"When you stand out in a crowd, it is only because you are being carried on the shoulders of others," Archbishop Desmond Tutu commented to the cheering participants at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York on Sept. 19, 2011. Archbishop Tutu's words are simple, yet they have profound significance to how successful individuals are made.
Most accomplished entrepreneurs are not born. Their success is erected on the foundation of society - a society that provides them with opportunities such as education, association with like-minded people, a system of free enterprise with favorable government policies and regulations, access to mentors and capital, and an environment conducive to building on ideas. I believe success is like a circle and people should pass the benefits of success forward to make the world a better place. By giving back to the society that has provided a nurturing environment in which to build wealth through their businesses, entrepreneurs complete the full circle of entrepreneurship, paying it forward as a gesture of appreciation for the success that they have achieved.
Today the world faces an unprecedented set of problems, from hunger and poverty to increasing economic inequality, environmental degradation, HIV/AIDS and other deadly diseases, ethnic and religious conflicts and more. Despite huge technological progress and wealth gains made over the last 100 years, one could argue that the proportion of the human race considered being better off now than 100 years ago is much smaller.
There is a pressing need to address some of the thorniest issues of the 21st century. This is where individual entrepreneurs can play a meaningful role. It is common knowledge that entrepreneurs create jobs and foster innovation. In this sense, they are already making a substantial social contribution. Nevertheless, entrepreneurs embody traits that are ideal for addressing social needs, such as leadership, vision, the ability to attract talented people, drive, focus, perseverance, self-confidence, optimism, competitiveness and ambition. Engaging entrepreneurs in the social sector to apply their capacity for innovative ideas, high performance expectations and generating results could lead to real solutions to social challenges.
Harnessing the talents of entrepreneurs to create positive social impact is not new. Throughout history, many exceptional industrialists and entrepreneurs have chosen to give back. Ewing Kauffman founded the world's largest foundation dedicated to entrepreneurship because he believed that being an entrepreneur was the key to his rise out of poverty and wanted others to have the same opportunities. Andrew Carnegie financed libraries to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge. Bill Gates founded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to enhance global health care, reduce global poverty and expand access to educational opportunity and technology.
Entrepreneurs motivated to transition from being successful to being significant by doing what really matters have many options. Imagine a world 25 years from now where people living in developing countries no longer suffer casualties from hunger and malnutrition. Imagine developing vaccines that prevent common infectious diseases such as malaria, AIDS, measles and rotavirus and making them affordable and readily available in developing countries, thereby saving millions of lives. Imagine a world where lack of electricity, clean water and adequate sanitation are no longer a problem, saving the lives of 1.4 million children yearly. Imagine empowering millions of children all over the world through affordable basic education and access to the Internet. Tapping the extraordinary skills and resources of entrepreneurs can turn these visions for a better world into reality.
Like the generous founders before them, today's entrepreneurs can identify areas of focus that they are passionate about and tackle problems related to them. And solving one social ill can have broad implications for society. In the case of global climate change, for instance, improving electricity challenges in developing countries would reduce the negative consequences of global climate change in developed countries.
Entrepreneurs also can get involved in government-backed initiatives to support impact investing and social innovation. In the UK, the government has set up a Social Impact Bond (SiB), where investors fund nonprofit social ventures that result in social benefit as well as financial savings to the society as a whole. Currently, the Ministry of Justice is doing this to trim down repeat offenders released from the Peterborough Jail. This is an example of how social good also can reduce cost. This model is being replicated in the United States via a sister organization, Social Finance, Inc., that has been established in Boston, New York and other cites to combat social issues such as criminal justice and housing.
Giving back to society is not limited to only the direct, actionable ways in which entrepreneurs can respond to critical social issues. They can engage in philanthropic efforts such as pledging donations to nonprofit organizations, providing grants or scholarships to universities or research institutes that are focused on combating social problems, participating in thought leadership forums, fostering mentoring programs, etc.
Serial entrepreneurs in pursuit of their next new entrepreneurial idea could create a business enterprise with a philanthropic or socially responsible element added to it from the ground up. They can set up a foundation associated with the business, from which resources are deployed to effect positive social change. For example, they can assign a percentage of the venture's equity to a foundation or to an organization pursuing a philanthropic cause. Salesforce.com has adopted a model that contributes 1 percent of the company's financial and intellectual capital to support organizations that are addressing challenges in their communities.
Few months ago, I asked a successful entrepreneur, "How do you spend your time?" He explained to me his willingness to contribute his time and resources to support individuals and organizations that are making positive social contributions. I asked him, "Why do you do that?" He said, "I have all the money I require and now I want to spend my time and energy on helping others, my health and be happy." This sentiment reminded me of an inspiring quote I recently read in a book co-authored by my friend Victor Chan and his Holiness Dalai Lama. In this book, His Holiness Dalai Lama sums up the point of this article aptly.
To be happy, my practice helps me lead a useful life. If I can give a short moment of happiness to others, then I feel that my life has achieved some purpose. This gives me deep mental satisfaction -- this feeling always comes if you serve others. So, when I help others, I feel happy. For me, the most important thing is human compassion, a sense of caring for one another.