Dec 16

by Miriam Garvi

Having spent the past two days submerged in thoughts about urban poverty, the growth of megacities and the persistence of slums, tomorrow’s lecture on pioneering leadership will be a welcome relief, providing anew the opportunity to consider the world as if it were a blank page waiting to be written.

In the discipline of entrepreneurship, we celebrate the virtue of spotting and exploiting business opportunities. Seldom considered, however, are the wider premises framing this picture. When the needs of the desperate sustain the growth of another, the temptation to create dependency rather than self-sufficiency or independence is too great for comfort. Too many people know that in many industries, market jargon eclipses the miserable reality of the ‘clients’, as they become part of a compelling story aimed at attracting capital and funding: aid organizations need pictures of starving and destitute children to sustain fund-raising; less cancer patients would mean the loss of a huge market for pharmaceutical companies. And, if we want to take the analogy even further, war or the prospect of war sustains the market for weapons and military technology, a main driver for technological innovation that has spilled over into many parts of civilian life, including our ability to communicate over the Internet.

sunset

The world is full of ambiguities, more or less coated in opportunistic rhetoric, but placing high requirements on the existence of a moral compass that will steer efforts, energy and resources towards initiatives that do not sustain suffering and misery, nor create other unwanted side effects, but that seek to become redundant in the sense that the particular need disappears. This implies a dynamic perspective of constantly seeking new areas to improve that is challenging to implement in practice, and requires the support and encouragement of policy-makers, investors and the wider community. Cure or better yet prevention rather than lifelong treatment, helping people provide for themselves rather than falling victims to debt traps, making products that are better and last longer rather than encouraging people to consume and replace – all can imply the loss of opportunities from a marketing viewpoint, but gains from the perspective of human progress. In today’s world, companies and actors do still differ, though surviving without compromising one’s core values is a difficult thing to do. I hold in high esteem any drug development company, for instance, with enough moral integrity to invest massively in addressing the need for new treatment of a particular illness, while being able to consider the decline of patients in that market a success. This shows a company with higher goals and standards, unwilling to consider its own growth as detached from the wider societal framework in which it operates, and where it has the opportunity to do much-needed good. I do also realize, however, that unless society will reward this kind of behavior and enable such a company to access the support that it needs to do this well, then it will sooner or later succumb to the financial pressures of the stock market.

Be it in politics, finance, business or charity, we need more people to rise and show the way who are visionary in their thinking, and who will not shrink from addressing the combination of market and moral challenges that are inherent to any development worthy of its name. Pioneering is a spirit, free from the constraints of vested interests, where understanding, betterment and progress rather than control, self-preservation and replication constitute the focus. It is holding on to our purpose rather than what we have created, not forgetting that any product or service, however big or small, will always be used or consumed by someone – the people behind the market.

Jul 25

by Miriam Garvi

When I was writing my dissertation just a few years ago about the world of venture capital and the financing of entrepreneurial ventures, it was a challenge to find a terminology that would adequately convey the purpose of a particular enterprise beyond the doctrine of profit maximization.

Today, however, this has changed. Yesterday’s oxymorons have become politically correct, and terms like non-profit companies and for-profit philanthropy reflect the on-going upgrade of concepts ascribing a sense of common good to the narrowly-focused, profit-seeking objective that has dominated our view of companies and corporations for far too long. Hybrid terms such as the «for-benefit enterprise» are promoted as examples of how capitalistic interests will merge with the idealistic into a harmonious compromise as long as everyone stands to gain from the alliance.

But behind the plethora of upgraded labels, what is actually changing? Bill Gates proposed a win-win scenario for all through the Gates foundation. Does this mean that he has left his strong-arm tactics behind, or has he simply found a way of practicing technology dumping on future markets in a form that is socially acceptable to the global community?

Many will say that we should settle for an upgraded version of capitalism that will allow for the continued pursuit of wealth and growth, where the costs incurred in that process are affordable to our conscience. A system of compromise that we can live with, and yet remaining the major beneficiary of it all.

But what legacy is it to leave behind, if all we do is minimize the damage of our lifestyle having realized that it is not sustainable?

A compromising alliance between selfishness and philanthropy is not what will bring our world meaningful progress and prosperity. Nor is the enticing language that offers what it does not deliver a satisfactory answer. It is time to raise the stakes and start aiming for visionary initiatives, where unlike the hybrids, the purpose is crystal-clear: fulfilment that will truly benefit mankind.

Jun 29

by Miriam Garvi

In this age of technological advancement, so much that was once unheard of has come within our reach. Old barriers are broken as we venture into space or create clones of the living. The enormity of resources that are poured into making scientific progress and creating markets for technology is a testament to how strongly the world holds on to its belief in the power of knowledge.

This last decade is favoring growth-oriented strategies that rely on innovation, entrepreneurship and venture capital to generate such growth that will be valued on financial markets. Little is said, however, about what kind of ideas are brought about and whether we believe that they are actually doing good, not just promoting a strategic agenda. The questions that we do not raise are fundamental in their simplicity: what is the purpose, and whom is it all for?

