Joshua Onykso and his concatenating capitalism

Pangea Last night I got to hear Joshua Onysko, the founder of Pangea Organics.

In some ways, Joshua is a standard-issue entrepreneur: curious, durable, ambitious, practical, experimental, relentless, result-seeking, a man in constant motion. 

His career began with a book about soap.  Joshua went to dinner with his mom and the book was just sitting there.  So he made some.  Just to see.  (Entrepreneurs prize the art of the possible above the art of the profitable.)  Joshua went off on a world tour, to India, Nepal, Tibet, Kashmir, Brooklyn, New Orleans.  And then home to Wyoming where he made more soap.  Another great loop: Oregon, Bellingham, Alaska, Yukon, Denver, Hong Kong, Macao, Tokyo, Thailand, Cambodia and then home to the same destination: soap.  Eventually, with the help of IDEO, Joshua was producing the line of products called Pangea Organics. 

People like Joshua are the shock troops of capitalism.  They have a vision which they relentlessly turn into enterprise, into action, into a company that scales up.  But to capture the full difficulty (and value) of what they do, we need a different metaphor.  Entrepreneurs are the performance artists of capitalism.  They do things the market has never seen before.  And if they catch the moment, they can actually change the market.  Joshua is doing that now. 

Usually, this is where a Venture Capitalist (or large corporation) steps in and relieves the entrepreneur of his or her accomplishment.  It's like that Roller Derby move where people pull upside you and lift you off the floor by your elbows.  Your skates no longer touch the deck.  The VC lavishes you with blandishments.  He offers sums that take the breath away.  All entrepreneurs say "no" at first.  But the offers get larger and more dizzying.  Until the entrepreneur says "geez, what's not to like.  What could be wrong with having many millions of dollars and the rest of my life ahead of me?"

But Joshua is not interested in the usual life trajectory of the entrepreneur.  No, he is intent on the reformation of capitalism.  He wants to change the way we think about products, packaging, manufacture, retail, consumption, and the planet.  (Some Pangea products have seeds embedded in the packaging…to make the garbage bloom.)

In a sense, Joshua is exercising the advantage of his generation.  My generation (boomers) tend to see the world as a series of discrete episodes.  What happens here doesn't have any necessary connection there.  My generation can see consequences but we tend to think of them as capital letters joined by little arrows: A > B.  It's clear that Joshua thinks more in terms of concatenation, where events run in all directions at once. 

So Joshua turns out to be a double entrepreneur.  He thinks about all the things that make up enteprise, all the things that have to happen for a start-up to start up.  But this is merely "booster rocket one."  Then he starts thinking about all the things the start-up can make happen beyond the narrow scope of its enterprise.  This is concatenating capitalism, as ripples carry the influence of Pangea out into the larger world, our broader culture, changing how we do business, how we consume things, how we organize effort and outcome. 

The event was organized by AIGA's Metro North.  (To declare a conflict of interest, I should tell you that this chapter is organized by my wife, Pamela DeCesare.)  The Metro North board took Joshua to dinner afterward.  He said in passing that he's now looking for "patient capitalists."  And I sat there thinking "Ok, now he's going to teach capital to dance to a new tune." 

It is the genius of capitalism that it is so very pliable.  It doesn't really care about the details, just so long as interested parties can engage in transactions that work to their respective advantage.  Indeed, it has conventionally preserved that brilliant act of reduction that Adam Smith accomplished in Wealth of Nations.  It removes from consideration everything extra-transactional, all the cultural, social, political, ecological factors coming in and going out of the transaction.  All of these were, in Kuhnian terms, extra-paradigmatic.  The model didn't include them.  It didn't need to know about them.  Onyesko and the double entrepreneurs appear now to be reinstalling these factors, making them visible, thinkable, calculable, perhaps even manageable.  The world wrought by single entrepreneurs was pretty astonishing.  The one being produced by Joshua Onysko and the new entrepreneurs is going to be very interesting indeed. 

References

Kuhn, Thomas S. 1996. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press. 

Thanks to Scott Lerman of the Metro North board, you can see Joshua's talk here.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Cheryl Swanson of the AIGA Metro North board for organizing the talk. 

Thanks to Amy Domini for several conversations which helped prepare me to understand Onysko's enterprise.

2 thoughts on “Joshua Onykso and his concatenating capitalism”

  1. What a stunningly interesting encapsulation of his essence…the art of the possible, without self consciousness or for the purpose of climbing rungs of the social ladder…just conviction, passion and adventure!

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