I started this post many weeks ago after watching this fantastic TED Talk on how we define success:

I was reminded of it and inspired to finish it – sort of – after reading a recent post from Nathaniel Whittemore on Silicon Valley’s future ability to change the world.

Nathaniel’s post is interesting and insightful, and also a bit provocative.  It particularly touches on a hot-button issue for me; that is, whether/how we judge social vs. traditional enterprises.  I posted a long comment on his post that I am republishing here because it outlines my basic thoughts on the topic.  Enjoy!

“Reading [Nathaniel’s post] makes me think there is a storm brewing in Silicon Valley. Is there a growing divide based on the perception that a get-rich-quick culture is starting to replace the idealism of the past?  Where is the angst and animosity coming from?

‘…this hyperbole is why the nonprofit sector can have such a hard time interacting with the corporate world. It’s hard to spent time with groups like Samasource that are trying to fundamentally shift the paradigm of outsourcing to create real growth and development opportunities for the developing world, or the Acumen Fund that is investing in local market solutions to water distribution, and then to be told that easier, faster, funner consumption of stuff is in the same ballpark. It’s not even the same sport.’

I don’t agree much with this statement. I’m fine acknowledging they’re different, but implicit is that one is inherently always better than the other.

Is a social business with 15 employees and 50 customers automatically better than a company like Amazon.com just because it has a nobler mission? Amazon has created employment for 20,000 people and generated enormous wealth that can be re-invested in other businesses, perhaps some “social.”  It has also given small booksellers an outlet for making a better living, similar to eBay, which is a primary source of income for 1.3 million people (and being replicated in the developing world).

Take intuit as another example.  Why should they be less worthy?  They have in my opinion done an admirable job over their history of democratizing ERP-like applications and giving small business the technology/tools they need to operate more efficiently. You no longer have to be able to afford an Oracle or SAP implementation to manage payroll and a chart of accounts.

Likewise, Mint.com may have sold out in some people’s estimation, but it has done an admirable job of improving financial literacy and helping individuals (including me) make better financial decisions.

Imagine Intuit and Mint.com technology in the hands of social entrepreneurs around the world, allowing them to better run their businesses and make smarter choices. That would be world-changing, even if unsexy because it’s payroll and accounting.  In fact, it’s not much different than a salesforce automation or internet search and advertising company helping social enterprises better measure their impact.

Similarly, you say,”All due respect to Zappos, a better way to buy shoes is not the same as changing the world.” But how different is Zappos from Tom’s Shoes?  A cynic could say Zappos is giving us a better way to buy shoes and Tom’s is making us feel better about buying more shoes. Moreover, Zappos is one business decision away from being Tom’s.

I agree, however, with your other point. The most ambitious and talented young entrepreneurs are starting to migrate to the social enterprise sector, making it in essence the next “high tech” in its ability to draw the best and brightest. And so we are likely to see more and more amazing things from these individuals. That’s fantastic and desirable.

But that won’t negate the need for innovations that are less strictly “social” in their orientation and more like Zappos and Netflix.

Social enterprise may stand apart, but I disagree that we should think it stands above. And I really struggle with the idea that a “holier than thou” mentality might make non-profits and social enterprises look down on the accomplishments of these “other” companies.  This has been the trend in the past, and I see little good that has come of it.”