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Build a startup that solves a social problem

What do you say to a student who is about to graduate with a degree that has no value in the current workforce?

Education is meant to prepare a student for the economy, but as new technology disrupts our institutions it leaves higher education in a state of confusion. The requirements of high-paying jobs are a moving target. Skills that are in demand today may quickly become obsolete tomorrow.

An education system led by students rather than teachers seems unimaginable. A legal industry that provides legal services from a computer application instead of a human lawyer seems impossible. A finance industry without traders and brokers seems preposterous. A medical industry that provides physician checkups from the comfort of your own home seems ludicrous. Yet, all of these things are currently happening. New technology disrupts the stability of the old economy.

generation flux

In 2012, I remember reading a blog post by Robert Safian on Fast Company about Generation Flux. He talks about disruption and the social pioneers (above) who are either causing the disruption or finding ways to thrive off it. Safian paints a picture for us…

Our institutions are out of date; the long career is dead; any quest for solid rules is pointless, since we will be constantly rethinking them; you can’t rely on an established business model or a corporate ladder to point your way; silos between industries are breaking down; anything settled is vulnerable.

While it may sound pessimistic, Safian was on to something big. The state of confusion and instability he so clearly defines in the article is not meant to sound pessimistic. Rather, it is meant to describe the current state of our culture and society. It’s a wake up call.

As Ferris Bueller so wisely put it…

life moves pretty fast - Ferris Beuller

Productivity Paradox

I once had a boss ask me to outline every aspect of my job into a project management tool. Within 6 months, my job was almost completely automated by a computer application. I didn’t realize it, but using productivity tools and task-lists is like handing your employer a step-by-step guide on how to build a computer application to complete the same tasks.

Productivity is self-destructive in the sense that the economy demands it from employees, but at the same it puts those employees closer to unemployment. I define the “Productivity Paradox” as the position a person finds herself in when she must decide whether to be more productive to please her boss, or to be less productive to keep her job longer. Both options seem to lead to the same outcome: unemployment. The scramble to find meaningful employment has become “just another day.”

The most productive people win, however, the competitive job market is not sustainable. Someone always loses. Inequality is baked into the DNA of our way of life. Winners and losers. If you lose too many times it becomes nearly impossible to win. The gap between rich and poor is only growing. It seems that the meaning of life is about beating you in the pursuit of money. Oops, I mean, the pursuit of happiness.

Meanwhile, the education system is trying to figure out how to prepare students for a career that may not exist yet. I thought going to college would set me on the path to financial freedom. It did the opposite. The value of my college education is diluted by the value of your college education.

Perhaps it will serve us better to use the education system for something more than just 15 years of memorization strategy.

traditional school kidskids unhappy in school

If there are no jobs waiting for students, then students must learn how to carve out a place for themselves in the new economy.

Education Innovation

What if the purpose of a college education was to provide an environment for a student to develop a startup that solved a social problem? What if students worked on projects in college that eventually turned into their jobs?

What if on graduation day a student was presented with investors and letters of incorporation instead of a valueless diploma? As student-founders become CEOs it opens the door for first-year students to begin working in various social enterprises from day one. Using my imagination for just a few seconds on this topic leads me to incredibly beautiful places.

While the tech industry builds products that automate human jobs from the old economy, it also creates the opportunity for new markets to emerge. Students must seize these opportunities so we can build the new economy.

Finding opportunity in problems

Jobless college graduates, homelessness, inequality, etc. do not have to be looked at as problems. Rather, they are opportunities that may lead us to a remarkable moment in history.

The moment when we shift our focus from profit, to people.

It may seem as if “computers stealing your job” is a bad thing. However, you have far greater potential in this world than to work a job that is so mindless that a computer application can do it.

“There are a lot of areas where it makes sense to divide labor between humans and computers-—we are very good at some things computers are terrible at and vice versa—-and some of these require huge amounts of human resources.”

Y-Combinator, startup accelerator

Do the math

  1. Technology Disrupts Economy – Technology builds products that automate tasks that were once completed by people. That leaves us with unemployed people who are eager to participate in the new economy.
  2. Social Problems – We have unsolved social problems: homelessness, poverty, extreme hunger, domestic violence, and the list goes on.
  3. Startup Culture – Thanks to places like Y-Combinator, we have proven methods for building profitable startups, and funding opportunities that are just waiting to be tapped.
  4. Outdated Education System – Come full-circle if we place an updated education system right in the middle. The education system should teach students how to engage with the world. Instead of talking about problems, students learn how to take the next step towards solving social problems.

unemployed people who want to work
+ unsolved social problems
+ funding opportunities
+ startup culture

= sustainable solutions to social problems

Until now, the focus of the startup culture has been technology. Rightfully so. We needed tech innovations to lay the foundation for the new economy to build itself, but I think it’s time we changed what’s sexy about startups.

