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The Community of Detroit

Sorting through my thoughts about Detroit's bankruptcy (or whatever it turns out to be)

Different ideas about how companies can be organized and run are floating around. What resonates with me are institutions that support communities: "communities" of employees, of local citizens, of people interacting with the natural environment. Too often, though, companies barely acknowledge the importance of these communities while they bend over backwards to better meet the needs (make that wants) of investors.

Many people reflexively respond that the main (or only) purpose of a company is to make money, and that companies must be organized to serve the needs of the "community" of investors.  (They don't). Of course, investors may have no connection to a company at all -- they don't work there, don't live in the towns where their investments are put to work, they may not even like the products the company makes. Yet to business traditionalists -- but not to me -- investors' desire for making money trumps everything else.

I would like to think that when it comes to a real community -- I'm thinking of Detroit -- that we wouldn't even need to question whose rights should be considered ahead of all others: the rights of those who call the community home. Other discussions about social issues can take on a moralistic dimension: deficits somehow correlate with lack of character (though empirical evidence indicates it is appropriate to stimulate a stalled economy); poor people don't deserve to eat; ill-supported (and often mean spirited) advice like that.  

But when it comes to a city -- a place where people live, raise kids, and shape our future -- moralizing or scolding make even less sense. Police, firemen, and other pensioners contributed to the city for years -- some for decades. State law says their pensions cannot be reduced. Those not owed pensions are owed essential services, including timely responses by police and fire fighters, working schools, and working street lights. They did not cause Detroit's decline, but they have suffered greatly from a transformed auto industry and corporations' decisions to decamp to the 'burbs, taking with them their tax dollars.

With change, comes the opportunity to reflect upon new ways of doing business. Shifts in population growth and in spending have made companies aware of new markets in the developing world, if not yet in as dramatic a way at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Similarly, in the next several decades, large-scale transfers of corporate ownership provide an opening for a dramatic shift towards inclusive corporations.

And now Detroit is facing bankruptcy. This grim circumstance creates an opening, too. What kind of city does Detroit deserve to be? Most essentially, for Detroit to "work," people must work. And there is work to be done. With more than a quarter of Detroit's 140 square miles abandoned, projects to raze and re-purpose these properties are being undertaken. Detroit Blight Authority is taking a lead, appealing for federal funds. This is a perfect opportunity for the government to release funds, contingent upon the training and hiring of Detroit's idle workforce. What's more, Detroit can follow the lead of other downtrodden communities, including the South Bronx, to create a green, energy-saving, and even energy-creating city.

Detroit's schools are the next (if not the first) obvious place to make changes. Detroit Public School's newly appointed emergency manager can help foster an environment that couples academic rigor with real-life relevance. If you've followed this blog, you know how high I am on the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship">, a model that creates life-changing educational experiences for low-income students. 

Even with ObamaCare, negotiating the healthcare maze will be daunting. Programs like Rebecca Onie's Health Leads demonstrate how non-traditional health care workers can help cut through red tape to ease the problems faced by the ill, poor, and elderly. Where Health Leads relies on college students to fill "prescriptions" for food, clothing, housing, etc., Onie suggests that local community members themselves can staff similar positions. Such staffing (jobs!) can avoid expensive emergency room visits and head off long term health problems. Suitably structured and financed (possibly with social impact bonds), hospitals can serve more patients, more effectively, and save money.

As Governor Snyder has been saying, Detroit's problems did not just occur; they've been unfolding over decades, caused in large part by a dis-investment in the city. Now at the point of crisis, we can begin to point Detroit in a new direction. Detroit's resurrection will take time, as did its decline. It will take investment, but investment in, and of, the community. Not investment aimed at making investors wealthy ahead of the needs of the city. 

The city that helped more than any other in winning World War II; the city that created a modern society through the automobile industry and industrial efficiency -- this city needs our compassion and support. This does not mean our charity: for by re-making a working, well-educated, healthier Detroit, we set the country on a stronger course.

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Biomimicry and Cities

I have found my community -- actually, one of several, but a special one.

I attended the BALLE conference (no, not in Bali, but in Buffalo this year), an event focused on more enlightened, more powerful forms of business.  BALLE -- the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies -- emphasizes the primacy of local over global; employment over profit; we over me.

