A $100 Million Mission to Alleviate Human Suffering: Q&A With Evolve Foundation’s’ Bo Shao
Nov 12. 2019 China’s Shao Family deployed $100 million in a unique non-profit focused on combating loneliness, purposelessness, fear and anger through technology.
“I know a lot of very wealthy people and many are very anxious or depressed,” venture capitalist and entrepreneur Bo Shao told TechCrunch at the time of the launch. Shao launched EachNet in 1999, an e-commerce company that would become China’s largest by the time it was acquired by eBay for US$225 million in 2003.
His experience launching companies and managing teams informs his foundation’s philosophy. “Being the CEO and founder of a startup is a very lonely job,” he says in a post on his website. Over the past two years, the Foundation has invested in ventures focused on meditation (Insight Timer), parenting (Parent Lab) and corporate soft-skills (Oji Life Lab).
In this interview, Shao shares his outlook for the burgeoning wellness technology sector and the rise of social entrepreneurship across the world.
Which technology has had the largest impact on alleviating suffering over the past decade?
The most effective technology is really meditation itself, which has ancient roots in many spiritual traditions. Practicing meditation regularly can change your life and, according to an increasing amount of scientific research, can change our brain physiology as well. Apps like Insight Timer have made it much easier for people to access high quality teachers from a wide variety of religious and secular sources.
It is hard to imagine that barely 25 years ago, to learn meditation from a good teacher one had to go on month-long pilgrimages to India, Thailand or some other remote place. For example, Steve Jobs famously went on such a trip, only to find when he arrived in India that the guru he sought had passed away a few months before.
Which solutions or gaps do you see in this area today that are being overlooked by entrepreneurs?
I think we are missing more effective communities, deeper networks that connect like-minded and like-hearted people, so they can support each other in inner growth. It takes courage, patience and dedication to confront ourselves and pursue inner growth. We need to be supported by a caring group of peers who can share learnings, challenges and triumphs.
For example, StrongMinds, a non-profit in Uganda that Evolve Foundation (our sister organization) supports, has been able to achieve a 70% cure of depression after only 12 weeks by bringing women together in facilitated therapy groups. We need platforms that can build communities that integrate online and offline experiences. You could say that we need a new church-like network without dependence on dogma or exclusivity.
In his book, McMindfulness, author Ronald E. Purser describes the corporatization of meditation apps and services across the world. How do you, as an investor, figure out if an entrepreneur is driven by social consciousness rather than profit?
There is nothing wrong with profit. Evolve Ventures invests in for-profit organizations and Evolve Foundations support non-profit ones. In either case, we want to make sure the entrepreneur pays as much attention to the impact of the organization as to profit, fame, or power. It can be quite tricky, particularly if the organization achieves a certain level of success and fame.
It is important to us that the entrepreneur engages in his or her own inner work, and we frequently act as an advisor or sounding board in their personal journey. We think continuing to work on oneself is the best insurance against being lost in the commercial world of money and fame.
Your investments are spread across the world. What are the differences between social entrepreneurs in the East and the West, in your opinion?
I can only speak about China, where I grew up and still spend a lot of time. There are many fewer social entrepreneurs there than in the West. In China, people are just beginning to awaken to the reality that money, fame, and power do not lead to sustained joy and meaning on a personal level. Furthermore, they are now seeing the side effects on a society level of the relentless drive for material prosperity – prevalence of mental health issues, environmental degradation, etc.
I’d say that the U.S. is 10 to 20 years ahead of China in this regard, but even in the U.S., by far the majority of capable entrepreneurs have not woken up to the fact that the pursuit of material wealth and comfort does not lead to desired outcomes on a personal and societal level.
What advice would you give investors looking to make an impact like you?
I don’t usually give advice, but for me, focusing on my own inner work, developing more clarity and wisdom, understanding my structures of thinking and patterns of doing from my own childhood, helps me be a more effective and focused investor.
I am able to use my resources in a more fundamentally positive way because I am less driven by reactive, unconscious patterns of thinking. I also found it helpful to think deeply about the root causes of the problems that I am trying to solve, and that requires developing and refining a certain worldview. I found that my worldview has significantly shifted as I started on my journey of personal growth. What I fund today is very different from what I would have funded 10 years ago, before I started to find my more authentic self.