Sunday, March 6, 2011

Harvard Social Enterprise Conference, Part 2

There’s a lot to say about today’s events at the Harvard Social Enterprise conference, so I’m not going to be able to synthesize it all into one post. I’m hoping some of the other attendees can comment here to add to the discussion.

The day started off with a keynote address from Willy Foote of Root Capital and his talk was probably the most entertaining of the day. He weaved interesting stories throughout the speech and even ended by pulling out a guitar and singing a Latin American revolutionary song. Definitely wasn’t expecting that.

Beyond discussing at length the need to support small and medium enterprises around the world, which is what Root Capital does, I think he gave an interesting story of how he came to do what he does, which serves as a useful model for all social entrepreneurs. He said he started the organization out of a combination of intuition and impatience; a worry that if he didn’t start doing what he thought was necessary, it wouldn’t get done.

The second keynote of the day, Robert Harrison of the Clinton Global Initiative, gave a different perspective on the journey into public service. He worked in the private sector much longer than most before switching to CGI, and he discussed the reasons for that. He told a story about how he worked on the Hill as a college student, and got the advice to go into the private sector, gain technical expertise, and then leave the private sector to “change the world.” He said in the current climate, young people don’t need to do that anymore, and should go right into social entrepreneurial and nonprofit careers. I thought that Harrison’s story was an interesting contract to Foote’s, and shows the many different ways people can get into (and excel in) creating social change.

Two of the panels I went to, “Accessing Transformative Social Enterprise Capital” and “Emerging and Traditional Legal Structures for Social Enterprises” complemented each other very nicely. “Enterprise Capital” was a discussion of the landscape of the different financing options available to social enterprises, and “Legal Structures” was on the emerging legal statuses out there for organizations. Both seemed to come to the same conclusion: Mission is more important than anything else. First you should decide on your mission and your goals, and then figure out the best financing and structure to help you accomplish that goal. Financing and organization structure are important tools to help you accomplish what you want to do, but they are only tools.

Related to this idea of prioritizing mission, the “Survival of the Fittest: Leadership and Scaling Up” panel had a great discussion on the role of scale for organizations. All of the panelists agreed that scale should not be a goal in and of itself. Scale should only serve the mission, and if done for the wrong reasons, can actually corrupt an organization’s progress. Caleb Shreve of the Global Fairness Initiative noted that there is nothing wrong with operating “at scale.” If something is working and doesn’t need to grow, don’t push it.

A theme that ran through all the panels, but was really brought out most strongly by Foote, was the idea of over extending oneself. He noted that Root Capital isn’t doing anything that innovative, it is just taking traditional models of finance and applying them into new markets. He encouraged people not be innovative for innovation’s sake, and instead to do one or two things really well, and collaborate with others to do the rest. I thought that this advice, along with that from the panels I attended, was a very realistic (and humbling) way to look at social innovation and social enterprise.

On a side note, I also attended a design workshop from the folks at IDEO. I’ve never been a part of design thinking before, and I have to say, I struggled to keep up. We tried to come up with dozens of solutions to health-related problems in India in under 60 minutes. People were thinking of ideas faster than I could process the words being said. I think I’ll stick to philanthropy, for now.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the final keynote because I had to head back to DC. Hopefully someone else can comment on it who stuck around.

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

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