Start a Business, Save the World

From Eli Whitney and Henry Ford to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, entrepreneurs have changed the world by solving everyday problems and making life better, not just for the rich, but for everyone.

At the turn of the 19th century, approximately 80 percent of the world’s population (one billion people) lived in, as what would be measured by today’s standards, extreme poverty. Over the century that followed, the number of people living in poverty fell slowly until 1950, when the poverty rate began to drop precipitously. By 1992, the world’s impoverished population had fallen to 20 percent. And the World Bank estimates that by 2030, extreme poverty will be a thing of the past.

Never have so many people been lifted out of poverty in such a short time.Never in the history of mankind have so many people been lifted out of poverty in such a short time. Until this modern era of prosperity, only a small elite population lived life without poverty. Consider that in 1920, just one percent of Americans had indoor plumbing.

Perhaps even more impressive are all the things that are equally accessible to the rich and the poor. Look at the smartphone (that you’re likely using to read this article), and consider for a moment the sum of assets contained in that device: video recording and conferencing, GPS, voice recorder, clock, high-resolution camera, music player, and with an Internet connection, access to a world of knowledge and information. It’s estimated that the sum of all the assets contained in the modern software is close to one million dollars.

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

With so much focus on income equality today, it’s easy to miss how wealthy we truly are compared to just 50 years ago. And most, if not all, of these life improvements happened as a result of entrepreneurs who demonstrated an extraordinary ability to produce valuable products and services for their fellow man.

From Eli Whitney and Henry Ford to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, entrepreneurs have changed the world by solving everyday problems and making life better, not just for the rich, but for everyone.

Entrepreneurs have changed the world by solving everyday problems and making life better, not just for the rich, but for everyone.Beyond the intrinsic benefits of capitalism (job and wealth creation, increased productivity, etc.), many of today’s entrepreneurs make philanthropy a part of their business model. Since 2006, Toms Shoes has given away more than 35 million pairs of shoes in 60 countries through their one-for-one business model. Whenever a Toms customer buys a pair of shoes, the company donates a pair to a needy person in a developing country. And many others have followed suit. Warby Parker, an online designer eyewear provider partners with non-profits like VisionSpring to ensure that for every pair of glasses sold, a pair is distributed to someone in need. And Nouri Bar donates a portion of the proceeds for every product sold to partners who deliver food to the world’s poor.

But it’s not just the young, hip companies that value philanthropy. In 2014, Walmart and the Walmart Foundation gave $1.4 billion in cash and in-kind contributions around the world. Target’s corporate giving now equals more than $4 million every week to the communities they serve. Those dollars go toward fighting hunger, aiding disaster preparedness and relief efforts, supporting the arts, and putting more kids on the path to high school graduation. Most people probably don’t realize that community giving has always been a core value for the 60-year old retailer.

Small Change  – Big Impacts

For the first three years of my first startup, a web development company, the number of employees totaled one  –  me. But as my business began to take off in late 2005, I made the move into an office and began hiring staff. As many cash-strapped startups find, it can be difficult to find good people  –  even more so when your budget is limited.

My first hire had no web experience, but his work history and eagerness to learn suggested he would be a good hire. My hunch paid off and he quickly became a valued employee whose contributions continued even after my company was acquired two years later. He now has a college degree and works as a designer for a large defense contractor. The opportunity he was afforded changed his life  –  and the lives of his sister and brother-in-law, both who found employment in the acquiring company a few years after the merger.

While my story is not unique, Dan Price’s story is. You may have heard of him. He made news in the summer of 2015 by raising the minimum salary at his company, Gravity Payments, to $70,000 a year. Many observers mistook Price’s move as a political statement. And media reports of panicked customers fleeing and employees leaving have turned out to be  –  not so true. Gravity did lose a couple of customers, but their revenue and profits have nearly doubled.

Price was praised by some, lambasted by others, and sued by his brother. His motives have been questioned, but what nearly every pundit missed is the fact that Price never thought of his enterprise as a way to make money  –  he just wanted to help people.

Full-Time Philanthropy

Bill Gates is the richest man in the world. For those just arriving on this planet, he got that way by selling a lot of software and building Microsoft into one of the most powerful companies in the world.

Many of today's entrepreneurs make philanthropy a part of their business model.In 2000, at the age of 44, Gates stepped down from the day-to-day operations at Microsoft, and in 2006, he decided to devote more quality time to his charitable foundation he founded with his wife, Melinda. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began with a $28 billion contribution from Gates and now provides nearly  $1 billion in grants each year.

Forbes singled out the Gates couple in 2014, who donated $2.65 billion the previous year toward fighting disease and reforming education, among other initiatives, as the most philanthropic people across the country. In fact, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest transparently operated private foundation in the world. And consider the scale: the annual giving from their foundation rivals that of the United Nations World Health Organization.

And the scope of change the Gates Foundation is exacting is truly mind-boggling. They’re working to rid the world of polio, malaria, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases that ravage many of the world’s most impoverished countries and hamper economic development. And Gates has publicly committed to giving away 95 percent of his fortune to charity. History may forget Microsoft, but it’s unlikely that it will forget Bill Gates.

Whether or not entrepreneurs set out to change the world for the better, most business owners often have a positive impact, if only in their small corner. Want to change the world? Start a business.

This first appeared at Medium.