Harvard Social Enterprise Conference

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 Philanthropist.org. 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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