11/06/2007 01:53 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

We Can't Say We Don't Know

Over the course of the last month or so, I've attended two extraordinary gatherings of business leaders, activists, and game-changers of all stripes: the Clinton Global Initiative, President Clinton's annual philanthropic summit in New York City and Pop!Tech, a decade-old assembly of executives, entrepreneurs, artists, activists, and thinkers in Camden, ME. The two events are dedicated to the same fundamental mission--unleashing positive change in the world--yet they couldn't be more different as experiences. CGI packs in dark-suited CEOs, heads of state, celeb-activists, and television cameras by the hundreds. The emphasis is on big names (Tony Blair, Desmond Tutu, Angelina Jolie) and big numbers (billion-dollar initiatives), and all the action seems to take place behind the scenes. Pop!Tech's vibe is more synchilla than Secret Service. Its stars spend more time on the cutting edge than on the front page, the emphasis is on big brains and big hearts--and all of the action unfolds as an open conversation with the "community" assembled in Camden's 19th-century opera house.

Now, it's probably unfair to compare Pop!Tech's lively populism to CGI's parade of power. But maybe it's instructive. CGI is undeniably impressive and important: last year the "eBay of philanthropy" brokered $7.3 billion in pledges, while this year attendees made 245 commitments with a vast potential impact (from putting 8.5 million children in school for the first time to giving 50 million people access to treatment for neglected tropical diseases to protecting 170 million acres of forest), and another 40,000 pledged their time and money to a range of causes online. Pop!Tech has an entirely different kind of reach--more immediate and on a smaller scale, but no less important. In addition to a dizzying density of ideas, Pop!Tech provided multiple answers to a crucial question: Where does change start? Or, more to the point, what turns a dreamer into a doer? Speaker after speaker offered up valuable and visceral accounts of personal moments of truth that took them off the career path and put them on the path to making a difference. Here are a few favorites:

In 2000, Victoria Hale resigned from a great career at pharmaceutical giant Genentech to found the world's first non-profit pharmaceutical company (yes, I know, the concept bends the mind). She recounted her simultaneous "pride" in being a pharmaceutical scientist and her "shame" in being part of an industry that largely devotes itself to developing blockbuster drugs for the Western world while neglecting the diseases of the developing world (and the 10 million children who die from them every year). A question nagged at her until she quit her job to take some time to really listen to it: "If I know that more can be done, how can I not do it?"

In response, she designed an experiment around another question: Was it possible to take the money out of the drug development equation? Could she create a process for developing drugs (and testing them, getting them approved and manufactured) to make them as safe and effective as any blockbuster drug, but affordable enough for the poorest of the poor (those that live on less than a dollar a day)? A few years, a MacArthur Genius award, and several Gates Foundation grants later, her organization, One World Health, has done just that. OWH is focused on three drug development and distribution programs around three diseases: Visceral Leishmaniasis (AKA Kala-Azar, the second most deadly parasitic disease in the world), malaria (which afflicts more than 350 million people a year and kills 1 million), and diarrheal disease (which kills some 2 million babies a year).

The test case, Kala-Azar, has already yielded extraordinary results in India. Hale and her team unearthed a powerhouse off-patent antibiotic (Paromomycin), got regulatory approval, found a manufacturer willing to produce the drug at cost, and succeeded in reducing the cure from several hundred dollars (which puts families in the position of pitting a life against generations of debt) to about $10 (still too expensive, but the governments of India, Nepal and Bangladesh are now inspired to lead the effort eradicate the disease in the next five years). Next up: One World Health is part of the Gates Foundation's moon shot to rid the earth of malaria with a groundbreaking approach to producing a radically affordable treatment for the disease. (Tonight, Victoria will be honored as one of Glamour"s "Women of the Year".)

Jessica Flannery had been asking herself a very different sort of question before changing the course of her career, her life, and the lives of tens of thousands of people around the globe. She had a "fine job" and, like so many working people, a deep-seated sense that she was meant to be doing something else, something more. But the tape playing in her head ran to the tune of: "Who am I? A middle-class white girl from Pittsburgh. What can I do?" Her turning point: hearing the Nobel Prize-winning father of microfinance and Grameen Bank) founder Muhammad Yunus speak.

"It was literally a full-body experience for me," she recalls. Both the model and the spirit behind Yunus' campaign against poverty spoke to her--and inspired her to quit her job and move to East Africa to spend some time studying the impact of micro-loans on rural entrepreneurs. That leap led to the creation of, a two-year-old nonprofit that has catapulted microfinance into the mainstream. The motto is "loans that change lives" and the model is powerfully simple: create an online platform for individual lenders from around the world to provide zero-interest loans (a minimum of $25) to micro-entrepreneurs around the world. Kiva's website serves as both storytelling and transaction platform to connect real people together. To date, Kiva has brokered over $14 million in loans to nearly 140,000 people from around the world.

The Kiva story is undeniably inspiring--and Jessica's delivery made a refreshing case for sincerity and enthusiasm as legitimate starting points for making a difference in the world.

Claire Nouvian turned up the dial on Jessica's enthusiasm to 11. A French journalist and filmmaker, Nouvian traces her particular awakening to a 2001 visit to an exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium featuring the almost unbelievably exotic creatures of the deep ocean. She dedicated several years to researching them and creating a book and movie (both called The Deep) about them.

At the same time, she was incubating an uncontainable outrage around the wanton destruction of deep sea ecosystems. Nouvian points out that while 99% of the world's volume is water (the more commonly reported statistic is 75% of its surface), we've only explored .5% of the higher reaches in the last half century and barely scraped the bottom.

The deep sea, home to those incredible life forms, is already under attack. As overfishing continues to knock big marine animals out of existence (from whales to sharks and on down the food web), the deep sea floor loses a valuable source of food--their carcasses feed hundreds of other species. Deep sea mining and dumping (e.g. CO2 sequestration) also contribute to the demise of this valuable ecological resource. But more immediate and devastating is bottom trawling: nets the size of soccer fields with heavy steel rims which drag across the sea floor and scoop up or flatten everything in their path--including coral reefs that can take tens of thousands of years to evolve.

It's a brutal-and, according to Nouvian--utterly unjustified form of fishing. She argues that deep sea trawling accounts for just .5% of the worldwide catch, involves only about 300-400 vessels and is a $400 million industry. Puny. She compares the massacre of the deep sea to the recent genocide in Rwanda. It's a breathtaking leap but drives home the horror. "We are destroying a unique planetary heritage at unprecedented speed and scale in an irreversible manner for no reason," she says. And, once again, in the face of reckless annihilation, "we can't say we don't know."

That's a call to action if I ever heard one. "We can't say we don't know." It's not just an exhortation to save the oceans, it also seems to be a pretty good answer to that perennial question "What should I do with my life?" Like Victoria, Jessica, and Claire, you already know. The passions and questions are already lurking within. It's up to you to design an experiment, take a flying leap, or start walking down a path to unleash them.