Entrepreneurship as a vehicle for social good
There are many avenues for business leaders to give back
Since selling Siege Technologies and setting up a foundation, Jason Syversen and his wife have learned there are several organizations that assist entrepreneurs and business leaders in maximizing their social impact.
I grew up in rural Maine and didn’t grasp how poor I was until I was older. I knew food stamps, heating assistance and the Kiwanis Club bringing used Tonka trucks in a Ziploc bag for a Christmas gift were signs we weren’t well off. But it wasn’t until I got a job at BAE SYSTEMS and moved to New Hampshire that I fully realized rotating your socks with holes in them wasn’t normal — apparently most people just throw them out when the first hole appeared and driving something other than a rusted Subaru/Chevy/Ford wasn’t a sign you were wealthy but just middle class.
After almost a decade at BAE, I had the privilege of working at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and launched my firm, Siege Technologies, in the mill buildings in Manchester. We built a number of innovative cybersecurity technologies, spun some tech out to a venture-backed firm, and were debating if we should keep growing and doing spinouts, launch products directly or sell. Running the company raised lots of interesting questions and taught me a lot about myself, business and people — and raised a key question.
What is the purpose of business and entrepreneurship? There are many answers to that question, ranging from “creating value for the shareholder” to “serving our customers” to “taking care of my family and our employees.”
For my wife and I, the answer to that question was that everything we do should be focused around how to love our neighbor. When asked who your neighbor is, it includes the people physically next to you, strangers and even enemies.
We had decided when starting Siege that, after selling the company one day, we would donate whatever proceeds we received to charity after taking enough to cover our living expenses (and a few fun things).
In 2016 we decided that selling was the best way to capitalize on the intellectual property and revenue we created, and so we donated the majority of the sale funds to charity. (A video of our story is available online at ncfgiving.com/stories/how-the-syversens-give-more-with-a-generosity-life-hack.)
Since selling the company and setting up a foundation, we’ve had the privilege of providing meaningful funding to a number of compelling nonprofits.
I don’t say privilege because it’s politically correct, but because it is a genuine joy to find people and groups dedicated to making a difference in the world and have the opportunity to partner with them in that process. Helping the homeless in Manchester, funding efforts to fight human trafficking across the country, and creating jobs and improving economies in developing countries are each examples of local, national and international ways you can utilize available resources to make the difference in the lives of hundreds or even thousands of people.
When discussing philanthropy and business, I often share how people are presented a false dichotomy on society. If you care about people, you join the Peace Corps, and if you care about money, you join “corporate America.” Politically, we see this same discussion presented as a false narrative of “every man for himself” free-market capitalism or an increasingly expansive government set up to provide services.
But there is a middle ground — you can care about people AND love entrepreneurship and the free market.
People can create innovative technologies, services and products and sell them in a dynamic free market, and then use the resulting capital that accumulates from their hard work to provide for themselves, their families and their employees but ALSO give aggressively to charitably causes.
Some people deemed “social entrepreneurs” try to merge this while running their company, maintaining a “double bottom line” that considers positive impact and financial return. Others, like myself, focus on building a strong business and giving personally during and after our time in the business.
There are many in New Hampshire that have demonstrated these approaches, from the founder of Turbocam in Barrington, who is liberating people in modern day slavery in Nepal, to the founders of Dyn, who are involved with the New Hampshire Food Bank and funding numerous local charities.
In fact, 79% of entrepreneurs say that charitable giving is a critical part of who they are, and 47% consider themselves philanthropists.
Not many entrepreneurs are aware of the wealth of resources and organizations available to the 79% of us who care deeply about charitable giving.
The National Christian Foundation has over $2 billion in assets and helped me set up both a donor advised fund (DAF) as well as a foundation that enabled me to manage our assets and be involved in angel/venture capital investing to continue to grow the money we have available to give away, hire staff if needed and to fund unique projects without the overhead of a private foundation.
Here in New Hampshire, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation has tremendous insights into community needs and significant donor advised fund management experience.
Founders Pledge is a nonprofit dedicated to serving business founders who pledge to donate a certain amount to charity. In return, they provide free research staff to assist in locating high-impact charities, networking with other like-minded entrepreneurs and creating a no-cost donor advised fund.
Pledge 1% is similar but focused around encouraging donating 1% of your current time or money and connecting with others.
Once you have decided to give, there are tons of books and organizations available to assist in determining how to maximize impact. There is an entire movement, called “Effective Altruism,” dedicated to researching and sharing results in how to maximize the use of your time and capital.
Finally, a constant debate that we’ve had in our house is how much to talk about giving and philanthropy. Should it be kept a closely guarded secret or shouted from the rooftops? Or something in between? What details do you share and when?
As a hardy New Englanders, we pride ourselves on independence, minding our own business and privacy. Equally as important is to cultivate humility and avoid giving to just build your personal brand or reputation. The acclaim from publicizing giving can be an obstacle in those regards.
But we’ve learned if you hide what you are doing, people assume it’s not happening and you’ve missed an opportunity to share the joy and the positive impact (and some of the strategies and logistical challenges to overcome) that is possible in giving well.
It all comes down to analyzing your motivation to share: Is it to help/encourage the person you’re speaking with, or is it for your own ego or personal gain? This is a question that only you can answer, but hopefully the examples in this article are convincing to consider making philanthropy a bigger part of your entrepreneurial journey and join a community of people who are using their time, talent and capital to make a difference.