This blog post is a personal, self-centered story about my history in founding SErtified. Reader beware. Here are the Cliff’s Notes: It is about the joy of being an entrepreneur, a joy that is good for the World, and the lesson I learned about the meaning of life at my Dad’s funeral.
The idea for SErtified was hatched about 5 years ago at a series of fundraising events that my wonderful Wife Jill dragged me to, most notably the events for Room to Read. If you don’t know Room to Read, it is a magnificent institution that strikes at the heart of a fundamental problem in many developing nations where girls are deprived of education. Room to Read helps over 1,000,000 girls to learn to read every year. John Wood is the Founder and I admire him so much. He was named by Goldman Sachs as one of the World’s 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs among other accolades.
As you might imagine, fundraising events like these attract amazing social entrepreneurs doing great things for the World. The standard question of cocktail parties is something that I dreaded: “What do you do?”. This particular question has often felt to me like “Justify your place on this Planet”. I struggled with this question even though I am super proud of being a repeatedly successful entrepreneur and I think that entrepreneurs are leading social change in the World. The company I was running at the time had grown and being a CEO had become less fun than the awesome fun of being an entrepreneur. It wasn’t exciting to me to talk about my company and I didn’t want to say something that sounded like “Uh, I’m running a tech company that is growing fast and making tons of money”. I suppose I could have fashioned up a higher calling such as “I love to geek out and my company delivers innovative cloud infrastructure services that are enabling cutting edge new Internet services such as MySpace and YouTube that are changing the World”. I wanted a better answer to the “What do you do?” question or at least I needed a better way to change the subject than to talk about how much I enjoy free food and drinks.
The reason I felt guilty about my business is that I don’t think that any of my customers will show up at my funeral when I die (which hopefully won’t happen for a long long time). When my Dad died I was surprised to see hundreds of people that I did not know show up at his funeral. My Dad was a doctor and he donated half of his time helping children with missing limbs. My Dad was not an entrepreneur. In fact, I’ve heard it said that he wasn’t a good businessperson. I was a bit of a snotty kid because I noticed that we didn’t grow up with as much luxury as other doctor families. Fortunately, the wheels in my brain finally started turning at my Dad’s funeral when I was 30 years old. That was when I started wondering if having people say “thank you” when you die might be the meaning of life? I confess I was a bit startled at the outpouring of affection for my Dad. Holy moly, I could not have been more impressed with my Dad. He was dead at too young of an age but part of me was surprisingly happy for him. And me. I didn’t have children at the time but it occurred to me that it would be great if I could pass the unexpected lesson that my Dad gave to me onto the next generation.
The Room to Read cocktail parties seemed like a fertile environment for helping me to find a higher calling. The right people were in the room. I didn’t want to talk about my business I wanted to talk about how I could become a social entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur, the thing that I admire the most about John Wood is that he started Room to Read. Being an entrepreneur is awesome! John Wood is a guy that is not only an entrepreneur, he used his entrepreneurial skills to change the world. He wrote a book about it, “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, An Entrepreneur’s Odyssey to Educate the World’s Children”.
What fascinates me about John’s story as the Founder of Room to Read is that what has become a large global institution started with a simple act. It all began with a single mission no bigger than a typical “Eagle Scout Project” from the Boy Scouts of America. John saw a need and he took a pile of books to a Nepalese village. He even wrote a children’s book about it, “Zak the Yak with Books on His Back”.
Here I was at the Room to Read fundraiser events thinking about how John Wood was traveling the World and he saw some kids in need and he invented and implemented a way to help them. My Dad had helped lots of kids but I am an entrepreneur and I had done some traveling and I had not helped anyone in this way. I felt guilty. I felt guilty but then again I knew lots of people that had travelled and seen needs and not filled them. There are millions and millions of people like me. We should all be like John Wood. We didn’t need to all build great institutions like Room-to-Read but wouldn’t it be nice if we could all do small missions that were philanthropic and entrepreneurial and maybe some would grow to be big?
And then my guilt turned to inspiration! I had an idea! I had an idea that could help me to navigate around the “What do you do?” question that I dreaded at these fundraiser events.
Now when people asked me the dreaded question I responded that what I really wanted to do was to figure out a way to help lots of people to become social entrepreneurs like John Wood. This is a crazy thought but these rooms are full of big thinkers that could give me feedback on my line of thought. Helping people to be entrepreneurs is a pleasurable thing and helping people to be entrepreneurs that help people would be even better.
As one example of what was on my mind was all the money and time people spent on travel like John Wood’s trip to Tibet. People traveling have some time and some money and they are self-starters that planned a trip. These people could perform a social entrepreneur mission if they wanted to. How could I create a World in which more of us were inspired to find a social need and fill it? You can’t just wish this to happen. One way that might help is to make an act of social entrepreneurship good for your career. We would need a paradigm in which employers and investors recognized and rewarded proven social entrepreneurs.
That is how I came up with the SErtified Certification process. The key to creating this new paradigm is a development and certification program that helps employers and investors and others to appreciate and respect the effort to become a social entrepreneur. SErtified serves as a third party to help insure that the effort is truly entrepreneurial and truly philanthropic. And hopefully SErtified delivers inspiration and support that helps to create great entrepreneurs that do great things.
And, so, “SErtified” was born at a series of cocktail parties. The goal is to create a new paradigm in which social entrepreneurship can be a recognized part of a career path so that we can all have a shot at at being like John Wood.