Welcome to the Age of the Impact Entrepreneur
In Mike Judge’s excellent comedy series “Silicon Valley”, the much clichéd mission statement of start-ups claiming “to make the world a better place” is mocked to full effect. In one episode, a handful of start-ups line up to pitch to a panel of investors. They all conclude their presentations with the same lofty ambition, pledging to do their bit for the world.
So, why has bettering the world become a mantra for a new generation of entrepreneurs?
More than ever, today’s entrepreneurs are striving to build businesses that make a difference in the world. Businesses that make money — but pursue a path greater than just profit. Call it altruistic-capitalism, or, as I prefer, “impact entrepreneurship.”
Impact entrepreneurs are driven by a desire to disrupt the status quo. Doing their bit to push the world forward is what gets them out of bed in the morning. They believe in creating businesses that are more ethical and transparent, dislodging the dinosaurs that give the consumer a bad deal. They believe in starting businesses that make people’s lives easier, removing unnecessary complexity. Simply put, they don’t believe in selling — they believe in solving problems.
Impact entrepreneurs embody the George Bernard Shaw quote, “the reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
So, what is the importance of wealth to the “unreasonable man”? If impact entrepreneurs happen to become overnight millionaires, then the cause doesn’t stop; it just becomes more viable. PayPal founder Elon Musk made enough money by the time he was 30 to retire for the rest of his life. Instead of Ferraris and desert islands, he used his newfound funds to launch electric car manufacturer Tesla, disrupting the automotive industry forever. However, acknowledging that Tesla alone cannot save the planet from heavy emission vehicles, Musk is making public all of their patents for the advancement of the industry. The enemy is the carbon crisis, not rival car manufacturers.
Facebook has a higher market cap than the GDP of Qatar, but like Musk, Mark Zuckerberg knows that money can only bring so much happiness — and that you can’t take it with you to the grave. Despite being one of youngest billionaires in the world, he has already committed to giving away at least half of his wealth. Additionally, he is spending much of his efforts leading Internet.org, the organization to help bring the internet to the two-thirds of the planet that are not yet connected. Impact entrepreneurs do what they do for legacy, not for places on rich lists.
The late Apple founder Steve Jobs, was one of the earliest impact entrepreneurs. In Apple’s 1997 “Here’s to the crazy ones” ad (above) — undoubtedly one of the greatest commercials of all time — like-minded pioneers are described as “pushing the human race forward,” accompanied with the dialogue, “while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
It’s no coincidence that in “pushing the human race forward”, Jobs created one of the world’s most valuable companies. Dreaming big is big business.
Among the “crazy ones” featured was Virgin founder Richard Branson. Since the 1970s Branson has been the champion of the “better alternative.” From health clubs to airlines, Branson has disrupted the old guard and won the hearts, minds — and importantly — loyalty of customers by guaranteeing a better way of doing things. His philosophy is embedded firmly in the DNA of the 400+ Virgin companies operating across the globe.
Furthermore, as Branson has stepped back from running his empire, he has become a prolific ambassador for what he calls “business as a force for good.” Whether this is leveraging entrepreneurial tenacity to tackle problems that governments have failed to solve, or by launching The B Team, a not-for profit that encourages businesses to be of “social, environmental and economic benefit,” Branson is paving the way for impact entrepreneurs everywhere.
With this new approach to entrepreneurship rapidly shaping business in the 21st century, we’re on our way to business success being judged not by just profit, but through cultural impact. Subsequently, business is becoming more responsible, more transparent, more rewarding, more interesting and ultimately more fun.
Things are looking up. But please, for all our sakes, don’t put “making the world a better place” in your mission statement.
Originally published at www.wired.com on October 29, 2014.