18 October 2006

Uber-Entrepreneurs and the New Foundations

The Bills - Clinton and Gates - are probably the most obvious of a new breed: people who are helping to create a new type of social invention. In this, Bill Gates may have graduated from entrepreneur to uber-entrepreneur.

Foundations and other NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are making progress against issues that governments are unable to address. The Carter Foundation builds toilets in small African villages. This seemingly innocuous task mitigates disease which promotes productivity which enables autonomy. The Bills are targeting poverty, the environment, AIDS and other diseases, and are enlisting the help of others to accomplish these projects.

What we're seeing is a repetition of a pattern. When social problems defy the solutions of current social institutions, pioneers build new ones. The American Civil War was about slavery. It was also about a new reality. New means of transportation and production meant that the old boundaries of state governments were no longer sufficient. The Republicans understood this better than others and insisted on a union - a federal government that was strong enough to govern new interstate realities of railroads, factories, and legal contracts and transactions that would spill across state borders. The multinational corporation grew out of an invention of this period of the 1860s: the modern "interstate" corporation. (And to this day the Republican Party is perhaps most simply thought of as the party most aligned with the corporation.)Regional states could not be allowed to hinder corporate interests and a stronger federal government had to emerge as the context in which a new corporation could be invented.

Social inventions like nation-states, corporations and the foundations that have become so wildly popular in recent decades are created by visionaries who simply don't see a way to address real problems or exploit potential without creating a new means to do that. Entrepreneurs start businesses within a free-market economy. They aren't inventing businesses - just creating a specific one. Uber-entrepreneurs (an odd German-French contraction I've just coined**) are those who invent a new form of social invention: Martin Luther or John Calvin with Protestant churches, Henry VIII or Louis XIV with nation-states, the Rothschilds with international bond markets are examples of uber-entrepreneurs. Perhaps in a couple of decades we'll realize that the flurry of foundations established late in the 20th century represented a type of uber-entrepreneurship, the invention of a new social institution.

** disclaimer: sometimes I hate the net - it seems to reveal that nothing is really new. It turns out that the term uber-entrepreneur has been used before. Perhaps my definition is unique, defining an uber-entrepreneur as someone who isn't necessarily successful but helps to pioneer a new type of social invention.

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