Taking Action: Owning Your EO Experience

Gaurav Agarwala
EO Kolkata
Gaurav Agarwala, EO Kolkata

Every day, you make individual decisions that directly impact the course of your business and future. It’s the autonomy of entrepreneurship; the beautiful ability to shape your destiny through the cultivation of a company that both drives and defines you. The same goes for your EO membership. You own your EO experience like you own your business— you get what you’re willing to put into it. Your EO journey could be inadequate due to inattention or so memorable that it positively impacts your future. It’s up to you. All you have to do is decide to take action!

One of the best ways you can take action and maximize your membership is by attending a regional event. By going beyond your chapter, you can gain a broader understanding of EO, engage new peers in exotic locations and expand your global mindset. The value of these events is endless. No one knows that more than EO Kolkata’s Gaurav Agarwala, Event Chair of the 2014 EO Regional Integration Event (RIE), held 9-12 January in Kolkata, India. We sat down with Gaurav to talk about what it takes to run a regional event, the importance of sharing cultural values and why global engagement is integral to a fulfilling EO journey.

What inspired EO Kolkata to host the 2014 EO RIE, and what kind of mark were you hoping to make?
GA: Each year, the opportunity to host the RIE is extended to one South Asia chapter by rotation, and 2014 was our turn. At its core, our RIE, themed ‘ACT: Action Changes Things,’ was more about our individual and chapter growth than making a mark, per se. We wanted to believe in ourselves more and build on our success. Our chapter’s theme for the year is ‘Elevate.’  Using this theme as a compass, we hoped our RIE would elevate the EO experience for our global members, while at the same time create an inflection in our bonding curve. We also wanted to show our ‘City of Joy’ in a new light. So, while retaining the soul of the city, we sought to showcase how our outlook as a country is changing. Everything in our event impressed upon our peers how Kolkata was thinking differently, that we were rising above a historic understanding of who we are and what we represent. Lastly, we wanted to ensure that the event format was strong in each quadrant of EO360°. A look at the lineup of RIE speakers highlights the comprehensive nature of the entrepreneur: A billionaire, the world’s most wanted man, a wordsmith, a movie star, a technology expert and a spiritual guru. They all served as representatives of who we are, and more importantly, who we ultimately can become.

Your event’s theme–“Action Changes Things”–captures how members can get the most out of their EO experience. Why did you choose this theme as a driver of your event?
GA: If you’ve seen contemporary media about India, especially  in the past three years, the word ‘paralysis’ pops up on a constant basis. For a country that was once a favored destination for business and capital, our growth had suddenly fallen off a cliff. Economists, rightly so, had attributed this phenomenon to paralysis or inaction. Therefore, a call to take action was a natural choice as a theme for us. It serves well on an EO level, too, tying into the entrepreneurial spirit.

Planning a regional event can be a difficult but rewarding responsibility. What did the planning process entail, and what did it teach you?
GA: My first challenge as Event Chair was securing the organizational structure that needed to be put into place to execute the RIE. For more than a year, 13 teams consisting of 120 members and spouses worked on this event. They worked without a tangible incentive or monetary gain. They were all simply driven to make a difference through engagement. We began to lay the foundation for the event by crafting a compelling theme. The teams were then encouraged to come up with ideas in their domains and take ownership. Teams and individuals developed ideas, sanity checked them against the theme and budget, and pushed ahead. Our two key challenges throughout the event-planning process revolved around motivation and delegation. While these were complicated issues, ownership made them simple. Secondly, to ensure consistent coordination across all facets of preparation, we developed a cellular structure that didn’t follow a personality, but rather an idea; one that helped people interact in an almost biological fashion, working seamlessly and positively on a non-stop basis. A month before the event, I moved into high gear and started monitoring every committee’s work with an eye on any fatal delays or theme deviations. In doing this, I was able to tie up all of the endeavors into a well-oiled machine. This approach to event planning has been field-tested, and I encourage other Event Chairs to consider it!

What were some key challenges you faced as Event Chair, and how would you have done things differently?
GA: The very first thing we did for the RIE was a complete, unmitigated failure. Our über-expensive launch video bombed! It was a confidence-shattering moment for us, and I had serious doubts as to whether or not we could recover from it. When we went back to the drawing board, we realized that our communication had everything but a story. So, the RIE was re-launched, only this time it was driven by a compelling story that transformed into a powerful theme, which became evident in everything we did. The other realization was that in a setup like this, I, as the lead, had no carrots to offer. Therefore, I ‘had to put the stick away.’ Tackling disagreements was also tricky. I learned fairly early on that while I could wear my vision as a badge, I had to put my ego in my back pocket in order to get the job done. As for doing things differently, I wouldn’t change a thing. In fact, I would like to repeat the mistakes so that the resulting success is equally as resounding!

