Last week I was summoned by a millionaire to give my contemporary business advice to an up-and-coming artist. Intrigued, as one would be, I accepted.
Later that day, after an engaging conversation with the artist, I used the opportunity to dig in the depths of this rich man’s knowledge.
Originally he had hoped I would join the artist full time for a piece of the pie, but I told him I was already signing for a VC deal with my own startup*. Naturally he inquired what my startup was about, and what I answered triggered him.
Save the world
“Do you want to try and save the world or do you want to build a successful business?” He asked pressingly, bordering on mockingly.
Knowing him and what he was implying I waited a second to give my answer. He can be lighthearted or merciless, depending on if what you’re saying aligns with his world views.
“If I’d have to choose, I’d rather try to save the world” I said, walking straight into his trap.
“I wouldn’t tell your investors that” he answered. A grin appeared on my face. That is exactly what I told my investors.
I went on to passionately declare the rise of impact investment and the need to have a clear connection to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to even be considered for investment. But he wouldn’t have it.
The rest of the conversation was, in hindsight, a downwards spiral in which our paths diverged too much to find common ground. In his eyes I was the tree hugger and in my eyes he was the dinosaur. A real King Kong vs. Godzilla situation.
The real difference
Reflecting on that evening now, I do realise the real difference between us, and it was in front of me all that time. When this man started, he saw an opportunity to make a boatload of cash, jumped on it and executed it really well.
Not only were the Sustainable Development Goals not invented yet (only in 2015 actually), there was also less attention for sustainability in general and the tree huggers were living in communes and organising festivals, not building startups.
But the times they are a-changin’. Governmental regulations and even consumer behaviour are slowly aligning the financially sound investment with the environmentally friendly investment.
I tried to take his words to heart and it feels arrogant to think I have better ideas of running a business than a millionaire. But, after a few restless nights the best I can do is agree to disagree.
Time will tell if I can make money saving the world. I do know that if we want to keep enjoying this world we live in, we have to align our higher purpose with what we do during the workday. We are not going to solve the SDGs relying only on donations of evening hours and profits of otherwise unsustainable businesses.
And slowly but surely, this ethos is becoming profitable as well.
*With my startup, FruitPunch AI, We are uniting a global nation of change-makers and educating them in AI for Good, to solve humanity’s greatest challenges.
About this column
In a weekly column, alternately written by Buster Franken, Eveline van Zeeland, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels, Mary Fiers, Tessie Hartjes, and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented with guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions for the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous articles.