A Conversation On Compassionate Capitalism

Goleman. I’m here in Silicon Valley with my dear old friend, Larry Brilliant. From my point of view, Larry is the perfect conversational partner for this topic. When I first met him, he was in India, working with WHO to eradicate smallpox, the only time a disease like that has been completely eradicated from the world. He then founded a company which gave birth to The Well, one of the first Internet communities. At the same time he was part of the Seva Foundation, which worked in Asia to eradicate blindness. He headed the company that built the infrastructure for Wi-Fi and now Larry has become the head of, the foundation that Google has started. Larry, what is

Brilliant. We are a group that doesn’t care about traditional profit. We care about social profit; the kind of social change that we can create and it doesn’t matter whether we bring that about by a grant or an investment or a fellowship or by working on lobbying or PR. So we’re part of this new breed of compassionate capitalism I think that has emerged from Silicon Valley…

We’ve had tens of thousands of people write to me since I got this job and everyone who writes and asks for money is a wonderful person asking for a very good thing. I should say we have ten thousand good requests, but as the Buddha would say, suffering is endless; needs are infinite and money is finite, and resources are finite. You want to use the tools that have made great social innovations work. Those have been in Silicon Valley; those have been the tools of venture capital of employing other people’s money in building companies, using management principles so that all of your team is looking in the same direction, trying to create achievable targets— measurable progress. So those tools of business, including financial practices that are transparent and open, those are the principles I want to put to work in service of the poor, in service of mitigating the effects of poverty, in service to mitigating the effects of climate change. That’s what I’m talking about, and the structure that Google has established allows me to play all the keys on the keyboard. It’s not like a 501(c)3. You can buy a company or start an industry or give a fellowship or lobby. It’s given us more flexibility to think of ourselves as not restricted, in the way conventional philanthropy is.

Goleman. Social neuroscience now tells us that the brain has a set of circuitry that fosters what the scientists call empathic concern. Empathic concern is the readiness to notice, feel with and act for others. It’s a basis of compassionate action. Some kids are very aware of suffering around them and really want to do something to help. What do you think we can do to foster more of that kind of attitude in our children?

Brilliant. It’s a great question. I don’t know the answer, Danny. I don’t know what set of life circumstances brings someone to view other beings as equal or even more equal than themselves. When I’m hiring people at Google I’ve gotten over looking at the résumé of the undergraduate from Stanford or Harvard or the valedictorian or the Rhodes scholar. I see so many resumes of very smart people. I try to look for resumes of wise people. I look for the things people do that are extraordinary for their circumstances. Have they been on an AIDS walk? Have they gone down to Guatemala to participate in a Rotary Club activity for building houses? Have they built into their lives a method of contemplative practice or a Tuesday night volunteerism in a soup kitchen? So, I guess I‘ve graduated from looking at the scorecard of degrees and S.A.T.s. I’m looking for a W.A.T., a Wisdom Aptitude Test. We don’t yet have one that I know of. I don’t know how children become wise and compassionate. I’m only now beginning to try to identify those traits in the people that I hire.

Goleman. The Dalai Lama has been working with a group of neuroscientists to investigate the neural effects of having spent years cultivating compassion. They are looking at Olympic-level athletes of the heart. Now they’re bringing them into state of the art brain imaging labs to see what part of their brain activates. They’re finding that the upper limits of full one-pointed attention of compassion and awareness of thoughts, as they come and go, is way beyond those that have been assumed by modern western cognitive science. Two areas of the brain became very active in compassion meditation. One was the left prefrontal cortex, which is the center for positive feeling. The second was the pre-motor cortex, which prepares us to act. The Dalai Lama says that when you think of others you feel good. I think he’s describing that state, and you’re predisposed to do something for others when you see the need. Now, that’s at the Olympic level. I think it’s important to learn from that research that there is a biological foundation for compassion and that it can be trained and transplanted into the classroom setting.

Brilliant. I might propose a minor extension or amendment to that. I honestly believe that the happiest people I have ever known are people who are in a life of service, not necessarily people who are in a life of meditation and certainly not people who are in a life of business or doing things. The happiest people I’ve known could be serving simply in an AIDS hospice. They could be serving like Mother Theresa did, among the dying in Calcutta. We all know people in our lives as well as historical people like Albert Schweitzer, rabbinical scholars, or Catholic monks and sisters who may not have had meditative practice but who, in living a life of service were able to take themselves out of themselves and were super-happy people. Meditation is one kind of wonderful practice, but there are others in the Christian and the Jewish tradition that lead to the same results. What are the results we’re looking for? Is it a hot amygdala, or is it compassionate action in the world?

