April 16, 2012| 0

Essay: Lessons on Spiritual Capital from Silicon Valley

An occasional essay by Bruce Baker, presented to the Center for Integrity in Business

What does it take to get a new company off the ground? Or to bring a new product to market? We all know that new business development requires a certain kind of “right stuff”—an entrepreneurial spirit, if you will—a kind of energy and enthusiasm which aims to do something new and different because it’s worth doing. It takes a certain kind of character and spiritual energy to push past all the obstacles that stand in the way. There seems indeed to be some kind of “right stuff” which is just as important in launching a business as it is in launching a space capsule.

Strength of human spirit is required in such endeavors. In business, we may refer to this strength as “spiritual capital,” an ingredient just as crucial to success as financial capital. We find spiritual capital in people who seem to have the right stuff when it comes to entrepreneurism. This spiritual capital seems to be like art—we know it when we see it, but we have a hard time defining it. But what if we could get better at recognizing it, understanding it, cultivating it and rewarding it? What a benefit that would be for building high-performance businesses with integrity and the “right stuff”! That’s exactly what I hope to help do with my current research project. I’m researching companies where spiritual capital is on display: identifying it, interviewing the entrepreneurs who have it, and analyzing the organizations where it thrives. I can think of nothing more thrilling in my business career than to have been a part of entrepreneurial start-ups in several different places. One of those places (which has become famous for its own special mystique) is Silicon Valley, and that's where my research into this topic will begin.*

California’s Silicon Valley symbolizes the entrepreneurial spirit which has made American business the world’s pace-setter for inventiveness and technological advancements. The success of start-up companies in Silicon Valley can be traced back to the early days of “Bill & Dave’s” garage in Palo Alto, where in 1938 they developed the audio oscillator which launched the company that still bears their names—Hewlett Packard.  The prolific productivity of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who have followed in their footsteps during the past 70 years has become legendary, and has led to the creation a venture capital industry which leads the world in wealth-creation through entrepreneurial start-ups.

The culture of these entrepreneurial companies deserves to be studied for the sake of the witness it can bring to a theological understanding of human inventiveness and industriousness. How do entrepreneurial companies recognize, enhance and harness the creative talents of the human spirit? What can we learn from their experience about the concept of spiritual capital? To what extent do these companies formulate and communicate an ethos that recognizes and builds upon the source of human dignity found in the imago Dei? These are some of the questions I’ll be pursuing.

In academic terms, the hypothesis to be tested is that there are models of transformational leadership at work here which point to a transcendent concept of human nature. This understanding of human nature transcends other concepts, such as homo economicus, an idea popularized in 20th-century economics based on the idea that human nature can be reduced to utilitarian, conscious decisions to maximize happiness. The flaw in that idea of human nature is that the quintessential humanness of human kind cannot be reduced to economics functions; but rather it has to be understood in a larger context of spirituality expressed in and through relationships with one another and with God.

This research project therefore aims to discover how the goals, aspirations, leadership styles and corporate cultures represented by Silicon Valley companies bear witness to a bigger notion of human nature—that is, to a theological understanding of human nature. By studying the entrepreneurial ethos of representative companies, our hope is to learn practical lessons which managers and entrepreneurs can use to build up and deploy spiritual capital for the sake of their employees, customers and the greater community.

If this sounds interesting, I would love to hear from you. Here’s how you can help: send me an email. Share your ideas with me regarding what “spiritual capital” means to you. Share stories with me, and give me examples of people and companies you know. Perhaps you would even be willing to take part in a personal interview on the topic. I’d love to hear from you. Thanks! And thanks for your support of the Center for Integrity in Business. They occupy a unique and much-needed niche by providing thought leadership in some of the most crucial aspects of business.

* By the way, Seattle is right there on a par with Silicon Valley these days, but I’m going to start my research with the Silicon Valley, which is where a critical mass of the start-up culture seems to have first arisen.
Dr. Bruce Baker is Asst. Professor of Business Ethics at Seattle Pacific University. His previous work includes founding and leading high-tech companies, and serving as a general manager at Microsoft. The CIB is pleased to sponsor his current research project: Silicon Valley and the Human Spirit: an inquiry into the entrepreneurial ethos of California’s Silicon Valley with lessons for the development of spiritual capital. For further information you may contact Dr. Baker at bakerb@spu.edu.

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