Six years ago, I was feeling the invincibility of youth. I had a master’s degree, a full passport, and had traveled the world round only to move right back to my favorite little progressive town nestled against the Rocky Mountains. I was in a long-term relationship moving rapidly toward some sort of alternative ceremony and conflict-free ring. We had an overpriced albeit poorly maintained rental, with a brown dog, a blue Subaru, and chickens. We were overeducated and underemployed, but we were blissfully happy. It is not lost on me that we were a walking cliche of the millennial generation.
After a few years working in-house for a small nonprofit I was sure that I knew everything I needed to start my own business. Why work in someone else’s basement when I could work in my own? I saw the opportunity to sell my talents to a wider audience and, in doing so, craft my own schedule, set my own rates, control my own destiny…
…said every entrepreneur ever.
Entrepreneurialism is worshipped in America as a sort of romantic pinnacle of professional achievement. The culmination of intellectual innovation and our country’s pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps ethos, we often overlook the inherent selfishness of the endeavour. Investment opportunity, schedule flexibility, professional autonomy, industry impact, ultimate control — it’s not without an appetite for adversity and it’s far from glamorous, but we mostly share similarly selfish motives.
I was no exception, and I was wildly underqualified, to boot. My education to date had been made up of equal parts good intentions and idealistic theory. Having studied environmental science and public health, I felt completely empowered to make the world better and was grossly under-qualified to even try. But I was raised in a generation of children who were told we could be anything we wanted. We were given gold stars for wiping our own behinds, trophies for finishing last. From an early age I was spoon-fed the confidence necessary to graduate from college in the midst of a global recession, to choose a husband who would forever put me first, to start a business that I had no business pursuing.
And so I did. I saved up enough to match my measly nonprofit salary and gave myself a year to try. Six years later, I’m still in the game. Some seasons are more fruitful than others and I am in no way a rousing success story. But I have managed to build a small but stable studio that employs the talents of creatives from across the country to tell the stories of social and environmental innovators around the world.
And in doing so, my selfish pursuit of entrepreneurship led me to the most selfless group of entrepreneurs I have ever known.
For the past six years I have led a small team of thoughtful creatives to leverage film, photography, writing, and design to engage the audiences of some of the most ethical and responsible brands in the world. More recently we launched a podcast that shares the stories behind those brands. And in every single conversation with every innovator, thought leader, and entrepreneur disrupting an industry to have a greater impact I’ve seen the same theme emerge:
Not every entrepreneur is inherently selfish.
The individuals founding social and environmental impact organizations are motivated not by the same autonomy and opportunity that attracted the rest of us to entrepreneurship. They see a complex social problem and build their business around its solution.
The innovators we have spoken with are working towards solutions on global issues as intractable as climate change and childhood hunger, gender equality, and racial justice. They are leading nonprofit organizations and profitable companies alike. They are defined not by their business model and deterred not by status quo. These social and environmental entrepreneurs are courageous, creative, intrepid, and resourceful.
But more than anything they are empathetic.
It takes a depth of caring for our collective humanity to want to start a business that solves one of our ugliest truths. To witness, walk beside, and try to solve the least sexy challenges of our time — be it human poverty or environmental resource depletion — demands an empathy that makes this subset of entrepreneurs quite unique. You have to care so deeply about someone else’s condition that you’re willing to forgo (at least for a while) stability and income among other creature comforts to create change.
Their stories don’t often start with an investment opportunity or product ingenuity. They don’t start with a solution that they want to bring to market. The social and environmental innovators with whom we’ve worked start with a problem and then try and fail and try again to find their way to a sustainable solution. They weave their way from chicken farms to sandal manufacturing, from sawdust to surfboards all in the pursuit of making the world a bit better for the rest of us.
There is nothing selfish about that. And it’s an honor to stand beside them and share those stories.