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For Young Entrepreneurs, Social Mission Trumps Money

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Starry-eyed student entrepreneurs storm the New York Stock Exchange at The Kairos Society's annual summit.
Starry-eyed student entrepreneurs storm the New York Stock Exchange at The Kairos Society's annual summit.

On a Saturday in February, three days after Facebook filed for what's expected to be the largest Internet IPO ever, 350 young entrepreneurs with Zuckerberg-style swagger walked into the New York Stock Exchange.

Well, most walked in. Two 23-year-olds, the founders of a bike company, actually rode their product onto the NYSE floor.

At the fourth annual Kairos Summit, young members of The Kairos Society, a networking group for student entrepreneurs, pitched business ideas to 150 executives and political leaders, including Richard Saul Wurman, the creator of TED Conferences, and Duncan Niederauer, CEO of the NYSE.

The ideas ran the gamut, from a pocket-sized alcohol breathalyzer that plugs into a smartphone to a cable box that gives American viewers cheap access to foreign TV stations.

Yet at the heart of nearly every pitch was a social mission. The founders of the breathalyzer company, for instance, espoused their commitment to reducing alcohol-related deaths. The creators of the international cable box said their idea was born out of a desire to make the world more connected through television.

Each aspiring mogul made a point to paint their startup with goals far loftier than mere moneymaking -- much like Gen-Y's entrepreneurial figurehead Mark Zuckerberg has done with Facebook.

"Facebook was not originally created to be a company," Zuckerberg wrote in a letter to potential investors that was part of Facebook's IPO filing earlier this month. "It was built to accomplish a social mission -- to make the world more open and connected."

"We don't build services to make money; we make money to build better services," he wrote.

The ethos of Kairos -- to "do well by doing good" -- is not too far off, suggesting that it's not riches but social change that propels today's startup kids.

Or, maybe it's all just a PR stunt, an advertising ploy pioneered by Zuckerberg and adopted by the latest crop of entrepreneurs to capture the hearts and wallets of customers and investors who feel burned by the corporate greed that supposedly caused the most recent recession.

Or, maybe not, says a survey of over 250 Kairos members, conducted by Humantelligence, a company that helps organizations better understand their constituents' behavior.

Wealth ranked in the top five motivators for only 5 percent of the surveyed Kairos members, which, a Humantelligence analyst noted, is very low compared to the average business leader. Meanwhile, the desire to help others was the number-one motivator for over 10 percent of the respondents.

"Young people's conception of success has evolved," said Ankur Jain, the 22-year-old founder of the Kairos Society. "They see success as changing lives. And they're drawn to technology because they see it as a way to help people in the world who aren't benefiting from that technology."

In many ways, the long-term success of Facebook as a publicly traded company will give credence to an entire generation of young entrepreneurs who have seemingly adopted Zuckerberg's penchant for prioritizing social value over money, expecting that the former will eventually lead to the latter.

Even their financial backers seem to be entertaining the idea. At the Kairos Summit, one student's attempt to solicit investments caught the attention of a nearby investor, who was attending as an executive mentor.

"We have no money for you here," the mentor replied, "only ideas."