Our belief in knowledge springs from the assumption that any added building block brings the world enlightenment. In our efforts to exploit and manipulate nature so as to satisfy the growth agendas of our times, the natural is no longer good enough. Instead, we welcome industrially-processed substitutes that are labeled «improvements». And so we put ourselves at the mercy of streamlining profiteers, buying frozen chicken that has been «neutrally marinated» in water and food conservatives simply because someone just realized that the artificial replacing the genuine was a profitable strategy. Less of the genuine; more of the artificial, even as more people around us suffer from cancer and we see our nature going down the drain.

Implications of knowledge, but what of wisdom?

Red mountains of Colorado

The source of wisdom?

What good is technological advancement, unless it allows for meaningful progress and prosperity for mankind? Can we claim to be enlightened, if we consume what is at our disposal, with no concern for the legacy that we will be leaving behind?

Devolution tells us that everything started from a high and has been slowly deteriorating ever since. In this light, the need is imminent to move away from a foundation that is flawed, looking to discover a different source, one that will give rise to meaningful richness in all its diversity.

Jun 18

by Miriam Garvi

With so many quasi-ideas out there being endorsed by the big money, it is funny how difficult it can be for people with real commitment to find the resources they need to do something good. Quasi-ideas have a remarkable way of ending up in fancy packages, and they are never on display without their wrapping.

So when the dean of a business school I happen to know very well becomes involved with a company for mobile learning, proposing to supply teaching programs for the people of Africa or for hundreds of millions of farmers in China, I am intrigued. Being “of the world, by the world, and for the world” is deluxe wrapping indeed, but what benefit is intended for the citizens of African countries or the farmers in China, and how does it relate to their true needs?

When hearing this, I wonder whether teaching the world through a mobile interface is in fact a superior pedagogical idea, or if it is simply an easy way of re-churning pre-recorded messages to the greatest possible audience.

mobile-teaching1

During the Internet boom almost ten years ago, e-learning was hot, and any business adding an e- prefix to its idea could retain astonishing amounts of venture capital. Today it appears that by changing the prefix to m- (mobile learning or m-learning) and dreaming of conquering the world, pockets will be filled once again. Only this time instead of JP Morgan and others we have government institutions such as the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) willing to endorse any dreamer of a «mobile academy» that will target the Third World. But to what purpose?

So many ideas are brought about not because we believe they will be good for the world, but because they might be an opportunity to make more money, enhance careers, or make better connections. And with the right packaging, the client becomes the excuse that legitimizes us making ourselves the beneficiary of it all.

Every once in a while, I have this wish that we would do away with the glossy paper and the fancy bows and see things for what they actually are. And in that light, we might come to recognize those treasures that are truly worth their weight in gold. The ones that impress without the wrapping.

Those are the ideas worth fighting for.

Mar 27

by Miriam Garvi

Today’s recession is bringing back the rhetoric of greed to the forefront, both among politicians and journalists, as a way of condemning practices now deemed excessive by the electorate, whilst keeping such practices at a comfortable distance from those who have long been in the position to influence the way we view the world and our own role within it.

It has long been held that greed, or self-interest as philosophers and economists endorsing this position would prefer to call it, is the supreme driving force behind enterprising, growth and development, and as such, the very motor of society.

But for those less fortunate who are now paying the price for enacted self-interest, as they find themselves laid off from businesses where top executives are cashing in additional bonuses, or left with mortgage loans that they have no means to service, this economic as well as moral rationale of a self-focused society is a far cry from the reality they are living.

Yet in the spirit of Ayn Rand, defenders of this rationale would argue that we owe nothing to the weak, who have only to opt to overcome their weakness by way of reason.

It is interesting how quickly societal thinking turns elitist when we who are doing the thinking are part of the fortunate few. The idea of «natural selection» and of the survival of the fittest is flattering indeed as long as we are the ones surviving. And if the purpose of it all is to be the last man standing, having beaten all contestants in the short-term, profit-making chicken race, then success is becoming rather void of meaning.

It is high time we wake up and see things as they really are, not as the dominant rhetoric, or the dominant logic, would want us to believe things to be. Let us be greedy, greedy for meaning! Let us engage in that which can bear fruit to the benefit of ourselves and others. Let us make a profit, but not a fortune. And let us reinvest for the benefit of mankind.

Mar 17

by Miriam Garvi

Imagine for a second that you have this beautiful Idea. A cure for breast cancer. A new solution for waste-handling. A brand of cookies made the old-fashioned way with real ingredients rather than artificial ones. Maybe your Idea was triggered by something on the evening news. Maybe it came to you as you were facing a problem, pondering on how to solve it. Maybe you were frustrated with the lack of good options available on the market. However it came to be, you’re full of excitement at the prospect of launching into business. Family and friends lend you the money for office space and you start working prospective clients.

Gradually, it all takes form. Yet it’s a slow start. After a couple of years, you’re still struggling to make ends meet, waiting for that major breakthrough that will awaken people to the beauty of your Idea.

