I was on a thread with my colleagues Craig, Alberto, and Ryan where Craig proposed that “social enterprise was eating the enterprise” and it got me thinking. Is that true? Why? I work for Collaborative Fund because I believe it, but what motivates that belief? Here is how I’m currently aiming.
Technology has a number of definitions, and a common one is: “The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, esp. in industry: "computer technology”; “recycling technologies”.“
But technology pre-dates scientific knowledge (and science)… Writing was once technology. The Wheel was once technology. A definition that I prefer is: "A process or a tool that solves a problem very well."
In an illiterate and pre printing-press world, writing solved the tool of recording and sharing information very well. Similarly to the wheel re: moving people and goods. In the modern era, however, our problems are really complex.
We have an intractable health insurance system; a culture of consumerism that isn’t sustained by our spending habits; an educational system with no checks and balances; a global empathy gap etc., etc. With problems this tough, most, if not all technology has a social impact to it. Products that simply use software and hardware are not, by definition, technology. They are, by definition, software and hardware. We are too easy on ourselves about what constitutes innovation, and what qualifies as technology. To be a technology, as I think it should be described, you have to be solving a big hairy problem. And social enterprises are designed for that very goal. In this way, the technology industry, then, will be the social impact industry, if it isn’t already.
Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube aren’t culture-defining products because of their revenue (HP does more quarterly revenue than all of them), or because most of their employees are software engineers (look at the top 10 software employers) , but because they solve really big problems very well. What problem does Zynga solve very well? What problem does Groupon solve very well? What problem does your startup solve very well?
We’re in an amazing time where we can solve many problems as well as writing and the wheel all at once. The Internet, The World Wide Web, and the Personal Computer all happened within most of our lifetimes, and each is a technology that on its own rivals the printing press, the wheel, and progress in agriculture: what were once ‘once-in-a-few-generations” evolutions. That’s crazy!! It’s genuinely possible for a startup today to create that much impact, but we need to ask for more out of our ‘technology’.
It’s not the same as “we wanted flying cars but got 140 characters”. 140 characters are changing the world faster than we can even describe, and I suspect Peter Thiel himself would privately agree at this point. But the notion that “social impact” is a fringe, or a subset, of tech entrepreneurship strikes me as incorrect. Social impact is, and always is, the beating center of technology entrepreneurship.