Learning from the Valley, Building Our Own Impact (Part I)

I recently returned from a short weekend vacation to the Bay Area to visit some friends and family. Compared to other cities, I always get a feeling that’s wholly unique to the Bay region when I travel there. I would guess a lot of it stems from being in the innovation epicenter of the world, where countless small companies have hatched and grown into international giants, including a select few that seem to be even much more than that (looking at you Apple, Facebook, Amazon, etc…). But it’s more than tech innovation that’s growing there.

We are living in an age where it is not uncommon to see our most successful entrepreneurs double as leading philanthropists and change agents for some particular cause they care about, channeling the dynamism and innovation that exists inside the Valley and applying it to some unmet domestic or global need. This makes sense for many reasons, the first and most simple being values based consumerism. Selling a high-quality product and/or service is generally speaking not enough to attract and retain customers anymore. Equally important is your corporate reputation, which unfairly or not usually follows the head of the snake (case and point: Uber). The more compelling human narrative has something to do with effective altruism: the most elite members of society from a resource perspective are committing those resources to benefit the largest amount of people possible across the world…pretty fascinating if you ask me. 

What does this mean though? What is the significance in the Zuckerberg’s and Moskovitz’s of the world committing both their attention and seemingly infinite amount of resources to these pressing issues? And the most important question: is it working? Does their previous success lend itself more towards progress and solutions or is it just a validation of their can-do, progress conquering attitude that helped them become business magnates in the first place? Can it be both?

The easy and probably most accurate answer is that it is indeed a mix of both. It is not difficult to find examples of failed inventions, projects, initiatives, etc.… that were born out of the innovation seeking, high risk slinging attitude characterized by the titans of the tech industry. Common examples that people are quick to point to:

  •    Soccket – a rubber soccer ball equipped with internal batteries that charge kinetically and power an LED light.
  •    PlayPumps – a merry-go-round that simultaneously pumps and delivers water to drought stricken villages in Africa.
  •    Samasource – a NPO that outsources menial yet complicated data checking and transcription services that are broken down enough into graspable tasks for women and disadvantaged youth in poverty stricken villages.

While beautifully designed in theory, all of these efforts have had their own flaws that have made integration and adoption difficult, such as price point, functionality flaws, and lack of technical skills inside the target demographic relatively speaking for the three examples above. To experts in the public development sector, these are tangible examples of the distance that still exists between the do-gooder types of Silicon Valley and creating actual on the ground impact. The most obvious reason for this: a lot of the innovation and technology is incubated, analyzed, and tested in a vacuum. That is to say, nowhere remotely close to where the product and/or service is actually needed.

It’s important to note however, that the public development sector and bureaucratic government organizations tasked with leading this charge aren’t immune to failures either. In fact they’re accustomed to it. It’s in the nature of trying to address such chronic and pervasive domestic and global issues. 2.4 billion people worldwide still live on less than $2.00 a day, despite extreme poverty seeing the biggest drop in human history over the past decade. After understanding this and sifting through the criticisms on the lofty ambitions of the Valley’s elite, it’s easy to find real and significant value in their approach.

First is their willingness to fund higher risk ventures that in turn could generate a higher reward, in this case impact. Generally speaking, the elite East Coast donors whose wealth comes from more traditional industries tend to support more traditional institutions, such as universities, political institutions and campaigns, and well-established non-profit organizations. If their charitable tendencies are likely to remain unchanged, it shouldn’t be difficult to see the value in younger industry leaders seeking younger and more alternative ways to create meaningful impact with their resources.

Second is the simple fact that their money is by-in-large coming out of their pockets, compared to government development sector where the money is coming from a mix of private and public funding. Overly simplified, yes, but it’s easier to look past Mark Zuckerberg coming up short on an investment in malaria prevention technology than, let’s say the African Development Foundation.

Lastly, in my opinion most importantly, and less quantifiable, is the process by which they get there. The entrepreneurs who I have collectively been referring to are driven by a spirit of innovation and comfortability in navigating uncertain terrain. These are two things that many people agree could greatly benefit the more rigid and traditional public development sector. The previously mentioned PlayPumps is a perfect example. The idea failed to gain traction due to a combination of poor design, inefficiency, and political pressure centered on forcing women and kids to “work” for water collection. The Case Foundation, an organization that was instrumental in the rollout of PlayPumps, quickly acknowledged the flaws, began studying the reason behind its failures and successfully pivoting towards new programming with a consistent focus on clean and accessible drinking water in Africa. Their risk-embracing and fluid approach to measuring and delivering impact is a true validation of the entrepreneurial process and spirit: build – measure – learn, repeat.

I personally believe that it’s in their innovation and alternative approach that we can learn the most in spurring significant change on our most important social issues. In Part II of this blog, I will address this specifically and how it can be impactful at the civic and local level.

Works Cited:

Can Silicon Valley Save the World?

Silicon Valley Won’t Save the World, but…

Philanthropy in Silicon Valley: Big Bets on Big Ideas