Karl Leahlander is the owner, co-founder and CEO of Youpal Group. His vision is broad and his desire to create change high. Climbing up the ladder in various large corporations, Karl decided to take the leap only 4 years ago to create the world’s first ‘Digital Culture Infrastructure Enabler’ company. What does this mean? It means he’s creating a country, a republic in the clouds where 25 million people will one day be employed. Pipe dream? More like Cloud dream, though something that may not come to fruition in his lifetime. But that is no deterrent. The idea is to begin creating the foundations, the structures and spread the ideology to reach this goal, even if it takes another generation or more to do so:
“It’s a belief that if you want to do change, you should do it with a mindset of making as many people benefit from it as possible. So the 25 million figure… if I could reach that level, I would be able to see the impact. But I am more likely to die before I do. But maybe my kids or their children will have the possibility to see the 25 million. And how I came up with that figure is that I started looking at the industries and concepts which are out in the world. The BPO sector, which is big in India, I saw was doing something like $75 billions’ worth. And then I studied how much aid Africa receives and how many people live on that continent – which is about 1.2 billion. Then I looked at the demographics, things like 60-70% of the entire African continent is less than 43 years old. This means there is a huge potential to do the same journey as other continents have done.
If India had been one of the countries still requiring foreign aid, they could have never built that prosperous middle class. When I met with some of the government representatives in Africa, I told them they could do such a frog leap. We know there is a shortage of developers in the world, people who can take ideas and make them a reality. Let’s take the example of Elon Musk. Even if he gets an idea, he still needs thousands of people working to make it concrete. That means demand for labour will keep coming.
If we therefore take a look around the world we can say, well, India has been able to do it and the demand is increasing for Indian labour. The people’s standards of living in the country are improving. There are many people there who no longer want to be paid $10 an hour, but $40-80 an hour as their counterparts with the same skill sets somewhere else in the world. Some Indian companies are therefore trying to mitigate this by exploring other parts of the world – such as north and east Africa – to try and find talent who can work in the $10-20 dollar price range.
The BPO solutions and structures which exist in India… that is so massive and has such a stronghold in the world nowadays, but that wasn’t the case 50 years ago. But now, that country has a population of 300 million people living on the highest rung of the middle class in the world. That means that 30% of India is the same as the entire United States. The Indian middle class has already achieved what Americans are still aspiring at, so to speak. Americans are still living on their historical prosperity of the 50s, 60s and 70s, post WW2.
With all of this said, I want to show that this is where you can create the impact. With Africa’s young population and the backbone of the internet being at the rim of the continent, there is a real opportunity here. That’s enough for Africa to take over 10-25% of what India is doing in BPO. That can easily be injected into one of the poorest regions in the world. There are tremendous differences in Africa as well. Some countries are more developed than others, while within the same more progressed countries, there are scarcity pockets. Even so, if you inject the possibility of going to work for $10 an hour in that region, that would instantly improve their quality of life.”
Many countries evolved to their industrial stage following defining moments of history. For the Western World, these are the two World Wars. Karl explains how these turning points can be replicated in other regions in the world. In fact, the historical baseline from his own family and native country is what is inspiring him to bring about the change he would like to see in the world.
“If you look at the 1st and 2nd world war, some countries were left in a poor economic state. However, despite the impact of the war, they were able to rise because of the pre-existing industrial development. We do know, for example, that the industry in Germany in the early 20th century led to economic development and wealth. Countries which weren’t as involved in the war were able to build their industries quite fast. That’s the case for Sweden which had been one of the ‘poorer’ countries prior to the war. For example, over a million Swedes left between 1850-1930 to seek a better life in the USA – that’s north of 20% of the population during that time!
My grandfather, for example, was actually very poor while growing up, in comparative terms to the rest of the world. The Swedish education system handed him opportunities after the war, given that Sweden suffered less from the impact of the conflict. So, he got the opportunity to educate himself. And he took himself all the way to become the Technical Director of a big paper company. That of course changed my mother’s life and our family’s life, as opposed to what my grandfather had while he was growing up. He could give something to his children, whereby they could actually think about their future in a different way. My mother chose to be a nurse, my aunt chose to be an engineer… and these choices wouldn’t have been possible if there was no middle class which had emerged at that time. This shows how the things that we can do usually have a baseline from some historical event. I looked at that and I thought to myself that if I really want to create impact, I have the knowledge, the network and the capacity now to do so.
Here is how I see things: education systems borrowed the grading system of meat to define which people were better qualified to work in factories. So, that grading system – A to F – was uplifted from the meat industry and adapted to education systems across the world, which today is in governments’ control. That has been the accepted belief for decades. Moreover, people still have to go to school for 12 years before they can put themselves through a higher learning cycle. This thought too persists today – the narrative being controlled by governments, without reflecting on reality.
Where you want to create the impact is by telling people – and making sure they hear you – that this is no longer the case. Nowadays, to be able to code, a person only needs reading, writing and mathematics. Progressing from single-finger tapping code to moving across your keyboard like on a piano can be achieved quite rapidly. Even though not everyone will end up being a coding prodigy, they will be comparatively as qualified as those who were judged proficient enough to handle machinery in the factories of the industrial period.
