Where Einstein Meets Edison

The Unexotic Underclass

The Unexotic Underclass

May 19, 2013

The startup scene today, and by ‘scene’ I’m sweeping a fairly catholic brush over a large swath of people – observers, critics,  investors, entrepreneurs, ‘want’repreneurs, academics, techies, and the like – seems to be riven into two camps.

On one side stand those who believe that entrepreneurs have stopped chasing and solving Big Problems – capital B, capital P: clean energy, poverty, famine, climate change, you name it.  I needn’t replay their song here; they’ve argued their cases far more eloquently elsewhere.  In short, they contend that too many brains and dollars have been shoveled into resolving what I call ‘anti-problems’ –  interests usually centered about food or fashion or ‘social’or gaming.  Something an anti-problem company  might develop is an app  that provides  restaurant recommendations based on your blood type, a picture of your childhood pet, the music preferences of your 3 best friends, and the barometric pressure of the nearest city beginning with the letter Q.  (That such an app does not yet exist is reminder still of how impoverished a state American scientific education has descended.  Weep not! We redouble our calls for more STEM funding.)

On  the other side stand those who believe that entrepreneurs have stopped chasing and solving Big Problems – capital B, capital P – that there are too many folks resolving anti-problems… BUT  just to be on the safe side, the venture capitalists should keep pumping tons of  money  into  those anti-problem entrepreneurs because you never know when some corporate leviathan – Google, Facebook, Yahoo! – will come along and buy what yesterday looked like a nonsense app and today is still a nonsense app, but a nonsense app that can walk a bit taller, held aloft by the insanities of American exceptionalism.  For not only is our sucker birthrate still high in this country (one every minute, baby!), but our suckers are capitalists bearing fat checks.

On the other other side, a side that receives scant attention, scanter investment, is where big problems – little b, little p – reside.  Here, you’ll find a group I’ll refer to as the unexotic underclass.  It’s rather quiet in these parts, except during campaign season when the politicians stop by to scrape anecdotes off the skin of someone else’s suffering.  Let’s see who’s here.

To your left are single mothers, 80% of whom, according to the US Census,  are poor or hovering on the nasty edges of working poverty.  They are struggling to raise their kids in a country that seems to conspire against  any semblance of proper rearing: a lack of flexibility in the workplace; a lack of free or affordable after-school programs;  an abysmal public education system where a testing-mad, criminally-deficient curriculum is taught during a too-short school day; an inescapable lurid wallpaper of sex and violence that covers every surface of  society;  a cultural disregard for intelligence, empathy and respect;  a cultural imperative to look hot, spend money and own the latest “it”-device (or should I say i-device) no matter what it costs, no matter how little money Mum may have.

Slightly to the right, are your veterans of two ongoing wars in the Middle East. Wait, we’re at war?   Some of these veterans, having served multiple tours, are returning from combat with all manner of monstrosities ravaging their heads and bodies.  If that weren’t enough, welcome back, dear vets, to a flaccid economy, where your military training makes you invisible to an invisible hand that rewards only those of us who are young and  expensively educated.

Welcome back to a 9-month wait for medical benefits.  According to investigative reporter Aaron Glantz, who was embedded in Iraq, and has now authored The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle against America’s Veterans, 9 months is the average amount of time  a veteran waits for his or her disability claim to be processed after having filed their paperwork.  And by ‘filed their paperwork,’ I mean it literally: veterans are sending bundles of papers to some bureaucratic Dantean capharnaum run by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs,  where, by its own admission, it processes 97%  of its claims by hand, stacking them in heaps on tables and in cabinets.

In the past 5 years, the number of vets who’ve died before their claim has even been processed has tripled. This is America in 2013: 40 years ago we put a man on the moon; today a young lady in New York can use anti-problem technology if she wishes  to line up a date this Friday choosing only from men who are taller than 6 feet, graduated from an Ivy, live within 10 blocks of Gramercy, and play tennis left-handed…

…And yet, veterans who’ve returned from Afghanistan and Iraq have to wait roughly 270 days (up to 600 in New York and California) to receive the help — medical, moral, financial – which they urgently need, to which they are honorably entitled, after having fought our battles overseas.

Technology, indeed, is solving the right problems.

Let’s keep walking.  Meet the people who have the indignity of being over 50 and finding themselves suddenly jobless.  These are the Untouchables of the new American workforce: 3+ decades of employment and experience have disqualified them from ever seeing a regular salary again.   Once upon a time, some modicum of employer noblesse oblige would have ensured that loyal older workers be retained or at the very least retrained, MBA advice be damned.  But, “A bas les vieux!” the fancy consultants cried, and out went those who were  ‘no longer fresh.’  As Taylor Swift would put it, corporate America and the Boomer worker  “are never ever getting back together.”  Instead bring in the young, the childless, the tech-savvy here in America, and the underpaid and quasi-indentured abroad willing to work for slightly north of nothing in the kinds of conditions we abolished in the 19th century.

For, in the 21st century, a prosperous American business is a soaring 2-storied cake: 1 management layer at top thick with perks, golden parachutes, stock options, and a total disregard for those beneath them; 1 layer below of increasingly foreign workers (If you’re lucky, you trained these people before you were laid off!), who can’t even depend on their jobs because as we speak, those sameself consultants – but no one that we know of course — are scouring the globe for the cheapest labor opportunities, fulfilling their promise that no CEO be left behind.

Above all of this, the frosting on the cake,  the nec plus ultra of evolutionary corporate accomplishment: the Director of Social Media.  This is the 20-year old whose role it is to “leverage social media to deliver a seamless authentic experience across multiple digital streams to strategic partners and communities.”  In other words, this person gets paid six figures to send out tweets. But again, no one that we know.

Time and space and my own sheltered upbringing  defend me from giving you the whole tour of the unexotic underclass, but trust that it is big, and only getting bigger.

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Now, why the heck should any one care? Especially a young entrepreneur-to-be.  Especially a young entrepreneur-to-be whose trajectory of nonstop success has placed him or her leagues above the unexotic underclass.  You should care because the unexotic underclass can help address one of the biggest inefficiencies plaguing  the startup scene right now: the flood of  (ostensibly) smart, ambitious young people desperate to be entrepreneurs; and the embarrassingly idea-starved landscape where too many smart people are chasing too many dumb ideas, because they have none of their own (or, because  they suspect no one will invest in what they really want to do).  The unexotic underclass has big problems, maybe not the Big Problems – capital B, capital P – that get ‘discussed’ at Davos.  But they have problems nonetheless, and where there are problems, there are markets.

The space  that caters to my demographic – the cushy 20 and 30-something urbanites – is oversaturated. It’s not rocket science: people build what they know.  Cosmopolitan, well-educated young men and women in America’s big cities are rushing into startups and building for other cosmopolitan well-educated young men and women in big cities.  If you need to plan a trip, book a last minute hotel room , get your nails done, find a date, get laid, get an expert shave, hail a cab, buy clothing, borrow clothing, customize clothing, and share the photos instantly, you have Hipmunk, HotelTonight, Manicube, OKCupid, Grindr, Harry’s, Uber, StyleSeek, Rent the Runway, eshakti/Proper Cloth and Instagram respectively to help you. These companies are good, with solid brains behind them, good teams and good funding.

But there are only so many suit customisation, makeup sampling, music streaming, social eating, discount shopping, experience  curating companies that the market can bear.  If you’re itching to start something  new, why chase the nth  iteration of a company already serving the young, privileged, liberal jetsetter? If you’re an investor, why revisit the same space as everyone else?  There is life, believe me, outside of NY, Cambridge, Chicago, Atlanta, Austin, L.A. and San Fran.

It’s where the unexotic underclass lives.  It’s called America.  This underclass is not some obscure niche market.  Take the single mothers. Per the US Census Bureau, there are 10 million of them  today; and an additional 2 million single fathers.  Of the single mothers, the majority is White, 1 in 4 is Hispanic, and 1 in 3 is Black.  So this is a fairly large and diverse group.

Take the veterans. (I will beat the veteran drum to death.) According to the VA’s latest figures, there are roughly 23 million vets in the United States.  That number sounds disturbingly high; that’s almost 1 in 10 Americans.  Entrepreneurs and investors like big numbers.  Other groups you could include in the underclass: ex-convicts, many imprisoned for petty drug offenses, many released for crimes they never even committed.  How does an ex-convict get back into society?  And navigate not just freedom, but a transformed technological landscape?  Another group, and this one seems to sprout in pockets of affluence: people with food allergies.  Some parents today resort to putting shirts and armbands on their kids indicating what foods they can or can’t eat.  Surely there’s a better fix for that?

Maybe you could fix that.

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Why do I call this underclass unexotic?  Because, those of us, lucky enough to be raised in comfortable environs – well-schooled, well-loved, well-fed – are aware of only 2 groups: those at the very bottom and those at the very top.

We have clear notions of what the ruling class resembles – its wealth,  its connections, its interests.  Some of you reading this will probably be part of the ruling class before you know it.  Some of you probably already are.  For the 1% aspirants (and there’s no harm in having such aspirations), hopefully by the time you get there, you will have found meaningful problems to solve – be they big, or Big.

We have clear ideas of what the exotic underclass looks like because everyone is clamoring to help them.  The exotic underclass are people who live in the emerging and third world countries that happen to be in fashion now -– Kenya, Bangladesh, Brazil, South Africa. The  exotic underclass are poor Black and Hispanic children (are there any other kind?) living in America’s urban ghettos.  The exotic underclass suffer from diseases that have stricken the rich and famous, and therefore benefit from significant attention and charity.

On the other hand, the unexotic underclass, has the misfortune of being insufficiently interesting.  These are the huddles of Whites – poor, rural working class – living in the American South, in the Midwest, in Appalachia.  In oh-so-progressive Northeast, we  refer to them as ‘hicks’ and ‘hillbillies’ and ‘trailer trash,’ because apparently, this is the one demographic that American manners have forgotten.

