AUDIO
October 21, 2016

Podcast: Turning Tech Toward Social Change

Long before the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Jim Fruchterman was touting the use of cutting-edge technology for social good. Benetech, the nonprofit he started in 1989, works to develop "tech solutions for communities in need," Mr. Fruchterman says — "the kind of people that Silicon Valley would say: ‘We can’t make enough money off of human-rights activists or disabled kids.’ "

Benetech grew out of an idea Mr. Fruchterman had while attending the California Institute of Technology in the 1970s: What if the optical pattern-recognition technology being developed for target-seeking "smart missiles" could be adapted to other, socially beneficial applications? The result was an affordable reading system for the blind that Benetech produced and marketed for years. In 2000 Mr. Fruchterman sold that product line and used the proceeds to expand the nonprofit’s mission, pursuing tech projects addressing an array of social and environmental issues.

In this interview from the Business of Giving, Mr. Fruchterman recounts Benetech’s origins as a nonprofit outlier in Silicon Valley, describes its work with human-rights groups using information to combat authoritarian regimes, and shares his perspective on the appropriate role of technology in solving complex social problems.

Denver: In the late 1990s, I remember quite vividly speaking to my colleagues in the nonprofit sector about the philanthropic potential out in Silicon Valley– from those making billions of dollars in what we now know as the internet bubble. And the response was pretty universal. “Everybody out there is so busy making money that no one is thinking about social good or giving any of it away.”  But that “everybody” did not include my next guest who was there, and was always thinking about how technology could be used to best serve humanity… long before it became fashionable or was considered the right thing to do. He is Jim Fruchterman; the founder and CEO of Benetech. Good evening, Jim, and welcome to The Business of Giving.

Jim: Delighted to be here, Denver.

Denver: So many great enterprises start with the flash of insight. Yours occurred in the 1970s when you were a junior at Caltech, doing quite well in the coursework, but a little frustrated that you weren’t coming up with any original ideas. But then one day, in Modern Optics class, a light bulb went on. What was the idea that you came up with, Jim?

Jim: So, we were learning about optical pattern recognition– the idea of having a machine actually recognize something in the real world. And since it was the 1970s, and all the jobs were in the defense establishment, the example the professor used was “How to make a smart missile.” It would have a camera in the nose, and it would have in its memory a representation of a tank. The idea was: if you fired this missile, it would look around with its camera until it spotted a tank, zoom in, and blow it up–Boom! And I thought: “Gee, what if there’s a more socially beneficial application of this technology?” And then I had my one good idea  in college, which was: “Hey, instead of recognizing tanks in the battlefield, what if you could recognize letters and words, and read to blind people!”

Denver: Oh, wow!

Jim: So I kind of figured it out;  I  sketched out a design.  I ran to my professor next day. He said: “Well, Jim, it has been invented, and the National Security Agency uses it to process Soviet faxes… recognizes that, routes it to a human to read.” And I thought: “Wow, okay! So it costs millions of dollars each…not very practical.”. But it was that one idea that I kept with me as I continued with my career.

Denver: How did you pursue it?

Jim: Well, pretty much, my professor told me it wasn’t going to happen. And so I went on, went to Stanford, started a PhD program, started an entrepreneurship talk series.  The second speaker was the President of a private rocket company, and it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Denver: And you actually had the right answer to who his favorite science fiction writer was, right?

Jim: Yeah! And I didn’t even know that was the interview question.  But he’d come and given a talk; we had him over to a cafeteria and fed him a sumptuous dinner, and he asked: “Who was my favorite science author?”  And I said: “Paul Anderson.”  Bingo! I was hired. And so, anyway, I took a leave from the PhD program and joined one of the first private rocket companies.

Denver: And the rocket blew up, and you moved on.  You met a guy from HP who basically was able to take this idea pattern recognition and reading for the blind,  and Lo and Behold!  You started or became involved in a company that was going to build readable machines.

Jim: That’s right. His idea was to make a chip that could read anything, and I went: “Hey, that’s my one good idea from college!  You can help blind people with that!” Now, we didn’t sell it to the venture capitalist though based on the blindness application. We sold it on routing the mail and scanning in forms for insurance companies. But that idea of helping blind people was still in the back of my mind throughout years of getting this company off the ground.

