The Bleeding Edge: Enterprise as Means to Change (or Catastrophe)

Who has the power to solve our problems? For the majority of human history, the answer has been the state. Either by the degree of a monarch or through the legislation of representatives, change has come from government. But, in a world of inequality, conflict, and environmental imbalance, is the state the only power we should turn to?

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It’s no secret that the world’s largest corporations have the resources, influence, and reach of nation-states. Some, like Apple, have evaluations that pace among the world’s top economies—in addition to controlling digital infrastructure that facilitates modern life. 

As modern capitalism develops, we seem to find ourselves at a crossroads. On one side of the coin, we have a robust mechanism for innovation and growth that affords everyone a vote in how they spend their hard-earned money. On the other, we have the perfect recipe for feudalism, as monopolization drives power into the hands of the few.

“We’re in a neoliberal capitalist society that honors and reveres commercial power,” social entrepreneur Joe Tenzin Oliver says. “Businesses are the new gods. The means to change—or catastrophe—will come through enterprise.” 

Oliver is optimistic about the transformations that are possible through enterprise—but only if entrepreneurs and business leaders look at their companies with the right outlook. 

“So many corporations are focused on quarterly production,” he says. “They’re applying short-term thinking and trying to produce as quickly as possible. This spurs growth, but it’s unsustainable. We’re trying to use what we have as quickly as possible, as opposed to asking ‘how can this last?’”

The result is a Western world out of touch with the cycles of nature, which Oliver sees as the root cause of many of our problems.

“We work off a cycle of behavior that is irrelevant to nature, one that is based more around Victorian factories than cyclic or seasonal behaviors. We’re not working with nature, we’re thinking that we can do better than it.”

This doesn’t just impact our environment, it weighs on the self.

“As an existing person of the cosmos, you are connected to everything. If we believe nature has nothing to do with us—or that someone else will look after it—we lose our sense of self.”

Some may think that such language belongs in a monastery, not the corporate boardroom. But Oliver, a man between worlds, leans on Shaolin teachings to inform his social entrepreneurship.

A Hackney, England native who lived in China for six years, Oliver originally traveled east to train in Shaolin Kung Fu, an ancient tradition blending martial arts and Chan teaching. There, he immersed himself in monastery life, eventually ending up at a private Qi Gong academy in Donge, called “the Diamond Fist,” where he learned the practice of Qigong while specializing in Tiger Kung Fu.

“You train hard, with few breaks,” he recalls. “We slept on metal beds, the shower was a tube of water that sprang out cold, it was raw. It attracts a certain person—not necessarily to do with one’s fitness or strength—but someone ready to transform who they are, and it does that on many levels.”

As Oliver has moved into social entrepreneurship, consulting for organizations including Audi, the city of London, and the United Nations, the Tiger Kung Fu specialist has kept a spirit of transformation as his north star.

“I am looking to create some sort of transformation,” he says, “but I do it with the view that it can enhance and increase the position of the stakeholders. There’s a magnetic pull towards this value system that, through adoption, will transform both the company and themselves.”

The needs of our planet (and its people) and an organization’s drive to increase profit need not be mutually exclusive in Oliver’s mind. In a society that reveres commercial power, enterprise must simultaneously tend to itself and the world around it to find sustainable growth.

“On one side there are customers,” he says, “on the other, stakeholders. As entrepreneurs operate on the bleeding edge between these worlds, there are great vehicles for change there.”

Applying emerging technology ethically, nurturing sustainable business practices, and teaching conscious investing. These are just a few of the ways Oliver has helped teams and businesses around the world enact positive change. Still as comfortable in an isolated monastery as he is in a boardroom, Oliver concludes with one final message.

“There’s a deep separation from what it means to have a place in a society that values you,” he says. “It’s been reduced in a sense, to what money can you produce for us—the utilization of nature as the means to an end, as opposed to even the harnessing of nature. It’s a resource grab and exploitation.”

“The route back to knowing ourselves is simple: reconnection with self, others, and nature.”

For more insight from Joe Tenzin Oliver, visit his website.

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