I interviewed my first candidate for an as yet undefined intern role two weeks later. Winborn’s admin had contacted a headhunter company they often worked with and they had posted some descriptions on job boards at Stanford and Berkeley. I got a filtered list of eight résumés after a few days and began reading through them. They were all very young and had limited experiences but, given the sources, they had already packed their lives with endearing little adventures. One had been the first in her family to go to college from a second-generation Chinese immigrant family, and could play violin, piano, speak several languages fluently, and volunteered at a homeless shelter in East Palo Alto. She had arrived at the café on a bicycle and was lovely and lithe with a hint of acquired hippiness in her dirty shoulder bag and brown hair band. Sonya was her name and I asked her why she was interested in social entrepreneurship. She seemed initially puzzled by the question, responding with “It sounds like a great opportunity,” then pausing at the realization of the impotence of her statement. I waited and she continued, “I’ve always been interested in different ways of managing and creating social change. Social entrepreneurship is more targeted in terms of the techniques that can be applied to that change.”
“Interesting,” I responded. She was clearly as intelligent as her background suggested, “But what specifically would you like to accomplish?”
There was a searching desire to please flashing in her eyes again as she paused and thought about the question, “Social change can manifest in many different ways, so I’m open to many different opportunities in that regard.”
Good, she didn’t have any information about specific projects and was willing to wait and listen to the details. I unfortunately didn’t have any myself and was hoping that surrounding myself with bright young people would provide the insights that I needed to guide the ship of change. The chart of possibilities was as vast as the enumerated ways of killing John Galt, from educational enhancements to space studies, as far as I was concerned. Winborn had not been more direct than that. I asked Sonya whether she liked helping the poor and she said, “Yes, of course, it’s great doing good in the community.”
“Do you think what you do makes a difference?”
“Yes, we feed homeless people from the area and some of them transition to shelters. They can go on to jobs and futures,” Sonya quickly responded, clearly easing into the conversation as it shifted to topics she was familiar with.
Conceptually, there was a dawning realization for me that the people Sonya and I would be serving had an enormous advantage over my potential staff and me. Down on their luck, suffering, struggling—just achieving something is a remarkable goal. I could measure that easily enough. Meanwhile, the privileged must achieve more and more just to keep from moving backward. I was not retired and would never be retired. I had just transitioned to another role and there was little possibility of experiencing actual privation and physical suffering in my future, yet the difference between sleeping under cardboard along a creek filtering into the Bay and being “transitioned” into a homeless shelter seemed both more trivial and harder at the same time. We have to convince them that that is a laudable goal. We have to overcome the frictional forces that interfere with the outcome. We have to navigate disturbed and psychotic personalities. The effort towards social change was fraught with incremental events and efforts that had statistical influence on small populations but was unlikely to be disruptive the way technological change can bring about upheaval in work and play practices.
Winborn’s focus on evolutionary metaphors was jading me about the entire project. Founder effects, punctuated equilibriums, inflection—the fog of theoretical descriptions that we use as a road map also meant that there was a certain impossible quality to applying any effort at all. Reaching the moon was easy but conquering poverty was impossible. Watching Sonya’s perfection—animatedly hopeful—almost made me want to call Winborn and recommend that he just pay more taxes with the same money. Let the organizations and bureaucrats build institutions that can chisel away at the edifice, slowly and steadily, and look at giant statistical outcomes to guide changes in policy over time. It converted the problem from individuals into a technocratic game. I could play that game, running regression models and factor analytic comparisons to tease out what was and what was not working effectively. Social change then became policy management.
I asked Sonya, “Do you think government is an effective agent for social change?”
“Sometimes. Welfare has been shown to lead to dependency and the poverty rate has not significantly changed since the Great Society efforts.”
She sounded like Winborn without nuance.
“Why do you think smaller-scale efforts can do better?”
She seemed perplexed by the question briefly again, trying to discern if there was an agenda on my part that needed to be addressed, as if the interview was a multiple choice question test. Anticipate the teacher and get the exact right answer. This wasn’t chemistry, though, and I didn’t know what the answers were, but couldn’t decide how to communicate that to Sonya, so I just waited as she thought things through.
“We can be more efficient in the application of social capital,” she finally answered with an initial crispness that decayed almost to a questioning lilt, and I tried to imagine what exactly that meant.
“In what way?”
“We can see what the local needs are so we don’t deliver the wrong solution for the wrong problem,” she responded.
“OK, so any mass application of welfare or assistance might be inefficient because it doesn’t address local necessities. But what if we have block grants that are given to local government or county or state?”
“Hmm,” she responded and there was a panicky look in her eyes, “But we can still do good, can’t we?”
“I don’t know,” I candidly admitted, “We can certainly add to the acts of kindness, I think, but I’m not altogether certain whether what we can achieve will represent a measurable difference. Is the outcome worth the effort?”
Sonya had shifted noticeably towards panic, now, so I gave her a comforting acknowledgment that her answers had been great and that I was not altogether certain what the nature of the fund and opportunity were or would be. I thanked her and excused myself, deciding to drive a bit in the coastal hills through the flickering redwoods to refocus.