Denver: And you got your venture capital, about $25 million worth, if I recall. But this idea didn’t really have much of a market potential for your investors. So what you did, if I understand correctly, is you spun it off into your own nonprofit organization?

Jim: That’s right. We actually pitched it to our board to actually be a product for our company–a new product. And when they heard it was a $1 million/year marketplace, they vetoed it on the spot. And so when I said: “Well, what if I start a side nonprofit and not distract the team?” They said that was no problem. So we actually started… the joke was a deliberately nonprofit Silicon Valley company because, of course, we all had been working for  accidentally nonprofit high tech companies.

Denver: And so tell me how that company worked, what you did, and what you were able to do for people who were blind.

Jim: We went out there with the idea of making a reading machine for the blind.  We thought we’d have volunteer engineers in every city helping people get it. Turned out, we talked to blind people who said: “No, we can’t get jobs.” So we ended up making blind people our dealers and so they sold the reading machines, and they made a living.  We made enough to keep ourselves going. And it turned out that it was the only high tech company I have ever been associated with that exceeded its business plan. It was $5 million a year and slightly profitable within three years. But just a tiny bit of profit… because we weren’t in the business to make the money; we were in the business to keep it going.

Denver: And the price of the machine kept going down, but then the number of people who bought it kept going up… and you did this for about 10 years. And after about 10 years, you were a little tired of doing it, and wanted to broaden out some .  So, is it right that you actually sold your nonprofit company?

Jim: That’s right. Some guy came and said: “I want to buy your reading machine for the blind business, and I told him to go away… I was running a nonprofit. He came back three months later and said: “Jim, tell me your aspirations.”  I said “Oh!”  I’m a nerd… I didn’t recognize that that was a negotiating ploy. So I told him! I said: “I’ve got this idea for helping human rights groups, and I want to have other things for people with disabilities…” And so he said: “How about I pay you $5 million…” Not me personally, my nonprofit. …”and you and the engineers can stay in the nonprofit… and you can go off and basically do anything!” And so we did that. It was about this same time, the dot-com bubble popped. So, right as the bubble popped, we had $5 million…not for me personally… but it was a budget to do new things.  And that was a blast!

Denver: I bet it was. And this new nonprofit you started is Benetech.

Jim: That’s right. The nonprofit I run today.

Denver:  Tell me exactly what the mission and goals of Benetech are.

Jim: The goal of Benetech is to  develop tech solutions for communities in need…the kind of people that Silicon Valley would say: “We can’t make enough money off of human rights activists or disabled kids.” And so we build products, and our goal is that they be sustainable.  But again, we’re a charity; we’re not trying to make money; we’re just trying to break even. We keep spinning up new tech projects. When we started Benetech, we probably looked at… I’d say, 50 ideas, invested in 15 different ideas, and then 4 turned into world-changing social enterprises.  That’s our goal– to keep doing that. Be a factory for new tech applications that helps society, helps the other 95%.

Denver: Well, let’s talk about one or two of those. One of them is around human rights, and it was inspired by something that came out about El Salvador in the 1990s… about an occurrence that took place in the 1980s. Tell us what that was, and how it informed you to begin to pursue human rights.

Jim: So,  there was a New Yorker article about the El Mozote massacre. It turned out that this massacre happened in the early 80s, hit the front page of the New York Times.  The US government, the Salvadoran government said it didn’t happen. The reporter was fired.  Then 10 years later, a forensics team– after the civil war was settled– went, excavated, and found more than 500 bodies in this location.

I went brainstorming with one of my long-term buddies, saying, “How can we defend peasants from being murdered en masse?” And we’re nerds; we said: “Gee, defensive force fields, if we could invent them. Oh, nuclear power plant per village, not very practical.” So we came away from that with the idea that information is the only asset that human rights groups have beyond their activists, right? How could we make sure that they wouldn’t lose the information, and they’d used it for advocacy.  And when we have a lot of stories, that’s data!  We can actually make a case for patterns; we can help convict former dictators. It’s all about using information to advance the cause of human rights.

