Building an Ark Company and The Myth of the Unicorn

noahsark

‘Well, now we have seen each other,’ said the unicorn, ‘if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?’ — Lewis Carroll

There’s been much talk in Silicon Valley lately of building Unicorn companies. Thanks to Aileen Lee’s 2013 “Unicorn Club” post in Techcrunch, the term Unicorn no longer means a mystical one-horned horse-like creature. It now means a Billion-dollar company, or to be more precise, “U.S.-based software companies started since 2003 and valued at over $1 billion by public or private market investors”. Everyone in Silicon Valley wants a Unicorn now. VCs want to find them and fund them. Founder/CEOs want to start them. Engineers want to build them. Service providers want to cater to them. We are in the golden age of Unicorns. Never in the history of software have more companies risen to a billion-dollar+ valuation as quickly as in the last 5 years. It took companies like Oscar and Zenefits only 2 years to reach Unicorn status, faster than even Uber, Facebook and AirBnB.

All this insanely rapid wealth creation is making Silicon Valley a weird place to live. There are dozens of billionaire founders and VCs within a stone’s throw of Sand Hill Road just down the street from me. There are more Teslas per capita within a 10 mile radius except for maybe downtown Las Vegas thanks to Tony Hsieh. Whether all this wealth creation is actually doing good for humanity remains to be seen. Sure, Uber is keeping thousands of drivers gainfully ’employed’. AirBnB lets normal people make money by hosting guests at their dwellings. Facebook is keeping the world more open and connected. They are all touching billions of lives.

And yet is market valuation and money the most noble and important metric for measuring ‘value’ to humanity and society? Who wins when companies are worth billions? Founders and early investors. Maybe some lucky early employees, as with Google, Facebook, Paypal…Perhaps those hard-working and lucky individuals will go on to found and fund even greater companies that impact millions and billions of lives in a positive way. Maybe not. Maybe they’ll just buy more Teslas and houses and private planes and hang out on billionaire row at Burning Man. Fewer than a dozen Silicon Valley billionaires have joined Warren Buffet’s Giving Pledge.

What about the billions of people on the planet who aren’t so fortunate to share in these spoils? Isn’t there some better measure and higher ideal that we as entrepreneurs and company-builders can aspire to that isn’t solely measured by the dollar signs? Where are all the companies committed to enhancing the value of human life? Ones focused on optimizing lifespan, solving for premature death, curing unnecessary disease, unlocking our personal DNAmapping how we’re all connected, or improving the state of humanity in some large way? Do we really need another social network or gaming company or hookup app? Why is this work left to foundations like The Gates Foundation? Where are all the brilliant minds solving the big, important human-saving problems?

Among the thousands of paired creatures saved on the Ark, there was the Unicorn. Apparently the Unicorn did not make it on the Ark due to hubris. Let’s not make that same mistake with the companies we create.unicornnextone

One of my favorite poems and songs by Shel Silverstein recounts this story of the unicorn literally missing the boat because he was too busy playing silly games. Oops, I digress…

A long time ago when the earth was green,
There were more kinds of animals than you’d ever seen.
They’d run around free when the world was bring born,
But the loveliest of them all was the Unicorn.

There were green alligators and long-necked geese,
Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees,
Some cats and rats and elephants, But sure as you’re born
The loveliest of them all was the Unicorn.

Now God seen some sinning and it gave him pain.
And he says, “Stand back, I’m gonna make it rain.”
He says, “Hey Brother Noah, I’ll tell you what to do,
Build me a floating zoo.

And take some of them green alligators and long-necked geese,
Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees,
Some cats and rats and elephants, But sure as you’re born,
Don’t you forget my Unicorn.”

Old Noah was there to answer the call.
He finished up making the ark just as the rain started falling.
He marched in the animals, two by two
And he called out as they went through.

