David Batstone - Not For Sale
David Batstone is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist with a mission to eradicate human trafficking and the global slave trade. He’s a professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of San Fransisco and at the same time he’s what you might call a social justice warrior.
He’s the author of ‘Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade - and How We Can Fight It’ and the co-founder of Not For Sale - which builds viable, successful companies and bakes values into the whole process — from the sourcing of the goods, to the manufacturing of product, to the way it is sold — and returns the profits back to the community.
Dubber Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m the director of Music Tech Fest, and this is the MTF Podcast. Now, I don’t often struggle to describe the guests on this show. Fashion tech designer, digital media lawyer, hackademic, broadcaster, inventor, composer, CEO, AI professor, storyteller, innovation specialist, philosopher, one of the Bs in ABBA. But today’s guest is not so easily summed up.
I guess David Batstone is a journalist, first and foremost. He’s become known as a public speaker on human rights, and he’s also a theologian and ethicist. David’s the author of ‘Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade - and How We Can Fight It’, in which he wrote about human trafficking and how social inequality and poverty make things easy for traffickers.
He’s also, and this is the bit that I struggle to make fit in my head along with all the other things I knew about him, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. He’s a professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at the School of Management at the University of San Francisco. He’s a money guy, investing money in helping others build new businesses in a corporate world, while, at the same time, fighting against inequality. And he’s been at this a while. In his late 20s, he took Bono and Ali Hewson to El Salvador and Nicaragua, a trip that inspired much of 1987’s The Joshua Tree album.
He’s a man of contradictions, in other words. A man of many places and many stories. And, the odd technical glitch aside, I really got a lot out of this conversation with David Batstone, and I hope you will too. Enjoy.
Dubber David Batstone, thanks so much for joining us for the MTF Podcast today.
David Yeah, it’s great to connect with you.
Dubber I find you in Croatia today. Is it a holiday? Work? Something else?
David Well, that’s actually a wonderful frame, because I really don’t think of what I do every day as either work or play. I really blend the two. And so I am working on a project in Croatia. Also my office is wherever my laptop is. So I’ve developed this kind of lifestyle where I try and get out in nature and do hikes and do things in the morning, and then I work on my laptop in the afternoon, wherever I am in the world. So Croatia’s my summer.
Dubber Fantastic. So you’re a mobile ethicist?
David I used to teach ethics, and I had a parallel life. You could call me bipolar. But I had a life as a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley.
Dubber And how do those two things work together?
David Yeah, exactly. It’s funny. And then, by the way, I run a global human rights agency, so there a three strange threads in my life, and we can talk about how I bring those together. But one day, my dean at my university said “Look, you’re very successful at what you’re doing in business. Why don’t you teach in the business school?”, and so I teach innovation and entrepreneurship now. And I like to believe that I put ethics into the DNA of everything I do, but that’s another story.
Dubber So let’s do the pathway, because to come from theology, I understand, to ethics, to business, to entrepreneurship, innovation, it’s a strange journey. Where do you come into this?
David Well, there’s lots of points I could parachute into my story, and I guess a good place might be in my 20s when I was doing my PhD at Berkeley, and it was in, as you mentioned, religion and ethics. I was working in South America in… Well, really there is what we call Central America, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and my PhD dissertation was focussed on that region, and how politics and economics were shaped by people’s religious viewpoint. And I was working with communities in economic development, and I started playing with a lot of different business models and introducing technology that was appropriate to the villages.
So I come back to the United States, and I find that this kind of experimentation of technology, business, and social influence was becoming something interesting in a thing called the internet. And so Wired magazine, a magazine that deals with technology in the United States, contacted me and wanted me to start writing for them. And I started writing for them, and then I got approached to start a magazine that looked at these new trends in business and technology. These little companies called Amazon and eBay and Yahoo were all starting up, and they wanted to do a magazine called Business 2.0. So I stumbled into it really. There was no roadmap there. I just followed my curiosity and what I thought worked for people.
Dubber So you came at this through journalism?
