Commentary: Taking Care of Business


You might not think the business experiences of two Microsoft executives could help alleviate illiteracy in the developing world or devise a better strategy for attacking hydrocephalus, a potentially devastating health condition. After all, what does business have to do with literacy and disease?

As it turns out, a lot. 

David Risher, who had worked at Microsoft in marketing and led a business unit, was vacationing with his family in Ecuador, helping out at an orphanage. His daughters had brought along their e-readers to keep up on schoolwork. One day, across the main grounds of the orphanage, Risher spied a padlocked building and asked what was inside. The director confessed it was the library, but they had lost the key. Something “snapped” inside Risher. Reading had been a huge part of his early life and a way out of poverty. His daughters had easy access to their e-readers. Yet here was an orphanage full of kids who were hungry to learn but didn’t have access to books. 

Instead of just finding a sledgehammer to break this one lock, Risher cofounded with Colin McElwee to get books to young people across the developing world using e-readers and cell phones. This technology is already crossing geographies and cultures to change the lives of thousands of kids. Someday, it could reach millions. For Risher, addressing the problem was not about becoming an expert on literacy. There were lots of people out there already with that knowledge. Instead, it was about using his business experience to come up with the right distribution strategy. That doesn’t just mean supplying e-readers to schools in need, but also designing the logistics for supplying the digital books, making sure the e-reader products have technical support and optimizing digital books for cell phones that are already widely available. 

In Paul Gross’ case, it was a matter of making sure that what happened to his son doesn’t happen to anyone else. Gross had a career in program and software management. He brought teams together to make big products happen. When Gross’ son, William, was born one month premature with hydrocephalus, sometimes called water on the brain, the child had to live through a monthlong stay in ICU and undergo three surgeries. Depending on how the fluid in the brain is drained and treated, the condition can cause learning disabilities, long-term health problems and even death. 

Gross learned that the shunt being used to drain the fluid was developed in 1952 and had hardly been upgraded. Dismayed and frustrated, Gross and his wife looked at the entire ecosystem addressing the problem. He learned that while researchers and organizations were doing good work, there was little coordination among them. Getting them to work more closely together resulted in an effort to begin testing a new shunt, which reduced negative outcomes by 35percent. 

Thousands of lives, perhaps millions, will be changed because Risher and Gross brought to the table their approach to business and strategic thinking about complex systems. They saw the challenges as puzzles, which, once solved, would have extremely meaningful consequences. 

Increasingly in our world, we have solutions to social problems and often have significant resources to bring to bear. Sometimes, the biggest missing link is in the “business side” of the problem, as demonstrated by these cases.

There is such a huge opportunity to make significant progress on some of our toughest social problems in the next generation because of people with skills and experience like David Risher and Paul Gross. They bring something very incremental to solving a problem, something they learned many years ago and never imagined they would use to help solve problems around the world and in the emergency room. 

Paul Shoemaker is the author of Can’t Not Do: The Compelling Social Drive that Changes Our World and founding president of Social Venture Partners International, a global network of social innovators, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and business and community leaders.


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