Earlier this year, the world was startled when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledged US $26 billion to the cause of preventing malaria and other scourges from harming the unprotected—which was then matched by an additional pledge of $31 billion from industrialist Warren Buffett. The most prominent example in a string of recent philanthropy initiatives among the elite of the technology sector, the historic move by the Gates family helped to popularize a new term: social entrepreneurship. While the Gates/Buffett contributions to improving the lives of people in need follows the classic example of business titans choosing to establish charitable trusts, it stands in contrast to a new way of helping others that has begun to catch on in recent years, particularly among engineers interested in promoting the common good directly. In this month's feature "Doing Well by Doing Good", Senior Editor Tekla S. Perry looks at the new phenomenon, concentrating on one social entrepreneur in particular.
Through his Silicon Valley operation Benetech, Jim Fruchterman oversees a team of electrical engineers that create tools for challenges as diverse as the prevention of human rights abuses to the detection and neutralization of land mines around the world. For the last six years, Fruchterman's Benetech Initiative has worked on an alternate method of philanthropy that asks: What if the company itself, and in particular its engineering talent, can be harnessed directly to the cause of social good?
According to Perry, while Benetech is the clearest example of the movement, there are others in the Bay Area. For example, San Franciscos KickStart International develops irrigation, building, and sanitation technologies and uses them to encourage entrepreneurial efforts in Africa. And Project Impact, based in nearby Berkeley, is producing low-cost hearing aids and developing intraocular lenses for use by people with hearing and vision impairments in developing countries.
"Back when Silicon Valley was getting started it was all about an engineer leaving a company and starting something and becoming successful, and then other guys thinking that if he did it, maybe we can," Chris Eyre, managing director of the Palo Alto venture capital firm Legacy Venture, told Perry. "Maybe we're seeing the seeds of that kind of entrepreneurial revolution right now in the social sector. Maybe 30 years from now, we'll look back and see Benetech as the pioneer in the way Fairchild Semiconductor was, with many companies and people that came out of it and started other things.
Fruchterman admitted to Perry that he didn't grow up with a passion to change the world. He said he sees his work as a natural outgrowth of the engineering ethos. "We techies love to solve problems," he noted. "We love to figure things out and love to have recognition for it."
As a result of efforts such as Fruchterman's, social entrepreneurship now has its own conferences, magazines, and awards (Fruchterman received one this year, the Skoll Foundation Award for Social Entrepreneurship). It even has academics who quibble over such things as exactly what makes a social entrepreneur: Is it running a nonprofit as a business venture with sales and income? Is it applying innovative solutions to social problems, whether in a traditional for-profit business or a traditional charity? But many agree that however you define it, Fruchterman is one of the best, Perry writes.
"Benetech epitomizes the best of both the social innovation and business enterprise approaches," Greg Dees, faculty director of the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship, at Duke University said.
"He's a Johnny Appleseed," Jed Emerson, senior fellow with the Generation Foundation, a London-based investment firm and a visiting fellow at Oxford University, told Perry of Fruchterman. "Hes bringing people into Benetech that want to work in their nonprofit environment, and over time those folks will spin out and start their own companies."
As the year comes to a close and many reflect on charity and good will, it seems appropriate that we recognize the work of this new generation of social entrepreneurs. They are leaders who have made a difference in the world of technology and are now making a profound difference in the world at large.