Updated, May 2013A year ago, in April 2012, I published the first draft of this essay, then called “Killer App for Angel Investors: Authenticity.” To my delight, ideas like these are taking off. Not only at start-up enterprises like WetheP.org, the online Community I’m leading that connects people’s passions for collaborative progress. Also at companies nationwide that are following in the footsteps of leaders who continually break the business norms. To prove ‘Conscious Capitalism,’ as the title of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s recent book implies, means better bottom lines. Smart investors have been getting the tip, too.
Many no longer risk their dollars and common sense on seductions offered by solely self-interested corporations. They see promise, instead, in authentic evolutions offered by community-serving leaders and companies.
It’s established that the economic crash produced an influx of disruptive innovations. Now, a new movement of social enterprise leaders is offering new promise for America. They are iterating a not-so-far-back history.
Luck of Age and Angels
By luck of age and angel investors I co-founded a startup during the last recession. We started Peoplenet Communications Corporation with more energy than experience, bootstrapping the ideas for our dot-com baby with nascent abilities, outside-the-box-creativity, lots of sweat equity and very smart colleagues.
One, a wild-haired engineer, stood in my office in 1996 explaining the World Wide Web and Global Positioning System. I wondered if we should cut off his Mountain Dew.
Now familiar, Internet and GPS technologies back then sounded too good to be true. Not only because of what they could do, but also because of what they cost: little. Anyone with a good idea and some seed capital could cook up an app.
We sought private investors, who, in exchange for stock got equity and access—the early-in draw of an early-stage company. They told us they were investing equally in our potentials as people.
In industry vernacular we were early adapters of “sustained innovations” in wireless locating and communications, among more recognizable ones like GM’s Onstar and the now ubiquitous IPhone.
While it took us time, as it always does, to bring our technology to market, the time was well spent developing leaders and jobs in our community. Our third hire is now the company’s CEO. We were able to cash out our investors with a $78 million sale of the company to a former competitor — with the condition that our staff wouldn’t lose their jobs and that we’d be hiring nearly 100 more from our state.
For all its advances, many think the 90s boom was a market-manufactured bubble—the over-leveraged, irrationally-exuberant front of the economic tidal wave that’s drowned so much commerce. Or that it served to over-enrich global capitalists who could provide cheap labor while Americans lost jobs.
If true, investors should question the prudence of underwriting less than altruistic killer apps. And ask: are today’s endless “next best things” just the latest vaporous cloud of bleeding-edge wares for competitor countries to produce? Or worse, part of yet another smoke-and-mirrors Ponzi- scheme perpetrated by the latest flock of financial sociopaths thumbing their noses at us while simultaneously picking our pockets.
Needless to say smart investors should exercise restraint and regulate their feverish hopes with heavy doses of due doubt. Only rank rookies and those harboring megalomaniac magnate fantasies of Depression-era proportions, are wagering willy-nilly in this mess. Or those “greed-is-good” throwbacks who sound like fat-cat gamblers snubbing their cigars on the craps tables they operate.
Angels Don’t Flock Into Sunset
Still, thoughtful angels aren’t flocking off into the sunset. Rather, they are rethinking allocating funds from agenda-driven institutional interests over-focused on flimsily measured capital. And considering their option to invest in authentic assets spreadsheet can’t easily show: the wealth of wisdom real-deal flesh-and-blood citizens can offer.
This requires a paradigm shift that goes beyond funding popular stocks or “this will save our economy” over-promises. And transcends altruistic philanthropy, which addresses problems, like poverty and obesity, with expert-only-created campaigns of “fly-in” or “high-tell” compassion. Even, yes, social enterprise efforts, if all they provide is PR gloss for halos tarnished by less-then-holy hidden agendas. Especially if offering income-producing solutions only for far-away countries. While income needs–not to mention intellectual capital–here at home, are profound, too.
Coffee and Start-up Capital
Many agree we need more wild-haired ideas to break the wave that’s nearly drowned us, and surf us to a sustained-success sunset. Ideas and the sometimes over-caffienated types, like us, who develop them need much support.
Astute angels have instincts for such. Where others envision collapse in the rubble underneath, they see scaffolding for new transformations. These were the ones quietly investing in dot-com babies like PeopleNet when stock brokers were plunging out of office windows to death on WallStreet’s pavement. True, their idealistic tendencies shouldn’t be confused with naïve nostalgia. Still, such angels tend towards hope not despair.
Relativism plus Pragmatism
These are the relativists who see underlying patterns. And the pragmatists who’ve seen what really works. They don’t condescend to mass-culture pressures. They know people trump spreadsheets for big-picture returns.
Like Henry Ford, Founder of Ford Motor Company. The Great Depression “welfare capitalist” who was initially derided by peers and politicians wasn’t perfect, but he did beat them all–by not playing their games. “They don’t seem to see that we must lift together and pull together,” observed Ford. He powerfully proved the point, revolutionizing not only manufacturing practices, but by being a transformative leader with near-unprecedented private/public business savvy.
Leaders like Ford are of the constructivist prototype. Another is Bill George the Harvard professor and former CEO of Medtronic. Who succeeded there by modeling the depth of the Company’s human capital and empowering his employees to do the same.
Leaders like George believe fiscal responsibility is measured not only by revenue growth, but also by growing diverse leaders, and many. Leaders who find their “True North,” by orienting their authentic gifts both to and in meaningful corporate, community and cultural development. This ethos of alignment, argues George, is harder. And yet, it’s a better harbinger of success than much spreadsheet-able “evidence.”
Similar humanitarian-businesses are making a come-back. George’s grandchildren’s generation, “the Millilenials,” express similar common-good genes. A 2010 study by The Carlson School of Management at University of Minnesota shows business-school grads reject superficial “scratch-your-way-to-the-top whatever-the-cost” careers in favor of employing personal passions that improve predicaments in the common-place public arenas. Other research affirms his Ford’s methods: diverse staff and leadership improves bottom lines.
Monetary Function follows Meaningful Form
In other words, up-and-coming industry leaders are seeking meaning as much as money in their work. Which companies like Whole Foods Market, which employs a ‘conscious capitalist’ strategy to post strong growth earnings. This reflective mandate is part of the company’s core principals–embedded in it’s criteria for hiring, managing, partnering and purchasing.
Alert angels are paying attention. They dare putting their private investments behind authentic leaders who marry personal good to public good, through professional work. They remember their best interests and ideals go well beyond “only-on-paper” returns. Because they know what few do: plunging into the chaos of new beginnings can return rich rewards. Not only of money but with the thrill of serving as an empowering crucible for authentic leaders of cutting-edge innovations.
Many new companies, like WetheP, don’t identity their products withe the same ‘killer app’ bravado of past– far from it. They are far more intent on producing an expansive jolt of people power, as catalyzers and maximizers of human potentials. The kind that WetheP expects will prove to be living legacies.
Worth – Equal parts Meaning + Monetary
WetheP is measuring its worth by both monetary and meaning criteria, equally. The kind savvy investors will, we hope, be looking to lend their money and support to. And that create a new common wealth, abetted, built and maintained by the brilliance of many different common-good American energies.
Companies like WetheP are coming together in a new movement that together can create some real common wealth.
Andrea Morisette Grazzini a writer and participatory researcher, is CEO of the start-up tech company WetheP.org.. Her work has influenced numerous local, national and global conversations on cross-sector collaboration. She co-founded the tech-company Peoplenet Communications Corporation in 1993. And founded the cross-partisan initiative DynamicShift in 2009.