Just as those children brought up during the full industrialisation era, when their parents earned enough for food and shelter, children today growing up in the true digitalisation area will have these same chances. They will have the opportunity to dream big, thinking less of survival and more of what they want to become in the future: doctor, nurse, etc. Basically, if you want to break poverty, you need to create a middle class. If you take 10-15% of the BPO which is out in the world, concentrate and inject in the West African region, we know that a lot of the poverty would be gone due to the fact that compensation would go directly to the people and the workers – the new middle class – and not elsewhere. So, that’s my goal and that’s how I came up with the 25 million figure.”
The ‘25 million’ isn’t a pipe dream for Karl. It’s a Cloud dream. Indeed, he had the vision and very pioneering understanding that creating a virtual world would allow more freedom and social mobility. It would also eliminate the geographic impediments to create the opportunities of employment for those who need it most today.
“If I have the possibility to buy a piece of land and dream of building skyscrapers, I need to start with the infrastructure. I need to build the roads, the harbour, railways and so on to be able to have the environment I aspire to. A lot of companies don’t understand that owning your own cloud, if you want to be playing in the field of IT, is conceivably the only way to do it. If you want to be able to build that kind of infrastructure foundation and build applications which can support this dream of 25 million… or the dream of making healthcare accessible to everybody… or the dream of global access to education, those dreams that I have with the companies that we [Youpal Group] has. Then you need to build the support system for it, which is our cloud. That is the foundation, where we can build applications on top of the cloud.
The metaphor is like land that you build on: roads, ports etc. The applications are the buildings. So, there’s a building which is like a factory where we plug in a lot of people who work in IT. Then we do the same thing with healthcare and pump in enough people to work in that sector. The same with education and so on. All of this is virtual, of course. Basically, I am trying to build my own virtual world and for that I need a solid foundation. It makes it easier than building on someone else’s cloud where I cannot expand freely, where I have to be at their mercy for any kind of development. To not be in that situation and also to have control for the future, that’s why I want to have a cloud. It’s a cornerstone, in that sense.”
These are just part of Karl’s ideas. His cloud, his 25 million jobs and his dream of a better world for his children and theirs are what keep him working round the clock. With this, he manages family time and prioritises his 3 daughters. He also is planning a pathway into politics. That doesn’t mean he leaves his million ideas behind. He is a balancing act in himself and does it in a way which is inspiring for those who share his life, but also those who work with him.
“It’s a calling, really. My work isn’t something I do for economic profit. I haven’t taken a salary from the company. I’ve built it out of pure passion. I would say it even goes beyond the passion, it’s something that I need to do. If I don’t do it, I will regret it for the rest of my life. And that’s worse, for all the people around me, if I didn’t chase this. I am a lucky man to have a wife who supports and understands me, and who also is an entrepreneur. I am really not building this for myself, but for my kids, so that when they grow up, there is a different kind of world. My ambitions are not stopping here, I want to go for a political career. How I will do it, I don’t know… but it’s needed. I can’t do it in Sweden, since the arena for impact is too small – so maybe the EU is the right platform, which is moreover accessible to me as a European. I want to address the issues people aren’t addressing because they’re uncomfortable. For example, if we take a look at our own company, how can similar entities be allowed so much freedom in dealing with AI? Not everyone has the intentions we have to create a positive change and impact. So, how can this field be as unregulated as it is today?
With the cloud and the applications which we are building now, I can inject more into the next level of whatever I need to develop. That could be anything, that could be something – for example – which is more of a type of an NGO. We have something which is called Youpool, which is the biggest dream we have with my co-founders and partners James and Ruben (in the Youpal Group). We are just at the beginning of our journey and feel we’re perhaps a bit old for it and that we won’t see a lot of things through. But here’s how we see it: if our business is going to last, it does need to have the foundation – again let’s call it infrastructure – and in that sense, we can start small and scale fast to become big. We just need to have the ground/cloud under our feet. Then, we just need to take it to a level where it becomes its own being and we can step out and things will continue to grow. That’s our goal and we will still try and take ourselves to that kind of level.
How is that reflecting on my family? It’s something that my family has to buy into. My wife and I own a company together, which I think is helping us – even though we are working constantly, 14-18 hours a day. Sometimes we have to remind each other to pause. We also communicate a lot on interpersonal relations in the company… and these are the things we care about. We also include our children, they are part of our life and our work. My children come to the office, they remain close by where I can interact with them for five minutes whenever I want to. They know Daddy’s working and they’re watching TV or doing their homework. I can also be there helping with homework. Compared to my own parents, I am more present than they were, even if they had a 35 to 40-hour work week.
My kids are with me most of the time. They are free to ask questions or just tell me things like: “Dad, we haven’t seen you for a week. We don’t want you to work today.” I adapt to that. I can work in the morning, spend the day with them etc. One week a year, I take them away to spend alone time with them. Then it’s only Daddy time. I just need to prioritise them. I can’t just hand them to someone else. I need to prioritise and they know it, they feel it because they see I am not answering that call because I am 100% taking care of them at that point. We certainly don’t shy away from our ambitions in front of our girls. We include them and show them Mummy and Daddy really want to achieve something.”
Read Part 2 of Karl Leahlander’s interview in next week’s issue of Uteckie.