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View from US: Learn to say no!

April 08, 2012

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” Only the ‘father of physics’ could have converted such a profound thought into this one-liner. Albert Einstein chose a path that allowed him free rein to his imagination and just look what he discovered: E = mc2, best known as the mass-energy equivalence formula. Permit me to add two more words to Einstein’s timeless quote: courage and righteousness with a subtext ‘youth.’ Now we have a perfect formula for saving the world from greed, corruption, banality and mediocrity.

Two men, in their early 30s from two different worlds, cultures and religions can rightly be called the warriors of new frontiers where few have ventured forth. They are Gregg Smith, a South African and Salman Khan, a Bangladeshi-American. The closest they come to each other is their Ivy League education and chosen profession. Smith went to Stanford and later worked as an investment advisor for America’s oldest banking institution Goldman Sachs. Salman, better known as Sal Khan got three degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard Business School and became a hedge fund analyst. A couple of years later Khan and Smith chucked their jobs disdaining the money-making megabucks accumulating game only for reasons of the heart.

Until the morning of March 14, 2012, Greg Smith was a faceless mid-level money manager at Goldman Sachs. He was good at his job but then Goldman Sachs has many geeks smarter than Smith. I opened the New York Times opinion page to read my favourite columnist Maureen Dowd, the woman who spares nobody worth castigating. Dowd was pushing Hillary Clinton asking Obama to step aside and let the secretary of state instead fight the presidential election this November. Clinton was the champion of women’s rights around the world and in America. Before I could finish the single column streaming all the way down, the morbid illustration of vultures feeding on the carcass of their victim with another flying atop caught my eye. The vultures were all over the Op-ed page and bang in the middle was the title: “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs.”

Smith opened the column with “Today is my last day at Goldman Sachs.” The rest of the story detailed how money-grubbing behaviour by fund managers was rewarded by the bosses. Smith was the whistle-blower who revealed everything that was to reveal. The bosses were like vultures feeding on their clients, often laughing and joking with each other after ripping them off. Smith wrote about the orders that he and others were handed down to dupe their wealthy clients:

“Execute on the firm’s ‘axes,’ which is Goldman-speak for persuading your clients to invest in the stocks or other products that we are trying to get rid of because they are not seen as having a lot of potential profit, ‘Hunt Elephants’. In English: get your clients — some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t — to trade whatever will bring the biggest profit to Goldman.” The clients were given nicknames for swallowing whatever lies they were fed. And for their ‘stupidity’ they were called “muppets” by five different managing directors over internal e-mails.

When Smith’s column in the NYT appeared, Goldman Sachs stock fell. The ripple effect has just begun at the Wall Street. Much more damage is to follow. Smith knows no one will ever hire him again; he also knows that he could lose his stock options and hence a chunk of money. But he does not care. He is a free man, who many call their hero. Indeed, he deserves the title. Publishers are trying to interest him in a book deal.

Sal Khan, 35, began tutoring his niece Nadia long distance. She lived in New Orleans and was struggling with her grade seven algebra. Sal who was in Boston began posting the lessons on YouTube for others to benefit. Today, more than 100 million have tapped into this free web site making Khan the most-watched teacher in the world. His best-known student is Rory, the 11-year-old son of Bill Gates, the world’s second richest man.

“This guy is amazing,” gushed Gates. “It is awesome how much he has done with very little in the way of resources.” Rory and his two siblings learn their lessons ranging from algebra to biology courtesy Khan’s online tutorials. A very beholden Gates presented Sal with $1.5 million for his non-profit Khan Academy that had its beginnings in a walk-in closet at Sal’s modest home in Silicon Valley.

The lessons on math, science and history have captivated not only Gates, but earned million-dollar donations from Google and other Internet powerhouses. Khan hopes to revolutionise the way education is imparted around the globe. His dynamic approach is already being tested in some American schools.

While most hits are from the US, followed by Canada, England, Australia, and India to Sal’s tutorials, “Khan Academy holds the promise of a virtual school: an educational transformation that de-emphasises classrooms, campus and administrative infrastructure, and even brand-name instructors,” writes the Fortune magazine. Sal told Fortune: “One of the powerful things Bill Gates told me is ‘Learn to say no’. You don't have to make everyone happy. I've also learnt by observing how deeply he (Gates) goes into anything he cares about. How well he knew the nuances of my product.”