Monthly Archives: March 2011

GE and the Broken American Tax Code

The second largest company in the world – multinational, profitable GE – will not pay any U.S. taxes for 2010.
“[GE] reported worldwide profits of $14.2 billion, and said $5.1 billion of the total came from its operations in the United States.” (New York Times)
Of course, this is insane. Americans pay taxes to pay for essential and universal government services like national defense and infrastructure. Even corporations have a responsibility to compensate the government for the services they receive.
“Americans, I’m sure, who read that story and heard about it, are wondering how this could be,” [White House spokesperson] Jay Carney said. “And one of the reasons why it could be … is part of the problem of the corporate tax structure.”  (Politico)
Boy, I’ll say. I don’t even blame GE or Jeffrey Immelt, in particular; I suppose they’d be irresponsible in their duty to their shareholders* not to maximize opportunities for profit. 

Our tax code is apparently so riddled with problems that families barely above the poverty line pay taxes while legal and accounting wizards have a field day with the loopholes.

I don’t want to make this a political discussion – but no wonder Americans are angry. We’re unemployed, we’re poor and yet we see many examples of extravagance, wealth and greed in our day to day lives.

The real problem is not the fact of our anger. We have a right to be angry.

The problem is that we don’t know who to be angry with. We don’t know who’s keeping us poor and unemployed and creating change we don’t want. So we’re angry at the “other” – Muslims, immigrants, China – when we should be angry at ourselves. Angry at ourselves for failing to force our elected officials to focus on our country’s real problems: The growing and insane wage gap, lack of access to health care, inequitable taxes and misjudged priorities throughout the legislative, executive and judicial branches.

We are failing. Failing to fulfill the American dream within ourselves and failing to provide for the tired, the poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.  We aren’t talking about these failures, though. We’re talking about illegal immigrants taking our jobs, gay people ruining our marriages, greedy teachers, city people taking our guns, country people taking our farm subsidies.

We are distracted from our failures by our racism, our sexism, our xenophobia, our homophobia, our obsession with celebrity and status and our need to distance ourselves from the natural world and our effects on it.

As Americans, our foundational values are fairness and the unfettered, unrestricted pursuit of happiness. That pursuit is the magic part. When we’re pursuing happiness for ourselves and our communities, we’re creating a better world through innovation, creation and belief. All certainly best accomplished with a minimum of government interference.

But our government is interfering with my pursuit of happiness by taxing me and not the richest among us – that includes GE, no matter how many jobs they may create. I don’t mind paying my taxes. I mind that not everyone is paying their fair share.

I want our elected officials to fix this recession not only by reducing spending but by reforming the tax code. Forget what you know, Congresspeople, and start from scratch. Do it new and do it better.

*I own some GE stock – not a lot – but I’m thinking of selling. Or of donating an extra pot of money to charity this year. What do you think I should do?

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Tom’s Shoes on Why You Should Become a Social Entrepreneur

At SXSW, Blake Mycoskie told the story of Tom’s Shoes, a creative social business that brings resources to poor children while enjoying attention in the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair. 

There are two roads to social business. You might get there as an entrepreneur seeking to solve a business problem who realizes there’s a way to add a social goal to your business model. Alternatively, you might be an activist working to solve a social problem who decides to do so through a for-profit business. Either way, you combine millenia of a successful human development – through for-profit business – with accomplishing social change.

Blake Mycoskie had a social problem he wanted to solve. Children in Argentina did not have shoes. Without shoes, kids didn’t leave their homes, go to school or pursue their educations. Blake wanted to get them some shoes.

“Instead of looking at charity to solve problems,” Mycoskie said, “I decided to look at look at business.” Mycoskie founded Tom’s Shoes, which sells shoes and gives one pair of shoes away to children in areas of need for each pair he sells. He’s been outrageously successful, creating a successful business and distributing more than 1 million pairs of shoes since 2006.

Mycoskie went from an erstwhile contestant on The Greatest Race to a startup founder who wanted to do something different. He went on vacation in Argentina and came back with an idea. Once back in Los Angeles, with a few hundred pairs of shoes in his garage, his business grew like dry leaves on fire. Mycoskie managed out of control demand from an apartment with no plan, but instead a surfeit of life and support.

Mycoskie’s success is founded not just in his hard work and fervent belief but in the simple one-for-one model that attracts customers and worldwide interest. It takes 30 seconds to understand what Tom’s Shoes accomplishes, and another 30 seconds to become its biggest fan. You’re on board with Tom’s Shoes because of the excellent product you purchase and the social benefit you accomplish.

