Eccentric Tech Billionaires Have Feelings Too: Social Good from Deep Pockets

In a culture where wealth is becoming ever more concentrated in the hands of the few, displays of such wealth become correspondingly grotesque. But beyond the shenanigans made by billionaires with little better to do, some actually have a strong drive to work for social change. They may choose to do so in bizarre ways, or while embarking on their eccentric hobbies, but nonetheless this plutocracy is making lasting positive impacts.

Possibly the most visible example of a serial entrepreneur who makes unique choices is Elon Musk. While not all of his business decisions have been traditionally executed, at 46 he has amassed $20.8 billion through his ventures at SpaceX, Tesla, and The Boring Company. A recent stratagem saw The Boring Company in the news earlier this year about the limited edition of flamethrowers. Unequivocally described by reviewers as an overpriced and under-spec branded device described by TBC as a “Not A Flamethrower” sold out despite these specifics.

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Musk giving Obama a Falcon 9 tour in 2010

Though referred to as a glorified roof torch strapped to an Airsoft rifle by the Verge, the sales completed their limited run of 20,000 in four days despite complications with international markets and general publicity stunts. But it is generally accepted that this wasn’t just about making a rich guy richer - The Boring Company is privately funded, and was created to make mass transportation cheaper and more efficient by taking it underground with higher-tech and faster tunneling machinery.

It is important to note that SpaceX has launched a Tesla into orbit, and there were no corresponding flashy campaigns. On Twitter, he expounds eloquently and romantically on the impact that underground transportation can have on a community. Just earlier this month, he presented a new video of the tunnel car, describing the system: “Boring Co urban loop system would have 1000’s of small stations the size of a single parking space that take you very close to your destination & blend seamlessly into the fabric of a city, rather than a small number of big stations like a subway.”

The system, which Musk refers to as the “Hyperloop,” is a transit system that plans to prioritize pedestrians and cyclists over cars, and most likely will look like a hybrid system of tunnels and above-ground throughways. As a “matter of courtesy & fairness. If someone can’t afford a car, they should go first.”

 
 

Though the extremely wealthy are known for disingenuous self-aggrandizement, sometimes we can be pleasantly surprised. While it may take serious time for The Boring Company plan to come to fruition, the expected impact could be remarkable with a first experiment in Los Angeles. Always contending with traffic and environmental pollution, the sprawling Southern Californian city is an ideal spot for some game-changing transit disruption.

In a much different approach than is typical for tech culture, Peter Thiel is an outspoken commentator on startup industries with a less-than-liberal bent. After co-founding PayPal and becoming Facebook first outside investor, his pursuits have amassed him $2.6 billion as of 2017. His activities has gotten controversial with Palantir, a data collector that some say has much influence as Google, but to a very different clientele - counting the CIA, or FBI. Using biometrics and blockchain, Palantir is defense-oriented in several ways: leveraging its data collection to track patterns and run prediction models in a preventative strategy that has been compared to the pre-crime tech of the Minority Report.

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Peter Thiel speaking at the 2016 RNC

But despite this draconian endeavor, Thiel has a robust philanthropic sub-routine. The Thiel Foundation was created to provide support for school dropouts. The Thiel Fellowship 2-year program supports young people under the age of 23 with a project or company idea, giving a $100,000 grant to the winner. The fellowship prioritizes non-student projects of various categories, including software engineers, media projects, and non-profits. The foundation also provides funding and support for innovative companies and social science research.

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Recipients of 2013, photo credit: Huffington Post

Thiel’s approach to entrepreneurship has led to a high-visibility career within the technology sector, and Wired Magazine coverage calls him an “imperfect messenger” with a message that had best be heard. Since Silicon Valley’s concentration of companies and incestuous makeup of funders, he relocated to Los Angeles, and issued a warning to his fellow Valley thought leaders that this type of culture is likely to implode. His specific message is that legislation is likely to seriously interfere with the current innovation-based business that proliferates in the area.

With Elon Musk’s quest to democratize transportation in a traffic-strangled metropolis, and Peter Thiel’s free market approach to maverick entrepreneurship, startup billionaires really do keep us guessing. But though they are certainly looking out for themselves in their business endeavors, these examples still make efforts to leave a positive impact on their industry.

 

 

Cover photo via TechStars

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