J. Nathan Matias (@natematias), Research Assistant, MIT Media Lab Center for Civic Media continues his Urbana12 series. This post in original form (12/28/2012) can be found here. As some of you know, the seminar is part of the Business Changing the World Track. Thank-you Nathan! Great to have you contributing material to the ESN Blog. Your work is much appreciated.. ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director of ESN.
This weekend, I’m at Urbana, a gathering of Christian students interested in the work of the church worldwide. Over the last few days, I have been blogging seminars, in which a speaker gives a talk to around 50-60 participants.
“How can Christians bear witness to the reign of God in a for-profit business?” they ask. Ministry is usually considered a non-profit endeavour. They’re not here to talk about personal discipleship in a place of business (which is good), but how businesses themselves can bear witness to God.
These issues rise to the fore when you start making basic decisions in your business. This sometimes requires us to expand how we think of business; it also requires us to expand the meaning of the word ministry.
John was an aerospace engineer coming out of school in ’87 — not a typical ministry education. He wasn’t doing ministry training, translation, or languages. He sometimes wondered how his passions fit together, but he came to discover the broad varieties of living out the gospel in a discipline. We should be encouraged by the variety, freedom and possibilities that are available to us.
John shares a quotation from Amos 5:15, “Hate evil and love good, then work it out in the public square.” The gospel must be worked out in our lives and it is not isolated, but it works itself out in the public square and everywhere else. It applies all the time, everywhere, in all arenas. How? That’s what this talk is about.
Chi Ming is speaking now. He starts out with a story of the first time he spoke on business at a seminar for InterVarsity students. His session was double booked with one on relationships. He spent that hour session with an audience of two. Today’s group has around 60 attendees.
Chi Ming’s web and mobile app company, Dayspring Technologies, is in San Fransisco. It was founded 15 years ago by 3 church members. The company has 16 employees and $1.7 million in revenue. Recent projects include an entrepreneurship mentoring platform for the US State Department and the ImageNations group. They have also recently worked on a household budgeting app. Recent partners and clients include Accel, KPCB (VC), MercyCorps, North Face, PJCC, UCSF.
What does this have to do with announcing the kingdom of God?
If “Jesus is Lord” means anything, it must mean something in every arena of life. Early Christians made this affirmation and what they meant was that he is Lord over against all other gods and lords including the Roman Caesar. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not Lord. This affirmation had teeth and consequences.
What does this mean in the world of business? Chi Ming asks the audience a question.
“Imagine your business…” maybe you are part of a family business, or are entering one. If you are making decisions — how do you decide how to pay your staff? You have a small software firm with 8 developers, 1 receptionist. Software developers are paid well because of market demand, the latter are not typically paid well. How will you pay your staff? You can:
- Pay everyone equal
- Pay the market rate
- Outsource the receptionist. Pay developers at above market to get top talent
- Something else?
Here’s another situation. Imagine a deadbeat client. You’ve completed work on time and as agreed. The client is NET30 and hasn’t paid the last two invoices. Now they are ignoring your e-mails. What do you do? You can:
- Cut your losses, but move to prepay only for all clients
- Send the bill to collections
- Name and shame (publicize the name on social media)
- Something else?
These are basic business decisions and the are not necessarily right answers. Might the gospel say something about these scenarios? They open it up to the audience. Here are some of the responses:
- It makes the most sense to pay everyone the market rate, but there may be also equity and other means of compensation
- Give up on the money you were owed, and you are in some way not stewarding your wealth.
- You could take people who don’t pay to small claims court. You might collect 20% up front as an option.
How did Dayspring deal with these problems?
Dayspring started with $115,000, funded by their church membership. It was a 5-year unsecured loan (if it went out of business, they would all lose the money). The interest rate was from 3-7%. At the time, Money Markets were giving 5% (1998). Compare this to today where they are paying .01%. Clearly, they weren’t doing this for the monetary return.
Dayspring is a Christian business. Maybe if they charged market rates and paid professional staff below-market salaries they could take the difference and apply it to ministry purposes. They also wanted to create employment and job training opportunities for at-risk youth. This founding story of generosity and abundance through the church has freed them up in their use of money. They feel empowered to be lavishly generous — an outcome of the gospel.
Dayspring tries to embody and bear witness to God’s redeeming of the workplace, marketplace and community.
The workplace is where officers and employers, project managers and staff, etc. meet. What does right relationship look like there? How are people paid? How do they give feedback?
The marketplace is where the company interacts with clients. How do you treat good clients? How do you treat bad clients? How do you treat vendors who serve you?