Mycoskie’s speech at SXSW wasn’t just a celebration. He’s recruiting.

It’s Time to Redesign Your Business

There’s no reason any business shouldn’t be a social business. If you aren’t sold on making your business a social one for old-fashioned do-good reasons, well, I won’t tell. There’s a long list of business reasons for making your business a social one.

  • Loyal customers. With a business that meets social goals, customers aren’t just customers. They’re true believers – evangelists for your brand and your mission – because they’re proud to contribute to the work that you do. Tom’s does not spend money on advertising, because Tom’s customers do the advertising. The quality of the mission attracts customer interest and loyalty over time. Tom’s focuses on giving because their customers are doing the “word of mouth”.
  • Top talent. Social businesses attract and retain the best employees because talented people want to be part of something larger than just making money or creating good products. Your business’s social mission enables your employees to be the best people (and employees) they can be.
  • Partners. The brand differentiation accomplished by adding social goals to your business mission will attract partners who wish to meet their own social responsibility goals and take advantage of your experience in the sector. Ralph Lauren entered into one of its first design partnerships with Tom’s Shoes not because Tom’s shoes were groundbreaking, but because the concept for the business was interesting, different and resonated with customers.

In general, giving doesn’t just feel good; it makes money. You attract customers while solving social problems without appealing for a donation. Using business attracts diverse problem solvers and leverages traditional models to create sustainable solutions.

There are hundreds of thousands of social entrepreneurs around the world conceiving of business solutions for social problems – through investment, creative products, unusual financing structures, mentorship and needed services. Get on board.

The Revolution Will be Live-Tweeted

The revolution is being live-tweeted, and if you are a news junkie like me, you want the latest information quicker than CNN or the New York Times can get it to you. The information is out there, available in English and in real time. I sat up late last night, watching my Middle East/North Africa list live-tweet Gaddafi’s forces flouting the cease-fire and assassinating Mohammed Nahbous, a citizen journalist:

Activists, journalists and everyone, really, are using Twitter (along with Flickr and YouTube) to share events in real time. Andy Carvin, an NPR strategist, makes it his business to curate the firehose of tweets coming from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Follow him to get started, and you’ll soon find yourself following people like @Ghonim, @JustAmira and @LibyansRevolt, all sharing real time news and events in Egypt, Bahrain and Libya, respectively.

If you’ve foresworn Twitter, though, you still have excellent resources to get news quickly and authentically:

From a philosophical point of view, communication, media and democracy are fundamentally changed when people across the world are communicating directly with each other through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr. No longer do we depend on the New York Times or CNN (or whoever) to find the information and present it to us – because we can get it ourselves.

This democratization of information is not at the expense of the valuable analysis, synthesis and opinion offered by professional journalists. Their role is essential, but different than it was 20 years ago. We have a unique opportunity to understand current events in the first person, to connect with our peers around the world and to amplify their voices. To ensure they do not go unheard. May the revolution be live-tweeted.

Social Media & the Arab Spring Revolutions: SXSW

SXSW is focused on digital media – design, creation, implementation, distribution – but the most interesting and engaging panels are those connecting digital media to global communities, trends and events.

Yesterday’s diverse panel on Lessons Learned from the Spring 2011 Arab Revolutions explored how the use of social media accelerated political change (info on the speakers at the links).

The panelists got directly to the point: Social media is not just a communications tool. It’s a multiplier of sentiment and an empowering force for individuals. Instead of disparate, disconnected, disaffected individuals seeking change, the use of social media created an associated group who were a real and new challenge to autocratic regimes.

Panelist Habib Haddad described how protesters in Egypt used Facebook not simply to communicate but to build solidarity and to breach the historical fear of the power of the government. The latent rebellion reached a breaking point when people posted pictures of themselves on Facebook – revealing their identity and daring others to participate.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said there’s something in us which yearns for freedom – and this talk demonstrated how people’s access to social media mirrored their search for greater freedom. As panelist Katherine Maher noted, the search for social media access was a real time example of an iterative search for freedom: as the government tried trying to restrict some form of communication, people found another way to communicate. When the government cut off access to the internet and SMS, Google and Twitter worked together to create Speak to Tweet, which enabled people without Internet access to leave a voice mail that would be tweeted.

