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.