Heal Economy By Helping Others

     With the war in Iraq over, attention is back on the U.S. economy -- and rightly so.

     If you're like most hard-working, ambitious American workers, these days you're feeling as if you could us a little economic love. And who can blame you, after all you've been through the past few years.

     Think back to March 2000. Weren't those heady days? The stock market seemed to go only one direction -- straight up. Job propsects and career opportunities? You were golden.

     The swift shift to todays' economy is enough to give anyone a sever case of whiplash -- and incite more than a little self-pity. The stock market gurus of March 2000 are today banned from Wall Street. Some of the biggest names in the business have confessed their sins and are now writing $1.4 billion checks to atone for their transgressions. We may not be in a recession, but the job market is depressed: The unemployment rate remained at 6% in April. And inside most companies, new ideas are about as scarce as new jobs. So it's understandable why you would find yourself feeling disappointed, and maybe even deceived, when you take a look at your current economic prospects.

     With so much obvious economic anxiety and so little apparent economic opportunity, this would seem to be a time when self-interest is the only way to go. After all, if you're not going to take care of No. 1, who is?

     But before you -- and all the rest of us in this country, for that matter -- become too self-absorbed, let me suggest both a caution and an alternative.

     The caution is simple: Wasn't it an orgy of self-interest that produced first the bubble and then the bust? Wasn't it raw self-promotion and self-seeking that gave us Enron, Arthur Andersen, WorldCom, insider trading, deceitful Wall Street brokers and a badly bruised, if not broken, economy? And if that were indeed so, why would anyone think that more raw self-promotion is the right antidote to painful economic times?

     The alternative is just as simple: Those of us who want this economy to do a better job of taking care of us need to do a better job of taking care of those who have even less. Maybe, rather than borrowing a page out of the book of greed written by former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling and former ImClone CEO Sam Waksal, we'd all be better served borrowing a page out of the book of social entrepreneurship written by Rosanne Haggerty, Suzanne Muchine, Eric Adler, Rajiv Vinnakota and Victoria Hale.

     "Who?" you ask. No, these are not household names. But they are all enormously talented, hugely gifted individuals who have decided to pursue not self-interest but the common interest. Across the country, from New York to Chicago, from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, these Americans are worrying less about their needs and what sets them apart, and more about all of our needs and what ties us all together.

They are social entrepreneurs: They have figured out how to combine the best lessons of the private sector with the highest purposes of the public sector. As a result, at a time when anxiety and uncertainty have sent far too many Americans either ducking for cover or looking after only ourselves, these innovators are making a statement at this moment about the deeply rooted values that represent this country at its best:

     • Haggerty is the founder and executive director of Common Ground in New York. She is pioneering bold experiments that produce alternative forms of housing for that city's homeless population. "We're daring to ask, 'What would it take to end homelessness?' " she says.

     • In Chicago, Muchin, CEO of Civitas, has forged partnerships with such companies as Johnson & Johnson and Allstate Life Insurance to launch an aggressive campaign on behalf of America's children. Her goal: to get basic parenting and child-raising information into the hands of young, low-income parents.

     • Adler and Vinnakota have created the nation's first urban public boarding school. Located in Washington, SEED offers 230 inner-city students a chance to go to college and represents a new educational model that the two young educators hope to spread to other cities across the country.

     • In San Francisco, Victoria Hale, a talented pharmaceutical scientist, has created the country's first non-profit pharmaceutical company. One World Health will use the research that for-profit drug companies have passed on -- usually because the medicines couldn't meet required profitability hurdles -- to attack diseases in less-developed parts of the world.

     These individuals -- and many more like them spread across the United States -- share a few key attributes. They are all relatively young, singularly talented, highly motivated and thoroughly idealistic. They are not interesd in getting rich, or being promoted, or becoming famous. They believe in what they are doing. They want to help others. They want to make their community, their city, their country -- ultimately, their world-- a better place.

     In the end, whether they know it or not, they've also discovered the solution to the economic slowdown of today. Ultimately, capitalism works, not because of raw self-interest, but because of mutual trust and shared opportunity. The way to heal the economy is, remarkably, the way to improve the country: by doing for others, and not just for ourselves.

     Looking for a little economic love? Remember what the Beatles said: "In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."

     Alan M. Webber is founding editor of Fast Company magazine. He is also a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.