This column was co-authored by Rip Empson.
As the speed at which technology, software tools and gadgets infuse our life increases, interest and fascination with “technology” -- whether in academia, the media, on Wall Street or Main Street -- has exploded. It’s not only that technology is more tangible today, this increasing fascination is arguably still a product of the idea that it represents: change. Words such as “innovation," "disruption" and "next generation” get thrown around more than they should.
Sure, the technology and ideas behind Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the other darlings of Silicon Valley have made the ways in which we communicate better, smarter and faster. Yes, one is hard-pressed today not to be enthralled by Apple’s latest gadget or Google Glass.
But in all the excitement about startups, technology and software eating our world and changing entire industries -- and in light of the billions of dollars and many millionaires it has produced -- it can feel like something important is being left behind in all the excitement around what’s “next.”
What makes humans feel even better about the world and ourselves than the excitement of the next wonder-gadget is doing or creating something that has a positive impact on the world. This is implicit in the bigger meaning or affect of technology, but at least at the outset, it’s influence sometimes feels more superficial.
It’s made things prettier, shinier, faster and given us ways to connect, but it’s also created a pervasive artificial reality that is largely surface-level and impels us to ping from one thing to another without ever venturing too deep.
The residual affect of our hyper-connected and tech-infused lives is an increasing hunger for more meaningful experiences, products, technology and businesses. Ones that we get excited about not just for their mind-meltingly impressive technology, but because they stand for something. While these companies are businesses and want to make money, they also want to give back, or leave the world a better place than when they entered it.
It’s for these reasons that we’re now finally beginning to see technology work its way into areas that have traditionally been unsexy or loathsome to entrepreneurs, such as philanthropy, or the world of the “non-profit.” Creating and running a socially-minded business is no longer an anathema. Not just for ventures that are that way at their core, but also for companies that may make a consumer product, but are finding ways to work philanthropy or community-mindedness into their ethos.
The upside is that the app economy, ubiquity of mobile technology and ease of creating a footprint on the web have given socially-minded businesses or apps greater distribution, access to a wider audience and made them more accessible. Companies such as TOMS have become recognizable and respected global brands based both on the quality or appeal of their products, but also because buying their products inherently means doing something good for someone else.
Of course, the TOMS of the world have remained more few and far between than, say, photo-sharing apps. But a growing number of companies have really started to change that. Warby Parker brought TOMS-style “social good” to eyewear. Be My Eyes, a new startup based in Copenhagen, allows blind people to connect instantly with volunteers via live video chat to get help with anything and everything -- from small, everyday stuff to more critical assistance.
Not only that, but the concept itself was created by Hans Wiberg, who is visually impaired himself. He shared his idea at a startup event in Denmark and the company was born.
At larger tech companies, things are starting to change as well. Salesforce’s 1-1-1 model, which requires the company and its employees to dedicate 1 percent of equity and time to non-profits, is catching on. Google has long been a passenger, and companies such as Optimizely have launched discounted sales programs for non-profits, while Box offers free “seats” and discounts to non-profits as well.
Of course, the road isn’t always smooth for companies trying to make the new “giving economy” part of their ethos. The long-standing stigma around non-profits and mission-driven organizations has always been that making a difference and making money are mutually exclusive. While a generation is beginning to grow up (and has) with the social activism that can be found on the Twitters, Facebooks and the Reddits of the world, this perception still persists.
However, Change.org CEO Ben Rattray told TechCrunch that he and his company are among a growing number of people that are trying to prove to investors, other startups and the world at large that it’s possible to build a socially-minded business without necessarily having to be a non-profit.
Companies that are taking social good seriously and are mission-driven are working hard to offer a new, younger generation of graduates and engineers the same kind of perks and incentives one finds at big tech companies or traditional for-profits. It’s an appealing sales pitch: Come join us and not only will you make money, but you can help us make a real difference in the world.
It’s not easy, but as more companies begin to take building philanthropy into how they define their core mission statements, things are beginning to change.
As the explosion of “karma-related” YouTube videos featuring random acts of kindness and ice-bucket challenges continue, it’s also becoming clear that there’s an enormous demand -- and need -- for businesses, experiences and products that take making a difference seriously.