Nov. 30, 2018 11:06 am

The case against philanthrocapitalism

Keynote speaker Anand Giridharadas challenged corporate attempts to solve economic inequality at Temple University's recent summit — which also awarded $1,000 to students with socially conscious business pitches.

Anand Giridharadas at Temple's Nov. 27 Social Entrepreneurship Summit.

(Photo by Alyssa Biederman)

There’s a certain irony to this sentence: “If business was going to save us, we would’ve been saved,” said noted speaker, author and NBC political analyst Anand Giridharadas at Temple University’s second annual Social Entrepreneurship Summit on Tuesday.

Giridharadas’ claim came less than an hour after the Fox School of Business’ Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute granted $1,000 in prizes to student winners of its social entrepreneurship pitch contest. The winners were applauded for their for-profit, socially conscious business ideas:

  • Grand prize — Dwell City LLC., a company that hopes to combat the affordable housing crisis
  • Undergraduate runner-up and audience choice — Project Green, a company that would pair veterans and the National Park Service to teach teenagers in YMCA and Boys and Girls Club programs life skills
  • Post-graduate runner-up — Nebula Talent Group, a talent agency that represents people with physical and intellectual disabilities that currently works with Temple’s Special Olympics

After the winners were named, Giridharadas was introduced to talk about his book “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” in which he challenges the idea that social entrepreneurship and philanthrocapitalism should be praised. (The New York Times says the book “politely skewer[s] the corporate titans who claim to be solving” economic inequality.)

His main argument: Using the profits of big business to solve social ills only exacerbates inequity while ignoring those ills’ root causes.

It was while attending the 2015 Aspen Institute conference, an event that hosts attendees like senior officials from Pepsi, Bridgewater and Facebook, that Giridharadas realized big business is at the root of many of society’s social problems such as climate change and inequality.

After a senior Facebook official gave a speech telling the crowd of businessmen to always take on a “charitable side project,” Giridharadas had a chance to give his own speech. He said on Tuesday that it went something along the lines of, “You know how you can make the world better? Just stop doing what you’re doing.”

“What that speech did was say something you’re not supposed to say,” he recalled. “I was just thinking, ‘You all built and are building the winner takes all economy right now that is destroying the American Dream for most people.’”

Giridharadas said large companies feel “place agnostic” because of globalization and outsourcing — and that this is contributing to a lack of social responsibility.

“In a city like Philadelphia, most people are stuck here. The same revolution is not happening to people,” he said. (Note the city’s stubborn 25.7 percent poverty rate.) “People are stuck, but companies get to untether themselves from the community and claim a lack of citizenship everywhere.”

Giridharadas recommended on-the-ground activism and becoming directly involved in politics as more impactful ways to make social change than business.

Giridharadas said this is visible especially when big businessmen make contributions to charter schools.

“There are a thousand rich people putting their names on a thousand charter schools instead of doing the obvious thing, which is not having a cruel public school system,” he said. “You can’t just send your kid to whatever school is the best school in the world. If those companies had remained a part of these communities, when you are providing these bad products, that’s going to be on your conscience.”

(GreenLight Fund Philadelphia ED Omar Woodard made a relevant point during a recent ImpactPHL panel while noting that Pennsylvania ranks 47th out of 50 in state spending on education: “Nothing changes until we get closer to the top of that list rather than at the bottom,” he said about ending poverty.)

Giridharadas ended the summit by offering advice to people looking to make social change: “Change what’s cool.” He recommended on-the-ground activism and becoming directly involved in politics.

Chris Rabb, the Pennsylvania state representative for the 200th House District, attended Giridharadas’ talk and afterward discussed the ways he feels he is putting those lessons into action. According to his website, Rabb is interested in creating “improved incentives for local businesses to create good, living wage jobs,” and will soon introduce a group of bills that aim to increase corporate transparency in the state.

“Government is more powerful if we actually use it. The reality is, businesses use government more than the average person,” Rabb said. “If they see the value of government, how can we, who don’t have the same amount of influence, say we aren’t going to work on government as if government doesn’t influence us personally?”

The founder of Nebula Talent Group, Will Bubenik, may be a part of the philanthrocapitalism movement Giridharadas spoke against, but he said after the talk that he is inspired to look at the big picture of societal improvement through every step of building his business.

“The biggest thing is to just do,” said Bubenik, who has three siblings with intellectual disabilities decided to start Nebula because he saw there were accessibility gaps in services for them. “People will say ‘we will’ do this, or ‘we want’ to do this, but until you actually do it, you never know what the response [to your work] will be. Actually taking a first step can make a big change because you can build off of things you’ve tested.”

Anyway, while you’re considering whether any and all attempts to use business to solve the world’s problems are BS, take this survey to put Philly on the social enterprise ecosystem map, won’t you?


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