How Founders Can Shape a More Equitable Digital Economy
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As of last year, Instagram – a photo sharing app – had powered 8 million businesses globally, while Amazon – the e-commerce giant – had generated over $120 billion in sales for the mostly small and midsize vendors listed on its marketplace. Back home, India’s most successful ride-sharing company, Ola, is not only creating income for over 550,000 drivers, but also building insurance programs for their families, running audacious experiments to promote electric cars in one of the most polluted countries in the world, and enabling access to instant credit for millions of young Indians.
The positive economic and social impact of technology in this new digital economy is palpable. In fact, as a technology enthusiast myself, I would argue that 1999-2009 has been the greatest decade that tech has ever seen; a decade that has established its power to tackle massive challenges like food access, financial inclusion, literacy, healthcare, and much more.
Yet, it is hard to deny that today, the tech industry is facing a sort of identity crisis. As startup founders, we are becoming actors in quite the opposite of the narrative we set out to build. A narrative where controversies like the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal, the Google Memo and Aadhaar’s data security crisis are bringing to light tech’s perilous side effects – compromised privacy, growing inequality, and weakened democratic systems.
- Everyday Decision Making: While social activism and government regulation can mitigate some of these threats, I believe that the power to shift this narrative towards the “humanistic information economy” that computer science philosopher Jaron Lanier advocates, truly lies with us, the entrepreneurs. Why let social impact be an afterthought or a philanthropic initiative only when one’s personal net worth is more than the GDP of an entire nation? We have to get past the idea that we can only make socially responsible change after growth, and instead embed that change within our everyday decision making, our business models, within our company’s DNA.
- Data Privacy and Security: Now, on to actionables. In light of the fear that the “Frightful Five” – Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook – and other tech companies enjoy almost unbridled access to the very core of who we are – our identities, the most pertinent problems to attack currently are data privacy and security. While blockchain’s “decentralized database” is promising, it may not be commercially or politically viable in the near future. What you can do today, however, is build data privacy into your business model and ensure users have full ownership of their data. Make it easier for users to understand privacy agreements; explain how and what data might be shared with third parties in plain English, almost like nutritional labels on food items; set up a data ethics code within your company and train your team to abide by it, in addition to complying with global security best practices.
- Workforce Diversity; Second, educate yourself about workforce diversity. The $400 billion in revenue (and other large numbers) that proponents claim an increase in diversity could save our industry is no marketing ploy. I can personally attest to the positive impact of including women, college dropouts, and people from LGBT and other underrepresented communities, on access to myriad perspectives, on product design and engineering culture, and ultimately, on the topline. Incorporate diversity into your recruitment model right from the start – hire from alternative channels, eliminate biases in candidate evaluations, and make your workplace safe for all genders (read: bold sexual harassment policy). Send out a strong message that your company is consciously designed to welcome employees with all kinds of backgrounds and experiences. Scaled up companies can even invest in scholarships, trainings, and hackathons to encourage such communities.
Addressing other challenges, such as labor market dislocation, environmental impact, democratization of AI, and the potential neglect of the ‘next billion’ are beyond the scope of this article, but something I hope to tackle and write extensively about in the future. It takes courage for a single company to stand up for these values, but the risk can also bear high reward through customer trust and loyalty.
I predict products that prioritize values like user privacy and inclusion will see higher growth rates in the long term, and will inspire other companies to do the same. But for that, we, as startup founders, have to actively fight for a cohesive, unified digital economy, where the socially-positive and business-savvy decision are one and the same.