Jim Fruchterman is the president
of Benetech, a Silicon Valley nonprofit that specializes in high-tech
solutions to humanitarian problems.
Jim Fruchterman is the president of Benetech, a Silicon Valley nonprofit
that specializes in high-tech solutions to humanitarian problems.
In this interview with FRONTLINE/World correspondent Clark Boyd, Fruchterman talks about bringing the values of social entrepreneurship to his work, where his company can choose to develop products based on what is “important and right, as opposed to what makes money.”
He also explains how his company became involved with human rights investigations. “Every time human rights information gets lost,” he says, “that’s someone’s story of suffering that now will make no impact on the world. And we thought that was an injustice we had to fight.”
This interview took place at Benetech’s headquarters in Palo Alto, California, on April 7, 2008. It has been edited for clarity.
Q: Tell me about Benetech. How did all of this come about?
Fruchterman: Benetech is Silicon Valley’s not-deliberately nonprofit high-tech company. We [develop] applications of technology that make a huge social impact but don’t make enough money for a for-profit company to do.
Q: How did Benetech become “not deliberately nonprofit?”
When I started my first successful high-tech company, we made technology that could help the blind. But that wasn’t our commercial market. My investors said, “We don’t want you to go off and do this separate [product] for the blind. We want you to focus on making us money.” I was frustrated and said, “Well, I should start a nonprofit that actually makes equipment for the blind, even though it’s only a million-dollar-a-year market.” That kind of market failure happens everywhere in the technology sector. Twenty years ago you had to be a hundred-million-dollar market opportunity to get venture capitalists interested, and the number’s gone up since. So as we keep finding these great technology applications, we decide this is so important that we’re going to do it, even if we’re not going to make money. It’s there mainly to make the social impact.
Q: Let’s talk about some of the technologies that you have utilized at Benetech.
The first product that we brought under the Benetech umbrella was a reading machine for the blind. We had invented character recognition technology that could read just about anything. A great application of that -- other than helping lawyers scan tax forms -- is helping blind people read by actually scanning the page, figuring out the words, and then having a voice synthesizer read it aloud or printing it out in Braille. That project became a $5-million-a-year social enterprise. It broke even from revenues. For 10 years, we provided 40,000 reading machines to the blind all over the world. About five years, we figured out that it wasn’t
just the blind. We surveyed our users and found that 15 percent of them were dyslexic. We made a special version of the product that was designed for people with learning disabilities.
After that we took the next logical step. I encountered the Napster technology because the woman who ran Napster lived two doors down and her teenage son gave my teenage son Napster. After thinking, Gosh, this is totally illegal but extremely cool, we decided to use that concept to help blind people share the books they scan. If one person scanned a book, no one else would have to scan it a second time. And so that’s our book-share project, which is an online library. We say it’s sort of amazon.com meets Napster meets talking books to the blind – but legal.
Q: What are you looking for when searching for new technologies or needs to fill?
We have a model for choosing projects. Is anyone else doing it? Is there a great social payoff? In other words, what’s the social bang for the buck? Invest a million dollars, and help a million people? That’s a pretty good deal. Do we know something about the technology? We tend to pick projects that involve software or content online. Is there a case of market failure? Is there a way of getting it sustainable?
We have all these sort of issues that we wrestle with in choosing from the hundreds of good ideas out there before we actually settle on a project. I had wanted to help the human rights movement for years. As I talked to people, I found that they were like most social sector people – a few years behind the times. Then I ran into Patrick Ball, [now a computer scientist at Benentec], and Patrick told me what he thought we could do to help -- develop software for human rights groups, because no Silicon Valley company that wants to make money would ever write software for global human rights activists.
Q: Why not?
Because they don’t have much money. I mean, there are probably as many human rights and social justice activists as there are people in mortgage banking. There are 10 or 20 companies, I’m sure, writing software for mortgage bankers. But almost no one writes software for human rights people. That’s the kind of market failure that we want to tackle because it’s important and right, as opposed to because it makes money.
Q: So you created Martis, a data analysis program for human rights organizations.
Our idea was writing software for the grass-roots human rights activist. You’ve got groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and the United Nations at the top. They’ve got their own information technology because they’re big enough organizations. But when you get all the way down to the grass-roots organizations, they don’t have software that’s designed for their particular need.
We don’t try to recreate email software or word processors or spreadsheets. Those sorts of things work just fine for everybody. But when you’re in an area like human rights, there are specific needs activists have that are unique to their circumstances. They need security because they are often in a very tenuous security situation. They need backup. We found that the majority of human rights testimonies that are captured are lost. Lost because the group goes out of business, lost because the group is suppressed. Lost because the building burns down. Lost because the computers get stolen. Lost because termites ate the files, as we found in one group in Sri Lanka. And every time human rights information gets lost, that’s someone’s story of suffering that now will make no impact on the world. We thought that was an injustice we had to fight. We actually give them the tools to capture information, so it can be used for advocacy, used for connecting people, and, eventually, maybe someday, used for bringing people to justice.
Q: So you have a great tool and you want to get it out to these groups. Is it sometimes a hard sell since technology can be intimidating for people?
