March 31st, 2010 Thoughts on the Conference
The Social Entrepreneurship Experience, a student-run conference, took place on November 21 at the Museum of Vancouver. The organizers’ goals were to “tackle the question of what social entrepreneurship really is and how local businesses are radically changing Vancouver and communities abroad.”
I put it a slightly different way: “Traditional business is a flightless baboon,” I said. (It’s a long story!) “I’m interested in the evolutionary next step.” And I believe it’s social enterprise.
The nature of ’social entrepreneurship’ is as diverse as the individuals who adopt the moniker. Each of us can choose how we’ll build our organizations, but what we all hold in common is a purpose beyond profit, and an open, collaborative approach to resolving issues of sustainability. Yet it is the diversity that makes this burgeoning sector so hard to pin down. And so fascinating.
Consider the speakers and panelists in attendance at SEE 2009:
* Ray Williams, Co-Founder of Success IQ University.
* Elizabeth Lougheed Green, Founder and former Executive Director of Potluck Cafe & Catering, and now Manager of Social Enterprise at the Vancity Community Foundation.
* Ken Lyotier, Founder of United We Can.
* Mickey McLeod, Founder of Salt Spring Coffee.
* Donovon Wollard, COO of Offsetters.
* Janice Abbott, Executive Director of Atira Women’s Resource Society, and CEO of Atira Property Management Inc.
* Brian Smith, Social Enterprise Developer at Building Opportunities with Business.
Diverse, talented, successful and inspiring, each of these speakers had the rapt attention of an audience of undergraduate students from no fewer than six post-secondary institutions—and one noteworthy high school student already fascinated with social enterprise.
So what is it that’s bringing social enterprise to the fore—finally? After so many years of markets watching and waiting for pioneers to try and fail, it seems that overnight, ’social enterprise,’ ’social ventures,’ ’sustainable enterprise,’ and numerous other buzz words seem to be top-of-mind.
We point to three distinct trends that have aligned to push business to a tipping point: First and foremost is the climate crisis. While many have been warning for decades that we are on a collision course with serious ecological trauma, it was clearly former US Vice President Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth catapulted climate change into the centre of consumer awareness. But it may not have been sufficient to ignite sustainable enterprise.
The second trend is a direct result of the past year’s financial meltdown: Consumer spending patterns have shifted in a way that’s atypical for post-Depression recessions. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, even the affluent have cut their spending during this recession. Is the consumption economy seeing a backlash?
Third is the incredible sweep and scope of Internet-enabled social networks. Whereas a decade ago, firms who fell afoul of consumer opinion could ’spin’ their way out of trouble, the Facebook generation moves way too fast for companies to get away with anything less than totally forthright operations and communications.
Put these three together, and we arrive at a phenomenal opportunity to redefine the social license by which businesses operate.
Smart companies see the opportunity in the change. And more than 70 sharp minds had a first hand Social Enterprise Experience of their own on November 21.
We enjoyed MC-ing the day. Primarily because it was so gratifying to see young, energetic minds opening up to the possibilities of a sustainable economy.