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Is Silicon Valley solving the problems that matter most? | Jeremy Le Van

"Social impact is a lot more complex than it seems from the outside." - Sunrise co-founder Jeremy Le Van writes about why and how he donated his pledge.

Why Give Back

I think the startup world can sometimes have an inflated sense of impact. Don't get me wrong, all technology has an impact on the way we live - but let's not fool ourselves: the majority of us aren’t building products that will tackle our most pressing global challenges.

So in this sense, I do agree with the pervasive notion that Silicon Valley is a bit of a bubble, but not because of inflated valuations or cultural stereotypes. Rather, because we can get so absorbed with the next funding round or the latest investment trend that we lose sight of the bigger picture.

The turning point

I discovered Founders Pledge at just the right time. I’d lived in Silicon Valley for many years, and it felt to me like the culture was changing. Despite a carefully maintained image - that of the quintessentially mission-driven and ‘alternative’ startup lifestyle - I saw attention increasingly reserved for the financial bottom line.

Founders Pledge seemed like an antidote to this shift. My pledge also afforded me personally a way to engage with social challenges; challenges that exist outside of the virtual space my daily work revolves around.

With FP's assistance, I donated a portion of my proceeds from the Sunrise acquisition to some of the most evidence-backed and transparent charities in the world. Now I want to share how and why I chose them:

How I donated.

I decided to focus on climate change, which has been a concern of mine ever since I realised how interlinked it is with all other causes out there. It’s not simply the domain of polar bears and exotic birds. It's in the realm of human rights, political conflict, poverty, natural disasters, and global health. To put it in perspective: The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2030, 250,000 additional people will die each year due to the effects of climate change.

It always seemed like an impossibly big problem to have any effect on, but I figured FP could help change that.

I also decided to look at a few different routes to impact. Founders Pledge made me realise that donating isn’t that different from investment (except you’re optimising for social impact), so it just made good sense to me to ‘diversify my portfolio', so to speak.

A systemic approach

One of the main structures that underpin climate change is our broken food system. Factory farms accounts for 99% of US animal produce. Not only are their conditions ethically abhorrent in terms of animal rights and human health; animal farming is also the third largest contributor to anthropogenic climate change.

But for habits to change at scale, alternative choices will have to become more accessible, desirable, and affordable.

The idea

Good Food Institute sustinable food

The Good Food institute (GFI) works on the supply side of the food system challenge. They promote the development of commercial alternatives to animal based foods, by supporting food-tech researchers and startups. They also engage in policy work around food systems.

The organisation

GFI have since their inception been exceptionally committed to effectiveness and efficiency in operations. So far, they’ve seen some great successes: they’ve launched and supported plant based and clean meat (meat grown from cells outside an animal) companies from early- to late-stage, partnered with food scientists to support innovation, and worked with regulators at FDA and USDA to secure a competitive marketplace.

A mitigation approach

Innovation in sustainable technology will be crucial in fighting climate change, but it’s difficult to predict what will work. So I also wanted to invest in a tried and tested intervention we know to be impactful. Research has found that strategically preserving our natural carbon sinks is the most cost-effective in this category.

The idea

Cool Earth rainforest conservation

Rainforest conservation has been around for 60 years, yet half of it has disappeared since then. It’s clear the sector needs shaking up.

Cool Earth is an ingenious solution that works on underlying problems rather than symptoms. Instead of buying land to preserve it, they work with indigenous communities in the forest, providing them with financial stability and incentives to reject loggers attempting to destroy the forest.

The idea in itself is brilliant - you economically empower local communities, incubate long-term, environment friendly businesses, and protect the forest - all at the same time. But more importantly: it has been estimated as an outstandingly cost-effective project for off-setting carbon emissions.

The organisation

They’re transparent about everything they do: both failures and successes. They measure the long-term outcomes of their projects using satellite imagery. You can see their director explaining their disruptive approach in this video.

So far, they’ve saved 900,000 acres of forest, empowered 118 villages, and locked in 234,436,540 tonnes of Co2. They estimate a further 5,000,000 acres are indirectly shielded because of the strategic positioning of protected areas.

Cool Earth rainforest protection

A revolutionary approach

I’d never felt especially drawn to the huge multi-national aid organisations I’d been exposed to before, and could never put my finger on exactly why. That is, until I learned about GiveDirectly. Something clicked.

The idea

GiveDirectly is based on two simple but game-changing principles:

1. People themselves know best what they need.

GiveDirectly 2

When we think about charity, we tend to think of in-kind gifts: shipments of clean water, bags of rice, textbooks, goats. But why not empower people to make the choicest that are best for their unique situation? (After all, if every family in your community gets a goat, you’re not gonna have much luck selling milk to garner some savings).

GiveDirectly transfer cash payments directly to recipients in extreme poverty in East Africa.

2. Operational effectiveness.

By giving directly to recipients through mobile payment, GiveDirectly reduce risks of corruption and fraud, slash operational costs, and avoid a very real dilemma most aid still faces: giving people things that aren’t actually the most useful to them. Cash transfers are some of the most well-researched programs in the international development space, and studies show that recipients overwhelmingly spend the funds in productive ways, leading to long-term benefits.

Give Directly solution to extreme poverty

The organisation

GiveDirectly constantly improve their services by collecting customer feedback from all their recipients (rather than just their donors). They track their impact long term, and make all their key performance metrics available to the public in real time on their website.

They’ve had external impact assessments done on their programs and been 100% open about the results. They’ve deployed technology strategically (for example using satellite imagery to identify recipients based on the quality of their roofs), and they’ve proven the scalability of their model.


The overarching lesson I’ve learnt from all this, is that social impact is a lot more complex than it seems from the outside. Which is why I decided to write about my donation: if we can get a open discussion going about the social impact of the tech sector, we can all start to apply ourselves more actively to social challenges - whether through philanthropy or business practices (hopefully, both!) and make it the norm to also concern ourselves with the problems that really matter.

-- Jeremy

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Originally published on 5 January 2018


Jeremy Le Van

Co-founder of Sunrise, Design director at Microsoft
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