Denver: So, essentially what you did is…  you built some software.  What’s it called, “Martus?”

Jim: Yeah. The magic technology is cryptography, right?  To scramble it so that repressive governments can’t read who’s testifying against a corrupt colonel… or whatever it might be. So the idea was encrypt it, scramble it,  so it can’t be read, back it up in the cloud (as it’s now called) so it doesn’t get lost, and then use it for current advocacy.

“Let me tell you a story… about someone…”  and more powerful data analysis. “Here’s one person’s story, but we have 10,000 women just like Maria.”  So you can’t attack Maria as being not representative of this pervasive problem of gender-based violence, or whatever it might be.

Denver: So, if information and truth are the only weapons that these populations have… until you came along, most of this information was really being lost. People would come; you’d write it down; you stick it into the computer.  But probably a number of years later, it was all… someplace… but not in front of you.

Jim: And we did market research, right? We actually figured out what they needed.  Yeah, we found out that… our estimate was 95% of the stories that went into a human rights group weren’t there five years later. And they never got used for advocacy, for justice.  Sometimes it was because the government shut them down; sometimes it’s because their office is burned; their computers got stolen. But a lot of times, they ran out of money. There was one group in Sri Lanka where five years of files were eaten by termites, and that just annoyed me. I know about scanning documents!  We could do something about that! So,let’s make sure it’s not lost, and every story should be a tool for advocacy, for justice.

“The idea is that we’re making David more powerful in his battle… or her battle, with Goliath.”

Denver: One of the places you’ve done an awful lot of work over the past decade or so has been Burma. Tell us what you’ve done there.

Jim: A dozen Burmese groups got together about 10 years ago and said: “We all represent different segments of the Burmese community: women’s groups, different minority groups, different political groups.  But they all agreed that the military government in Burma was committing human rights violations. So, over a lengthy period of time, these group members collected more than 30,000 stories.

After a while, they trusted us more.  We found an analyst and said: “What are the most common human rights abuses going on in Burma?” Out of these 30,000 stories, the most common ones were torture, land confiscation and forced labor. And so now, there’s a new government in Burma; the human rights movement now has the stories in the last 10 years; they’ve got the patterns of abuses and now they could be advocating: How do we reform the police forces so that they don’t abuse ethnic minorities? A problem in Burma, and maybe a few other countries…

Denver: Another place you’ve done an awful lot of work in human rights has been in Africa, particularly in the LGBT community. Tell us what you’ve been doing in Uganda.

Jim: So we actually are helping the LGBT movement in Africa, Uganda being one of the countries. Document that human rights abuses are going on. So they’re now starting to issue national reports of how police forces beat up lesbian and gay people. And now they’re actually using that to advocate for change. Sometimes they make change in their own country; sometimes they have to go through a UN process. But the idea is that we’re making David more powerful in his battle… or her battle, with Goliath.

Denver: Yeah. And in relation to these stories, in this particular case, you’re also keeping offsite membership lists, correct?

Jim: We didn’t expect that.  We went there to do human rights documentation, but then we heard from people that they were actually backing up their membership lists. As a matter of fact, we had a phone call last year…we’re checking in with one of our groups… and they said: “Oh, we’re in the backyard!”

   “What are you doing?”

“We’re burning all of our documents!”

  “What?!”

They had actually scanned and backed up all their documents into our secure cloud, and  they were burning them because they were expecting a police raid. They didn’t want to have any records on hand in case the police found them.

Denver: Very smart. Are there any places in the world where your software– which is open source, and is free– is being used in human rights abuse cases, and is not really getting the kind of coverage or attention that it really warrants?  Instances where it is under the radar right now?

Jim: We are hearing about a lot of human rights abuses against people with disabilities. Sexual violence against women with disabilities, people in prison without any chance of getting out…

Denver: This across the world or in any particular places?

Jim: We think it’s across the world, but we’re talking to groups in Latin America, Asia, Africa. I mean, there are people in Africa where you’re chained to a log for a year, right? And that’s not very human rights respecting!