The community is where the business interacts with its broader neighbors. Companies should the financial stakeholders, but the schools, neighborhoods, etc.
As you work through the first scenario, how do you pay people?
Software developers can make much more than receptionists on the job for 20 years. One of the passages in Luke about Advent is John the Baptist announcing the coming of Christ. One of the ways he does so is to announce the kingdom of God — every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
From a market perspective, this might make sense: high demand for fortune 500 CEOs, low supply. But this disparity does not match the vision of justice in the scripture. See Mary’s magnificat (the powerful brought down and the lowly lifted up), Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 2, God lifts the poor from the dust), Amos says judgment is against the rich who trample on the poor, and Jesus says in Luke that blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of God and woe to the rich who have received their consolation.
In Dayspring, they proactively and explicitly monitor the ratio of salaries from lowest to highest. The number is in their face. The ratio is 2:1 for full time staff. The highest paid person is paid 2x more than the lowest. It isn’t a legalistic rule, but is a heuristic. When they set salaries, they benchmarked to market rates. They are all engineers, so they smoothed the curve. So they have a discounting or upcounting function.
(Christopher’s note: What does this practically mean? I want to hear more of the struggles of starting up and how they achieved profitability so that they could survive and have the flexibility to experiment with these different models of just business?)
Dayspring also embodies the gospel through remembering the Sabbath. Many have families and churches where they serve. They believe work is good, but that in the fallen world, it tends to overstep its bounds (see writings by the Christian philosopher Jacques Ellul). So they must structure their business in a way that doesn’t require staff to work evenings and weekends. In the space of technology and consulting, the general ethos is run fast, run hard, there is enough time to sleep when you die. This results in aggressive commitments that you can’t keep unless you work your staff to the bone. The Sabbath is a reminder of the Lord’s provision and it is a hedge against injustice, when authorities push workers to ever greater lengths in the service of the god of productivity. They turn down some business at Dayspring, so they don’t over promise and sacrifice profits to protect their staff.
Righteousness goes beyond simple moral rectitude. (See Matthew 5: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled.”) It requires doing what is right. One aspect is right living is relationships. Dayspring holds out the possibility of human-to-human relationships instead of purely transactional/power-oriented relationships.
This frame of relationships and righteousness gets complicated when you sit across a table from a client hasn’t paid and still has the guts to ask for more work to be done. After conversations with folks before this meeting with the client, they wanted to treat this not as a business transaction where they try to use leverage to get the upper hand. One strategy would be to do the work since, in case they didn’t get paid for what they had already done. Alternatively, they could refuse to do more, in order to prompt their clients to pay. In both cases, the focus is on money and getting paid. Dayspring saw this moment as an opportunity to relate rightly with this delinquent client.
The client didn’t want to operate that way. They didn’t acknowledge that not paying was wrong. Their choice to pay or not was a negotiating tactic to get what they wanted. Dayspring decided not to send collections after the delinquent client, since it wouldn’t further righteousness in the sense of relating rightly with their client. (end of story, I suppose. I want to know if it made a difference to the relationship or not)
Chi-Ming shares another example of how they operate in the marketplace. Drawing from Jesus’s message of “good news to the poor,” they wondered, “If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?” If you do good to those who pay the bills, what credit is that to you? Dayspring sends Christmas cards and gifts to everyone who serves them (the janitors, the insurance agent, the UPS delivery guy, the doorman, etc.) They try to do good, not expecting anything in return (Christopher even though it’s not strictly doing good to evildoers). Since they’re already friends with their doorman, they know what the right gift would be for him.
In the local community, their practice is a shared story of their partnership in the gospel with local churches and ministries. Dayspring offers youth internships (ran for 10 years) in partnership with Grace Fellowship Community church. It’s a nonprofit and for profit partnership. They have had interns from the neighborhood and from the congregation. The church is in a high risk area for gang activity, and the company has provided a positive alternative to the children.
They have offered:
- Job readiness training (resume writing, filing and organizing, interview skills, getting to work on time, showering)
- Job coaches from Grace Fellowship who would be like mentors. Some of these kids had unemployed parents and may not have had good models on how to work.
- Dayspring provided a supportive work environment where they trained them in basic web page production and gave them basic job experience.
Some interns joined them as part time staff afterwards and some are now full-time employees.
After 12 years, Dayspring moved out of SF’s financial district. True, they were above the transit station, there was good food, and the downtown location had cachet and great facilities. Instead of staying, Dayspring moved to Bayview, an extreme poverty area in the Bay Area. Unemployment and poverty are double the rate elsewhere. The poverty line is below $23k for a family of four. This is the home of Redeemer Church. They now share space with the church.
