Wednesday, November 14th, 2007
Sometime today, 23 years ago, I was born. 23. There is something about that number that is so much more mature sounding than 22. Maybe it’s the loss of that second hard “T” in “twenty-two:” alliteration smacks of youthful insouciance, does it not? Until now I have always been able to claim that I was young for what I was doing; I started college when I was 17, and I started grad school at 22. Now that I’m 23 people pretty much expect me to be where I am. In other words, my age has lost its luster.
And that seems to be a pretty common theme with birthdays. The older one gets the less special and exciting they seem, and the more they become a means of measuring and reflecting upon the inexorable passage of time. It is hard to believe that just one year ago I had a birthday party: it seems like it happened just yesterday. Yet it is equally hard to believe that 10 years ago we got about 10 of my friends together and played a flag football game for my birthday, during which I sprained my ankle. (it is even more astonishing to believe that the next year I did the same thing: sprained my ankle during a flag football game for my birthday during which the field was muddy and I was wearing tennis shoes. . .) I can look back and picture myself in the past, and even understand what I thought and felt and did, but to ponder all that has changed, both in me and the world around me, is to reflect upon the very nature of existence.
Who I was but a day ago is not who I am today. Every new idea, thought, experience and action shapes and changes me. I don’t know if that is due to my youth, my malleability, my openness, or simply the fact that all humans are in constant flux, whether they admit it or not. The latter is probably the case, yet I can’t help feeling that there is something to the former as well, for while we are indeed in constant flux, let’s just say, some people are more receptive to that than others.
This seems like a perfect time to reflect on where I am today, and where I hope to go in the future. Every day I’ve spent in grad school so far has been an exercise in intensity, thought and growth. I have come across a word–social entrepreneurship–that I have come to realize speaks perfectly to how I hope to accomplish my goals in life. (In other words, my goals haven’t changed. They are still to enable people to unleash their creativity and passion by freeing them from poverty, injustice and environmental degradation, and providing them with the access to financial and informational flow. What has changed is how I hope to accomplish those lofty, nebulous goals.) Social entrepreneurship essentially combines the altruistic goals of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with the essentially selfish goals of corporations. That is to say, it melds venture capital with philanthropy by creating a new kind of business model. The essential idea is that if something is both profitable and good for social/ecological goals, then people will naturally champion it. Rather than fighting to change people’s values, rather than lobbying against growth and development, and rather than pushing for more stringent regulations, social entrepreneurs create a situation in which the need for regulation is obviated, economic development is good, and people’s values are in line with cultural, social and economic development.
Let me provide an example. The Clinton Climate Initiative, which is doing amazing work all of the world, has a project in India that seeks to address the lack of reliable electricity in many of India’s 700,000 villages. The idea is to create a business model that is profitable, easily replicable and provides Indians with renewably-powered lighting. So they created a project in which solar panels are used to recharge special “solar lanterns” (basically lamps with batteries) that are rented out to villages every night, and then charged during the day with India’s abundant sunshine. On the face of it, this might seem like nothing more than an environmental program: dirty fossil fuel energy is displaced by clean solar energy, and less carbon dioxide, sulphur and nitrous oxides are released into the atmosphere. However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Providing India’s villages with light, regardless of how that light is generated, means that life no longer stops at dusk. Those extra hours equal more time to study, to work, to play and, in short, to live. People’s creativity will naturally be unleashed. We take it for granted that we can stay up as late as we want and interact in any numbers of ways with one another. Imagine what happens when millions of people are given the opportunity to unleash their passion and creativity; express their culture; and spend time with one another.
It is not only unfair to tell countries that they can’t develop because development means environmental devastation: it is unjust and unimaginative. In my opinion pollution is a lack of imagination. Countries should and must develop, because development means more wealth creation, job creation, opportunity creation, and so on. The essential issue is that development be decoupled from pollution, degradation and injustice. We have the opportunity to give more people more opportunity, and we can do so by giving them clean energy and clean water. Access to energy means access to networks of productivity. If we can connect people to the rest of the world through the internet, which requires electricity, then we are connecting people not only to other people, but to information and markets. The recently released $100 dollar laptop, which I just purchased and whose delivery I am very eagerly awaiting, will enable children in poorer countries to access the same educational materials that children in the U.S. do, at a fraction of the transportation, energy and ecological cost.
So what I’ve come to realize is that social entrepreneurship is the wave of the future, and it is a wave that can be as big as Wal-Mart, which has undertaken numerous sustainability initiatives, or as small as micro-credit loans, which have taken off, especially since last year’s nobel peace prize winner was the founder of one of the first micro-credit banks. In fact, kiva.org, a site that enables you and me to loan to small businesses all over the world, has been so successful that they are having trouble keeping up with demand. (Check out http://www.kiva.org . When you make a loan, that loan will be paid back over a pre-determined time period. Once the loan is paid back in full, you can either withdraw your money or loan it to another business. In other words, this is not a donation!)
I’d love to work for a place like the Clinton Climate Initiative, Google.org, or Kiva.org. One of the great things about my program is that there is a really good chance I will be able to get the job I’m looking for. I can tailor the subject of my thesis to improve my chances, and I can certainly make good use of all the connections that can be made at a world-class institution like Brown University.
Well, those are my thoughts on my 23rd birthday. I have been slightly remiss in posting on my site, mostly because, well, I’ve been really busy with classes, which is good. Happy birthday to me, and have a great day!