Gurpreet Singh Dhillon, CEO, and Co-founder of Me.reka tells us about creating a shared vision of the future.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Gurpreet Singh Dhillon: The pandemic has been hard on everyone! It’s been a difficult time for our family, but the situation also provided the perfect opportunity for us to grow and overcome adversity together. I’m very lucky to have such supportive family and friends. Having that safety net to fall back on is very important in being able to jump and take risks.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Me.reka.
Gurpreet Singh Dhillon: I actually graduated with a Physics degree, and I wanted to build machines for a living. I had my own organization working on a farm oil waste management refinery, but then one of my partners, Rashvin Pal Singh, approached me to join the founding team back in 2012. That was how I became one of the four founding members of the Biji-Biji Initiative, the parent company of Me.reka.
In the early days, I was the only one on the team who could build things, so I was mainly the builder. My role has evolved a lot since then. I am now the CEO of Me.reka and an active working partner in the organization. A lot of the work I do involves strategic management, future planning, and road mapping, and implementing technology in the company to improve the work processes for every team member so we can better impact our communities. I always strive to make sure our team is equipped with the best technology so that our team can leverage off that to amplify their meaningful work.
Most importantly, my work involves thinking about how people can be inspired to feel that the work that they do is contributing to the larger vision and goal of the organization.
How does Me.reka innovate?
Gurpreet Singh Dhillon: Me.reka provides an alternative way to nurture creativity in STEAM-centric education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) ingrained with principles of sustainability. The makerspace was set up to remove all barriers to designing and making. It is a space with access to industry experts, state-of-the-art tools, and educational modules. Me.reka is where we mix the sciences, arts, and people together to allow everyone to invent and learn.
We provide innovative educational experiences to different audiences, from corporates to marginalized communities. Our aim is to nurture the talent that will lead our common future, and we have been doing so by pairing future changemakers, giving them access to a network of resources, technologies, and expertise for the means to spark innovation. Currently, all our programs, workshops, and experiences have been digitized, equipping telecommuting and collaborative tools to build engaging and valuable virtual experiences.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Gurpreet Singh Dhillon: It has been a challenge trying to increase sales throughout this pandemic, especially when our physical space is closed to the public. Me.reka is a creative hub. As a result of the MCO and the pandemic, all our accelerators, boot camps, and other educational programs were postponed. Most of our usual business activities require physical interactions, and with all that not possible due to Covid-19, our business was halted for a while.
We restructured our programs and boot camps and transferred them onto digital platforms. We have set up a ZOOM ROOM at our space in Publika, which can also be rented out or used for corporate programs, talks, or workshops. This room caters to all the digital needs from video broadcasting, webinars, online meetings, online lessons, and podcasting.
We were able to host one of our biggest boot camps, the YSEALI AdvocaSEA, all in the ZOOM ROOM! There were 80 participants from 11 different countries in the South East Asia region. The boot camp was originally supposed to be a 3-day physical program in Malaysia, but because of the sudden lockdowns and uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, we restructured it into a 3-month digital program.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Gurpreet Singh Dhillon: As Malaysia fought COVID-19, many doctors, nurses, police officers, and other critical service staff were left short-handed due to the global shortage of PPE. The frontliners lacked the medical essentials needed to ensure their safety. Simultaneously all our projects and physical programs were backtracked with little to no prospects of any future work. We realized that we could mobilize our team and our available resources to assist in the production of PPEs. The team quickly activated our network of suppliers, producers, and logistics providers to help meet this ever-growing demand for PPE equipment.
We kickstarted Phase 1 of the “Protecting Our Frontliners” campaign, which saw us utilize an NGO model of production. By engaging with the public to secure donations, we fulfilled an overwhelming amount of requests for face shields, aero chambers, and patient isolation boxes. This was not an individual effort but rather a community-driven initiative whereby numerous partners worked in tandem to leverage collective resources as a means to support those at the frontlines. This initiative was powered through our COVID-19 Relief Platform, through which hospitals and other frontline organizations were able to make requests for the PPE that they urgently required. Producers, suppliers, and logistics providers were also able to join our platform and share their resources and capacities to ensure that PPE requests were met.
An open-source methodology allowed for designs, knowledge, resources, and expertise between groups to be shared. Within days, the decentralized initiative onboarded over 30 partners wanting to contribute in their own means. Producers and makers lacking supplies from different states were connected with a network of supply chains, frontliners in need of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) were able to make requests and have them filled by various partners. The decentralized platform allowed everybody to tackle the same issue, communally and locally: global issue, local solutions.
Although this campaign strayed from the goals we had set for ourselves in 2020, it gave us an opportunity to continue doing what we do best, helping our communities. While our future growth plans were halted, there was a lot we learned about ourselves and about how we want to continue helping our communities as a result of the pandemic. The experience provided the groundwork for Me.reka’s future.
We believe in reimagining the future of making. Digitally-empowered communities with localized access to tools, technologies, and talents will allow for paradigm-shifting impact and innovation to materialize.
Hence, in the wake of our digitalization strategy and the current pandemic, Me.reka aims to build upon this decentralized platform, allowing individuals and communities to access the machines, resources, and spaces, with the talents and expertise and the designs and content towards mobilizing rapid solutions and fostering collaborative and innovative approaches.
This is the future of the maker movement. In moments of crises, it is not the singular forces monopolizing our markets that will come to the aid. Rather, it is the power and effort of the community, working in tandem and complimenting each other’s efforts, that will bring true collective impact.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are helping you navigate the crisis?
Gurpreet Singh Dhillon: As the pandemic has pushed us into making digital platforms and connections as our working routine, we have embraced the technological revolution to scale our abilities to ideate, innovate, and collaborate to continue making a collective impact. Our team’s primary forms of communication are through Zoom and Slack, where we disseminate information, discuss and plan for upcoming projects and ad-hoc tasks.
As for learning materials for our program participants, the modules and workshop-related content are all onboarded on Canvas. This is where they can join virtual classes, check their assignments and grades. The platform also serves as an opportunity for open communication between mentors and students to give and receive feedback on assignments.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Gurpreet Singh Dhillon: We don’t consider ourselves to have any “competitors.” Since we are an innovative education team, we strongly believe in the power of collaboration to reach greater levels of communal impact. By leveraging the expertise and knowledge of others, we are able to channel more meaningful content and experiences for the communities we impact.
The future of work will compel people to work together, leverage off each other’s resources, and build upon a communal capacity. Me.reka foresees more collaborative working efforts between various players across industries, with a greater need for assets and resources sharing.
The Me.reka platform that we are currently developing will empower our partners, collaborators, and competitors, allowing similar organizations to onboard their services as part of a shared network of resources, technologies, content, and expertise. The platform aims to harness collective capacities to create a multi-stakeholder platform designed to bridge gaps between innovators (changemakers, scientists, entrepreneurs, SMEs, NGOs, universities, and government agencies) and innovation hubs (research and development labs, design and prototyping studios, rapid (digital) manufacturing facilities, engineering studios, makerspaces, and universities) to create an innovation-friendly, collaborative environment.