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Transforming the Face of Business
The New Social Entrepreneurs

"Ryan Mickle's life was the stuff young bourgeois dreams are made of. Then a year ago ... Mickle began to take stock of his life. He was earning a lot of money but was giving very little of himself. So Mickle ditched his high-paying job to brainstorm a new venture with friend Rod Ebrahimi. The result was, a San Francisco startup that allows users to rank companies based on their social impact on the world. Mickle, 26, and Ebrahimi, 25, are among a growing number of entrepreneurs betting they can build ventures that deliver both financial and social returns."
  -- San Francisco Chronicle, 4/15/07

A new breed of young social entrepreneurs is literally transforming the face of business around the world. The inspiring article below shows how, in spite of all the greed and corruption being exposed even at the highest levels of government and business, a new generation of entrepreneurs is poised to sweep in with a new breed of ethics and social concern, even as they continue to make a profit. Let us do our best to support these valiant social entrepreneurs, many of whom have sacrificed the possibility of huge fortunes to focus instead on the more meaningful and deeply satisfying work of building a better world for us all. Links to the exciting ventures described are provided at the bottom of this engaging article.

Responsibility is in their sites
Web entrepreneurs have an eye on social need -- not personal greed

Jessica Guynn, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, April 15, 2007

Ryan Mickle's life was the stuff young bourgeois dreams are made of. He had a lucrative career as a management consultant, drove a flashy car and lived a few blocks from the beach in an exclusive neighborhood on the Newport Beach (Orange County) peninsula.

Then a year ago he bought a lottery ticket. While jotting down all of the things he would do with the winnings, from spending more time with family and friends to making a real difference in the world, Mickle began to take stock of his life. He was earning a lot of money but was giving very little of himself. And he was the one who was poorer for it.

"I won the lottery that day by realizing that I had everything I needed to start living that life, right then and there," Mickle said.

So Mickle ditched his high-paying job to brainstorm a new venture with friend Rod Ebrahimi. On a napkin they scribbled their goals: Build an online community that changes the world; make a socially responsible business more profitable; and have fun while doing the right thing.

The result was, a San Francisco startup that allows users to rank companies based on their social impact on the world.

Mickle, 26, and Ebrahimi, 25, are among a growing number of entrepreneurs betting they can build ventures that deliver both financial and social returns. Ebrahimi calls it the double bottom line. "We see more and more people and companies focus on doing good socially while still doing well economically," he said.

The online grassroots trend has taken some by surprise. Silicon Valley hasn't always been known for its largesse. Sharing the wealth with the less fortunate usually means issuing more stock options to employees. And the Web 2.0 generation, with its YouTube and Twitter mania, has gotten a particularly bad rap for self-obsession and indulgence.

But social activism is rising among entrepreneurs who are using ambition, creativity and daring to fuse their personal values and career goals.

"In some senses, these entrepreneurs are fusing '60s consciousness and activism with '80s market savvy. In the process, they are creating a hybrid which is the best of those polar opposites," said Paul Frankel, an investor who lectures on social entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

The practice has precedent. EBay founder Pierre Omidyar has dedicated much of his fortune to helping for-profits and nonprofits alike discover their power to do good. And Google has evolved a novel brand of philanthropy, setting up a foundation without tax-exempt status so it can invest in for-profit as well as nonprofit groups.

Like the first Internet entrepreneurs, this generation of caring capitalists is harnessing the power of technology from social networking, the ability to create online connections and communities that spread virally, to online shopping to video games.

Take James Elsen, a former Silicon Valley software executive who, after making a lot of money, hit a wall in 2003. "I was in an unhappy place. I was unhealthy physically. I was in unhealthy relationships. I was working 130 hours a week. I had always been told that if you work hard and climb the ladder to the top, you will be happy. But I wasn't happy," Elsen said.

Thinking back to his happiest moments, volunteering at the local elementary school or in the environmental movement, Elsen turned to the Esalen Institute near Big Sur, a lush refuge for self-discovery and improvement, to figure out how to combine his background in technology with his passion for sustainability.

