Harvard Social Enterprise Conference 2014 Pauses to Reflect on the Past 15 Years in Order to Shape the Next 15

By Kather­ine Woolley

The 2014 Social Enter­prise Con­fer­ence spon­sored by the Har­vard Busi­ness School and Har­vard Kennedy School of Gov­ern­ment marked the 15th anniver­sary of the conference’s tenure.  At this junc­ture, the week­end assumed a reflec­tive role in sup­port of the theme: “Reflect­ing on the Past, Shap­ing the Future.”

North­east­ern stu­dents rep­re­sent­ing the Social Enter­prise Insti­tute joined a wide demo­graphic range of entre­pre­neurs, intrapre­neurs, policy-makers and more recent entrants into the free-thinking, change-making cul­ture of social entre­pre­neur­ship; and the entire week­end played like a call to action. 

The com­mit­ment of all in atten­dance to the instil­la­tion of human dig­nity and scale of social impact was largely evi­denced in the trans­parency of shared expe­ri­ence and exper­tise – and through the open invi­ta­tion of com­pe­ti­tion into the social devel­op­ment space.

Cheryl Dorsey, Pres­i­dent of Echo­ing Green and the conference’s open­ing Keynote, addressed the youngest gen­er­a­tion with a comedic per­sua­sion that “now is the time to eat ramen and sleep on a friend’s couch.”  And she bal­anced this per­mis­sion with an encour­age­ment of the older gen­er­a­tions in atten­dance to talk more freely about past fail­ures, a pre­req­ui­site of future successes.

Patag­o­nia’s Jill Dumain echoed the evanes­cence of youth’s abil­ity to live cheaply and the impor­tance of exer­cis­ing this advan­tage at the begin­ning of one’s career, and she also endorsed Dorsey’s encour­age­ment of older gen­er­a­tions to ques­tion tra­di­tional, lin­ear career paths as well as any notions that cor­po­ra­tions can be too big or too com­plex to be respon­si­ble.  Let’s accept respon­si­bil­ity and apply a larger lens to the complexities.

Leila Janah, founder and CEO of Sama­source, reminded us of talent’s equal dis­tri­b­u­tion across the human fam­ily and the dis­pro­por­tion­ate align­ment of oppor­tu­nity to employ this tal­ent.  In ref­er­ence to both Sama­source and the more gen­eral global adop­tion of tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion, Janah shared her vision of the inter­net as a “pow­er­ful tool of human empa­thy.”  Pre­mal Shah, Kiva Pres­i­dent, is another exam­ple of some­one who has lever­aged tech­nol­ogy to empower the poor to advo­cate for their own livelihoods.

The past 15 years have wit­nessed a dynamic evo­lu­tion of social devel­op­ment through an improved involve­ment of the pri­vate sec­tor and the legit­imiza­tion of “profit for pur­pose.”  We con­tinue to see the trans­for­ma­tive power of tech­nol­ogy to advance devel­op­ment ini­tia­tives.  We have seen the proven value and suc­cesses of impact invest­ing, micro­fi­nance, microwork and atten­tion to agri­cul­tural industries.

In the past 15 years, we have also seen the rise of Social Entre­pre­neur­ship as an aca­d­e­m­i­cally legit­i­mate busi­ness dis­ci­pline in the global North, and this accep­tance has led to a slow but steady adop­tion of the field of study in the South.  This year, a num­ber of dis­cus­sions at the con­fer­ence focused on spe­cific regions of the devel­op­ing world (Entre­pre­neur­ship in the Mid­dle East: Chal­lenges and Oppor­tu­ni­ties; The Awak­en­ing Giant: Social Enter­prise in China, and Build­ing the Social Enter­prise Ecosys­tem in Mex­ico), and many pan­elists spoke to the impor­tance of local­ized social entre­pre­neur­ship pro­grams and incu­ba­tors as a means to local­ize own­er­ship of social ini­tia­tives within the devel­op­ing communities.

As Northeastern’s Spring 2014 Social Entre­pre­neur­ship Cap­stone eval­u­ates its oppor­tu­ni­ties for an impact invest­ment in an inno­va­tion project within the Jamaican com­mu­nity, it is seek­ing to instill this sense of local own­er­ship within the invest­ment recip­i­ent – and most impor­tantly empower the recip­i­ent to then pay the empow­er­ment forward.