The unexotic underclass are the poor in Eastern Europe, and Central Asia, who just don’t look foreign enough for our taste.  Anyone who’s lived in a major European city can attest to the ubiquity of desperate Roma families, arriving from Bulgaria and Romania, panhandling in the streets and on the subways. This past April, the employees of the Louvre Museum in Paris went on strike because they were tired of being pickpocketed by hungry Roma children.   But if you were to go to Bulgaria to volunteer or to start a social enterprise, how would the folks back on Facebook know you were helping ‘the poor?’  if the poor in your pictures kind of looked like you?

And of course, the biggest block of the unexotic underclass are the ones I alluded to earlier: that vast, suffocating mass right here in in America. We don’t notice them because they don’t get by on $1 a day. We don’t talk about them because they don’t make $1 billion a year.  The only place where they’re popular is in Washington, D.C. where President Obama and  his colleagues in Congress can can use members of the underclass to spice up their stump speeches: “Yesterday, I met a struggling family out in yadda yadda yadda…” But there’s only so much Washington can do to help out, what with government penniless and gridlocked, and its elected officials occupying a caste of selfishness, cowardice and spite, heretofore unseen in American politics.

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If you’re an entrepreneur looking for ideas, consider looking beyond the city-centric, navel-gazing, youth-obsessed mainstream.  That doesn’t mean you need to fly to the end of the world.  Chances are there are more people addressing the Big Problems of slum dwellers in Calcutta, Kibera or Rio, than are tackling the big problems of hardpressed folks in say, West Virginia, Mississippi or Louisiana.

To be clear, I’m not painting the American South as the primary residence of all the wretched of the earth. You will meet people down there who are just as intelligent and cultured and affluent as we pretend everyone up North is.

Second, I’m not pitting the unexotic against the exotic.  There is nothing easy or trendy about the work being done by the brave innovators on the ground in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  Some examples of that work: One Earth Designs which helps deliver clean energy and heating solutions to communities in rural China; Sanergy, which is bringing low-cost sanitation to Kenya’s poorest slums;  Samasource, which provides contract work to youth and women in Haiti, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and India.  These are young startups with young entrepreneurs who attended the same fancy schools we all know and love (MIT, Harvard, Yale, etc.), who lived in the same big cities where we all congregate, and worked in the same fancy jobs we all flocked to post-graduation.  Yet, they decided they would go out and  tackle Big Problems – capital B, capital P. We need to encourage them, even if we could never imitate them.

If we can’t imitate them ,and we’re not ready for the challenges of the emerging market, and we have no new ideas to offer, then maybe there are problems, right here in America for us to solve…The problems of the unexotic underclass.

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Now, I can already hear the screeching of meritocratic,  Horatio Algerian Silicon Valley,

“What do we have to do with any of this? The unexotic underclass has to pull itself up by its own bootstraps!  Let them learn to code and build their own startups!  What we need are more ex-convicts turned entrepreneurs, single mothers turned programmers, veterans turned venture capitalists!

The road out of welfare is paved with computer science!!!”

Yes, of course.

There’s nothing wrong with the entrepreneurship-as-salvation gospel. Nothing wrong with teaching more people to code.  But it’s impractical in the short term, and misses the greater point in the long term:   We shouldn’t live in a universe of solipsistic startups…  where I start a company and produce things only for myself and for people who resemble me.  Let’s be honest.  Very few of us are members of this unexotic underclass.  Very few of us even know anyone who’s  in it.   There’s no shame in that.  That we have  sailed on a yacht of good fortune most of our lives — supportive generous families, a stable peaceful democracy, excellent schooling, prestigious careers and companies, relatively good health – is nothing to be ashamed of. Consider yourselves remarkably blessed.

What is shameful though, is that in a country with so many problems, with such a heaving underclass, we find the so-called ‘best and brightest,’ the 20-and 30-somethings who emerge from the top American graduate and undergraduate programs, abandoning their former hangout,Wall Street, to pile into anti-problem entrepreneurship.

Look, I worked for Goldman Sachs immediately after graduating from Wellesley. After graduating from MIT, I worked at a hedge fund. I am not throwing stones.   Here in hell, the stones wouldn’t reach you anyhow… If you’re under 30 and in finance, you’ve definitely noticed the radical migration of your peers from Wall Street to Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley.   This should have been a good exchange.  When I first entered banking, leftist hippie that I was (and still am), my biggest issue was what struck me as a kind of gross intellectual malpractice:  how could so many bright historians and economists, athletes and engineers, writers and biogeneticists, from every great school you could think of – Princeton, Berkeley, Oxford, Harvard, Imperial, Caltech, Amherst, Wharton, Yale, Swarthmore, Cambridge, and so on — be concentrated into a single sector, working obscene hours at a sweatshop to manufacture money?

When I look at the bulk of startups today – while  there are notable exceptions (Code for America for example, which invites local governments to request technology help from teams of coders) – it doesn’t seem like we’ve aspired to something nobler: it just looks like we’ve shifted the malpractice from feeding the money machine to making inane, self-centric apps. Worse,  is that the power players, institutional and individual — the highflying VCs, the entrepreneurship incubators, the top-ranked MBA programs, the accelerators, the universities,  the business plan competitions have been complicit in this nonsense. 

Those who are entrepreneurially-minded but young and idea-poor need serious direction from those who are rich in capital and connections.  We see what ideas are getting funded, we see money flowing like the river Ganges towards insipid me-too products, so is it crazy that we’ve been thinking small?  building smaller? that our “blood and judgment” to quote Hamlet, have not been  “so well commingled?”

We need someone bold (and older than us) to stand up for Big Problems which are tough and dirty.  But what we especially need is someone to stand up for big problems – little b, little p –which are tough and dirty and too easy to overlook.

We need:

A Ron Conway, a Fred Wilson-type at the venture level to say, ‘Kiddies, basta with this bull*%!..  This year we’re only investing in companies targeting the unexotic underclass.”

A Paul Graham and his Y Combinator at the incubator level, to devote one season to the underclass, be it veterans, single moms or overworked young doctors, Native Americans, the list is long:  “Help these entrepreneurs build something that will help you.”

The head of an MIT or an HBS or a Stanford Law at the academic level, to tell the entire incoming class: “You are lucky to be some of the best engineering and business and law students, not just in the country, but in the world.  And as an end-of-year project, you are going to use that talent to develop products, policy and programs to help lift the underclass.”

Of the political class, I ask nothing.  With a vigor one would have thought inaccessible to people at such an age, our leaders in Washington have found ever innovative ways to avoid solving the problems that have been brought before them.  Playing brinkmanship games with filibusters and fiscal cliffs;  taking money to avoid taking votes.  They are entrepreneurs of the highest order: presented with 1 problem, they manage to create 5 more. They have demonstrated that government is not only not the answer, it is the anti-answer…

The dysfunction in D.C. is a big problem.

Entrepreneurs: it looks like there’s work for you there too…

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About

C.Z. Nnaemeka studied Philosophy at Wellesley; logically, she has spent most of her time in finance, beginning at Goldman Sachs. Born in Manhattan to Nigerian parents, she attended French schools, graduating from the Lycée Français de New York. Since then she has alternated between writing, banking, and consulting to startups in Europe, Latin America, and Australia. Previously, she lived in Paris where she founded a political discussion group and was a foreign affairs commentator for the conservative newspaper, Le Figaro. She graduated from MIT in 2010, focusing on Entrepreneurship + Innovation.

132 comments

  1. Steve /

    Brilliant! I especially like the line: “basta with this bull*%!” It would be nice if we could collectively send the same message to Washington.

    • Brigit /

      As a part of this so-called “unexotic underclass” (53 yr. old female who has resorted to being a nanny after all the jobs in my career disappeared–I was a state park naturalist in California)—I am reminded of the lyrics of the old Steely Dan song (yeah–I’m old) “Showbiz Kids”

      “Show business kids making movies of themselves,
      You know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else….”

      Somehow, I doubt these new showbiz kids will listen, well-written and well-meaning as this essay is. They just don’t see the money in doing anything for folks like me. And that’s what REALLY counts these days, isn’t it?

      I somehow feel I’m stuck caring for their own uber-priviledged children until I am old enough to collect Social Security–if that exists by then.

      So it goes…

      • Autumn /

        Brigit, you bring up a good point. I am unemployed again after my 3rd layoff in 4 years in the insurance industry, and this with a CPCU, AIC, Bachelors’ and part of a Master’s degree. I’m the new “overqualfiied” and being over 40, we’re getting lumped in with your peers as “too old” and not fresh enough. I currently volunteer on a 501c non profit board but going back to school….for the third time…appears the only option left to me to get back into the income bracket I need. Yet another career change.

        I too hope that entrepreneurs read this excellent article, but your point above simply illustrates something I learned while filling out survey work. Those without full time, highly paid employment need not apply. Why you ask?

        No marketer wants to know what those without money want to buy. Wishes are not cash.

        Social Security will be long gone by the time I can draw a check at 74. Good luck.

    • Jay /

      This is a good article, but it fits the classic “why are people doing B when they should be doing A?” theme. A critique is easy, but understanding the underlying phenomenon is significantly more challenging. Policy wonks in DC should be focusing on this, but they are more than content with printing dollars and starting wars.

      The question is why people are focusing on non-problems (B) instead of big problems (A)? The reason is government policy. Free trade agreements have shipped American jobs overseas and are increasing our deficits. Initially it was lucrative to move to the financial/service industry, but over time technical know-how has eroded. That limits our ability to tackle A.

      To get people back to working on big-problems will take 10-20 years after we install a policy of “zero” trade deficit (probably not going to happen). We as a society have to move from asking for “cheap” to asking for “better”. It is not easy as “cheap” is quantifiable, but “better” is not. So next time you go to Walmart to buy cheap junk….DON’T. This small act will eventually ensure that future generations will work on big-problems, but it requires that you work on this little problem of “cheap” v/s “good”.

      • Jon /

        I think you’re on the right track in your second paragraph, and agree.

        My take, Re: ‘…why arene’t we…Gov’t Policy…” is that we’ve reached some sort of collective psychosis where the group of pressing ‘big B, big P’ has outstripped our talent and ability to approach, tackle, manage and govern in any kind of time frame which will not yield extreme (subjective) discomfort to everyone, everywhere, including the worlds 1%. We can’t solve these issues in ‘programmer’s time’ (you know, where every smart person solves an issue ‘in 5 minutes’). I do think the programmer culture/cult-or-smartness of the last 30 years has had an corrosive effect on the ability of the recent tech and engineering classes to think long term. “It can’t be solved in 10 minutes or less according to my STEM mind-training and/or I’ll never be able to cash in on THIS quickly, so eff it, why should I bother”.