Among the many highlights of the conference, I want to mention this:

Janine Benyus, who is at the forefront of the biomimicry movement, described a type of communitarian "mutualism" in natural ecologies. More simply: A healthy tree requires healthy soil and other healthy plant- and animal-life to survive. Moreover, the only way for a healthy tree to ensure its progeny also have the opportunity to grow and thrive is for their growth to take place under the same, healthy conditions. Thus, through an intricate system involving other plants, animals, and fungi operating in highly mutually supportive ways, a single tree may help restore and replenish the environment of which it is part for its own survival, for the survival of its offspring, and for the survival of the other living organisms that comprise the ecosystem of which it is a part.

I have long admired Benyus' brilliance, and the ways she combines facts, passion, and beauty to convey her overriding message: Nature has been solving many of the same problems that we are trying to solve in modern society; only it has been doing it considerably longer: 3.8 billion years compared to 200,000 years for us (homo sapiens sapiens). So, it is has developed much better solutions. 

Benyus' description of an ecology of mutualism has gotten me considering how our cities can be similarly oriented. More to the point, how can social enterprises be seeded to provide not only single social benefits (such as better healthcare), but to help provide additional capability to support other social enterprises that are, only apparently, distinct from it? 

Benyus described how precise marking and tracing of carbon molecules shows that carbon that is absorbed in the upper canopy of a forest may be found in low-lying plants half a mile away. This movement of nutrients is biologically elegant and its purpose appears clear: carbon that is captured, shared, and redistributed creates a healthier environment for all plant-life in an ecology -- including the tallest trees that capture and might otherwise consume it all just to serve its own, immediate needs.

Here's to cities re-designed to do the same.

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What does electoral emergence look like? 

Consider: We just re-elected a Democrat President who will need to work with a Republican House and Democrat Senate. Or viewed differently: the people have said that they want a divided government (as Speaker Boehner suggested), not an unimpeded move towards a more progressive agenda.

Or did they?

The Presidency is the only national office that we vote for. Even so, it's hard to imagine that the popular vote would have been same if, say, states like Vermont (67 percent Obama) or Utah (73% Romney) got the same attention as Ohio.

The House results were even more affected by artifacts of our electoral system. With all 435 House seats contested, Democrats received almost half a million more votes, but the Republicans won a majority of the seats. Why? Because of the way congressional districts are drawn, which itself is strongly influenced by which party is in power in the states. As the Washington Post pointed out, in states where Republicans controlled redistricting, Democrats almost uniformly performed far worse in elections for the House than for the Presidency. Examples: in Ohio, Obama won 51% of the vote, but Democrats won only 25% of House seats; or South Carolina, where Obama won 45% of the vote, but Democrats won 14% of house seats. 

In the Senate this year, 23 of the 33 seats being contested were held by Democrats, making it difficult for Democrats to hold on to their 53-47 (those numbers again!) margin, if the nation were voting in a party-neutral, 50-50 ways. Yet, rather than losing 6.5 seats net and losing Control of the Senate, as statistics would suggest, Democrats gained two seats, by winning 25 of the 33 contests, while winning the popular vote across these Senate races by nearly 13 million votes.

The divided political situation we now face results from an electoral chemistry that combines any number of influences, from Article II of the Constitution, which created the Electoral College (originally conceived to produce results in elections dictated neither by political parties nor by national campaigning); to the most recent census and its influence on congressional re-districting; to someone with a cell phone recording Mitt Romney's "private" thoughts; among many, many others.

Together, these influences produce an "emergent" picture of a national electorate. Emergence is a characteristic of a system where what is apparent outwardly arises from any number of smaller features that may be hard to detect and whose interaction looks little like these features in isolation.

So, is John Boehner right in saying that there "is a mandate for both parties to find common ground and take steps together to help our economy grow and create jobs, which is critical to solving our debt"? 

My position is that to figure out what is on the nation's mind, it is best to look at outcomes most reflective of overall, versus local, views. Or: look at the popular vote for President, the House, and the Senate. Democrats won each of these races, by margins of 3 million, half a million, and 13 million votes respectively. To paraphrase the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter: Although a green fence is made up of atoms and atomic particles, none of them is green. To see the color of the fence, just open your eyes.

The popular vote for the Presidency, the House, or the Senate are not perfect indicators of our national desires. But they suggest that the people want the country to go in a direction Democrats have suggested: investmenting in education, health, infrastructure, a greener planet. 

And greater inclusivity.

