"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
- George Bernard Shaw
"Why has bettering the world become a mantra for a new generation of entrepreneurs?
More than ever, today’s entrepreneurs are striving to build businesses that make a difference in the world. Businesses that make money — but pursue a path greater than just profit. Call it altruistic-capitalism, or, as I prefer, “impact entrepreneurship.”
Impact entrepreneurs are driven by a desire to disrupt the status quo. Doing their bit to push the world forward is what gets them out of bed in the morning. They believe in creating businesses that are more ethical and transparent, dislodging the dinosaurs that give the consumer a bad deal." (Source: Wired)
"So, what is the importance of wealth to the “unreasonable man”? If impact entrepreneurs happen to become overnight millionaires, then the cause doesn’t stop; it just becomes more viable. PayPal founder Elon Musk made enough money by the time he was 30 to retire for the rest of his life. Instead of Ferraris and desert islands, he used his newfound funds to launch electric car manufacturer Tesla, disrupting the automotive industry forever. However, acknowledging that Tesla alone cannot save the planet from heavy emission vehicles, Musk is making public all of their patents for the advancement of the industry. The enemy is the carbon crisis, not rival car manufacturers.
Among the “crazy ones” featured by Jobs in his iconic film, was Virgin founder Richard Branson. Since the 1970s Branson has been the champion of the “better alternative.” From health clubs to airlines, Branson has disrupted the old guard and won the hearts, minds — and importantly — loyalty of customers by guaranteeing a better way of doing things. His philosophy is embedded firmly in the DNA of the 400+ Virgin companies operating across the globe.
As Branson has stepped back from running his empire, he has become a prolific ambassador for what he calls “business as a force for good.” Whether this is leveraging entrepreneurial tenacity to tackle problems that governments have failed to solve, or by launching The B Team, a not-for profit that encourages businesses to be of “social, environmental and economic benefit,” Branson is paving the way for impact entrepreneurs everywhere.
With this new approach to entrepreneurship rapidly shaping business in the 21st century, we’re on our way to business success being judged not by just profit, but through cultural impact. Subsequently, business is becoming more responsible, more transparent, more rewarding, more interesting and ultimately more fun." (Source: Wired)
On November 17th, 2017 I was attending the annual TEDxZurich event, kindly invited to interview some of their wonderful speakers. Between interviews, presentations, and notes taken while moving from backstage to the main theater and back, I nearly missed the beginning of his presentation - but I was stopped in my ranks as soon as I heard these words:
"I'm convinced that all of us are making a difference everyday. In our families, at work, in our community. But sometimes I have the feeling I could do better. Or I could do more? Let me share with you today my very personal story. And how I went from feeling completely powerless to making a difference."
"The fact that you and I, and most people in this room, were born in the first world, to mostly wealthy, balanced families, is a completely coincidental fact and none of us has done anything to deserve it."
Well, that is an interesting start I thought. Pen and notebook put aside I focused on listening carefully to his words, spoken and unspoken.
Having just heard the incredible story of immigration of the wonderful Rima Alaifari (more on her speech soon) and witnessed first-hand how unconscious biases can harm our society, our economies and our future, I was very keen to understand what a known Swiss entrepreneur has done to make real impact on our world.
Christian Hirsig is a Swiss serial business and technology entrepreneur, an open innovation pioneer and the founder of Atizo.com, a crowdsourcing platform, and of PowerCoders. In 2009 he was selected to be on the Swiss national set-up team, named 40 under 40 by Bilanz in 2012 and, in 2016 represented Switzerland at the Global Entrepreneur Summit at Stanford.
I met Christian in the backstage after his inspiring speech. While exchanging numbers and looking at articles on our phones, we briefly discussed career, family, life with little children - ours happen to have similar ages - how time is running and how important it is to switch off from time to time and avoid to suffer from "fragmented attention". Christian is genuine, inspiring, fresh, a true ‘force for good’.
