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Casey Gerald: Purpose Is the New Bottom Line

About this talk

After graduating from Yale, Casey Gerald and his friends wondered what would happen if, instead of “marching off in pinstripe suits to slave away in a cubicle,” they set out to the heart of America to put their MBAs to work helping entrepreneurs. The result is MBAs Across America, whose message is simple but vital: There’s a new way of changing the world, and each of us has a part to play. In this talk, Gerald shares his story and gives us the three aspects of this “New Playbook of Change.”


Casey Gerald, CEO & Co-Founder, MBAs Across America

Casey Gerald is the co-founder and CEO of MBAs Across America, a national movement of MBAs and entrepreneurs working together to revitalize America. He began his career in economic policy and government innovation at the Center for American Progress, and has worked as a strategist with startup social ventures, including Reboot and The Future Project, as well as companies like The Neiman Marcus Group.

A native Texan, Casey received an MBA from Harvard Business School, and a BA in Political Science from Yale College, where he was a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship. He has been featured on MSNBC, in the New York Times, Financial Times, and other media outlets.

Full Transcript

Since you got here, everything you’ve seen and heard and done has pushed you away from thought and action inspired by this quote that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. But here in this city, in this country, at this time, I think we’ve learned very well what a mistake it is to underestimate the 1%. So let’s talk about that today.

And I want to take you to a dark corner at a crowded party on a late night of an early miserable winter in Cambridge, Massachusetts to a conversation between four friends in our first year at Harvard Business School. A conversation inspired by a little wine and a little Marvin Gaye and a little more than a little hostility to working on Wall Street for the summer. And in that dark corner a crazy idea was hatched. What if instead of marching off in our pinstriped suits to slave away in a cubicle for the summer, we piled into an RV and drove into the heart of America to put these overpriced MBA’s to use? Not just making a buck but making a difference by helping entrepreneurs bring their dreams to life.

Now, as dutiful MBA’s, we knew that the risk adjusted present value of making a decision under the influence is very low. So we slept on it. And we woke up the next morning even more convinced that this idea was, in the words of our beloved Vice President, a big effing deal. And we knew everybody would agree until they didn’t. We marched off to the social enterprise people at Harvard. They said, it’s a cool idea, but it’s not really social enterprise.

We went to the entrepreneurship people and they said, it’s very interesting. But it’s not really entrepreneurship. So we went, finally, to the Dean grovelling at this point, and we found him seated solemn, very serious in a mahogany paneled room. And he turned to us and he said, fascinating notion. I’m sorry we just don’t have any money. Now note, as of about 4 o’clock today the endowment of Harvard Business School is roughly $3 billion. But we won’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. So there we were staring each other in the eye, misty-eyed, as we watched our dream, our baby, our idea die before it even had a chance to live. But just before we pulled the plug, we decided to join a long procession of young kids with crazy ideas who were told by some authority that they couldn’t do what they wanted. We said, fuck it. We’ll do it anyway. [AUDIENCE APPLAUSE]

I can’t go back to Texas after making this slide. So we crowd-funded $13 from friends and strangers. A lady even sent us 15 pounds of cookies, which was very helpful while we were out on the road. We couldn’t afford an RV anymore, so we drove our two cars. And we named one of them R and the other one V, so we could tell the press that we had an RV. And it worked.

We gave up our dream of staying at the St. Regis, and instead decided to camp in a cow pasture in rural Montana when we got there. And along the way, we learned the first rule in the new playbook for change that I’d like to share with you today. The hierarchy is dead. In this age of networks, of chaos, of decaying systems, we don’t have to wait on a gatekeeper to green light our ideas anymore. In this new playbook for change, we give ourselves permission. And when we grab hold of that idea, we grab hold to the second rule in the playbook for change.

We’re all entrepreneurs now. I can sense the groans pulsing through the balcony at this point. Dammit. Not another one these entrepreneurial evangelist giving me 12 steps to success. It’s not what I want to do. I want to shift what we mean when we say entrepreneur, because the culture would lead us to imagine our entrepreneurial hero is a wirey guy in a hoodie in his mother’s garage crouched over a computer making a mobile app. He, and I say he intentionally, he is harnessing the power of technology to change the world. And changing the world means disrupting old analog industries like Uber. Or creating new industries altogether like SpaceX. Or making the lives of the time-crunched a little less crunchy, like the great new start up Alfred that will provide you with your own personal butler that will clean your house and do your laundry and stock your groceries all for the low price of $99 a month.

Now, some of us would admit to wanting a personal butler. Most of us took an Uber in the past week. All of us want to go to the moon. I mean, come on. Its a great idea. The point is not to bash these companies. The point is to say that if these founders and these ideas are the only ones that make up the entrepreneurial tent, I’ve got news for you. We’re screwed.

Because as a great friend of mine wrote in the “MIT Entrepreneurship Review,” there is a whole unexotic underclass of people and problems that are overlooked and undervalued. And it’s time we do something about them. So I want all of us in this room to be entrepreneurs in the sense that Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, describes an entrepreneur.

He says, if you want on understand the entrepreneur, study the juvenile delinquent. The delinquent is saying with his behavior, this sucks. I want to do my own thing. Do you feel that? Huh? Your soul telling you that you’re an entrepreneur, that all souls are entrepreneurial souls. The same soul that drove the pilgrims to come to these shores, that drove the pioneers to go West, that drove Mark and Charlie Parker to take their pain and their genius and create a new art form, that drove you to take your pain and your genius to come to this conference. And since you got here, you’ve been given the best tools to make ideas happen. You know the how and the what like the back of your hand. But what

I’ve found on this journey is that it’s not the what. It’s the why that’s at the heart of creative entrepreneurs. That the third and final rule in the new playbook for change is that purpose is the new bottom line. On this journey to why, we found Dave Schiff in Boulder, Colorado. A tattooed designer that jumped off the world’s largest financial cliff to leave a six figure salary at a legendary creative agency to found the Made Movement dedicated not just to selling more stuff, but to sparking a resurgence in American manufacturing. Dave said, he knew he couldn’t be the one that made things, but he could help the people who made things. And he gave us this bit of wisdom, the shapes, the very essence of our organization. He said, there’s no line item on a balance sheet for give a damn, but it’s the most valuable thing you’ve got in the business. And he was right.

