You Know Bono for His Music, But There Is a Lot More to Know. And It’ll Surprise You.

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You Know Bono for His Music, But There Is a Lot More to Know. And It’ll Surprise You.

Maybe you know U2’s lead singer from songs like “With or Without You,” “One” or his iPod commercials. Or maybe you make fun of him for his pompous political rhetoric and super-fly wraparound sunglasses. Either way, the Irish rock star isn’t all talk and “flowers in my hair,” as he likes to say. He’s used his celebrity to create a powerful platform to help end global poverty and eradicate AIDS. He’s a dreamer, but more importantly, he’s put money and sweat behind those efforts and yielded concrete results.

Now, Bono has turned his efforts to technology, moving beyond U2’s partnership with Apple to fund tech ventures through investments. And he’s speaking out to show how tech can play a role to help end poverty and corruption, corralling yet another industry in his surprisingly broad commitment to social and economic justice.

Bono wasn’t always Bono. In 1960, he was born Paul Hewson in Dublin, Ireland, to a Roman Catholic mother and a Protestant father. As a happy, dreamy child, at the age of three, he would gently remove honeybees from flowers to talk to them, Thom Winckelmann wrote in his book, “Bono: Rock Star & Humanitarian.” But he had an exasperating streak as well, questioning what he saw and arguing as adults sugar-coated the harsh realities around them.

Even as a kid, he demonstrated the mix of starry-eyed idealism and stubborn instincts for justice that today characterizes his work and music. He carried that innate optimism and positivity to Dublin’s Mount Temple Comprehensive high school, where he was a gregarious kid who easily made friends. But that charmed, compassionate nature got a jolt at 14, when his mother died suddenly of a brain aneurysm.

The tragedy propelled Bono towards music, and he began to play guitar and write songs, gravitating towards groups like socially aware British punk band “The Clash,” whose songs he characterized as public service announcements, but with guitars, he said in a speech at Georgetown. When fellow student and local drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. posted an ad on the school’s bulletin board to start a rock band, Bono responded, along with two other classmates: guitarist Dave Evans, who would go on to become The Edge, and Adam Clayton, a bass player. They formed a band they called Feedback, which they later renamed The Hype and finally U2.

Their ascent was nothing like today’s YouTube-fueled templates. Instead, the band rose in the ranks the old-fashioned way — they landed a record deal, toured relentlessly for years, garnered college radio airplay and built strong word-of-mouth, based on politically charged songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Slowly, they built their reputation for passionate live performances and socially conscious recordings, which culminated with the breakthrough hit, “Pride,” a paean to civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s a fitting opening salvo for a career that blends a drive for social justice with a flair for poetic expression.

As U2 became a household name, Bono emerged as the most visible member and an icon in his own right. But he’s not your usual rock star. Sure, he’s exceedingly wealthy with homes in several countries, and he wears sunglasses all the time, even indoors, which has become a trademark, but he’s also still happily marriage to his high school sweetheart, Ali Stewart, with whom he has four children. And he continues to champion causes and work with luminaries like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a key figure in toppling apartheid in South Africa.

He also co-founded ONE and (RED), and a large part of his advocacy work is convincing Western leaders to forgive the massive debts of poor nations, in addition to raising awareness and funding for AIDS and HIV treatments. But his most prominent, lasting work centers on extreme poverty in Africa. To this end, he’s become a lobbyist in D.C., with a talent for charming politicians and bridging partisan divides.

“For nearly 15 years, I’ve regularly been a pest in Washington, D.C.,” he told MIT Technology Review in an interview. “From the start I was told how the Capitol had never been so polarized, but every time I’ve been there, I’ve met with politicians who are willing to rise above that.”

He often speaks out on social responsibility. In 2004, he delivered the commencement addresses at University of Pennsylvania, urging young people to “betray their age” and call out the “moral blind spots” of the era. But that’s made him a lightning rod of criticism. Opponents often claim he has a “Jesus complex,” which he self-deprecatingly mocks in his speech as the “worst scourge on God’s green earth — a rock star with a cause.” But unlike most celebrities, he goes beyond talk and delivers concrete results. His organizations have raised $180 to $200 million for AIDS in Africa, and he’s helped to convince political leaders like George W. Bush to ramp up foreign aid to combat global HIV epidemics, and worked to bring life-saving medicines at reduced cost to the poorest parts of the world. For those efforts, he’s been nominated for several Nobel Peace Prizes.

Bono uses music and celebrity to draw attention to the fight against global poverty, but now he has his eye on another potent force in the battle for social justice: technology.

“There is no silver bullet to ending extreme poverty and disease, no magic technology. That takes commitment, a lifetime of it, plus resources, political will, and people standing up to demand it,” he told MIT Technology Review. “Technology provides the means, however.”

Slowly, but surely, the Irish musician has built credibility. On a personal level, he’s enjoyed a friendship with late Apple founder Steve Jobs, who he admired greatly. The relationship culminated in a high-profile deal that lent U2’s music to iPod advertisements, which helped to cement the company’s reputation as a music industry power. But beyond an Apple spokesperson, Bono is also a canny tech investor. As a managing director and partner at venture capital firm Elevation Partners, he focuses on media, entertainment and technology. After stumbling out of the gate with ill-fated investments in Palm and BlackBerry, Elevation later struck gold with early support of Facebook and Dropbox. Both investments have made him a great deal richer, with a net worth of around $600 million.

Bono is investing in major tech companies, and there’s no telling where his work will lead. Underneath the high-minded rhetoric and roguish Irish charm is a practical, brass-tacks practicality that puts ideas into action. Beyond Silicon Valley, he’s has his hand in ventures like The Clarence Hotel in Dublin and eco-fashion label Edun, among others, so it’s not out of the question to see him create his own tech projects. If he does, future forays will likely propel his convictions about social justice, as he uses his wealth, fame and privilege to help ease extreme poverty in Africa.

“In Africa, things are changing so rapidly — innovations like farmers using mobile phones to check seed prices, for banking, for sending payments to the macro effect we saw with the Arab Spring thanks to Facebook and Twitter,” he told MIT Technology Review. “Poorer countries have the advantage of being able to leapfrog, as they’ve done with communications infrastructure.”

In addition, he believes technology can help curb corruption, one of the biggest problems that plague Africa. “Corruption is deadly, but there’s a vaccine for that too — it’s called transparency,” he added. “It’s much harder to rip people off when they know what’s going on. We can gather and disseminate data in all sorts of ways, giving a whole new meaning to the word ‘accountability’.”

All his life, Bono has been a compassionate dreamer, with a surprisingly strong moral vision that focuses on hope in the most hopeless situations. Technology is one of the strongest weapons in the fight against poverty, and he sees it as effective tools in his life’s mission.

“With data informing our course, we can describe the kind of world we want to live in — and then, without airy-fairyness or wishful thinking, go after it,” he continued. “It’s the greatest opportunity that has ever been offered any generation. And that’s the truth.”

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