I met Willie Carter back in December 2012. At the time, I was a speechwriter for President Obama and, as I prepared remarks for an upcoming trip to a manufacturing plant in Redford, Mich., I needed an ending.
The President often finishes his speeches with someone whose personal story embodies some part of the larger American story. After a few calls, I realized it had to be Willie.
Willie was on the cusp of celebrating 60 years at the manufacturing plant. In all those decades, he’d been late to work once, in 1977, and he’d been away from the plant once, to serve in the Korean War.
Willie took enormous pride in his job and saw it as more than a paycheck. It was a way into the middle class. It was a way to build a foundation for his family so that his kids could do bigger things with their lives and his grandkids even bigger things with their lives.
What made Willie a great ending was that he embodied the American Dream. The idea that here – uniquely here – no matter what color our skin is or which side of the tracks we grow up on, no matter the person we love or the faith we practice, we all have a shot, on our own and over time with our family, to go as far as our talents and tenacity will take us.
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Willie in Redford, Michigan in 2012.Pete Souza The White House
At least we all should have a shot. But we actually don’t. Not today.
The middle class is shrinking before our eyes, no longer the majority in America and smaller than at any point in at least four decades. The top tier is growing but so is the lower tier. And so is the already deep divide between the rich and the not-rich.
Even more concerning than all of that is what happens when you focus on the kids of the not-rich. That’s where income inequality is messing with economic mobility, which is the wonky term for the American Dream. Because for those kids – especially for poor kids – the income level they are born into doesn’t just shape how they are raised and taught but, in meaningful ways, what kind of opportunities they get – and don’t get – later in life.
We’re heading towards an America where, for some, income will be like a genetic trait, passed largely unchanged from one generation to the next. A trait that meaningfully sets kids up for success or hardship. A trait that leads adults to self-segregate – working with, living with and marrying only those with similar degrees and similarly sized bank accounts.
This should scare us all. It scares me. So a few months ago, having just moved my family from Washington D.C. to San Francisco for a job in new media, I decided to shift careers and find a new job that had in its description “reviving the American Dream.”
Turns out, those jobs actually exist.
Aneesh Raman is a former presidential speechwriter for the Obama Administration.Photo: Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy
Expanding opportunity in America is a big, complicated challenge. It involves everything from access to early childhood education to affordable higher education to worker retraining to mixed income urban planning. It’s tied to how we deliver healthcare, how we offer financial services, how we support those most in need. And it’s affected by everything from global trade to the local tax code. It’s an everything issue.
The good news: The rising generation of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs see these problems as imminently fixable with technology. They’ve only ever known a digital world and that feeds an unrelenting impatience – even anger – about ineffective, antiquated systems. And there are a bunch of ineffective, antiquated systems hampering the American Dream.
The better news: Many of these women and men are trying to do what all good entrepreneurs do – build solid products that make a lot of money – while also improving the lives of poor, working and middle class Americans. Their definition of success is not just individual return, or even shareholder return. It includes broad social impact.
Over the course of my job search, I met CEOs like Noah Lang of Stride Health, Jeff Foster of Expedite and Andrei Cherny of Aspiration, who are empowering everyday Americans to make more informed and affordable financial decisions, whether it’s signing up for healthcare or buying a home or choosing an investment plan. I met CEOs like Alexis Ringwald of LearnUp , who are helping the unemployed find jobs and learn new skills. I met CEOs like Sam Chaudhary of Class Dojo, who are giving teachers the tools to personalize education and focus on ‘soft skills’, which are the skills needed for the jobs of tomorrow. Ultimately, the idea that inspired me most was at Raise.me, a startup headed by Preston Silverman, which is expanding access to higher education.
With all of these companies, broad social impact isn’t conditional or sequential to profit. It’s built into the product, right alongside revenue. That’s how you create a for-profit movement.
The question is, will other technology companies follow suit?
Almost everyone in Silicon Valley says they’re changing the world. Task management software? Changing the world. Food delivery app? Changing the world. Dating service? You get the picture.
The impulse is admirable. But the truth is, most companies aren’t really trying to change the world. They’re trying to build a solid product and make a lot of money, which is tough enough without having to worry about social impact. And even among those that are trying, few have a real shot at earning real money, which is key to survival, let alone success, in the private sector.
So when you start a job search in San Francisco and list “social impact” as a must-have, the people you call to tell you hard truths often give you a binary choice: either look at a nonprofit (“Have you heard of Khan Academy? Check out Khan Academy. Seriously, leave here right now and drive to Khan Academy.”) or downgrade your desire for social impact and go build a profitable business (“Listen, these guys are disrupting dinner. That’s a huge market. Who doesn’t eat dinner?”).
To be fair, that’s not just what most people in the Valley think. That’s what most Americans think. When it comes to broad social impact, we leave that to government and nonprofits. The private sector? No way! Sure, sometimes you can tie your product to a good deed (see Tom’s Shoes) or make a lot of money and then engage in philanthropy (see Google.org). But to do well in the private sector you have to be about profits and only profits.
Here’s the problem with that. While the government does a tremendous amount of good, it’s inherently inefficient like any big organization and innovation chugs along slowly, if at all. As for nonprofits, given the constant chase for funding, they often have a hard time attracting talent, taking risks and expanding when things start to work.
So if we leave broad social impact to governments and nonprofits, we’re severely limiting our chances for impact. But that’s what we’ve been doing. For years.
It’s time for the engine of our economy – the private sector – to do more than create jobs and wealth. The free market is one of the most awe-inspiring parts of America. It’s where products are perfected; where ideas become industries; where exceptionalism abounds. For poor, working and middle class Americans, why can’t that exceptionalism be about more than low-to-mid wage jobs, cheap services and even cheaper products?
I think it can. And nowhere is that more possible than with technology companies.
We’ve been told time and again that technology is going to revolutionize our entire way of life. Well, at the moment, that revolution seems small and retail. Want to get a ride in someone else’s car or a room that’s not your own? Want to have your groceries delivered or your laundry picked up? There are apps for all of that.
Thanks to technology we’re more connected and engaged than ever before. And it’s providing more Americans with greater consumer choice and new avenues for income. But the real revolution – a revolution that will meaningfully affect the lives of the majority of Americans – is still lying in wait.
It took me exactly two months to find a job where I felt like I was doing something to expand opportunity in America. I’m fortunate to have had the time and ability to seek out such work. And along the way, I grew more hopeful about our chances and more thankful that I’d ended up in the Bay Area.
That said, the socially-minded entrepreneurs I met with are the outliers out here. The socially-minded investors I met with are the outliers out here. Silicon Valley may be awash in innovation and idealism but it also has an undercurrent of cynicism and conformity – especially when it comes to making money.
Imagine if that changed. Imagine if more investors put more money behind more companies that had a goal of broad social impact. Imagine if more founders, and more coders, and more people like me focused their careers on big issues like economic mobility.
The financial returns may be less than disrupting dinner. But maybe not. And no matter what, the returns for society would be enormous.
Can Silicon Valley save the American Dream? Yep – if it wants to.
Aneesh Raman is a former presidential speechwriter for the Obama administration and the current VP of Growth at Raise.me.