Two billionaire events happened last week Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan said they'd give away most of their wealth, and Elon Musk renewed his call for a carbon tax.
Both Zuckerberg and Musk want to change the world. Some have argued that by creating Facebook, Zuckerberg already has. I might argue that Musk hasn't. Yet.
But that doesn't mean he won't ultimately change it in far more profound ways. And both Chan and Zuckerberg should study him closely as they look to deploy the family's resources, which will stand at about $45 billion. Though Musk has given away some of his money, the thrust of his change-the-world vision has come from investment in his companies: Tesla, SpaceX, and Solar City. When he got very rich after the sale of PayPal to eBay, he took — as he often explains it — all of his money and sank it into those three enterprises.
Too risky to succeed?
Speaking in Paris last week, he stressed that he wasn't initially looking for outside investors in either Tesla or SpaceX because he thought both companies were likely to fail. Cars and rockets are risky enterprises. Along with Solar City, they were huge bets on a transformed future, as well as means to ends: an acceleration of the societal move away from fossil-fuel dependency; and a way to "back up the biosphere" and become a "multiplanetary" species.
And note that Musk is demanding a carbon tax because he grasps that Tesla and Solar City can't do it on their own: only government action can make carbon so expensive that the alternatives become mainstream.
Chan and Zuckerberg are leaving themselves the opportunity to do something similar, by setting up the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as an LLC rather than a conventional non-profit foundation. To explain the move, Zuckerberg wrote that the structure: " enables us to pursue our mission by funding non-profit organizations, making private investments and participating in policy debates — in each case with the goal of generating a positive impact in areas of great need." So they can use some of the money to take risks and fund startups that might make big things happen fast.Could become a visionary.
They're not alone in thinking that investment-for-good is perhaps more effective than giving-for-good: Google's Larry Page said last year that he would rather give his wealth to Musk than distribute it the old-fashioned way. But what they haven't yet outlined is the kind of mad vision that drives Musk. Ten years ago, if you had said that this guy Musk would offer a viable alternative to NASA space missions while at the same time establishing a relatively successful all-electric car company, you would have been told you were 100% nuts.
If you had then said that the ultimate goal of both SpaceX and Tesla wasn't to just to build electric cars or blast rockets into orbit, but rather to end global warming and create a city on Mars, you would have been laughed out of the room.
Facebook says its mission is to make the world more "open and connected," which is fine, but it doesn't quite grab you in the gut like unhooking planet earth from its oil addiction and colonizing the Red Planet.
Zuckerberg's stated plans for the philanthropy so far are ambitious because of the sums involved, but not terribly thrilling. He and Chan, a physician, want to cure diseases, improve education, and open up the world to the Internet.
The structure of their giving will turbocharge these efforts, by bringing entrepreneurship into the picture in a bigger way. But for Chan and Zuckerberg this is actually a unique opportunity. Silicon Valley is full of investors trying to build companies with vast online audiences and alter the scale at which we communicate.
Far fewer are tackling the truly major problems that confront humanity. Zuckerberg obviously knows how to create the former. Now, as he embarks on the latter, Musk should be a guide.