What if we focused the power of technology on our greatest social challenges?
Jim Fruchterman was a social entrepreneur before the term was popularized. He told me, “I didn’t know I was a social entrepreneur for the first ten years.” Jim was in a PhD program at Stanford when he Left to join a rocket company. Unfortunately the rocket blew up on the launching pad. But by this time, he had been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.
Instead of returning to the PhD program, Jim decided to go on to his next startup, a company that created omnifont Optical Character Recognition, or OCR. OCR is a technology that enables you to convert scanned documents into editable and searchable data. The company was successful and is today a large publicly traded corporation.
Early on, Jim recognized that OCR could be used to assist blind people to gain access to written documents. He demonstrated the first prototype around 1986. However, the market potential was not sufficient to justify further investments from the company.
This left Jim with a choice. Would he continue to pursue the lucrative applications of their technology with customers such as insurance companies or the Internal Revenue Service? Or would he pursue a noble cause with less revenue and profit potential?
In 1989 Jim left the company he cofounded. He negotiated the rights to pursue reading machines for the blind using OCR technology. He formed a non-profit, Benetech, to exploit technology for social good. At the time, he told his wife that he would run the non-profit for a year. That was 27 years ago.
Benetech asks and answers the question, what could Silicon Valley do for nonprofits if Silicon Valley could afford to care about their problems? Benetech takes the power of technology and focuses on human rights, literacy and the environment. They created Bookshare, the largest library for blind and dyslexic people. The have deployed crypto software for the human rights movement. And they have created project management solutions for the environmental area.
Jim is also a founding board member of the Social Enterprise Alliance. He served on the board for more than ten years, including the role of chairman.
Social Entrepreneurship Quotes from Jim Fruchterman
“Our team is made up of people who are coming out of Silicon Valley, who want to use the skills we learned in business to tackle the problems that business can’t tackle.”
“I didn’t know I was a social entrepreneur for the first ten years.”
“Here were a whole bunch of people who could talk about social impact and business in the same sentence and their heads didn’t explode.”
“The funny thing is, the business parts were pretty straightforward to me.”
“That’s the most fun part for a geek. You’re taking your technology expertise and you see a problem and you go ‘I think I know how to solve it.’”
“The status quo when we started was, blind people are read to…Now, pretty much if a blind person hears about a book that they need for school or work or someone recommends it, the odds are that it’s in Bookshare already.”
“We’re applying that same idea to other fields that need that same kind of disruption, not to make billions, but to make the lives of millions of people better.”
“It’s our job to recognize opportunities to match technology up with needs.”
“We are the Silicon Valley company that can afford to care.”
“We’re kind of the people who are multilingual. We speak tech. We speak business. We speak activist. We speak policy maker and we’re trying to make those connections where those connections are not being made today.”
“Really understand the need of the people you want to serve.”
“Every entrepreneur is successful because of the people who come together. It is almost never about the solo social entrepreneur. A great team will help you accomplish great things. Don’t think you can do it without them.”