Metaphors for Reviving Detroit


I was in Detroit yesterday learning more about incubators. I came away thinking about metaphors.

My morning began in TechTown, where Faris Alami gave my research associate, Neesha Modi, and me a heady introduction to all that is taking place. TechTown is at once a research and technology park, a business incubator, and a collection of enterprises part of revitalizing Detroit.

We met in TechOne, a five-story facility where GM once designed the Corvette that looks out over the 12 city blocks that TechTown hopes will become home to all types of vibrant businesses. TechOne is home to IT and medical/biotech companies, as its name suggests, but it is more than that. For instance we met with Marion Jackson and Barbara Cervenka, co-directors of Con/Vida, a nonprofit organization that promotes the work of Brazilian and Peruvian artists by organizing exhibitions and selling their work. We also met with TechTown's former executive director, Randal Charlton, whose new venture, Boom! The New Economy, is helping adults 50 years and older create new businesses. But Jackson, Cerveka, and Charlton--themselves in the 60+ age bracket--might bump into middle school and high school aged tenants of TechOne who are there learning how to apply science to solve global problems.

TechTown also offers support services to entrepreneurs hoping to launch Detroit-based businesses. This program, "Thrive," supports entrepreneurs of all stipes, from one individual who needed support to purchase a truck and start a small transportation company to another who is developing a radiation-free breast cancer screening device.

Our next stop, the Green Garage, is another mixture of place, tenants, and business creation. The Green Garage (the place) was a show room for Model T's, but since the Detroit riots in the 1960s its windows had been bricked in, it had lost its charm, and it had generally fallen into disrepair. You'd certainly never know that today, as it has been spectacularly restored using reclaimed building materials and is worthy of a cover of Architectural Digest.

GreenGarage-front.jpg

And that only begins to scratch the surface of what the Green Garage is. The Green Garage is designed to be a net zero energy building: consuming no more energy than it can produce. This is no idle boast, as the facility is constantly deploying new technologies like solar tubes for lighting and chest refrigeration systems and metering and monitoring everything that comes in and goes out of the facility. It represents the very possibility of creating and operating buildings without imposing a cost on the planet.

The tenants at the Green Garage are carefully selected for their "green" approach to business and for their fit with Green Garage's sense of community. I had a conversation with Chad Dickinson, a transplant from Nashville and new tenant, who has designed state-of-the-art recording studios in a holistic way without using blueprints. Dickinson by Design is his Detroit based business. Using vintage power tools in his workshop in a corner of the Green Garage, Dickinson creates beautiful, "green" furniture from 99% reclaimed and recycled materials. He is using his craft to create affordable, long-lasting furniture and woodworking that create inviting homes, just as these homes can help reclaim the city.

But what might be most remarkable at Green Garage is the work being done by its co-founder, Tom Brennan. A former business consultant, he now rejects the idea of creating businesses in the typical way: idea, business plan, financial backing, make money. Instead, he teaches a type of business creation that places any organization squarely in the midst of the other organizations to which it is connected. Brennan believes that any enterprise must create positive economic, community, and environmental benefits for all organizations in its ecosystem, not simply itself.

This idea is reminiscent of Paul Hawken's description of a series of mutually beneficial business relationships in Kalundorg Denmark. The waste (in the forms of heat, steam, gas, sludge, etc.) from various industrial processes became the inputs for other producers. For instance, gypsum, which was the byproduct of a power plant, was used to make sheet rock. Fly ash, the waste from producing coal, was used in constructing roads. These input/output relationships all arose by happy accident, not design.

Brennan suggests that we need not hope for such fortuitous accidents; these sorts of relationships should be baked in to our efforts to develop businesses. And, again, these relationships should benefit all parties in the ecosystem, not just immediate partners, by improving each element of their triple bottom line.

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Which brings us back to metaphors.

The Green Garage explicitly embraces the idea that businesses are like living systems, not machines. For living systems to thrive, they must take care of themselves and the environment of which they are part.

TechTown, in contrast, conjures up the image of Edison's Menlo Park laboratory. A number of business experiments are taking place in parallel--even rubbing shoulders. There is a sense of energy and pragmatism but, by and large, these efforts form a greater whole mainly in the sense that each success creates jobs in a city that badly needs them.

On the drive from TechTown to the Green Garage, Neesha and I stopped for lunch at the Avalon Bakery. Avalon's funky appearance belies what it is: something of a powerhouse that serves 1000 customers daily and delivers baked goods to 40 additional locations in southeast Michigan.

