This week’s torah portion (Parashat haShavua), Noach, presents us with two distinct types of businesses: One for-purpose and one for-profit.
The story of the Tower of Babel enterprise is a parable for the normative culture that governs today’s business world. It is a culture whose purpose is to maximize profits for shareholders; a culture that treats the most important inventions of human history as though they were shiny toys whose sole purpose is to be used to build a tower that will touch the sky.
In contrast, the story of Noah’s ark venture embodies the developments we are beginning to see in recent years of new social and economic approaches, including conscious capitalism, impact investing and the for-purpose approach to business.
The Tower of Babel Enterprise
We begin with the story of the Tower of Babel which represents the ruling socioeconomic culture today.
The Tower of Babel entrepreneurs are talented and ambitious. They all live in the same valley in the land of Shinar, and they all speak “one language and uniform words”. They also demonstrate an aptitude for invention as they come up with one of the most important inventions for the development of mankind: the modern brick.
(11:3) And they said to one another, come, let us make bricks and fire them thoroughly; so the bricks were to them for stones, and the clay was to them for mortar.
The brick was a revolutionary invention. Man learned how to take the abundant mud found at riverbanks, pour it into wooden molds, dry it, solidify it in an oven and thus create a substitute for stone masonry. This was significant in that it allowed the people of that time to build expansive settlements even in areas where natural building materials were nowhere to be found.
The people of Babel, then, had the power to move mountains and change the world. With the help of the brick they could have, for instance, build what we call today affordable housing, freeing many people from their dependency on nature. But what did they choose to do? Build a tower with its top in the heavens:
(11:4) And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth.”
The people of Babel are treating the brick as though it was a shiny toy whose sole purpose is to bring glory to the entrepreneurs. As punishment, God confuses their language and scatters them across the earth:
(11:5-8) And the Lord descended to see the city and the tower that the sons of man had built. And the Lord said, ‘Lo! They are one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they have commenced to do. Now, will it not be withheld from them, all that they have planned to do? Come, let us descend and confuse their language, so that one will not understand the language of his companion.’ And the Lord scattered them from there upon the face of the entire earth, and they ceased building the city.
Today’s economic culture is not that different from the prevalent culture in the days of the Tower of Babel. The first rule of modern economy says that the purpose of the corporate is to build towers with their heads in the heavens. That is, to establish businesses whose purpose is to maximize profits for the shareholders.
More than that, the power of today’s technology is so great that the volume of modern inventions is higher in value compared to that of the brick and rising. That is why the big data we have at our disposal, for example, is so powerful that it can be considered sacred technology. With it, along with other technologies such as AI, robotics, space research and more, we could have categorize user intent in such a way that could have prevented the next plague, or war, stopped suicide attempts and benfit humankind in all sorts of ways.
In reality, such wonderful technologies are being exploited primarily to map user intent in order to sell more shaving cream, to name one example. Instead of Tikkun Olam, the hedonistic celebration continues to occupy the stage of social media platforms while wars and plagues are raging all over the world, and more money continues to pour into the pockets of shareholders. The results of this tragic reality are known to us all: A world where the economic gaps continue to grow and a proliferation of social and environmental crises the likes of which the world has never seen.
All of us, tech titans and small startups, veteran CEOs and young entrepreneurs, even users themselves, we are all guilty of prolonging the idea according to which the purpose of technology, of our unity and of our entrepreneurial abilities is to maximize profits for shareholders. And we must all work together to change that.
The Ark venture
Against the Tower of Babel the Parasha presents us with the story of the flood. Here we learn about the first startup in human history, certainly in the field of climatech – Noah’s ark. The entrepreneur of Noah’s ark is played by Noah, whom from our first encounter with him we can see that this is “a righteous man he was perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God.” Clear as day, Noah is driven by his passion for Tikkun Olam and not by greed.