David I did, yeah. It was through journalism, absolutely. I was writing for different magazines and newspapers in America, and then it just migrated towards… Magazines that were dealing with innovation were attracted to what I was writing about. So that’s how I got into that business. But then, one day, what I found is that because this was such an emerging, new industry, what was going on in the internet and new technologies, that because I was interviewing founders of all these companies and interviewing them, I got to know more about what they all were doing than they knew collectively.
I remember this watershed moment when the founders of eBay, I was having an interview with them, and I was saying “Oh, auction. That’s really interesting. Buyers and sellers.”, and I said “So what’s your business model? How are you going to make money?”. And one founder said “Well, we’re going to have the buyer…”, he gave me his philosophy, and then he just stops for a second. He goes “What do you think of that?”, and I go “Well, I don’t know. I’d be worried that the seller might…”, and I just gave my opinion. And then the one founder said to the other founder “See, I told you that wouldn’t work.”, and they start arguing with each other. I’m like “Oh my god. You guys are making this up.”. And it hit me then, I would rather be making it up than writing about them making it up. I joined the dark side, as it were, and became an entrepreneur and investor.
Dubber Wow. So where did you start in the tech industry? What was your entry into that?
David I actually got invited to join a venture capital firm. Here I have a PhD in religion and ethics. No background in, really, investing. Investment Bank, a venture capitalist group, when I was interviewing them, they stopped me and said “Hey, you know a lot more about this industry than we do. Would you join us?”, and I said “I don’t know anything about investing.”. They go “Well, we’ll teach you that. We want your knowledge about how this…”. For some reason, I had this innate intuition about how things work, how technologies actually matter, rather than being enamoured with the technology. It’s the anthropology of it, and how it engages people, and how it engages communities. That was just an instinct I had, and that’s what took me to where I am today.
Dubber Sure. So my perception of some of these companies that you’re talking about and that world that you’re talking about is that the underlying philosophy is one of extreme exploitation. How do you balance that with this deep interest in ethics and human rights and those sorts of things? Do you basically have to switch off one part of your brain to go and work in another part? Or are you able to actually bring some of that with you into that domain?
David Well, it was a journey. I took each experience almost as another waypoint on my journey to learn more, and I embedded myself in capital investments and technology companies. Mind you, in those days, all these companies, like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, they all thought they were going to change the world. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the comedy show Silicon Valley, but it…
Dubber Bits and pieces, yeah.
David Yeah, it depicts well that sense of “We’re going to do this, and we’re going to change the world.”. It was Grateful Dead followers and techies, nerds, meet capitalism, and they thought that they were going to have a brave new world where everybody’s equal. “Internet’s going to be the great leveller, you have equal access to information and distribution.”. I suppose at that stage it didn’t feel such a conflict, but as that industry developed and I began to see the inequities replicate and mirror what was happening in every other part of our society, I became less and less enamoured with the ideology of how this was going to be a revolution.
Dubber Right. Because it starts off very John Perry Barlow and ends up very Facebook, doesn’t it?
David Yeah. John Perry Barlow’s the perfect Grateful Dead guy. You found the right character to push that image.
Dubber Okay. So in the world of business and technology, how can we be good?
David It feels like this very long journey, and I’m trying to keep it really short, but what happened, as I was a venture capitalist, as I was in Silicon Valley, this crazy event happened to me where I discovered that my local restaurant in San Francisco was a centre of a human trafficking ring that had trafficked over 500 young teenage girls from India into America for the purpose of forced slavery. Forced, at first, to work in the restaurant, and then taking them to fruit and vegetable fields and brothels in Northern California. So it was just like “How can this happen in the United States of America in the 21st century?”.
So I began to take my journalistic skills and my investigative skills and I began to look into it on the side, and I finally discovered enough about the extreme global exploitation that was happening to people through labour. And so I took a year leave of absence from my venture capital firm, and I went around the world to understand. I followed the money, actually. I went from my restaurant to India, and went from Los Angeles, where 110 Thai women were locked into a factory and forced to sew clothes every day, and I went to Thailand. So I followed the money. I was going to take a year. My plan was just to take a year leave of absence, write a book, expose it, and then go back to my life in Silicon Valley. But, it’s funny, you take one step, you’ve got two feet. Next thing you know, you’re taking a second step.
Dubber It does seem like something that you don’t go back to your regular life from afterwards.
