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Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are prime examples of the newly minted billionaires who also believe entrepreneurship can drive social good. Both 32, their wealth has soared to $14 billion each in little more than a year. At the launch of the online giant's initial public offering last year, they said the Google Foundation might someday "eclipse Google itself" in world impact. Last month, they poured $90 million into the newly launched foundation to be given to groups such as TechnoServe in Norwalk, Conn. Among its ventures, TechnoServe will sponsor a contest in Ghana whose winners will get start-up financing. Microsoft's Gates is taking a different approach, investing money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation into partnerships with pharmaceutical firms that otherwise might not pursue cures with little profit potential. This week's $258 million in grants follow $3.6 billion for global research and development and other efforts since the foundation's launch in 2000. Social entrepreneurship is also taking place in smaller ways.
Ben & Jerry's co-founder Ben Cohen launched a $5 million venture philanthropy arm in 2000 that's financing New England start-ups to boost the state's rural economy. The Barred Rock Fund's investments include Vermont Mystic Pie in Chester, Vt., a baker creating a market for Vermont apples, and jobs producing them.
In Nashville, retired biotech entrepreneur Joseph Cook created Mountain Group Capital in 2003, a venture fund that invests in U.S. manufacturers with hopes of preserving good jobs in the USA. Cook started the fund with more than $5 million of the money he made as former CEO of Amylin Pharmaceuticals in San Diego.
Calling it "business philanthropy," Cook aims for market-rate profits without cutting employee benefits. "We think a health care plan is an important component of a stable environment where people want to work," he says.
AOL co-founder Case, to be sure, wants to profit from buying majority control of Flexcar in Seattle. It rents cars, many gas- electric hybrids, for a few hours at a time in congested urban areas such as Washington and Los Angeles. Flexcar could make it possible for city dwellers to give up car ownership, Case says, turning the once "fringy" environmental movement into something more mainstream. Case says others investing alongside his new $500 million Revolution investment fund include Carly Fiorina, the entrepreneurial former CEO of tech giant Hewlett-Packard. More Revolution investments are likely; this week, Case resigned as a board member of AOL owner Time Warner to focus on Revolution.