Harvard Social Enterprise Conference

by Rachel Shaheen

National social enter­prise lead­ers from across the coun­try joined together for the two-day, high-energy and inspir­ing Har­vard Social Enter­prise Con­fer­ence on Feb­ru­ary 25 and 26. The event stim­u­lated dis­cus­sion on new solu­tions and prob­lems within the social enter­prise field, focus­ing around this year’s theme of Inno­va­tion, Inclu­sion, and Impact. 

These promi­nent indi­vid­u­als, along with a sig­nif­i­cant pop­u­la­tion of stu­dents, gath­ered for a week­end of keynote speak­ers, net­work­ing ses­sions, and pan­els address­ing sev­eral aspects within the field includ­ing: Mar­ket­ing Microin­sur­ance, Impact Invest­ing, Tech­nol­ogy, Edu­ca­tion Reform, and Food Secu­rity. Inter­ac­tive work­shops were also pro­vided on top­ics such as, “Nego­ti­at­ing Private-Public Solu­tions to Social Chal­lenges” and “10 Ingre­di­ents for a Social Enter­prise Start-Up.” Orga­ni­za­tion of the event can be attrib­uted solely to 130 Har­vard Busi­ness School and Har­vard Kennedy School students.

Eliz­a­beth Leber­man, Rela­tion­ship Man­age­ment Asso­ciate at Root Cause, attended the con­fer­ence and was very impressed with the selec­tion of knowl­edge­able and inspir­ing speak­ers. Lau­ren Bush of FEED Projects, Vikram Akula of SKS Micro­fi­nance, Bill Dray­ton of Ashoka and Vanessa Kirsch of New Profit were some of the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the social enter­prise field. Indi­vid­u­als from The Econ­o­mist, The Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion and Destroy Nor­mal Con­sult­ing spoke, as well. Dray­ton reflected the over­all vital­iz­ing tone of the con­fer­ence when he said, “We are enter­ing a world defined not by rep­e­ti­tion, but by change — so you bet­ter be a change-maker,” which truly res­onated with Leberman.

A main theme dis­cussed this year was the increas­ingly blurred lines between the sec­tors, and the increas­ing need for those walls between the sec­tors to come down in order for us to push for­ward social change in the most effec­tive way,” stated Leber­man. Much of the dia­logue involved the struc­ture of social ven­tures, whether for-profit or non­profit, and the strate­gies used to obtain resources, whether through phil­an­thropy or earned income. “The idea that peo­ple have often seen the non­profit and the for-profit approaches as sep­a­rate, diverg­ing approaches is slow­ing chang­ing, espe­cially with the growth of B Corps, L3Cs, and other social enter­prise mod­els that are increas­ingly gain­ing leg­is­la­tion to back these blended struc­tures,” she says. Although some progress is evi­dent, lead­ers in the field agree that a promi­nent chal­lenge is the lack of infra­struc­ture, poli­cies, and legal sys­tems that sup­port social enter­prises and the merg­ing of for-profit and non­profit bound­aries. Speaker Vanessa Kirsch from New Profit spoke to this theme: “If you tear the walls down between busi­ness and soci­ety, you will have an explo­sion of productivity.”

Impact invest­ing, or invest­ing in finan­cial and social return in social enter­prises, was another dom­i­nant topic of the con­fer­ence. Though in the early stages of imple­men­ta­tion, social impact bonds was a recur­ring topic dis­cussed by con­fer­ence lead­ers. “Most peo­ple saw their poten­tial, but felt that there needed to be behav­ioral changes and struc­tures and incen­tives built to make these strate­gies work. There was a con­sen­sus that there needs to be a grow­ing sup­port ecosys­tem for social ven­tures that has infra­struc­ture, insti­tu­tions, poli­cies, and cor­po­rate forms that sup­port social enter­prises,” expressed Leber­man. Impact invest­ing is believed to have great poten­tial and is espe­cially in line with the hope of blur­ring non­profit and for-profit structures.

Mea­sur­ing impact was por­trayed as both an agreed upon chal­lenge and inno­va­tion in the field. In terms of impact invest­ing, there is incred­i­ble dif­fi­culty for social enter­prises to pro­vide met­rics used for mea­sur­ing social return. “Peo­ple also agreed that we are in the midst of a data rev­o­lu­tion where mission-based enter­prises were increas­ingly forced to use more than just sto­ries to prove their social impact,” says Leber­man. Social enter­prises are dis­play­ing inno­va­tion through their use of tech­nol­ogy in the social space for the pur­pose of mar­ket­ing or as a tool for solv­ing their tar­geted social issue.

Har­vard Social Enter­prise Con­fer­ence gave Leber­man the oppor­tu­nity to net­work with dis­tin­guished orga­ni­za­tions in the field includ­ing, SoJo, Echo­ing Green, and While man­ag­ing the Career Fair table for Root Cause, she inter­acted with stu­dents, grad­u­ates, and pro­fes­sion­als inter­ested in becom­ing involved in the Boston non­profit com­mu­nity. The event was very con­ducive to net­work­ing and Leber­man expressed the value in meet­ing so many peo­ple engaged in sim­i­lar mean­ing­ful work.

Leber­man gained a wealth of knowl­edge regard­ing the myr­iad of approaches for social change. The dynamic, thought-provoking envi­ron­ment of the con­fer­ence enabled atten­dees to both chal­lenge and con­cur with each other’s ideas within the social enter­prise field. Leber­man expressed, “There seemed to be a sup­port­ive feel to the entire con­fer­ence, in the sense that the com­mon goal of the con­fer­ence and the com­mon goal around these peo­ples’ careers is social change, and every­one wanted to offer to sup­port in every­one else’s spe­cific endeav­ors to meet that end goal.”


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