A Call for Action
by Jack Florek
If ambition counts for anything, Alex Salzman may just save the world after all. The recent Princeton University graduate is less than a month away from the official launching of his new website (www.rethos.com). He hopes it will unite individuals, organizations, and corporations and ultimately bring about solutions to everything from human trafficking to global warming to pesticides in a New Jersey creek.
Salzman believes that the time is right to give up on waiting for governments to solve the world’s problems and band together to take action. “Rethos is a call to action and we are hoping to inspire others and have them join in,” says Salzman, who calls himself a “social entrepreneur” after graduating with his bachelors degree in economics this past June.
“Rethos is a brand, a word, and an Internet platform for change. The word itself is actually a play on ‘ethos.’ It is a kind of revision of fundamental beliefs and represents a shift in focus, for a culture, to ethics.”
Calling the website a kind of “MySpace with a conscience,” Salzman says that Rethos will offer ordinary people with a bent toward social activism to create profiles of themselves and promote their causes and concerns, thereby connecting with one another — or with like-minded organizations — for action. “Rethos.com has a heart, it beats, it’s alive, it has a purpose,” he says. “We want to unite people who are driving for solutions to pressing social and environmental issues.”
According to Salzman, the idea for Rethos came about in the summer of 2006 as he was chatting with friends over beers at a Princeton pub. “It just kind of gained momentum on its own, and we knew that we had an idea that had the potential to really take off and make a difference,” he says.
A few months later Salzman and his co-founders, Christopher Advansun and Pablo Salzman (a first cousin), unveiled their video “manifesto” calling for students and campus groups to unite on a new platform for change. “We decided to create the world’s first social networking platform and media portal devoted to uniting individuals, non-profit organizations, and socially responsible businesses for the purpose of developing real solutions to social and environmental issues,” says Salzman.
With more than 3,200 pre-launch members from around the world signed up, Rethos.com will officially begin in September. Its goal: To enable users to become informed through comprehensive multi-media gathered from across the Internet, to connect with allies, to take needed action through online discussion, and to offer offline action opportunities with non-profit organizations and other user-generated initiatives. “This is not a website for just venting frustrations,” says Salzman. “It is an engine for solutions. We are asking people to step up to the challenge, endorse our manifesto, and then not just stand idly by, but get involved and take action.”
Unlike discussion forums and classified ad-style websites offering volunteer opportunities, says Salzman, “the website will give people an opportunity to carve out their space; make their Rethos profile, and use that to manage their entire cause involvement.”
While the website — aimed primarily at ages 21 through 27 — is hip and edgy with an MTV-like sense of youthful destiny, Salzman says that he hopes the site attracts users of all ages. “There are a lot of older people out there who not only have the will to become part of a solution, but the know-how and availability,” he says. “We have a younger focus, but we are really looking across-the-board for people who feel it is their duty to not turn a blind eye while the world deteriorates.”
Current features include a variety of writings and journals (a rather airy review of Michael Moore’s hit film “Sicko”) a piece on the Bush administration’s penchant for fear mongering), readers’ responses, a survey, and the correct way to pronounce the word Rethos (either “reeeeee – thos” or “reth – os” is acceptable although the first is the most common.)
Currently there are about 12 people involved in the firm. “Our office in Montreal is home to all the techies,” says Salzman. “There also some people in the Princeton area, Washington, D.C., and we get on virtual conference calls. We are spread across North America, but in the Internet age we are able to keep going.”
While Rethos has philanthropic aims, it is not a wholly altruistic endeavor. Salzman explains that the founders are as interested in involving corporations and businesses as they are in integrating non-profits and individuals. He also freely admits that Rethos is interested in making money. “We hope to have Rethos stretch from New Jersey to across North America and hopefully beyond,” says Salzman. The for-profit business plan calls for creating a healthy, growing company that will effect change on the corporate side and build a platform that grows on itself.
Like most media businesses, Rethos will ultimately thrive or go down by how much advertising revenue it can muster. Salzman says that individuals will use the site free of charge, and non-profits like Doctors Without Borders or New Jersey Waterwatch will be able to have a free profile. “If a non-profit really wants to promote its campaign we can sell them advertising to get their campaign to the top.”
But in the end it is the corporate dollar that will determine Rethos’ success. “How we plan to grow is to have corporations that are looking to sell their product or services as a way of taking action,” says Salzman. “That can be anything from a hybrid car to something as simple as a biodegradable bar of soap. We will sell them a profile and have it up for a year, and if they are really looking to take ownership of an issue they can sponsor a section or content.”