David Exactly, and I just couldn’t go back. But I really feel like things make sense looking back. Sometimes you don’t know what’s happening forward, but you look back, trying to piece together my life, and it’s like “Wow. Now I have these skills in venture capital, I have this deep passion for these people who are being taken advantage of, and, unfortunately, most people who do something about… They turn to models that don’t work.”. What I was trying to do was I wanted to find some way to address this.
And, unfortunately, what happens when you’re trying to address a social or an environmental crisis or problem, the way that our mind frame is, our paradigm, is that we turn to models that I don’t find are very scalable or very viable. We call them philanthropy, we call them NGOs or non-profits, and I did the same thing because that’s how I wanted to do it. I wanted to help people in human trafficking, so I started an NGO of a charity called Not For Sale.
And for five years, we very passionately, and with great sincerity, raised charity to build villages for people that were in trouble. But after five years, I said “Here I am, a venture capitalist. I have these skills, I have this network. Why am I using a model that is not functional? Why not try to use the same networks and capital and cutting edge technology to deal with things I care about?”. And that’s when I began to bring those worlds together.
Dubber Right. So ‘Not For Sale’ is the book as well as the charity, right?
Dubber Who was the target for the book? Who did you want to read that?
David I really addressed it to, I would say, influencers. So it was people who would not be aware in, say, political leadership, in business leadership. A lot of the book talks about supply chains and how embedded in the supply chains are… Everything from diamonds to apparel to iPhones, there is slavery, there is forced labour. So for about a year and a half/two years, I did a lot of speaking to those groups.
These days, I see a book as a pamphlet. It introduces you to an audience, and then you can go further with them. I really, for, I would say, two of the three years, was mostly on the circuit talking about ‘Not For Sale’, then I would get donations, and it was a charity campaign. And I don’t regret it. I learned a lot, and I feel like we gained a lot of reach from doing that, but it certainly wasn’t very scalable.
Dubber Right. I guess the ambition was to eradicate slavery from the capital system, but can you go further than that? Can you get rid of exploitation and inequity from business? Is that something that can even work?
David I’m on that experimental pathway right now. And, I’ll tell you, that’s my goal. And if not eliminate, at least provide options and alternatives, and workable options and alternatives. So after about five years of beating my head against the wall trying to beg people for money, I decided a different model that goes exactly in the direction you’re talking about. I wanted to create an investment company that would incubate companies, or find other companies that I could help invest and grow. That had a double objective. One is to end exploitation, and the other is to make a profit, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last eight years.
Dubber It seems like the right time to be doing that. We’re very conscious of things like green issues, and there’s a lot of talk, at least talk, about inequity and about social justice and those sorts of things. And the companies that you’re investing in seem to fit that model. Is it good business to get into organics and ethical sourcing and those sorts of things?
David Yeah. We have a portfolio of companies. Actually, we have three funds, and we have a portfolio of companies. I could share with you, just very quickly, a few of those companies to give you an idea.
Dubber Yeah, for sure.
David One is a beverage called REBBL. And we source all of the ingredients in, first, the Amazon of Peru when we started the company, then later we were able to now source in 32 countries around the world. It’s the number one selling organic health beverage in America. And the way that we create the company is that we source in a way that not is the cheapest ingredient, but where we can have the most impact, where we can help the most farmers and families, and then we return two point five percent of the revenue that we make. What I wanted, I didn’t want people to say “Well, we’re going to give some percentage of our profit.”, I wanted people to know that when you buy a bottle of REBBL, money’s going directly back to the communities that we’re serving. And we’re creating just and fair wages at the beginning of the process, so we’re creating economic platforms of viable, sustainable labour, but then every time you buy a bottle we’re giving money back to build infrastructure like schools and medical clinics and things of that nature.
The thing is, is that REBBL was the first experiment. And, again, we took in investors, so we have investors, but we let them know that we have a double mission. One is give them a return on their investment, and two is to see change. So most of my investors, they need to be able to believe in the impact. They can’t just say “Well, why are you sourcing ingredients when you could get cheaper ingredients?”. It’s like “Yeah, I know. That’s not our goal.”. And so my investors know that going in. But for them, as well, it’s a better way of investing in designing the world in a better way.
