Reflections on Slavery Ca. 2017: The Maddening Cruelty and Missed Opportunities of an Indifferent Life.
Indifference ends when we get to know that slice of humanity whose pain we are particularly gifted to solve.
This is my slice.
Exactly 5 Saturdays ago, a scant 24 hours before I left Manila for the summer’s big family vacation – a 27-day roadtrip that would take us to the heart of the American South – I hosted nearly 70 private equity investors, startup founders and professionals in an afternoon-long conversation about unicorns.
More precisely: the quest for the elusive Filipino unicorn, which I define as the first billion-dollar Filipino startup to impact humanity and matter on a global scale. Having authored the agenda, I clarified that this Filipino Unicorn wasn’t about blind ambition or valuation per se; it was fundamentally about Bigness: the capacity to think big and execute big, and why on earth haven’t we seen this mythical 1-2 punch among 100,000,000++ Filipinos? (Ok, so half our population is still milking 🤓).
As we exchanged views across plenary and breakout sessions in Ibiza Beach Club’s sprawling expanse all afternoon, and as we moved onto happy hour and dinner, dwindling down to the last hard core group that broke up near midnight, our talk got sharper and a key insight clarified and reiterated its nagging wisdom: if the Filipino unicorn has been elusive, it is because its founder has been elusive – and the societal values that would spawn and nurture such a founder even more and ever so elusive.
It was late so I left it at that. Cinderella got home past midnight. Even before that Saturday marathon session I was already at my mental and physical limits with the flurry of work that precedes extended travel. I forced myself up for my Sunday morning run, finally packed a month’s worth of suitcase (which finally appeased my wife), headed to the airport, and as I plopped down onto aisle seat 2D, surrendered myself to a month of total abandon to an entirely different world.
Or so I thought.
Our journey into the American South was invariably a journey into Slavery: a passive-aggressive 27-day descent into its complex layers; moral, ethical, social, political, above all, economic. In the end, my thoughts settled not on Slavery’s starker past, but its more hidden and no less insidious present and future.
Slavery persists, yes, in continued exploitation, but also and more horrendously so in the wanton and widespread indifference by People Who Have of People Who Have Not.
This is where the story of Slavery in the American South brought me back to characters and narratives more familiar in our current day. Human motivations and moral quandaries circa 2017. I thought about myself, my circles, what we’re doing with our lives, what we’re not doing with our gifts and privileged-ness. More than any others, my thoughts went back to Unicorns and the founders and VCs who build them; not so much for what we all do, but for all our omissions given what we each can do.
Look, the post-renaissance movement of Europeans into distant colonial lands surely did not lack the vision, courage, talent, resilience, perseverance and other master-of-the-universe qualities we associate with our heroes and empire builders of today. These were men (they were overwhelmingly male) who gave up everything to chase a dream in terra uber incognita. Many were themselves persecuted, marginalized men who had tasted, swallowed and spat the bitter end of abuse. And many were Christians, god-fearing men.
Yet none of that translated into decency, compassion or conscience to treat their fellow man better than they themselves had received; to say nothing of doing more given the stage was all set to rebuild a new, more prosperous, more just and kinder world. As they braved the ruthless Atlantic crossing and endured all the deadly maladies of the frontier lands of the new world, first in the Caribbean and then in the North American colonies, and as they survived and thrived and founded and built their cutting-edge market-making plantations and massive fortunes (their unicorns, inflation adjusted) they were willing to mind, quite literally, only their own business.
Never mind that the plantation business model demanded they compromise basic human kindness and then give it up entirely until they finally built and enacted an entire system and ecosystem that systemically unleashed cruelty on so many in order to advance the ambition of so few. Those were the qualities that marked these founders and financiers of that time and place, who legalized wholesale cruelty and insisted it was a god-given right – and duty!
Are we doing any better today? It is easy to conclude that we are. Slavery in numine no longer persists in much of the free world. Yet by our fruits we shall be known. When we look at the intensity and extent of violence in every corner of our free world today, I see underlying it all the bondage, bitterness and hopelessness that only cruelty can incite.
