The Space Between: From good to gold in the red-hot center of creativity

On May 16, software pioneer and philanthropist Mitch Kapor delivered the keynote at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation Business Leadership Council’s annual breakfast.

The title of his talk, “From Gold to Good: Innovating a Better World,” represented Kapor’s arc from business to philanthropy, and from innovating computer design to rethinking our society.

As apt a title as it was, one could have also reversed it: From Good to Gold. Since he began his philanthropic adventures 15 years ago, in concert with his wife and organizational development expert Freada Kapor Klein, Kapor has increasingly taken the philanthropic world to task for accepting good results instead of golden ones. The problem, he says, is “the gap between intent and impact.”

“At foundations the intentions are generally good,” he said in an interview in his downtown San Francisco office. “But by all acknowledgments, the impact is not terrific. This is especially so with foundation money that goes to education. Without smart ideas and execution, all the money in the world doesn’t do any good.”

Kapor leaped to prominence in the early 1980s as the founder of Lotus, and the designer of its Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, the personal computer’s first “killer app.” He was the first chair of Linden Lab, which produced the monumentally successful Second Life virtual world. His commitment to collaborative creativity and open-source technology led him to co-found the Electronic Frontier Foundation and become the first chair of the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, which developed the Firefox Web browser.

These days Kapor is most invested in his educational initiatives, including the Level Playing Field Institute (founded by Kapor Klein), which attempts to erase educational boundaries among young people of color, and the New Charter University, a low-cost alternative to higher education. These projects, like his previous business ventures, live in the nexus between business, technology and social engagement — the red-hot center of Bay Area creativity.

Comparing philanthropies to startups, Kapor said “startups tend to fail not because they don’t have money, but because they don’t know what they are doing. It’s the same thing in philanthropy. Philanthropy fails if it focuses just on what to do with the money, as opposed to being strategic about its goals.”

Today, the relationship of business and philanthropy has changed from one of function — companies gave, philanthropies received — to one of mutual learning. As Katherine Miller writes in her blog on the Stanford Social Innovation Review website, “foundations of all types are poised to start describing the billions of dollars they send to local communities around the world as strategic investments, not just charitable gifts.” In other words, good deeds are not enough — just as good ideas are not enough to make a business profitable.

By the same token, the philanthropic motivation to make the world a better place is a crucial part of many new business models. Writing about his inclusion in the first group inducted into the Entrepreneurs Walk of Fame in Cambridge, Mass. — which included Thomas Edison, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs — Kapor said he “took pride in a recognition of an approach to business which is as uncompromising in its commitment to fairness and fair treatment of employees as it is to financial success.”

Laura Roden, co-chair of this year’s BLC breakfast, said Kapor’s successful career was one reason he was invited to give the keynote. Another was the realization that his first, recent trip to Israel had unlocked a wellspring of positive feelings about Jewish values, especially as they relate to business and philanthropy.

“When I came back from Israel last year,” Kapor said, “I gave myself a reading list in Jewish literature, starting with Genesis and Exodus. When I got to the sections [relevant to] business, I said to myself, ‘That’s the way I do business.’ You do business in a way that demonstrates you are connected to your customers. It’s never OK to screw people just because you can. I found quotes from the Talmud that I had said to others, and deeply believed in, without even realizing what they were. I was more Jewish than I had ever thought.”

Both Kapor and Roden noted that the shadow of Warren Hellman loomed large over the breakfast. The famous businessman and philanthropist, who died five months ago, represented the culture of Bay Area financial and social entrepreneurship at its best, standing in a line of local businessmen going back to Levi Strauss and Hellman’s great-grandfather, Isaias Hellman.

For Kapor, there is little space between the story of his grandfather painting houses on the Lower East Side, hoping his son could get a free education at City College of New York, and today’s young students of color struggling to pay for escalating tuition at U.C. Berkeley or other state colleges.

“When Freada and I get involved in support of educational access in low-income communities of color, it’s not just some generic responsibility. It’s a kind of ethics of reciprocity, which goes back to Rabbi Hillel,” Kapor explained. “When I look into the hearts of young people today, they want the same things my father wanted: an opportunity to develop, to get an education, to give something back. That’s something we just can’t lose sight of.” n

Dan Schifrin is writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum and co-hosts its podcast series, “The Space Between.”

Dan Schifrin