Goleman. I think that the bottom line is what you actually do. One of the most amazing models I ever met, I met through you. It’s a man who died recently, Dr. Venkataswamy or Doctor V as we called him. Could you tell us the story of Dr. V?

Brilliant. Oh, I could tell a hundred stories of Doctor V. He was a student of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother of Pondicherry. As a Hindu, Aurobindo was not a theist. He was a meta-physician, I guess, and his theology looked more like Teilhard de Chardin than it did Rama Krishna. Dr. V had hands that were crippled by psoriatic arthritis. They looked like pretzels. Still, with those hands he became an eye surgeon—the best surgeon in India. Those crippled fingers gave back sight to over 100,000 people. When he retired he started the Aravind Eye Hospital, named after Aurobindo. Last year they gave sight back to 350,000 blind people, two-thirds of them for free.

How did he do it? He infused his organization with the spirit of his teacher and his teachings. All the hospitals have meditation rooms. Pictures of Aurobindo are everywhere. The whole enterprise is a flower that Dr. V placed metaphysically at the feet of his teacher. He tried to put his whole life in service to what he called ‘the divine’— the divine within us, the divine among us, the divine we aspire to. I don’t think anybody who ever met Dr. V emerged from that interaction untouched.
Goleman. When he died, Dr. V got a very positive obituary in the front page of the Wall Street Journal, which talked about his business model. He managed to create a financially viable institution that did ‘good.’ It is a real working model of compassionate capitalism. Do you think that model can be used even if you don’t have people who are followers of one or another faith or who are not missiondriven?

Brilliant. That is the challenge that we have at We are secular humanists and we come from a wide variety of religions and backgrounds. Yet we would be absolutely beside ourselves with joy to accomplish anything close to what Dr. V did. He used the tools of the business world in service to the poor and the sick. When I first met Dr. V in 1975, he was talking about how a company like McDonald’s can economically, financially and managerially deliver an affordable meal to every village in the world. That was what he wanted to do with eye surgery. He wanted to franchise it so that anyone who was blind could afford it. One out of three paid, and in paying they were able to keep the costs low and build these big hospitals.

Goleman. Do you know of any other businesses or organizations like Dr. V’s that have been successful from a fiscal point of view and yet do as much good?

Brilliant. Well, I know of several different models. This is an exciting time for experimentation with models. The Tata Group was once the largest company in all of Asia, certainly in India. They were owned by a cascading group of holding companies. The very top holding company was a charitable trust, so that all the profits of their various companies were put in service to hospitals and cancer research. EBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam, have created a different kind of model with Omidyar Networks, where they make for-profit investments and non-profit donations. Companies like and EBay were models for Google in that when they went public they pledged to give one percent of their profits to non-profit activities. Whole Foods gives five percent of its profits to charitable activities. Starbucks does a tremendous number of things in the not-for-profit world. Nike has a very serious foundation working on girls’ literacy.

I think we have entered into an era that is beyond capitalism in the narrow sense of the word, based on the accumulation of capital in order to build the means of production. I actually think that our political scientists and economists are lagging behind practitioners in the field and that we lack the vocabulary and the analytical tools to understand some of these new experiments. The new world of corporate involvement in philanthropy is an exciting world. It has tremendous possibilities for doing good in the world.

Goleman. What about at the micro level? Back when we were both involved in Seva, there was a wonderful project in Guatemala among the impoverished Mayan Indians who were terribly oppressed politically at the time. A woman would be given a goat, and she would get the milk from the goat, and when the goat had an offspring, she would give that to another woman, who would pass the next generation on to another woman. That’s the micro level. Do you know any viable projects that are operating in a similar way?

Brilliant. I do. That was Seva’s small animal exchange program. It was created in order to re-establish the weaving industry in the traditional Mayan community. To do the weaving you have to get the wool. To get the wool you have to have the animals and they had all been killed in the war. If you look at Brack Bank and Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and other experiments in micro lending and small for-profit enterprises, you will see many are driven with almost missionary zeal in order to reach a double or a triple bottom line. Usually the bottom line that we talk about is financial profitability. A double bottom line is usually financial and social profitability and a triple bottom line is financial, social and environmental. This is a moment of great experimentation. We will find new models that will inspire us and cause us to change the way we behave.

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