As the tech industry has proven, startups solve problems. Well, we have serious problems on our hands. Perhaps we can shift our focus on the type of problems we think are important enough to solve. Besides, it isn’t hard to build a business anymore. If you want a challenge, build a business that solves a social problem.

Collaboration, not competition

You are not competing with the tech industry. In fact, the tech industry is your ally. We need them to create the building blocks of innovation for our social evolution. We can’t expect them to do everything, and we shouldn’t blame them for doing their job. Thank tech startups for automating the mindless work of the old economy, and let’s work together on developing ideas that matter.

The goal of Facebook is not for you to scroll endlessly through the happenings of other people’s lives. It is a new tool. It is a vehicle for communicating ideas with other people. The last time there was a technological innovation that exploded the transmission of ideas was the invention of the printing press. This was during a time period known as The Renaissance. It took them days, weeks, months, and many years to transmit ideas from one end of the Earth to the other. Think about what you can do when you can transmit ideas throughout the planet instantly.

I like to think about this collaboration as if we were building a car. The benefits of a car are freaking awesome. However, there are a lot of intricate parts and processes that make up the car. Did you know the first wheel (that we know of) was made almost 5,000 years prior to the first car that was built? The wheel may not seem to be of much use by itself, but when you attach it to a car it takes on new form. It becomes an important piece of a much larger process. A process that brings far greater value than just a wheel. Think about Facebook like one of the wheels of a new car we’re building. It might seem cool to play with on its own, but imagine what you can build on top of Facebook.

Businesses learned how to use these tools to generate a profit. Universities are learning how to use them to connect, engage, and educate their students. You will learn how to use them to change the world.

Your problems are my problems

Did you know…

every 9 seconds

Did you know a woman is 75% more likely to be killed by an abusive partner if she tries to leave the relationship? Another woman will have been beaten by the time you reach the period in this sentence.

Now that is a problem.

I wonder how many startups are trying to solve that problem compared to the number of startups trying to help me be more productive.

At first, I had a hard time looking past my own problems. Why should I help you? Who is going to help me? How can I win if I help you, my enemy, do better than me? This state of mind was part of my problem. I soon realized that the pursuit of profit had caused me to become disconnected from my humanity. We need to work as one unit to become a stronger system. Our power only realizes itself when we come together to create a new system. Just like all the different parts that come together to build a car.

Solutions, not band-aids

For example, I was raised by a single mother. Fortunately, my mother found my stepfather. To see a person willing to put me before himself has been an inspiration throughout my life. My stepfather’s existence allowed me to have a life I may not have had the opportunity to live otherwise. I am thinking of building a startup that helps a single mother raise her children. I can provide resources and support so she does not have to rely on external support systems which may be negative influences on her children.

Another example, let’s say I am passionate about helping homeless people. One option is to build a homeless shelter. Or, I could build a startup with homeless people as my co-founders. Perhaps we can build a company that only hires homeless people. I am willing to bet that if we got a group of homeless people together they would come up with some awesome ideas for startups that solve homelessness.

Homeless shelters are extremely important, however, they only provide immediate assistance for shelter. Let’s go a few levels deeper to find out what causes the homeless to be homeless. Then, let’s work together to build startups that fix the problems we created and then prevent it from happening in the future.

What’s next?

Embrace technology. Allow it to take over the meaningless jobs of the economy. We will need those automated systems in order to build our social startups.

Y-Combinator is looking for companies that have the potential to create a million jobs. Human jobs. If one of the best startup accelerators in the world is requesting proposals for startups that are NOT necessarily technology related then it’s probably worth taking notice.

“…as existing jobs go away, a company that creates a lot of new jobs should be able to get a lot of talented people.”

If you’re looking for meaningful work there is no shortage of opportunity. The future, the new economy, it is filled with startups that solve social problems, rather than economical problems. Perhaps that is why Bill Gates and a majority of the wealthiest people in the world have offered to give a majority of their fortune back to the economy.

It is no longer about money. It is no longer about you, or me. It is about us.

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