There is a big elephant in the room that we need to talk about. The techies reaping the rewards may not care to see it, but do their benefactors?
I recently posed a question on a few of my company’s social media channels, “When you hear the word “startup” what industries does your mind jump to?”
Here are some of the responses that I received:
Such a thought provoking question! I immediately think of the tech industry. In my field, this generally means for-profit education technology companies. I don't think we discuss startups (more broadly) and their necessary supports - whether that be small nonprofits, MWBE's, or even agrarians! -Chiara
Very insightful and a gap that needs to be filled! -Gilberto
Definitely tech… also I’d love to see this stereotype broken. Not that it’s a bad thing! -Kat
The overwhelming majority knows “tech” as the face of the “start-up” scene. After a recent denied proposal into a business mentorship program, because my company is not “tech” I have begun to analyze this current assumption with more scrutiny, and I want to bring this realization to others’ attention as well.
Let’s start with history on start-ups…
Definitions: 1 A start-up is a company or project undertaken by an entrepreneur to seek, develop, and validate a scalable business model in order to grow large beyond the solo founder. 0 It is different from other companies in that it must develop a unique software program that addresses an unsolved widespread problem, create a business plan and acquire funding.
The most informative material that I came across in researching this matter was an article written by Kevin Sun of The Crimson, titled – ‘In and Around Language: What's Up with "Startup"?’. Kevin interviewed Andrew J. Rosenthal, an MBA student at the Harvard Business School who Co-Founded the Startup Tribe, a campus group for student entrepreneurs seeking to launch new businesses. As Kevin wrote, and I quote,
‘Startup also has digital associations, as in “startup menus,” “startup processes,” and other “startup” computer-related phrases. Wikipedia mentions that startup businesses often have “low bootstrapping costs”; that is, founders of a business fund their venture using their own capital rather than external capital. Bootstrapping comes from the phrase “to pick yourself up by the bootstraps,” which is also where the term “booting up” a computer comes from. Wikipedia explains that “boot” is a shortened version of “bootstrap load,” the process by which the computer starts up by reading a bootstrap sequence that tells the computer how to load in its own operating system.
It should be noted that startups needn’t be tech-based or web-based, but these technological associations hint at one reason why startups are so popular: anybody can start their own. In Rosenthal’s words, technology has had a “democratizing effect” because it has reduced the amount of money and capital needed to start a business. Meritocratic overtones are a part of the very etymology of the word—nobody gets their bootstraps pulled up for them.’
In summary, the term “startup” (with or without the hyphen) is closely associated with many digital processes and computer related phrases. However, when a 1976 Forbes article and 1977 Business Week article mentioned “startups” the inferred meaning was simply that the nature of the venture allowed for a low monetary barrier of entry.
Since then, and no doubt this is a byproduct of the advances in technology born out of the digital age, practically anyone can start a business on their own and fund it out of their own pocket.
I started my business, Refontê Ventures, from all the ideas and knowledge floating around between my own two ears. I made an investment in my education that certainly helped me to accumulate the skills, experiences, and resources that have lent themselves to this work. Thanks to technology, I had no need to invest in brick and mortar to house myself and my team. We can all work together effectively from anywhere! To refer back to the definition of “startup” according to startupsavant.com, Refontê Ventures is different from other companies in that has developed a unique business model (not a software program) that addresses an unsolved widespread problem, has a business plan and is acquiring funding through its own net profits.1
All that being said, the meaning and origin of the word “startup” still stands, but now the circumstances around starting a myriad of business models have evolved and just about anyone can bootstrap their business from their own home. Therefore, is it fair to say “startups” have come full circle and longer need to be exclusively associated with tech related fields?
I could stop there, but I think there is more food for thought here. How might the overlooked artifacts of language around “startup” also tie to some larger issues at hand when it comes to climate investment priority areas?
When we ask ourselves what we want the future of our lives/society to look like…how are the compounding effects of our investment actions going to shape what our work looks like in the future? You may be familiar with Steven Covey’s second habit (of the seven) of highly effective people, “Begin with the end in mind.” Then, consider this - we often use technology to replace jobs needed, however, at the same time our landscapes need more human hands and minds thoughtfully working on them and working alongside nature to help nature repair itself.
We have a whole generation struggling to find meaningful work and it can be difficult to access practical skills for those growing up in a screen dominated world. Amongst this same population, mental illness is on the rise. It doesn’t take much research, or going out to experience this yourself and conclude that spending time in the outdoors is a restorative, healing practice.
We know that the outdoors, and spending time in it, is good for people and, in most cases, makes people feel more connected. Yet we continue to persist in investing in technology to solve the climate crisis…and we continue to invest in tech-based startups that will put more young people behind a computer screen (Wait, wasn’t the definition of “startup” a bootstrap venture that inherently doesn’t require investors?)
Is this really the “end” that we had in mind – masses of immobile people surrounded by a life spent indoors bathing in convenience, as depicted in the science fiction, animated film, Wall-E?
Sure, solve the climate crisis and toss our basic human needs and understanding of how our brains function (Read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr) to the wayside for the sake of “efficiency” and “because we can”.
What good is healing the planet if we die doing it? How oxymoronic is that? If humans cannot heal from the inside, they will never be unified in their approach. The solution has to be more than nature itself. The solution has to be human-centered.
I encourage the general public, and especially those who are running a startup of some kind, or are looking to invest in companies that claim to solve the climate crisis or to be “eco-friendly”, to fight for and invest in people-centered business first!