Saturday, January 29, 2011

Egypt & Entrepreneurship:Tectonic Demonstration Effects

This past week I was fortunate enough to meet with some leaders in the field of innovative philanthropy and impact investing. So thanks first to my guides at Mercy Corps, Lemelson Foundation, Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, Imprint Capital and Omidyar Network.

One term I heard quite a bit was "demonstration effect." For our meetings, this meant examples of investments that provide impact and return on capital. Or enterprises that serve poor customers fairly and make a fair profit they can share with their owners and employees. Each of these could start self-reinforcing trends, attracting more human and financial capital to mission based companies.

More generally, demonstration effect recognizes the power of examples over ideas. Hearing about an idea that has never happened is very different than seeing something unexpected happen. Real examples open people up to new possibilities, and shift their frame of reference. The unlikely becomes more likely, and the world is never the same for that person. As these events are shared, they ripple to companies, communities and societies. There is no going back.

This morning, the AP is reporting that China is blocking #egypt on their twitter like services. The street demonstrations in Egypt were in part a result of the demonstration effect of similar protests in Tunisia. Could it be that China is worried that it is next? That the democratizing force of social media will drive a different type of domino effect? Tunisia ->Egypt->China? And imposing internet darkness may backfire on these governments.

These are tectonic political shifts. The longer the built up energy is surpressed the more impressive is its release- in building continents, the result can be earthquakes and in building nations, the result can be revolutions. The Latin root of this word is "to build," and tectonic means "building through structural deformation." In other words, creative destruction (right Mr. Schumpeter?) Continents, countries, and industries are built on ruptures, shifts, shaking and destruction. I wait, hopeful that Egypt (and any other countries that follow) don't add violence to the list. Iran's brutal repression is still a fresh gash on this hope for a better world.

In a more personal light, I spoke to one of my African students earlier this week. She told me that she had never thought of herself as an entrepreneur but that my class had shown her a) examples of others who had decided to make a difference through entrepreneurship, and more importantly, b) given her personal experiences that had shown her that she could be an entrepreneur. She made some tough decisions at some cost and difficulty and now has embarked on a new venture. Another dandelion starts to bud through the soil and sunlight provided by demonstration effect.

Throughout history, the power of seeing something work opens our eyes to new possibilities. Whether it is a "demo" of a new product, the self realization of one's potential, or the possibility of over- throwing an autocrat, the demonstration effect has vast potential for rapid replication. This can be both scary and exhilarating. These are common emotions to unreasonable people- revolutionaries, activists, entrepreneurs, hackers and (ad)venturers. Emotions that I imagine were felt in Boston in 1773 and are being felt in Cairo today.

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