Ajay Reddy, founder of GoUNESCO: From Tweet to Global Movement

Ajay Reddy, founder of GoUNESCO: From Tweet to Global Movement

Ajay Reddy of Bangalore India is founder of GoUNESCO, a UNESCO-supported umbrella of initiatives that seeks to promote heritage tourism and understanding. Started by Ajay in 2012 as a challenge to his friends and acquaintances to visit all the world heritage sites in India, GoUNESCO is now a global program that has proven particularly successfully in engaging young people with cultural heritage attractions as well as traditional crafts, conservation sites and nature preserves.

After graduating from N.I.T. Jaipur, Ajay worked at Infosys, one of India’s most well-known software firms. He spent five years in the corporate sector followed by participation in several start-ups and entrepreneurial ventures. Ajay is refreshingly candid about hard-won early lessons and how they have informed his choices. The ability to leverage his experience is clearly working for Ajay--he is now devoted full-time to GoUNESCO, and its programs and reach continue to expand. 

Ajay started running long distance in 2009 and has run several half marathons and a full marathon. This passion led to the creation of Go Heritage Runs, which combine heritage, travel, and fitness.

Ajay embodies my own belief that the best definition of success is being true to yourself, while remaining flexible and open to the "guidance" the Universe presents. I think you'll enjoy and be inspired by this conversation with Ajay.

Meg: The oft-quoted adage that "A journey of  1,000 miles begins with a single step" seems to aptly capture the inspiration behind GoUNESCO. Can you describe how the GoUNESCO initiative came into being?

Ajay: For GoUNESCO, the journey began with a single tweet! 

In 2012, I came across a tweet of the ticket to a UNESCO World Heritage Site in India, which listed some of the UNESCO designated sites in India. I was unable to identify most of the sites, and that gave me the idea to travel to each of these sites - a personal travel plan for 2012.

But as they say, the more the merrier, I shared this idea with some of my friends - they could join me on my travels whenever they could or travel by themselves. 

To make it more interesting, I proposed awarding points for every visit and having a goal to visit all the WHS in India in 2012 - which was a challenge as there were 24 such sites across an entire sub-continent. However, this was the only rule - keeping travel flexible was essential as otherwise it would just bog everyone down. This philosophy of keeping rules to a minimum has followed in all of GoUNESCO's later initiatives.

Meg: What initially drew your interest to heritage sites?

Ajay: To be honest, I did not have a lot of interest in heritage sites until I started with GoUNESCO first as a personal travel project. Even after it started, my interest was more in the travel aspect than heritage. I would have preferred going on adventure trips or maybe even a beach, over visiting a heritage site until then. However, as the project progressed and became more than a personal agenda, I got a better perspective on the heritage landscape.

Meg: In 2010, you hitch-hiked across five states in northeast India. What was your most memorable moment?

Ajay: What I remember the best is how many strangers helped us on that journey. In Shillong, the owner of a small hotel let us stay there for free for about a week - without having even met us. Truck drivers gave us rides on roads considered dangerous - where robberies were not uncommon. In Mizoram, we were hosted by an NGO, who were put in touch with us by a person on Twitter who heard about our journey. In Agartala, we stayed with a pastor - whose contact we got from a truck driver who we spoke with for five minutes. In Guwahati, we were hosted separately by a couch surfer and a friend we made on Twitter. Everywhere we went, we found amazing people who helped us without any expectations. It was a revelation, or maybe an affirmation, that people are good.

While I already knew about Couchsurfing.com, it was a big surprise for me when people on Twitter shared our story and we found many hosts because of social media. That certainly changed my perception about social media, and I came to believe in its power of connecting people. 

Meg: I consider GoUNESCO a "visionary" enterprise for two reasons in particular. One of those is the fact that it clearly taps into universal dimensions of the human psyche, namely, man's competitive nature and, conversely, desire for community. Would you agree, and, if so, how are these factors at play in GoUNESCO'?

Ajay: GoUNESCO did begin by utilizing the competitive nature of people, but I would proffer that our initiatives have been more self goal-oriented than encouraging competition with others. The communities we have fostered grew because of these common goals. The travel challenges--where one was to travel to the most number of world heritage sites--was competitive, but it also was simply a travel plan/goal for those who were not interested in competing. Discovering one's own country was much more fun when one could get travel partners and advice from a community that has the same goal.

GoUNESCO Internship Program too has a leaderboard tracking progress of the interns. Interns work on time-bound tasks/assignments and upon successful completion, are rewarded points. Our internship is not competitive though, as the interns are expected to learn from and work closely with other interns. The GoUNESCO Internship Program is great platform for cultural exchange as the interns come from very different cultures.

GoUNESCO Interns meet up att Lodhi gardens in Delhi

GoUNESCO Interns meet up att Lodhi gardens in Delhi

Go Heritage Runs, a spin-off we started in 2015, are fun runs and not timed. However, we reward the frequent runners with a free run after doing four runs with us. The Go Heritage Runs too brings together runners, travelers and heritage enthusiasts for the event and because of their common interests, participants keep seeing each other regularly and have grown into a community. The competition here, is with oneself.