“Hey Lord, I got your green alligators and long-necked geese,
Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees,
Some cats and rats and elephants,
But Lord, I’m so forlorn, I just can’t see no Unicorns.”

Then, Noah looked out through the driving rain,
Them Unicorns were hiding, playing silly games,
Kicking and splashing while the rain was pouring.
Oh, them silly Unicorns.

There were green alligators and long-necked geese,
Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees,
Noah cried, “Close the door cause the rain is pouring,
And we just can’t wait for those Unicorns”

The ark started moving, it drifted with the tides.
Them Unicorns looked up from their rocks and they cried,
And the waters came down and sort of floated them away.
And, that’s why you’ve never seen a Unicorn to this very day.

You’ll see green alligators and long-necked geese,
Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees,
Some cats and rats and elephants,
But sure as you’re born,
You’re never gonna see a Unicorn.

– Shel Silverstein

I propose adding a new breed of company to the lexicon of Silicon Valley: the Noah’s Ark company. Removing the religious teaching of the Ark story for a moment, let’s just focus on the parable: The Ark saved humanity from the flood. Whether you believe the Great Flood happened or not, history is rife with flood myths. The Ark lifted humanity to a greater state of existence – apparently the human race had become so wicked, evil, violent and corrupt that it was not fit to go on living. Does this sound a little bit like the sad state of affairs in the world today? Where is the compassion that inspires smart entrepreneurs to solve for humanity’s greatest problems? Not the ones that affect the 1%, those that touch the 99% — poverty, hunger, disease, death, lack of education, lack of access to water, basic healthcare and proper nutrition. The list goes on…

A Noah’s Ark company can be a not-for-profit like Internet.org, which aims to connect the two-thirds of the people on the planet that don’t have Internet access. Or a company that crowdfunds healthcare to people around the world who could not otherwise afford it. Or companies that give humans access to clean drinking water, the vital ingredient that sustains life.

waterorg

Most all of these companies focus on some aspect of human health and quality of life improvement. These are noble, humanitarian-focused, life-enhancing companies with the power to improve billions of lives and impact the next several generations. Look at Counsyl and 23andMe, which gives everyone access to know their own personal DNA. These are Noah’s Ark companies.

If you are an entrepreneur, a technologist, a consumer, an investor — I implore you to devote your time and your dollars to help build the Noah’s Ark companies of the future. Being a unicorn and a Noah’s Ark aren’t mutually exclusive – but how about let’s aim to build Noah’s Arks before unicorns.

My aim is to build both, then to join The Giving Pledge to give it all back to humanity and pay it forward to the next generation. My company focuses on healthcare innovation and on technology solutions that improve health outcomes. Our first focus is on the health of mothers and children (maternal-child health), because as a mother I believe there is nothing more important to a parent than the health of your own children. If you want to improve the health of humanity and the health of future generations, I believe we should start with the beginning of life — where the greatest lifelong impact can be affected proactively and preventively.

In the end, on your deathbed, when you perform your life review before those you are leaving behind, will it really matter how many zeroes are at the end of your bank account? Will your kids be better humans because you left billions behind for them? Do you truly believe that she who dies with the most money “wins”? I don’t. Those with the most toys when they die, still die. Money can only solve for certain things and enhance your quality of life so much beyond the basics. Ultimately, money doesn’t buy happiness. It also won’t save humanity from itself. But just maybe if a few hundred of us build a few hundred more Ark companies, we can lift the tide for all of humanity by the billions.

From a Ukranian Folktale:

All of the beasts obeyed Noah when he admitted them into the ark. All but the unicorn. Confident of his strength he boasted ‘I shall swim!’. For fourty days and fourty nights the rains poured down and the oceans boiled as in a pot and all the heights were flooded. The birds of the air clung onto the ark and when the ark pitched they were all engulfed. But the unicorn kept on swimming. When, however, the birds emerged again they perched on his horn and he went under — and that’s why there are no more unicorns now.’

yearoftheunicorn

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