How did Dayspring structure their board? Their board includes Executive Director of Grace Urban Ministries, the pastor of Redeemer Community Church, and Chi-Ming. You become who you hang out with and you need people who will speak the truth to you. Chi-Ming is glad to include people who ask hard questions that you normally wouldn’t ask as just a business person.
Overall Dayspring hopes hopes what they do seems odd because it shouldn’t be in line of what the world does, across all of these areas:
- How they got startup capital
- How they pay and how much
- Who they take advice from
- How they deal with difficult situations
This isn’t prescriptive, it is descriptive. They are saying the gospel should infiltrate all areas of their lives. They want the business they do to equally reflect God’s reign. It may seem easy since they run their own businesses and make their own decisions–but even though you don’t have decision making control, you have a position of influence and trust.
How does God’s reign meet me in this place?
- For a tech company, a lot of competitive advantage comes from human capital. You pay a lower salary. You try to hire people who are disadvantaged. How do you have a competitive advantage in that area? This touches on two things: the staff and the interns. How can you be competitive? Answer: They don’t want to follow the logic of the marketplace to follow its dictates, but they follow the discipline of the marketplace. Chi-Ming graduated from Stanford. All Dayspring employees have the credentials to do this work, but they alls hare in the vision of the company. That’s how Dayspring can provide market quality at market rates, but pay staff below market. Chi-Ming encourages us to think about employment it as support raising through tentmaking so they can be part of the vision of the company.
- How is this different than working for another company and making more money and donate the difference to missions? Answer: Chi-Ming wouldn’t say one is better than the other, but it is a hard question to answer. Someone who left Dayspring for Apple shared his experience: he is now a project manager for the store and he said he notices that Apple full time employees versus American contractors, H1B visa folks, and janitorial staff are treated very differently. The company has a class hierarchy where people don’t eat with people outside of their class. This former Dayspring employee crosses the boundaries as a witness to Christ. As a Christian, you can’t think of your work as just a job that creates dollars; how do you see your work in either of those scenarios?
- What’s the backstory behind how the church and co-founders came together? It was an InterVarsity story. One of the cofounders is now the pastor of Redeemer. In 1986, Chi-Ming and his co-founders heard Robert Lovell give a talk at a conference called Marketplace. Robert had founded a savings and loan company, whose vision was to increase home ownership in the Hill district of Pittsburgh. It’s a district that had a poverty rate of 43%. At the time, many African Americans couldn’t get a loan, so Robert bought a failing savings and loan company to turn this situation around. Robert’s story inspired Danny, Chi-Ming’s co-founder. When Chi-Ming moved to SF after graduation to work as a consultant, his roommate told him to talk to Danny and they connected on this mission. The third founder Alyssa was also a member of the church congregation doing IT work.
- Because the mission of your company is so different, has their ever been a conflict with the employees where there is a disconnect between the mission statement and people’s personal mission statements? How do you deal with that conflict? Answer: John started working for Dayspring while working in the church and preparing to Peru to work with Wycliffe Bible Translators. When he came back and needed to be hired, they took him back.
- If the founders were clear on what they wanted when they started, how have the employees dealt with the disconnect? Answer: At the beginning, it was clear that joining Dayspring was a big step of faith. Over time, the company evolved into something more established, which lowered the barrier to join. When Dayspring interviews job candidates, they put their mission front and center. The company hasn’t really had conflict over direction, but it is fair to say that over time, they have grown and matured. Sometimes they lost their missional mentality and had to repent, returning to the Lord’s purpose for them. To keep a business running in the long term, it’s important to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
- Chi-Ming is in a business track panel — they are here all week.
- Announcing the Kingdom of God is what they are called to as Christians. They aren’t called to change the world– though perhaps in the process of being faithful to Christ, we might do that. Lesslie Newbigin has said that the church is called to be a sign, instrument and firstfruits. Christians are to be signposts pointing the way to the Kingdom of God and instruments to help order the world into what God intends. What does Firstfruits mean? The church is to be the first to experience the Kingdom of God and offer a flavor of “This is what the Kingdom of God is like”
About the author:
J. Nathan Matias (@natematias), who recently completed a PhD at the MIT Media Lab and Center for Civic Media, researches factors that contribute to flourishing participation online, developing tested ideas for safe, fair, creative, and effective societies. Starting in September 2017, Nathan will be a post-doctoral researcher at the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy, as well as the departments of psychology and sociology department
Nathan has a background in technology startups and charities focused on creative learning, journalism, and civic life. He was a Davies-Jackson Scholar at the University of Cambridge from 2006-2008.