Meg: I would venture that creating platforms that appeal to conflicting motivations goes a long way to ensuring success, in that it covers the full range of instincts. Do you have a POV on this, or on what attributes are necessary for an initiative to achieve popular success?

Ajay: All products, services and platforms have a wide variety of users. In such a case, it is natural that there will be different motivations too. For example, at the GoUNESCO Travel Challenge, there were some folks who were attracted by the competitive aspect, while others took them as an opportunity to not just travel but also take time and understand the sites they were visiting.

However, I think it is very important to really know who you are building a platform, product or service for. From the wide spectrum of users of the platform, it is imperative that one knows the exact sub-section in this spectrum that one wants to focus on. It is possible that there will be far fewer conflicting motivations than if the platform were trying to serve everyone on the spectrum. In the travel challenge for example, we emphasized in the beginning that there were no prizes for winning - to ensure that a reward is not the goal, rather the process of traveling to the heritage sites is the goal.

Jai bharathi - winner of GoUNESCO Travel Challenge 2012

Jai bharathi - winner of GoUNESCO Travel Challenge 2012

While success can be defined in different ways, our idea with GoUNESCO has always been that it should be participative. We have done decently well in this regard, but I should point out that we still have a long way to go.

Meg: The other visionary characteristic is GoUNESCO's organic growth and the number of initiatives that have evolved from the original mission. Can you describe why and how the endeavor has expanded?

Ajay: GoUNESCO has certainly transformed over the years. But each time, our scope expanded or an initiative was launched because there was a need for it. 

While everyone has an interest and enthusiasm for engaging with heritage, there are very few avenues to do so. The travel challenge, which we started with in 2012, was the first such. However, a student wrote to me that they cannot afford to travel but still wanted to participate. With her help and because of her, we started the internship program in 2014.

We started a social media campaign called #makeheritagefun (MHF) in 2015 to allow creative interpretation of heritage and real world action. We started this after we were asked one question regularly by our interns - what next? The internship would get them very excited about heritage, but there were very few opportunities where they could channel their interest once the internship got over. We started MHF to be the avenue which allowed and encouraged our ex-interns to continue their engagement with heritage. At the same time, it allowed interns from different batches to meet each other and work together.

Lambayeque - Peru

Lambayeque - Peru

As for Go Heritage Runs, what better to make someone aware of heritage than encourage them to visit the site! The runs are a hook that encourages runners to travel to a place many had not thought about visiting before. With the number of runners in India growing exponentially over the past few years, a niche run series like ours seemed possible to pull off and hence we started GHR.

Meg: There is a POV that cultural heritage sites and/or designations are the domain of white-haired retirees and I think GoUNESCO is turning that perception on its head. Do you think the GoUNESCO following among young people is based on its internship program, or the other way around? Can you describe the internships, including how they are structured and evaluated?

Ajay: I believe our following among young is because we take a slightly different approach to engaging them with heritage and the freedom we give them to explore instead of lecturing them.

The internship is unusual in the sense that it educates and creates awareness around heritage through fun tasks. The tasks in turn comply with monthly themes. Previously we have had theme such as- food heritage, built vernacular heritage, intangible heritage of crafts and craftsmanship, underwater heritage etc. 

The Internship has also evolved with time. Until recently the interns were expected to go out, get first-hand experience of the cultural aspect in focus through the task, research and write an essay/ create a photo story/ documentary etc. However, we have now tweaked the model slightly. The current internship cohort is focusing on outreach and aiming to create a wider impact by involving the local community. The tasks in this internship put emphasis on interns conducting activities - photo walk, heritage walk, awareness campaigns, and food walk - that get the community to engage with their local heritage. 

Prague - Czech Republic

Prague - Czech Republic

The structure of the Internship is such that it promotes cultural exchange too. The diverse group of interns is divided into smaller clusters with 4-5 interns in each cluster. The cluster in turn interact with a Cluster Coordinator, who generally are our previous interns, who wish to continue their association with GoUNESCO post internship. The co-ordinators facilitate intra and inter-cluster communication while also helping with queries and issues raised by interns. Each cluster is also under an Editorial Coordinator, whose job is to help interns with improving their writing. 

With regard to evaluation, interns are awarded points on successful completion of the task. However, the amount of effort is awarded on to the base points as well. 

Meg: You are a dedicated long distance runner. How did you first discover this passion, and how would you say it is a metaphor for your view on life?

Ajay: I started running, and still run to stay fit. Also, running is free, which going to a gym is not - and I started running because this was the best exercise I could get for cheap after quitting my first job. However, I would not have continued running or started running long distance if it wasn't for a very helpful, close knit runners club in Hyderabad, where I used to live at that time.

There are several metaphors equating aspects of running with life, the one I personally like says life is like a marathon. There can be ups and downs along the way but perseverance pays. Keeping a slightly long term view will make bearing the downs a little easier. Also, a long term view encourages us to choose a direction we would like our lives to go in. And while a 5/10k might be easy to wing, a half or full marathon necessitates planning and following the plan. But it is also important to be flexible with the plan if circumstances change.

