If VCs Aren’t Socially Responsible, the Robots Will Win

When a man overseeing $5.7 trillion speaks, the global business community tends to listen. So when BlackRock founder Larry Fink, head of the world’s largest asset management company, posted a letter to CEOs demanding greater attention to social impact, it sent shockwaves through corporations around the globe. In the letter, titled “A Sense of Purpose,” Fink wrote,

We … see many governments failing to prepare for the future, on issues ranging from retirement and infrastructure to automation and worker retraining. As a result, society increasingly is turning to the private sector and asking that companies respond to broader societal challenges. … Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. … Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.

Fink’s letter dropped just days before the 2018 World Economic Forum, an annual gathering of the global financial elite in Davos, Switzerland. I was attending the forum and watched as CEOs anxiously discussed the stern warning from a man whose firm controlled substantial ownership stakes in their companies. Many publicly professed sympathy for Fink’s message but privately declared his emphasis on broader social welfare to be anathema to the logic of private enterprise.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Looked at narrowly enough, they’re right: publicly traded companies are in it to win it, bound by fiduciary duties to maximize profits. But in the age of AI, this cold logic of dollars and cents simply can’t hold. Blindly pursuing profits without any thought to social impact won’t just be morally dubious; it will be downright dangerous.

Fink referenced automation and job retraining multiple times in his letter. As an investor with interests spanning the full breadth of the global economy, he sees that dealing with AI-induced displacement is not something that can be left entirely up to free markets. Instead, it is imperative that we reimagine and reinvigorate corporate social responsibility, impact investing, and social entrepreneurship.

In the past, these were the kinds of things that businesspeople merely dabbled in when they had time and money to spare. Sure, they think, why not throw some money into a microfinance startup or buy some corporate carbon offsets so we can put out a happy press release touting it. But in the age of AI, we will need to seriously deepen our commitment to—and broaden our definition of—these activities. Whereas these have previously focused on feel-good philanthropic issues like environmental protection and poverty alleviation, social impact in the age of AI must also take on a new dimension: the creation of large numbers of service jobs for displaced workers.

As a venture-capital investor, I see a particularly strong role for a new kind of impact investing. I foresee a venture ecosystem emerging that views the creation of humanistic service-sector jobs as a good in and of itself. It will steer money into human-focused service projects that can scale up and hire large numbers of people: lactation consultants for postnatal care, trained coaches for youth sports, gatherers of family oral histories, nature guides at national parks, or conversation partners for the elderly. Jobs like these can be meaningful on both a societal and personal level, and many of them have the potential to generate real revenue—just not the 10,000 percent returns that come from investing in a unicorn technology startup.

Kick-starting this ecosystem will require a shift in mentality for VCs who participate. The very idea of venture capital has been built around high risks and exponential returns. When an investor puts money into ten startups, they know full well that nine of them most likely will fail. But if that one success story turns into a billion-dollar company, the exponential returns on that one investment make the fund a huge success. Driving those exponential returns are the unique economics of the internet. Digital products can be scaled up infinitely with near-zero marginal costs, meaning the most successful companies achieve astronomical profits.

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