  2. Pretty beautiful, hot on the heels of the “White Savior Industrial Complex.”
    Most noteworthy to me, working on richer and better ways of (making a) living, in terms of human happiness as well as ecological connections: the “ecology of happiness” is an area where “big problems” and “Big Problems” overlap, and where progress has been hampered so badly exactly because the unexotic underclass has also been overlooked.

    Thus, they seemed to be left by the wayside, if not negatively impacted, by any calls for the ecologically better… even as the (un)exotic underclass sees the best ways forward in trying to follow in the footsteps of the “developed” countries/classes, and even as the upper classes, caught in the web of anti-problem navel-gazing (or, for that matter, helping “them” far away) also fail to see the need for – and the potential in – change…

    Meanwhile, entrepreneurial potential would be badly needed. Just, not for nothing but money-making, but for solving the problem of how to live happily while not having it cost the earth, live within limits – and live well.

    With all the focus on coding and apps – on technology – the necessity of looking at technique, at skill of living, seems to be hidden completely. That may be something where the “hicks” have something to teach the “educated,” actually.
    Never have I learned more about logistics than when I spent time with a farmer friend trying to organize it all…

  3. E. Benjamin Cohen (Benjie) /

    That was powerful. Great read.

  4. Meke /

    Thank you for this.

  5. EVELYN VUVOR /

    Very educative and very informing and daring. hope with this revolutionary work, minds will be changed and work will be targeted at improving the lots of the ‘the unexotic underclass’

    great job!!

  6. We launched a local initiative to provide a free preschool education to the 49% of children in San Diego who do not currently receive one. I resigned from my position in the world of advertising and my wife left the safety of the funded preschool to do this. Raising any money has been difficult and we are running the program on our own savings.
    The programs are important and necessary, but unless others step over the line from marginally interested onlooker to financial supporter our program, like many others, will stall.

    • Jeff /

      Actually studies have shown that by the time kids enter middle school, there’s no difference between kids that were in preschool and kids that weren’t. Your work isn’t solving a problem.

      • Alex /

        Wow, way to be supportive.

        Even if preschool doesn’t effect kid’s “intelligence” by middleschool those families probably also can’t afford daycare and preschool is effectively daycare. Free daycare can take some pressure off of those families that are just scraping to get by

      • Josh /

        No, actually, the meta-analysis shows that while the amplitude of gains diminishes over time, the overall effect is still significant, particularly based on features like low student to teacher ratios.

        Most of the critics of early childhood education cherry-pick non-germane critiques and use them to misrepresent the social science, generally to advance a neoliberal agenda that opposes government intervention qua intervention.

        http://www.nieer.org/sites/nieer/files/Getting%20the%20Facts%20Right%20on%20Pre-K.pdf

  7. Yes, yes, yes. Applying big brains to solve little problems is a waste of our time hear on earth. Thanks so much for sharing this!

  8. Christopher Mowatt /

    In short. Wow! This was actually very insightful, very interesting and it came close to making me feel bad for what I have been able to accomplish in my 58 years and even worse for those things I have not taken the time to do. At the end of the article I find myself thinking of the big problems (whatever size p or b it may be) to help the unexotic underclass and I realize I have absolutely no idea. I believe it was either Albert Einstein or Thomas Edison who once said that given an hour to solve a problem, I would use the first 50 minutes to define the problem and then it would only take 10 minutes to solve it. How do we close the gap between solving and defining the problem (or problems) to be solved? Without taking up residence in the locations identified, could it ever be done? I know that there are really big problems that should be solved right here at home for the unexotic underclass, but somehow I feel that I have just read an article telling me that we don’t pay attention, and I have been left with the task of figuring it out. Sort of like getting a gift of a $50 down payment on a $5,000 suit. Great gesture, but I can’t bring it home from here. I, for one, am VERY interested in your take on what problems I should be thinking about; and it needs to be more specific than hunger, homelessness, high drop-out rate, and high infant mortality. Those are outcomes, they don’t define the problems to be solved. You have built a castle in the air, it is now time to build the foundation beneath it.

  9. Why aren’t there hundreds of comments here? Why aren’t people saying how important this is? Where are the entrepreneurs who go after big problems with big ideas? Why are there more people working on streaming sports matches live to mobile phones than helping lift people from poverty or preventing 20,000 children from dying every day of water-born disease? Why is the gun lobby getting away with killing our children here at home? Why are politicians tripping over themselves to look busy when our economy, our educational system, our insane wars, and everything else they do just makes us more and more fragile? You think 2008 was bad? You haven’t seen anything yet. And it’s our fault, because we’re too busy checking in on FourSquare, Banging with friends, Taking photos that will soon disappear, testdriving Teslas, and making “epic” videos of our hobbies. WHY THE SILENCE? Why is this an echo chamber, not a flashmob deciding how to come together and DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT? Thanks to Ms Nnaemeka for saying what needs to be said. I hope you manage to convince a few people to join you in being part of the solution. Don’t stop agitating. We need you.

    • thixotropic /

      Love this. Thank you for addressing the ridiculous wastes of time that too much of my cohort is spending its time creating — trivial apps for trivial problems.

      We’re being led to think of the poorer sorts as the people we see on TLC — hoarders, pimpers of their toddlers, taxidermists… lacking dignity and character, they are Other. Even if they were viewed as a market, I fear the Schadenfreude those shows are creating and exploiting is likely to give rise to the creation of things that aren’t all that functional but, being the only thing aimed at them, are rapidly taken up nonetheless. Apps for your calculating their tot’s rankings nationally in pageants, rather than, say, a scholarship finder for technical, trade or academic colleges in their area? Things of actual service to, rather than exploitation of, their class and situation.
      Here’s hoping you inspire many to think differently!

    • Matt /

      Just a point of correction. You mentioned “test driving Teslas” in your screed against time wasters. I would hold Elon Musk as an example of the kind of person who has answered the author’s call (long before she made it). Musk became a billionaire by co-founding Paypal, and then he could have taken his billions and gone chasing billions more on twitfacr apps or whatever, but instead decided to solve Big Problems, like global warming (Tesla Motors + SolarCity) and man’s future in space (SpaceX). People have been paying lip service to carbon emissions for decades, but that guy’s actually doing it. The overarching goal of Tesla Motors is cheap electric vehicles for everybody, and the Tesla S is just the half-way point. The electric drive train systems developed by Tesla are being sold/licensed to other automakers as well, paving the way for cheap electric vehicles. They’re blanketing the country with charging stations, and eventually the dream of removing automobiles as a direct contributor of greenhouse gas emissions will be realized. Yes, the power has to come from somewhere, but solving problems with the electric grid is part of the mission of SolarCity.

      The world needs more Elon Musks.

    • John Johnston /

      > Taking photos that will soon disappear

      That’s where you’re wrong. They won’t soon disappear. Fifty years from now some idiot who posed with underwear on his head for a Facebook photo will still have the pleasure of seeing that photo archived on Google, or whatever exists in its place then. Just like everry stupid tattoo some dumb hipster gets today will be on their body when they’re a saggy seventy. And it won’t look cool to have a skull sticking its tongue out on your stomach at 70…not that it does even now.

    • I suspect that those solving Big Problems are too busy: too busy to create a business model because holding the planet together takes too much energy. To pay attention enough to j.random.blogger’s calls “to action” would require too much more time spent strapped to a computer.

      It would be nice to have a vacation at the moment.

  10. Ayebide Fatiede /

    My dear CZ, this is most insightful and instructive not only to the US policy makers and entrepreneurs but even to those clamouring to go to the US for greener pastures. Unexotic underclass are in all societies and form the largest segment in “blessed fourth world economies” like Nigeria but there is much I have confirmed about the American predicament having become too wise for decency; women who marry and dirvoice at the slightest disagreement and becoming single mothers, men who do not understand their responsibility to head their families according to the role given them by God, breeding children who know not the defining lines between respect and insult and a society that have not understood the impact of continually voting war-hungry Republicans that believe global dominance can only come by becoming a bully! But I do sympathize with the US role also catering for most of the hungry in the globe! 23 million vets is quite an indictment of the US foreign policy flaws! Specifically, do call it a time for universal policy restructuring for the US policy institutions in all!

  11. Triple like this piece. Every one of my peers (and I) need to read this, and read it again.

  12. Eddy Parkinson /

    Many European countries don’t have a need for this. Well, am sure they are a long way from perfect. But my impression is, redistribution of wealth leads to improved the health and well being, of the underclass. There is a ted talk on the topic, that showed no mater how you crunch the numbers, the underclass suffer more when there is reduced redistribution of wealth.

  13. Mark Chew
    Mark Chew /

    Great article! Really well thought out, and it resonates with why I think entrepreneurship solving environmental problems is so interesting and meaningful.

  14. Agnes /

    Great article! Perhaps it’s a little bougie of me, but I do feel like a lot of the anti-problem start-ups cater to and have unexotic underclass customers (owing to America’s consumerist society, where even have-nots consume at the same clip as haves). In the past, it was the government’s duty to solve social problems (welfare, etc.), but perhaps as D.C. becomes more dysfunctional, it’s up to corporations and startups to take this mantle on.

  15. Orlee Berlove /

    Great article. I heard VCs make these same comments just the other day. So much of what gets lauded is kind of garbage-y. I applaud your words that urge start-ups to think about what is really problematic in our world.

  16. Christopher Griggs /

    Wow. AMAZING article. I’m not 50, but I am a recently ‘sequestered’ individual that is now on a job hunt and somehow feeling ‘left out’. Oddly enough, I am a techie, and I have been pondering what I am going to do with my life. I want to start my own business and recent happenings, news, this article and more have really continued to motivate me to get out of corporate America and make something that produces and changes lives in a meaningful way. Of course, a driver in this will be technology. After reading this article I think I am finding more purpose behind what I want to do. Thank you! I love how you wrote this. The article feels like a side of truth that I have known, but provides another perspective.