Avalon embraces the Buddhist principle of "right livelihood," its motto being "Eat Well. Do Good." Avalon has the ultimate respect for the earth, never using anything but 100% organic flour. It is also an anchor tenant of the Detroit "Agri-Urban" movement, bringing social and economic benefits to its immediate neighborhood and beyond for the last decade and a half.

All of which raises the question, "Do these metaphors matter in creating businesses?" That is the question that I'm thinking about right now as I reflect on how a city in need can be returned to greatness.

How do you restore Detroit economically while honoring its culture and community and improving the environment? And how do you balance the impulse to let things grow organically at their own pace with the knowledge that there are many people living on the economic edge?

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Rural Schools Need Help. Here's How.

Matt Salefski was a student in my graduate level class, Solving Societal Problems through Enterprise and Innovation.  He wrote a term paper, which I have modified slightly, that talks about the "hidden" problem of serving the needs of poor, rural students and presents ideas for addressing this problem in a cost effective manner.

The Erb Institute at the University of Michigan along with the Union of Concerned Scientists held a workshop last weekend titled, "Increasing Public Understanding of Climate Risks and Choices: What We Can Learn from Social Science Research and Practice."  A video from the public Town Hall can be found here.

As the name of the workshop suggests, the intent was not to advance the science of global warming -- the science is overwhelmingly clear that climate change is occurring, the changes are due to human activity, and the consequences may be extremely destructive.  Instead, the intent of the workshop was centered on effective communication to help make these ideas more widely accepted and, most importantly, lead to action.

Some sobering statistics (courtesy of Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Projet on Climate Change Communication):

  • Various polls (Gallup, Pew, Harris Poll, and others) all show that, since 2006, the public has become less convinced that global warming is happening
  • We are also becoming less likely to believe that human activity is the cause
  • The majority of the public does not believe there is agreement among most scientists that global warming is happening, and that misperception, too, has become more pronounced in the last few years.
  • There are "Six Americas" in terms of general beliefs about global warming, those who are: Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful, and Dismissive.  There are approximately the same number of Alarmed or Concerned (37% combined) as there are Disengaged, Doubtful, or Dismissive (35% combined).

Much of the workshop focused on what social science recommends we do to set the facts straight and, more important, create action. Among the the ideas offered were suggestions to make sure  that all messaging 
  • begins emphatically with the idea that scientists agree that climate change is occurring, 
  • that it is caused by human activity, 
  • can lead to drastic changes and 
  • is solvable if we act
Further, to be effective in communication we must 
  • understand which of the Six Americas we're addressing 
  • appropriately tailor messages for each group and 
  • address them through the appropriate messenger (church congregations are vey open to their ministers, e.g.).
But what can you do?

Eric Pooley, of the Environmental Defense Fund and a former reporter, commented on journalists succumbing to "balance bias," where they feel compelled to balance pro's and con's to the point where reporting becomes mush (my word, not his).  

Thus, there is a need for non-mainstream communication, especially social media.  Already we've seen the powerful effects of social media in the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements.  Young people can play a strong role in trying to stay informed and spread the truth.

More concretely, it's possible to act as a environmental gadfly. Climate change deniers deliberately attempt to disseminate bad science.  (How else can we explain the disconnect between the actual consensus about climate change and the public's misunderstanding?)  Where are these views most likely to be published?  Mother Jones? The New Republic?  Not likely.  What about The Wall Street Journal?  Fox News?  You (and friends) might each "adopt" a news outlet that communicates bad science. Vigilantly track everything they publish about the environment and write in to correct errors in fact.  Every time.

Or: Help communicate what efforts work (or don't) in addressing climate change.  Follow and measure efforts in your own backyard and share them with clearinghouses like ClimateAccess.

Use sources such as this and NEON when it is up and running to stay informed about the scientific consensus and what people can do to effect change.  You do not need to be a geothermal scientist to be informed.  But by being informed and acting on your convictions, you just might help us save the planet.  (Put me in the America that is Alarmed.)
 

What We Buy Matters

It's Sunday after Thanksgiving. Christmas must be tomorrow, or maybe "Black Friday" has become "Black Every Day" based on my email inbox and all the TV commercials I've seen the past few days.

Buying stuff is alive and well.