As communities and people move forward in the middle east, mobile communications tools create a rich data record for historians to parse and understand how revolutions happens. Geolocated photos, data, names, conversations, chat records, Facebook groups, videos, Tweets and everything else.

I went from the panel to Clay Shirky’s high level analysis of how social media is truly a revolutionary tool because media gives people who already want to get things done the tools to get things done at a larger scale. The printing press didn’t cause the Protestant revolution, for example, but it made it possible. In the 2011 case, social media enables revolutionaries to do three things: synchronize their views, coordinate their action and document & share their activities.

In Shirky’s most cutting point, he noted that governments aren’t scared, after all, of informed people: they’re scared of groups with synchronized beliefs and views, and social networks accelerate the creation of those groups.

As the revolution spread to Libya, Gaddafi banned soccer not because he didn’t love the game, but because he was scared of the stadium. He didn’t want people to get together to synchronize their views and coordinate their action – but certainly he’s naive if he doesn’t think Facebook and new media are the new stadium.

So what?

These panels both roundly dismissed the concept that social media is just the new telephone -as Shirky noted, the use of social media enables the “ridiculously easy” creation of groups with synchronized beliefs. Revolutions spread faster than the speed of light when the synchronization, coordination and documentation is facilitated through social media.

The questions that emerged for me from these two sessions were about trust and  Libya. As Shirky noted, you can’t just trust someone because they’re also on Facebook. In the absence of real world relationships, you need to build those relationships over time to build real world trust. There’s danger in being too quick to trust online connections, but without some level of trust, revolution can’t go viral.

Second, what is it about Libya that’s different? Why hasn’t their revolution moved as quickly? Is there something that people have done differently, used differently, accessed differently? Or is it just differences in military positioning or tribal divisions? If we can identify what works and what doesn’t, we can hopefully become empowered social media users to promote change for good worldwide.

Finally, in an emotional and unrelated to social media note, Shirky showed a picture of Coptic Christians creating a human chain to protect Muslim protesters at prayer in Tahrir Square. I teared up. He challenged the SXSW crowd to see what we can do to protect Muslims in our country in person or through virtual human chains. It was an unexpected political note, but moving.

What can we do? Is it time for peaceful action of our own? I myself am thinking of printing t-shirts that say “I’m a Muslim too.”

Uncivil Discourse: The Comments

The tone of our civil discourse around current events and news – expressed through talk radio, news shows, comments sections and discussion forums – feeds intolerance and hate in America. The failure of civic leaders and media outlets to embrace their responsibility to require opinions to be based on some reasonable interpretation of fact and expressed in ways that exhibit respect is eroding civil discourse in this country, promoting division and making practical compromise impossible. 

While these subjects warrant larger treatment and discussion, I’ll focus for now on a particularly low form of civil discourse: the comments.

The Problem

It’s easy to be hateful when you’re anonymous or distant. Exhibit 1, culled from the Anchorage Daily News, my old daily newspaper:

The quality of discussion in most major newspapers’ comments sections is somewhere between anonymous libel and hate speech. It makes us see the worst in other people – not just a differing view, which would be useful – but opinions expressed uncivilly in ways that prevent a productive conversation from occurring.

At best, we’re all stuck in a defensive mode. We assume that our opinions, no matter how carefully expressed, will be dismissed and derided. We isolate ourselves in circles that share our opinions, creating ever more insulated communities based on shared assumptions.

Free speech is a core American value, but uncivil discourse undermines another core American value: our strong sense of community and the founders’ belief that America was a place for everyone. It’s also bad business. It scares off the responsible people who might spend more time on your site if the comments were useful, interesting or even educational.

Without the capacity to debate like reasonable adults, we’re no longer going to compromise. It’s impossible to admit you were wrong, shift your position or cut a deal when every conversation is based in strident absolutes. The standoff between Governor Walker of Wisconsin and the state’s Democratic legislators is a prime example of the results of uncivil discourse.

Civil discourse isn’t just the name of this silly blog – it’s part of our American tradition, and we have to find a way to reestablish that tradition in order to solve the real challenges that face this country. I’d like to start by calling on major media institutions to take control of the comments sections and forums that they provide.