On the journey to why, we met Sarah Calhoun in White Sulfur Springs, Whites Sulfur Springs has gravel roads. They have one theater that shows one movie on one day a week. But that didn’t stop Sarah from launching Red Ants Pants, a brand of work wear for women who do really serious stuff like putting out forest fires and tending the cattle ranches. I said, Sarah, why do you do this? She said, because when a woman puts on a pair of our pants, she’s not just putting on canvas. She’s putting on a new identity, an identity that makes her feel more bad ass. It’s a hell of a why.

On the journey to why, we found Kirk Mayes in Detroit the week before the city went bankrupt. Kirk drove us through the worst neighborhood in the city. A place called Brightmoor. They had a former mayor say, it ought to be wiped off the map. Kirk, despite his talents and his choices, had decided to dedicate his life to saving it. So I said, Kirk, why do you do this? And he stopped us right in the middle of the street and he turned and he said, if you took the blood right out of my body and projected it as an image on a screen, it would be this city. And it would be this work. So I couldn’t stop it if I tried. And sitting there in his car, he felt so small.

And those words brought tears to my eyes. They brought a fire to my belly, because I had also been on my own journey to why. And yes, this is the most egotistical slide in the history of man. Sorry. It was a journey that started when I was 12. And I went home from school one day and my grandmother sat me down. And she told me that my mother, who was my best friend and who suffered from mental illness, had disappeared from a rehab facility. And that day turned into a month. It turned into a year. It turned into almost a decade that I didn’t know whether my mother was alive or dead. And she had always been my dream defender.

I’d sit on the floor of the bathroom while she put on her makeup and tell about my big ideas. I’d say, mom, I want to be a firefighter. She’s say, sure, baby. You can do that. I’d come back a few months later and say, mom, I want to be a chef like Julia Child. And she’d say, yeah, baby. You can do that too. Then, a few months later I’d come back. I’d say, momma, I want to be Martin Luther King. And she’d say, well, baby, that’s not a job. But I’m sure you can do it.

And when she left, she took my dreams right on with her. And just before I gave up, folks from every corner of my community, coaches and teachers and old random ladies at the grocery store, they stepped in and they raised their hands and they rolled up their sleeves and they said, how can I help. And that divine conspiracy is the only thing that kept me alive long enough to stand on this stage. So when I take the blood from my body and project it as an image on a screen, I see those faces. And they are telling me that it’s my turn to raise my hand and roll up my sleeves and ask the world, how can I help? And that’s what took me to MBA’s Across America. And more importantly, that’s what brought me here today, because I think I have an answer.

Let me explain. Rebecca Henderson teaches a course at Harvard Business School called reimagining capitalism. And the very fact that a course called reimagining capitalism is being taught at Harvard Business School means that we are in revolutionary times. And the central question of the course is how can business help solve the biggest challenges that society faces? Professor Henderson breaks all action into two circles. One circle represents all the things that make money.

The other circle represents all the things that do good. And in the intersection of these two circles, she calls bucket one solutions—a business case. We can do well and do good at the same time. This is Walmart making their supply chain more sustainable. Not just because it’s good for the planet, but because it actually makes them money. Great. Let’s write cases about these people. Everyone should adopt their best practices. The problem is that bucket one only gets us to about 15% of the world we want to see. So then were pushed to bucket two– innovation solution.

Innovation is asking a leader or an organization to take short term losses for long term gains. This is Paul Polman at Unilever. This is Elon Musk at Tesla. Folks who say, I’ll take the risk. I’ll take the lead, because I’m betting on the future. I love these people. Let’s honor them. Let’s highlight their work. Let’s hope that it inspires someone else to do the same. The only challenge is that even bucket two only gets us to 60% of the world we want to see. So professor Henderson studied the entire history of modern capitalist civilization to see how we got to the rest of the way. And what she found was very alarming.

The only time we got to bucket three solutions, whether it was ending child labor in England or ending slavery in the United States was when there was a social awakening. Get that. A social awakening. So I said, well, Professor Henderson, how exactly does one spark a social awakening? And she said something that no Harvard professor has ever uttered. She said, I don’t know. And that’s where you come in. If there is a question burning in your mind, if there’s a problem that just won’t let you go, if there’s a system that is so broken it makes you want to cry, if there’s a friend or stranger who’s problem has become your own, if there’s a gift that you have that led you here in search of a way to give it, then you have found your why. And you hold once spark to this great awakening. And thank God you do. Because I believe in the furthest reaches of my being that Baltimore won’t rest and Ferguson won’t heal and the seas won’t stop rising and the poor and the weak won’t get a fair shot until this dying world of ours is shaken from its slumber.

And Creatives, at your best, you do just that. You wake us up. You lift our eyes and our spirits and our creative consciousness to a horizon of hope that in too many places of this country and around the world seems far too out of view. I believe that horizon is there. It’s real. It is ours for the taking as soon as we wake up. And when we do, we’ll be able to remix the closing lines of Ken Burns’ jazz documentary when asked, where is the world headed? We’ll answer, wherever we take us. We’re the entrepreneurials.

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