RaceTalk(S) with Jeremy Caplan of TIME 4

By Kyle Austin

We recently had the opportunity to connect with Jeremy Caplan, who writes about business and technology for TIME magazine. In 2007, Jeremy was awarded the Knight-Bagehot fellowship in economics and business journalism from Columbia University for the current academic year, and is currently serving as a fellow there. He was just awarded the Wiegers Fellowship to complete his MBA at the Columbia Business School.

Our Q & A follows:

RaceTalk: Jeremy, nice to talk with you again.  I know we worked together last before you started your fellowship last September.  Can you tell us how that is going so far?

JC: It’s fantastic to be back in school. The fellowship basically provides a time-out from day-to-day writing so I can focus on doing MBA coursework at the Columbia Business School. I’ve learned a tremendous amount thus far from terrific professors.

RaceTalk: I saw on your blog that you are focusing your studies on corporate finance, accounting and strategy.

JC: My first semester I took Financial Accounting, Corporate Finance, Strategy Formulation, Modern Political Economy, and a course on creating effective organizations. I could talk to you for hours about each of these courses. People sometimes perceive business school as dry, but I’ve found much of the material to be fascinating, and I’ve learned a lot from my classmates and study partners. Many have backgrounds in finance and consulting, while others have worked at all sorts of companies abroad, and some come from NGOs and nonprofits.

This semester I’m taking Macroeconomics, Microeconomics, Economics of Strategic Behavior, and Operations. I’m also taking a course focused on corporate social responsibility. In between my own classes, I audit others at the business school, on subjects ranging from behavioral economics to retail strategy. I try to pack in as much as I can each day at school because there is so much to learn.

As part of the fellowship, I’ve also studied topics in journalism, including media law and multimedia reporting techniques. The bulk of my time, though, is spent at the business school.

RaceTalk: Did you choose this focus because of your current beat on business and technology or because they are topics that generally interest you? (Both maybe?)

JC: My focus this year has been on studying core business fundamentals to sharpen my understanding of the subjects I cover for Time. I also wanted to approximate the MBA curriculum, because I plan to complete the MBA program.

RaceTalk: I also caught on your blog that you recently participated in New York City’s Principal for a Day Program and you are making an effort to create a lasting partnership between the school you visited and TIME.  It brought me back to your story on volunteerism in America that you worked on last summer entitled “The Case for National Service.” Within that same issue you and your colleague Kristina Dell reported on social entrepreneurship. Both appear to be on a rise in America.  Do you see a correlation between the two?

JC: I do, and the growing significance of social entrepreneurship is evident in the growing number of innovative small companies focused on addressing social challenges. This is a subject I look forward to covering regularly in the coming years. On a personal level, I’m intrigued by organizations that draw on the private sector in creative ways that go beyond funding. An example of that trend is Citizen Schools, which brings lawyers, architects, bankers, artists and others into after-school programs around the country. The organization enables professionals to share their expertise and passion with kids while expanding the learning day for students. It’s an example of an innovative program that was effective in Boston and has expanded elsewhere, including New York City, where Citizen Schools will launch this coming fall.

RaceTalk: Is this generation more in tune with helping others through business and personal efforts?

JC: I think it’s easier to find volunteering opportunities now than it had been in the pre-Internet days, and it’s easier to learn about ways to have an impact on an issue that you care about. Some studies do show that volunteering is becoming more popular among certain demographics in some parts of the country, but I think a major change across the board is that the frictions in the volunteering market have been reduced. It’s just easier to get involved now that volunteering information is available online.

RaceTalk: You mentioned in a blog entry on this topic in September that “It will be interesting to see if a dialogue about national service gains momentum over the course of the presidential campaign season ahead.”  It seems that Barack Obama has almost taken a Republican type stance on “personal” and “social” responsibility, but has managed to tie it into his greater message for hope. Here’s a quote of his from a speech in Iowa last December:

“As President, I will launch a new Social Investment Fund Network. It’s time to get the grass roots, the foundations, the private sector and the government at the table. We’ll invest in ideas that work; leverage private sector dollars to encourage innovation; and expand successful programs to scale. Take a program like the Harlem Children’s Zone, which helps thousands of kids in New York through after-school activities, mentoring, and family support. We need to make that model work in different cities around the country. And I’ll start a new Social Entrepreneur Agency to make sure that small non-profits have the same kind of support that we give small businesses.”

RaceTalk: What are your thoughts on his message of “social” and “personal” responsibility?

