JY Lee | Can entrepreneurship save the world?
Wandering Deliberate Lee | How innovators of our generation can make millions while also serving the public good
September 19, 2013, 10:01 pm · Updated September 22, 2013, 10:50 pm·
Wandering Deliberate Lee
Wharton junior Joon Choi did not come back to Penn this year. As his toddler company Piki Cast receives over 10 million visitors weekly on its Facebook video-sharing platform and boasts Warner Brothers and North Face among its clients, school could wait.
Choi isn’t exactly unique. A 2012 report by the Kauffman Foundation states that there are more than 150,000 businesses launched in America every month by the Millennial Generation, those born between 1980 and 2000.
Entrepreneurs are the paragons of our generation. Steve Jobs was our harbinger, combining design, technology and charisma to transform the lives of millions while pocketing billions. Fusing ’60s countercultural sensitivities with ’80s corporate avarice and Millennials’ digital savvy, today’s entrepreneurs are a hippie-meets-banker-meets-geek amalgam.
Although most ventures inevitably fail, gritty entrepreneurs seem to succeed after a few “pivots” — entrepreneurs’ euphemism for “Oh shoot, we messed up, let’s revamp our business model.”
While I celebrate our entrepreneurial energy as vibrant evidence that the American Dream is alive, profit-driven startups should be balanced by social enterprises guided by the public good.
Despite their stature in the popular consciousness, many entrepreneurs have resorted to increasingly frivolous pursuits. Instead of creating the next game-changers like Tesla Motors and SpaceX, they are building addictive games like Angry Birds or cute photo-sharing apps like Instagram and Snapchat.
The founders of Facebook and Twitter can pride themselves on helping topple dictatorships in the Middle East. Wharton alum Mark Pincus, the billionaire founder of Zynga, producer of games like Farmville, cannot boast of such historic feats.
In some ways, this is inevitable as the Internet and mobile industries mature. As startups face diminishing financial returns, innovators are forced to focus more on profits at the expense of social good. But as the public sector strains under budget cuts, what we need are more social entrepreneurs.
In contrast to inventor-businessman Thomas Edison, who founded 14 companies including General Electric, Benjamin Franklin preferred to establish civic organizations such as firefighting clubs, hospitals, libraries and our University.
The cyberspace has produced a plethora of Edisons who laid the foundations of IT, and the field is ripe for more Franklins to leverage this technology to combat social issues.
During my freshman year, I worked for Givology, a nonprofit founded by 2008 Penn graduate and Rhodes scholar Joyce Meng. To date, Givology has raised more than $300,000 to support grassroots education projects around the globe.
Sophomore year, I took a class called “Societal Wealth Venturing” with Wharton MBAs and worked on business plans. To borrow words from my then-professor Ian MacMillan, the goal of the course was to “combat social problems by mobilizing business in ways that create self-sufficiency for the poverty-stricken of the world.”
Although some social impact projects may not generate a substantial cash flow, the largesse of the previous generations might enable more of us to pursue careers as social entrepreneurs.
The concept of social entrepreneurship was foreign even a generation ago, but organizations backing social ventures have emerged in recent years. These include Ashoka, founded by a former McKinsey consultant, the Skoll Foundation, founded by the former president of eBay, and the Acumen Fund, whose investors include Bill Gates.
At Penn, 2013 College and Wharton graduate Katie Long received $25,000 from the Wharton School to co-found the Financial Literacy Community Project to help West Philadelphia youths.
Meanwhile, some of us are getting rich while doing good. In addition to broadcasting revenue-generating content, Piki Cast also promotes nonprofit organizations and underground artists free of charge. 2010 Wharton and Engineering graduate Noah Ready-Campbell founded Twice, which sells secondhand women’s clothing. Twice has mushroomed to over 50 employees in a year, and every shirt it sells is another shirt our planet is spared.
Thanks to the advent of the internet, many of us 95 million millennials have become micro-entrepreneurs working for ourselves. A lucky few of us have even tasted billions in our 20s. Unfortunately, the drive for gold hasn’t always served the public good.
If we apply the same entrepreneurial passion and creativity to solving societal problems, perhaps the Internet revolution will be remembered for not only generating billionaires, but also for making the American Dream a possibility for all.
JY Lee is a fifth-year College and Wharton senior from Gangnam, South Korea. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Wandering Deliberate Lee” appears every other Monday. Follow him @junyoubius.