Doing good through for-profits: Wave and financial tech

M-PESA ATM Withdrawal

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Wave is one of the most high potential social impact for-profit startups we’re aware of, and it was co-founded by someone in our effective altruism community – Lincoln Quirk. Wave allows immigrants to send money from North America to relatives in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia with much lower fees than if they used Western Union or MoneyGram. (Though Wave existing is nothing to do with 80,000 Hours, someone we recently coached chose to work for Wave and help them expand into the UK.)

Why is Wave such an important company? Previously, if immigrants wanted to send remittances, they had to use Western Union or MoneyGram. Both the sender and receiver would have to go to a physical outlet to make the transfer, and worst of all, the sender would have to pay 10% in transfer costs! Lincoln Quirk and his cofounder Drew Durbin have built software that allows instant transfers from a mobile phone in the US or Canada to a mobile phone in Eastern Africa or Ethiopia – and they only charge 3%, a saving of 7%.

For each dollar of revenue that they make, they are saving $2.33 for someone in the world’s poorest countries. Assuming a 20% profit margin, the figure is $12 in savings for each $1 of profit.

The potential positive impact of this idea is huge.

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We can learn a lot from Tara, who left pharmacy to work in effective altruism

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Tara saved lives working as a pharmacist in Bhutan – no really we checked, and she totally did – but she nevertheless left to try to find something better.

This is part of our series of profiles of people who changed their career in a major way in order to have more impact because of their exposure to 80,000 Hours.

Today Tara Mac Aulay is the head of operations in the Centre for Effective Altruism. But just two years ago she was working as a pharmacist. How and why did she make this transition? Her career path is sufficiently fascinating it’s worth telling the story form the start.

Tara was extremely conscientious and hard-working from a very young age. As a result she was able to finish high school and start studying at university at the young age of 16, rather than the usual 18 or 19. She managed to do this while at the same time i) redesigning the staff and inventory management for an Australian restaurant chain, then, because this saved them so much money, being promoted to a more senior role to ii) travel around the country to make major changes to failing stores to save them from closure. As a teenager! Needless to say, this entrepreneurialism and ambition allowed her to develop a wide range of professional skills at a young age.

At the age of 15 she applied to study pharmacy,

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Plan change story: interview with Dillon Bowen, founder of Effective Altruism group at Tufts University

I recently interviewed Dillon Bowen, who runs the EA student group at Tufts University, about how his career plans changed as a result of interacting with 80,000 Hours. Dillon’s original plan was to do a Philosophy PhD and then go into philosophy academia. After going to a talk at Tufts by our co-founder Will MacAskill and receiving career coaching from 80,000 Hours, he started taking classes in economics, now intends to do an Economics PhD instead.

More details of the key points from the interview are below.

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Podcast with Ben West, who expects to donate tens of millions for charity through tech entrepreneurship

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I recently interviewed Ben West (second to left), the founder of Health eFilings. After reading 80,000 Hours’ website, Ben entered tech entrepreneurship – from software engineering – in order to ‘earn to give’. Amazingly, Ben pledged to donate any money he made above the minimum wage. His company helps American physicians file paperwork with the US government, and collect ‘performance based pay’, much more easily. Several other 80,000 Hours alumni have ended up working in his company. You can read a summary of the key points from the interview below.

Summary of the interview

  • Ben West was influenced by Peter Singer’s work when he was young to start donating his income. Four years ago he was a software engineer donating to New Harvest, a meat substitute organisation.
  • He spent almost a decade at a large healthcare IT company, which helped to prepare him for what he’s doing now. He doesn’t think he could have successfully started this company without having experience in the health IT sector first.
  • He learned about 80,000 Hours through a link on the blog Overcoming Bias. Reading our work on entrepreneurship made him willing to consider starting his own business despite the fact that he’s risk averse by nature. He then spoke with some other well-informed people, including Carl Shulman (who volunteered for 80,000 Hours in the early days), who gave him more information about what the path involved.