Then someone comes along with an offer to invest in the business and a market plan that makes everything sound so simple.

Five years later, loans to family and friends have been repaid, with interest. Thanks to new resources and competent fellows on the board, the company has grown considerably and you’re working your way into the Chinese market. Sure, the journey has been slightly different than you imagined and things might have had a different outcome had you been the one making all the decisions. A new CEO has taken your place and you’re now in charge of research and development. But you’ve always considered that to be the most enjoyable part anyway!

But one day life’s not all peachy anymore. Your solution for waste-handling needs  improvement but there is no patience for that. Your investors give priority to sales and marketing – but there is no way of reaching the milestones that have been set whilst pushing quality to the right level! Angry customers are calling in, they feel cheated. Employees are coming to you for advice, imploring you to resolve the situation. Fatigued and frustrated, you try raising your voice at the board meetings but you seem to be speaking a foreign, quite exotic, language. Keep pushing is the message; we’ve got a prospective buyer for the company that will move things to the next level!

And one day, when someone close to you asks you about what happened to that dream of yours, it hits you. In the effort of turning your Idea into a lucrative service, it is becoming just another one of those things that promises far more than it delivers. Where are those beautiful qualities that you could not wait to share with the world? Longing for the passion for what you once saw, you ask yourself if it is ever too late to go back to what initially sparked the desire to do something that can make a difference.

No, it isn’t.

Feb 9

by Miriam Garvi

Aid in the form of loans certainly came in fashion when Mohammad Yunus was laureated with the Nobel peace prize for promoting micro finance as an instrument for development. Such micro credits would propel households of meager means into business activities otherwise inaccessible. As for any micro-enterprise that showed particular promise, it could be muscled up with venture capital provided by international funds and corporations looking to position themselves on untapped markets.

The ideal win-win relationship between David and Goliath that would put poverty in a museum?

Making financial resources available to those willing to start up an enterprise has long been seen by the economic establishment as the way to growth and prosperity for a nation. Nothing radical then about extending credits to lower-income households in developing countries in order to encourage them to launch into business. Micro debts may sound rather insignificant on the aggregate level, but when a family of meager income finds itself unable to service its loan, the cost quickly becomes unbearable.

In West Africa, however, a phenomenon is on the rise that is challenging the relationship between seed money, growth and prosperity as we know it.

In one of the more remote regions bordering the Sahara desert that offers few natural resources, a new generation of rural teen-age girls are enjoying a purchasing power that is unknown to most urban families. As food prices around the world are on the rise, these girls are not only buying what they need for the family household, but also luxury items such as jewelery and fashionable clothes. Those who were once the most vulnerable of all have become a powerful clientele attracting a wider supply of goods than in the city markets. And in response to growing demand, shops are opening aimed particularly at this young and empowered rural generation.

The source of this new-found wealth? A number of perennial, fruit-bearing trees that can grow naturally in the harsh, sub-Saharan environment. By allowing various species to grow in their fields, these farming households are now the proprietors of production units which produce fruit throughout the year, fruit that is much-in-demand at marketplaces spread throughout the region.

The original investment? A handful of seeds distributed for free to motivated farmers by the Eden Foundation.

The cost of these production units? The labor of sowing seeds in one’s field, coupled with some initial weeding during the first years of a seedling’s life. The vitality of the seed will do the rest.

The return on investment? Self-sufficient households with a surplus to spend on the lifestyle of their choice. And the process is completed without indebtment to any creditor eager to channel the recipient only into the kind of entrepreneurship that will enable them to feed off their investment.

Talk about a sustainable economy that is bringing prosperity to those who were once the poorest of them all.

Apr 2

by Miriam Garvi

The other day I read about another initiative in alleviating world poverty. It seems that every new initiative these days involves the diffusion of some kind of golden recipe - as in ‘alleviating poverty through technology’ or technology saves the world. This time, the recipe was microfranchising: “The idea is to replicate sound business models and, consequently, to provide microentrepreneurs in developing countries with training and the necessary assistance for success.”

I could write about how such initiatives reek of a neo-colonialistic attitude where the Westerner knows how money is made and so our models of thinking are imposed on other populations without regard nor appreciation for their cultural settings. But today I will draw the parallel to what is happening in other areas of business life. In my study of venture capital, it became clear that a streamlining way-of-thinking is dominating business thinking today. By streamlining I mean these kinds of ready-made formulas, of ‘best practice’, of ‘business recipes for success’, of ’success factors’ - whatever we choose to call them - which are imposed on new ideas, snuffing the flame. As I wrote in the final pages of my dissertation, “it would be a loss indeed if venture capital [or micro finance for that matter or any other service aimed at promoting new initiatives] would mean the death of visions and ideas that can change our conception of the system. Without them, there would be little new to refine and we might never come to enjoy what we have yet to discover.”

It is time we start thinking about the implications of snuffing out the visionary flame with pre-made, easy-to-replicate business models that are designed with one thing in mind: namely how to streamline a business concept so as to maximize its perceived value on a financial market.