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Foundation Day 2020 | Guest Speaker in Focus
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BGS Old Boy Arjuna Kumarasuriyar ’98 addressed the Foundation Day Assembly as guest speaker in February. He was introduced by BGS Head of English Greg Howes – an old school friend. Now working in the cutting-edge field of genomics, Arjuna gave an inspiring speech about the impossibility of predicting the future, the lessons he learned at school outside of the classroom, and why we should all find our why. Here is an edited transcript.

“Greg Howes and I were catching up last night and commented on how this moment would have absolutely blown the minds of our student selves: Mr Howes as the Head of English introducing me as the Foundation Day speaker. I couldn’t have asked for a better illustration of how you really can’t predict the future, which incidentally, is the theme of my address today.

Twenty-one years have passed since I left school, but the memories are still so clear. I certainly don’t feel old or accomplished enough to be addressing you today. So, I want to begin by expressing how very humbled I am to be here, and I want to thank Mr Micallef for his kind invitation. I certainly hope I can do the legacy of this special day justice. 

‘What do you plan to do when you leave school?’ Is anyone in Year 12 sick of that question yet? When I look back to 1998, it really was: ‘Which university course should I do? What job will I get? How much will it pay?’ And because you are BGS students, there are expectations. ‘I’ll do Law to be a lawyer’, ‘I’ll do Engineering to be an engineer’. In my case, it was ‘I’ll do science, to do medicine to be a doctor’. Let’s just say the story took some turns along the way.

Let’s start at the end. Mr Howes mentioned I work for a tech company called Illumina. To put the transformative nature of our technology into perspective, the first human genome cost about $3 billion and about 10 years to complete. Today, 20 years on, my company can sequence a human genome for less than $1000 in a matter of hours. Because of our strong focus on innovation, we’ve been rated as one of the 50 smartest companies in the world for several years, alongside Apple, Amazon, Tesla and Google. I’ve been with the company for 12 years, and I’m now their head of Commercial Operations for Asia Pacific. My job is to help people working in one of the smartest companies in the world, work even smarter. My team does this by finding new tools, better processes, and improved insights. We also enable training to make the organisation more efficient and effective at improving human health by unlocking the power of the genome. 

Let’s recap - I just mentioned words like genomics, Illumina and Commercial Operations. These words didn’t exist when I finished school in 1998. The company I work for was founded in 1999, the $3 billion human genome project was published the year after that, and my current role has only been around for about five years. So, let’s rewind to that question: What do you plan to do when you leave school? How do you plan to work in an industry that barely exists, for a company that hasn’t been created, and work in a job that no one has heard of?

The answer is you don’t. Well, not really. You definitely have a plan, but you soon realise that this plan is the plan, until there is a new plan. You embrace the non-linear career path, one that says, ‘Just because I did a PhD doesn’t mean I have to be a researcher for the rest of my life’. The degree you do doesn’t dictate what you spend the rest of your life doing; it’s just the start. For instance, I’ve had three major phases of my career so far, and today I’d like to share with you three key lessons associated with each. I’ll try to focus on the areas that are less obvious too. For instance, there is a very good reason the motto of this school is Nil Sine Labore. It’s a fact. Some people find that out the easy way, others the hard way.

Lesson 1

The first phase of my career was as a researcher. Doing a PhD can be a pretty lonely experience - you do long experiments, often on your own, and most of the time, the experiments fail. You need persistence and a lot of self-direction. But there were experiences at school that prepared me for this phase of my life in ways I could not have expected. For example, I started school in Sri Lanka, and when I returned to Australia in Year 5, I couldn’t read a note of music. I had missed out on all the foundational music theory and the opportunity to learn an instrument that my new peers had. I remember getting a half a mark out of 10 in my first music test. I was hopeless. Fast forward to starting Year 8 at BGS, and I got to seize the missed opportunity to learn a musical instrument. I started learning the clarinet. I failed a lot, but I persisted. I practised a lot, on my own. I eventually got into Concert Band 1, and the orchestra, and joined a few choirs along the way. I even got the opportunity to conduct the Grammar Philharmonic Orchestra in my senior year. 

What was surprising though, wasn’t just the lesson of persistence that I learned from the BGS Music program and the School’s fantastic cocurricular activities. You see, my PhD wasn’t smooth sailing for another reason – the lab I was in had a very toxic organisational culture. The scientists didn’t really respect each other or trust each other or share a common goal. You guys have organisational culture too, except you call it school spirit. It gives you something you all share, a fabric that binds you and gives you a sense of belonging. It gets you through the training, the rehearsals, the daily practice. It’s a network of people who push each other along but are proud of what they create together. That lab had some very smart people, but they lacked culture, lacked spirit, and as a result, didn’t achieve much. So, my first lesson while at this school: embrace its spirit. When you leave, continue to seek to belong – to an idea, to a place, to others. It will get you through the failures and give you the resilience to keep persisting. 