  17. Myk Dinis /

    Thank you. As one of those exotic underclass (Technical College Instructor), single income families (with kids) – thank you.

  18. Great article!

    I’m a host and producer on a weekly public radio show and I’ve been searching for an articulate spokesperson who could provide this perspective on the entrepreneurship conversation. Are you free to talk on the phone anytime soon?

    Best,

    Brandon Barney
    Producer and Co-Host
    Digital Village Radio
    Saturdays 10:00-11:00 AM Pacific Time
    KPFK/Pacifica (90.7/93.7/98.7/99.5 FM)
    Los Angeles/San Diego/Santa Barbara/China Lake
    http://www.DigitalCulture.LA.
    *********************************************

  19. Colette Johnson /

    i totally agree with this.

    also, i’d like to see you do something to model the behavior & entrepreneurship you speak of, rather than just talking about it and assigning “needs” elsewhere. it definitely helps to identify a problem and do your research – “generating awareness” as they call it in the nonprofit world – but once you’ve gone that far, its time to get of your (butt) and actually make something happen.

    i think that too many intellectuals talk about the problems facing america but do nothing; there is an assumption that once you show that show recognition of a pervasive class issue, then that’s it; you’ve done your work. someone else will read your work and do what needs to be done for you. but it doesn’t work like that. the act of verbally acknowledging a problem does not automatically absolve someone of the responsibility of actually doing anything about it.

    just sayin.

    in the meantime, thank you for bringing this up, and i look forward to seeing your work in the future. pick an issue and go for it. it doesn’t have to be perfect; you just need to get started.

  20. Karen /

    Fantastic – nail on the head.
    Can you do English (UK) German, French, Swiss (add as many old European languages as you like) versions too.

    • Jeff /

      The tech world already solved that. Google chrome translates websites for you.

  21. Good luck with that. Allow the narcissists to indulge in their masturbation of robots, social networks, food and gadgets. Life is brief.

  22. Farzad Ehsnai /

    I enjoyed reading your article. IMHO, there are two ways to accomplish this. Firstly and the more likely scenario: turn this into a rite of passage for all new and upcomig entrepreneurs whether in the classroom or outside. The other way is to have to have a exit strategy that incorporates public service, if that is even possible. However, the market values financial achievement first and foremost, and social and public service has always been secondary at best.

  23. This article is strongly argued and beautifully written. I think the unexotic underclass would be a wonderful place to start companies–with the help, partnership, and buy-in of the people impacted. I am running the operations of one of the “exotic underclass” startups gently sneered at: Assured Labor, which is revolutionizing hiring in Latin America by using the Internet and cell phones to connect low- to mid-wage job seekers to job oportunities that can transform their lives. We have a *lot* of single mothers and fathers using the site, and we hire from our target communities when we’re recruiting. It’s the craziest, scariest, loneliest thing I’ve ever done–and I wouldn’t go back for a second. Find your passion. Find your people! You’ll solve Big Problems that way, I promise.

  24. I’m working on such a startup: AutoMicroFarm. However, it’s tough bootstrapping and getting rejected by investors because it won’t have the kind of growth they’re looking for. My co-founder are doing it anyway.

  25. good article, I like it. rousing, literate, true, entertaining.

    I think the seed+vc financing model doesn’t really take an interest in these kind of practical projects.

    I hope KickStarter or the next wave of crowd-funding will be a more efficient market to finance useful but unexotic type startups.

  26. Ollie Jones /

    You speak the truth, madame.

    The “unexotic” folks in the town I serve as a pastor — a lot of them anyhow — are struggling to get decent grades in community college while holding down low-paying jobs, trying to take care of their kiddos and avoid their abusive ex-spouses.

    They’re not starving, but they don’t get very good food. They have tolerable clothing. Their kids don’t have much to do after school, unlike the kids from families with more money who are overscheduled.

    Being poor in the USA is a demanding job: dealing with bureaucracies (housing, transitional assistance, WIC, medicaid/affordable care, scholarships) is complex and unforgiving.

    Our culture can do better than we do. Actually, some tech stuff is doing good … the people I know love Khan Academy and TED talks.

  27. david karapetyan /

    Fancy talk from someone who clearly hasn’t lifted a single finger to build a technological solution to all the things she decries. It seems you too are content doing what you are good at, writing, banking and whispering sweet nothings into the ears of would be entrepreneurs. Put your money where your mouth is and actually build something. Then when you come to me and say I need your help, maybe then I’ll quit my cushy job and join you in your efforts to save humanity. Until then, you better stop pretending that pony is a horse.

    • Jet Spygul /

      1. She isn’t a technical person, and therefore any technical solutions would have to come from someone else, i.e. someone who isn’t a total prick (obviously that doesn’t include you) contacting her and offering to help.

      2. Why does a solution to any of these problems she wrote about need to be technical?

      Of course, technology is a great tool, but first we need to define the problem before rushing to the shop/computer to go build something. With this article, she has clearly defined a new problem for would-be entrepreneurs to solve. That right there is a huge leap forward. Since I’m assuming you have a technical background, why don’t YOU go and build something? Get cracking!

  28. Wow! This is great! I love your point about “why chase the nth iteration of a company already serving the young, privileged, liberal jetsetter? If you’re an investor, why revisit the same space as everyone else?”
    It’s so true! It’s ridiculous! Why, indeed? Because everyone – like you said VCs, universities, business plan competitions – all of them support it.
    I agree, I am an entrepreneur that wants to do more than code and would love to figure out how I can help single mothers, veterans to get aid faster, but I would need to be funded, and that unfortunately is where I think a lot of people cower. But to solve big problems is definitely not as easy as building a simple app that connects you to the best food in town, or maybe it is, it may just be a matter or using the simple things to help advance the unexotic underclass in America, plus the willpower of a few entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

  29. Pooja /

    Hello C. Nnaemeka,

    I’m from India would like to say that your article was truly inspiring and a great read! You are a great writer!

    Thanks!

    Have a great day!

    Kind Regards,
    Pooja.

  30. Santosh /

    All I want to say is thank you for writing this.

  31. Morley /

    It becomes a matter of economics. We build anti-problem solutions for the rich 20 and 30 somethings, because we know they have money-to-waste. We know that, because we are them. And the VCs? They know those people have money, and know that if they invest in these anti-problem solutions, some of that money will come back to them.

    It’s one-step economics. They have money. I’ll do this, and they’ll give me that money. Then I have money. It’s easy.

    The unexotic underclass don’t have money- or rather, not the amount of money-to-waste cash that entices us to make solutions for them. So there is no easy one-step solution to get them to give me their money.

    We need to build something that (somehow) results in unexotic underclass having more money, and then paying some of that money to us for solving the problem. But since they don’t have money now, you can’t get it up-front, and since your solution might fail, you have a hard time convincing anyone to promise to give you money later.

    So if we’re to solve these sorts of problems, we need solutions which address that deadlock. And then we need to convince a VC that our solution will work, that it addresses the deadlock, and that this little-studied-or-cared-for class of people that the VC isn’t used to anyone marketing for will indeed respond to this solution in the way that we hope.

    And we can do that. I’d like to do that.

    But the choice is always between trying to solve a hard problem with little support, or trying to solve an easy problem with VCs lining up to hand you money right now. And maybe a few of us want to make the hard choice, but will enough of the best and brightest?

  32. Kathy Maloney Johnson /

    Thank you. Your article is a refreshingly honest assessment. I am an irrelevant 57 year old single mom (of grown kids), underemployed and struggling to imagine a way to make my own living without going begging for a job. Only foolhardiness will see me through. I love your use of the language. I hope to read more from you. What have you got?

  33. Dude /

    So the kernel of the problem is to either 1) make working on unexotic underclass problems sexy; or 2) recalibrate the mindset of our entrepreneurs to enjoy unsexy projects. Good luck, but if anyone can do it, it’s someone from MIT. The Ivies ain’t gonna, and the Caltechies are still figuring out their shoelaces.

    Oh, and shouldn’t “nec plus ultra” be “ne plus ultra”?

    I just corrected someone who graduated from MIT. Think I’ll frame it for my wall. :P

    • Evan /

      Dear Dude,
      Both you and the author are correct:
      NE plus ultra is more commonly used in America.
      NEC plus ultra is more commonly used in Europe.
      Both are right though. The phrase is Latin.

  34. How do you recommend finding such problems in Unexotic Underclass for someone who lives quite far away from that and is able to help?

    Very refreshing read!

  35. J Hill /

    Thank You C.Z. Nnaemeka!

  36. Jonah Stiennon /

    Excellent Excellent.

    Though I argue that there IS a big world out there, it’s just invisible to the cosmopolitan i-phone generation. My trendy web-development peers and I are constantly amazed when we learn about the Real Companies which are moving around vast amounts of money and physical mass, and operate on longer timelines that amount to more than any startup ever achieves. It’s out there, but you can’t see the forest because of all the highly publicized and exceptional shrubbery. The things that the automobile, train, shipping, mining, oil, power, space companies do every day are still incredible, and are keeping us going.

    • Please also don’t forget that large masses of companies, even in today’s Silicon Valley, do more to build and extend the foundations of the technology upon which technical solutions to both Big Problems and big problems can be built.

      The few dozen companies which seem to get all the popular and tech press coverage, work on anti-problems, and seem to attract both private investment dollars and consumer revenue are only a small fraction of the vast and vibrant technology sector.

      They compare in their part-to-whole relationship to the few popular companies we read about in the daily newspapers, which appear there over and over, and yet are only a fraction of the number of companies which get no press coverage but sustain industries like the auto, rail, shipping, mining, oil, power, and others.

  37. bob /

    What a pile of whiney cliches. For instance, we’re told the school system sucks but the day is also too short? Hint: if we make it longer, the kids will be exposed to even more suckage.

    Life on earth is even better than ever. If you like material things, there have never been more of them thanks to automation and the way that we’ve created so many jobs in China and other formerly poor countries.

    But it’s all about feeling bad and being part of the underclass. Then you can feel aggrieved and get angry but blame someone else. The good lord gave you 24 hours each day. Quit whining.

