A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak to the Harvard Social Enterprise group. When the 25 people in the room finally sat downóall Harvard undergrads óI asked them to go around the circle and introduce themselves. Then I asked them to tell me why they think people are poor.†Systemic issues…†Inequality that is passed down through generations…†Lack of access to education.
I noticed no one said, ìBecause people donít have a photo sharing app, or easy access to hundreds of thousands of shoes online!î And yet these are the kind of startups who the press, and in turn too many of us, say are ìchanging the world.î Letís be clear: if these companies donít help to address why people are poor in the first place, they arenít changing the world, they aren’t solving the problem of poverty. They arenít changing the policies or patterns by which poverty is created. They may be doing something charitable (or that they think is charitable), but it’s something else.
Iíve always thought doing good meant being a part of a greater system where every person is doing their part to change the system or help innovate whatís next. But this vision, understanding oneís humble place in a larger, much more complex puzzle, I fear is being quickly replaced with grand startup dreams and way too much founder hubris.†
During the Civil Rights era, Rosa Parks took a stand when she didnít move to the back of the bus, but she was also a part of a larger movement that deliberately planned to cause economic harm to racially unjust institutions. The Civil Rights Movement helped shift the world, but no one act caused all those sweeping changes. We know this, but we still talk about individual startups changing the world anyway. In my view, “change the world” language should only be applied to large movements that help shift people out of poverty. We need to remove it from startup world.†
A part of me understands founderís ego. Whenever you start something, you have to believe you’re doing the most important thing in the world because you’re constantly trying to convince stakeholders, customers, and investors that this idea can be turned from nothing into something and more than that, something BIG. You need an ego. But itís all too easy to speak in grandiose statements that take away from what should be the simple premise of your business: solving a problem for customers.
In Mike Judgeís new HBO show, Silicon Valley, founders are always talking about how their code is changing the world. Itís easy to disregard this as exaggerated satire, but this is the way people talk! It really happens, itís what many entrepreneurs really think. And this hubris is encouraged by the media. Check out the Forbes piece, “The Top 10 Start-Ups That Are Changing the World.” The list includes Airbnb, Zappos, and Square. These are good companies with impressive operations, but they should not be described as world-changing organizations.
The Boston Globe recently covered a new company, Manicube, that just raised $5 million from Bain Capital Ventures, making it easier for women in the workplace to get manicures. Itís a great business model in that is cuts out friction and brings to market something that has long been validated in the market. But in the article the co-founder has to say (you guessed it), ìWeíre trying to change the world, and make it just as acceptable for a woman to get a manicure at work as it is for a man to get a shoe shine.î Itís a sad day when this becomes the definition of world-changing business behavior. And in startup land, founders are often asked, ìHow is your new business going to change the world?î People are right to say technology has changed the world as we know it. But does one startup becoming a large company single-handedly ìchange the world?î No.
Even if our business starts to find success, we alone arenít the job creators. When corporations and startups talk about being job creators, they aren’t hiring out of the goodness of their heart. They hire because they have a customer demand they need to meet. The customer is just as much an engine as the entrepreneur. As founders, we’re just here helping to solve someoneís problem: from not having a convenient place to get a manicure to having too many t-shirts, but thatís it. No really, thatís it.†
Why is it important that we understand this? Because perhaps if we do, weíll also understand that really big change requires something totally different than what weíre doing in our individual businesses; it requires working together. Change happens gradually. Each act of resistance or creativity plays a small role, some bigger than others, in changing the world, but itís a group effort. People and communities organize and then the public and private sector shifts. Each sector plays a part in making the world a better place, but businesses, public institutions, and consumers must work together to change the living conditions of human beings living in poverty across the globe and here in the United States.
Where do we start? We might cut back the hubris. Itís not a simple pencil that lifts people out of poverty, or access to a soccer ball, or an app that changes filters on a photograph. We know poverty is a complex problem, so letís stop boiling things down to one object or pretending that we alone have the answer. It might just help us build better businesses, too.