But something else is in the air, something I'm reminded of as I plow through end-of-course papers written by my students in my course on "Solving Societal Problems Through Innovation and Enterprise." That something else is the spectrum of ways we can vote with our wallets to bend corporate behavior.

I believe that we can shape the evolution of a better society by creating better tests and then amplifying the efforts of companies that pass them (worldchangingbook.com). What follows are sketches, inspired from students, that give illustration. As these ideas continue to percolate, you'll be hearing more from me about nouveau consumerism.

Mia B. alerted me to consumerism for "slactivists." These are people who aren't deeply involved with political or social causes but can be induced to participate when the situation is right.

Carrotmobs (carrot: as in reward, as opposed to a stick) are relatively ordinary consumers who, when given a signal, mob a store that commits to using an agreed-upon percentage of the mob's revenue to make "sustainability" improvements like changing its lighting or buying organic seeds to grow and sell more healthful produce. 9carrots (9: I have no idea) operates similarly by letting shoppers find participating stores, buy lunch or a ladder there, and receive "9carrot receipts," which direct 10% of their purchases to the proprietor's energy upgrades and allow consumers to track these energy improvements.

For consumers, these can be fun experiences, maybe a bit time consuming if lines get long (but, hey couldn't that make them more fun?), and they just buy what they already intended to anyway. Companies learn that a more inclusive way of being tested ("I'll shop at your store more if you're more socially relevant") can help their business.

TOMS Shoes (TOMS: as in "tomorrow," not Thomas) creates a generational dividing line. I've polled friends and family in my age group -- above 30, well above -- and no one (and I've asked at least two people) has heard of TOMS. But as Mary Fritz begain her paper, "It's impossible not to notice that all the cool kinds are wearing TOMS." TOMS combines consumer choice with a business model built at its foundation to create a better society.

TOMS Shoes creates a better world through consumerism by donating one pair of new shoes for every pair that someone buys. This model has placed one million pairs of shoes on the feet of poor children.

Why shoes? When kids go barefoot it shows that they're poor, but it also contributes to their poverty by increasing the odds that they'll contract disease, get injured, or be denied admission to school. Other buy-one-give-one companies are sprouting up, selling everything from eye glasses and clothes to books, food bars, and even services like tutoring.

Whereas 9carrots lets consumers know that, if they need Crest toothpaste, they can purchase it "sustainably" by shopping at a particular store, the buy-one-give-one business model shapes consumer preferences. Consumers view TOMS as "social" shoes and seek them out, creating a strong, "hip" brand.

GoodGuide is a step ahead of TOMS, possibly 140,000 steps. GoodGuide lets consumers choose products based on characteristics covering their entire life cycle (from manufacture to disposal),  helping put in place new and better tests of which products are best.

GoodGuide takes publicly available information and lets consumers conveniently use it to compare various products. Consumers choosing coffee, T-shirts, or even cars can make comparisons based on societal/environmental considerations including their toxicity, greenhouse gas emissions, labor practices, etc. All told, 140,000 products are rated using over 1,000 different indicators. GoodGuide's genius? Making its free information operate in the background on consumers' computers and smart phones while they create shopping lists, order items online, or want to spot compare at the supermarket. Social comparisons become no more burdensome than deciding that 2 for $1.50 is a better price than 1 for $1.

Bigger efforts to promote sustainable purchasing, led by other parties, are under way, too. Those will have to wait for another day.

Still, the best way to vote with your feet may just be to walk the other way. Ask Patagonia.

Patagonia.jpg

Physics Pop Quiz.

Can something be in two places at the same time?
The answer from advanced physics is a clear (if counter-intuitive) Yes.

Can you create something from nothing?
We all know that you can’t — except scientists explain that you can, by taking a vacuum (nothing) and blasting it into its dense, complementary matter - anti-matter components (lots of something).


Can these esoteric observations help us address societal problems - problems operating on the scale of billions of people, not the sub-atomic level of quantum physics?
As metaphors and guiding questions, yes.

Let’s start with money. As a physical medium, if I’ve got a $5 bill in my wallet, it can’t be in yours at the same time. But, as a representation of financial value, my five dollars can be many places at once. If I deposit it in a bank, it’s mine, even if the bank considers it theirs and then uses it to make five $1 loans (meaning “my” five dollars is now in seven places at once).