    • Jet Spygul /

      Well it always sucks when 12 of your 24 hours are spent bringing in just barely enough money to feed you and your kids with no support from a spouse. Did you ever stop to think that some people can work at something all their lives and never get out of the rut that they are in?

    • Alan Frabutt /

      Well, Bob, you seem to have a wonderful command of T-shirt philosophy. Thanks for sharing, although some actual facts would have been nice.

  38. Brilliant article. Prescient and inspiring.

    It reminds me, in part, of a quote that begins the master’s course I teach at Indiana University’s School of Informatics program in Interaction Design: “In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp. On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the application of research-based theory and technique. In the swampy lowland, messy, confusing problems defy technical solution. The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however great their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern. The practitioner must choose.” (Donald A. Schön
    Educating the Reflective Practitioner, 
1987)

    The unexotic underclass is the swamp problem of our time.

  39. I largely agree and it was this line of reasoning that inspired me to start finansavvy.com which is a site owned and operated by Sightful Software of which I am the founder. My thinking was that if you’re not already well off you generally don’t have access to objective financial planning services (not selling investment products). We’ll see how it goes.

    I think about other ideas like this all the time. Reading your article I had two contrary thoughts.

    First, a lot of these topics are run by, regulated by and stifled by the government. For example the VA problem you describe is NOT a technology problem. The technology to solve their problems has been around for decades. In general any time you try to get into something where the government is involved, the regulatory barriers will stop you cold from doing anything worthwhile.

    Second, it’s a cold hard fact of business that to survive you have to have customers. Paying customers. You need engineers to make the product, marketing people to let the people who could use it know it exists. Only people with money…discretionary income…can pay you for whatever you come up with to help them. Even an advertising based model would be a hard to sell…there’s not a ton of money to be made advertising to the poor. This is not completely insurmountable but it is a challenge and it is also a big part of the reason why everyone is catering to the needs ot the haves.

    • JoyfulA /

      There’s a large and growing group of well-to-do and not so well-off older people struggling to stay in their homes until they die rather than being forced to move into some group facility retirement home.

      Solve a problem for them with your start-up,and they’ll be able and delighted to pay you.

  40. Chris /

    As one of the founders of a company identified in this article for not pursuing Big Problems, I’d like to provide a counter-argument. My co-founder and I were previously solving ‘Big Problems’ like space travel and energy storage to enable the next wave of clean energy production. To be successful as an entrepreneur solving these types of big problems requires 1) significant industry expertise, 2) lots of capital, 3) higher risk tolerance, 4) time and patience. Starting a company is all about simplicity and speed to prove an idea and a business. Any added complexities in the sales process (due to multiple buyers, unfamiliar consumer segments, government, insurance, etc.), the partner network, the product, or any certification, and the risk and challenges increase exponentially. Most successful entrepreneurs today 1) solve problems that they are intimately familiar with and 2) require simple solutions. Even given these conditions 1/10 succeed. While I completely support the notion of tackling the Big Problems (and have dedicated years of my life to tackling them myself), what you’re asking for is for first time entrepreneurs to get even further away from their comfort zone (they’re already putting their personal finances, careers, and relationships on the line) to resolve these larger issues. Taking an HBS or MIT grad on a field trip to West Virginia isn’t going to get them intimately familiar with these issues – you need to recruit people to solve these problems who have lived and breathed them previously. We all know that there are smart people who HAVE lived and breathed them, but the problem is getting them the tools. Instead of motivating new college grads from the elite schools to tackle these problems, I might focus the effort on successful serial entrepreneurs who tend to be able to take more risk and are able to solve these larger problems because 1) they may have already made their fortunes elsewhere and have an existing support network, 2) they have a track record and can attain capital more easily. Take Elon Musk and Peter Thiel for example – these two made their fortunes building software to allow people to pay each other, and are now tackling problems in space travel, automobiles, energy, etc. I would identify these as Big Problems. For now, I (and many others like me) have more than enough challenges ahead building a business around problems for a much more familiar audience with known distribution mechanisms, proven channel partners, and investors who also understand this market. I have a lot to learn as an entrepreneur before I venture back to solving problems without these advantages.

    • Thank you for sharing your insider perspective.
      I mostly agree with the author, but your counterpoint is important and valid.
      -J

    • Ed Cummings /

      You are making valid points but you have missed the main point. The author specifically says that we do not need extra resources on Big Problems discussed at Davos. Energy Storage falls in that category.

      The author suggests we pursue big problems (no caps), which are the ignored but very huge problems of our overworked, underserved and undercompensated working poor and lower middle class. 120 million people who do not care about Big Problems like more efficient payload delivery into orbit. They care about quality education and health care for their children. Solve that.

  41. James /

    Notice that the areas you mention need the most help (healthcare, poverty, education) are government-infested. There’s often not much tech entrepreneurs can do to fix the utter suck that is the state, as resistant to change and risk and competition as it is.

    • Jeff /

      Exactly! Government involvement is poison to entrepreneurship.

      • Ed Cummings /

        Nice blurting of truism. Bring some data to your meaningless assertion.

        Y

        • Mr Smith /

          Your counterpoint is just as irrelevant. “Use some data to show the opposite”.

  42. Thank you for this article. It explores an idea I’ve been sharing but not articulating well.

    Having spoken with a number of teachers and others in the helping professions lately, I’ve noted that in such careers, there is a degree requirement (BA at least, MA often preferred), and a cap on how much one can realistically make in salary. No matter how smart or dedicated you are. By contrast, entrepreneurs can shoot for six, seven or even eight figures and occasionally get there, even without any college. This is part of the reason why some of the sharpest minds end up in tech startups – it’s where the money is.

  43. Jeff /

    What this article lacks is a mention that the private sector works wonders in areas where there is little government involvement. If the government regulates it or provides some level of assistance to a given market, it is poison to entrepreneurs. You could come up with a great startup to solve some of these big problems, but if government decides it’s politically expedient to suddenly focus on the problem you’re solving, you’re SOL.

    • Ed Cummings /

      Government regulates Wall Street. Billionaires. Government regulates Telcos. More billionaires. Government regulates petroleum mining, processing and consumption. Even more billionaires.

      So your point is that the government ruins everything? Please, go on.

  44. Byron /

    The underlying problem is the increasing wealth concentration in the US. As more of the wealth of the country shifts to the upper class, especially finance, so does investment ROI.

    VC’s and other investors, if they want to survive, have no choice but shift their investment accordingly into areas where the ROI is – upperclass anti-problems.

    They do their pro-bono, charity work with the exotic underclass, where thanks to favorable exchange rates a few pennies a day can save lives and make outsized differences.

    But the unexotic underclass’s problems are more expensive to solve, the population much larger, and the ROI marginal or non-existent.

    Hence, investment funneling into 1% anti-problems. The upper class investing in itself and profiting from itself in an increasingly closed loop funding system.

    The only longterm solution to this is to 1) identify the policies responsible for the wealth gap and reverse them, and/or 2) figure out policies that close the wealth gap and enact them.

    Incentives matter. Appealing to people’s better nature is at best only a short-term solution, but can’t overcome the long-term power of finanicial, economic, and policy incentives in place that funnel both money and talent into away from unexotic underclass problems to upperclass anti-problems.

    • Ed Cummings /

      Yes! This is exactly right. And maybe some of those great brains in the startup community could help us create more effective and fair social and economic systems. Because if we can’t find them, we are headed to society-wide repression or revolution. Or both.

  45. asdfghjk /

    damn, that was such a fucking good read. who are you?? very inspiring. will probablyl have to read again. i’ve been strugggling with this entrepreneurship bullshit and trying to think of truly significant things to do. this is good food for thought

  46. Snarly_Yow /

    Fantastic piece. I grew up in Baltimore and thought I knew the unexotic underclass, we had rednecks, right? Then I moved out west, to rural Oregon, and while the rednecks look similar (big trucks, camo pants, country music) they are entirely different. Back East suffers from immense sprawl and even your “rural” rednecks are suburban. They can get to “The City,” the know and befriend blacks, the see Chinese and Korean immigrants, they work in offices with cubicles. Back west Rednecks might not have jobs. The closest “big town” might be 20 miles away and the closest city 100 miles. Their dad and grandpa worked at the mill which has since closed up. They haven’t been to any restaurant of note since last year when they went on vacation and ate at a Panera. They’ve been to the town library twice in their lifetime. They are not bad people but they are completely uncultured. They look identical to their East Coast peers but share little in common.

  47. Tim Hirzel /

    Thank you for this piece! I am a 35 year old software engineer want-preneur, and it’s got me thinking some fresh thoughts. Cheers!
    Tim

  48. C.Z., thank you for this brilliant piece. I look forward to hearing of your achievements in the future. You have a beautiful mind. :o )

    sincerely
    Nick

  49. Amy /

    Nice article – but instead of looking to the Ivies, why not look to the State Colleges (Big S, Big C) for the talented folks who are a smidgeon closer to the big problem (small b small p). You have to be able to reach your customer base and, in my experience, that’s hard to do if you’ve never really touched the big problems (small b, small p). Those of us who figured out a way out of the big problems (small b, small p) might be better suited to tackle this than those who have spent their lives from the lofty perches reached by the Ivies.

  50. Colin /

    Unfortunately, many of the big problems can’t be solved without involving Washington. No glitzy online application for veterans benefits will replace those paper shuffling employees without leadership. Our government needs our best minds, courageous souls, and innovation if it is ever going to solve problems without creating more. Ignoring it won’t make it go away.

    • Charlotte /

      I agree with your point. The best solution for many of the issues Chizoba highlights, domestically at least, is to figure out how to increase the talent and ingenuity at government agencies.

  51. Timon /

    One of the big problems here is that governments are notoriously hard to deal with budget-wise. The sales processes are long and there is always the threat that the budget item is going to get trimmed or even cut. Government contracts are burdensome, and there are always strong interests from the inside to protect existing processes.

    You mention the high proportion of VA forms that are processed by hand. Can you imagine the political backlash if they brought on some new technology that quickly displaced even 100 employees? Or that one of the existing government suppliers would not raise a hoot and try to offer a copycat version with less functionality that they could then ammend to the prior contract price?

