Q&A: An Interview With Ben Wald
On January 14, leading innovators in social and business entrepreneurship, technology, academia, and entertainment will meet at Pixar Animation Studios to discuss powerful and effective ways to address the most critical social and economic challenges of our time. They include Google vice president Marissa Mayer; Steve Case, founder of AOL and The Case Foundation; and Tim Brown, IDEO CEO, as well as Ashoka president Diana Wells and Ashoka Changemakers chief executive partner Ben Wald.
The event, dubbed “The Intersection,” will be a mash-up of 14 “innovation masterminds” from the business and social sectors exploring leading trends and ideas in personal creativity, team and organizational innovation, and social impact.
Wald recently talked with Changemakers about what he expects from the event—and what he is excited about.
Changemakers: What do you think we will learn from these innovative thinkers as they explore how innovation drives an organization’s performance or philanthropic efforts?
Wald: We’re in this world of unprecedented change and development, so it’s critically important that there are people connecting to ensure that new positive solutions see sunlight. The problem is not whether the technology exists, or whether the world has enough innovators, but how to guarantee consumer adoption and sustainability.
It’s not a matter of throwing dollars at the problem, but about surfacing the needs of social innovators and advancing design and user experience. As different fields begin to work together more often, we’ll see an accelerated changemaking process.
Changemakers: Three years ago, you were named one of Business Week’s Top 25 Young Entrepreneurs after you secured more than $5 million in seed capital for an online education software startup. You continue to be an active advisor and investor in early-stage technology companies, and you head two companies—one in software development and consulting, and another focusing on mobile application development. What’s it like to have one foot in that world, and another in Ashoka, a leading social sector organization, where you are spearheading an initiative aimed at accelerating the growth of social entrepreneurs?
Wald: It’s very fun, and the lines are continually getting more blurry between my work as a social entrepreneur, and my work as an entrepreneur—to the point where I don’t think there will be any distinction. Having come from a very private sector game of doing whatever you needed to do to put more zeros in a bank account, it’s much more fulfilling to be asking myself, how much impact can I have on the world through my business? And I think there’s a misconception that social change comes at the expense of profit.
Changemakers: You’re fighting the notion that focusing on social change means you can’t make money.
Wald: Right. Within the sphere of social impact, your company must have a social mission, but that doesn’t mean that making money is bad or even secondary; there are many organizations that do not lend themselves to a for-profit model, but there are plenty of businesses that do.
One of the things that I’ve learned over the last few years is how many opportunities there are to make an impact in this rapidly changing world—there are more opportunities than anybody knows what to do with. And more importantly, there’s a real push to rethink existing corporate models to better identify opportunities where they can have a social impact.
That’s where the intersection of the future can be. Fortune favors the bold.
Changemakers: The bold new idea you’re betting on is called “Open Growth.” What do you mean by that?
Wald: Open Growth is founded on the principles of transparency and radical openness, and it creates an environment that supports the spawning and evolution of innovative ideas. It’s a framework where people can transparently track their growth to solicit the resources they need—from startup capital to talent.
The public sector has a real need for connectivity and network activation. There’s definitely competition in the world of social good, but what I’ve found is that that many organizations are willing to partner if their social missions align—the big issue right now is not necessarily whether organizations are open to collaboration, but instead finding the right partners for them.
Open Growth can be the platform to generate collective impact. In the field of social change, the more we can leverage existing organizations, the greater the impact will be.
Our goal with Open Growth is not to be the king of the hill; we’re trying to design the hill. We’re not trying to own everybody’s community, but we are trying to provide a tool that people can use to better connect and engage with their communities.
Changemakers: So what will be achieved by Open Growth. Where will it take us?
Wald: It’s what’s needed to create a truly competitive citizen sector, one in which social organizations recognize their true value. For better or for worse, there’s a lot less pride or ego in the social realm—I’m not sure which.
With value recognition, there will be greater accessibility to the resources that social ventures need to scale-up, not just to get by.
I see an enormous amount of promise in this. We’re becoming more environmentally and socially conscious. I think people are beginning to put more value on widening their aperture, looking for ways to make a difference to the rest of the world.
As we continue to broaden our focus as a global society, we’ll be creating a much larger demand for organizations that are working with very clear social missions. And that is a good thing.
For more insights from Ben Wald and other leading innovators, apply to attend The Intersection Event 2012—there are only 75 spots left!