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Idea Man Josh Mailman Sets Out to Change the World

Social Venture Network. Business for Social Responsibility. Net Impact. Grameen Telecom. Some of the most well-known names in progressive and socially-responsible businesses share a common touchpoint: Josh Mailman. Son of the late Joseph Mailman, founder of a knife and razor company that grew into the conglomerate Mailman Corporation, Josh emulates his father’s entrepreneurial (and philanthropic) spirit—always on the lookout for the next big idea.

For the younger Mailman, social activism is a natural outgrowth of political activism in the 1960s and 70s. That activism defines his philanthropy to this day. “I back agitators, instigators, and organizers,” says Mailman. “Those are the people that get stuff done.”

Mailman is a trailblazer in impact investing, having provided seed money for Stonyfield Farms, Seventh Generation, and dozens of other successful, socially-minded businesses. Meanwhile, he’s been a major proponent of corporate social responsibility. As founder of the Threshold Foundation, Mailman has rallied other philanthropists to join him in building movements to change the world.

Mailman’s philanthropic purview is simultaneously local and global, from Grameen Phone in Bangladesh, to the Middle East, where he proposed a Muslim version of the MacArthur genius awards, to supporting native peoples and communities. All of these disparate investments share a common thread: Mailman’s strong commitment to like-minded “activist entrepreneurs” like himself.

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It's important to be great and pure individuals. That itself becomes more powerful than whatever resources we have to bear. The great and pure individuals change people's hearts. And if you change people's hearts along the way, they change others’ hearts and that is a process of social change.

When you start to open your heart to what's going on in the world; when you think about who the people are that are growing our food, what is happening to women in the Eastern Congo or women on the street in New York, where even now in certain countries, women who get raped have to marry, if their rapist agrees to marry them, then you say, What can I do about it? And you have to go and you have got to do stuff.

Advancing business accountability and business responsibility is the great under-looked area in philanthropy today. What people don't realize is that businesses can be influenced and businesses can change. It's just that the way that philanthropy has traditionally operated, nobody wants to put a lot of money into seeing how that change can take place. But the fact is there's fantastic leverage there.

If you really want to change society you have to build movements. The idea of getting wealthy people involved in building movements is a really good idea, because movements are mostly people that don't have money. So it's a really good combination because you need people to change things, you need communities of people to move the world forward.

What does it matter whether we live in a world where there's suffering? Do we have a responsibility to do something about it or not? Is it in our interest to do something about it? Does it make our lives better? What people are saying when they decide to basically vote for a more just society with their dollars and with their businesses or whatever is, yes, it makes a difference.