Entrepreneurship and the Impossible Challenge


These are hard times for optimists – and yet it was just such optimism that was on display last week at the legendary Oxford Union, where a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs debated a group of British bureaucrats and academics. 


The chilly Victorian Gothic Hall, filled to capacity with students and VIPs, was an unlikely place for Web 2.0 start-up executives and venture capitalists to defend the unmatched ability of entrepreneurs to lead us into a better future.  And, indeed, it was just such sunny optimism – and a lack of faith in government solutions – that seemed to irritate their opponents the most.

 I was lucky enough to be one of the participants at this event, standing up as the first audience member to speak in opposition to the resolution.  And though my speech wasn’t the best of the night, it did have the advantage (for this column) of being the shortest.    

The debaters in support of the resolution were:  Ian Goldin, former Vice President of the World Bank and the Director of the James Martin 21st Century School, leading economics commentator Will Hutton, and Dr Angela Wilkinson, Director of Scenarios and Futures Research at Saïd Business School.

In opposition were Julie Meyer, CEO, Founder and Co-founder of Ariadne Capital and First Tuesday, Reid Hoffman, Chairman and Founder of LinkedIn, Jerry Sanders, Managing Director and Founder of San Francisco Science, and Biz Stone, Co-founder of Twitter. 

Here it is, edited slightly because that’s what a writer does when he sees his spoken words in print.  [If you’d like to watch the entire debate – as well as three amazing speeches given the next night at Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford by, among others, Tesla Motors and SpaceX chairman Elon Musk – here is the link:  http://www.siliconvalleyoxford.com/media/webcast]


RESOLVED: “This house believes that the problems of tomorrow are bigger than the entrepreneurs of today”

Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen:  As someone who has been an entrepreneur himself, and who has reported on the world’s greatest entrepreneurs for longer than anyone alive, I feel compelled to stand and challenge this resolution and its implied slander on human freedom and imagination.

No one can know the future with certainty.  But we can know what people who came before us thought of the future, what seemingly insurmountable problems they saw ahead of them – and then how, astonishingly, they solved them with creativity, hard work and most of all, entrepreneurial skill.

I ask the audience to imagine themselves in the year 1800, just before this great institution (the Oxford Union) was founded.   What were then the “problems of tomorrow that are bigger than the entrepreneurs of today?” 

Infant mortality rates, essentially unchanged in thousands of years, were still as much as 50 percent.  Today that number is less than 1 percent.  Maternal deaths were 1 in 100, and as much as 40 percent in maternal hospitals. It is 1 in 10,000 today. 

Thanks to smallpox, diphtheria, cholera, tuberculosis and workplace injuries, a child born in London or New York in 1800 could expect to live, on average, 30 years – a lifespan that hadn’t changed since Roman times. Today it is 70 years.


The foot we ate was often rotten or spoiled, especially in the summer, and we risked scurvy in the winter.  The goiter on your neck grew to the size of football.  Surgery was nasty, brutish and often short – usually leaving us to go screaming into oblivion .  Murderous epidemics regularly swept the land.

And there was no escape.  Most people in human history to that point had never travelled more than 50 miles from their birthplace.  The fastest speed humans regularly travelled was 10 miles per hour, the highest altitude a person had reached was a mountaintop in the Himalayas or the Andes, and the deepest depth survived was only about 150 feet.

The average home library held two dozen books.  It could take three months for a letter to cross the Atlantic.  There were no means to capture the precise image of anything, no means, other than words, to capture an event over a passage of time.   And we lived in a world that, for half of each day, was essentially dark.

Entrepreneurs, in the face of these ‘impossible’ obstacles, developed and mass produced drugs and vaccinations that defeated these diseases, refrigeration to preserve food, built machines that enable the average person today to casually travel at 70 miles per hour on land, 500 miles per hour in the air, and to send that letter to the other side of the planet in a millisecond.  We have looked at the far side of the universe, and the Internet brings into our homes access to millions of books.  Men have walked on the moon and cruised the deepest trenches in the ocean.


Those were ‘impossible’ problems when this Union first met.  Now as we sit here in this well-lit room, how can we say that the problems facing us now are somehow greater than those facing us then

Entrepreneurship is freedom – and that freedom brings with it both ingenuity and a willingness to tackle the impossible.  Not only are today’s entrepreneurs equal to the problems of tomorrow, they may be the only ones who are.


[BTW:  The Valley entrepreneurs won the debate.]


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