Cruelty today has a different face. Cruelty today might be many degrees less savage than colonial Slavery, but it is no less demeaning and destructive when so many human beings are deprived of a just and humane existence, when dignity and advancement are closed to so many. Cruelty today has a different face from Slavery, but it thrives on the same operating system: the abdication of kindness, decency, compassion and conscience when those of us who have been blessed with plenty refuse to do our part – because we are too busy pursuing ambition and greed, or because we are so enamored with facebook and the myriad infinite distractions, trifles, trivialities and waste that occupy our lives.
To boil it down to a word: Indifference.
Every one of us has a moral obligation to uplift others. I’m not talking about charity; not about our spare tires, but to live our lives on the strength of our very best gifts actively given up to serve others; not random others whose pains bear no real resonance to us, but to the people we encounter in our slice of humanity whose pains we are particularly gifted to solve.
Because therein lies our life’s purpose. Our gifts are oracles that tell us why we were born. For whom and for what pains do our gifts toll, there is our life’s purpose. The wings that allow each of us to soar also whisper to us who in this world we can gift with wings of their own and how. Our gift is our mission, our mission is our gift. To live anything less shackles our fellow man by keeping them shackled when we have the power to set them free. Indifference is not just indiffernce to others; it is indifference to our gifts, to the greatness we can sow and leave in this world.
And so indifference is also cruelty. Indifference is one person’s violence against another whom he or she has every ability to lift but does not. Indifference shackles peoples into hopeless chains. Hopeless chains spawn violence, terrorism. An eye for an eye, cruelty for cruelty when we lack kindness, decency, compassion, conscience.
Indifference is a timely wake up call that peace is not the absence of war, that peace can only be achieved in the fullness of Love: when people purposefully live kindness, compassion and conscience to uplift their slice of humanity. I don’t think this is touchy feely mumbo jumbo. I believe this is the key to world peace. Or if you want something perhaps more achievable: Love is the key to building honest-to-goodness billion-dollar ventures and mythical unicorns.
Not saying it’s the only key. But at least in my book, Love is the key I am passionate to work with. At Ignite Founders we are looking for founders who are willing and able to go boldly where no man or woman has gone – but they are also founders who, as they build their fortunes, will take as many people UP with them as they are able, together to build a better, faster, more comfortable, more entertaining, more connected, more efficient world but also a world that is more just and humane, where dignity and opportunity are open to all.
These are the types of founders we look for, that we are committed to investing in. Seeing this more clearly through the unexpected lens of tourist anthropology and a family vacation, I am brought back to that realization that dawned on me like a candle in the night that Saturday night in Ibiza 5 Saturdays ago. I cannot expect the current system of startup and venture capital to serve up these types of founders. We are going to have to seek them out and build them up. In business-speak, we need to backward integrate the value chain by creating a feeder system to find and nurture these types of founders who possess this kind of transcendent greatness.
This Kind of Transcendent Greatness. Lately when people ask what do you do? I reply that I’m in the business of Greatness. I’ve always talked about Greatness in the context and imagery of Maslow’s heirarchy: an individual, organization or society capable of self actualization and fulfilling their highest potential, which far transcends their own self esteem or the esteem of their peers. What kind of solutions architectures, combining media, content, data and technologies, can systematically drive Greatness in individuals, organizations and society? That’s my business. It spans investment, R&D, architecture and design, strategy, marketing, sales, distribution, operations, technology, human capital, culture, etc.
This Kind of Transcendent Greatness is not a continuum that one person or even a group can push another person to or through. Rather than a push, This Kind of Transcendent Greatness is a pull: an internal force so strong, once discovered and awakened to, the owner can no longer look back, no longer do anything short of heed its call and live its mission. That’s why the end of indifference is knowing that slice of humanity whose pain you are particularly gifted to solve. Imagine the most talented people and organizations you know waking up to This Transcendent Greatness and you can understand why I’m so passionate about this, and conversely why I’m so mad about indifference.
This Kind of Transcendent Greatness. This is our mission at Ignite Founders: to help really talented people shine the light on the Transcendent Greatness within them, so that once awakened, we can invest in them and together build ventures that will spread transcendent greatness in and through various marketspaces in educuation, career, professional and organizational develoment, healthcare, media and tech.
I enjoyed that trip. Happy to be home and so looking forward to battling indifference and igniting founders to that slice of humanity they are particularly gifted to solve.