The people I get attracted to are attracted to me. They understand that the market and the way that the returns and how capital works does not have in the equation people and planet, and so to put people and planet into that equation, part of this investment is a recognition that we are designing a future, and so the people, planet, have to be a part of that equation. And so your returns may not be the same that you’ll get if you have an investor that is only concerned about how much return they can give you. I do really well, my investors do well, but I do it in such a way that I make sure that the priorities about how we engage and impact communities and how we respect the dignity of the planet is a part of the process.
I’ll tell you though, if someone comes to me, or I have a business idea, or have an idea about, say, “I’d like to provide a better sustainability model for the Amazon River in Peru.”, I go “Okay, what’s the business model?”. And they’ll go through it, and I go “Oh, that sounds like a great social or environmental model, but there’s no business there.”. I can’t invest because I’m trying to find that crossroads where business that is viable and scalable meets change or designing the future. And so that really then narrows the pool of companies that I’ll start or I’ll invest in.
Dubber Okay. Tell me about Right Reality.
David That was the early incarnation of what has become Just Business. Right Reality was the business consulting, where, I started this with Mark Wexler, we were doing consulting for companies. Then we said “Let’s start our own investment company instead, and let’s do this ourselves.”. And then REBBL was our first.
Our latest one is a really exciting one for me. I’ll give you another example. It’s more in the technology area, where we’re recycling lithium-ion batteries. Everything in the Tesla to the iPhone to your power tool are using lithium-ion batteries, but only four percent of the world’s lithium-ion batteries are being recycled today. So you have all these elements, nickel, cobalt, lithium, of course, magnesium, they’re all in these batteries, and we keep digging more and more earth in order to make more and more batteries. And it’s only exponentially growing, the batteries that we’re using, and it will continue to grow. So what we discovered is that those materials can be recycled infinitely. That is, they never deplete. So every time we recycle a battery is one less scoop of earth we have to dig. So that’s a beautiful company for me, where it’s going to be very lucrative for my investors, I believe, but it’s also going to have a great impact on reducing the amount of mining that needs to be done.
Dubber For sure, yeah. And landfill, as well.
David Exactly, 100 percent. So I believe that we come up with economic solutions to social/environmental problems, then there is going to align incentives, and there’s going to be a growing demand for those solutions. Rather than, somehow, I could go out in front of a mine with a picket and say “Down with mining.”, but I’m certainly not going to bring the change that I hope to see.
Dubber Right. So what you’re trying to do instead is not just to incentivise the recycling of the products that the mining companies create, but actually to disincentivise mining.
David Exactly, because why would you mine, it’s so costly, when we have enough materials already available for making more batteries? In fact, the amount of batteries we have sitting around today, we probably don’t have to mine for the next four years.
Dubber Interesting. So what can people do who are setting up new companies? What sort of questions can they ask themselves about the nature of their business so that they can at least be in alignment with some kind of ethical principles?
David I think it has to happen at the very beginning. I don’t think that an entrepreneur can say “One day, when we reach 20 million dollars, then we’re going to start doing some impact.” or “I want to start being more environmentally conscious.”. It has to start from the very beginning.
I’m also a professor, by the way, at the University of San Francisco. I teach entrepreneurship, still. And what I say to my students is that they’re lucky to be alive right now because there are such critical needs in the world that need entrepreneurs. Just look at the world’s population, whether it’s 2.5 to 3 billion, and such a small percentage of that actually has a sustainable life right now. And that’s an enormous population of people to help find great employment for. It’s a great consumer culture. But what does that look like, and how do you design that? How do you organise capital to reach areas that don’t receive capital today? So I think it’s a great time to be an entrepreneur. And, unfortunately, too many university students, whether in Europe or America, they obsess about the small percentage of deployment of capital today in Europe and America when the opportunities are much larger.
Dubber And can you tell me a bit of a story about Kru Nam? Because I think that’s a really interesting way into what you do and to think about what you do.
