Daniel Epstein advises those who want to succeed to be Unreasonable

Daniel Epstein advises those who want to succeed to be Unreasonable

Junior reporters Anirudh Kannan and Winnie Lee find out what it takes to become a '30 under 30' entrepreneur

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"Being unreasonable is standing up for what you believe in the face of scepticism," says Unreasonable founder Daniel Epstein.
Photo: Jonathan Wong/SCMP

What Would MacGyver Do? … reads a blue wristband that hangs on Daniel Epstein's wrist. A trivial accessory that would go unnoticed by most, it sums up Epstein's way of life.

Some might describe secret agent TV character MacGyver's escapades as miraculous, ingenious, or even verging on the fantastical.

Epstein would call them Unreasonable.

Along with co-founders Teju Ravilochan and Tyler Hartung, Epstein created the Unreasonable Institute, which helps budding social enterprises develop.

At the institute, several social entrepreneurs are selected to undergo a six-week "incubation" process at its headquarters in Boulder, Colorado, in the US.

Epstein, 31, has been included in the Inc. Magazine's 30 under 30 and Forbes' Impact 30, a list of 30 of the world's top social entrepreneurs, alongside Virgin Group billionaire Richard Branson.

He has also been recognised as a World Entrepreneurship Forum "Entrepreneur for the World" - a prestigious award he accepted alongside Branson and the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

An unreasonable philosophy

Epstein credits his unique worldview, in part, to having majored in philosophy at university.

It was the following George Bernard Shaw quote that would drive his life's work: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

His personal take on the quote is, "Being unreasonable is standing up for what you believe in the face of scepticism", he tells Young Post.

Epstein's story is not just about success, though: his view on failure, too, is inspiring.

"Failure is only failure if you don't start or if you stop. Everything else is a necessary lesson learned on the way to your ultimate success," he says. "So if you change the definition of failure - that failure is not starting or giving up - then it's very easy to persist through all those 'failures' because those 'failures' aren't failures, they're lessons learned."

He's certainly experienced his fair share of failure. Epstein and his team were nearly finished setting up the Unreasonable Institute in Nigeria when they were forced to stop working in the local community they intended to serve. Epstein was also sued.

Painful experience

"We felt like we were just trying to do good, and yet somebody was trying to sue us. We had to shut [a pilot programme for the Unreasonable Institute] down, and that was really painful. I went into an episodic depression," he says.

"I didn't eat, I didn't sleep for weeks, because I felt like this thing I'd worked four years on was just gone, and I had no idea why, really."

Being in debt, however, does not count as failure for Epstein. "I'm still personally in debt by a couple of hundred thousand dollars. I should be out of debt by the end of the year, but I've been in debt for eight years," he says.

"Not because we haven't made money - because every penny that we make, I put back into the organisation to try to make it grow faster - I've never taken a salary."

A grassroots entrepreneur

His drive may have come from having to earn his keep since he was 10. "I did the one thing that I really love, which was mowing lawns, cutting grass, landscaping, being outside and working in the dirt. It's the perfect thing for a 10-year-old to start," he says.

"People are like, 'OK, great! This 10-year-old wants to work on my property, I'll give him US$5 an hour' - but then you build that up and start making US$25 an hour, US$30, and then you can hire your friends and you can pay them US$10 an hour. That became my first 'small business'.

If Epstein has his way, a huge number of people will be aware of the Unreasonable Group, and even more will benefit from it. That's why he's surrounded himself with "entrepreneurs who were foolhardy enough to think that they could change the world, but determined enough to stop at nothing short of that".

Whatever happens next, he's certainly made the world a more unreasonable place - and that's a good thing.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Be unreasonable

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