Mark Zuckerberg's IPO challenge: A company that can 'friend' the 99 percent

Will the new publicly traded Facebook cater singularly to its wealthy shareholders? Mark Zuckerberg must strive to include ‘we the users,’ who made such a megabillion dollar concept possible, in his corporate model. He can start by offering a free share to each Facebook user.

Zef Nikolla via Facebook/AP
Facebook founder, chairman, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, center, applauds at the opening bell of the Nasdaq stock market May 18. Op-ed contributor Alexander Heffner writes of the Facebook IPO: At $38 a share, 'it’s hardly affordable in any meaningful quantity to a twenty-something such as myself.'

Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive officer, contends this maxim remains at the core of the organization’s purpose. And on the pages of Facebook, these words still ring true, from facilitating communication between people who reside hemispheres apart, to disseminating the messages of citizens protesting repressive regimes like Syria’s, to connecting organ-seekers with potential donors.

But the initial public offering (IPO) that has just concluded was anything but “open and connected” for ordinary Americans. “Following the traditional Wall Street model, Facebook shares are being parceled out to a select group of investors at an offering run by the company’s bankers on Thursday evening, at an estimated $38 a share,” The New York Times reported yesterday.

I wanted to invest in Facebook because I believe in its generally powerful and life-affirming impact on humanity. But based on my own conversations with those familiar with the nature of the deal, I learned this week that I lacked the prerequisite ingredient: A personal connection to Facebook’s original backers.
Moreover, I would essentially be precluded from investing in the company until it went fully public and the price of its shares rose. Moreover, at $38, it’s hardly affordable in any meaningful quantity to a twenty-something such as myself.

 As leaders of a publicly-traded company, Mr. Zuckerberg and his colleagues have the potential to reform a corporate arena in which neither ethics nor concern for the wider American population guides many choices.

More than ever before, the notion of a “public company” has become a grand misnomer: Capital raised and invested seeps through so few hands, and financial success in the stock market is still a remote reach for many Americans. In too many cases, the public and business interest have become uncomfortably antithetical.

To truly live up to its mission, Facebook will have to reconcile its millions of non-share-holding subscribers with the elite group of early angel investors and stakeholders who will control the company.

More than half of Americans have an active Facebook account. In an informal style that can appeal to the masses, Zuckerberg has the potential to rekindle confidence in the markets and to engage everyday Americans in the kind of economic growth that has been limited to only a handful of individuals in recent years.

To demonstrate this inclusiveness, Facebook could offer each unique user a piece of the enterprise (perhaps a free share or a discounted five-share stake in Facebook).

The company, further, could become a model for transparency and disclosure – practicing what it preaches – by virtually bringing the public inside its shareholder meetings and explanations of quarterly profit reports. Facebook has a charitable foundation that operates independently. But it should bring its social-justice mission directly into its business, making it one of its corporate objectives.

Zuckerberg and his team can also accomplish something by simply avoiding the kind of financial decision-making and scandals in which the rich try to get richer exclusively for themselves.

Recent examples of such misbehavior include former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine’s missing billion-plus-dollar fiasco, J.P. Morgan’s recent admission of “stupid...bad judgment,” and a Facebook co-founder’s renouncement of his US citizenship to avoid taxation.

Zuckerberg has already proven his chops as a precocious innovator. But can he preside over a break from the current mold of financial management, and instead ground his corporate leadership in the ethos of Bill Gates’s post-Microsoft philanthropic activity?

If so, Zuckerberg can lead the best kind of publicly-minded revolution for the next generation of CEOs.

Alexander Heffner, a freelance journalist, has written for The Washington Post, Boston Globe, and USA Today.

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