David Yeah. And I appreciate that because it’s sometimes hard to embrace that “He’s talking about recycling batteries and saving people from human trafficking, and it seems very disparate.”. I think Kru Nam, in many ways, is the heart and soul of everything I do. She’s the centre. When I first discovered the condition of human trafficking and I went from a sewing factory in Los Angeles to visit Thailand, I was told to visit this crazy woman, Kru Nam. And I said “Why is she crazy?”. They said “Well, she runs into karaoke bars and just grabs kids that are being deployed in the commercial sex industry, and she just runs out.”.
So I found her on the border of Myanmar and Thailand, and she had 27 kids, all rescued, no plan, except to get away from the traffickers who had put a follow out on her that they had to kill this woman who’s stealing their kids. And I made a promise to her that I would build her a house. That was all I was going to do. So my intention in this year leave of absence was to go and investigate, write a book, and now I meet Kru Nam and go “Okay, I’ll build a house for you. For you and your 27 kids.”.
So I leave. And it was very funny, because when I left, I asked for her email. And the Thai are very polite people, and so she said “Well, give me yours.”. So I gave her my email, and as I’m walking away, she said to her assistant at the time “What is email anyway?”, and her assistant said “Don’t worry, you’ll never see that American again for the rest of your life.”. So that was our introduction.
Dubber Did that turn out to be true?
David Well, what happened was, I said she had no plan, someone gave her a piece of property for her 27 kids, and they put one structure up using four wood poles and a palm leaf roof. Just covered, no walls. And when I left, maybe three months later, I’m back in California, I’m in San Francisco, and I’m writing my book and talking about Kru Nam, I get this email, and it says “David, it’s Kru Nam. And that one house that we had, it burned down.”. And she showed me a picture, and “We’re in deep trouble.”.
Dubber Oh no.
David So she said “Oh, and, by the way, we now have 53 kids.”, and I go “Oh, wow. Okay. I’ll build you two houses.”. So I basically started Not For Sale as a way to build a village for Kru Nam, because before I could even finish raising the money, she had 108 kids. So if you go to Northern Thailand today, it’s one of our proudest achievements, it’s our first village. 150 kids live there at any one time. And those kids that I met way back then, that was 13/14 years ago, many of them now graduate from university. The first kids from what they call ‘stateless children’ that have graduated from a Thai university. So it’s really an inspiring thing.
And so every one of the companies that I start or invest in, I demand that they have to give some percentage of their revenue, not their profit, but their revenue, to Not For Sale. And so now I have 12 companies that are for-profit companies, that are technology, apparel, food, and they’re all contributing back so that…
Dubber So what you’re talking about is basically a Robin Hood model.
David In many ways it is. It’s redistribution. I don’t know if you said you believe in capitalism. I believe in democratic capitalism, and the problem today is that we have feudal capitalism. Most people in the world do not have access to capital to pursue their dreams. They can’t even get a loan from a bank. They can’t get anyone to believe in them and give them a loan or an investment. And so what I’m trying to do is that. I’m trying to democratise the capital system.
Dubber Interesting. I think about the difference between types of capitalism, if you like, but also types of Christianity. Do you recognise, as somebody from a theology background, the kind of evangelical Christianity that you see running corporate America, for instance? How do you make that make sense to the outside world?
David Well, I understand it well because I grew up an evangelical until I, really, was in my early 20s. But even since when I was someone growing up in that world, it’s changed a lot because in that world there was a distance from political life, whereas today it’s almost embedded. It’s indistinguishable. Trump leads the evangelical church of America, or vice versa. So that’s quite strange to me.
But, to your point, when I began studying how religion plays a role in social fabric, I went to Latin America, and I became exposed to a brand of Christianity called liberation theology, and that was what I wrote my dissertation on. I’m sure I’m the only venture capitalist in America that has a PhD in liberation theology.
Dubber That’s possible, yeah.
David It is possible.
Dubber Do you want to tell us what it is? It sounds lovely, but what is liberation theology?
David It’s basically, it flips on its head the fact that the way that the world is, it’s constructed that way because that’s how God wants it. So Donald Trump is president of the United States because God put him there. That the people who are CEOs of corporations are there because God put them in leadership. All the way down to plantation owners in Latin America were put there, and we work as slaves on his plantation because that’s the order of the universe God put together.
