Speaker Series Recap: Building Companies Engineered for Both Growth and Good

Here are key takeaways from our April Speaker Series on Responsible Innovation with Jon Zieger and Ragavan Srinivasan.

Article By
Emma Ryan

On April 14th, 2022, Jon Zieger and Ragavan Srinivasan sat down with High Alpha Partner Eric Tobias for an interview unpacking how founders, entrepreneurs, leaders, and investors can build and maintain a responsible innovation company and examples of why social-good businesses are some of the greatest opportunities today.

Jon Zieger is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Responsible Innovation Labs (RIL), a nonprofit creating tools and standards to help innovative companies scale responsibly. Prior to RIL, Jon served as General Counsel of Stripe, where he built and oversaw the company’s legal, compliance, public policy, and corporate security functions. Before Stripe, he spent almost a decade at Microsoft.

Ragavan Srinivasan serves as a responsible innovation advisor for General Catalyst. Prior to General Catalyst, he led the Product Management at Facebook and had the challenge of taking Facebook’s pure AI research and turning it into deployable, scalable products that users would embrace. Prior to Facebook, he led product management for Mozilla's HTML5 Apps initiative. 

As investors and startup leaders, it's our responsibility to ensure that the companies we build are engineered for both growth and good. Jon and Ragavan gave the audience a crash course on responsible innovation and what a principled 21st-century technology ecosystem might look like. Below, we share some of our key takeaways from the interview.

The Best Founders Don't Think About Responsible Innovation As a "Nice to Have" — They Build It Into Their Ethos on Day One

It can be particularly challenging for startups to consider the consequences of their innovations and innovation processes — they’re trying to build their product while keeping the company funded. The best founders build responsible innovation into their company culture from day one. But, how can the average employee find out if their company’s innovation practices align with the responsible innovation approach? Jon and Ragavan offered the following advice: 

  1. Write down your company’s core values. A company’s core values establish guidance for company leadership, employees, and customers. By using core values, you can connect things up. Leaders should ask themselves, how do my actions align with the values we have set forth for the company?
  2. The best leaders model the behavior they want. If you're going to determine if your company's innovations and processes align with the responsible approach, you need to look at your leadership at the highest level and see if they are modeling that behavior. Ask yourself, is this something they are talking about?

Entrepreneurs and Startup Leaders Need to Consider How Things Change at Scale

It’s no secret that entrepreneurs are constantly hit with the question of scalability — how prepared are their startups to accommodate growth? In Jon’s experience, it’s actually one of the most significant challenges entrepreneurs face. He said, “in many cases, entrepreneurs fail to think through how things change at scale. Many of the issues that social media companies experience, for example, are not very serious when they are small. But, when you have millions of people on the platform, you essentially encounter every problem at scale.” 

While many entrepreneurs and startup leaders fail to scale, Jon believes they have a great appreciation for societal impact. He said, “increasingly high-quality founders appreciate the societal impact of what they're doing. I think that's a significant revolution. People also have a greater appreciation for the composition of their team. Entrepreneurs are thinking about the diversity of their team with concreteness early on.”

The lesson is: change management is challenging. As a startup leader, you will not be able to anticipate all of the unintended consequences of innovation. What you can do is create rigor around what the downsides may be and how you can remain on mission at scale by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. What will this look like at scale? 
  2. What are the incentives we're creating for others in the ecosystem?
  3. How might it be misused? 
  4. What are the second-order effects of these things?

Web3 Presents an Opportunity for a Clearer Value of Exchange with the Consumer

Web 2.0 is best characterized by trust in centralized exchanges. Its business model consists of digital giants and service providers that own customer data, ultimately used to earn revenue. As the web evolves, a new iteration built upon decentralization and greater user utility emerges — otherwise known as Web3. The question remains whether the model we have built web 2.0 around will prevail, or will it change significantly moving forward? 

Jon said, “I believe that incentives drive the world. If you are getting the wrong outcomes, you have the wrong incentives. I think the advertising-driven model, in particular, has created a lot of space for warping incentives.” He believes that while targeted advertising is critical, especially for small businesses, it fuels a lot of what he would call “pollution of the information ecosystem.” It's created significant negative externalities that are challenging to control. If we can create a more conducive world for respect for individual privacy, where people pay for services, we create a much clearer value of exchange with the consume

Returning to the Office Is a Moment of Opportunity for Employers

After two years of video meetings and Slack chats, many companies are eager to get employees back to their desks. But how do you facilitate an equitable return to the workplace? Jon and Ragavan offered the following advice: 

  1. Meet the diverse needs of employees. Don’t set blanket expectations for all employees. Instead, establish clear criteria for who can remain fully remote by role and by personal circumstance/preferences. Jon said, “And for those working at home, it is going to require a great deal of intentionality. As a leader, you should think through the “little things” that can make or break a remote employee's experience, like having the right audio experience.”
  2. Leverage this moment to strengthen culture. Ragavan said, “from an inclusion perspective, decision-making should be written down and transparent, so everyone has access to it.”

If you missed the event, you could watch the entire conversation with Jon and Ragavan here. Every month, we sit down with leaders like Jon and Ragavan and dig into learnings from their backgrounds and careers. Make sure to subscribe to our newsletter to get updates on upcoming events.