We live in the age of the entrepreneur, whether the tech entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Alexis Ohanian or the social entrepreneurs like Ben Rattray, Bill Drayton and Tony Hsieh. Entrepreneurs dominate headlines with awesome new technology, massive donations and innovation. Always, always innovation. Entrepreneurship promises to put you in the driver's seat of your own destiny, which makes it a very attractive pursuit, particularly for those interested in social innovation and making their impact on the world. (While there are other reasons one might become an entrepreneur, I'll focus on these components here.) What's more, it's much more accessible nowadays: Once the domain of a very select few like JP Morgan and Andrew Carnegie, entrepreneurship is well within reach of most anyone with an idea, a decent Internet connection and lots of free time. This is why we have shows like Silicon Valley depicting the young upstarts taking on the established megacompanies, a myriad of accelerators and support organizations like Y combinator, WeWork and General Assembly, and more centers for social innovation than you can shake a b-corporation at.
So, with all of these wonderful resources, what could possibly be the downside of entrepreneurship? Why aren't we all starting our own companies this very second? Well, there are a few reasons, and they indicate the wider systems of institutions, policies and economics that play just as large a part in shaping the state of the world.
1. The world needs infrastructure
It's going to be hard to deliver food to impoverished villages if there are no roads. It will be difficult for people to browse your hot new startup's website if they have no Internet. And forget about encouraging people to make a name for themselves if they don't have clean running water. These are problems that business alone cannot solve - in some cases, we truly need the government. FDR's New Deal is credited with building out a huge part of America's infrastructure: both physical infrastructure like roads and bridges as well as social infrastructure like hospitals and schools. Few businesses could have afforded to make that kind of investment, and certainly none of them would have chosen to. Infrastructure of all kinds is required for safe living and economic prosperity, and no number of startups can turn a city around if its infrastructural base isn't solid. The current assessment of America's infrastructure has been given an abysmal overall D+ grade by the American Society of Civil Engineers, with an estimated $3.6 trillion needed for repairs and upgrades of bridges, transportation networks and hazardous waste disposal needed by 2020. A lot of work from many different stakeholders will be required to turn that around.
2. Large firms and organizations have resources
If you're starting your own company, you're starting from absolute zero. No money, no recognition, and no clout. You have to build your client base, your audience and your team, all while trying to sustain yourself and make an impact in your area of focus. It's a tough road to hoe, one that only gets more intense the more successful you become. Contrast that to larger organizations, whose names and presence are known throughout the country, and perhaps the world. Whether for-profit or non-profit, they will be able to accomplish bigger projects and try grander innovations (yes, large organizations can innovate too) than the startup struggling to stay afloat. Even companies that have no social mission whatsoever frequently have Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) offices, through which they launch charitable initiatives. While CSR is not without its controversies, it remains an important avenue through which socially positive initiatives can be delivered.
3. Most innovation isn't social - it's technological
The social innovation movement is fairly recent, coming to prominence along with the increased ease of entrepreneurship. But for much of the past few decades, "innovation" has not referred to microgrants, eco-tourism or design thinking. It's referred to the process of science and technology innovation, long understood as one of the primary engines of economic growth. This is the process of developing new technology from scratch, starting with basic research, moving through sophisticated technological development and finally commercializing a useable product. NASA's research during the Space Race brought us more than a man on the moon and significant advances in computer technology - a number of inventions are in use today because of their work. Startups may come up with all sorts of great uses for technology, but they are at the very end of the value chain, and can only do so much to commercialize a product. While Tesla has been doing great work in the electric car market, the fact remains that such cars will remain unaffordable to the average consumer without continued advances in battery R&D. And this is R&D that won't be funded by private investors either, as it may take several years before any effective progress can be made. This is a key function of the government and research unversities.
With so many big problems that need addressing, it's clear that the social innovation conversations need to be much wider. While it's great that many have founded businesses and nonprofits to zero in on the micro-level problems they're passionate about, they also need a broader understanding of macro-levels concerns and influences that are required for true systemic change. So maybe think twice before you struggle through your startup. Maybe there's a position in corporate America through which you can serve as an intrapreneur, working to change the old institutional practices and priorities from the inside out. Maybe you're a scientist or engineer who can help improve our infrastructure and technology innovation instead of getting that MBA. Or maybe, like me, your preferred vehicle of change is public policy, and you can work to forge good regulation and practices for the future. And if you really have the entrepreneurial bug, you can even do your startup part time. But whatever you choose, always understand that we live in a complex world with millions of moving parts. Let's make sure we're focused on improving every single one of them.