Dubber Wow. That gets a lot of people off the hook really well, doesn’t it?
David Yeah, it really does because, in a way, it’s like “I don’t like slavery much either, but that’s the way God instituted it. What am I to say?”. But liberation theology really flips it on its head and said that God is in favour of the poor. God is in favour of those who are outcast. And you see in the life of Jesus that who did he hang out with? He didn’t hang out with leaders. He actually poked a stick at them all the time. He was in with the poor and the leper. So it flips it upside down, and so liberation is God’s purpose and God’s will for the world. So it’s really fascinating.
So, in a way, I’ve got to say, you landed on it when you said “You’re a Robin Hood.”. It’s really more of I see myself as a Che Guevara, or someone who’s using the tools and methods of capitalism to bring about more liberation, bring about more opportunity, bring about more access.
Dubber Wow. One of the things I thought was really interesting when I was doing a bit of reading before this chat, Bono called you a heroic character. That’s quite something to put on your LinkedIn reference, isn’t it? What was the context for that?
David It was the international tour that U2 was doing many years ago, and I knew his show designer. The guy who did all of Zoo TV, who made all of the set. He’s a great guy. Willie Williams. And he came to San Francisco with U2 on the Amnesty tour, and at the time I was in Latin America. I was working in the area of liberation theology. And I took Willie to go see these wonderful murals that were being painted on the walls of an alleyway in San Francisco with the story of all the Latin American refugees, and how they’d come to San Francisco and the terrible experiences they had. He goes “Bono and Edge would love this. Could I bring them tomorrow? Would you come back and show them?”. I said “Sure.”.
So I walked them through, and when we were walking through, Bono was just really moved. He goes “I want to go to Latin America with you. I want to go to Nicaragua and El Salvador with you. When are you going next?”, and I said “I’m going in about six weeks.”. He goes “Well, I’m going to be there. I’m going to join you.”. I was like “Oh, yeah right. That’s going to happen.”.
Dubber Yeah, for sure.
David I was pretty sure. Lo and behold, six weeks later, he and Ali, his wife, show up, and we travel together across Central America. And it was when they were putting together the Joshua Tree album.
Dubber Wow. ’87?
David That was ‘86/’87, yeah. Those songs are a lot of the experiences of Bono and I together, and Ali, in El Salvador. Like ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’ is when we were in a village in El Salvador together. ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’. So many of that whole album. I think Bono saw first hand that I was willing to be on the ground and do work, rather than just holding up politics, but rather people who were willing to put their feet on the ground. So he admired that, I guess.
Dubber Wow. You talk a little bit in some of your writing about this idea of workplace spirituality. This idea that we can bring whatever our concept of spirituality is into what we do on a day-to-day basis. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
David Sure, yeah. It’s unfortunate that so many people feel like they have to leave the best of themselves behind when they go into their workplace, and “My values and the things that I believe are priorities for my life, well, I just put them aside when I go to work.”. And so I feel like that is such a sacrifice of one’s own personhood that it’s not worth it.
You’re now seeing a Z generation demanding that. They say “Well, I’m not going to take a job that doesn’t somehow fulfil my purpose and my sense of journey.”. But I think it’s much more difficult for people who are boomers or Y generation to think of work as something other than “I make money so that I can… Maybe when I have free time I can pursue the things that are important to me.”, and never expect that. “Of course you can’t practice your values at work. It’s work.”. I guess it’s that when you walk in the door, you’re not kneeling down to the priorities or idols of that world, but that you maintain your sense of integrity and dignity and sense of worth. And if a company can’t support that, then you need to go find another job.
Dubber Right. Which is not always the easiest thing to do in the world.
David It’s not. I certainly feel that’s true for many people I know who work for factories or work in agricultural fields. But I find that the same story is told to me by lawyers and people who are IT professionals, and it really is, when it comes down to it, I call the golden manacles. They’re driven more by salary than they are some greater purpose, and I just don’t feel it’s worth the cost.
Dubber Interesting. And certainly in the States, and other places as well, corporation has the status of an individual, and so it conveniently has the same rights as an individual. Does it have the same responsibilities? Can you talk about the soul of a corporation, for instance?
