Critical thinking

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on May 6, 2012

“I know how education can transform lives,” industry-changing engineer, successful venture capitalist and noted philanthropist Diosdado Banatao told a reporter recently, “because it transformed mine.” The story of the boy from Iguig Village in Cagayan who walked to school barefoot while his father toiled as an overseas worker is by now well-known, and well-documented.

Three things stand out for me whenever I read a news report about Mr. Banatao, or listen to him speak. When he speaks of education’s transformative impact on individuals, Mr. Banatao—in my experience—never refers to the knowledge he acquired, the skills he developed, or the research he conducted in the course of graduating with honors from high school, college, and university.

Instead, he talks of acquiring the capability of thinking critically. Mr. Banatao seems to be saying that knowledge and skills matter little if they are not accompanied by the ability to logically evaluate an idea and determine whether it has practical applications that make it worth spending time on to develop. Knowledge and skills have little relevance if they can’t be put to use to achieve practical results that provide meaningful benefits.

According to Mr. Banatao and reports on his philanthropic activities, he generously funds a number of initiatives that provide Filipinos the opportunity to acquire a transformative education, including fellowships at the University of California at Berkley. Many of Silicon Valley’s elites—and Mr. Banatao is among the elites of the elites—provide funding for similar as well as numerous and varied initiatives meant to uplift beneficiaries.

For all of them, I suppose these efforts are meant to give back, and to put their wealth to work earning a return for deserving individuals and causes. For Mr. Banatao, it seems to me that the effort is more personal. For close to half a century, Mr. Banatao has worked toward or been at the pinnacle of computer engineering success. While his star was rising, however, that of his country was falling. He would like to see that change.

Most of the startups that Mr. Banatao invests in and mentors aren’t Philippine firms, or run by Filipinos. But his philanthropic efforts appear to be directed exclusively towards his countrymen and women. There is a special caveat: Beneficiaries must not have an open application for residency or citizenship in another country. Mr. Banatao wants beneficiaries to put their ability to think critically to work at home.

There’s good reason for that requirement. Speaking recently at the 1st National Conference of Scholars of the Accelerated Science and Technology Human Resources Development (ASTHRD) program of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), Sen. Edgardo J. Angara said the Philippines has just 165 science and technology professionals (S&T)—such as scientists and researchers—for every million Filipinos.

That’s about half of what a nation needs to generate meaningful innovation. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) prescribes a ratio of 380 S&T professionals for every million population to help spur economic development. The Science Education Institute (DOST-SEI) said the Philippines lost around 25,000 S&T professionals to employment in other countries in 2009 alone.

Mr. Banatao—and other successful Filipinos—demonstrate what Filipinos are capable of, and what they can do for their country. Imagine the Philippines’ influence on global S&T if Mr. Banatao had invented his breakthrough technologies here. He reportedly encourages his children to practice what he preaches. Mr. Banatao’s two sons and a daughter have taken up post-graduate studies. He wants them to be entrepreneurs, and found a business, as well.

And, he wants them to help the Philippines.

There are many striking and admirable things about this soft-spoken over-achiever that make him a model for every Filipino entrepreneur; and all entrepreneurs, for that matter. Although perhaps not most striking, but certainly profoundly fundamental to his success, is that other than his father and mother, Mr. Banatao had no benefactor like the one he seeks to be to younger Filipinos. Sure, he had his share of breaks. But he didn’t wait around for them to happen.

Instead, he made them happen, beginning with walking to school barefoot, as perhaps tens of thousands of kids still do. Mr. Banatao didn’t wait for help. He studied. He didn’t look to government for assistance. He studied. Nor, to my knowledge, did he rely on a large, extended family for a break. He studied. Mr. Banatao seems to have understood from a very early age that if ultimate success was to be his—it was his responsibility.

This week, CNN is running a week-long special, “Eye on the Philippines” because this country is finally being seen as a viable emerging economy by analysts, economists, and commentators. It’s about time. If we make it, guess whose responsibility it will be?

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn. Copyright © 2012 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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