 

I actually expect us to be doing more work in this sort of violence against disadvantaged people. Right now, we have a new project to help redo the rape reporting system of Kenya. We’re starting to pilot that with some women’s hospitals in Kenya. So there are just so many applications out there where Silicon Valley could help, if they could afford to care.

Denver: Well, let’s talk a little bit more about disabilities… and back to what we originally talked about–books for the blind. Under the banner of Benetech, you’ve taken that program, and you really have it on steroids right now. A program called “Bookshare”– and so many of these things start in such an innocuous way. Jim, in your particular case, you came home one day; you sat in front of the family computer. On it, you found this icon that your 14-year old son had placed there. What was that icon?  And how did it lead to this new program?

Jim: Well, it was an icon that was the Napster program, which at that time I had never heard of. This was the initial Napster…

Denver: What’s the year now?

Jim: 1999. I told Jimmy: “Jimmy, you’re not supposed to install software from the internet!” Because this is back in the days where you had one family PC!

And he said: “Oh it’s not from the internet: it’s from Ailyn, Chris’ mom.

  “Oh, Chris from the rock band?”  

“Yeah.”

  “ Ailyn who lives in the corner?”

“Yeah.”  

Well, she’s running this company, and so I didn’t know what Napster was. And so Jimmy, my 14-year old son, and I spend an hour listening to music. He was playing 90s punk; I was playin Pat Benatar music like that when I was your age kind of thing. And it did seem like some miracle,” I’ll pay anything for this software, if I can get another hour with my 14-year old son!”

And Jimmy says: “Oh no, Dad, it’s free.”

  Me: “Well, yeah, during the beta period.”

“No, it’s always gonna be free. Free, free, free!”

  Me: “Ahh! This is totally illegal!”

But, anyway, the idea dawned on me: “Hey, we could do Bookster!” We have all these people scanning in the same book.” When a new Harry Potter book would come out, there would be 3,000 families who’d be scanning the same Harry Potter. And the idea was: “Hey, let’s start Bookster. Let’s scan it once, proofread it so it’s not got mistakes in it.  And then maybe 10,000 kids will be reading it, not just the 3,000 people willing to put in three hours of work each.” And so that was basically what turned into “Bookshare,”  because many people talked me out of the “Bookster” name…And now here it is, more than 10 years later, and the publishing industry is a huge booster of Bookshare.  So, we managed to make it work.

Denver: And Bookshare was not that big.  It was about a million dollars back in 1999 or 2000. But then there was a competition put on by the Department of Education. Tell us about it.

Jim: Yeah. So we were scraping together– it was a million dollar budget in the mid 2000s,  and we were bringing in $200,000 or $300,000 of revenue.  So every year,  I had to find more than half-a-million bucks. Then a competition came up because an earmark didn’t get made in the federal budget. And so rather than going to a well-respected traditional non profit, the Department of Education ran a competition. And as a novice bidder, we won a Huge competition!  It turned out to be $6.5 million dollars a year to deliver books to all disabled kids in the United States. And…

Denver: For five years, so it’s about $ 32 million bucks!

Jim: Yeah! It made a big difference.  We had to go from $1 million dollars a year to $7 million dollars a year  Right Away! But in Silicon Valley,  that’s kind of typical that you have that kind of expansion. And so we had probably, let’s say 3,000 student members.  We now have over 400,000 student members and tons of books

Denver: And including textbooks now, right?

Jim: Yes. Well, that’s kind of a promise.  If you need a book for school, and you’re dyslexic or blind, or have  a brain injury coming back from the wars: We’re going to take your book and turn into something you can use… if you have a disability that gets in the way of you using a book.

Denver:  And I thought that was interesting too because you did these books for the blind, but you found out early on that about 15% of your audience were dyslexic.

Jim: We ancecdotally knew there were a couple dyslexic users. But when we finally got around to surveying them, it blew us away because, frankly, we did almost everything wrong for dyslexic users except for… I thought it was technically cool to have a karaoke-style of reading… follow the bouncing ball; the voice synthesizer would say the word the same moment it was spotlighted.  That turns out to be the killer app for a lot of kids with dyslexia. So we were doing that one thing right. We ended up doing a new version of product that was much more visually-oriented. It would talk for the person with dyslexia– who could see okay, but not read very well.