While some may blanch at the idea of a progressive website seeking to make social and environmental changes staying so dependent on the very corporations that are creating the problems, Salzman does not see this as a conflict of interest. “It’s cool because it is the Rethos mission not to reject that side of society but really encourage them to reform and to give those corporations that are leading the way a sort of platform or a pedestal,” he says.
It may sound like pie-in-the-sky thinking to plan to tell big corporations that, since they contribute to the environmental and social crises, they need to become part of the solution. But Salzman disagrees. “These days almost all companies are feeling the pressure to reform their practices and demonstrate a commitment,” he says. “There really has been a whole rise in corporate responsibility.”
Salzman cites former vice president Al Gore’s recent success with the Live Earth Concerts as an example of corporations willing to do the right thing. “People, non-profits, and corporations can all come together and beneficially work together. With Rethos, it is not a cost for corporations but actually a benefit to them. They get brand exposure,” he says.
“They can sell their eco-friendly and socially engaged products. Individuals can actually feel that they are doing their part to take action. Of course right now it’s only a small slice of corporations that are the leaders, the ones that are willing to see that they may make more money by investing in more sustainable practices. Hopefully the others will follow.”
By way of illustration, Salzman points to rock singer Bono’s ability to convince such corporate giants as American Express, Armani, and the Gap to donate 1 percent of what their customers spend when using a special credit card to fight AIDS in Africa; PepsiCo’s recent announcement to redefine how it markets its products to children under 12 years old; and the Timberland Company’s corporate social responsibility reports trumpeting its programs and challenges related to global human rights, environmental stewardship, community involvement, and employee engagement.
While there are other websites, particularly environmental spaces, that currently offer like-minded activists the opportunity to make social connections, there are none as ambitious as Rethos. “There are no websites that are offering Web 2.0 tools for the entire non-profit sector to be used to communicate with its membership, where they can create profiles and ally with their non-profit groups’ profile,” says Salzman. “There really is no space where you can message General Mills or Toyota, and either ally with them or potentially criticize them and offer your thoughts. We’re really the first to do that.”
In addition, Rethos will allow members to post content that can inspire a discussion. “You will be able to tag content with your comments,” says Salzman. “That really doesn’t exist at this point, at least on social and environmental issues. Right now this is a point of frustration among non-profits and individual users. You can enter keywords on a Google search looking for information about climate change, but the results that come back are a bit haphazard. It’s not easily organized. You can’t tell who is supporting much content or what kind of commentary there is. In our social networking website all the members can post their content. The ones that get the most remarks or are the most controversial can make it to the top.”
Rethos started out with an initial capital of around $10,000 that was raised from investments by area philanthropists and angel investors in Canada. “I have always loved entrepreneurialism,” says Salzman, who was a co-founder of TerraCycle, the “plant-food-from-worm-poop company” that has achieved some success. “I come from a strong, socially conscious background. There is this new trend that encourages entrepreneurs to come up with a bold new vision. My particular focus is in media. We started as a media company with a mission and then began building campaigns for non-profits and for profits.”
Born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, Salzman’s parents are now living in Massachusetts where they continue to work in the visual arts. He has one older sister who teaches at the Waldorf School in New York. He has lived in Princeton for the past five years and credits his university education with instilling in him the wherewithal to undertake such an ambitious project as Rethos. “Much of the economic theory that I focused on at Princeton ties into the theories of why companies are beginning to become more socially and environmentally responsible,” he says. “It used to be that philanthropy was a cost for a company, but now many companies are finding that they can get a return on it.”
What does the future hold for Rethos? “We are ambitious,” says Salzman. “We want the first 50,000 people to come and help build this with us. We are the ones who initiated it, but we want people to come and criticize the site, pull in their allies. Tell us what kind of discussions that they want to see on the site. That’s the message we are sending out. It is a use-generated kind of open source platform. We are hoping to reach the 50,000 notch by the end of the year.”
While there is no end to the kinds of issues Rethos members will bring to the table, some of Salzman’s prime concerns include alleviating poverty, restoring media objectivity, climate change, and good old-fashioned vegetarianism. “Rethos is really my passion,” he says. “It allows me to blend the fact that I am intellectually and actively engaged and I have a lot of fun doing it. I also enjoy the artistic aspects with advertising. It blends everything together in a positive way.”
Rethos, 1728 Amsterdam Avenue, Suite 5A, New York NY 10031; 609-213-7373. Alex Salzman, co-founder. Home page: www.rethos.com.