Continued from last week, my essay on “Venture and Social Capital”:

2. Encourage a culture of empathy through volunteering
At my high school in California, every student had to perform 100 hours of community service in order to advance to the next grade level. The focus was not on impersonal activities like cleaning up a park, but on providing meaningful service to the less privileged people in our community. Volunteering to help people instills the idea in young minds that “giving back” to society is a natural part of life. Young people discover that volunteering pays rich dividends in community appreciation, self-esteem, compassion, humility, and gratitude. Equally important, they learn that asking for help is nothing to be ashamed of.

Japan would benefit from such a program for a number of reasons. First, it would help young people learn empathy for others, and thus grow into compassionate adults. Second, it would lead people of all ages to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses. And third, it would teach people to ask for help when they need it and both give and receive assistance from others as a matter of course.

A broader, deeper culture of empathy could also help to energize the business environment. One of the main reasons that so few venture businesses appear in Japan and far fewer succeed is that people in established companies, in banks, and so on, feel no sense of responsibility toward or even kinship with individuals who build their own businesses. Reaching out to help others is essential to helping a venture business succeed, just as employees being willing to help each other inside a start-up company is essential to its success. Many Japanese are too concerned with their own department, their own company, their own clients. The empathy response to help others, especially those who are somehow disadvantaged, is just not there. This characteristic is evident not only in the lack of support for venture business but also in the abysmally low level of philanthropy in Japan.

This is important because it applies directly to a nation’s ability to germinate and cultivate new businesses: start-up companies are all disadvantaged. Venture businesses are handicapped by a lack of experienced management, lack of access to capital, and lack of appeal to attract talented employees. Ventures succeed when people in the business community see their potential and offer them different kinds of assistance to help them grow.

While the effects of a wide-scale volunteer program are impossible to estimate, one result would certainly be an increase in personal empathy, a greater feeling of kinship with and responsibility to help others who need help. And that would include businesspeople feeling more inclined to help rather than hinder others, both within their companies and in the business community at large. In this sense, the growth of venture business—which I see as essential to invigorating this economy—will rely at least as much on individual and corporate assistance as on government support. So, as volunteerism promotes empathy, it not only “humanizes” society but indirectly helps to energize the economy.

(End of part 2 of 3 – Your comments are always welcome)

Note: This article originally appeared in Reimagining Japan: The Quest for a Future That Works, McKinsey & Company, Shogakukan (Japan), Simon & Schuster (USA), July 2011. Used with permission.