A Tale Of Two Americas (and a failure of imagination)

I really enjoyed this recent rant that appeared in the MIT Entrepreneurship Review, “The Unexotic Underclass”:

The editorialist, C.Z. Nnaemeka writes eloquently and movingly about Silicon Valley entrepreneurs’ tendency to focus on a target market that resembles that of a Hollywood sitcom: Young, white, and improbably blessed with money and free time.

“Those who are entrepreneurially-minded but young and idea-poor need
serious direction from those who are rich in capital and connections. 
We see what ideas are getting funded, we see money flowing like the
river Ganges towards insipid me-too products, so is it crazy that we’ve
been thinking small?  building smaller? that our “blood and judgment” to
quote Hamlet, have not been  “so well commingled?”

We need someone bold (and older than us) to stand up for Big Problems which are tough and dirty.  But what we especially need is someone to stand up for big problems – little b, little p –which are tough and dirty and too easy to overlook.”

Nnaemeka doesn’t just criticize those who focus their talents on the
trivial; she also criticizes those who call for entrepreneurs to solve
the big, sexy problems of the third world.  Her point is that the problems of the American underclass are real, but aren’t “sexy” in the same way that helping poor African children is.

I agree; I think entrepreneurs are like zoos, which focus on “charismatic megafauna” (the animals people want to see, like lions and elephants) at the expense of equally deserving animals.

I appreciate Nnaemeka’s passion, but I fear that her approach falls into the same trap as those she criticizes: A failure of imagination.  Just as those she criticizes have a blinkered view of the world, so does she.

When I studied design, the most important thing we were taught was to see problems from the point of view of the user.  We were encouraged to avoid the design masturbation of building yet another mountain biking product.  One of my projects, for example, was to redesign the cart used by the janitors at UCSF Medical Center.

Yet calling on entrepreneurs to “save the world” for non-economic reasons is equally blinkered. People don’t act against their own economic interests.  What has worked is educating folks on the opportunities that do exist, much as C.K. Prahalad did with his book, “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” which educated people on the business opportunities available in poor, third-world markets.

To generate real change, explain the problems of the unexotic underclass and show how you can get stinking rich by solving them.

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