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Lehua closed down her fundraising startup after reading our blog: plan change story

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Learning about ‘counterfactual analysis’ threw some puts on sunglasses cold water on Lehua’s startup idea.

Lehua Gray’s story is an interesting ‘significant plan change’ because she increased her social impact simply by realising what she was doing was not accomplishing anything when the true counterfactual was taken into account.

Lehua is an entrepreneur in Texas who studied environmental sciences but afterwards taught herself coding. In late 2014, along with two co-founders she had just met at the eBay Hackathon, she founded a company that offered charities an innovative fundraising platform and took a cut of the money raised. Her role in the startup was a combination of coding, UX and sales.

The team’s hope was to make the viral nature of the ‘ice-bucket challenge’ replicable. In their platform, someone would donate money to a charity, but it would only actually be delivered if, say, 3 friends who they nominated matched their donation. They might also be offered the option to do a public challenge on social media that would spread the fundraiser instead of donating the full amount, as in the ‘ice-bucket challenge’.

Over a period of 9 months they had built this platform and were improving it while some charities tested it out.

However, in the first half of 2015 Lehua started following me on Facebook and so started regularly encountering and reading new 80,000 Hours’ blog posts about how to have more social impact.

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One of the most exciting new effective altruist organisations: An interview with David Goldberg of the Founders Pledge

It’s my pleasure to introduce David Goldberg to those who in the effective altruism community who don’t yet know him. He’s behind the Founders Pledge, which in just 8 months has raised $64 million in legally binding pledges of equity, is growing fast, and has got some very exciting (but currently confidential) plans in the works. I met him when I was representing 80,000 Hours at the Founders Forum conference earlier this year and introduced him in more depth to the idea of effective altruism, which he’s now built into the core of the Founders Pledge’s mission.

Tell us about your background

I did my undergraduate work at UCLA in Political Science and Public Policy and then continued with postgraduate study at the University of Cambridge focusing on International Relations. My plan was to get a PhD and then stay in academics and shape International Security policy. However a year in, I realised that the practical impact of my work would be marginal at best, so I finished with a Master’s degree and began to look for opportunities that would actually have a discernible effect on the world. I got involved with Founders Forum For Good — the precursor to what I do now with the Founders Pledge — where I focused on helping social entrepreneurs build and scale businesses. Before all that, I spent a couple years in finance in the US, started and sold a business in Europe, and ran a chain of Segway dealerships in California.

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What do leaders of effective non-profits say about working in non-profits?

Rob Mather – founder and CEO of GiveWell’s top rated charity, Against Malaria Foundation. Photo credit:
Andrew Testa.

I reached out to leaders at GiveDirectly, Against Malaria Foundation, Deworm the World Initiative (part of Evidence Action), Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and Development Media International to ask for their views. Here are their responses.

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Learn to code in 16 weeks for free in the UK at Founders and Coders

Introduction

Ben Clifford

Are you interested in doing something like App Academy to learn to program, but in the UK? Makers Academy is often thought to be the best option, and we’ve had good reports from one of our members. But it costs £8,000. What about doing something similar for free?

In this interview, Ben Clifford – another member who changed his career due to 80,000 Hours – tells us about a free alternative called Founders and Coders. Ben recently went through the course, and is currently working at a startup in London.

If interested, you can apply here. the deadline for the next round is on Friday.

Summary of main points:

  • Founders and Coders is a free coding program based in London.
  • The course aims to make people full stack javascript developers in 16 weeks.
  • The biggest benefits of doing a coding course are providing structure and tackling motivation problems.
  • The weakest point of Founders and Coders is links to employers but Ben thinks this would not stop determined students can get jobs.
  • The most important thing for getting a place is commitment to becoming a software developer. Being motivated to do good in your career also improves your chances.
  • Applications for January close on Friday 12th December. You can attend taster days by supporting their Indiegogo campaign.

