On the day Steve Jobs died last fall, Occupy Wall Street organized the first massive march down though the Canyon of Heroes in New York, in the opposite direction of the route the New York Giants would take four months later. Swollen by busloads of stoic union troops, the small and somewhat ragged OWS band melded with a much larger crowd and dominated lower Manhattan from Foley Square to Trinity Church, a patch of turf Washington and Hamilton would surely still recognize for its geographic and economic centrality to the nation, if not for the shadows of the modern buildings and mounted police officers in riot gear.That news of Apple‘s existential loss should break just as the Occupiers broke out of Mayor Bloomberg’s pens for the first time brought on a wave of horizontal vertigo to those who consider citizens movements and corporate visionaries to (sometimes) be benevolent actors on the stage of the same large tent.
The juxtaposition of Jobs’ death and the mosaic citizens march I’d just witnessed was so obvious, so seemingly contrived as to seem like a screenwriter’s wastebasket filler. There was CNBC announcing the death of America’s most successful (and indeed, truly beloved) capitalist, the man most responsible for an explosion in portable digital entertainment, just as the most successful anti-corporate branding campaign of our lifetimes took hold. Months later, as I delve into Jobs’ biography via Walter Isaacson, I can’t help but think of the younger man who once proclaimed: “It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.”
Jobs became admiral of the largest navy on the global ocean, a task that led Apple into the scandal over Foxconn and Apple’s outsourcing of industrial misery in service of speed and and scale and price. The slave-galley drones of Jay Chiat’s brilliant ’1984? Apple Super Bowl ad about challenging the status quo now toil overseas as sub-contractors for the world’s largest company.
Yet Steve Jobs, it seems to me, started out as a social entrepreneur of rare talent. His goal was not money or power, but change. And I think his drive to create products of beauty and utility had discernable social goals, beyond any bottom line or quarterly analyst’s report. They had nothing to do with either profit or serving shareholders, those twin shibboleths of capitalist motivation. He died a billionaire but may have had more in common with the pirates marching on Wall Street last fall, for they’re social entrepreneurs as well.
Occupy Wall Street was a start-up. And it was deeply entrepreneurial. Indeed, if any venture capitalists are looking for proven talent in attracting a crowd online behind a product that is lithe, broad, and ripe for vast adoption, they could do worse than pick up some talent from those who built Brand Occupy and changed the political discourse of a nation stuck in neutral. “Nobody had talked about income inequality in America for decades – apart from John Edwards – but no one was listening,” Bruce Springsteen told a press conference on his new record this week .”But now you have Newt Gingrich talking about ‘vulture capitalism’ – Newt Gingrich! – that would not have happened without Occupy Wall Street.”
Marketing genius to be sure. But the bootstrapping angle is just as important. The effort, the drive, the making do, the routing around, the bouncing back when knocked down – all that matters. In truth, the Occupiers steer much closer to the idealistic self-improving America of Ralph Waldo Emerson than the largest multinational conglomerates. And their goal – loosely defined, decentralized and (you heard it here first) primed to make a big comeback this spring – in entirely social.
To me, those are the far outer edges of what I’d like to define as “social ventures,” the broad topic for this new Forbes column – the largest corporation and the ”leaderless” street movement. Steve Jobs and Occupy Wall Street. Social entrepreneurship is about talented energetic risk-takers with an undeniable urge to scratch a society itch. Sure, it’s Muhammad Yunus and Fazel Abed and Bill Drayton and the good folks at Skoll and Ashoka. It’s the tenacious online pioneers like Kiva, DonorsChoose, GlobalGiving, Change.org and their many committed cousins. Blended entities and companies pledged to doing good with their profits. Charities with new models for old problems. Dark side challenges to the comfort of secrecy from Anonymous and Wikileaks. The reinvention of government through open data and new platforms. The 1,800 young people who every year attend the university-oriented version of the Clinton Global Initiative and make a commitment on a project for change. The thousands more in the scores of programs in philanthropy and social entrepreneurship that have sprouted like seedlings on the farms of higher education over the past decade.
And the individual dreamers. Those who see something they don’t like, and try to change it – or something they do like, and try to nurture it. Steve Jobs was right in end, even if the company he built drifted from his vision. It is more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy. I’m not here to cheerlead or push the utopian vision of a broad sunlit upland lit by companies with double bottom lines. I’m here to question and start a conversation. So mateys, let’s make sail.