Creating opportunity
Why American Innovation is a Powerful Problem Solver
Above the Fold | March 25, 2016

If you have listened to a speech on the campaign trail or tuned into one of the presidential debates, you’ve heard the attacks being leveled against U.S. businesses and America’s private sector. While they have antagonized different industries in different ways, the underlying message we keep hearing from several of the candidates has been consistent – that is, that businesses are a part of the problems our country faces.

But if you had the opportunity like we did to spend time in Austin last week, you likely returned home with a different perspective. No matter where you looked at the annual SXSW Interactive convention, there was yet another example of businesses and innovators playing a vital role in tackling some of the biggest problems facing not just our country but the world.

Nowhere was it more apparent than during the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s conversation with Maria Rose Belding, a sophomore at American University who has built an online network that connects thousands of food pantries, helping them share excess food that might otherwise go to waste. There it was sitting on either side of her in the form of Alexander Justice Moore and Brian MacNair, each of them leading their own social enterprises that are harnessing the power of data and analytics to battle hunger in the U.S. and globally.

It was palpable during USAID’s Global Innovation Challenge event, where Doreen Kessy showcased her startup’s “edutainment” tools for children in Africa, designed to help them learn to love learning and improve education across the continent. Next up was Jehiel Oliver, pitching his firm’s Uber-for-tractors service that helps farmers in low-income areas obtain access to equipment, and then Jonathan Jackson, whose small software company helps innovators in underserved parts of the world develop their own mobile apps.

It resonated from entrepreneurs like Dani Lachowicz, who founded a socially driven jewelry company that donates funding to pay for childhood vaccinations in developing countries every time a customer buys a pair of earrings or bracelet. And from Ravikant Singh, who co-founded a tech startup with a self-learning wildlife surveillance system that helps endangered species.

There it was when Seth Bannon talked about how his startup Amicus is helping nonprofits around the country turn their supporters into fundraisers, and when Christian Erfurt walked through the inspiration for creating an iPhone app that connects blind people with sighted volunteers who can help with everyday tasks through live video chat.

It’s not just startups that are changing the world for the better, either.

It’s people like Google.org Director Jacquelline Fuller, whose presentation in an Austin Convention Center ballroom illustrated how the tech company’s philanthropic arm has funded startups battling everything from the Zika virus to racial injustice to migrant crises.

It’s companies like Budweiser, which launched its “Tackle Impossible: A Force for Safer Roads” campaign last week at SXSW. Through the initiative, the company is recruiting tech innovators to brainstorm and create solutions that can help prevent drinking and driving.

It’s innovators like Courtney Bowman, an engineer on Silicon Valley-based Palantir’s privacy and civil liberties group, who last week discussed how the software company is working with law enforcement officials to build data-driven solutions to fight slavery and human trafficking.

It’s big thinkers like Juan Hindo, a manager at IBM who discussed how the company’s World Community Grid project enables any person with a laptop or mobile device to donate unused computing power to philanthropic research teams – and how some of that computing power recently helped lead to a breakthrough in clean water filtration technology.

So while some of the candidates continue to try to score political points by vilifying American businesses and innovators, SXSW served a reminder that those businesses and innovators will not be deterred. They’ll continue to do what they have always done: identifying problems, thinking outside the box, and creating solutions. In the process, they’re doing what our country really needs: creating jobs, fueling opportunity and driving the American economy forward.

This story was originally published in Above the Fold.