Why Entrepreneurs Should Care About Inequality and Divisiveness

Opinion

The horrific news of recent weeks has amplified America’s long-simmering tensions and many divisions, and cast a new and disturbing light on the nature of social and economic inequality in this economy. The shootings that targeted police officers at a peaceful protest in Dallas, which followed the officer-involved shooting deaths of Philando Castile near Minneapolis and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA, also have raised distressing questions about racism in America and our criminal-justice system.

It might seem like such events have little to do with entrepreneurs and our innovation economy, but a thriving and inclusive innovation economy is a critical component to bridging the social and economic disparity that is driving our nation apart.

Investing in affordable education and training at all levels of society would prepare people for meaningful work, and provide compensation that could help reduce social inequities and divisiveness. In Sweden, citizens and entrepreneurs gladly pay taxes because of all the personal and social benefits those taxes produce. We are not Sweden—nor do we need to be—but we do need to invest in closing the income gap through education and training that produces new customers and workers for entrepreneurs and the array of services and amenities a middle-class lifestyle affords.

Need more convincing? Here some obvious, and not-so-obvious, reasons why entrepreneurs should care about inequality and divisiveness:

The obvious reasons:

1. Talented people and good companies can choose where they want to be physically located in a knowledge economy. They want to reside in good and safe places, so if your tech hub or city is fraught with social strife and rancor, it is unlikely to attract the talent and investors you need.

2. Demographics suggest that the customers of the future—whether they are interested in iPhone apps, Airbnb, retail, healthcare, or electronics—will come from a diversifying America and developing world economies on the rise. Social inequities constrain purchasing power. Quite simply, too many poor people are not good for business.

3. Your future workforce needs depend increasingly on people who may not be “work ready” because of our current level of social inequality. The shortfall in educational opportunities, especially in the sciences, technology, engineering, and math, is limiting the pool of workers in many underserved communities that socially and organizationally savvy companies know they need to grow and thrive.

The not-so-obvious reasons:

1. The infrastructure supporting your company, neighborhoods, and homes still depend on construction workers, pipe fitters and plumbers, utility workers, and an amazing array of skilled workers. If education and training programs in such trades were available—and affordable—it would represent the first step out of poverty, and provide sufficient family resources to educate the next generation of college grads.

2. The safety and security issues facing your startup, company, neighborhood, schools, and public gathering places would be better served by expanded investments in delivering needed education, training, and compensation for police, firefighters, nurses, and child and elder-care workers than by abiding social inequities.

3. Your personal lifestyle would be enriched by education and training that would assure more and better chefs, fitness instructors, landscapers, animal-care workers, and beauty services provided at a livable wage than by abiding social inequities.

The bottom line is that we must invest in education and training for a much broader range of skills and competencies in order to have the quality of life and supportive environments essential to entrepreneurial success. Engineers and MBAs cannot do it alone. We need to value and invest in multiple paths to opportunity and employment.

Technology will not solve all of our society’s ills, but I believe civic-minded tech entrepreneurs are a critical component to a brighter and more inclusive future.

Mary Lindenstein Walshok is co-author with Abraham J. Shragge of "Invention & Re-Invention: The Evolution of San Diego’s Innovation Economy." She serves as UC San Diego’s associate vice chancellor of public programs, dean of UC San Diego Extension and is an adjunct professor of sociology. Follow @

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