What Entrepreneurs Can Bring to a Public Discourse

Why should entrepreneurs care about the public discourse? Are they not meant to put their noses to the proverbial grindstone, work at their chosen passions, and leave high-minded discourse to pundits and policymakers?

Largely, in my Boston home, I’d say yes, they can get away with not bothering with public discourse. But I’d answer differently in developing countries. There, with rules up for grabs, and limited expertise to formulate them, remaining disengaged with policy is a luxury that entrepreneurs cannot often afford. Entrepreneurs must play a role to constructively influence the rules of the game.

The US has a thick “think-tank soup” that accomplishes this influencing in an inclusive way. There is a policy-complex (just like there’s an industrial, military, and academic complex). Last month, for example, I was a commentator at the Petersen Institute in Washington DC on a new book on the policy implications of concentrated wealth. Of course, this raised a range of issues related to antitrust, inheritance and estate taxes, progressive taxation generally, policies to allow de novo entrepreneurship to thrive in the midst of such entrenched power, etcetera.  Government officials, academics, policymakers, and entrepreneurs shared views in an on-the-record conversation that is grist for the policy mill.

Not far from the Petersen Institute are many other think tanks, Brookings, Cato, etcetera that each have their own staked-out positions on the intellectual spectrum, often in vigorous intellectual competition. Many other major US cities are homes to other think tanks, sometimes specialized to a particular sector. Add to this National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Broadcasting System (PBS), the glorious public institutions that have syndicated daily exceptional content to a network of public radio and television stations across the US for the past several decades. Throw in specialized agencies that monitor these think tanks and their success in influencing policy, measure and publish their ideological biases, and so on, and you have the thick soup to which I refer.

All this results in an exceptionally rich daily conversation that rises about the media posturing that is inevitably influenced by the scramble for ratings. (The media competition has its own functional purposes, but premeditated and thoughtful discourse is not foremost among those.)

This rich conversation, I recall, was what a then-Harvard student, CV Madhukar, cited as a motivation a long time ago to start Parliamentary Research Services (PRS), a vibrant non-profit in Delhi that provides carefully crafted and non-partisan research input to support India’s Parliamentarians (and increasingly legislators in several states and others involved in the process of legislation). I’m proud of Madhukar and his colleague Madhavan’s efforts this past decade (and privileged to continue to serve on its board).

Now, PRS was intellectually incubated by CPR, Center for Policy Research (CPR), within whose premises it “lived” for some years.  CPR itself contributes to public discourse on a range of public policy issues, and is part of a global network of like-minded think tanks. Of course, there are other such think tanks in India, but the soup has not adequately thickened yet.

In this environment, entrepreneurs have a crucial role to play. The education NGO, Pratham, created the ASER report (Annual Status of Education), that is invaluable in thinking through school reform in India (and in other developing countries increasingly). Aspiring Minds, the software-fueled independent credentialing company, annually issues its much-cited National Employability report.

There are several companies that can contribute data and expertise to the intellectual melting-pot to help make good policy choices.  Some established companies in developing countries are notably public-spirited (think the Tatas in India and the Ayalas in the Philippines), and contribute to the public good, but even here the input is less often of expertise than of a monetary contribution or fixing a road or power or communication situation.  More to the point, a lot of the knowhow in cutting-edge technology areas, where policy expertise is especially lacking, is far likelier to come from expertise in start-ups than from incumbents.  Think of so-called cleantech, foodtech and medtech companies contributing often very specialized expertise to inform relevant policy domains. Janacare , a diabetes management startup in Bangalore, Boston and Singapore, has been learning how to deal with patient privacy issues, and can contribute to that vital policy conversation as its devices and apps roll out across the developing world.

Of course, the creation of each think tank is itself an entrepreneurial act par excellence, but that’s for another short essay someday!


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