About 10 years ago, there was genuine debate in Silicon Valley about whether you had to be an asshole to succeed. Silicon Valley was drawing a lot of its formulation of how the business world should be from libertarian thinking, which dominated economic ideas since the 1970s. By the late 2000s, this had evolved into a tolerance for characters like Travis Kalanick, Uber founder, who was the oft-cited example of the successful asshole (forced out of Uber, he’s since launched another startup called CloudKitchens, also backed by the authoritarian regime in Saudi Arabia).
The tricky thing about this debate around assholery in the business world is the word “success.” If you define success in terms of dollars and size, then being ruthless is likely an advantage. But at the same time Silicon Valley was thriving on libertarian capitalism that valued size and growth over everything else – the perfect Petri dish in which to grow asshole executives – there was a quiet revolution at the grassroots. A growing number of people wanted to define success differently.
That movement has turned into ESG (environmental, social and governance), or impact investing, social entrepreneurship, the B Corp movement – there are a host of names for different corners of the new universe. I’ve been writing about this grassroots opposition to libertarian thinking since, at the age of 22, I wrote a story about a group of nuns who bought shares in Armstrong World Industries, and then forced the board to add a women member. In the early days of this movement, both the investing and business sides were driven by people of faith.
Lately, I’ve been seeing signs of the way the movement is changing the employment market. A recent survey of 1,000 people ages 16-26 by Intelligent.com found that a third were considering blue-collar jobs, and a large number wanted to own businesses. You can see this as a fear response to the layoff headlines, though that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me; layoffs come and go and the unemployment rate is still low, 3.4%. Blue collar jobs are practical; but they’re also the definition of service jobs: teachers, nurses, police officers and garbage collectors. And the people in the survey who want to own businesses are expressing a desire to opt out of the corporate world.
The survey is one more piece of evidence that we’re seeing a genuine reset of the definition of success. I see it also on the ground in our reporting on the startup world. I see leaders who are creating expansive vacation policies; women who are standing up more for themselves in the workplace, because they realize the system can’t get by without their emotional intelligence; and people investing in themselves and those around them. Elaine Pofeldt wrote this week about the way entrepreneurs see collaboration as a measure as important as jobs created or follow-on investments.
Once, we’d say, “What’s the bottom line?” That’s still a good question, but only in that it points to whether an organization can continue to exist to fulfill its mission. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, by the way: managers and executives don’t need to be assholes, but they do need to set boundaries.
Systems are created by people; people are shaped by the systems they create. Libertarian capitalism thrived on people who subverted everything, including their own humanity, to growth. The new forms of capitalism, which are steadily coming together to create a sea change, thrive on different people. They’re a lot nicer.
This story and others on Times of E are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.