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Alphabet: Google’s Not-So-Secret Plot to Do Good and Save the World

Larry Page, CEO of the company formerly known as Google, once suggested that rather than leaving his wealth to charity he may just give it to Elon Musk. He believed in Musk’s vision of a manned mission to Mars “to back up humanity.” “That’s a company,” he said, “and that’s philanthropical.”

Page’s dream, shared by his co-founder Sergey Brin, is to take the world’s biggest technology company and transform it into a vehicle for saving the planet. He is nothing if not ambitious. To achieve that end he has created a new holding company called Alphabet. On one side will be its search business, which generates the bulk of the company’s revenues. On the other side will be everything else: autonomous vehicles, home thermostats, and, of course, death-curing drugs.

The technology sector’s answer to Berkshire Hathaway is in one sense a more efficient form of capital allocation with good branding. Looked at another way, Alphabet is a doubling down on a vision to change the world.

“Is a for-profit company better equipped to transform the planet than a non-profit charity?”

Larry Page and Sergey Brin were never quite satisfied in running a search engine company. In their founders letter from 11 years ago, they wrote, “Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.”

Leaving aside the question as to whether Alphabet is the right vehicle to pursue these ambitions, or whether it can grow large enough to achieve them, is a for-profit company better equipped to transform the planet than a non-profit charity? Will a hypothetical million dollars invested in Alphabet do more for the world than the same million donated to the Red Cross?

For an entrepreneur at the helm of a massive cash machine, surely the answer is “more Alphabet.” But is it that simple? If the goal is to change the world, and said entrepreneur is not a disciple of Ayn Rand, then the company’s vision matters. Google’s original mission was, “Don’t be evil,” and the company trusted that doing good aligned with maximizing their long-term return on capital.

There need not be a binary choice between what is, in essence, venture capital and venture philanthropy. Both leverage today’s resources for tomorrow’s change. It is increasingly possible for maximizing good to be a great way to maximize returns—if given a long enough time horizon.

Impacting humanity used to be capital intensive and hard to scale. That’s where technology comes in. Just look at the smartphone, a mobile supercomputer that reached a third of humanity in less than a decade. The software inside can be inexpensively equipped to provide basic services previously out of reach to billions of people.

Entrepreneurs want big problems to solve. There are hardly bigger dragons to slay than those that stalk the civic and social worlds. Human-sized problems will remain. But to be Larry Page is to sit astride the world. And even that may not be enough.

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