Denver: You have something called Benetech Labs, I think you said that you get approached with about 200 or 300 ideas a year where  people want to have you involved and engaged to apply technology, put it in the hands of people to do social good. How do you make those decisions in terms of which ones to tackle? Do you look at it like a venture capitalist?  Or, what do you do?

Jim: Yeah! What we actually adapted was a venture capital portfolio model… how a venture capitalist can make an investment. There are between 10 and 15 criteria. We take each one of those, and we twist it for social good. So instead of 10x return to your investors as a profit, we want to be 10x better for society. We want exit options–how 10 years from now, we’ll be successful in not doing this anymore. Do we have great partners? Can we actually get it to a breakeven from revenues in a couple years? Will it make a really big difference in the world? And  low technical risk is one of the new ones. Our assumption is we have technology coming out our ears.  It’s just that Silicon Valley looks at these opportunities and says: “We can’t make any money in Zambia.  Why would anyone do anything in Zambia?”   Because there’s a lot of people that might benefit from your technology in Zambia!  As a nonprofit, we can afford to care about people in Zambia and other countries, or other communities.

Denver: Are you looking at any right now that you’re particularly excited about?

Jim: Well, I see a huge wave of opportunity to improve the nonprofit sectors’ work with data and information. See, you look at the nonprofit sector as a tech guy, and it’s like looking 5 or 10 or 15 years into the past. Because everyone’s running on a shoestring. They don’t have a lot of technology. Tech companies won’t focus on them so much. And so we can often see this connection.  We want to help empower communities, make it easier for, let’s say, people from impoverished communities to give more feedback about what they want from nonprofits and the social sector.

Denver: Beneficiary feedback.

Jim: Exactly! Make you more accountable, make you actually do a better job, and of course right now, in a era where the UN has announced the new set of sustainable development goals, we now have the entire social sector basically aiming in the same general directions. How do we actually aggregate that data and say: “Are we doing the right things to reduce mortality, or improve girls access to education, or 20 other really important social issues?”

Denver: And that was the subject of the article you wrote in the Stanford Social Innovation Review this summer entitled: Using Data for Action and Impact. You really walked the reader through it in a very thoughtful way. The three essential questions you asked: 1) How much do we spend?  And we got that down pretty good.

Jim: Yeah, counting, we got.

Denver: 2)  How much did we do?  Not quite as good, but still pretty good.

3) How much did it matter?  Oh we’re not very good at that at all.

Why is it so difficult– in terms of trying to get those metrics and determining how much of a difference we’ve made?

Jim: Well, because if you ask a donor or a person in the nonprofit sector why they’re doing what they’re doing, and ask them about the big picture, they say: “I want to help this kid who’s in sixth grade succeed in college and get a better job.” Now, you’re talking about a 10 or 15-year time period. You may be working with that kid for a year or two years. So, there’s this big disconnect between our interventions– which are in the now and today– and the long-term impact–better economic opportunities, better access to democracy, the civil war getting settled, whatever it is. I think it’s the timescale.  It’s the fact that it’s very expensive to actually run the equivalent of a medicine pharmaceutical trial for social impact.  Those are pricey; those are expensive.

Denver: And funders don’t want to fund a lot of this stuff. They want the evaluation. They want the metrics. They just don’t want to pay for them.

Jim: It’s tough because… would you rather pay for more meals for a person who’s just been hit by a natural disaster?  Or, do you want to know that long-term, they ended up in a better house that’s more hurricane-resistant?  It’s that difference. But I think there’s a new class of donors, both of the established foundations… but this new wave of tech philanthropy, who really are very data savvy; they’re impact savvy, and they’re starting to spend more money.  Of course, the technology is not as expensive as it used to be. So everyone’s got, even poor people in many cases, a really powerful computer in their pocket.

So, how do we take advantage of that, and do what Google and Facebook do to make money off of advertising from us? How do we use that same power to actually help kids get a better education, improved health, whatever it might be?

