The Tyranny of the Dot

I love reading history. On a plane a few weeks back, I was devouring a book that I highly recommend–“1959, The Year Everything Changed” by Fred Kaplan—and one chapter really jumped out at me. It was the story of Jack Kilby.

In the mid 1950’s, when small, inexpensive transistors took the place of bulky, hot vacuum tubes as the dominant power source for the emerging electronics field, science fiction writers and others speculated that the age of “thinking machines” wrist-watch telephones and space ships was right around the corner. Experts like Jack Kilby knew that to be false.

They understood that, in reality, machines that complex would require millions of components, made up of miles and miles of wires, soldered together in a complex and delicate system that could easily short out.

In short, they faced what was referred to as “the tyranny of numbers”.

Kilby, who stayed in the Dallas offices of Texas Instruments while the rest of his team went on summer vacation, was convinced that an alternative could be developed. His breakthrough came when he decided to create circuit components, en masse, using silicon as a semiconductor. Long story short—Jack Kilby invented the “integrated circuit” on his summer vacation…and the age of the computer began.

I love reading about barriers being broken, and people who were just too stubborn or too damn dumb to listen to all who would dissuade them from continuing to push, prod, plead or provoke for a new way of thinking.

Which brings me to my point.

America is all but staggering economically. Draconian cuts are decimating communities in every state. Short term cash savings are trumping long-term social investments. Yet, at the very time we should be open to any idea, no matter how counter-intuitive, we still genuflect to the notion that .com’s make money, while .org’s do good deeds—that purpose and profit are best sought separately. This tyranny of the dot limits our ability to break through to a new era, and stifles innovation at the very moment our country needs it most.

That is why so many of us look to social enterprise as but the first experiment of a new integrated economy.

I was in Dallas last week, the city that profited from Kilby’s breakthrough, to speak at a luncheon hosted by amazing colleagues at Dallas Social Venture Partners. Like me, they believe in the promise of connecting money and meaning and philanthropy with everyday commerce. Perhaps more exciting, their luncheon to highlight amazing local endeavors attracted two of the city’s candidates for Mayor…and each spoke with me afterwards to discuss how they might be able to capture some of this economic energy.

You see, smart candidates now understand that the era of giving tax breaks to attract big stores or factories has passed. They don’t create the economic waves often predicted, and the money made or spent there often leaves the city and never comes back. Social enterprise offers an alternative math…an equation that mixes new businesses, good wages, green practices, local purchasing power, community re-investment, and lower taxes that lead to stronger communities.

Are we there yet? Not even close. But neither were electronics just two weeks before Jack stayed home in Dallas to pursue his dream. Breakthroughs happen everyday. Some empower individuals, some elevate entire societies. I think Social Enterprise can do both….for breakfast.

Want an example of what I’m talking about—check out this TedX talk I gave last year that espouses but ONE example of how we might break through.

So dream big, fellow social entrepreneurs…let us bust through the ridiculous wall that divides .com and .org. Let us educate and elect candidates who recognize the potential of social enterprise and micro-credit and who forward tax policies or initiate partnerships that begin to “blur the line”. Then let’s open thousands of new businesses, re-invest in our communities, pay good wages, decrease the need for charity by channeling the market forces of daily commerce for CHANGE and shatter the myth that you have to choose between doing good or making money.

Sic Semper Tyrannis, Baby