On Being Steve in the deep mainstream


Jed Emerson

Jed Emerson

Jed Emerson

Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the deep mainstream.

That said, as a result I’ve also realized how much time I’ve actually spent immersed in our field and engaged with folks who think more or less like me. This is OK. It’s natural we spend time talking with people who think as we do to help shape our own thinking and refine our approach. The challenge is that even when we do ‘go outside’ (or are they inside?) and sincerely believe we’re talking with people different from ourselves, we’re often actually speaking to those only one degree removed from our own communities. These are the folks who are willing to take a meeting with you, the people curious enough to attend a conference on a topic they find interesting and those who will attend a dinner meeting to learn more about something they don’t know much about.

They are not, however, the deep mainstream…

Over recent weeks as Antony and my book on impact investing has been released and promoted and the work of ImpactAssets has begun to gain traction with the investor community, I have found myself spending time not at the conferences and meetings of our field, but on Fox Business News defending sustainable finance and impact investing, or talking with Wall Street executives living in the dark heart of mainstream investing and finance. To be honest, I’ve found my discussions disheartening and more challenging than I would like to publicly admit. I’m embarrassed to tell you, I forgot how hard tradition pushes back on new ideas struggling to emerge and how that same tradition fully conditions people’s understanding of what is ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ – oftentimes, to a point where even the very consideration of something different becomes impossible.

Despite everything I thought I knew, under the lights and in the midst of discussion, I somehow felt a seeping sense of doubt, of personal pause, where you can’t help but wonder if it is you who misunderstood or didn’t see something that was blindingly obvious to others. If we are all honest and unless you are a complete egoist, in the course of debate one can’t help but have moments of doubt.

But so, here’s the thing:

Today, we are, each one of us, assertively moving out of our communities of comfort well beyond one or two degrees of separation removed from ourselves. We are increasingly plunging into the deep mainstream where the dominant practice is to make money and give it away. In coming years, the primary conversation will not be an insider or sector discussion, but rather a conversation with people who in many cases (despite all evidence to the contrary) do not agree we are confronted with broken systems of capitalism and charity; people who’ve never heard of impact investing or social entrepreneurship – and in many cases, don’t care to hear about these ideas. How do we ensure our response to this reception is at the level of our vision and ambition?

A few days ago, I woke to the broad news coverage of Steve Jobs’ passing. Here was a man who broke the rules and changed the world; here was a man who knew something about how to keep one’s perspective, vision and passion when others were telling him he was wrong; and here was a man from whom all of us who aspire to be changemakers can learn. As we take our own vision of impact investing and social entrepreneurship from the fringe to the deep mainstream, we would be well served to be emissaries of Steve, to take forward his understanding of Self and take his understanding of transformation to heart.

As he said in his comments to the 2005 graduating class of Stanford University,

‘Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.’

As we engage the deep mainstream and continue to advance our ideas to a world that so clearly needs them, we should all seek to ‘Be Steve’ and take a lesson from how he lived his life of revolution in those depths, beyond the muddy shores of security.

Jed Emerson is executive vice-president for strategic development with ImpactAssets

Tagged in: Impact investing Mainstream Social entrepreneurship Steve Jobs

Comments (3)

Lynn Chen

Hi Jed, I agree with everything you say. The debts I chalked up was because of people's resistance to my idea, even when it was catered specifically for them, to get them a whole new avenue to work with. In fact the most pressing issue is having to follow your heart, yet deal with the (illogical) limitations of time, where bills are expected right on the dot. Except this time, but I just didn't factor in how idealistic i might seem to people and thus how much resistance I need to overcome. But it is my childhood dream and i know I am meant to do it... you start seeing friends moving away, and new ones coming into your life somehow aiding you in the process. Spurred by forecasts of what might happen, I found a simple solution, but when situations are 'comfortable' no one is at all interested to listen to a possible economic breakdown. When the breakdown starts becoming apparent, people lock more into self-sustenance ideology, leaving me exasperated but opening more ideas to resolve issues and thus future preventive measures. On the other hand, when a crisis happens, it provides the environment for the most innovative businesses and ideas to spring forth. When majority gets stuck in stress, worry and conflicts, the scope opens wide for re-invention of practices. I started my business not knowing that it even is a type of business model, until a university student told me, and that she was waiting to be accepted to Stockholm to study it. All I thought was to find means to generate the most amount of money in the shortest possible time to fund my own social causes. This is the only time in my life I gave up pretty much everything around me, with the faith that it's only temporary and just went fully into it. Any objections I met along the way, I turned it into a positive one, basically making the negative work for me instead. It is tough and still is, especially when my model is not a straightforward one. First of all, only a minority of Singaporeans know about social enterprises, and when you tell them a structure not immediate in revenue generation (meaning that there are phases to accomplish before implementing the next), they get even more turned off. You wonder if you are seeing things wrongly, when the rest aren't. One thing I have no tolerance for is when anyone says that 'there's nothing much that can be done' or that 'things are just going to be like this'... it gives me even more resolve to not succumb to resignation, and strip people of their negativity, which really is the reason their progress to life is impeded. Thanks for your article, makes me feel I'm not too alone.

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