Aaron Mayer has a big idea for changing the world. And he likes to talk about it. That makes his job as an evangelist for Enigma (Daly City, Calif.) a perfect fit for him. It also means that Impact Labs, a company he cofounded with two friends at college, is changing lives, and the world, in just the way he intended.
The small but enthusiastic crowd that gathered for the usual pizza, beer (and water!) at Princeton’s Startup Grind on April 18 met Mayer and heard about his passion for, and path toward, turning his ideas into reality.
Mayer is clearly on a mission to fix things in the world, and his mind works very fast. Princeton Startup Grind co-organizer David Stengle moderated the conversation with Mayer, which had attendees on the edges of their seats trying to keep up with the pace of Mayer’s inspiring stories and ideas.
Mayer attended Brown University, where he studied ethics and philosophy and started the Blockchain @ Brown club, which connected him to a past Princeton Startup Grind speaker, Roz Stengle. But it was a shared loved of pirate sea shanties and Blockchain that connected him with one of the cofounders of Enigma, which led to his current role there.
Enigma provides a software protocol that acts as a privacy layer, what Mayer called “a second-layer solution” for decentralized applications of blockchain technology, like Ethereum. It makes these applications more secure, and widens their usability by means of multiparty computation (MPC), also known as “secure computation.”
Mayer is the only New York-based member of Enigma’s 15-person team. Most of the team is in Israel, along with satellite members all over the world. Mayer uses insights gained from his ethics background to influence his colleagues (who often jokingly refer to him as the “CEO,” for “chief ethicist officer”) and to expand Enigma’s reach in order to impact other companies.
But Mayer also started a company to have an even larger impact on the world. Using game theory during a dorm party one night, he was inspired to join the social enterprise movement, to be the change he wanted to see in the world.
He was raised Orthodox Jewish, but always questioned authority. Some rabbis supported his sense of inquiry, a sense that fueled his interest in ethics, which, he said, “is about being a good person. Not ivory tower theories.”
After attending a tech fellowship in Israel, which Mayer called, “Israel with a side of coding,” he started brainstorming his future company with two college friends Adi Melamed and Ellie Czepiel.
They noticed a trend of young, talented engineers being funneled into massive tech companies and having little impact for social good.
“My friends were being told not to think, to just go and sit at a desk fixing code for a button on a social media site. They are doing nothing good for people or the world,” Mayer said.
Engaging Entrepreneurs to Fix Real World Problems
That was the start of Impact Labs, which seeks to engage engineers in fixing real-world problems. This is done through the company’s three-pronged approach: a fellowship program, a summit event series and a coalition that matches purpose-driven engineers with socially conscious companies.
Mayer said, “We target computer science departments, asking administrative staff and faculty to tell the students there are other options than the top 10 companies with the most visibility.”
Impact Labs helps engineers who want more fulfilling jobs meet companies of 15 or more people that can pay competitive salaries and are positively impacting the world. The community — currently a team of the three cofounders, 30 volunteers and 3,000 engineers seeking jobs — seems more like a social movement. The tag line at the bottom of the company website even reads, “Move purposefully and fix things.”
The next step to fixing more things is to secure grant funding to, as Mayer said, “optimize for impact.” Or, as Stengle noted, “scaling meets utilitarianism.”
Stengle and Mayer named Salesforce (New York) as an early adopter/leader and inspiration for the social enterprise movement, which Stengle said, “wasn’t even a term 10 years ago.” Mayer wants to remain true to his mission, including turning Impact Labs into a nonprofit. He said, “The only thing in my way right now to do that is … me.”
When Stengle asked Mayer how Impact Labs handles its governance, Mayer said, “Just organically, right now. Everyone involved just wants to be involved. As we grow, I hope that energy never changes.”
Mayer’s TEDx talk can be seen here.