April 2, 2020

Why I Believe in Tech for Good …And Why Investors Should Too

My nascent investment thesis — of sorts

It is hard to be optimistic about tech these days. If in the early 2010s we were all keen and positive, now we’ve seen the consequences — albeit unintended — of big tech.

The tech-lash is real and governments are scrambling and scratching their heads for solutions. Senator Warren wanted to break up big tech. Andrew Yang wanted to give every American a universal basic income to help the country deal with the challenges of automation.

I am not blind to any of this. Speak to everyone I know and they’ll tell you I’ve been vocal and critical about the issues tech companies have helped create. One of them is bias in AI, an issue that is finally being talked about but not as much as I would like. I spent a whole internship looking at the GDPR and what businesses should be doing about it. Although it has its issue, I am glad that something is being done to help preserve the privacy of individuals — at least in Europe.

Still, I believe that tech can be a force for good.

I’ve seen this first-hand during my undergrad. I was a member of It Happens Here Oxford, a campaign against sexual violence on campus. Through the help of volunteers and amazing people like Joy Buolamwini (who is the amazing founder of the Algorithmic Justice League), we created an app to help survivors of sexual violence and their friends get the information and help they needed in anonymity.

And I’ve seen this first-hand during my masters, where we were called to come up to leverage tech to help people gain access to legal information or help the elderly learn how to use technology.

I am not the only one who believes this. There are entrepreneurs out there building start-ups that are leveraging tech for good. Chatterbox helps you master a language with the help of refugee teachers. Benevolent AI is using AI for drug discovery, development, and testing.

I am pretty certain that with time we will see even more of them.

But why is this happening now?

1. There are tough challenges yet to be solved

Let’s be honest. We’ve made some steps to make this world a better place. Millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, wars are not as many as they used to be, and some of us have never had it so good. At the same time, the climate crisis is worsening as we speak. If everything was so peachy, we wouldn’t need the UN Sustainable Goals. But here they are for one specific reason: we are still leaving too many people behind and there’s plenty of challenges that we haven’t solved yet.

Governments — at least some of them — are trying. Nevertheless, sometimes they don’t have the power nor the will to solve some of the issues we face as a society. But start-ups just might through the power of tech.

2. We are witnessing a tech revolution

Talk to anyone who is a Millennial or older and they’ll tell you about a time when they had cassettes, CD players and had to deal with dial-in internet. The pace of technological change has gone so fast that it could easily give us whiplash.

We can apply the same advances in tech that have brought us Google, the App store, and social networks to make the world a better place to live for everyone. We can use the principles of blockchain to increase transparency and fight corruption, use AI to help detect breast cancers faster, teach people how to code and give them access to better job opportunities.

3. The perceived dichotomy between doing good and making money is fading

If for the longest time doing good was seen as the domain of charities and the occasional CSR initiative, more and more people in business are shifting their ways of thinking on this matter. Last year, 180+ CEOs of top US businesses came together and redefined what is the purpose of a corporation. Instead of focusing only on shareholder value and maximising profits, corps are now focused on delivering value for all stakeholders. Who says that you can’t both make money and do good in the world, huh?

Are they doing this to appease their customers? Perhaps. After all, data shows that a third of consumers prefer sustainable brands. Nevertheless, this is a step in the right direction.

So what now? What can investor do?

VCs already exist who are woke enough to see the opportunity aka the billions/trillions of cash presented by this. In the UK we have the likes of Mustard Seed, Bethnal Green Ventures and Atomico among others. In the US we have Kapor Capital. In Sweden, we have Norrsken VC, a €100m impact fund.

But we need more investors in this space. We need investors asking start-ups — even those not tackling social and policy issues at their core — a bunch of questions. What is your supply chain strategy? How do you plan to do right by your employees and create inclusive workplaces?

I’m hopeful that with time we’ll see more VCs investing and supporting tech for good start-ups.

Dear Investors,

you control the purse strings and you’ve got quite a bit of power…use it to ask the right questions and drive the companies you invest in to use tech for good.

What are your thoughts about tech for good? Do you think it is just fluff or something that shows some promise?

Asta Diabaté

Self-professed podcast aficionado. Sharing my musings on tech, biz & politics. Oxford & Sciences Po Paris Alumna.

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