Denver: Let’s look at the role of technology a little bit more. Many people look at it as some sort of panacea.  Once it gets more fully developed, once it gets more fully deployed, many of society’s ills will go away. And that actually was the subject of a book which I know you recently read calledGeek Heresy. What frame or lens do you think is the appropriate one for us to look at when we look at the role of technology in making the human condition better?

Jim: Well, I didn’t agree with everything in Geek Heresy, but I thought that the author’s particular insight was that technology tends to amplify existing human conditions. So, you give technology to people, the upper middle class kid tends to benefit more than the kid who’s, let’s say, a recent immigrant whose parents are on social support. So I think that technology can’t just magically fix a human problem; it tends to amplify existing things. So you actually have to integrate the technology into a reform, into something that’s new and different. And I spent a lot of time talking people out of technology, because I say: “Look, the technology–you could spend a lot of money on it, but it’s not gonna fix the problem you have right there.” So I’d say more than half the time?  I’m talking people out of it… and that’s for someone who deeply believes in the power of technology…to save the world.

But let’s take an example like Bookshare, right? The status quo was “books on tape,”  and we basically brought ebooks to that field.  And we had a 10+ to one cost advantage, because ebooks are a lot cheaper to produce. That’s an example of taking an existing process, getting people who were blind or dyslexic the books they need. But coming up with the technology intervention–that’s what happens in business; that’s what happens to consumers. We want to harness that same power, and those opportunities are out there.  It’s just they’re often not even pursued because you’re not going to become a billionaire off it…

Denver: Not a market, that’s right. There’s no market for it. And I think you also make the point that It is technology being used in the hands of people.  Technology doesn’t fix problems; people fix problems.  The technology is just there to help in that process.

Jim: Oh, I have people who think: “I’m gonna feed all the data into an algorithm, and it’s gonna spit out the answer, I don’t have to think!” And I have to say:  Basically, computers are dumb as bricks, right? And so I think that if you think about a computer making a smart person smarter?   Computers are good at making you more effective. So how do we put that kind of power in the hands of the people who need it most, but are probably least able to afford it?

Denver: That’s right. In this article you also talked about the importance of having a data-driven organization. And you say though, that there has to be some wrenching adjustments to organizational culture to make that come to pass. We talk a lot about corporate culture on this show.  One of the biggest challenges in speaking to people is they talk about how difficult it is to create a data-driven culture. Any ideas of how to go about it?

Jim: Well, I’ll tell you one way not to go about it, is to punish people for actually using data to understand things and figure out what’s not working. And the nonprofit sector, and the funders of the nonprofit sector, are quite conservative because they believe that something that was invented 50 years ago– and was great for its time– is still just as good as it was 50 years ago. And there aren’t  many things that stay static over a 50-year time period. And so especially when we talk about technology, right?

So I think a lot of my argument is that if we actually embrace the data-driven culture, it’s gotta be through the lens of the mission. What are you trying to do? What are you trying to accomplish? And if you really believe that our goal is to make people more powerful, better educated, have better health outcomes, then actually knowing what works and doesn’t work is really important.  Then when someone says: “Hey, this thing we’ve been doing for 50 years doesn’t work?” You should be encouraging them to actually do something that does work rather than saying: “How could you waste all of that charitable money on something that didn’t work?”  I actually am exhorting not only the nonprofit sectors to change their culture, but also the donors… and this is the kind of culture that dominates Silicon Valley.  We use it to create billionaires. So, how do we actually use that same power to make things better?

Denver: Embrace failure. Learn from it and then iterate.

Jim: That’s right. Better to fail fast, and then figure out what’s actually going to work. To pivot! –to use the latest jargon term.

Denver: You’re the co-founder and past chair of something called the “Social Enterprise Alliance,” which is really a catalyst for developing something akin to a fourth sector in this country. Something that goes along with the for-profit, the nonprofit and the governmental sector… Tell us how this is all developing and how you envision the future looking as we try to solve society’s problems.

