Solving for Why: Ryan Martens at TEDxMileHigh (Full Transcript)

Ryan Martens – TRANSCRIPT

Two years ago, I was asked to join a group at MIT. The name of that group is The Academy for Systemic Change. It’s a group of folks that include academics, business professionals, researchers that are trying to bring together solutions to scale solutions that address some of our hardest problems on the planet.

Two weeks ago, I was at their annual retreat. Many of these folks work around the world with the IMF, the World Bank, the World Wildlife Fund on the Mesoamerican Reef. They all came back to this retreat and expressed a real common message from a lot of those clients, and that was the notion of doom and gloom. It’s the notion of, “Boy, some of these problems are really hard.” These things evade common, simple, silver-bullet solutions. These things evade the thinking of the last century, the 20th century thinking that created a lot of them. Those folks helped me understand some things, as well as the journey I’m going to tell you about over the last 10 years.

I’m an entrepreneur, and as an entrepreneur, I look at those things and the problems associated with them, with global climate change, with poverty, with hunger, and obesity, and I look at those actually as opportunities, albeit very unfortunate opportunities. As an entrepreneur, I’ve been trying to find ways in which to solve the root problems.

Not simply skim over the top and work on the symptoms of these problems, not just working on the next white edition of the little gadget in your pocket, but trying to get to the center. I’m trying to figure out what it means to be a very special type of entrepreneur. I know when you think of special, you might think of this person. That’s not who I’m talking about and that’s not what I’m talking about at all. That’s one in a million. That’s one in a million in a way, that’s not at all what I think about when I think about entrepreneurship.

When I think about entrepreneurship, I think about the power of business people, of people working in charities, of people working together, to really be empathetic. That’s a power that we all can have. That’s a power that from inside of you, you can really get to the root cause of the problems. It’s a skill that you can get only by walking in the shoes of the people who are affected: the communities, the water sheds, the farmers, along the reefs, around the world.

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What it delivers for you is a real shared understanding that allows you to get right to those really tough solutions that seem almost impossible to grab onto. This is not a new concept. This is a book that sent me down this path in a way. I didn’t expect Chapter 7 of this book actually sets the course for my company. Two of these folks are Colorado natives, authors.

Their premise in this book is the only force on this planet that is big enough to be able to address these problems is business. I take that to heart. If you want somebody who really takes that to heart and is a good example, for me that is Sir Richard Branson. This guy has got 200 companies, mostly based out of Europe, and associated in the center of those 200 companies is a notion that he calls Virgin Unite. Virgin Unite works with all of his business to find ways to line up the strategic vector of those businesses with a social mission: a social mission to solve some of these problems, because he understands that the long-term opportunities for those businesses lie in solving these problems.

When I met him first in 2009 at an awards ceremony in Silicon Valley, he told the story of Virgin Mobile. Virgin Mobile is an amazing story. Mostly on the East Coast and in Europe, they are a cell phone provider. Their target is the youth under 25. What they did is they said, “Where can we line up our strategic vector with some really amazing, tough problems here?” The problem and the social issue they picked was teen homelessness.

As a result of focusing on that, in 2010 alone, they put aside 75,000 volunteer hours, 25,000 aid kits, and half a million dollars to impact those kids. To me, that’s a huge difference between the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world and the Richard Bransons of the world. I choose the hero on one side versus the lucky one potentially on the other. My hope with my business is that the engineering software we build that coordinates engineers around the world, thousands of engineers working together on the same problem, can get used in a way to effect some of these problems on the planet. That’s why they asked me to join the Academy for Systemic Change.

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That’s my gift to this. I want to tell you a little bit of the story of how I’ve gotten down this path. Right now in the world today, we look at business and charity as kind of two separate things, and in 1969, we put up a wall through the tax laws that separated these two concepts even further. It’s really a false separation because they’re just organizational concepts. In fact, it was a huge step backwards.

Sir Richard Branson uses a term in his newest book out, it’s called “Screw Business as Usual.” Let’s do it. I think it’s such a good term, and I want to hear you guys say it so I’d like to do it one more time. Can I hear everybody say, “Screw Business as Usual?” One more time! (Audience) Screw business as usual! Thank you. So, that’s what I believe.

What got the three people here who are on the wall before me isn’t what’s going to get the next people on the wall for this century. There are a number of businesses that have started in the last ten years, really the top of this stair step, this two-sided set of stairs: social enterprises, Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation, Tom’s Shoes. They have an income generation model and an impact generation model married into the same business, doing good, doing well, all in one package. But for most of us who are off on the sides, we’re going to have to take a few steps up these stairs to get to this place where all of us look like a social enterprise.

At Rally, when I started the organization we partnered with the Community Foundation in Boulder County to set aside 1% of the equity of our business, as well as the founding management team took 1% of their equity and set it aside. At that point in time, it’s pretty cheap. It’s pretty easy to do; it’s really a pretty easy first step up these stairs. What it was for us is we also set aside 1% of time. That allowed all of our employees including myself to go out and figure out, now that I’ve had some intention about being a social enterprise, let me understand and get some perspective about what that means.

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So I took it upon myself to figure out how to spread this concept, and it didn’t work for the first four years until our board member got together with another Colorado grad, the lady who started the Entrepreneur’s Foundation in Silicon Valley, and we created the Entrepreneur’s Foundation here in Colorado. It was five companies back in 2007 that signed up. We’re a bootstrap start-up with an all volunteer board of people in the business community, and over the last five years, we’ve been able to incrementally add more and more companies to this mix.

In fact, on Monday in Denver at first Friday, I added two more. What’s the value of 1% of equity of all these firms? I don’t know, definitely measured in the millions. What we have achieved to date is that by the end of this year we will set aside a half million dollars into the Denver and Boulder community foundations for work here in our communities, because we know that those communities actually made us a better business, and that it’s our responsibility to give back and build a better community so that all of you can follow in these steps.

So our second step was realizing all of a sudden, “Hey, I don’t know a lot about what this is like. We really need some people to help us through this process.” So we joined B-Corporation, we joined Boulder’s 10 for Change, we joined Colorado Corps, and we found ourselves with a little local start-up who married us with Rocky Mountain MicroFinance. We knew that at the top of this was really having to get together with some folks who were really trying to solve these problems. We took five employees, a couple of them are here in the audience today, and through their 1% of time, they volunteered at Rocky Mountain MicroFinance.

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