Diversity is at the heart of what we do

Alumni in Action

Each month, the MA in Sustainable Design program invites a special guest for our Town Hall series where students, faculty, and alumni get to meet and chat with a leader in the field of sustainability or sustainable design.

This month’s guest was MASD alumni Gautam Muralidharan, co-founder and CEO of SoulWork.  Below are a few highlights from our conversation.

Tell us about your background, why you joined the program, and what you are doing today.

I grew up in India and have a background in computer science and engineering. I had always been fascinated with the arts, but my father made me get a practical degree. I wanted to go back to art school, but also wanted a degree that did more than feed my hobby, and I’m passionate about sustainability. 

My thinking has been very binary, very analytical. In the MASD program, it was great to study with very smart people with very different thinking. My thesis explored how to make supply chains more sustainable, which of course is really relevant today.  After graduation, I went back to work for PwC in cyber security, which I loved doing, but I really wanted to start my own  business.

What are some personal epiphanies you’ve had along the way?

My Dad, who is my hero, owned a small business.  It was his passion, but it was also terrifying.  He went bankrupt thrice and we lost our home four times when I was growing up.  So I looked for stability in my own career.  Later I realized that stability was nice, but I knew I would always regret not trying to start my own small business. I was really influenced by the book Advice from My 80-Year-Old Self: Real Words of Wisdom from People Ages 7 to 88.

When I was 30 years old, I decided to compute how much money I needed to be happy.  For me, it turned out to be $130,00 — which represented the combined income of me and my wife. More money might be nice, but it didn’t really contribute to greater happiness. People say that you’re happiest when you do what you love, and I definitely saw that in others.  I was happy at PwC, but I wanted to do what I love. That’s why I started SoulWork.

I’ve also learned about sharing.

When people have a lot of money, they don’t want to share.  But when they don’t have money, they are desperate to share.

Tell us about SoulWork.

It’s based on my thesis work, which was about networking small businesses, and reflects the symbiotic relationships that we see in nature. The original idea was to work with small businesses, but the timing wasn’t right for that, so our current product is for cross-pollinating within larger businesses. 

I discovered that the most powerful people in any organization are the middle managers, who tend to be territorial, paranoid, and biased. This leads to silos and inefficient use of labor and talent. So we started focusing on meeting the needs and addressing the fears of middle managers. 

How important is diversity to your work?

Diversity is at the heart of what we do. Diversity is inherent in nature, and in our own nature.  We all know that diversity and cross-pollinating are needed for resilience, but it’s hard for managers to see the value of diversity when they are most concerned with self survival. 

AI (artificial intelligence), regardless of where it is applied, is just about optimization. Because it is by machine, it is totally unforgiving. AI will always tell you to cross-pollinate. Those teams and organizations that don’t embrace diversity will ultimately not survive. 

The most important part of sustainability is building a resilient society.  That requires building diversity and symbioses. To live your own life to its fullest requires diversity even within yourself.  You are so much more expansive than your job description.  

You said you’ve been giving your software away for free to nonprofits during the pandemic.  Tell us about that.

These are coming mostly through my wife.  People want to help, but they don’t know their neighbors and who might need help. So it is being used to connect people to seniors in need. It is also being used to connect restaurants that are happy to donate meals to children who are no longer getting meals at school. Same with books.  These are all non-transactional, so no money is being exchanged.  The feedback that we’ve gotten is that this works best when the transactional value is kept out of it — then it flourishes. 

Any last words of wisdom that you’d like to share with us?

I’ve learned so much from the people I met in the program.  Reach out to me and to reach out to each other.

Thank you Gautam!

[image from dosoulwork.com/]

Denise DeLuca / Former Director

Denise DeLuca is the Director of MCAD’s Sustainable Design program. She was co-founder of BCI: Biomimicry Creative for Innovation, a network of creative professional change agents driving ecological thinking for radical transformation. Denise is author of the book Re-Aligning with Nature: Ecological Thinking for Radical Transformation, which was illustrated by MASD alum Stephanie Koehler. She also teaches with the Amani Institute.

Denise’s previous roles include Education Director for the International Living Future Institute, Project Manager for Swedish Biomimetics 3000, and Outreach Director for The Biomimicry Institute. Denise is a licensed civil engineer (PE) and holds a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering with a focus on modeling landscape-scale surface and groundwater interactions.  In addition, Denise is a Biomimicry Fellow and a member of the Advisory Council of The Biomimicry InstituteBoard Member of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP), on the editorial board of the Journal of Bionic Engineering, and an Expert with Katerva. Denise is based in Oregon.

contact:  [email protected]