We look at marketing technology similar to the way the high-tech world does, but we have no money. We have to go sort of shoestring, word of mouth. We built Martis thinking “build it and they will come.” Some people did, but not as many as we hoped. We thought, Well, who are the people who are really successful with Martis? People we visited and spent time [with], understanding how they were going to use information to advance their mission. The best way to promote Martis was to go out and spend more time in the field, working with the actual groups and saying, “Hi, we’re here from Silicon Valley. We’re here to help you.” Then, actually listening to what they said.
Q: You’ve learned as you’ve gone along?
You know, people in the human rights field are often antitechnology or certainly a-technological. In many cases, technology has been used to cause the injustices they’re fighting. The boss of that human rights group is going to be looking at it as, “How is doing more stuff with information going to help me advance my objectives, which is obtaining justice for this indigenous group or trying to get an indictment against this former dictator?” Now we speak that language and say, “How are we going to help you accomplish your mission by using technology and using what is probably your biggest asset – the information you’ve collected from all these people who have testified to the suffering that they or their family or people in their community have experienced?”
Q: Can you give me a sense of the geographic scope of Martis?
Martis has been translated into a lot of different languages – English, Spanish, Arabic, Thai, Russian. I think we’re also doing Nepali. The list goes on. And those are just the languages the user interface and the documentation has been translated into. It also accepts human rights bulletins in a wide variety of other languages. I’d say we’re just about all over the world. We have activities in Central America and South America, in Africa, India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia. We are working in just about every region where there are activists collecting data about human rights abuses.
Q: What is your personal idea of social entrepreneurship?
I come to the social sector as a former high-tech entrepreneur. I used to run for-profit companies. So I think of the users of our software and technology as customers. I think one of the essences of social entrepreneurship is that it’s not about charity, even though it is often funded by charity or foundations. It’s about empowering your partners. In other words, we and our partners are jointly going about the business of social change. In some cases, it’s getting a homeless person a job. In other cases, it’s coming up with a better way to combat a health threat. In our case, it is [doing a variety of] projects, from disabled people’s literacy and human rights to helping the environmental movement. It’s all [about] going there and treating them with the respect that a high-tech company would treat its customers – listening to them rather than coming to them saying, “Hi, I’m from a charity. You’re a poor, lowly social sector person, and you should do what we tell you to do.” That’s the wrong way to go about it.
Q: In your experience, what has been the downside or the biggest challenge for the social entrepreneur business model?
I think one downside of the social entrepreneurship model is people expect you to make money. If you sound like you’re a business, people say, “Well, if you were a real business you’d be making lots and lots of money.” We say, “Hang on a second. Actually, we’re social entrepreneurs. Our job is primarily social.” Sometimes our rhetoric catches up to us if we talk too much about the revenue-generation aspects.
Being focused on results, on serving the people who we work with, these things aren’t dissimilar from what businesses do. But what really is different is what’s the bottom line? Is it financial? Is it making money for shareholders? That is the for-profit ultimate bottom line. A social entrepreneur says that the social mission is the ultimate bottom line. If we can’t make enough money, but we think the mission is important, we’ll find the money from a foundation, from a donor, from something. We make sure that work happens.
Q: Do you think more people in the tech sector are getting interested in this kind of work? Is there a sort of latent desire to find some way to help that hasn’t been there before?
I think the tech sector is really interested in social entrepreneurship and in return on investment. Many people who make a lot of money in high tech don’t come from, let’s say, family money. They’ve made it themselves. They are starting to wrestle with how do I actually use my money in an intelligent way? We now have a lot of role models of people who’ve tackled that issue, from Hewlett-Packard to Bill Gates, and obviously, the two founders of eBay are among of our biggest funders.
And so each one of them is wresting with, How do I make a dent in this social problem with my limited funds? Even billionaires, relatively speaking, have limited funds compared to government spending. So [it’s] a question of where’s the maximum leverage. We don’t think technology is the solution to all the world’s problems, but we think that it does a lot for improving people’s productivity and outcomes. We think that same amount of power and technology should be available to people in disadvantaged communities.
Q: How has your partnership worked with the Office for Human Rights in Guatemala?
Our relationship with the Guatemalans is a great example of how we work. When we heard that there were 60 or 80 million pages of documents, we got together with the Guatemalans and some archival experts to decide first if there is something worth scanning. We took a sample, just 1,500 documents, and found that a lot of those documents had something to do with human rights abuse. That gave the Guatemalans the ammunition – well, maybe that’s not the right word – but it gave our partners the Guatemalans the right kind of information [so] they could look for funding. They were able to raise several million dollars from European funders to set up a major scanning operation to go through those documents. Now, they are acquiring that information and finding human rights violations. They’re using our Martis software to capture information, so that they have a database. As time goes on and they acquire more and more information, we might be able to do some statistics on that data.
Q: Is that a model for how you’d like to see Martis used in other places around the world?
In general, it’s a model that we want to follow. There’s data. Let’s capture it. Let’s make sure it doesn’t get lost. When there’s a political opportunity – maybe a regime change or a civil conflict is settled – we want to make sure that we have access to that data. We can help people do truth and reconciliation, maybe come up with some information for a court case.
It’s something we find all over the world. It turns out that abusive police forces are actually quite bureaucratic, and they collect an awful lot of data. If we can get our hands on that, then we can help people find out not only what happened to their relative or how many people disappeared or were tortured, but also analyze some of the structural issues that created that human rights abuse. So when it’s time to create a reformed police force – because every country still needs police – they don’t make the mistakes they made in the past.