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Serial social entrepreneur, Michael Norton OBE, speaks in Oxford

The serial social entrepreneur, Michael Norton, recently spoke at 80,000 Hours: Oxford.

Michael started his career as a scientist, merchant banker and publisher before becoming a social activist. Since then, he has helped to found over 40 charities and social enterprises, including UnLtd, which has raised an endowment of over £100 million to support thousands of social enterprises. He spoke to us about his career and what he’s learned about making a difference.

What follows are some notes I made based on his presentation. All are paraphrased, and I can’t guarantee they accurately reflect Michael’s views.

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Tips on careers in journalism from NPR correspondent David Folkenflik

David Folkenflik

David has been NPR’s media correspondent since 2004, and before that spent over a decade at the Baltimore Sun. He has won numerous awards for journalism, and is the author of Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires.

I had the chance to meet him at the 4th annual Nexus Global Youth Summit, where we chatted about careers in journalism for people who want to make a difference. Here’s the notes I made on the key takeaways, which I ran past David before publishing for edits (and are entirely his own views).

  • If you want to get a job in journalism, apply to any news organization that interests you, including all the major media organisations. Set some priorities – pay, location, size of organization, type of work, etc and select among them based on your top several priorities once you’ve got offers. “I applied to over 70 organisations. I got two offers, only one of which paid more than $10,000, so I went with that!”
  • Previously the route into the industry was to get a job at a local news station or paper. But the local news industry has shrunk significantly in recent years, so it’s a lot harder to advance from these positions today.
  • Build a personal library of content on Tumblr or some platform where it’s relatively easy to build a site. “There needs to be something out there you can link to.”
  • If you’re still in college, what should you do next? Start writing and reporting on the side to test yourself out, and to start building your portfolio.
  • How competitive is journalism? “You need to really want it; that’s the major filter.” It’s not a career you should drift into, but if you’re motivated, you’ve got a decent chance.
  • Although the industry is changing rapidly, it’s not high risk if you’re young and don’t have a mortgage or other family obligations. And if you do, it can still be rewarding.
  • Journalism is a good path if you want to effect social change, but that change may be defined quite differently than it would be at a philanthropy or advocacy organization. Providing good information and analysis is a public good in itself. You’ve also got a public platform to promote neglected concerns. And there’s been a renaissance of new news outlets that openly embrace advocacy and point of view journalism.

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Conversation with Paul Penley of Excellence in Giving

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Participants

  • Paul Penley: Director of Research, Excellence in Giving
  • Katja Grace: Research Assistant, Machine Intelligence Research Institute
  • Nick Beckstead: Research Fellow, Future of Humanity Institute; Board of Trustees, Center for Effective Altruism

Notes

This is a summary of Paul Penley’s points in a conversation on April 3, 2014, written by Katja with substantial help from the other participants.

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Foundation influence interview with Kerry Vaughan

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Introduction

Kerry Vaughan was a member of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) – a major strategic foundation with over $1.5B in assets – for 3 years and served as the manager of the technology and innovation group. Kerry is also a PhD candidate in philosophy with a specialization in ethics. We spoke with Kerry as part of some compensated research he was doing for 80,000 Hours about the impact one can have working at a foundation.

Summary

  1. The typical annual budget per employee at major foundations is $2 million. Each program officer oversees a budget of about $10 million.
  2. The typical program officer is intelligent and well-educated, and many have graduate degrees.
  3. The board of the foundation typically picks the cause areas and must approve each project. It seems difficult for program officers to influence which causes are supported. However, program officers can influence which projects are funded by selecting which non-profits get presented.

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How to influence policy? An interview with Owen Barder of the Center for Global Development

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Introduction

We recently interviewed Owen Barder to find out about making a difference through careers in policy.

The interview was conducted in person. Below we summarize the key messages of the conversation, followed by some key excerpts which have been edited and reorganized for clarity.