Lesson 2

On to my second lesson and the second phase of my career. When you gain a sense of belonging, it changes your attitude and drives your motivation. You find the courage to try new things because people believe in you. You readily adapt, and so you learn. About a year after I finished my PhD, I got a phone call from a sales rep who used to sell me lab equipment asking if I would ever consider a sales job. I wasn’t sure, but he thought I had what it takes to be great in sales, even though I had no skills or experience. So, I went to the interview, they offered me the job and so began a seven-year career selling and marketing Illumina’s genomics technology to researchers and clinicians across Asia. I wouldn’t have had that opportunity if I didn’t connect with someone who believed in me, and that’s something I learned at BGS. Take the wonderful people sitting behind me. Take it from me: you will never find a group of people outside your immediate family so willing to selflessly help you be successful without wanting something in return from you. Embrace their help and guidance while you have this fleeting chance. 

Your fellow students can have a remarkable effect on you too. When I was in Year 8, the Captain of Cross Country addressed us about joining the team. He said it didn’t take talent, just guts to keep trying. It inspired me to sign up. Another student who was also signing up looked at me and said ‘Are you really going to sign up? Can you even run that far?’. I signed up, but sadly never turned up. I let those words get to me and I was convinced it would be too hard. Two years later, the belonging I had found in the Music program had led to new friendships, and as luck would have it, a bunch of them were cross country runners. They encouraged me to give cross country a try because they wanted to share that experience with me. It didn’t matter if I was good – we could train together to be better together. It changed my attitude, gave me confidence, gave me courage. And I kept running until in senior year, I managed to finish 48th at the GPS championships in the 8km Open race - not outstanding, but the single fastest run of my life. I still enjoy running immensely to this day. BGS really does offer some fantastic cocurricular opportunities, some which you will never get a chance to try again. Give them a go, adapt, always be learning. That’s my second lesson: Try new things. It will prepare you to embrace those unexpected phone calls and opportunities that take you in a different direction. 

Lesson 3 

Onto the final stage of my career thus far and my last lesson. I ended up in Operations five years ago because I was frustrated that my company lacked the processes and tools to get our jobs done. We were growing too fast, and I wanted to enable people like me to do their jobs better. But ever since changing jobs, I have questioned my choice to leave a promising career in a high-profile job like sales, to go to a role that worked behind the scenes as an unsung hero. At times, it felt like my career took a massive step backwards. That changed when I came across an author named Simon Sinek, who wrote a book called Find Your Why. I’ve spent the past six months defining my ‘why’, and helping others in my company find theirs. Through that journey, I have reflected on the turning points in my life. 

At school, I was lucky to achieve consistently good grades, but when I was in junior school, Science was my weakest subject. So, confusingly, I picked the triple science death trap in senior of Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Biology ended up being my weakest subject, and once again, I ended up signing up to do biological sciences at university. Clearly something was drawing me in that direction. Then at uni, I ended up picking Biotechnology over medicine because I thought, ‘Why help patients over a lifetime being a doctor when you could create a product that saves millions of lives long after you are gone?’ Now I do Operations because I can help so many others help our customers use our life-saving technology than being limited to working with a few customers directly myself. 

It has since dawned on me that my why is to keep finding better ways for people to do what they do, so that more people can spend more time and energy adding value to others. It’s why I’m so glad to be here right now. As you are seeking your sense of belonging, learning to be adaptable to try new things, I implore you to find your why. Your why gives your what purpose and meaning. Work isn’t work if it really means something to you. Not to others, not what your parents expect of you or what you think a BGS education should lead to. Your why should be what drives you, and it absolutely needs to be about the difference you make to others. Best of all, you don’t need to know your why now. You get to spend the rest of your life exploring to find it. 

I want to end by proposing that your time at school is really an apprenticeship for life. You may think that so much of what you do at school is completely useless and irrelevant. You may choose not to try or participate because of this. In reality, at school you are practising critical skills you need later in very unexpected ways. So yes, study hard, get good grades. But BGS is about the balanced, well-rounded Renaissance man for a reason. Try your hand at sports, the arts or challenging academic situations even if you aren’t sure you’ll be any good. Constantly ask what your evolving passions are and why they are important to you. And accept the generosity of others, particularly your teachers. If you seek to belong, seek to try new things, and seek to find your why, all these experiences will count. As they say, life is a journey not a destination. You’ll have your best experiences when you don’t travel in a straight line; this has certainly been the case for me. 

Thank you very much, and I wish you every success in your bright and exciting futures."

  • The Grammarian - April 2020

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