Three years ago, GTZ's Business Service Aadhar started a monthly business forum in Kathmandu. The idea was to invite Nepal's leading businesspeople to talk reflectively and candidly about their lives in business with about 60 young private sector professionals. One invitee was hotelier and conservationist Karna Sakya, 62, who has since expanded his one-hour talk into a 286-page self-published book called Soch. Written in conversational Nepali with an upbeat tone, Soch (meaning: 'thought') is a collage of autobiography, travelogue, advice for young entrepreneurs, thoughts on progress that Nepal has made and suggestions about how Nepal can further live up to its potential.
Reading the book, Sakya's life has been an extraordinary one. When most of his contemporaries were happy to retire Sakya had at least three different careers: a government technocrat, a businessman and a conservationist. Born in an upper class yet traditional Newari family, he eschewed family jewelry business to study forestry in Dehradun. A job as a wildlife officer at the Department of Forests allowed this young man from Kathmandu's Asan to travel far and wide across Nepal in the 1960s, from the unexplored jungles of the tarai to the hills and the mountains of Dolpo and the Annapurna region. His innate love for nature, together with his work to start conservation parks, showed him that when it came to tourism in Nepal, 'plenty of opportunities were always around us'.
That realisation emboldened him to enter the hospitality business. He turned his home into Kathmandu Guest House, which served 'non-hippie guests' in the 1970s and eventually became the catalyst that accelerated the transformation of sleepy Thamel into a bustling tourist hub. What is remarkable today is not that Sakya is a successful hotelier, it is that his entrepreneurship was in being able to leave behind the familiarity of family business and the security of a government job to chase a potential and, in the process, help start Nepal's tourism industry from scratch. (See also: 'Karna's karma', #137)
In the 1980s and 1990s, Sakya used his growing profile to advance social causes. After losing wife and daughter to cancer, he translated grief into action to raise money through walkathons, ball dances, concerts and cigarette taxes to help build a cancer hospital in Bhaktapur. He convinced the government to set aside the year 1998 as Visit Nepal Year and oversaw co-ordinated nationwide efforts to upgrade tourism-related infrastructure. In both instances, Sakya played the role of a master salesman: someone who persuaded a wide variety of people about the merits of his ideas, won over sceptics through a combination of hard work, hustle and enthusiasm and used influence to mobilise resources to come up with solutions to public problems. Indeed, what comes through clearly in the book is Sakya's penchant for coming up with problems to solve-a desire that has not ended now that he has beaten prostrate cancer to submission.
Soch suffers from three flaws. First, it could have been better edited for language. Second, by painting a cloyingly sunny outlook about Nepal's possible future, it fails to tell us just how Sakya himself overcame specific administrative and logistical difficulties that hobble most enterprises in Nepal. And third, most of his suggestions can sound irritatingly preachy at least to the younger generation which has grown both wary and weary of naive romancing of this country's unlimited potential in, well, everything. These quibbles aside, I would recommend this book for the window it provides us to see what drives one of our most restless corporate citizens to do things that he does for himself and for us.