    VCs aren’t very likely to give money to an entrepreneur that starts out by saying, “We are going to have this really limited addressable market: governments.” Or do you think public perception would be positive when you need to monitize and think, “we need to charge a $0.99 download fee + $3.00 monthly subscription to a single mother to help her manager her food stamps for the month?”

  52. Cecilia Gerard /

    Nothing short of brilliant. Thank you for the very relevant calls to action at the end. Big reset button pressed here.

  53. thixotropic /

    Love this. Thank you for addressing the ridiculous wastes of time that too much of my cohort is spending its time creating — trivial apps for trivial problems.

    We’re being led to think of the poorer sorts as the people we see on TLC — hoarders, pimpers of their toddlers, taxidermists… lacking dignity and character, they are Other. Even if they were viewed as a market, I fear the Schadenfreude those shows are creating and exploiting is likely to give rise to the creation of things that aren’t all that functional but, being the only thing aimed at them, are rapidly taken up nonetheless. Apps for your calculating their tot’s rankings nationally in pageants, rather than, say, a scholarship finder for technical, trade or academic colleges in their area? Things of actual service to, rather than exploitation of, their class and situation.
    Here’s hoping you inspire many to think differently!

  54. As someone interested both in technology and in the ‘underclass’ (having worked for a few years trying to build a self-sustaining (not foreigner-dependent) work in a third-world slum), I found this article very interesting.

    From my point of view, the real problem is not that my generation are not at least dimly aware of the existence of “real” problems beyond the problem of how to kick-start an incredibly successful business. The problem is that they have no heart to do it. What we as Western societies need is not so much a kick-up-the-pants, but a change of heart; a genuine turn to God in repentance for our self-centredness.

  55. Lehman Brother /

    If this person wants to make the world a better place, she should go after her illegal, immoral coworkers at Goldman Sachs, which helped cause the great recession and whose awful socialize-the-losses culture is responsible for much of the ills she talks about.

  56. Muthu /

    It seems to me an affirmation of intelligence and good-sense prevails amidst this seemingly social media bubble. Smart people need to solve big problems, and get rich too, but yeah “inane self-centric apps”, juxtaposed in the face of “underexotic underclass” has a hard-hitting, tough talking, take home message.
    Well said, Nnaemeka.

  57. Well said. Globalisationhas focused us on the redistribution of hope everywhere but on what you call the Unexotic Underclass. Great to have a spotlight shine on a segment that deserves more focus and action.

  58. Jason Soloff /

    Thank you for this piece. It really made me think at many levels – several of which I’m still working through – which to me is a sign of a well crafted and powerful argument on a significant topic.

  59. SUT /

    The activity you are describing here is called being a missionary. It has been done for centuries, by men and women in robes, taking vows of poverty and losing themselves in service. Yet despite their best efforts, very few today would sing their praises. And despite their absolute devotion, most of the problems they were there to alleviate have not been solved.

  60. Andrew H. /

    So what you’re saying here is that privileged people spend their energy focused on the problems and aspirations of other privileged people?

    Thanks privileged guy. I’ll let the other poor folks know about this… man, they’re going to be *shocked*.

  61. Allan Bowhill /

    I’ve been waiting to read something like this for 4 years. Enlightened, well-done. Brave and bold. Something that would probably get you fired at a dot-com for being culturally incompatible, or at least on a VP shit-list.

    This country needs something like a (War on Poverty)++ to reign-in the forgotten people. It’s always the forgotten people that occupy the hulking blind-spot in the American economy. But nobody wants to go there because a.) There seems like no obvious money can be made and b.) There is no sympathy or empathy for these people. (Well, in fact there is, but it is followed by a fleeting confirmation of acceptance and dismissal in the American mind.)

    If only profiteers could make money off of Doing the Right Thing, and hold onto the empathy long enough to register.

  62. In the 30′s airplanes attracted the best and brightest. Later, rockets did the same. Soon it was the eloquent air of electronics, then computers, then software, the Internet and now mobile / wearable / implantable devices.

    We make silly little Apps to do silly little things while old money chases new money and talent chases both. Big Problems have a Steampunk quaintness about them: poverty, farming, power, transport. It all sounds so 19th century gothic until you realize you can’t eat your iPad and there’s nobody working on the Adult problems.

    Well written, and well received. Bravissimo.

  63. Some Name /

    Now, although I loved the article itself, I wonder why you claim to be a leftist hippie, only to say later that government does not fix problems and that it is the problem. Make up your mind!

    The article itself, however, sounded very anti-government which in my opinion is a good place to start trying to actually get something done.

  64. I believe Ms. Nnaemeka nailed it right on the head. No surprise that she studied Philosophy. What is really concerning is the negative tones I’m reading in the comments. What I’m reading is basically – yeah yeah we get it but what’s your solution? We’ll I don’t believe anyone I’ve ever read has taken this approach before and I for one commend her on her ability to break down the matter into something that is understandable for everyone to comprehend. We must not forget look at the dialog she opened up. I haven’t seen so many thoughtful comments on one article. Just goes to show that pumping a little more time in energy into our civilizations philosophical foundations is where we really should focus. The fact that she has been able to harness this kind of energy off a well-written thoughtful article shows that she has provided the beginnings of a solution, i.e., opening our brains to the ideas that we need to self-reflect on our human progress. I personally studied philosophy and found it to be the most enriching experience I could have ever done for myself. I really think it is a sad state when all we have our distractions such as i-pod crap and harry potter. Yuck! Let’s get back to our brains again. Thank you Ms Nnaemeka you’ve done us all a great service.

  65. Yes, so agree with this. We’re drowning in it in London too, hipsters with hats talking about ‘location aware apps’, ‘leverage’ [pronounced in the American way, of course] and ‘feeds’ [a bit last year but, isn't everything, m'dear?].

    I should declare interest, I’m old enough to have known hippie-dom and been in IT, since about 1977. I’m amazed and encouraged by open source too, a counter-pull to walled-garden-trivialisation.

    But there’s plenty to do, most of it unsexy. My work has mainly been alternative currencies and computing on housing estates [[projects, if you live in the US] but I’m also interested in pollution sensors. Actually, the circle can probably be squared, Redhat, Canonical are making cash from open source, young-uns can probably live from ‘stuff that helps’ too and besides they won’t be reborn as cockroaches either, will they?

  66. jonesy /

    Wow. Somebody who gets it; more, someone who gets it and can speak it eloquently and, one hopes, effectively.

    Given reactions showed in posts above, I’m seeing a thought-seed that may, just may, spread. IFF those who’ve been truly touched can remember, do what they can, and get this thought into the ears of others who are perhaps in a better position to do, and find ways to make something useful happen, then “it” will happen.

    As a ‘health challenged’ retiree on $750/mo. I suppose I’m at least on the fringe of the unexotic. The single largest problem (one of a number of simple problems) that I see amongst my peers is lack of transportation – those without cars, without budget for private transpo, who cannot take public trans to get where they need to go – a doctor, a food pantry, a charity used-stuff store.

    There is no safety net for this, and no money in solving it, so we go without, and decline, and die. It sucks, but it’s just part of life, another benefit of being invisible.

  67. John Johnston /

    > If you’re itching to start something new, why
    > chase the nth iteration of a company already
    > serving the young, privileged, liberal jetsetter?
    > If you’re an investor, why revisit the same space
    > as everyone else?

    I’m assuming this isn’t a rhetorical question so I’ll answer. Simply, no one ever lost their job copying someone else, especially when they followed someone who was initially successful. This goes no matter how silly or futile the act of copycatting. Despite all of America’s bravado about thinking outside the box and being innovators, almost all of us are imitators, whether it be in music, movies, TV shows, inventions, politics, recreation, fashion, or anything else. If you decide to fund something new and innovative and you fail, you’re axed. If you can show you were following the crowds, you are rewarded. Why do you think consultants and polls are all the rage?

    People would rather bet the farm on something–so long as everyone else is betting the farm on it too–even if the odds are literally a million to one than try to pursue something new, even if the odds of success with that something new are better. People–and investors and financiers especially, disturbingly–don’t know how to calculate risk, no matter what fancy PowerPoint presentations they may put in front of you implying exactly the opposite. Groupthink rules.

    • Josh /

      Sadly, I have to agree. Money “flows like the Ganges” only when there is expectation of it flowing like the Nile at full flood back in the near future. I have no idea how you take a “Big Problem” and form a similar expectation.

      Even tactics like microloans that have seen some success in “exotic” locales probably won’t fly in the US of A because I’ll bet a significant percentage of the the single moms and vets mentioned are already up to their eyeballs in debt.

      Again, I’m not going to contend with your assertion that there exists Big Problems. They sound like government problems or charitable foundation problems, or at least there needs to be a seed; one person with generally no regard for risk to prove out that there could be a business model. Only then can capital allocate all of the rest of the big brains.

  68. My company, PHP Experts, Inc., is an angel investor for a startup that is tackling numerous problems of the homeless throughout the Western world. Check it out: http://www.givemehope.com/

  69. Muslim /

    As a UC Berkeley/Stanford grad & programmer in the SF startup scene for the past few years…this is easily the most eye-opening and inspiring article I’ve read. Fully agree with every point made, and it’s scary how well you understand the Silicon Valley mentality.

    This gets my mind whirring on ideas to help veterans, single moms, and America’s non-techie unemployed…certainly if we put our heads together, we can do this, VC funding or not. The question now is, will we work as hard for something that probably won’t make us rich off our asses?

  70. This is a great read, and a shocking indictment of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, VCs, academia, MBAs, and the rest of the collaborators in the hi-tech junta that have colluded with the likes of Vikek Wadhwa to promote the denigration, displacement, and discrimination of the American worker while doing nothing to help our underclass.