David Well, I did write a book, ‘Saving the Corporate Soul’. I addressed the fact that every entity creates an ethos or creates a soul. And, unfortunately, I recommend those who are listening today see a documentary called The Corporation, where it talks about the disfunction of that individual. And I can’t think of…
Dubber Well, the diagnosis is psychopath in that film.
David Yeah, it’s a psychopath. Exactly. I firmly believe that Donald Trump, he’s a psychopath. It’s a soul, it’s a tormented soul, and how it’s impacting not only what happens within government but how it impacts the whole nation. And so I see corporations do that as much as corporate politics. When you see a leader who builds a different kind of ethos, when you see a leader that builds a different kind of spirituality that’s present in the company, the ripple effect out there is just tremendous. And so I don’t think we can underestimate the setting of the conditions of that spirituality within an entity.
Dubber Right. On the grand scheme of things, how close are we to abolishing slavery, totally?
David I think, unfortunately, we’re still a long way away from it. I’d like to say that we’re very close. And, again, I feel like you’ve addressed it around exploitation, and it’s a part of the fabric. Unfortunately, almost every NGO in the world that fights slavery fights the consequences. It fights the symptoms. It helps victims, it rescues people. And I think it’s fantastic, we do that at Not For Sale, but it’s not addressing the root causes. It’s not going up to the top of the river and saying “Okay, how do we stop people from being thrown into the river to drown?”. And that’s then addressing the fact that people are so easily tossed aside.
And the reason I started my investment company was I want to create models for businesses that don’t demand exploitation as a part of the process of success. Unfortunately, in America, particularly, but in Europe as well, exploitation is built into the business model. How do we get the cheapest resources? How do we get the cheapest labour? And even if we have to set a standard of ‘fair trade’, quote-unquote, it’s just the minimum that we can do so that people can survive, but we have to get a profit that is acceptable to a standard that the market requires. Unless we create different business models, unless we create different companies that prioritise people and planet, then we’re going to see the same exploitation and human trafficking over and over again.
Dubber Is this because we’re using the wrong success metrics, incentives?
David Exactly. People act towards their incentives. And even, say, I remember, before I started Just Business, I was at an office and I went to, I won’t name it right now, but one of the top apparel companies in America. And I went to the head of manufacturing, and I said “Look it. I could find you a place to manufacture your clothes at maybe a dollar more per every denim jacket, but the people would be able to live this much better.”. And he goes “Well, listen. It’s easy for you to say, because you’re coming here begging me to change our behaviour. Why don’t you start your own company and do it? Because I’m not going to be rewarded, or even keep my job, if I give up that dollar.”. And so you’re incentivised at that level of sourcing or manufacturing to drive down the price, and it is down to a dollar a jacket.
And so that’s when I decided I could never change the corporation as it exists today. I need to start creating other companies where people are “Wow, it’s really possible.”. And that’s my goal. I have no messianic vision that I’m going to create this empire myself, but I’m trying to create models where other people go “Oh, wow. I’d love to play with that model.”, in technology or in apparel or in food. And that’s one of the reasons why there’s a great disparity across the board we have companies, because we’re really experimenting in the type of company, the type of ownership and business or investment model, and exits. Do we go IPO? Do we sell the company? Do we try to keep it? We’re experimenting by trying to find out what brings about the most justice.
Dubber Because it strikes me that there are people who have had your types of experiences that would come to the conclusion that it would be necessary not to save the soul of capitalism, but to completely overthrow it. What has led you to think “No, no, no. This is something that’s worth hanging on to, and it’s something that is worth saving.”?
David Well, it’s a good question. And I suppose it’s, one, based in historical experimentation. I think the revolution model of, say, communism… And, of course, socialism is a broad term, but, say, in Nicaragua they had the socialist revolution, and historically I just haven’t found that those models where a vanguard is going to take the means of production and turn it upside down has worked out very well for the poor. I find that the vanguard becomes quickly as corrupt as the people who preceded them. So that’s one part of it.
