Calling All Startup Leaders: Only You Can Change The System

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My favourite reality show of the moment is the U.S. Presidential Race, hands down. Never in my life have I seen a more entertaining group of attention-seekers who compare penis sizes and interrupt each other with offhand racist comments. But putting aside the misogyny-ridden remarks and circus-like media attention for a second, the most important discourse that’s come out of the race is how it’s exposed the unethical practices of the economic system.

Of course such structural issues are not limited to the United States. Every economy places certain groups of individuals in a position of cyclical marginalisation, which involves political apathy and systemic discrimination. While the U.S. chooses to ignore the 16 million kids living on food stamps, Hong Kong chooses to ignore the approximate 14% of people living in poverty (most of which are senior citizens).

The tragedy is not necessarily the condition itself, but how we continue to lie to ourselves that they’re merely the reality of a Darwinian state. We’ve all heard it before: it’s just how the world works; inequality will always exist.

If the world is an ugly place, then why is it so hard to believe that our inequities are at least in part caused by corporate greed? Having money is great, and we all want more of it. Why is it unfathomable for individuals to act against the interest of the public good for personal benefit? After a certain point, we have no choice but to use the ‘m’ word.

It all starts with one person who considers his or her situation as exceptional. If everyone else can get away with irresponsible speculation, then why can’t I? It’s just this one deal. This practice is then normalised within the department, the company, etc. When you’re a cog in the machine, the consequences of your actions are muffled, and this is where things get dangerous. Once we pass the initial guilt, we enter the next phase: entitlement.

We start believing that we deserve those outrageous paychecks. Our minds whisper to us that we’re the elite, destined to wear design threads, go on monthly holidays, and drink champers on the regular. And with entitlement comes intentional subjugation of what you perceive as less-entitled (a.k.a. inferior) group.

I’ve painted a pretty grim picture, and have done so at the expense of vilifying all corporates. While that may be misleading, it’s not a stretch to say that the current system and its leaders are fueling the fire of an unethical system.

This is where startups come in. If we accept the standard definition, then startups are founded to innovate, change the game, and pave the way for new frontiers & technologies. Also, at the heart of this, are company values.

Socially & environmentally responsible practices, and community-building affiliations are now commonplace. Startup CEOs now lean more towards Zuckerberg-Gates eccentricity than Trump-style flash.

Incorporating this type of culture is never too late. It starts and ends with recognising what’s deserved and what’s greed, and permeating these values as the company grows. All corporates started somewhere, and any startup could be destined for a conglomerate future.

As startups continue to dominate the business headlines comes an opportunity to change the system, indirectly exposing corporate greed. Startups are the fringe candidates of the business world, the anti-establishment cries of Washington D.C., where money matters but morals matter more. They’re the redistributors of wealth, champions of the economy of the future.

Perhaps I am just another lunatic and dismissible progressive trying to turn America into a ‘Socialist’ country. I fit the stereotype in that I don’t believe in trickle-down economics, I don’t eat meat for environmental reasons, and I only wear fur when it’s from a Muppet (sorry Big Bird).

Even so, I’d rather live in a world where optimism reins, and empathy, valued. With these structural deficiencies comes the opportunity to reverse it, too. Any entrepreneur looking back on their startup journey will remember the moments where customers praised their product as life changing. How many would remember the amount they had in their bank?

I’ll leave all startup leaders with one question: if you could change the system, would you?

Not sure where to start? Here are some ways any startup can start their employees on the right foot and normalise social responsibly practices!

Incorporate Discussions About The Code of Conduct Into Onboarding

Many startups don’t consider a discussion about ethical practices necessary, but studies have shown that “‘nudges’ or gentle ethical reminders, work in lowering the instances of unethical behavior” (Ordóñez and Welsh).

Drafting a code of conduct may seem archaic and overkill for a small company, reminding employees of these values when they first join also helps them to assimilate to company culture and values. Once a company is of a large enough size, it’s then important to appoint compliance officers to oversee ethical standards.

Resources: HKBEDC, ECI

Create A Social Responsibility Scheme

Ever since Tom’s launched their globally successful CSR programme in 2006, countless companies have proven that they’re not only sustainable, but a catalyst for success.

Customers are increasingly purpose-driven in their purchasing behaviou; a CCE study showed that 83% of Americans hoped to see more brands supporting causes. Coupled with a well-executed campaign, startups and CSR are sure to go together like peanut butter and jelly.

Aside from the buy-one, get-one campaign like Tom’s, startup leaders can also source from ethical manufacturers, initiate community volunteer programmes, or setup a relevant scholarship scheme. The possibilities are endless!

Resources: Mobius Effect (a Hong Kong-based CSR consultancy), the 1-1-1 Model

Be An Impact Or Transformational Entrepreneur

The most directly impactful move a startup can make is to shape their business to address a critical need or bring about positive impact. This differs from a non-profit organisation in that while it is for profit, its service or product fulfills a (deprived) consumer need rather than want.

Instead of selling addictive junk food to children, so they’re dependent for the rest of their lives, why not create a healthy food company that educates the public about health? It also means starting a pharmaceutical company, and not raising the price of a drug by 5,000%, knowing that a smaller margin will do.

Social entrepreneurialism has proven to not be a trend, but an approach to business that speaks to business leaders from around the world. Between the 1995 and 2011, the number of students enrolled in Harvard Business School’s social-enterprise courses rose from 71 to 600. If that’s not changing the system, then what is?

Resource: Share and discuss your impact startup idea here, and more inspiration here.


Min ChinBy Min Chen: Min is the Digital Content Manager for Garage Society, a collaborative entrepreneurial ecosystem in Hong Kong. She grew up in Boston, and has an educational background in political and social science. Min writes with the hope that her message will encourage people to ask the hard questions. See her blog here.