The primary role of a profit-making company is to build great products in a profitable way so that it can provide jobs and invest in innovation. Over the last several hundred years, the achievement of private enterprise in the areas of job creation, product innovation, and expanding markets has been quite fantastic.
But the system of private enterprise has limitations because it only targets those who can afford to pay. One of the big challenges we face is finding ways to harness the power of this system to serve the very poor.
In today's environment, I believe large companies should consider looking beyond their primary focus of meeting the needs of their customers and also think about devoting a portion of their R&D to work that directly helps the poor. There’s a direct benefit to companies in doing this – it forces you to think about lower-cost models and new markets that could provide substantial growth.
There’s a less measurable benefit that is still quite important which is the value that comes when a company's expertise is used broadly to help society. This can energize employees and improve a company's reputation, and sometimes there are long-term opportunities that come out of that. It’s a lot clearer when you think of specific examples, like drug companies working on neglected diseases, telecommunications companies figuring out how the cell phone can help with the savings or health needs of the poorest, or food companies buying from small farmers and helping them increase their productivity.
I'm not suggesting that this should be a replacement for companies making decisions based on signals from the marketplace, but I do believe that the smartest companies can find a way to do both - respond to the marketplace and look at the needs of the poorest as they make R&D investment decisions.