books, blogging like a mad man, and recently accepted a full time position as a professor at the University of Ottawa. Something had to give, hence my lengthy absence from this forum.

But I’m back!

Balancing several careers is a challenge at the best of times. But there does seem to be a certain clarity of partnership between science entrepreneurism and the business of academia; one feeds the other. My consulting business typically services governmental clients around the area of scientific review, contract research, expert input and oversight of other contractors. The same skills set is reflected in the professorial life, wherein one must oversee the work of students, review cutting edge research, conduct one’s own research and regularly offer one’s best insight into the work of colleagues.

For some, keeping the two worlds separate might be an issue. For me, blurring the line between them is the whole point.

Last month, I joined the Toronto-based philanthropic group “Vea’havta” on a medical mission to the interior of Guyana, which happens to be the nation of my birth. (I have been involved in other projects in Guyana, but this was my first time dealing with remote, forest-dwelling peoples). There, we engaged in providing basic clinical care while conducting community-based health education interventions for AmerIndian peoples living in really remote villages. When I say remote, I mean that we took a bush plane two hours to a landing strip deep in the rainforest, then rode a dug-out canoe another two hours to reach our target communities.

The work that we did, while soulfully important, has a mercenary twang to it. I collected data on the types of medical questions the villagers were asking me. These data represent the gap toward which future interventions can be targeted. On the one hand, the data were collected altruistically to refine this important work. On the other hand, the data were collected selfishly for me to generate academic publications and thus satisfy a requirement of my professorial status.

The entrepreneurial element arises when I consider both the skills refined through this adventure (i.e., cross cultural communication, community education, intellectual work during physical duress, qualitative data collection and analysis), which can now be offered to future paying clients, and the opportunity to market these skills and this experience as yet another asset in my portfolio.

Increasingly, I am of the opinion that one should not strive to comparmentalize the various aspects of one’s work, nor of one’s character. Rather, by seeing every opportunity as a holistic experience requiring the full investment of my emotional and intellectual character, all avenues can be travelled simultaneously, resulting in both a richer experience and fuller resume.

And while this way of looking at things might appear, in many ways, heartlessly mercenary, the truth is that approaching both business and humanitarian enterprises as complete, holistic avdentures helps to ensure that the best of your abilities will be put to the task at hand, resulting –in the case of the Guyana mission– in a maximal transfer of skills to a severely underprivileged and grateful population.