Oh to spend two days mingling with hundreds of like-minded conspirators, social entrepreneurs, movers and shakers! The 2010 Global Social Venture Conference at UC Berkeley this week surpassed all expectations.
BLISS won a spot as one of 16 finalists selected from over 500 entries from across the globe. Bad news: We didn’t win the Social Impact award we were nominated for – it went to WeCare Solar, who use solar technology to improve maternal healthcare in Africa. Good news: The competition was only part of the 2 days of fun-filled inspiration—panels, discussions, speakers and conversations with inspiring folks in the world of social entrepreneurship.
The most riveting speaker was Wilford Welch, keynote on the final day, a former diplomat and do-er of numerous amazing things that cannot all be listed here, one of which is his groundbreaking new book: Tactics of Hope: How Social Entrepreneurs Are Changing The World, with 7 case studies on social entrepreneurs. In describing the group of young, aspiring entrepreneurs that were his audience, he said:
“You are all impatient to make a difference, to change the world. And don’t you dare lose that impatience!”
These words rang so true for me—I have felt this impatience every day since BLISS took off. I am impatient to scale so we don’t have to turn eager girls away, impatient to get our beautiful handbags in the market, impatient to observe impact, impatient to get our story heard, impatient to work with the bigger players in the worlds of education and fashion. I knew from the smiling nods around the room that Welch’s words resonated with hundreds of other similarly impatient young entrepreneurs in the room.
With social entrepreneurship increasingly becoming sexy, and a mainstream concept that everyone wants to be a part of, the lines between it and traditional philanthropy/nonprofits/charities are becoming blurry. There has some debate about laying down the ‘Holy Principles’ that define social entrepreneurship. It was thus timely for Welch to outline qualities he defined as being characteristic of social entrepreneurs.
He described them as those who “boundary-ride” between social paradigms and conventional beliefs, who think about systemic change when solving social problems, and if they can also make money while doing that, all the better. The hallmark of their innovation is replicable and sustainable models. To drive this point home, Welch quoted Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka: “Our job is not to give people fish, it’s not to teach them how to fish, it’s to build new and better fishing industries.” Social entrepreneurs collaborate across traditional boundaries, and are happy to establish unnatural partnerships, including inter-generational ones. They listen at the local level, and redesign their solutions to fit community needs. They create legal and financial structures that make sense.
Another favorite moment came when panelist and WorldofGood co-founder, Siddharth Sanghvi shared an observation for early-stage ventures that we at BLISS have struggled with on an almost-daily basis. The tendency to be opportunity driven instead of focus driven. The tendency to be pulled in many directions by promising ideas thrown at you, to want to try this, and that, and more with your enterprise, because hey, everything seems like a wonderful idea! And then slapping yourself a few months later when it turns out to be a waste of time, or spreads your team too thin. You have to say no to some ideas because it isn’t the right time, because you have to focus before diversifying, whether it be your product, your market, or your scaling strategy. Hear hear.
At dinner, the keynote was Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of MercyCorps for 16 years now. He spoke of the need to bring together two worlds that would do well to learn from each other. The world of traditional NGOs – obsessed with scale and prone to ignoring quality and impact – need to function more like social enterprises. And the world of social innovators who dismiss scale and flock to traditional, “safe investment” countries like India need to bring their innovations to fragile and failed states—Congo, Afghanistan, Sudan—regions where conflict, governance, and resource challenges come together to create chaos.
Keny-Guyer’s enthusiasm was contagious. He said he wanted to cheerlead for the young social innovators of this century—innovators that made him see more potential for profound, systemic change than he has ever seen before. Yes, there isn’t a silver bullet solution to the world’s biggest problems, he noted, but there is something very exciting happening in the world of social good:
Now you can do good and do well for yourself at the same time!
Finally, some great advice from a panel of venture capitalists (how could a social venture conference be complete without these folks!) Building your team before you apply for venture funding is key—investors have to feel like they share DNA with the team by the time they decide they are ready to invest. Investing is like being married—once VCs invest in you, you can’t get rid of them. So the teams have to see eye to eye with the investors on key issues and values.
If you’re projecting yourself as a social venture, your social mission needs to be integrated with your business model, needs to be at its core, not a by-product of your operations. For example, a for-profit model that simply funnels a certain percentage of their profits towards poverty alleviation might be making the world a better place, but fails this test.
Also great to see very strong MIT representation among the finalists—1/4th of all finalist teams were founded by current or former MIT students! The grand prize of $25K also went to a startup that is the brainchild of a friend from undergrad at MIT—re:Motion Designs makes $20 prosthetic knees for the developing world. Among other MIT finalists were ventures Winduction and C-Crete. Way to represent, MIT!
The underlying message in everything I heard at the conference was this: Follow your passion! You can do a lot on the power of passion. But don’t try to build an empire: find co-conspirators. And along the journey, remember that every no is one step closer to a yes!