Monday, June 07, 2010

On Academia vs. Business

I've always wanted to go into education, for many reasons--having an influence on the next generation, the fulfillment one gets out of teaching, etcetera--but another, perhaps less conscious reason, might be how very un-business-y the academic sector is. Of course there are big egos, giant ambitions, and plenty of politics, but at least there's one thing you can be sure of with most people who work in the "public sector"--they're not in it for the money. (Or at least the good ones aren't.)

As a case in point, take a look at the average yearly teacher's salary--it's in the measly range of thirty to forty thousand dollars, varying across school districts. Who in their right mind would accept 24/7 work with a bunch of customers who may not particularly want what you're selling? On the other hand, the profit margins in business can be huge. (Take a look at what some of those bankers on Wall Street are making.) Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, has now become infamous for his many gaffes, including a speech he gave to Stanford business students--pre-spill--where he said "We had too many people that were working to save the world [...] lost track of the fact that our primary purpose in life is to create value for our shareholders."

This quote, to me, sums up all that is wrong with business. Too many don't establish their companies to make the world a better place; they establish it to make money (and, as in the case of BP, they make the world worse off, in the process). When you found an organization to help the world, it's called a charity, not a business. You know that someone is really dedicated to helping the world when they don't make any money off of it. That said, non-profits and government don't provide perfect examples either. Indeed, it seems like they've taken the worst from both the worlds of private and public sectors. Take the oft-criticized Minerals Management Service (MMS) for an example. From what I hear, many of its employees have been hired from oil companies like BP--the companies the MMS should be cracking down on, not hiring from. Like those who go into business, too many go into government for the 3 P's (power, prestige, and profit) as opposed to "working to save the world"--which is what they should be doing in the first place.

When government and business interact, it seems to be good for everyone--everyone, that is, except for the average American citizen. What am I talking about? One word: Lobbying. The unfortunate strangle-hold that big industry has on the government's neck needs to loosen or fall away all together. People complain about nothing being done in the halls of government--maybe because there are too many profit-prestige-power-driven people walking around in them.

At the same time, governments and charities could learn a lot from the sleek efficiency that is the private sector's trademark. Visit some government offices and try to get something done--hurrah, guess what, there's a form for that, which will no doubt be processed, faxed, signed, faxed back, processed, stamped (you get the idea), in a process that will take several days, several weeks, several months, or even (in really bad cases) several years. There are many areas of government which have improved their efficiency, but many (such as the overwhelmed Veterans' Affairs offices) still have a long way to go.

Am I some anti-business Socialist anti-American? (Boy, I can hear the talk radio hosts having a field day already.) No. I believe that business is important--companies can have wonderful impacts in their communities. However, too often these impacts happen as part of marketing campaigns or as coincidences, and I look forward to a day where people don't start a company because they want to make gazillions in profits, or sell some newfangled product, or "create value for their shareholders." I look forward to a day where those things are merely side effects, when Tony Hayward is the exception, not the norm--and where "saving the world" becomes not a mere distraction, but our biggest goal.


  1. Yep, that's why social enterprise is the way to go - Using the "business" way to sustain itself (without relying on external donations) while doing something good.

  2. Anonymous8:05 PM

    Business makes money by producing goods and services that people are willing to pay for -- that is, by improving their lives, as they (who are the best judges) see them.

    It's true that people in the non-profit world are typically not there for the money they make -- that is, for rewards that flow from having the people on whom one acts value one's work. This makes it easier for them to impose "benefits" on people that those people do not want.

  3. rocobley6:20 AM

    Speaking as an anti-business Socialist, I think you should read some Marx...

  4. Hi Adora! I'm blown away by your ability to analyze complex social situations. It's remarkable. I agree that the three sectors (government, non-profit and business) all have things that they can learn from each other. I also agree that business is full of corporate money mongers. Hayward's statement is a case in point.

    However, I disagree with your decision to pursue the public sector. I think you would do wonders for our education system, but I think you would have a much healthier impact in the business world. Companies are gradually becoming more socially responsible and you have the ability to inspire thousands of corporations to continue to go down that track.

    Either way, you're going to continue to have a profound impact on the world. It's up to you where that impact will occur.

    Again, very impressed!

  5. Adora, you basically took the words out of my mouth! For the reasons you have mentioned I have recently taken a different turn in my career, I was a business school graduate and worked in product management for 2 years upon graduation, but recently I have resigned from my position in the corporate world and will be obtaining my bachelor of education this coming August. In hopes of one day being in the classroom. The main reason for my switch was exactly what you have said in this post, the lack of purpose or impact I felt that I was having on people and society as a whole. I commend you on your aspirations to change the world!

  6. Although it would be nice if the main focus of a business would be to help others, I doubt this would ever happen. Our world's economy is a delicate balance between the developed countries and the undeveloped or developing countries.

    In a way, the striving greed of today's business men do help our world's poorer countries. In order to make a larger profit, large companies will hire in developing countries because they can pay their employees less. Although to us it may seem unfair that these international employees are not paid enough, the employees themselves would disagree because their salary is much larger than what if would have been had these greedy businesses not hired elsewhere. I have seen the gratitude first hand and I must admit it took me some time to adjust, seeing as how I had been prepared for unhappy employees who felt they were not paid enough.

  7. Anonymous10:02 AM

    Are you insane?

    Teachers make what they make because the unions controls the pay scales. You want to talk money?Public schools are spending 93 percent more than the estimated median private school.

    How does the saying go?
    Those who, those who can't...teach.