We often hear how hosting regional events have a pro- found impact on chapters. Did your chapter strengthen as a result of the RIE?
GA: When I was asked to serve as Event Chair, the entire chapter stepped up and followed my lead. This ensured that the RIE wouldn’t turn out to be an impersonal, professionally managed event, but one with a do-it-yourself flavor. Every detail had been conceptualized, debated and executed by our members. Also noteworthy is the spousal involvement throughout the event. Many spouses served in Chair positions, and their teams had equal representation from their other halves. As for the chapter, we gained an increased sense of trust and respect. It left us with a reinforced spirit of pride, camaraderie and unity. We remain proud to be members of EO Kolkata, but most importantly, we remain true to the fact that, together, we will rise to any occasion and deliver again. In the context of growth, I have an interesting anecdote: A buddy who runs a billion-dollar company came to me post-event and thanked me for persuading him to play a supporting role in the realization of the RIE. He confessed that over the years, he had forgotten what it meant to work in a team, executing plans that were not his own and subscribing to a vision that he had not formulated. Now he had a better insight into the psyche of his own team!

One benefit of hosting a regional event is that you get to showcase your region to a larger EO audience. Was it important for you to share your culture with your global peers?
GA: Absolutely! India has a rich and diverse cultural heritage.  Kolkata, specifically, has its roots steeped in history. In fact, we served as the first capital of India when the British arrived. The independence movement also has its origins in Kolkata. Through the RIE, we wanted to showcase our culture, our transformation and our journey through thought leadership, learning, music and the arts. By showcasing the tightly integrated fabric of our chapter, we wanted our EO peers from around the world to have greater insight into what we stood for, which would help increase engagement and bonding throughout the event. Regional events are the perfect opportunity to showcase local pride and help members see another side of EO.

What experiential tips can you offer those chapters and committees who are eager to host a regional event of their own?
GA: First, think of the potential benefits that can accrue for your chapter through hosting the event. Once you’ve considered the impact, get a compelling storyline in place that can be reflected in each element of the event. Also, involve as many members and spouses as possible, and then structure them in well-defined teams to realize all functions of the program. Motivate team members to initiate and take action on their ideas, thereby giving them owner- ship of the event. And don’t forget to market the event well; this will help bring funds, speakers and positive feedback into the process. Finally, never fear criticism. As someone once said, ‘If you’re not being criticized, you’re not doing anything that makes a difference.’

What did hosting the RIE teach you about your own EO experience? Did you experience any unexpected benefits?
GA: As an EO member for more than 10 years, I’ve always believed that you get back what you put into this organization. For me, putting in the insane hours to execute the RIE has brought me closer to my friends and family. I can share one thing very close to my heart: I have a daughter going off to college this year, and we both knew that with my hectic schedule due to the RIE, we were going to miss each other during this precious time in her life. Understandably, she wasn’t happy about it. However, after the event, she expressed in a manner that only daughters can how I had grown in her eyes throughout the event-planning process. I knew that the RIE would be life-changing for me and my peers, but I never thought it would have a positive impact on my family! I would definitely call this hosting experience a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that has left me equally enriched and enlightened, both personally and professionally.

What would you say to a member who’s never been to a regional event, but who’s eager to get the most out of their membership?
GA: Regional events encourage the understanding that EO offers a wide variety of personal and professional experiences. There’s so much out there beyond your own chapter— you just have to take action and explore all of the opportunities EO makes available to you. I think that’s why the RIE was such a success. We built the event around taking action and inspired members to go out of their comfort zones to personalize their EO experience. I remember on the last day of the event, an EO South Asia member asked me what the next step in his EO journey should be. I had a one-word answer: ‘University!’ To get the most out of your membership, you have to keep learning. From an engagement standpoint, regional events serve as step- ping stones toward gaining a stronger understanding of your global peers, what kind of communities they live in and how their cultures define them. Our polity slices and dices the human population by economic development, by region, and by race and color, and then packs these pieces into convenient boxes. EO’s regional events help get people out of these boxes, enabling them to break thought barriers and introducing them firsthand to the real people behind the labels. It’s a tremendous invitation to expand your global mindset, and one that should be accepted every chance you get.

To learn more about the impact of the 2014 EO RIE, visit http://blog.eonetwork.org/eorie. For more tips on hosting a regional event, please contact Gaurav at [email protected].

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