Manuela. Christian, what led you to start PowerCoders and can you tell us more about it and its impact?
Christian. Hi Manuela, sure. Let me go back of five years. We were a successful start-up working for very cool brands, winning all these fancy start-up prices. My story starts on a warm summer day in Paris. After a successful workshop with a famous jewelry brand, I walked to the station to head back to Switzerland. Once comfortable in my seat I looked around and realized someone had forgotten a newspaper on the table. I lazily started reading it, page after page, until, boom.
A picture of a little girl, probably 4 years old. Sitting alone at a beach, likely somewhere in Greece. Wrapped in blankets, probably just pulled out of the water by some strangers.
I went in one second from being enthusiastic about my life and my businesses, riding the wave of success, to completely powerless. I felt a very strong pain. I still do. And I don't know where exactly it is coming from. But let me try to elaborate a bit on this. I believe it is a mere coincidence that I was born in Switzerland. And this girl in Syria. She also could be sitting in that very same train I was sitting in. I probably was feeling the sheer injustice. It was just not right that she was sitting at that beach, alone. When I got back home I started speaking with friends about the refugee crisis and what we could do. But we all had great excuses. Employees, investors, family - and so did I. I just tried to push it aside. Quite successfully I have to confess.
M. What happened next?
C. Let me fast forward to summer 2016. Our start-up was sold. On a trip to Washington last summer I met Cornelia and Dita. Cornelia has a catering company that provides food for refugees. And Dita has a coding academy for women. Together we came up with the idea of a coding academy for refugees. And there it was again the picture of the girl. But this time I could picture a whole different context. I felt strong, I felt I could make a change. I was the only one of our small group that had some spare time so I suggested to run a pilot of our business idea in my home town in Bern.
M. From running a pilot to building a school, how did you do that?
C. After securing funds for Bern we put together a team consisting of IT experts and social workers. Within just a few weeks we had 150 students applications and 100 volunteers. The solidarity was just unbelievable. In January 2017, 15 students from 8 different nations started school. It was such an incredible mix of people. Young, eager, smart and humble. In February we were able to match all of them with companies that offered internships in Switzerland. And after 12 weeks of intense school in April the first group of students graduated and received their the diploma. The students gifted us with flowers. Lhamo, our Tibetian student put a scarf around our shoulders. It was her sign of honoring our work. And for me probably one of the best things that has happened to me in my whole life, both humbling and empowering.
M. How did you promote integration between the students, the local population and the hiring companies?
C. The students started internships. We were kept updated on their progress and met them once a month to assess each case. I guess I felt a bit like parents of teens must be feeling when their kids are leaving for college. A couple of months in we were informed by one of our students that he had signed a contract, the week after another followed. And on and on it went. All students were successfully hired with stable contracts.
6 weeks ago 18 students started in Zürich, this week they all had multiple job interviews. During the same week we were also informed that the Swiss government will support us to run 5 more Powercoders schools for the next 3 years across the country. Tonight we will be on Swiss national TV to report on our mission and achievements. The students` achievements.
This is just the beginning. Very soon we will be able to open-source our program - a bit like TED and its TEDx series - so everyone around the globe who wants to impact lives by teaching to code can do so. And we will support them by building PowerCoders schools in their cities.
I found how to leverage my entrepreneurial background to make a tangible difference in this world. So think about what are your core skills and how can you use them to create sustainable impact?
M. Your story and energy are so inspiring and your achievements are impressive! On your blog you state: "the common definition of success is completing university and getting a well paid, stable corporate job". Obviously your story is not common and your definition of success is quite different, thankfully. What made you choose to become an entrepreneur?
C. I think the challenge, and at the same time the opportunity, that we have in Switzerland and in most of the "first world", is that we have great work opportunities after our studies, so it is relatively easy to secure stable jobs. Most of us are more likely to join big corporations and quickly get to a 6 figure salary, the incentive to start your own business is somehow lower than elsewhere. It is therefore not too surprising that recent research from the University of St.Gallen on innovation potential by country and global likelihood of entrepreneurship, points to the fact that in emerging economies people are more likely to start companies and to be innovative because well, they have few other options. I also believe that many of us have a strong entrepreneurial drive in their DNA, they simply need to push themselves out of the comfort zone.
