Money, Power, and, Social Change

Even in today’s world where news travels very fast via social media, it’s interesting to see a story bubble up from comments made over a month ago just now getting traction. Case in point: Chamath Palihapitiya. He was a Facebook executive in charge of getting users to engage with the social network when it was just starting out. Who knows, he may have been the brainchild being “(      ) just threw a sheep at you” or Poke and Superpoke. He made headlines because of some comments he uttered at the Standford School of Business about Facebook and why he doesn’t use the service anymore. “We have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. That is truly where we are…[t]he short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, [but] misinformation, mistruth.” He suggests making a hard break with social networking (ironic since he’s very active on Twitter) to free up our minds to works on solving collective problems in our world. His passions are managing resources and populations as the climate changes, investing in education, and addressing health-related conditions like diabetes (which his father died from). And when I say “passions” I mean he’s investing money to solve some of these problems as the founder and CEO of Social Capital. Palihapitiya and his group (according to their website) are on a “mission…to advance humanity by solving the world’s hardest problems. By harnessing technology to address core human needs, we aim to drive a bottom-up redistribution of power, capital and opportunity.”  Pretty lofty ambitions — but those ambitions come with deep pockets.

Palihapitiya is a blunt guy, who drops f-bombs often, and makes no bones about his desire to see a more diverse group of powerful people. But for him, diversity isn’t about skin color or genders, but rather perspectives. He estimates that there are about 150 people who really control the large-scale trends in the world. They wield a lot of power, but often that power only reflects a certain perspective. Take the Koch Brothers — reviled by the left and admired on a right — Palihapitiya uses them as an example of how to use money and power to influence the society at large. While he has no love for the Koch Brothers personally, he sees their “genius” in how they buy companies and put people in key positions of power to change the culture to what they see as “The Good.”

But it’s not just the Koch Brothers model he’s interested in. Rather, Palihapitiya learned about money and social change from the CEO of Newbridge Networks, Terry Matthews.  As he said, “For Terry Matthews money was an instrument of change.” He was taken by Matthew’s ability to use his vast financial resources to push society in directions that he thought it should go — which wasn’t about making life worse for people, but rather making it better.  Palihapitiya used Matthew’s energy and motivation in his own career to make money and be able to do some “cool shit in the world.”  But the mentorship (if you will) wasn’t a one-to-one thing. Instead, Palihapitiya learned about Matthews when, by accident, he met the controller of Newbridge Networks, Sam Legg. Legg used to drive to work past the bus stop where  Palihapitiya would wait for a ride to work at Newbridge Networks. After seeing him day after day at the bus stop and then in the lobby at Newbridge Networks, Legg realized Palihapitiya  worked at the same company, and started offering him a ride. That’s where Palihapitiya learned about Matthew’s vision of what kind of social change and influence money can wield.  Instead of just being a disciple of Matthews, he decided to strike out on his own and essentially copied what Matthews had done in his career. hndeed, Palihapitiya says that it’s better to copy something successful than try and be a genius and figure out something new. Not the most original advice, but one that seems to work. I mean think about all the copycat products that come out when some new amazing thing hits the market. Not all of the copycats succeed (look at attempts by established tech companies like Google and Apple to get into social networking with G+ and Ping). ]However, you may have greater success being mentored (either up close or afar) from someone who has achieved degrees of success and not taking the risk at something so new that you risk peaking too early, or crashing because the idea was crap to begin with.

I have to say that Palihapitiya sometimes comes off as an arrogant prick in the video, but you know what? The guy has working-class roots and has, by all measures, achieved what many aspire to:  being successful in a career after working your ass off. If you watch the video (and I hope you do), you’ll see that Palihapitiya’s family — like many immigrant families — come to a new country with very little money. He had to flip burgers to bring money in for his family. His father suffered long periods of unemployment while his mother seemed to have gainful, but low-pay employment. The Canadian government helped them from slipping into poverty though social programs and government subsidized education, and he eventually attended The University of Waterloo and earned a stereotypical Asian Indian college degree:  engineering. So, this guy didn’t have it all handed to him. He was hungry to succeed, and because he had support from the government and his family, he was able to learn both academically and from the school of hard knocks what it takes to find a measure of success. Now, he’s extremely wealthy, but money to him is only a means to put idealism into practice.  As Palihapitiya says at one point (and I’m paraphrasing here), being able to add more voices to the conversation about what kind of problems we’re going to address (and solve) in society is crucial if we’re going to survive as a species. He also says something that is contrary to what is the current method of hiring and retaining employees:  if you want to build something that lasts, you have to invest in people so they have an incentive to stay at a company for 7 to 10 years. Right now in Silicon Valley Palihapitiya estimates that 15 to 20 percent of most company work forces leave after the first year. That means most companies have a completely different workforce every five years — which he thinks is a good recipe for disaster. Remember, most Silicon Valley companies — excluding the big players — are small start-ups where most never last beyond a few rounds of funding from Venture Capitalists. He thinks stability, long term vision, and a desire to do the “hard things” of solving problems in society is where the real opportunities are. Facebook, Uber, Twitter, SnapChat and the like are not premised on solving problems. They are dopamine factories that rely on manipulation to lure users back to their platforms day after day. And for what? He says all the likes, comments, hearts, and other rewards leave us vacant inside. Well, of course it does. After the dopamine high wears off, we want another hit. Rarely does Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al lead to anything but emotional extremes (rage to love). But because Palihapitiya was on the inside of shaping Facebook to grow the user base, he knows first hand what he and his team wrought.

Anyway, have a look at the video because I don’t think you’re going to get such a candid view of business, money, and power from a TED Talk or watching Tim Cook stalk the stage to introduce a new Apple product. Of course, you could watch Scarface with Al Pacino to get some of the same philosophy — but that tale didn’t end well because Tony Montana got high on his own supplies, and never really got the woman to love him. Palihapitiya isn’t interested in “the woman” as the pursuit of happiness, but he does understand that money and power are the most effective ways to realize one’s ideals; ideals he tries to keep from being corrupted  by being drunk with that power.

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