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A New Market for Self-Interest

By Ian Ybarra

features columnist

Let’s make no bones about it: StartingBloc President Martin Smith certainly doesn’t. “StartingBloc operates on the basis of self-interest,” he said. Companies want to show they aren’t evil. Universities want to make up for students missing what’s taught almost exclusively in “soft” liberal arts majors like International Affairs -- the full spectrum of the effects of capitalism. And students want internships to boost their chances for post-graduation employment. The upstart non-profit StartingBloc simply helps each party get what they want.

And what does StartingBloc want? According to its mission statement, “StartingBloc seeks to help outstanding university students understand that a socially responsible career is not an oxymoron and that business can and should improve society as well as create private wealth.” (These are actually the words of Dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management Richard Schmalensee) Ultimately, StartingBloc hopes that undergraduates who come to understand this today will remember it when they’re running this joint in the future.

Isn’t the whole idea just crazy? You’ve probably heard of Nobel laureate Milton Friedman who wrote, “The one and only business of business is to maximize profit, playing within the rules of the game.”

But then there’s “The Blended Value Proposition” by Jed Emerson, a professor formerly of Harvard Business School and now of Stanford Business School. The proposition states that “all organizations, whether for-profit or not, create value that consists of economic, social and environmental value components and that investors (whether market-rate, charitable, or some mix of the two) simultaneously generate all three forms of value through providing capital to organizations.” So it follows: if it’s possible to measure aother value types than monetary, then it’s possible for leaders in business and society to make decisions to maximizing their cumulative amount.

Makes sense, but it still seems like a tough sell. Why would Smith undertake the project? For the most part, Smith is just like you and me. He grew up here in New England. His mother runs a non-profit that reconciles prisoners with society and his father is an Episcopal minister. He attended the University of Chicago, studied computational neuroscience for three years, and even started becoming attracted to the ruthless money game governed by Friedman’s guidline.

But Smith watched too many of his peers at the University of Chicago’s become consumed with making money “within the rules of the game,” which in this era seem to be simply “don’t get caught.” He knew there had to be a better way, and he found it when he read Emerson’s work in the summer of 2002. Then, instead of chalking up his agreement with Emerson as a warm and fuzzy good deed, he decided to do something about it. He left school before graduating and founded StartingBloc. Smith isn’t crazy, he’s remarkable.

Considering how commonplace corporate scandals seem these days, there is hardly a more urgent cause than developing better leaders for business and society. Something needs to be done now. But what about Smith’s career, you ask? I doubt he makes a fortune running StartingBloc, but considering the impact he’s making, I also doubt he’ll have problems finding another job when he wants one. Then again, why wouldn’t he just create another one for himself?

Will StartingBloc really work? Well, it certainly won’t be touted as the savior of the world, but I think it has potential.

StartingBloc is a unique marketplace for the trade of self-interests between companies, universities, and undergraduates. In this world of “hype, lies, and spin,” to quote author Os Guinness, StartingBloc’s message is even fun to spread because its idealism seems anti-establishment. And, perhaps most importantly, it has a bit of glamour.

At StartingBloc’s “Globalization: Free vs. Fair Trade” seminar on April 4 in E51, the keynote speaker was William Greider, author of “The Soul of Capitalism” and a former editor at Rolling Stone Magazine and The Washington Post. And at the very least, StartingBloc’s success will include the many people who are inspired by Martin Smith’s gumption to attempt something so difficult when the safe, and most socially acceptable, move would have been to keep plugging away at school.