I come from a very entrepreneurial family, every single person in my family has his of her own business(es). Even so, I did try the corporate route before starting my first business, but I became very frustrated very quickly. I was working for a large Swiss company that while presenting its workforce with interesting and innovative projects, was struggling with internal processes, and had an incredibly long decision time for the smallest tasks. We worked hours on-end-to produce concepts and projects that in the end were not approved. Too low ROI, too much work for little result, too little recognition. So I left. I never gave too much relevance to high income, I was happy to leave behind a corporate salary to start my first company, on the one hand I had reserves, on the other I could reduce expenses for a while without impact. So that part gave me the freedom to focus on my business.
M. I suppose we already know part of your goals and incredible achievements, is there any further impact you wish to make on others and the world?
C. Wow that is a big question! I suppose I do want to make an impact. From an entrepreneurial perspective, with Swisspreneur we want to inspire young people to start their entrepreneurial ventures as early as realistic. It can be as simple as helping running events, working alongside a start up, just ways to dip your toe in this world. We believe that countries with a higher percentage of entrepreneurship will adapt a lot faster and better to digital age and to innovation at large, soon we will see a rapid change in how we work and what we work on. I incentivize young people to push themselves out of the comfort zone daily, for different reasons, but especially when it comes to their employment choices.
We have a social responsibility to improve the status quo of our planet, from pollution and global warming, to third world challenges, hunger, poverty. I personally try to walk the talk, I don’t own a car, I reduce my carbon footprint, I reduce meat intake, I support NGOs and charities that try to make a difference.
Leading PowerCoders has been an amazing journey so far, we have been able to make a real difference for migrants who have had to move to Switzerland. It is important to give them the dignity they deserve, it is also key for Switzerland as these are skilled talented people who can and will help economies to flourish further.
M. What challenges did you encounter in pursuing your passion and pushing yourself out of the comfort zone?
C. Many! Success is failure in small doses. Every successful entrepreneur had to fail in small steps, you just learn when you fail. The biggest challenges are putting together the right teams and finding and retaining customers as the world moves so fast. It is difficult, right now my main personal challenge is finding a good balance between all my projects and time for my family, having quality time with them while truly savouring our time together, being relaxed and giving them my full attention. Probably a challenge common to all parents of young children who are investing time and passion in their work.
M. So can you give us a few tips on how do you balance life and work with a young family?
C. I don`t have all the right answers, it has a lot to do with being clear with our goals. In our family we are very creative and learn as we go by, we try to be very organized and plan ahead, we almost run the family as a small company, with a lot of different calendars to be on top of activities and run the home business. Children just want to have time with you, at this stage for them everything else matters less. If I am with the kids I focus on them and shut off the world.
M. I can only relate. Increasingly more bright minds are choosing to leave the corporate world and start their business or join start-ups that are thriving to make an impact. What will the future hold for slow adapting large corporations that are no longer able to retain their talents in your opinion and what could be the impact on society? What will happen to corporations who are embracing great change?
C. Yes there are many companies that are not doing a good job at retaining talents, some however are reacting, although very slowly. Normally once they start moving they move and they are powerful. We are seeing this in the Silicon Valley: many companies are starting to adapt and develop new working models and being successful at that. Companies that will not be able to adapt will not survive.
Thank you Christian, more soon!
"Starting your own venture or joining a startup is typically not encouraged. As the global economy changes and as technology alters the kind of jobs that are available to people, we believe that it’s critical that young Swiss people have a more open and adaptable view towards their careers. We think helping to instill a more entrepreneurial mindset into Swiss youth is critical to Switzerland’s ability to compete in the global economy" (Swisspreneur.org)