So, is literally everybody changing the world now?
It’s time to cut the bullshit and aim for real impact
In your wildest dreams, what will you achieve? Ideas that change the world? Will you think bigger and go further, alongside people who care and who dare? Our purpose is to build trust in society and solve important problems. Help build the future. Make a difference your way.
Copy from Year Here’s new prospectus? Nope. It’s actually an amalgam of the careers pages of Deloitte, PWC and Accenture. Banks, consultancies and accounting firms have long cottoned on to the fact that a ‘change the world’ call to action attracts top talent.
Hilary Cohen, a high-achieving, socially-minded twenty-something from Texas, is profiled in Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas. Cohen’s case is classic. In the long term she wants to do good but, rather than join government or a nonprofit, she is enticed by the recruitment methods of big business. So she does a summer internship at Goldman Sachs and later becomes an analyst at McKinsey. As Giridharadas explains:
“She liked the idea of going to a boot camp for solving problems at scale, which is how the campus recruiters framed it. The overwhelming share of McKinsey clients are corporate, but the recruiters, knowing the mentality of young people like her, played up the social- and public-sector projects.”
In our own research with Bain (yes, I see the irony too) we found that even socially-minded undergraduates ranked ‘building a skill set’ and ‘doing something seen as prestigious’ as more important than ‘having an immediate social impact’ in the first two years after graduation. Received wisdom is that the best route to social impact is to apprentice in the tools of business first.
I see the elusive promises of consulting, banking and tech seducing socially-minded people all the time, including many of the 10,000 people who’ve come into Year Here’s orbit since 2012. It’s so easy to get whipped up by an industry’s hype and lose sight of what you really want to do with your career.
Perhaps the worst offender when it comes to using the language of social change to describe regular commercial activity is tech. Grand social missions like “to build community and bring the world closer together” and “to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more” sound amazing but do they really reflect the work of Facebook and Microsoft?
What’s missing from the glossy marketing copy is the ugly truth about big tech. Many establish their operations in tax havens and only tiny proportions of their profits end up in world governments’ coffers. In 2017, Amazon paid £4.5m in UK tax despite sales of £8.7bn, and Google paid £49m tax on sales of £7.6bn. In the last decade the five tech giants — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft — collectively acquired over 500 companies. They are not the entrepreneurial mavericks they’d have us believe they are; they are monopolies. Some tech companies — Uber, Deliveroo and the like — dodge their responsibilities to protect their workforces by defining them as contractors, not employees. And, of course, there’s Facebook’s involvement in the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit vote. Just today, the UK Government’s report on fake news concluded that Facebook “intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws”.
Back in 2014, I was quoted in The Observer urging smart, entrepreneurial people to solve problems that matter rather than creating yet more apps that makes middle class lives marginally more convenient. In the past few years, Silicon Valley natives have called out the big visionary talk of the industry and even Google’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt, has said “for every app that might focus on tackling homelessness or the refugee crisis, there are 100 that enable generic ecommerce.” At the same time, the last few years has seen the Valley churn out a $400 WiFi-enabled juicer that works slightly less well than the human hand and an Uber-for-helicopters startup for when you’ve just got to get to Monaco and didn’t get your shit together in time.
It may be unfair to point to the irresponsible, unaccountable behaviour of big tech and the fatuousness of a few Silicon Valley startups to paint a negative picture of a whole industry. There is a lot of genuinely positive stuff going on (see much of the portfolios of Emerge, Bethnal Green Ventures, Learn Capital and Entrepreneur First, for example). But the fact remains that there is a huge mismatch between the sector’s change the world big talk and its collective impact, both positive and negative.
So, reader, perhaps you’re working on a consulting case to improve the profitability of a global mining company or pulling another all nighter to build a new tech product you just can’t find a way to believe in. Perhaps you’ve had your epiphany moment and you know that something doesn’t sit right.
When you’re considering your next move, look beyond the grandiose world-changing, difference-making language of your potential future employer. Don’t believe the hype.
Instead, think deeply and critically about your potential for real, positive, lasting impact in this world of ours. Find a purpose that will get you out of bed in the morning and let you sleep easy at night. To bastardise the words of Saul Alinsky and Martin Luther King: imagine the world as it should be, then straighten your back and work for it.