In summary, Owen told us:

  • How influence over policies works in the UK political system. In his experience the partnership between ministers, back-bench MPs and civil servants is one in which they all have an important role to play and they all depend on each other to achieve success. In addition, there is a complex ecosystem of outsiders that influence policies, which requires a combination of proper research, smart political ideas, effective communication and political leadership to influence policy change.

  • That the most important types of international policies can be divided into three groups: zero-sum policies in which there is a short-run trade-off between the interests of rich countries and poor countries (eg aid transfers); win-win policies which would benefit rich countries and poor countries (eg trade liberalisation); and fostering global public goods (eg R&D and global institutions).

  • Students interested in any career field dealing with the developing world should strongly consider traveling to and living in the developing world for some period of time. For those particularly interested in getting involved in politics, becoming a special advisor is one clear pathway, but transitions to the civil service or politics later in life are possible.

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Careers in journalism – an interview with Larissa MacFarquhar

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At the recent Good Done Right conference, I had the opportunity to speak with Larissa MacFarquhar about careers in journalism.

Larissa is a journalist at the New Yorker, and next year will release Strangers Drowning, which explores the lives of those who dedicate themselves to helping others, and features a chapter on effective altruism.

The following is a couple of notes on my key takeaways from our conversation, which were run past Larissa before publishing.

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Case series – why and how to learn programming

Software engineering is a lucrative career with an unusually low barrier to entry. Due to its appeal, some people in our community have switched into programming via many different routes. To help guide other individuals who are considering making this transition, we’ve gathered the five people in our community’s experiences learning to code and getting employed as a programmer.

  • Some programmers say that they enjoy their work because of the puzzles and problems involved in programming. They also say that they enjoy being drawn into a flow state.

  • One undesirable characteristic of software engineering is its white male monoculture.

  • Other common peeves are the need to understand large existing codebases and engaging in the boring aspects of fixing broken software.

  • People learn to program in a variety of ways including App Academy, computer science degrees, and teaching themselves while doing another job.

  • It’s easier to get hired if you’ve done an internship. Applying widely also helps. One App Academy graduate applied to 30-40 companies, out of which he got 5 phone screenings / code challenges, 2 in person interviews, and one offer.

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Shared values predict startup success? An interview with Saberr

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Introduction

As part of our ongoing research we have been looking at the best ways to go into entrepreneurship. When we talked to Matt Clifford, of Entrepreneur First about the question, he suggested talking to Saberr. Saberr are a small startup focussed on the question of predicting the success of teams in business settings, and they have already had some impressive successes.

We spoke to Alistair Shepherd by phone, one of the two original founders of Saberr, about their perspective on forming a successful entrepreneurial team. The following is a selection of highlights from the call, edited and reorganised for clarity.

Key points

According to research by Noam Wasserman most startups fail because of their team, suggesting team composition is important for entrepreneurial success.
While standard personality tests have not been shown to be very successful at predicting success in careers, Saberr have achieved some impressive, if small scale, predictive success using a model based on value alignment and behavioural diversity.

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App Academy interview with Buck Shlegeris

Buck Shlegeris is a teaching assistant at App Academy in San Francisco. Buck plans to use his earnings in programming to give to charities that improve the future. We discussed whether 80,000 Hours members can start a career in programming by doing a coding bootcamp. Below are some edited notes from our conversation.

Summary of main points:

  • People can enter training at App Academy from an unrelated background such as philosophy or other humanities with a few weeks of preparation.

  • The application includes some programming challenges and takes takes 10-20 hours to complete.

  • The course requires 60+ hours of work per week for 12 weeks.

  • 90% of App Academy students make it to graduation. By asking for help if you are failing to progress, you can probably further reduce the chance of dropping out.

  • Over 95% of App Academy graduates seeking employment as programmers attain it.

  • The average income of graduates is $100k in San Francisco’s Bay Area, with 90% securing an income from $80-120k. In New York City, the average income is $84k.

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