Are You an Entrepreneur or a Philanthropist? Why Not Both?

How entrepreneurial ideals mirror philanthropic ideals.

If you asked 50 different entrepreneurs why they chose to become entrepreneurs, many of them would say that they wanted to make a difference. Innovation and disruption are invigorating. It means waking up every day with an internal drive to shake up the status quo. Some will say that they saw a problem that no one was solving, so they decided to do something about it themselves. Others will say that they wanted to achieve economic success, and a career as an entrepreneur—while somewhat risky—can be quite lucrative. 

Amazingly, those three main pillars—making a difference, solving a problem, and economic success—do not only apply to entrepreneurial ventures, they also apply to philanthropic ventures. On their surface, entrepreneurship and philanthropy seem very different, but I can tell you from personal experience that they are not separate, with one continually motivating the other. I have started several successful businesses and could not imagine a career as anything other than an entrepreneur. At the same time, philanthropy has long been a passion. I firmly believe that, through thoughtful philanthropy, we can elevate our communities and by extension our society. That is why I started The Blake Johnson Alliance, an organization that supports the advancement of education, arts, sciences, and social well-being. Anyone with an entrepreneurial mindset is poised to be a great philanthropist—the shared ideals are too similar to ignore. 

Let’s explore them.

Making a Difference

One entrepreneur can change an entire industry. Just look at what Steve Jobs did for MP3 players and cell phones simultaneously. As an innovator and business leader, it is exciting to think that my hard work, dedication, and forward thinking can change the world so drastically. The same is true of philanthropists. Here in Los Angeles we are fortunate to enjoy the Getty Center and the Getty Villa, free of charge. These incredible art institutions were made available by J. Paul Getty. Today, these world-class institutions work to conserve priceless and important art, educate new generations of artists, and provide a respite for L.A. locals and tourists alike. These institutions have made a difference in Los Angeles. When you zoom out to 10,000 feet, it becomes clear that the motivation behind most entrepreneurial endeavors is the same as the motivation that philanthropists call upon. Both parties want to change lives.

Solving a Problem

Last year, I sold a self-funded dental aligner company for $1 billion. Byte, an invisible aligner company, provided at-home orthodontic services. We mailed users impression kits, had those impressions reviewed by dental professionals, then sent our users customized aligners. People could straighten their teeth without ever leaving home. I did not invent dental aligners, nor did I invent the at-home model. However, I saw a problem in the marketplace: no affordable at-home option for people who wanted smiles that would boost their confidence. I founded Byte to solve that problem. No one else was stepping up, so I took a swing.

A lot of philanthropists also set out to solve problems. For example, Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS shoes, set out to solve a problem when he noticed that many children in Argentina were running around without shoes. He solved that problem by setting up a one-to-one company. For every pair of shoes he sold, he gave another pair away to someone in need. He saw a problem, shoeless children in Argentina, and designed a company that could solve it. It all goes to show that the spirit of innovation and the spirit of giving are not very different from one another.

Economic Success

It would be a lie to say that entrepreneurs are not motivated by money. When starting a business, the potential for financial gain is incredible. It is a fantastic driver and is the potential carrot to the daily sticks that come with starting a company. The thing is, a lot of philanthropists are also motivated by economic success: They just want to create success for other people. Maslov’s hierarchy of needs outlines that people cannot achieve love and acceptance until their physiological and safety needs are met. People struggling below the poverty line cannot have their physiological and safety needs met without funds. Philanthropists work to create economic security for those who are languishing without it. It is the other side of the coin that motivates entrepreneurs (pun intended). 

As an entrepreneur and philanthropist I can tell you that it is easy to be both. The core values that drive my success in business also motivate me to give back. If your interest lies in either entrepreneurship or in philanthropy, ask yourself why you can’t do both. I ask you to give it a try. You might find that the new role fits you better than you may have thought. 


Blake Johnson is a Los Angeles based entrepreneur who has successfully founded and sold a variety of businesses. Read more of Blake Johnson’s Thought Leadership here