The result is, a San Francisco business geared to promoting green living to people, businesses and government. The concept is fueled by growing interest in green initiatives from major corporations, local and state government, and the public at large.

"The ultimate goal is to feed a new economy of green businesses," said Elsen, 41.

Caroline Bernadi, a 29-year-old refugee from the luxury goods industry in France, felt compelled to help nonprofits raise money. She and Jonathan Xu, a 30-year-old technologist who shared her passion for social change, started Palo Alto's, a socially minded shopping site that has formed partnerships with 165 retailers from to Target.

At, shoppers buy the same products from the same merchants for the same price, but a percentage is donated to the nonprofit of their choice.

"We help the consumer feel good when he or she shops online, we help the retailer in cause-related marketing and we help nonprofits raise money," said Bernadi.

Darian Hickman, 28, is designing an online strategy game that turns the players into entrepreneurs who help bring prosperity to impoverished villages in underdeveloped countries.

Players can choose from a number of tools -- micro-credit loans, solar panels, irrigation pumps, affordable lighting -- to help villagers build sustainable futures.

Hickman, a devoted Christian who graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in computer science in 2001, spent several years writing "boring code" for defense contractors while trying to figure out how to combine his computer skills and his interest in social enterprise.

Inspired by Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel prize-winning micro-finance pioneer, and the Skoll-sponsored documentary "The New Heroes," which tells the stories of 14 entrepreneurs combatting social ills around the globe by pioneering innovative technologies, Hickman hit on the idea for Village the Game.

"I just started experimenting with the things that Jesus taught. Fighting for the poor is important for God and also really rewarding. So I wanted to figure out clever ways of doing that," said Hickman, who lives in Pasadena and has begun collaborating on a nonprofit that will help villages in the real world.

Brian Johnson, 32, also found his calling in an unusual amalgam of altruism and business. A disciple of Eastern philosophy and spirituality, Johnson said he felt uncomfortable with capitalism until he hit on the concept of "using economics as a force for good."

"It is what so many people in the world are conflicted on," he said. "How do we live our spiritual ideals and make money?"

Now Johnson tries to have it both ways with, which he describes as MySpace for people who want to change the world. Johnson started Zaadz, which means seed in Dutch, out of his Topanga (Los Angeles County) home.

The site now has a handful of employees and 50,000 registered users, and recently landed funding from Whole Foods CEO John Mackey. Johnson, the site's CEO and philosopher, seeks to bring together a passionate group of conscious consumers with conscious businesses, making money from sponsorship and advertising deals.

But the hybrid doesn't sit well with everyone. "Some people call us tree-hugging, granola-eating hippies; others call us greedy capitalists," Johnson said.

Therein lies a potential challenge facing these aspiring ventures. Not only must these entrepreneurs find a way to develop viable businesses, they must convince consumers that greed and good are compatible. Not everyone is convinced these ventures are the best way to tackle poverty, disease and environmental degradation.

"It remains to be seen how they walk that line. How do you inspire Barak Obama-like fervor around an idea when there is potentially someone profiting from it?" said Premal Shah, the former PayPal executive who is president of online micro-lender

Shah weighed the pros and cons before deciding to run Kiva as a nonprofit. A survey bore out his wisdom: 74 percent of Kiva's users would disapprove and 48 percent of those would no longer lend money to developing countries through Kiva if it morphed into a for-profit venture.

But those attitudes may be shifting. "The market is actually the best way to make the highest impact most quickly," Frankel said.

That's what founders Mickle and Ebrahimi hope as their savings accounts dwindle and they work to raise money to expand their endeavor.

Their site, which launched in January, seeks to create a dialogue between consumers and corporations, allowing consumers to influence corporate behavior and companies to build brand loyalty.

"By executing our vision to create a business that fulfills both our career and personal aspirations, we've found our sweet spot, located at the intersection of passion and work," Mickle said.

The sentiment is summed up in's T-shirt slogan: "It's cool to care."

Helping out

These sites try to do good and do well:

E-mail Jessica Guynn at [email protected].

This article appeared on page D - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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