If only business school could be like this. Every class would have titles like: “Real Cases in Social Enterprise, Social and Policy Innovation in the Obama Administration, Financing Innovation in Education Reform, and Conscious Capitalism.” There would be an active twitter feed, live blogging, and a number of helpful speed networking sessions to connect with students from different schools. To top it off, the talented and creative artists from the Value Web would graphically summarize every class, and the Dear World team would photograph every school formal. This would be a great way to learn!
More than a thousand people gathered in Cambridge this weekend to attend the Harvard Business Social Enterprise Conference, and they were not disappointed. The event, which was organized by Harvard students at the Business School and Kennedy School, had a number of events with dynamic speakers covering a wide-range of issues. While many social entrepreneurship conferences focus on the sector in silo, the message for this conference was— only collaboration across all sectors will solve the world’s most pressing problems.
The “Social and Policy Innovation in the Obama administration” panel exemplified the work being done on the federal level to spark change. It was a young yet distinguished group of panelists who had all worked in different sectors, but who were now dedicated to making government work more efficiently. Each panelist spoke about the opportunities for social entrepreneurs to engage with government; whether they had a focus in international development, start-ups or education.
William Foote from Root Capital started the second day with an inspiring keynote about his journey to find ways to support rural agriculture entrepreneurs all over the world. He called himself the “least distinguished Harvard drop-out that will be speaking to you,” but he was the only one of the speakers to end his talk by playing guitar and singing a Nicaraguan protest song.
Through the efforts of Harvard Kennedy student Jonah Evans, who spent time doing community organizing work in New Orleans, the Conference also included a panel titled, “New Orleans: Sustaining Social Change.” Instead of having the panelists talk at the audience for the entire time, the panelists presented their social enterprise, and asked the audience to work in small groups to brainstorm suggestions for how their venture could improve. Ariella Cohen began the talk by describing her work developing The Lens—which is the “Gulf Coast’s first investigative journalism non-profit,” and was followed by Robert Fogarty who is the founder of Evacuteer.org, which helps train volunteers to assist New Orleanians during an evacuation. Joseph Brock, from NOLA Green Roots showed a few powerful photos that displayed how quickly his organization was growing, and asked the group to figure out how he could get more corporate sponsors.
The “Financing Innovation in Education” panel was standing room only, as students and practitioners were eager to hear from a group of panelists who have accomplished a lot in the education sector. The conversation quickly evolved into a discussion about the best way to implement change in education and how long it takes to raise seed funding. Alex Grood, Founder and CEO of betterlesson.org took the group through his financing history— which started as a few angel investments from family and friends, and then turned into funding from the man sitting next to him, Jordan Meranus from theNewSchools Venture Fund. The consensus from the panel was that the current system is not working, and there is a great need in the market for more education focused social ventures.
The Conference closed with passionate and moving speeches from Beatrice Biira and Robert Fogarty that left the crowd feeling charged, ready to tackle all of the worlds problems. The solutions will not happen over night, but it helps to have events like these that let the social venture sector re-charge their batteries and get inspired by the innovators in the field.
Nathan Rothstein is the Director of Community Engagement for Swellr–which helps teachers raise money for their classroom needs by getting their network to shop at local businesses that run promotions on swellr.com. Swellr will be launching summer 2011. Mr. Rothstein spent the previous four years doing Hurricane-Katrina related recovery work, where he also wrote for Next American City and GOOD Magazine. You can follow him on twitter @nrothstein.