Sunday, March 16, 2008

One Hero for Lunch, and Another for Breakfast

What a tremendously busy and fulfilling week! I didn't have a chance to read a single article or blog post about global poverty or development this week, but a couple of meals more than made up for it. The heroes were a real treat. And I'm not talking about sandwiches. Let me explain...

First, on Tuesday, I ate lunch with Paul Polak, founder of International Development Enterprises (IDE). Anyone who follows this blog regularly knows that I've become a big IDE fan during the past year, and it's my good fortune that IDE and Paul Polak are based in Colorado, about 30 minutes from where I live. I spoke with Paul briefly at an event launching his new Out of Poverty book a couple weeks ago, and he suggested that we get together to chat more. I enjoyed our lunch discussion tremendously (along with some tasty Som Tam at a Thai restaurant). My biggest takeaway from our conversation was that you don't need to personally accomplish a goal to rejoice in its achievement. Case in point: I believe Paul said he originally set a goal to help 30 million people out of $1-a-day poverty, 15 million of whom he hoped to measure through IDE and its partners. His perspective makes so much sense to me, because no organization that develops a market should realistically expect to maintain 100% market share in perpetuity. In fact, competition is great for consumers, so anyone who starts a social enterprise (for profit or not for profit) should hope for competition to increase market size and create greater social impact. Now that Paul, his partners, and his competitors have already reached millions of $1-a-day farmers, his new goal is to help 500 million people. He certainly can't do it alone, and he doesn't want to. I think in a perfect world I'd partner with him to reach my first million individuals and then "compete" with him via a separate organization to help millions more.

My second hero this week was for breakfast. Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus spoke at a Microcredit and Social Business event in Denver on Thursday. I was only able to manage a couple hours away from work during this hectic week, but that was enough time to catch Yunus' keynote breakfast address. He is one of the most powerful speakers I have ever heard, not because of his force or persuasion, but because of his humility and his obvious love for humankind. He brought a feeling of warmth and goodness to the room, and hearing him speak actually made me feel like a better person. In an echo of what Polak wrote in Out of Poverty, Yunus said that microcredit is "so simple, I've had to spend my whole life explaining to people that it's true...the simplicity of it became its problem...once it works you can repeat it billions of times." I have not read Yunus' new book yet, but he is a big proponent of people knowingly and willingly starting for-profit "social" businesses whose purpose is to do good in the world, not just to do well for shareholders. His comment about corporate America was that "profit maximization is the mission of the business. So making money becomes the means and becomes the end." This rings true and hits close to home in my experience working for several Fortune 500 companies. So if I start a social business, I believe it will need to remain privately held (as opposed to publicly traded) to balance investors' expectations of profits with social impact.

In addition to these two great events this week, things continue to move forward with our first home purchase, scheduled to close in mid-April. We also adopted a dog, who brings additional love, affection, and excitement to our home. And I enjoyed a cross-country skiing event yesterday with the boys of our congregation at church. A couple of the boys experienced the beauty of the Rocky Mountains for the first time, an experience that was enough to make a boy from New York City decide that separation from people and buildings is not always a bad thing. And we submitted our budget at work. We've had a few strong additions to our department this year, plus an additional year of experience for the rest of us, which has made the budget process less time-consuming for me this year. It was last year's all-consuming budget process that made me realize that social impact is more important to me than profit maximization; that's why I'm so grateful for a strong team that allows me greater work-life balance.

This was a week to remember on almost all fronts. As hard as I think this would be, I sincerely hope your week was as good as mine!


Scott and Cindy said...

Ryan, we are very excited to read some of these books - I should be reading "Three Cups of Tea" in the next little while! We can't believe you guys got a dog!? When you get the chance, send us an email with more info on that one!!

Love Scott and Cindy

J-Rod said...

When are you going to email out some pics of the house and the dog?

smason said...

Enjoyed your post on nextbillion--very astute. Have you already switched to part-time? From this richesforgood post, I'm wondering what the prospects are for working with Polak. And while I don't want to discourage grad work--don't want to meddle in any way--I wonder about opportunity cost (I see that schooling is an investment, but I wonder if the experience of working with Polak, for example, would bring you closer to your goal that the Ph.D. I don't know the answer. I also thought you said at one point that you don't see yourself as a teacher).
Keep up your thoughtful problem solving.