On paper Aaron Mayer looks like a typical tech-savvy 20-something headed for a career in Silicon Valley. He loves designing blockchain systems, playing Super Smash Brothers Brawl, and founding companies. Many of his classmates at Brown, where he graduated in 2018 with a degree in philosophy, are headed to internships at Facebook and Snapchat.
What sets Mayer apart is his focus on ethics. He does have several New York-area startups under his belt already, but they are very different from your average tech company. His most recent ventures are Enigma MPC, a blockchain company that seeks to preserve the privacy of its users, and Impact Labs, an organization that inspires and empowers young engineers to use their skills for social good.
Mayer will discuss Impact Labs and Enigma at the Startup Grind networking group on Thursday, April 18, at 6 p.m. at Tigerlabs at 252 Nassau Street. Tickets are $15, free to Tigerlabs members. For more information, visit www.startupgrind.com.
The two main programs of Impact Labs are a two-week fellowship for computer science students, and the Impact Summit, “a series of events exploring what living in a technological society means for the future of social progress and humanity,” to be held from June to August in New York City. In a blog post written shortly after launch, Mayer explained why he co-founded Impactlabs with Adi Melamed, a computer science student at Brown.
I often attempt to frame the story of Impact Labs without any references to what we’re striving against.
I try to explain the vision in purely positive terms — highlighting all of the amazing things we hope to accomplish by leveraging technology for social good — rather than by clothing the description of Impact Labs as the foil against the big tech companies of Silicon Valley. And yet, it would be somewhat dishonest to neglect that element as a key ingredient in the formulation of Impact Labs.
Truthfully, I was just sick of hearing about all my friends getting internships at Facebook and Snapchat.
Computer programming, I’m convinced, is a superpower — and when I see some of my most brilliant friends whisked away from CS departments in universities across the country to head westward so that they can spend their days optimizing advertising algorithms for Mr. Zuckerberg, I see a mental image of Superman, slouched over a laptop at Lexcorp, having agreed to sign over his conscience in exchange for a six-figure starting salary.
Of course, it’s not as if these recent graduates, dewy-eyed and idealistic, actively want to work for companies in which they have little influence that make no meaningful contribution to the world.
Quite the reverse, in fact.
Now more than ever, young technologists are waking up to the realization that their disproportionate capacity to affect widespread change in the world entails at least a modicum of moral responsibility to steward that power for the benefit of humanity. STEM students and recent graduates are no longer content with the notion of working for companies in which they feel unfulfilled, and they’re actively seeking opportunities in which they can harness their technical skills to uplift and empower those that they’re able to help, rather than ossifying traditional power structures that exclude and exploit.
At their best, the companies so oft celebrated by the tech bros in their Allbirds and AirPods merely serve to solve first world problems that only marginally improve the quality of life for those who can afford the luxury (I’m thinking here of Uber and Snapchat). At their worst, these companies actively perpetrate deplorable labor practices, violate our privacy on an epic scale, hijack our dopamine receptors, and pervert the integrity of our democratic institutions (I’m thinking here of Amazon, Google, and of course, Facebook).
It is in direct contrast to these companies that the vision for Impact Labs was born.
We created the Impact Fellowship (our first initiative at Impact Labs) in order to satisfy a craving that was so acutely felt by too many of our friends who wanted to find alternative career paths and put their talent to good use. The soon-to-follow Impact Summit furthered these goals, and we’re in the process of planning many more initiatives that will foster a sense of social entrepreneurship and global perspective in designing solutions with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in mind. The tremendous outpouring of support and enthusiasm we’ve received so far has been inordinately encouraging, and we believe that it’s a testament to the tectonic shift in the tech landscape. Slowly and steadily, the narrative is shifting from profit-centric to people-centric, from systematization to sustainability, from MVPs to SDGs.
I find it fittingly ironic that the Silicon Valley mantra to “build something people want” led to the creation of Impact Labs, which so starkly opposes the SV ethos. It is in part to mock this ethos that we adapted the dictum to “move fast and break things” — a statement whose very existence indexes to everything we’re trying to unstitch in the fabric of techno-chauvinism — and we’ve appropriated it as our unofficial motto. Now, “move purposefully and fix things” adorns our website as the maxim of our identity, and we’re resolved to do our part in spreading this message to all of the engineers in the world who aspire to use their talents for the good of humankind.
This is no easy feat, and to accomplish our mission, we’ve adopted a multifaceted approach through a suite of initiatives. At Impact Labs, we aim to highlight the companies that are doing well by doing good so that more students are aware of the amazing organizations that are utilizing technology in creative ways to build a more equitable, sustainable world. In addition, we hope to foster a sense of camaraderie among the young tech students of our era, and we intend to support that community in any way we can. We are also committed to using what leverage we have to advocate for diversity and inclusion in the tech sector. It is our ultimate goal to become the primary hub at the intersection of technology and social good, and that Impact Labs be the hotbed of social innovation that we know it is capable of becoming.
If you too are frustrated by the status quo — where large tech conglomerates amass troves of wealth and gobble up the superheroes of our generation —then join us in our mission to course correct our collective societal values.
We are all far more powerful than we give ourselves credit for — let us unite our voices as we revise and reclaim our culture. Visit www.impactlabs.io.