A loan is the most basic financial derivative, a building block that, in effect, creates money and puts it into the hands of those who need it and can use it to create value. (This is not to overlook derivative’s frightening power and potential destructiveness. Derivatives too numerous and too complicated to describe account for more than twenty times the amount of money in the world’s annual economy, and those tied to housing values brought financial chaos to the world when they imploded.)

But let’s not forget the fundamental lesson: loans let us store the same medium of value in several places at the same time. And these loans need not be money. For instance, Impact Everyday is creating a credit card that lets you loan it the “points” your card earns, whose cash value is then used to fund renewable energy projects. Where do your points “live?” With you, with the card company, or with the solar farm you’re supporting?   It’s not a stretch to say they live each of those places at once.

Or consider your time.  We know that we can’t get it back, but we can come awfully close when we bank it. Time banks create non-monetary markets, often in income-strapped communities, where a unit of effort I perform (say, an hour’s worth of computer programming) is banked until I redeem it (maybe for an hour’s worth of repairs on my car). In obvious ways, this non-cash economy creates a powerful means for putting idle time to productive use and bootstrapping economic activity.

Lent time, as with lent money (credit card points, or other items of tangible value), unlocks value.  In different ways, each transforms potential into value that can help people and communities right now. Dare we say, being in two places at once creates something from nothing?

I consider these examples of Big Picture Design. A principle of Big Picture Design is never to let a good idea go to waste. Good ideas are everywhere, often requiring nothing more than imagination to be applied in a new context. If you can lend money, why not credit card points, time, airline miles, equipment, … ?

Big Picture Design also teaches us to consider everything in developing a solution to a societal problem. By considering everything, not just features that first come to mind, solutions are more comprehensive—and better.

Wal-Mart, poster child for much that needs changing (especially in the area of labor rights), has also jumped to the forefront of the environmental movement by (finally) considering everything involved in its products’ manufacture and delivery. A company that values low costs over everything else discovered it had ignored waste. Once it recognized this oversight, it eliminated the water in its gallon-sized laundry detergent, producing a much smaller container that eliminated three-fourths of the packaging, weight, shipping costs, and shelf space associated with the product. Customers got a less expensive, more convenient product that cleaned clothes equally well. Wal-Mart made more money.

From 2005 to 2008, Wal-Mart shifted its entire detergent inventory to small-size containers, pulling the industry’s production (one billion units) along with it. During this period, Wal-Mart’s actions alone caused 95 million fewer pounds of resin from petroleum to be used, 400 million fewer gallons of water, and more than 60,000 fewer tons of cardboard. The reduction in weight resulted in less fuel being consumed by its fleet of trucks, saving the company money and keeping 11 million pounds of CO2 out of the atmosphere

Wal-Mart also learned that, while it had believed it had nothing in common with soft-headed environmentalists, they both wanted the same outcome. Whether driven by lower costs (Wal-Mart) or a sustainable planet (environmentalists), finding common cause was the best way forward.

To both, waste was the enemy. While it may have appeared that nothing could be gained from Wal-Mart and environmentalists joining forces, this nothing became something. A big, profitable, sustainable something.

My daughter graduated from Oberlin College on Memorial Day.  The ceremony took place in a park with little shade on a crystal clear day, the kind you get in the Midwest when the temperature spikes 40 degrees in twenty-four hours.  It was sweltering.

 

But the true intensity came from the anticipation of what lies ahead, measured in people to be helped, a planet to be saved, lives to be changed.

 

Of course, the template for graduation speeches is to remind students to remember friends and institution; follow their dreams; and give back to others. 

 

But Oberlin is different.  A liberal arts college and music conservatory founded in 1833 in Oberlin, Ohio, it admitted women from the beginning, and granted women the first bachelor's degrees in the country in 1841.  In 1835, it became the first college to adopt a policy to admit students regardless of race. 

 

The town has long had progressive roots as well.  It was a pivotal stop on the Underground Railroad that ushered slaves to freedom in the north.  Residents' of Oberlin and the neighboring town of Wellington efforts in helping a fugitive slave flee to Canada reportedly sparked the Civil War.

 

Today, Oberlin and its environmental visionary, Professor David Orr, are in the early stages of creating a carbon-neutral, economically vibrant community that brings together town and gown, farm and city, today's needs and tomorrow's demands.  The Oberlin Project is a beacon pointing to the kind of world we can create if we try.

 

So, there was a rich and storied context as Oberlin's commencement speaker, Dr. Helene D Gayle, spoke about changing the world. 

