Seeds: An Outside Perspective

Hi. My name is Joe.

I’ve known about Seeds for a few years now, having been friends with Rachel since high school. Prior to the conception of the company, I had talked a lot with her about a documentary she was making about this practice I’d never heard of before: microlending. I was immediately struck by the concept because of the tremendous impact I could envision coming from such a simple idea. I mean, taking out a business loan is the primary way most small companies in westernized counties start out, so why wouldn’t the same practices be applicable and effective for small businesses in developing countries as well? And where it generally requires many thousands of dollars for a company to get started in the western world, small businesses in other places can often get off the ground with literally only tens of dollars, if that. So for someone like me living in the United States, the notion that a $50, $20, even $10 contribution could make all the difference for, say, a baker in Kenya, was really a revelation. In terms of “bang for your buck” contributions, this seemed to be one of the most effective and efficient ways to spend charitable dollars.

And that was the other thing: this wasn’t charity. This wasn’t about just helping to pay for clothes, or food, or water for someone in a needy community; it was about empowering them to be able to acquire those things for themselves. This was a way for those of us fortunate enough to have any amount of disposable income to give a hand up to those who didn’t. And on a mass scale, with enough people contributing to loans that could fuel small businesses, this could literally be a way to lift entire societies out of poverty and welcome them into the global economy.

The implications microlending had for the developing world were captivating enough. But when Rachel finally had the idea for Seeds and explained the concept behind the company, I realized that this also had massive implications for our world as well. Her vision to inspire extra spending on app- and web-based purchases as a means to fund these microloans was eye opening. I spend a lot of time thinking about the ethics of economics. For example, we know there is enough wealth in the world that we could literally eradicate poverty. But in order to actually accomplish this, enough people with money would either have to a.) give the requisite amount of their own free will, or b.) would have to be forced to do so. Neither of those situations seems likely. From this, we quite often conclude that this gross wealth inequality is a moral problem, that the reason poverty persists is that those of us who have are too greedy and don’t care enough about our neighbors who don’t. I don’t necessarily disagree with this assessment, but I also don’t think the dynamics of large group behavior make it likely that a massive guilt-trip or “come to Jesus” moment is going to fix the problem. To really make headway in the problem of poverty, we have to see this issue as an engineering one.

Human nature follows just as predictable of patterns on a large scale as do other natural phenomena like gravity or fluid dynamics. I mean, we don’t get planes off the ground by coercing gravity to let up a little bit just so we can fly to Florida. No, we take a step back, we figure out how gravity works in conjunction with other factors like aerodynamics, lift, velocity, etc., and then we engineer a solution that uses those factors to get us where we want to go. So why should dealing with human nature be any different? If we can’t force enough people act charitably to fix the problem of poverty, then maybe we can engineer a system that harnesses predictable factors of human nature to channel economic behaviors in a way that ultimately does.

This is what I think Seeds is doing.

By understanding that when people are on the fence about spending a nominal amount of money (like $1.99 for an in-app purchase), the enticement of part of their purchase going toward a social good is often enough to get a consumer to pull the trigger. This not only encourages economic activity, but makes “charitable” giving a more passive, latent function of standard consumer spending. And because so little goes such a long way for these entrepreneurs in need, it doesn’t take all that much on our end to achieve high-impact. I really think the more this idea catches on, the more it will become a default in the way we approach spending in our industrialized economies, and I think that Seeds is going to be remembered as one of the major players who led the way toward this vision becoming reality.