JC: I’m glad to hear candidates focusing attention on the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), because I’ve long thought that it represents an excellent model. HCZ has created a tightly woven network of programs that create a kind of synergy of support. I’m hoping each of the candidates talks about national service as well as social entrepreneurship as the campaign progresses.

RaceTalk: Getting further into social entrepreneurship, I wanted to get your thoughts on a new concept proposed by Muhammad Yunus. I recently asked Steve Hamm of BusinessWeek this same question based off a book review he did on Yonus’ new book “Creating a World without Poverty.” I’m interested into your thoughts on Yunus’ concept of social businesses, which Steve defines as the following:

They’re (social businesses) supposed to be smoothly managed, efficient, and profitable. But in their case, profits are invested back into operations rather than being returned to investors or shareholders. So it’s a form of capitalism that does not reward the capitalist in the traditional way.

RaceTalk: Yunus’ example of this is Grameen Danone, which sells fortified yogurt for pennies a serving to malnourished children in Bangladesh. However, they are still turning around a 1% annual dividend for the company. First off, are you familiar with this concept and have you heard of adoption of this philosophy?

JC: This is a great example of an innovative “bottom-of-the-pyramid” type business. From a market perspective, one of the challenges of this type of “social business” approach is that it may not provide full market returns, and the flow of capital may therefore be limited, ultimately, to those willing to sacrifice potential returns for other, social benefits. One of the strengths of Yunus’ innovation in microfinance was that he grounded the programs firmly in market principles. Yunus is a brilliant innovator, and I’ll be interested in seeing how this and his other projects develop.

RaceTalk: Secondly, do you think that true social businesses with 0% dividends will take off in the next decade?

JC: For some investors, such businesses may be attractive, and the number of such enterprises may grow. What is even more promising, I think, are businesses that are able to focus on profitable areas for social entrepreneurship, because they can attract the capital needed to grow without requiring investors to adopt any particular social point of view. Profits speak for themselves, and if businesses addressing genuine social problems can create effective solutions profitably, their scale and efficacy can grow quickly and dramatically.

RaceTalk: Switching topics, as you cover business technology for TIME, I have to get your thoughts on Microsoft’s pursuit of Yahoo!.  I was talking with David Kirkpatrick of Fortune about this recently and he simply said Microsoft doesn’t get involved in situations like this to loose.  At this point (4/10 and Yahoo! is still exploring other options with Google and Time Warner) is it still that cut and dry, is the takeover inevitable? If the deal goes through how does it change the industry in your mind?

JC: Internet-related innovation tends to come from both giants and upstarts, and that won’t change whether or not the deal goes through. While industry-watchers are focused on the end-result of this deal bid, my hunch is that many within all the companies affected are focusing much of their attention on the competition from down below, from the small startups flying under the radar with innovative ideas about improving tools for advertising, search and social networking.

RaceTalk: Speaking of Google, I know you think they are a fascinating company.  What are your thoughts on its stock price falling more then 300 points since November?

JC: Particularly in this sector, stock prices tend to reflect the temporary whims of speculators, often resulting from short-term considerations, rather than underlying changes in the long-term value of an enterprise. I’m less interested in Google’s stock price one way or another than in their strategy and how the company runs its operations.

RaceTalk: Is it just a bi-product of U.S. economic woes or has Google’s room for growth finally flattened out?

JC: Even though it sometimes seems like we’re already in the thick of the Internet age, a relatively small fraction of overall advertising dollars are spent online, both in the U.S. and overseas. It’s unlikely that the online share of ad dollars will stagnate or shrink in the coming years. That means that to the extent companies like Google, and others, are able to capitalize on online ad spending, and build up their share of that pool of ad dollars, there is still considerable room for growth.

RaceTalk: Is there hope for growth in its recently announced health data service?

JC: Google has taken a very long-term approach to health data, and I do think it holds promise going forward, as do related services from others.

RaceTalk: Finally, you wrote a piece last year on the worst jobs in America. What’s the worst job you’ve had?

JC: I delivered newspapers once – that might have been my worst job. Getting up super early and rushing around with confusing spreadsheets (detailing who gets what paper where) wasn’t a lot of fun. It did make me wonder whether an alternative delivery method might one day make more sense…

RaceTalk: And how would you rate the job of being journalist?

JC: It’s fantastic. I get to dig into fascinating subjects and to spend my time reading, writing, listening and learning. Sometimes I can inform or entertain people, or spread the word about an important issue. What could be better?

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