  71. MIT Alum Wantrepreneur /

    As one of the “want”-trepreneurs (as the author so artfully referred to us), this article was a wake up call for me, but possibly not in the way the author intended. The essay’s thesis is that there’s some GIANT posse of 20 and 30 something techies all just dying to make “Angry Birds 12: Lawnmower Edition” instead of working on the ‘big problems’. Well, here’s two dollars of my thoughts on entrepreneurs and getting involved in the “big problems”:

    Why do entrepreneurs and “want”-trepreneurs like me head to “navel gazing apps” to begin with? Is it really because there isn’t enough money to start something else? Because the startup accelerators of America aren’t asking for something else? Though sending a Call To Action to wealthy VCs certainly does no harm, I am hesitant to simply lay the blame at the feet of the tech venture capital industry.

    I also disagree with the essay’s idea that we (meaning me and my 20-something tech demographic) don’t work on the big problems because we don’t know about them. Harvard Square probably has more elderly and homeless vets holding cardboard signs out than most of the rest of the country. So why?
    Why do we begin “solipsistic startups” that only focus on ourselves?

    Well, obviously it’s because we’re lazy and money hungry from VCs and the barrier to entry for a self-serving app is low. It requires only me and my computer on a weekend to do it. No extra money, I don’t even have to TALK to anyone- I can write an app, post it to a digital marketplace, get digital feedback, and iterate without ever knowing a single other person. How solipsistic of me.

    But wait… the fact that I can do that is a technical marvel in and of itself. And I can only do it because some other “solipsistic” startup techies decided they wanted to write a tool for other engineers back in 2002 or so. Yes, the reason I can write my very own “Angry Birds 12: Lawnmower Edition” is because of those who spent their time crafting Android or Apple’s app marketplace.

    But wait… I don’t have to write Angry Birds 12, says the essay author. I could also write apps that assist social workers. Or a website that lets me
    trade my skills for donations to a cause I believe in. But those might still count as exotic. What about the elderly? All of those apps for reminding people to take medicine, calling emergency help when needed, and monitoring blood pressure aren’t good enough. What about the veterans services apps and nanny-rating apps for single moms? There are hundreds of them. Do they still count as navel-gazing?

    At this point, I suppose someone might have picked up on the sarcasm. The author of this essay raises many problems with American society that are real. Homelessness, poor single parents, veterans in need of medical care, and our aging population are the tip of the iceberg. But people ARE working on solutions, from apps to elderly assist robots and everything in between, a simple Internet search away.

    It is my belief that this author, and many responders here, have fallen prey to another essay-worthy topic: media bias. Just as there exist people who think that the only problems that matter are the “Big Problems”, there exist people who think that the only existing startups are “Social Media and Gaming Apps”. But as in the case of real big problems, real entrepreneurship solutions are already all around us.

    In other words Ms. Nnaemeka, consider your thrown gauntlet to entrepreneurs taken up. Maybe you can throw the next one at the mainstream media.

    • We don’t need “apps” to help people.

      We need people in physical time to be actually present doing things with other people.

  72. I especially like the phrase
    “A cultural disregard for intelligence, empathy and respect; a cultural imperative to look hot, spend money and own the latest “it”-device (or should I say i-device) no matter what it costs, no matter how little money Mum may have.”

    • Another place where cultural disregard for empathy is especially evident is India – gang-rape capital of the World.

  73. Meet the people who have the indignity of being over 50 and finding themselves suddenly jobless. These are the Untouchables of the new American workforce:

    A testament to the fact that America is headed towards being a third-world country.

    In another “third-world” country – the Philippines – those over the age of 30 are considered over-the-hill or too-experienced-too-expensive by employers.

    I can see that the US is headed back to the position that was abandoned at the turn of the 20th century. Specifically, 80% of the population was self-employed.

  74. Maybe you could fix that.

    Right. Back. At. YOU.

    For someone who has a degree focusing on Entrepreneurship and Innovation from MIT, you don’t seem to know the first rule of the startup: You find the problem, you fix the problem, because it is now *your* problem.

    Now, here is some advice from someone who daily rubs elbows with all of those statistics you allude to in your article- the people you think can solve the problem will never solve the problem. They can’t, because they will never have the kind of empathy necessary to understand the problem. They can’t, because most of them have never had a welfare Christmas, they don’t have friends suffering from missing limbs, faces, or PTSD, and they simply never have to choose between gas to get to work or food for the baby. They have never had to consider divorce as a means of securing food and shelter for their wife and child.

    There are people doing the things you think aren’t happening. Maybe you don’t value their efforts very much, because they don’t hail from the kinds of schools you think churn out “the right people” who solve problems. Maybe they don’t have the kind of solutions you would like to see. Have you ever considered that the 20-30 something graduates from top tier schools have simply been educated to perpetuate the very problems you are railing against? Do you really think that a rarified pedigree somehow confers better problem solving skills? You would be surprised how many of those people are remarkably average when it comes to solving problems they haven’t been educated to solve. And you are telling them to think out of the box… really?

    I’m a forty something miscegenated veteran, and son of a single working mother, who has been on the ground floor of launching two successful startups. I currently work to cut the IT overhead of state projects to that our tax dollars can go a little farther. I also work on small local projects because most of the problems you describe can only be solved at a local level. I do that because even with indiegogo, kickstarter, kiva, and other fiscal incubators, it is damned difficult to get funding off the ground for those kinds of projects. That problem is being solved, however, but not by MIT or Stanford. There are plenty of small tech incubators sprouting up all over the country, and a good part of their efforts are focused on solving these exact problems you bring up. Now, since you have expertise in finance and entrepreneurship, or so you claim, maybe *you* can solve the problem of getting cash into the hands of local developers who are working to resolve some of these issues.

    I mean, in ways other than vilifying your peers and denigrating your target audience. You know, as in having some measurable results, from your direct action.

  75. Jenny Landis-Steward /

    Great read and well stated. I think part of the issue is what gets rewarded, and some management theory over the past few decades. Companies and stockholders measure performance in small time cycles, requiring continuous improvement in things easy to measure, like profit. What hasn’t been measured is costs to environment, to family and community life, to the commons. And while goals are important, even essential, corporate and organizational goals can stifle creativity and focus on minutia instead of the big picture. In the early 1950′s the US Dept of Agriculture did a study on what made a healthy community. The research determined a community with small, family farms provided a healthy economy that had enough to support viable schools, markets, community and social activities and relationships where people are accountable to each other and know each other. However, agribusiness would not be able to make huge profits if gov’t policy supported such family farms, and agribusiness suppressed the findings. Family farms have been swallowed up by agribusiness, as have mom and pop groceries, and lots of small entrepreneurs. Walmart and other mega-businesses are now bigger than any nation state and control many aspects of what goes for okay in our society. They need to make a bigger profit next quarter. That’s what’s measured. Not the daily grind of single parents not working full time, or getting benefits; not the latch key children who sometimes form their own ‘families’ for safety and a place to belong; not the manufacturing worker’s whose jobs dried up as they were shipped overseas; not the factory workers in Bangladesh that die in garment factories so we can have $5 blouses.

  76. Eamon /

    its amazing how a simple flip can put things into perspective. thank you for writing this.

  77. Alan Frabutt /

    The truth in your writing rings like a bell, however more data might have discouraged most of the denigrating trolls.

  78. John C. Booth /

    Finally! A peek at the truth about America.
    Great article …

  79. I think there is an element of Risk v.s. Reward that has ‘de-volved’ over the last 50-100 years in American society that also contributes to issues.

  80. Charlie /

    Unfortunately these aren’t the sort of problems that a software startup *can* solve. What kind of software could possibly help an unemployed veteran with PSD, or a retiree living off nothing but social security? They need *money*, not software.

    At its core, software is about solving information problems by analyzing data. It can factor a large number, and it can read the menu of every restaurant in SF, but it can’t make new resources appear. It can’t create free food or healthcare.

  81. I am one of the unexotic underclass. I have designed a solution to place people’s ability at best-fit. If we succeed at placing people’s abilities at best-fit many more problems will be addressed more productively by happier people. I blog about it at blog.referralogic.com.

  82. Allure Nobell /

    Such an excellent article – one of the most relevant I have read in a long time. I lost my last full-time position at the age of 58. Imagine my horror as I realized with more clarity, year after year, that I was not going to get another full-time position no matter how hard I kept skills current, tweaked the resume, dyed my hair, wore the suit, pasted on the optimistic attitude; that thirty years of skills and experience garned no respect in this new work place. After five years it became impossible to pretend. There is a lot of truth and recognition in this article that I really appreciate.

  83. Rico /

    I did part of my Graduate studies at a fairly prestigious tech school in upstate New York, and the most distressing thing about the school was the attitude of the student body: some of the smartest and brightest minds had little to no ambition to change the world, or even make it a better place.

    All they wanted was a solid 9-5, to pay off their student loans, and essentially be upper middle class engineers/scientists with job security and the money to support a hobby or two.

    What happened to the dreamers, idealists, and more importantly, that subset of dreamers and idealists who wanted to see their dreams and ideals become reality? There didn’t seem to be many of them at all at that tech school, that’s for sure…

    • Drew Hazlett /

      The issue is when you don’t have any money and you went to RPI for that 60k per year you have big loans, and the goal at the end is to pay that six figure loan off. Where is the room to take risks without the stability of having a job. Upper middle class is moving up for someone from Upstate NY without money, where did you come from?

      Most of the people from your school (the Americans) head to government contract jobs and there is no competition with forigners who went to school here because of regulations, they have that upper middle class salary waiting for them which is a better situation then they have known.

  84. Grace /

    This should have been a commencement speech at one of these Ivy League colleges. As they say, ” You hit the nails on the head!”. Sad, I am one of the unexotic underclass, single parent people this article refers to. I would as a low level accountant. I have my 4 year degree but am over 50 yrs. old. My days are numbered as we are replaced by younger, blonder, bigger boobed girls that will be us in a few years. I hope I make it out alive! Well, stated GF!!