Meg: Like you, I opted out of corporate life to become an entrepreneur--although I was much slower on the uptake and didnt make my move for 25 years! Can you share some of your key experiences and major take-aways from the transition?

Ajay: It is commendable that you made this transition! Even more so because I think it is much easier to start up early in one's career.

However, the reason I started up were not right - and that is the most important lesson I have learned over the years. I believed that if I worked as hard as I was working at my job, I would be guaranteed success - any entrepreneur will tell you that there are many other things that need to fall into place for one to succeed.

The other important and one of the first lessons I learned was to trust actions and not words. Over the years, this has been of use more often that I would have liked and I have to thank my first associate for helping me prepare me for this--he was all words and nothing much else.

Meg: You have a desire to make GoUNESCO a global movement. Could you describe the current scope of the initiative...and describe your ultimate success scenario?

Ajay: GoUNESCO is global in its reach currently. The articles on our website are read across the world and people from over 125 cities have organized or participated in #makeheritage activities. Our goal is to make this kind of involvement in heritage by laypersons sustainable and self-perpetuating. The reason we choose to try and make heritage fun is so we can reduce barriers and encourage more people to get involved.

The ultimate success for GoUNESCO when it will not be needed at all - when every one of us realizes that we are the owners of heritage and we should take care of it, not leave that responsibility to governments, heritage organizations and academicians.

Meg: GoUNESCO's tagline is "Make Heritage Fun!" Do you think there is a perception heritage is considered "serious" or boring or nerdy?

Ajay: I think yes, the perception certainly is that heritage is a bit serious, but that is not really why we "Make Heritage Fun" as our tagline. GoUNESCO intially was geared more towards travel than heritage, and I started noticing that whenever I came across news or articles about heritage, they usually spoke about loss of heritage in one way or the other. It made me sad the first couple of times, but I slowly started growing numb towards such articles, especially because there was not much I could do about it all. And I realized this must be happening with everyone else too - one only hears about heritage only when something bad is happening, how long will one stay interested in something if all they see is depressing news?

What if we could change this - what if more people heard about heritage in a positive light? Would that keep them interested? What if they also had a way to engage with heritage on a regular basis? Would that encourage them to act by themselves to do something about heritage?

Make Heritage Fun is an attempt in this direction - we are trying to make heritage more approachable and engaging - this starts with showing it in a positive light first.

Meg: I know GoUNESCO is global, but I'd love to have you share some observations and experiences of India's heritage sites.

Ajay: India, as most would know, is a very old country. Heritage of value is not hard to find - even in large cities, it is not too difficult to find houses or buildings that are more than a hundred years old. Temples, could be even older - some of the famous ones have been and are still being used for nearly a thousand years. While Hinduism has been the dominant religion in India, it is also the birthplace of Buddhism, Jainism and has a close relationship with Islam and Christianity too. Built heritage is not limited to one style - there are several grand palaces and mosques with Islamic influence and Victorian forts too. While the grandeur of historic Indian cities and sites written about by travelers like Hiuen Tsang and Ibn Battuta does not exist anymore, it is easy to imagine what it was like in earlier days. 

At Sanchi stupa WHS

At Sanchi stupa WHS

Take for example, Hampi - a UNESCO World Heritage Site spread over 40 sq. km. It was the capital of the Vijayanagara empire between the 14th and 16th centuries which ruled most of the Deccan plateau. What one sees today are mostly ruins, but what can be appreciated even now is the irrigation system built in those days which keep the region so green and the land so productive - even though the region itself is semi-arid.

While many historic cities are just shells of their past, some cities have endured - Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Ahmedabad - our biggest cities are centuries old. Which means that even in a city, you will be able to find many sites of historic value.

If one were to travel in India on a historic journey, it would be wise to pick a narrow topic - or it would be quite easy to get lost in the immense choices available.

Meg: What is your favorite heritage site and why?

Ajay: That would be Bhimbetka - a World Heritage Site in Central India with cave paintings over 10,000 years old. I like it the most because of the rude shock I got when I discovered this site. I had already travelled quite a bit in India and thought I knew most of the important places here. However, Bhimbetka made me realise that I did not. Even though the site is just 60km from Bhopal--a city I had visited a few times earlier, a state capital and a stop for every train route between the North and South India--it hardly gets any visitors. If it had not been for GoUNESCO, I probably would never have visited Bhimbetka either.

Cave paintings at Bhimbetka

Cave paintings at Bhimbetka

Meg:  You’ve said "I refuse to wait. If I want something in this world and it does not exist, I try to create it." Do you think the drive to create is an innate gift, or can be taught or cultivated?

Ajay: I think it would be very unfortunate if the drive to create was an innate gift that could not be acquired otherwise. Whether it can be taught is uncertain, but I believe that it is only a matter of motivation and that the drive is a consequence of a strong enough motive.