The other part of it is that I do believe that economic capital has an incredible power if it can be delivered to a broader number of people. And so, to me, it’s about access. It’s not about capital in and of itself. I think it’s access to capital. And the fact that we’ve allowed for one percent of the population to own eighty percent of the world’s resources, it’s criminal. It’s not even just immoral, it’s criminal. And, to me, the answer is “Well, then we need to do what? We need to find a revolutionary model?”. If it worked I would be all for it, by the way. That’s what liberation theology is, if it worked. I’m just not a big believer that that’s going to bring about the most amount of justice today.
Dubber Sure. I did a little bit of work in Brazil with some collectives there, and their catchphrase was about solidarity economy. This idea of kind capitalism. Is that something workable, do you think?
David Listen, I really do believe in that, and I do believe that what needs to take place is greater sophistication around, then, how those local solidarity economies can find leverage into bigger markets so that they don’t get squeezed. So I think it takes a savvy strategy to go from just a more naïve “Let’s create a local solidarity economy.”, you have to figure out how to deal with bigger capital that will try to squeeze you out. And I think these are the things that I hope a whole other generation of entrepreneurs start experimenting with. But it comes from a commitment first and foremost to humanity, and not first and foremost how much I can gain from my own material wealth.
Dubber Right. Is there a theological underpinning that we can use for this? Is there a parable that we can point to as our North Star that we could use as an example? What’s the guidance in the wisdom literature?
David It’s funny because I wouldn’t even call myself a Christian today, just because of what that word has come to mean in America.
Dubber It’s got a bit of baggage, I have to say.
David Exactly, but I do like what you’re asking about is the parables. Some of those parables of the Good Samaritan, “Who’s our neighbour?” and “Who do we invest and call our brother or sister?”, that, to me, is so powerful. With the parable of the seeds, you throw the seeds in the bad land, you throw it in the good land. They probably are my backbeat, using a musical term, and part because I was raised with it, and partly I still see some great wisdom in them. It’s the wisdom of turning upside down our expectations of worth and value. And when I saw in America recently Black Lives Matter, to me, of course black lives matter, of course that should be a movement, of course, because those are the parables. That’s what it’s all about.
Dubber So are you an optimist?
David I’m an incredible optimist, Dubber.
Dubber You’d have to be, right?
David Yeah. It’s so weird because for what I see in the world, I’m constantly in places like Uganda and Congo and Vietnam and in the streets of Hanoi, you would think that I would be a pessimist or cynical. I, for whatever reason, am inspired by the things that we are succeeding in doing at Not For Sale and Just Business. Those inspire me, and I’m not dragged down by the things we’re not doing. And I can’t even begin to explain why, but, in fact, my daughter said “You’re the most optimistic person I’ve ever met in my life.”. And I don’t know. I’m not optimistic in a delusional way, but it’s like “Okay. Based on what we have now, what do we do next? What are we doing tomorrow?”.
Dubber Well, there’s two things here. One is we’re in such a position that we can only go up from here.
David No, 100 percent that we’re privileged to be an optimist, in some regard. So I have education. It feels like I always have options the next day to work myself out of a conundrum.
Dubber Sure. And also the flip side is, apart from anything else, human beings are pretty cool, for the most part.
David Yeah, absolutely. And the fact of the matter is that as much as I see the terrible things that human beings do to each other, I meet extraordinary human beings and I am inspired by them. I feel a sense of solidarity with them, and I believe in them.
Dubber Fantastic. David, I feel like I’ve done that today. Thanks so much for your time.
David Yeah, a real pleasure. Real fun to chat with you.
Dubber Cheers, thank you.
Dubber That’s David Batstone, and that’s the MTF Podcast. You can find David on Twitter where he occasionally posts as @DaveBatstone, but you can get more recent updates and more regular updates from Not For Sale, which is just @NFS. The MTF Podcast is out every Friday, more or less, so don’t forget to subscribe if you haven’t already, and you can share, like, rate, and review. I’m Dubber, you’ll find me @dubber on Twitter, and you will find everything MTF at our shiny, new @mtflabs account on Twitter and at www.mtflabs.net online. This episode was edited by Sergio Castillo. The intro music was by Michael Shynes, with a Y, and this is music by airtone. And the MTF audio logo, as ever, was created by Run Dreamer. Stay safe, have a great week, and talk soon. Cheers.