What to Do

A critique of media practices isn’t useful without useful suggestions for changed behavior. There are a few different ways of reducing the hate in public forums:

  • Gawker Media requires people to audition to become an approved commenter. As an auditioner, you comment for a while until a moderator (usually a volunteer) approves you for published commenting.
  • Quora (a new question and answer site) has a few interesting techniques. First, your profile is attached to either your Facebook or Twitter profile, and they encourage you to use your real name. Second, users up-vote and down-vote answers as appropriate. Third, you can’t answer a question more than once, although you can comment on answers. This reduces the prominence of any “flame wars”.
  • TechCrunch recently switched to using Facebook for comments. They report it is reducing nastiness and promoting good discussion: “With the Facebook system, the most popular posts are only touching around 100 or so comments. But of those 50 to 100 comments, many of them are actually coherent thoughts in response to the post itself — you know, what a comment is supposed to be.”
It seems that you need either strong community moderation or some way to tether comments to users’ real identities in order to promote civil discourse. Of course, some people don’t mind being jerks on the record, and no moderator is perfect. But these methods are low-cost and actually reward committed community members by asking them to take responsibility for the quality of the discussion. It’s one step in the right direction towards constructive discussion.

Shea Yeleen Connects African Women to Global Markets

Note: I wrote this post for MakeSense, an international organization that promotes social entrepreneurship and connects volunteers worldwide with social businesses. I’m proud to be a MakeSense gangster.

Rahama Wright is a bundle of energy and kindness. She’s an entrepreneur, traveler and the founder of Shea Yeleen, a nonprofit social enterprise that imports shea butter from women’s cooperatives in West Africa to the United States.

West African women have created shea butter for centuries by harvesting shea nuts, cracking them by hand, grinding them and clarifying the resulting butter, which is traditionally used as a calorie-rich cooking oil in Africa. In Mali, doughnuts fried in shea butter are a cheap and popular snack, usually served with a little hot sauce. In the U.S., we use the rich oil (solid at room temperature) for soaps, lotions and lip balms.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali, Wright saw the traditional producers of shea butter – women – losing control of their product as global companies increasingly purchased raw shea nuts. “The women were just harvesters,” says Wright. “Without connections to global markets, they were missing the opportunity to supply a value-added product, develop local economies and become successful businesswomen.”

Why Social Enterprise?

So Wright created Shea Yeleen, which buys shea butter from women’s cooperatives comprising almost a thousand women in Northern Ghana and Mali and brings it to the United States, where Shea Yeleen manufactures and distributes shea-based skin products for sale around the country. “Traditional aid leaves much to be desired,” Wright said. “There needs to be a better model, and I started looking for market-based solutions.”

Wright is the only full-time Shea Yeleen employee, but she’s ramped up production and capacity in the 7 years she’s been working on the project. When asked how she has come so far so quickly, Wright answered, “Trial and error, partnerships and committed volunteers.”

Wright brought her first shipment from Mali to the U.S. via air freight, and quickly learned that wasn’t economical. She’s continually improved her processes, finding local partners in Africa to expedite shipping, switching to sea freight and finding a processor in the United States that manufactures the finished products.

Shea Yeleen and Wright herself are attracting international attention for the way they’ve applied a different approach to social change. Wright and Shea Yeleen products have been featured in Oprah Magazine, Real Simple and in countless nonprofit blogs. “It’s been great to see the explosion of interest in social entrepreneurship and a new way of looking at development,” Wright said. “In particular, initiatives from the diaspora are bringing an infusion of new energy to the development sector.”

And now she’s passing her knowledge along. Wright forwarded me one of the handful of emails she gets every week from social entrepreneurs seeking her advice getting started, forming an organization, importing goods and finding customers. Here’s a summary list of the successful practices that have enabled her to scale up:

  • Use the power of partnerships to expand the footprint of your enterprise. If you’re creating an international enterprise, make sure you have local partners on the ground who know their way around.
  • Take advantage of business advisory programs and mentors to ask questions, network and stay up-to-date.
  • Remember that you’re not the only one with good ideas. Create an advisory board that will meet with you regularly to talk about challenges and brainstorm solutions.
  • One size does not fit all. Adapt and evolve.

Take Up Challenges with Shea Yeleen

Rahama is looking for graphic designers, web developers, board members, a social media volunteer and for Washington, DC based volunteers to assist her with the Shea Yeleen booth at the Smithsonian’s annual Folk Life Festival, where a group of Ghanaian women will demonstrate how to make shea butter. You can reach Rahama at rwright [at] sheayeleen [dot] org or info [at] sheayeleen [dot] org if you want to take up her challenges.