Real Leaders

How a Kidnapping Attempt Led to the First Social Impact Office in The White House

On a hot and muggy July afternoon, just as I was just settling into work at my first job in the foundation world, I was shaken by the sound of machine gun fire blasting through the front door of our office.

Like the rest of my startled colleagues, I grabbed my phone and dove under a desk. It was the only thing I could think to do. Although Detroit, Washington DC, and LA were burning, and race riots were dominating the news, no one expected our quiet Midwestern city to be the subject of extreme violence.

The target that day was not any of us on the staff. It was a kidnapping attempt for ransom, and the target was our CEO, the eldest son of the founder of General Motors. As a preventative measure, he escaped into a room-sized safe, and, after several hours, a swat team led the staff down the fire escape and released us unharmed. Although the terrorists were arrested and did not get their target, it was a day that changed everything for the office, the targeted official, and for me. It ushered me into the age of impact in its earliest stages, and ultimately led to me being asked, years later, to start and manage the first White House office on social impact investing and philanthropy.

Our CEO, the target of the kidnappers, approached me a few weeks after the incident with a request. I had noticed a change in his demeanor. His calm personality had become more lively, enthusiastic, and I sensed he had even gained a higher purpose. He asked me to begin a strategic planning process for the organization that focused on measuring the impact we were having. This was the beginning. We started to assess the social and community impact of our investments using detailed demographic assessment data. It super-charged the organization and gave me a focus for my professional life.

Today, we are driving at light speed toward human progress. Impact has become the standard bearer and rallying cry of the future, and within a decade, will be commonplace rather than the exception. This phenomenon I call the New Age of Enlightenment because of its potential for significant human progress – surpassing the first, the 18th century period of progress.

Although we don’t know how much money is being allocated to impact investing today, we do know that it’s rising quickly and will appear as an avalanche of capital-seeking products and strategies within this decade. New investment structures like Green Bonds, Enterprise Zones, Cryptocurrency economic aid to developing nations, side-by-side philanthropic and investment co-ventures, and more are all underway. There are hundreds of social-impact incubators at work, turning out new solutions to virtually every problem we know. The main shared feature of all these new strategies is urgency. Patience with failing education, healthcare solutions, and environmental degradation is at an end. There is a drive of human capital, AI, and tech pouncing on virtually every problem we face.

Investors are actively pursuing solutions to clean fuels and water, saving the oceans, advancing nutrition and health, and many other worthy causes. This is the private sector at work and at its best. Letting market forces drive improvements in health care, personal safety, and the reduction in carbon footprints may be one way that sustainability could have the most lasting and significant effect. Some restless investors have also spawned the rise of impatient capital being put to use in these directions through political and corporate activism.

The creative genius Peter Diamandis, along with co-author Steven Kotler, wrote in their 2012 groundbreaking book Abundance, “Humanity is now entering a period of radical transformation in which technology has the potential to significantly raise the basic standards of living for every man, woman, and child on the planet. Abundance for all is actually within our grasp.”

What this means is that if abundance is within our grasp, then by strategically working backward we can know the obstacles to reaching it. We can begin to create the solutions to surmount them. As the development of policy shifts to the private sector, we must integrate industry, innovation, philanthropy, and the social sciences to work as partners, or we will never reach what Diamandis, the X-Prize Founder, has laid out as our goal. We are talking fetterless opportunity and solutions beyond our present imagination. Only fear, political constraint, or lack of dreaming can eclipse this New Age of Enlightenment.


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