Impact Journeys

Is silicon valley solving the problems that matter most?

Published on
2018-09-01
Written by
Jeremy Le Van
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Are we as impactful as we think?

I wonder if the startup world has an inflated sense of its own impact? Don't get me wrong, all technology has an effect 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 a way, I do agree with the notion that Silicon Valley is a bubble, but not just because of inflated company valuations or cultural stereotypes. More to the point, I think we can get so narrowly 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 exactly 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. It was all-consuming.

Founders Pledge seemed like an antidote to this shift, in getting startup folks together to talk and learn about something outside of the usual SV sphere. My pledge also gave me a way to engage with completely new topics. There were so many social challenges I'd always wanted to engage with, but that existed completely outside of the virtual spaces of my daily work. Now I finally had a tangible way of getting involved.

Eyes towards the social sector

With Founders Pledge's guidance, I donated a portion of my proceeds from the Sunrise acquisition to some of the most promising and transparent charities in the world. I want to take this chance to highlight those charities, as they are doing some of the most difficult, innovative, and important work in the world, and I think they’re equally as deserving of our attention as the startups in Silicon Valley.

A systemic approach to Climate Change

One of the significant problems 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, but animal farming is also the third largest contributor to anthropogenic climate change.

But in order for habits to change at scale, 'greener' choices will have to be more accessible, desirable, and affordable.

A food-tech revolution

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.

GFI have demonstrated exceptionally effective operations, much like a great tech startup. They’ve proved successful so far, having launched and supported plant-based and clean meat companies of all stages, partnered with food scientists to support innovation, and worked with regulators at FDA and USDA to secure a competitive marketplace for meat substitutes. In other words, they’re a team I felt confident would spend my donation productively.

Tried and tested tools to halt emissions

Innovation in sustainable technology will be crucial to fighting climate change, but it’s difficult to predict what will work. So I wanted to balance my ‘investments’ by also donating to a tried and tested approach. Research has found that preserving our natural carbon sinks (such as the rainforest) is one of the most cost-effective strategies for greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

A disruptive force in an old cause area

Rainforest conservation has been a well-funded cause for 60 years, yet half of the forest has disappeared since then. It’s clearly a sector that needs some shaking up.

Cool Earth’s aim is to target underlying problems, rather than symptoms. Instead of buying up land to preserve it, they work with indigenous communities in the forest, providing them with financial tools and incentives to reject loggers. The idea is to empower local people, incubate sustainable, climate-friendly businesses, and protect the forest, all at one stroke. Importantly, it’s been estimated as an outstandingly cost-effective approach for preventing carbon emissions.

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.

Rethinking what charity can be

I’ve never felt especially drawn to big, multi-national aid organisations. I could never quite put my finger on why, but ultimate those were the ones I was most exposed to (and I suspect that’s the same for many people), so I never knew how to start getting involved with social impact. The a-ha moment came when I learned about GiveDirectly.

A surprisingly simple idea

To my mind, the brilliance of GiveDirectly's model is thanks to a few simple principles:

First, people in poverty know what they need.

When we think about charity, we tend to think of in-kind gifts: shipments of clean water, bags of rice, textbooks, goats, and so on. But why not empower people to make their own choicest about what's best in their unique context? Given how complex social problems are, they’re the ones who are likeliest to have a clear view of the situation. And let’s face it. If you receive a sponsored goat along with every other household in your community, you won't have much luck selling milk to get some savings together. GiveDirectly, having observed this phenomenon, decided to transfer unconditional cash payments directly to recipients in extreme poverty in East Africa.

Second, operational efficiency is the foundation.

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: how do we give people the things that are most useful to them? Cash transfers are also some of the most well-researched programs in the international development space, and these studies show that recipients overwhelmingly spend the funds in sensible, productive ways that lead to long-term benefits (education, home improvement, increased consumption, etc.).

GiveDirectly constantly improve their services by collecting customer feedback from all their recipients (rather than just their donors!) They even make their 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. That's real transparency for you.

The most important lesson I’ve learnt from this process is bigger than any one cause area; it's that social change is so much more complex than it seems from the outside.

That’s why I wanted to share my journey. If we can get an 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!), we can make it the norm to engage with the problems that matter most.

-- Jeremy

Jeremy Le Van

Author

Jeremy co-founded Sunrise with Pierre Valade. After 2 years, they sold their popular calendar app to Microsoft for $100 million, and Jeremy joined as the Design Director at Outlook Mobile.