  85. Dennybow /

    Interesting novelette imploringly composed by an accountant nee Philosophy major. I love philosophical conversations by people who wish they actually knew s#!t, especially accountants, occupiers, and of course, lawyers. Many of this ilk actually move into the political realm and act to send young people off to kill other “unexotic underclass” denizens across land and sea.
    The fact is that the burgeoning refugee centers in our great nation, which we lovingly call Homeless Encampments, are the result of philosophical lawyers (politicians) greedily looking out for themselves and sending entire Rustbelts-worth of employment industries into oblivion, meanwhile sucking the life out of possibilities for American citizens to embrace their dreams and supporting endless waves of politically correct illegal aliens to train into opportunities historically accepted by our own youths and educationally disadvantaged.
    (…part of a looong rant commenting on this essay)

  86. Mark /

    Its not just the over 50-year-old crowd that finds themselves in this mess. Tech graduate hiring over the past decade, from some of the nation’s top schools, has been scant. Entry-level positions at major tech firms often receive 1000+ resumes for a single position. Even EE PhD’s have an awfully hard time getting the ‘time of day’ from employers who go before Congress and claim they’re ‘desperate’ for talent.

    This is the result of the H-1B visa, and other general abuses of America’s “financial managers”.

  87. Tom /

    I wasn’t too far into this article when the questions started. How is any kind of “app” going to solve a problem like “a cultural disregard for intelligence, empathy and respect”? Phrases like that make for a great screed, but they are also indefinable, and the last time I checked, the first step in solving any problem was to figure out exactly what the problem is. The author seems to show a singular disreagard for the intelligence of anyone working on anything she deems not useful. Well, a location-aware app includes an amazing technology that could be used in many life-saving ways, and probably is.

    What kind of “app” can somehow change the “inescapable lurid wallpaper of sex and violence that covers every surface of society”? This is another sonorous phrase that looks great on paper, but doesn’t really mean much when you try to quantify it. And don’t tell me with a straight face that no one is trying to steam off this wallpaper. But is the obvious solution to this nebulous problem, censorship, worse than the problem itself?

    In case no one has noticed, there are plenty of “apps” that could upend that Veterans Administration example of processing 97% of applications by hand, and within a couple of years need only 3% of the applications processed by hand. Presumably the author has never tried her hand at selling anything to the US government, or to any government for that matter. Of course, the VA also has to want to buy such an app before anyone can sell it to them.

    And let’s move on to the problem of ex-convicts returning to society. This is hardly a new problem, but it is a problem that has been tremendously aggravated by the War on Drugs (a government program), not to mention the insane proliferation of state and federal laws that carry penalties that include prison time. The author claims that “there’s only so much Washington can do to help out.” Perhaps she could devote her powers of persuasion to getting Washington to stop doing the idiotic things it has already done that have done so much to get us deep into this mess.

  88. George B /

    For a suggestion on where to start, there are Unexotic Non-underclass problems related to oil and natural gas production. George P. Mitchell and his company Mitchell Energy figured out how to make hydraulic fracturing less expensive back in the 80s and 90s. http://www.forbes.com/2009/07/16/george-mitchell-gas-business-energy-shale.html This helped make getting oil and natural gas from the shale source rock profitable, but it created new problems/opportunities. For example, there is a need for temporary housing and related infrastructure that grows quickly to house large numbers of workers, but can move elsewhere to follow the workers. The current solution, the mobile home, is way less than ideal in Tornado Alley. There are lots of unexotic real problems out there in flyover country looking for a creative Levi Strauss invents better pants type solutions. Even iconic blue jeans themselves are due for a serious redesign for better comfort in the heat.

  89. I am definitely non-exotic. But I do not consider myself to be part of any underclass, and I resent the idea that leftist hippies should decide what is best for me and others.

    Most of us want to be left alone to live our lives. We do not want academics determining that we need this or that. What we need is less regulation of our everyday life … a lot less government.

    I have a small farm. The USDA sent me a 26 page questionnaire (a census, they called it) that wanted to know all the minutia of my farm economics. And they wanted it two months before my taxes were due.

    They needed to know how many chickens, ducks, guinea fowl, peahens, rabbits, angora goats and other animals that we had.

    Now, I don’t raise meat animals. I don’t sell my eggs to anyone. I use the hay I raise to feed my own animals. This is all none of the government’s damned business. But you liberals think you can help us all by demanding we do more paperwork to satisfy your prying into our lives.

    Go away. Fix your own problems. You might start with learning what humility is.

  90. Paul Mansard /

    The view from the palace of Versailles,was followed by the view from the bottom of the guillotine. These are the best of times and the brightest of times for only a tiny group of anointed neo- royals. Can you hear the sound of the rolling tumbrils?

  91. richard /

    Speaking for the “hicks” and most of the “hillbillies,” please leave us alone. Thanks!

  92. Good essay. We need a way to motivate all these smart internet users to do something, other than just writing and commenting.. You and myself included! Government could make some incentives, but they themselves need incentive to pass laws..

  93. Excellently written, and a much-needed clarion call for entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship to reach its full potential and once again provide meaningful, impactful, constructive solutions to the big picture problems we have in the US (and the same for entrepreneurs in other nations).

  94. Yes, but how do you plan on monetizing apps or tech for crippled combat veterans, marginally employed single mothers, and the late middle aged unemployed? You can monetize apps for successful people because they have money. You can monetize apps for the exotic underclass because they get TV time which leads to grant money. Where is the actual revenue stream for addressing poverty in America?

    I’m not being satiric here. Much, anyway. This is why it is not, no, not ever going to be a an entrepreneurial, investment-driven, or even public-private partnership solution to any of the problems the unexotic underclass faces. Meitar Moscovitz wasn’t wrong the other day; capitalism doesn’t DO that.

    We used to have a couple of tools for solving problems like that. As Tony Benn repeatedly pointed out, one was called “democracy.” As Frances Fox Piven demonstrated historically, another one used to be called “collective action.” But Thatcher and Reagan (and a bunch of wealthy-funded think tanks) managed to make both of those into dirty words. And there’s no money, and nothing in our built environment that we can use, to rehabilitate either of those words. So we’re basically screwed — until and unless the revolution comes, unless and until it gets so bad that people stop believing that democracy and collective action are bad things or, that, if if they are bad things, they’re less worse things than kleptocratic plutocracy.

  95. Only VCs see Big Problems that want to throw Big Money to make Big Bucks, otherwise, fuggetaboutit! See what Liter of Light is doing, with trash by providing simple solutions of providing light to third world families: http://youtu.be/o-Fpsw_yYPg

    How about reading DE SOTO’s book “The Mystery of Capital” and see how we can solve the Big Problem: Poverty, which capitalism solves.

    Then get the government OUT of the way and lets us produce. Everyone wants to, but it’s government that is causing the problems.

    • De Soto just recommends that people take out a second mortgage to fund their business. His main thesis was that the poor in the slums don’t actually own their homes, so they can’t do this and he tried to find a way for them to do this. Not exactly an answer.

  96. Todd /

    Maybe I misunderstand why talented young people are enamored with start-ups. I thought it was the same reason they liked Wall Street, hedge funds, law school, mgmt consulting, etc., over the last 20 years – because they saw it as the fastest route to status and money. Most people who choose elite colleges are from that world, and even the ones who aren’t are sucked into that vortex. Start-ups are just the latest “hot sector” where you can get rich quick and impress your parents’ friends.

    If that’s the case, there’s no big money solving the problems of the mis-fortunate. I guess government could change that, but they could just change their own policies and spend money directly on those problems, without worrying about start-ups and for-profit companies.

    If young people instead want to “make a difference,” then this is a good way to think about it. But I haven’t seen much evidence of that over the last 30 years since I graduated – instead the opposite, where more and more younger people are focused more and more on career, money, and status. I am sure the pendulum will eventually swing back, but it hasn’t yet.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Unexotic Underclass | the bloodsports | Chizoba NNaemeka - [...] Published in May/June 2013 – >MIT Entrepreneurship Review [...]
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  3. Jasper Kozak - A website, question mark - [...] Great read from the MIT Entrepreneurship Review. [...]
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  5. » Friday Notes – 24 MAY 2013 William O. Pate II's Pensées - [...] why they are really only building playthings for wealthy whites. As C.Z. Nnaemeka writes in The MIT Entrepreneurship Review (courtesy …
  6. MBA student C.Z. Nnaemeka writes a brilliant evisceration | Hazardous Morals - [...] student C.Z. Nnaemeka writes a brilliant evisceration of the American entrepreneurial mindset that also gets the solution very, very …
  7. Preaching the gospel of Entrepreneurship - [...] a brilliant article in the Entrepreneurship Review, C.Z. Nnaemeka writes of the way that the gospel of entrepreneurship [...]
  8. The Unexotic Underclass – A call to the Elite-in-training | the bloodsports | C.Z. Nnaemeka - [...] in May/June 2013 – MIT Entrepreneurship Review – http://miter.mit.edu/the-unexotic-underclass      Summary in Harvard Business Review [...]
  9. Innovation Excellence | Preaching the Gospel of Entrepreneurship - [...] a brilliant article in the Entrepreneurship Review, C.Z. Nnaemeka writes of the way that the gospel of entrepreneurship [...]
  10. Links 6/3/13 | Mike the Mad Biologist - [...] Bob Fletcher saved farms of interned Japanese Americans during WWII (must-read) The Unexotic Underclass (very interesting) How liberals saved …
  11. Unexotic but interesting | Paul Miller - [...] Unexotic Underclass is a pretty interesting blog post bemoaning the polarisation in the startup world about what [...]
  12. Linkluster Non-Authoritative Information | Hit Coffee - [...] love the term “unexotic underclass.” I will start using [...]
  13. The future of Webmaking | Plot 47A - [...] the politicians stop by to scrape anecdotes off the skin of someone else’s suffering.” –The Exotic Underclass by C.Z. …
  14. Linky Friday #29 - [...] I love the term “unexotic underclass.” I will start using [...]
  15. » Weekend Reading – 22-23 JUNE 2013 William O. Pate II's Pensées - [...] story above also goes well with C.Z. Nnaemeka’s piece on “Big” versus “big” problems on which the tech industry focuses. …
  16. “Solipsistic Startups” and the Downside of User-Centric Innovation – Sent Packeting - […] of “build what you know”.  C.Z. Nnamaeka published an article about this phenomenon titled “The Unexotic Underclass”, where she …
  17. Nottingham Business Society – from internships to Big Ideas. | Startup     Hong Kong - […] I’ve argued this before and I’ll keep arguing it, startup culture needs to stop screwing around and start solving …

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