Noah presents a crystal clear purpose for his startup: Saving Mankind and all other living creatures on the face of the earth. It is such an important purpose that were he to fail, the entire human race could be extinct, just like the dinosaurs. The climate crisis has faced Noah with an extreme social and environmental challenge. At the same time, it was an opportunity to fulfill his destiny and save the world and humankind, an opportunity he accepted with open arms.
With such a clear purpose it is easy to understand how Noah managed to build an accurate roadmap that specifies the exact materials and measurements of the ark. As Nietzsche once said, he who has a Why to live can bear almost any How. And as it says in Genesis:
(6:14) Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with compartments, and you shall caulk it both inside and outside with pitch. And this is the size you shall make it: three hundred cubits the length of the ark, fifty cubits its breadth, and thirty cubits its height. You shall make a skylight for the ark, and to a cubit you shall finish it to the top, and the entrance of the ark you shall place in its side; you shall make it with bottom compartments, second story compartments, and third story compartments.
Almost a year after the flood dies down, the earth finally reveals itself, allowing Noah, his family and all the animals that are with him to come out of the ark and begin building their lives in the renewed land. As it says:
(8:16) Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons, and your sons’ wives with you. Every living thing that is with you of all flesh, of fowl, and of animals and of all the creeping things that creep on the earth, bring out with you, and they shall swarm upon the earth, and they shall be fruitful and multiply upon the earth. So Noah went out, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him. Every beast, every creeping thing, and all fowl, everything that moves upon the earth, according to their families they went forth from the ark.
The story of Noah’s ark echoes social and economic trends that are growing in popularity these days, including conscious capitalism, impact investing and the for-purpose approach to business.
In recent years, there seems to be a growing understanding that every business, venture and startup should have a purpose. More and more we are realizing that building towers with their heads in the heavens is not good for humanity. A food company should not strive to maximize its profits by producing food from the cheapest, most addictive materials it can find. A drug company should not maximize profits by selling drugs made to counter the negative effects of poor-quality food.
Instead, food companies should be feeding the public with healthy, nutritious food and drug companies should work to improve the health and quality of life of people everywhere. The thing is, for a business to have purpose does not necessarily mean it must feed all hungry people in Africa or find a cure for cancer. Every business wherever it is should act on the basis of purpose according to its field and abilities.
We live in the post-Tower of Babel age. We speak many different languages and are scattered across the earth. And yet, the unity that lies between us does not fall from the unity that the people of Babel had. In the entrepreneurial world, there is one central currency (the Dollar), one central language (English), many translation platforms that are easy to operate and many different means of communication, all of which have made the world a global village. Add to that the fact that coding languages can be learned by anyone, anywhere, regardless of the language they speak or the country they live in. The result is that we are now able to cooperate with each other as though God has never confused our language.
Like the Tower of Babel, and unlike the story of the flood, there is a powerful unity between us and a trove of technological toys to play with. Is our future in danger? Are we destined to be punished the same way the people of Babel were?
The global financial crisis does not bode well on this matter. The economic gaps that are great as it is are predicted to grow further this year, according to the World Bank. While a small number of strong economies are driving the fastest recovery in over 80 years, many less fortunate countries are still struggling to get back to pre-pandemic income levels. This is happening on the backdrop of a war in Ukraine, civil unrest around the world, and an acute environmental crisis. All these and more point to the possibility that the answer to those questions is yes. And yet, we, entrepreneurs and investors, cannot afford to let our spirit fall. We must engrave our commitment to building a better world on our hearts, now more than ever.
And on that matter, the business opportunity here is rare. If on one side of the axis are buildings with their top in the heavens and on the other is for-purpose business thinking, we must strive to walk along the latter. The more we walk in the right direction, the more we delay our apocalyptic demise, shorten the time it takes to get out of the crisis, and move towards success and prosperity. That way, one may hope, we could restore the rainbow which God created as a sign of the covenant between Himself and us, an expression of a more harmonious world, and prosper the way Noah and his offspring did.