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Auren Kaplan

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Benevolent Capitalism is Changing The World

Posted: 11/12/10 02:31 PM ET

Earlier this year, I was fortunate to be invited to speak at the Holocaust Remembrance Project awards banquet. The Holocaust Remembrance Project is a nation-wide essay contest encouraging students to discuss how they are moving forward the ideals of tolerance, shared community, and respect for personal differences in light of the travesty of the Holocaust, which claimed well over 12 million lives, six million of them Jewish.

The program awakened within me a human consciousness that has not left, leaving me feeling frustrated and bereft when I learn that 5,000 people are being killed monthly in the Sudan, the amount of two 9/11s every month, because of their identity. I distinctly remember Gen. Wesley Clark giving the keynote address in 2004 (when I was one of the HRP finalists) discussing to the crowd of young people, educators, and dignitaries the horrors of the genocide in Darfur. It is ongoing today. Do your part to support organizations fighting the genocide here, here, and here.

I had been asked to speak about how the Holocaust Remembrance Project had affected me in the years since winning one of the 10 first place prizes (a $1,000 check and an incredibly meaningful week-long program in Washington, DC where we met Holocaust survivors, visited museums, thought critically, and reflected on the range of behaviors which humanity has made real). And in my speech, I challenged the audience to realize that the truest cause of the Holocaust was not hate, but indifference -- apathy -- that notion that in a forested village life could be serene and children could play, and five miles away gassed bodies could be burned in furnaces. And the villagers would know, obviously, but they would not act. They refused to act. They ignored.

You might be wondering what this essay has to do with benevolent capitalism. I will tell you, just as I told that audience at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles. I told them that, while we were eating wonderful chicken dinners, with people soaking in sun at the ocean just miles away and with each of us going back to our homes -- in this moment -- and I stopped speaking, to let that moment sink in -- 900 million people are drinking dirty water. Over 2 billion people are living on $2 per day. In this same moment where you are sitting at your laptop. Right now.

I told them that if we were to truly honor the lessons that Holocaust survivors impart -- that Never Again means that we care for our fellow men and women, and that indifference is the worst form of evil -- then everybody in that room -- and every person reading this article -- has a human responsibility to take action to make the world better for all those billions who lack. There are only 6.6 billion of us. One third live on $2 per day.

But what can people do? What does that mean, to not be indifferent, when one has bills to pay, and families to support, and college loans to pay off even decades after graduation? That is where the world of benevolent capitalism comes into play, and that is how I spun an optimistic tale at that podium, in spite of speaking in relation to such a horrific human past. Because the reality is that humanity is getting its act together. Humanity is acting. And all of us fellow human beings are taking action based upon what we know -- business and capitalism.

Money does make the world work. Capitalists built schools; their steel mills built American cities, their cars drove America into the suburbs, their inventions now transport hundreds of thousands of people through the air every day. Modern society works because capitalism exists, and I stand by that statement with the knowledge that my LG cell phone sits beside me at my desk, and my Acer computer is the means by which I write to you now.

I told that crowd that capitalism has to get its act together to solve the world's social problems, because everyone dedicates their lives to the capitalist system, whether as an entrepreneur, as a happily employed middle-American, or as a waitress struggling to pay the rent and feed her child. And I'm happy to report to you, it has. Here, I'm going to tell you a few meaningful ways business has engaged to make the world a better place.

1. Marvell, the semi-conductor manufacturer, contributed $5.6 million to One Laptop Per Child in designing a new tablet PC that can be used to help kids learn in the Third World. They didn't just donate the money; they designed the product to be specifically applied for third world use, with an additional model tailored for the first-world.

2. Walmart installed TerraCycle recycling and garbage bins outside of New Jersey stores, and may expand the program nationwide. TerraCycle takes an innovative spin on recycling and waste, taking things most people think are garbage -- like empty Capri-Sun juice bags, or Oreo cookie wrappers -- and fashioning them into cool products that kids can take to school as backpacks and more. TerraCycle has successfully "upcycled" $1.85 billion worth of garbage since its inception (and as a plug, TerraCycle is founded by a Fellow of StartingBloc, Tom Szaky).

3. Nordstrom is preparing to open an innovative new department store in downtown Manhattan that will donate all of its profits to charity. This example of a cause integration is important because the company is not only able to contribute to good works in the world; it also is able to apply its brand power and deeply intuitive knowledge of retail and the American consumer to create an experience around shopping to do good. Nordstrom is setting a precedent for other mainstream corporations to follow of applying their business expertise to doing their part to contribute to a better and more sustainable world community.

4. Newman's Own is a salad dressing brand that millions of Americans have enjoyed for years. I always had Newman's Own caesar salad dressing back home in Michigan. You might have heard that Newman's Own contributes all of their after-tax profits to charity. You might not have known that this one little salad dressing company has raised literally $300 million dollars for charities since its inception. Imagine what other major corporations could do once billion dollar companies start forming with the intention of donating after-tax profits to charity!

5. The Product (RED) campaign has partnered with corporations to create branded products of all types that raise money for AIDS research and has donated over $150 million dollars to the Global Fund for AIDS prevention. They have done so by bringing (RED) Dell Laptops, (RED) Starbucks coffee, (RED) American Express Cards, (RED) surfboards, and more to American "citizen consumers" who want to make the world better through their purchases.

6. One Percent For The Planet is a global movement of corporations that are donating 1 percent of their net revenues to nonprofits that work for environmental sustainability and wellbeing. The efforts of member organizations have led to $50 million raised for environmental organizations.

7. Visa recently donated $1 million dollars to the global micro-finance leader Kiva, which has to date lent more than $100 million in micro-loans to entrepreneurs around the world. The $1 million donation by Visa will be applied to American entrepreneurs now using the Kiva platform.

8. Yum! Brands, which brings you KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, fulfilled its commitment made at the Clinton Global Initiative to fight hunger by donating $80 million dollars and 200 million meals to people all over the world over five years.

9. Google recently donated $10 million dollars to innovative nonprofits, one of which is revolutionizing education in the third world. The Khan Academy, who received a $2 million grant from Google, creates YouTube videos of every single academic subject matter, from algebra to chemistry to history. In this way, children anywhere in the world with Internet access can learn for free. Once a broadband and wireless Internet company brings wireless to remote areas of the world, poor children can easily learn -- I clearly picture a school with a single computer for 100 kids and a projector showing Khan Academy videos. The opportunity is astounding.

10. Change The Equation is the result of 100 companies bringing their CEO leadership together to address the United States' declining performance in critical educational STEM areas -- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The organization is piloting innovative and important educational programs to encourage and empower students to perform more highly in these areas.

These 10 initiatives are just a few of the many ways that businesses are doing their part to change the world through capitalism. I call this shift "benevolent capitalism." You can call it what you want -- what matters is that organizations and networks are leveraging their resources to mobilize to change the world. I've written in previous blog posts about how consumers are clamoring for companies to sell them products that empower nonprofits, communities, and engage consumers to participate in change. Not only are companies responding, they are using their own unique resources to contribute to a better world.

If the lessons of the Holocaust any indication, we human beings are in this together. We have to do something. Because the world needs action, and because our fellow man needs us to take action. And I am proud to report that we are. There is much more work to be done, without question. But as businesses continue to direct their resources for the good of people and planet, their efforts to use capitalism for the greater good are being met with success.

 

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