 

Dr. Gayle had planned to be a pediatrician but had an epiphany at her brother's college graduation, where an epidemiologist described a successful campaign to eradicate smallpox.  The speech allowed Gayle to see how her own skills in medicine could be more broadly applied in a career in public health, providing her the opportunity to address interlinked problems of poverty, lack of affordable health care, and a broad set of inequities throughout the world. 

 

Thus was launched her remarkable career, first with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where her efforts focused on HIV/AIDS; then at the Gates Foundation, where she directed the foundation's HIV, TB and Reproductive Health program; and now at CARE (one of the best known organizations in the world devoted to fighting poverty, supporting women, and bringing about social justice), where she has been President and CEO since 2006. 

 

All because she was moved by a commencement address.

 

Some Oberlin graduates undoubtedly were moved by Dr. Gayle's remarks, their futures shifted in positive ways that will be revealed over the course of their lifetimes.  And yet others - including those who want to make a difference in the world - are still searching, despite the glimpse of all things sustainable, equitable, and right about the world that four years at Oberlin exposed them to.  I know, because I asked.  And because I teach students who are also looking to create meaning in their lives.

 

As a professor at the Ross School of Business I teach courses with titles that are a bit too long, like Solving Societal Problems through Innovation and Enterprise.  In these courses, I want my students to see that innovation can propel for-profit and nonprofit organizations to tackle some of the world's chief challenges: poverty, health care, education, the environment.  And taking these problems on can be done from a sense of opportunity, not just responsibility. 

 

We discuss ways to dramatically improve health care with cell phones, discarded medicines, and video games.  We consider improving education for children in India with "educational Karaoke," teenagers in the worst Bronx schools by training them as entrepreneurs, and college-ready students in Arica who cannot afford tuition by providing free, world-class college curricula.  We discuss charities run as for-profits, multinational corporations working in full-partnership with slum dwellers, alliances between environmental NGOs and huge retailers who intimately depend on each other for their mutual success through saving the rainforests, and powerful means of harnessing the power of collective action to identify, solve, and accelerate solutions to the world's most pressing challenges.

 

Why do students flock to these courses?  Because they hunger to combine their intellect and their hearts.  They crave the sense of meaning that comes from creating, especially when they find work that provides them with a means of support and a vehicle to have huge impact.  And mostly because they see the world with fresh eyes, free from the cynicism that that can come from thinking that anything that can be tried, has been tried.

 

The companies and organizations that are forging a better world need fresh eyes, too.  The practices that have gotten where we are - a physical planet in perilous shape and a socio-economic planet where the distribution of wealth and access to life's necessities (let alone luxuries) is more skewed than ever before in history in favor of the "haves" - are not the same practices that can lead us to a planet capable of sustaining us physically or providing a secure, healthy world that truly creates opportunity for all.

 

Graduation is both an end and a beginning.  It is a time to reflect, give thanks, and seek renewal.

 

To my daughter Hannah I say, 


"Congratulations on completing your degree. I'm so proud of you.  As you take your Oberlin degree into the world, I know we are lucky to have you joining the fight for a more sustainable world.  Lead, take action, and become a life-long student."  (The word "student," derived from Latin, suggests study, scholarship, and learning - not necessarily formal education, you know.)

 

And to students everywhere - whether you're enrolled in a degree program; striking out on your own as a (social) entrepreneur; working in an organization; or possibly running one - I say, 


"There's never been a time we've more urgently needed new ways of addressing the societal issues in front of us.  There are innovative ways for business to seek opportunity to serve, rather than acting purely with greed, frustrating progress, or withholding their formidable talents that could be used to create immeasurable benefits.  It's time to see the world with fresh eyes and create a better world.  It's time for us to graduate from old ways, which no longer serve us, and look at the world anew."

 

I have had the privilege to teach and learn from "students" of all stripes who want a more just society: those enrolled in my classes of course; but also those who I've worked with and supported on the ground in inner cities and the farthest corners of the planet;  officials of organizations devoted to a more equitable society, whether they occupy corner offices or cramped quarters in an attic; and like-minded do-ers seeking to make inroads against injustice through the provision of clean water, access to microfinance, more sustainable food systems, the elimination of homelessness, to name a few areas.

 

I invite you to join me in exploring a new world where we solve societal problems through innovation and enterprise.   Let us learn together.

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