Jim: We used to have a bipolar world, right? We used to say there’s the Soviet Union and there’s the United States and the western democracies. And it turns out that the world is a lot more complex than that. So we don’t have a bipolar world where there are for-profits that make the maximum dollar, and nonprofits that give away money, right? There’s actually a spectrum of projects, and in that middle area is where a lot of exciting stuff is happening. So whether it’s a for-profit that takes a stand and says: “We’re going to pay a living wage, or we’re going to pollute one-tenth as much per unit of product, right? We’re going to make money, but we’re going to do it ethically, and we’re going to do it with respect for other social issues.”  Or a nonprofit like Benetech– that often generates a great majority of our budget in revenues, but is actually trying to accomplish a social good. And so when people say: “Wait a minute, you’ve generated 85 or 90 cents of every dollar from revenues?” And I said: “Yeah, imagine as a donor, that means every one of your dollars is working 10x harder!  That’s good, right?”

Denver: That is good.

Jim: And so the Social Enterprise Alliance is basically the association of people who run social good projects in a business-like way. And the number one kind of member of the Social Enterprise Alliance is a social enterprise that creates jobs for disadvantaged people. Whether they’re people with disabilities, or recent people who’ve been released from prison, or women who are single moms and are maybe domestic violence survivors. All these people… what do they really need?  Do they need charity long-term? Probably not!  They would rather have a really good paying job because then they can graduate from being part of the social sector and social supports, into being dues-paying, tax paying, full members of society where they get health insurance like everybody else and all that. So I think that’s the dream of so many people in the nonprofit sector.. is that:  Charity, when it’s needed in an urgent situation, it’s always going to be the appropriate thing.  But long term, people want to move on and motor on their own power through life.  And I think that the social sector can be doing that through social enterprises.

Denver: I think you’re absolutely right. I mean philanthropy is great startup capital for these enterprises.  But then after that, they need to become self-sustainable. You are a pioneer in social enterprise, so I’m gonna close with this. You’ve been at it for 40 years or so. What advice would you have for a young person who has the aptitude for technology and data analytics, and wants to do what they can to make the world a better place? Would you have any advice or guidance to give  somebody at that stage of their career?

Jim: I think this generation of young people is the most “on fire”  since the 60s generation. So these are smart kids; they know a lot more than I did at their age, right? And they have the benefit of actually seeing the power of technology, of social enterprise, and of business to actually do more for society. They have very high expectations for the jobs they take in the for-profit sector. They’re bending the for-profit sector to be more socially responsible.

And so my vision is that –I’m an entrepreneur.  I love starting things and wish to help people who have that kind of bent…and it’s not for everybody…Get involved in a startup.  Get involved in something new. You’ll probably, if it succeeds, take on greater responsibilities. You’ll make networking friends and meet the people who will help you start businesses, or they’ll start businesses and drag you along. And so the great thing that’s happened is that it used to be that when you went from the for-profit world into government service or the nonprofit sector, it was a one-way ticket. Don’t ever come back, right? Now, I see young people who spend a couple of years working for us, and then they go to work for Google, right?

And then people who work for Google will then come on to work for us, right? And of course, there’s a wage differential involved in those transitions, but I think:  Go out there.  Acquire those skills, and then go after something that’s really important–whether it’s in a business or in the social sector.  It doesn’t matter as much as:  Don’t just settle for doing the same old thing. Go out there and make the world a better place. There are so many ways to do that today.

Denver: If people want to learn more about Benetech, or maybe financially support the work you do, where do they go?

Jim: They can go to benetech.org our website. Benetech is short for beneficial technologies, so it’s just Benetech.org. And we have tons of tech volunteers; we have donors who believe in this, people who fund books for blind and dyslexic kids…all the way to people who care about human rights or about the next big thing that we should be doing.

Denver: Well, Jim Fruchterman; the founder and CEO of Benetech, I want to thank you for being with us this evening. You have said: “Don’t stop innovation just because you don’t see enough market for it.” And it has been that philosophy which has allowed you to better the lives of millions of people across the world. It was a great pleasure having you on the show.

Jim: Delighted!  And I hope more people go out and do it themselves!