Who is a hero? Maybe it’s a parent. Or a teacher. Or a war veteran. Or maybe even an artist. For Phillip Julien, it was all of these things.
The son of legendary local energy pioneer, Prof Kenneth Julien, Phillip grew up with dinner table talk of greatness and never thought twice about it. It was only when he left Trinidad for Canada to study and work as a chemical engineer, and then returned again at the beginning of the century, he realised just how much of that greatness he – and much of the population – took for granted.
“That outside (experience) gave me a perspective of what an amazing country this is. This tiny parcel of land has accomplished so much with so few people. But even with all that positivity and learning from all these great people in society, I realised there’s a level of apathy and indifference that I just couldn’t reconcile,” he told Business Day recently.
So, like Batman and Superman before him, Phillip, 49, who manages his father's company Kenesjay Systems Ltd but is a self-professed comic book nerd, saw a need in society and took it upon himself to fill that gap and created a non-profit organisation dedicated to the legacy of these pillars of TT society. He called it the Heroes Foundation. And nearly 18 years later, he’s managed to continue that mission to not just inspire young people in TT with stories of this country’s home-grown heroes, but also to create a new generation of heroes.
"In a country so small, with so many accomplishments, it was just being lost on the youth. The inspiration for Heroes was to use what TT had and amplify it to inspire the youth towards embracing this concept of altruism or giving back (of) yourself to his country where you live.”
Striking the match
He pitched his idea – the Heroes Convention – to some of the people who inspired him, including his father, another energy great Trevor Boopsingh, former Fatima College principal Clive Pantin, WWII war hero and diplomat Ulric Cross and artist Pat Bishop, who, buoyed by Phillip’s passionate energy and also their urge to give back and share their experiences with the youth, agreed to be part of the foundation, including part of its advisory board.
“With names like those backing the idea it was easier to get sponsors to buy in and suddenly whatever it was in my head was finally manifesting.”
The foundation was launched in October 2002, and six months later in April 2003, the first Heroes Convention was held, featuring some of TT’s most renowned personalities. “We had heroes of sport, heroes of the environment, heroes from the protective services. And we had comic books created by local artists to tell some of their stories.”
He chose comic books, not just because of his affinity to the genre, but because he believed the format would resonate better among young people. Some heroes who’ve been immortalised in Heroes Foundation comic books include Cross and TT’s first Olympic gold medallist, Hasely Crawford.
“It was a hit, and more than that, we ended up having some of the children involved coming up to us and asking how else they could do more.”
Lighting the fire
The Heroes Foundation fundamentally exists to create the next generation of heroes from the current generation of youths.
“We do that through two youth-centric programmes, both of which are designed to encourage young people to embrace altruism from within,” Phillip said.
The first programme is youth development, which engages with children at school who are involved in structured projects – whether it be volunteering at a home for people with disabilities or participating in a beach clean-up.
“It really is to empower them into service. So, if we use the environment as an example, bring in someone to come in and talk plastic bottles and how to cut down on use and properly dispose, they internalise it and reflect that back out. And the Heroes Convention is where they can all come together to show what they’ve learnt and achieve over the year.”
The second programme is mentorship. Heroes is the local chapter of the Big Brothers, Big Sisters initiative in the US, where a young person is paired with an adult who can inspire and influence them. “It’s a safe, structured and internationally-renowned process. But it’s not only to have the young person get a mentor but for the adult to meaningfully impact the life of this young person.”
The first convention was to inspire, but now the programmes have matured, and embraced its mission to create that new generation of heroes who are self-aware about an altruistic purpose.
“We’ve come full circle, where it’s not just us inspiring the youths, but the youths inspiring the nation.”
Fanning the flames
Julien acknowledges that sometimes, given the ephemeral nature of altruism, it’s hard to measure and quantify the impact of the programme. Testimonials is one of the metrics that the foundation uses, and while naturally subjective, they are no less impactful.
He recalled a meeting at the Energy Ministry to pitch an alliance between Heroes and getting ministry support. During his presentation, quite unexpectedly, a young woman who had been part of the programme when she was younger, spoke out passionately about how the programme affected her.
“She said, ‘If you’re asking if my involvement in the Heroes Foundation changed my life for the better, then the answer is yes.’ And that first-person endorsement went a long way to convincing the minister, who could see first-hand and relate to the impact of the programme.”
Another measure is numbers. Julien estimates the youth development programme can have almost 400 participants at secondary schools, and the mentorship programme, dozens of big and little brothers and sisters at a time. The foundation also checks truancy levels among participants in programmes. Fewer school skippers means more engaged participants.
Being able to measure is critically important to the foundation’s survival since practically all of its operating budget comes from corporate sponsorship and donations. Contributions used to be great, Julien said, but though they are less, they are still good. Part of it is because of the economy. But there’s also accountability to consider and these entities want to ensure their money is being used in the best way possible.
Luckily, the Heroes Foundation has always been run as a social enterprise, with strong corporate governance and accountability.
“The NGO model worldwide is moving towards social enterprise, where a lot of them are being run like businesses. You are expected to deliver specific deliverables that you can quantify.”
TT is starting that journey and it will take a while to catch up where all NGOs are viewed as business-minded altruism.
“We’ve been successful (with accountability) I think because of my energy sector background. It never occurred to me not to set it up like a business, where everything is considered, from corporate governance to regular financial statements. And when you do that you start attracting these amazing and formidable people to be part of your board because they can see these people have their ducks in a row and they are happy to lend their name. But yes, that all started because we understood that hey, this is not our money, but other people’s money we are handling and we have to be responsible.”
Passing the torch
And just like Heroes is preparing the youth of today to be the leaders of tomorrow, Julien is ready to pass his legacy on to a new generation. On Wednesday, the Heroes Foundation announced a new CEO, Lawrence Arjoon, 30, a former adviser at Proman, and a new chairman, Joel “Monty” Pemberton, 44, De Novo's managing director, who are now charged with evolving this project. Julien will still be involved but as chairman emeritus.
“I couldn’t ask for a better team. Lawrence’s passion is what mine was 20 years ago so I know he’ll be a great fit. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Heroes go international soon.”
One first step, though, is the Heroes of Energy Youth Forum where young people from schools all over the country partnered with an experienced energy professional, at the 2020 Energy Conference, also on Wednesday, to discuss their views on the industry and policy.
The Energy Chamber, which is part of the initiative, will use the feedback from the youths, analyse it, and present their report at the Renewable Energy Conference in June.
“It’s a nice way of engaging with the younger generation. Around the world you have young people taking a hand in their future and speaking out, starting movements. This is a real opportunity for us in TT to engage the youth in a truly collaborative way.”
So just what is a hero? Well, you can’t call yourself a hero, Julien said, but if you do something to inspire another, then you could be a hero to him or her.
“I say it all the time. The country needs heroes. People who can inspire the population into believing in themselves again. This country has made great accomplishments and we are world leaders in many areas. Our people are around the world leading change. It’s time for us to find that spark within us again and to light that fire.”