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Chapter 1: The Inception

By Brent Schulkin April 3, 2012

In which Carrotmob founder Brent Schulkin offers a personal reflection on how and why the Carrotmob idea came to exist.

I grew up in Northern California. Those of you who were hip to the children’s literature scene in 1990 no doubt remember the quadruple platinum blockbuster hit, “50 Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save The Earth.” I was 9 or 10 when I got my copy, and it was on fire, at least among the 9 year old intelligentsia crowd who was looking for something more meaningful than “Where’s Waldo?” books. I mention this book because I think it made an impression on me. It’s a trivial footnote to the story, but I believe a seed was planted then, grew without my knowledge for another decade, and finally bloomed into an interest in “save the world” advocacy once I got to college.

In college I developed an interest in how societal systems worked, and got really curious about how we might change systems that weren’t working well. Meanwhile I developed a voracious appetite for learning more about all sorts of social and environmental issues. As I grew to understand the scale of certain problems, and the causes of those problems, I started experimenting with different ways to drive change. I took a tour of the classic methods used by the world’s changemakers: Petitions. Boycotts. Educational film screenings. Marches. Protests. Stuff like that. It generally felt good to be *doing something,* but sometimes it also felt dumb, naive, ineffective, and doomed to failure. I had passion. I had my values. Usually I even knew what I wanted. But I didn’t have methods that I was happy with.

As I looked at the roots of all the problems in the world, I began to see powerful businesses at every turn, and it became very easy to blame businesses for all the world’s ills: 

“These awful things wouldn’t happen, if only businesses would do things differently! How dare that business turn a blind eye to such a big problem that it could help solve? Doesn’t it want to help? What is motivating these people? People? Are business decisions made by people or are we dealing with something else? Why do businesses behave the way they do?”

I should also note that I didn’t study business. I wasn’t interested in working in the business world. It didn’t resonate with me. I didn’t take a single economics or finance class during my whole time at Stanford. I wasn’t anti-business or anything, but I definitely perceived the world of business as an “other.”

In late 2002, the Stanford campus was simmering with anger over US plans to invade Iraq. Passions ran high, and many of us were doing what all humans tend to do: demonizing the opposition. How could [insert person you disagree with] be so [insert insulting adjective]! I strongly opposed any invasion. Around the same time, I had the opportunity to eat some thai food in Palo Alto with Paul Wolfowitz, who at that time was the Deputy Secretary of Defense, helping to craft plans for the invasion. It turns out that sometimes the people we disagree with most vehemently are still very smart, nice, and quite human, no matter what mental caricatures we might prefer to dream up about them. That great experience made it clear to me just how foolish it is to demonize your opposition. The smart move is to understand your opposition.

On the night of the invasion I reacted by trying to exert my influence in the only way I knew how: Late at night, a team of a dozen of us drove up to San Francisco to some empty house undergoing construction in Parnassus Heights. For 3 or 4 hours we all lay on the floor, pretending to sleep. But I don’t think anyone slept for even a minute. I knew that in a few hours I was going to be well outside of my “comfort zone.” And no one likes being out of their comfort zone. But I also knew that I had to do something. I had to say something. That’s what good citizenship demands. At 5am, we got up, and joined thousands of others in protest. I had been trained as a legal observer, so my role was to film what happened in order to deter police brutality (this was before YouTube and camera phones, so there weren’t very many cameras around). When your peaceful friends are getting pepper sprayed and arrested it certainly feels like you’re doing something significant. But the day after hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protest, I looked for any evidence that we had accomplished something. We had not. I had a hard time understanding that so much energy and passion and effort had not accomplished anything tangible whatsoever. Of course, there is inherent value in making your voice heard, and sometimes protests have better results than we had, but the takeaway for me was that I really wanted to find a more results-oriented approach. Causing a ruckus in SF was not results-oriented. The smart move would have been to focus on where the power was.

Here’s a classic cliche narrative: College student gets passionate about issues, pursues silly idealistic projects, brutal reality crushes dreams, real world responsibilities mount, and amidst the demands of career or family, plans to “change the world” are rationalized away into oblivion. We’ve all seen this pattern. Why do people give up on advocacy? I think it’s because of the constant failure. If you are the type of person who goes to protests or signs lots of petitions, you fail constantly. With the exception of Cubs fans, most people reach a point where they aren’t going to keep showing up if they’re really unlikely to win. I suspect that every time an attempt at advocacy fails pathetically, a few more people give up on advocacy itself. Once most normal people are gone, sometimes the only hard-core people left at the protests are a bit kooky, a bit radical, and all the more ineffective. This downward spiral of failure frustrated me, but rather than letting it alienate me, I kept thinking about ways to make advocacy more likely to succeed.

I applied the lessons I had learned from the Iraq invasion to my feelings about business:

  • It’s foolish to demonize businesses for behaving badly
  • The smart move is to understand businesses
  • If businesses have most of the power to create change, then the results-oriented advocate will focus on where the power is: with business

I began to change my attitude about the business world.

In this context, I was reading a book by Howard Rheingold, called Smart Mobs. Suddenly, about halfway through that book, I became unable to continue reading. I kept trying, but had to just sit there and think. Time slowed down. That was Carrotmob’s moment of inception.


Next chapter…

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