I’m Gideon Rosenblatt. I’m also a writer with a background in technology, business, social enterprise and social change. I have spent most of my working life trying to promote the use of technology as a force for good in the world. Except that time when I sold cars over the Internet.
As a kid, Sunday breakfasts were a time to hear my grandfather’s stories about the company he founded and ran for decades in Salt Lake City, Utah. They were always about the people, and it was clear he thought of them as a kind of extended family. It left a lasting impression.
In school, I developed a fascination with Asia, so after graduation I packed up and moved to Beijing. It was 1985 and China had only been open to the West for a few years. On a lucky break I got a job at the US-China Business Council, where I helped US businesses develop their presence in China. Years later, I witnessed firsthand the exciting first stirrings of democracy in Tiananmen. When they were crushed, I left China and went to business school.
I enrolled in a joint MA/MBA program in international business at Wharton. The school is a best known for finance, but I felt pulled toward marketing. After graduation, while most of my friends were heading off to investment banks and management consulting firms, I was packing my bags for a marketing position at a software company in Redmond, Washington.
I took my marketing skills to a highly entrepreneurial division in Microsoft that was publishing “multimedia” CD-ROM encyclopedias and other titles. By 1994, I’d focused on product planning and was leading the charge to move our publishing efforts online and to the web.
Within a few short years, CarPoint (and our competitors) significantly shifted the way cars were sold in the United States and helped accelerate the collapse of the business model for local newspapers. That was my first experience with the transformative impact of technology – and clearly it could have unintended consequence that weren’t always good.
Groundwire had an innovative social enterprise business model. We were a technology and strategy shop that charged our mission-driven clients at our cost of providing services. We invested heavily in technology research and development, which we paid for by attracting philanthropic dollars. It was a very effective model for disseminating innovation into a social change movement and we helped hundreds of organizations across the United States and Canada, helping them to more effectively engage citizens in protecting the environment.
One of the hardest jobs I had at Groundwire was developing our ‘theory of change,’ which is essentially the way our services translated into real change in the world. How, in other words, does building a relationship management database translate into a more sustainable world? I came away convinced that the business world could learn a lot from the nonprofit sector when it comes to impact evaluation.
One of my other conclusions from my work at Groundwire was that the environmental movement was constantly getting outmaneuvered by the amount of money that flows into the US political system – and that the chief source of that money was business. So, by 2008, I was feeling a strong pull back to business, but this time with an eye to reforming it as a way to solve some of our toughest societal and ecological challenges.
That vision became the Vital Edge that you are now reading.