This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Perhaps I’m showing my age, but with the years I’ve spent working as an entrepreneur and working with and for entrepreneurs—especially social entrepreneurs in recent years—I’ve noticed a disturbing trend: focus has shifted to disruption away from solving problems and building businesses.
First, let me say, that I understand the meaning, and buried within an entrepreneur’s desire to disrupt an industry is a goal to solve a problem and build a business. Here’s the thing, increasingly entrepreneurs aren’t talking about the problems they solve and the businesses they’ll build but instead are focused on the industry they’ll disrupt.
Did Thomas Edison set out to disrupt the gas lamp industry when he decided to invent the electric light bulb? I suspect not. He wanted to create a better, safer, more reliable source of light.
Let’s be clear, disruption is a problem. When entrepreneurs say they hope to disrupt an industry, they are really saying, we hope to bankrupt some businesses, put lots of people out of work, perhaps inspire a suicide or two and with any luck leave some children without reliable sources of food or health insurance.
Personally, I can’t help but wonder if that entrepreneurial elitism hasn’t contributed in some way to the rise of President Donald Trump by in fact ignoring the impact of disruption.
It is certainly true that the invention of the light bulb did disrupt the gas lamp industry. Perhaps some businesses failed; certainly, some people lost their jobs and all the downstream effects of unemployment were realized.
At the same time, tremendous social benefits were also realized as the world moved away from gas lamps. The shift, almost 140 years after the invention of the lightbulb continues. In the developing world, kerosene lamps are still used. Increasingly, they are being replaced by solar lamps that require only free fuel to use. (Of course, solar lamps don’t use Edison-style incandescent bulbs, they use LEDs, but it is hard to imagine LEDs without first having had incandescent bulbs.)
As this happens, kerosene is no longer needed in many of those homes and so is not there to risk an accidental burn of a child or to be used as a convenient and horrific weapon in a domestic dispute—almost always with a woman as the victim.
Neglecting disruption may not be much better than seeking for it as a primary objective, but we can at least observe a difference in intent. A bank robber may ignore the risk that carrying a gun into a bank may put the robber in the uncomfortable position of murdering someone, but it seems preferable to the serial killer who takes lives for sport.
Your success does not depend on another’s failure. There are problems to be solved in this world that should require no disruption—or only disruption of bad actors. Let’s consider a few examples.
When organizations like Days for Girls and enterprises like Bana, create free or affordable ways for girls to access feminine hygiene products they’ve never had, the only things they disrupt are missed days of school and the piles of leaves girls were forced to sit on before.
Operation Underground Railroad actively works to rescue child victims of sex slavery around the world. Every time they are successful in that objective, they disrupt a group of traffickers and pedophiles. Well done, I say!
Forward progress will, I acknowledge, often require disruption. Sometimes, as with sex traffickers, that disruption should be considered an unqualified social benefit. Generally, however, I want to challenge entrepreneurs to refocus on problem-solving and business building. Disruption as a goal is like a football team focusing on hurting the other team’s quarterback rather than scoring points and defending the end zone.