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Believe in People: Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World

Charles Koch, chairman and CEO, Koch Industries, Inc.

by Charles Koch, chairman and CEO, Koch Industries, Inc.

I have a new book coming out Nov. 17: “Believe in People: Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World.” Written with Brian Hooks, CEO of Stand Together, this book describes a central aspect of my life’s work — to help bring about a society in which everyone has the opportunity to realize their potential and succeed. When I started writing this book about five years ago, I had no idea it would be coming out during a deadly pandemic, massive record increases in governmental controls and spending, and the most divisive political atmosphere with the greatest civil unrest in my lifetime. Yet the book is perfectly timed for this troubling moment. Because it explores how every person can help tackle society’s biggest problems, whatever they may be.

The book’s title, “Believe in People,” is really a summation of my lifelong philosophy. The central point is that every person has a unique gift. Each of us can use our gift to improve our lives by helping others improve theirs. The more we do so, the more everyone will benefit. I have spent the last 60 years in business and philanthropy striving to empower people to become the best version of themselves and contribute to the best possible society.

Like my previous books, “Believe in People” draws on the principles of scientific and social progress that have benefited people throughout history. Those principles have transformed my life, allowing me to accomplish more than I ever dreamed possible. They have also transformed Koch Industries, enabling our employees to apply their own gifts to create value for others.

Unlike my previous books, which described how these principles applied to business, “Believe in People” applies them to every facet of society, including communities, education and government. And while I have previously written for an audience of business entrepreneurs, Brian and I wrote this book for Social Entrepreneurs.

What is a Social Entrepreneur? It is someone from any background who is devoted to helping others realize their potential. There is a Social Entrepreneur in each of us, in anyone who finds fulfillment in applying their gifts to make the world a better place.

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Charles Koch, chairman and CEO of Koch Industries and Brian Hooks, chairman and CEO of Stand Together.

While anyone can be a Social Entrepreneur, not everyone knows where to start. Additionally, many well-intentioned people fail to succeed at overcoming the problems they care most about. (I have had this problem myself, as “Believe in People” describes.) My hope is that this book will help the millions of people who want to make a real difference.

The future of our country depends on whether we have a deep belief in people. To some that may seem like an obvious statement, but as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. Huge swaths of our society are built on a deep disbelief in people.

As Brian and I explained in the book, there are plenty of “business projects, public policies, and philanthropic grand plans done to people rather than collaborative efforts that enable individuals to discover and apply themselves.” As a result, far from being empowered, countless people are being controlled and stifled. Because they feel no one believes in them, many no longer believe in themselves. Instead of being contribution motivated — that is, driven by the desire to succeed by helping others — many have become negatively motivated. This leads to all kinds of destructive attitudes and behavior.

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Our goal is to knock down barriers so everyone can realize their unique potential and contribute to the lives of others.

The result is a crisis on two levels. First and foremost, for the people who are being held back or pushed down. Second, for all of society, which is missing the important contributions that each person can make. In my experience, those who are overlooked or undervalued often have the most to contribute.

So what would it mean to truly believe in people? First, it means recognizing that everyone has a unique gift — all people, without exception.

To me, there’s no better example than Sterling Varner, one of the greatest success stories in the company’s history. He was born in a tent where his dad worked as an oilfield contractor. He stuttered, was beset with serious health problems and lacked a formal education. While most people wrote him off, he had great people skills and a keen entrepreneurial sense, which I discovered in the 1960s. He used them to bring out the best in others and help make us leaders in many businesses. His contribution led him to become president of Koch Industries.


Sterling Varner (left, and bottom left) was one of the greatest success stories in the company’s history.

In Sterling’s story, we are reminded that we never know what someone is capable of doing. When we believe in them, and when we empower them to give it a go, they get the chance to show us. In my experience, there’s no such thing as an ordinary person; all people are capable of extraordinary things.

Second, believing in people means looking for answers in the most unexpected and seemingly unlikely places.

One of the great truths of history is that the people who are closest to a problem are usually the best suited to solve it. By contrast, those who are farthest from a problem often make it worse, or create other issues when they try to solve it — they lack the right knowledge and understanding. This is the difference between bottom-up and top-down thinking, and as the book demonstrates, bottom-up is the only way to create real social progress.

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“Believe in People” is a guide for people who are looking for a better way.

The bottom-up paradigm is engrained in Koch Industries. Since the 1960s, one of my goals has been to create a corporate culture that encourages and empowers every employee to take the initiative in contributing, rather than waiting for the boss to tell them what to do. Not only does this enable employees to find fulfillment, it fully uses their knowledge, enabling the company to create more value for itself and others. Now imagine if society took the same approach on poverty or addiction or a subpar education system, to say nothing of the coronavirus or racial injustice.

Third and finally, believing in people means being willing to unite with anybody to do right.

That phrase, which comes from one of my heroes, Frederick Douglass, is one of the most ignored truths of our time. It’s also one of the most important truths of all time. If each person has a unique gift, then using our gifts in combination with each other will enable us to do more, do it better and do it faster. This is the story of human progress. It’s key to overcoming the many challenges we face today.

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Believe in People: Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World. Available beginning Nov. 17.

I have already told the story of federal criminal justice reform in a previous issue of Discovery. It remains one of the greatest recent proof points of how people who disagree on many things can still come together to make incredible headway on one thing where they agree. As Brian and I point out, no matter what issue we face, “we can achieve more together than we ever could apart — even and especially when we unite with those who think differently and bring different capabilities to the task at hand.”

These principles represent nothing less than a paradigm shift for many people. For me, they are a marker against which I continually measure my actions, in every aspect of my life. If our society is willing to embrace them, and I believe it is, the benefits will be widely and quickly felt.

By clicking "continue reading" below, you will encounter several examples of what it looks like to believe in people. These are drawn from our work at Koch and through Stand Together. You’ll find examples for each of society’s core institutions — communities, education, business and government.

These examples offer a small taste of what you’ll find in the book. It’s full of stories, many from my life and many more from people I’ve met and supported over the years — from former drug addicts and gang leaders to inner-city principals and insightful entrepreneurs. They prove what’s possible when people are empowered to discover, develop and apply their gifts to helping others — that is, to self-actualize.

Despite these difficult times, I remain optimistic about the kind of society we can build, one where every person has the opportunity to contribute and thrive. You have a crucial role to play in realizing that vision. May this issue of Discovery — and my new book, “Believe in People” — speed you on the journey to transform your life and society itself.

Charles Koch, chairman and CEO, Koch Industries


Continue reading next section: Four Core Institutions of Society