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December 12, 2011

Doing Good by Doing Well

"I'm hoping to get a job with a non-profit."

"I'll probably have to work in industry for a while, but then I plan to start a non-profit."

"I want to find a business with a triple bottom line."

"We're developing a video game that'll teach people not to be sexist."

"Once I make some money, I hope to be a philanthropist."

"I'm hoping to get a job with an NGO."

Noble thoughts, think I, but on the whole misguided fuzzy thinking.

All of these quotes come from bright, energetic young people studying to begin careers in areas like smartphone apps, computer game development, and web site wizardry. None of them say they want to make a lot of money (except to fund their planned philanthropy). None of them say they want to build insanely great products (Steve Jobs' mantra) or build a great company or lower the cost of energy or change the way people shop or even increase farm yields. Maybe they're just telling us what they think we want to hear; but they appear to be serious. Where did we go wrong?

Thomas Edison put as much energy into making inventions profitable as he did into discovery. If he hadn't, it would've been a lot longer before the world benefited from his inventions and his incredible invention stream – the electric light bulb, sound recording, movie making etc. etc. – would have been unsustainable for lack of funding. Don't know what he did as a philanthropist. Doesn't much matter.

By most accounts Henry Ford was a pretty awful person. He was a racist, an anti-Semite, and an admirer of much of what was happening in Nazi Germany. His charity went to some pretty bad causes. He didn't invent the car but his business and engineering acumen led to a car that every middleclass family could afford and his factory was a highway from poverty to the middleclass. The wreckage which is now Detroit didn't happen on his watch. The Fords who presided over that were much more socially conscious and politically correct – but they didn't do as much good as mean old Henry.

Bill and Melinda Gates are innovative philanthropists. They're driving the established bureaucracies of the UN and prominent NGOs crazy by insisting on results, which is a good thing. But, so far, Bill did more to change the world with a licensable operating system which made it possible to build and sell commodity computers that much of the world can afford and figure out how to use.

Now iPhone and Android are making the world more accessible by another order of magnitude. Steve Jobs built insanely great products – at high profit margins. Google gives Android away – because it enhances their hold on the search business. Google's motto may be "do no evil" – the good they have done is to link us to the information we need; the founders are famously billionaires.

Jeff Bezos and Amazon may have done as much for readers and books as the Carnegie Libraries.

Thanks to Charles Theodore Dotter who invented the stent in the artery of my heart as well as angioplasty itself; I hear he made a fortune. Glad he was motivated.

In 1865 Col. Edward A. L. Roberts received the first of his many patents for an exploding torpedo; it was used not for war but increasing production from hydrocarbon formations. He died a wealthy man. The co-inventors of modern fracking combined with horizontal drilling were Joseph Clark and Riley Farris. By vastly increasing the supply of natural gas, they have arguably done more for energy independence, energy abundance (a good thing), and lower carbon emissions than all the well-intended grant-funded green efforts in the last twenty years.

Not every person who has become rich has done good while getting there, obviously (I might mention drug dealers and certain investment bankers). Even the very do-gooding Ben and Jerry earned their fortunes by making sugar-coated cholesterol taste even better (without so much as a warning label). And there are many famous examples of people like Gandhi who did good without getting rich.

Nevertheless, I'll bet that, on the whole, when these students become workers and businesspeople, those who devote themselves to insanely great products, making things much cheaper than competitors do, or profitably knitting us all closer together in cyberspace will make more of a difference in the world while they are growing their bottom lines than when they later retire as philanthropists. I wish I could find a good way to tell them that.

Maybe I ought to un-retire and go back to work myself.

Related posts:

Great Docs and Technology Saved My Life Thursday

Natural Gas Disrupts the Energy Industry

WHO Doesn't Like the Gates Foundation



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