As the plane approaches cruising altitude, and the sun-soaked coastline of San Diego disappears behind us, I’m already feeling the distance from my fellow members of Social Venture Network and the inspiration of the 2015 Spring Conference.
It has been four days of insight, entertainment and connections. From Wednesday’s pre-conference meeting of Board, Staff and Ambassadors, right through to the closing plenary this morning with the remarkable Kenyatta Leal, SVN kept its promise to be a time and a place “to give and to get”—to share what insights and perspective we can with our fellow delegates, and to get the advice and wisdom we need to navigate the increasingly complex world of socially responsible business.
Like any conference, SVN brings keynote speakers who spark new ideas, and ignite deep conversations. Among them this time were Paul Saginaw, co-founder of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, who talked about the powerful elegance of looking at his business as a community, and supporting its members through learning, collaborative leadership and into their own roles of ownership. Philip Agnew of Dream Defenders encouraged us to ‘get in the game’ of social justice by taking up opportunities to support those who are disadvantaged by our social mores. And the incomparably dedicated Tzeporah Berman, shared insights into the challenges of runaway development in Canada’s oil patch and the work of the Tar Sands Solutions Network.
Between these focused sessions on the hard topics of social entrepreneurship, Artists in Residence shared their own messages of hope and change, sharing and teaching through the power of music and spoken word. Slivi Alcivar of The Poetry Store captivated us with her incredible ability to distill, focusing our memories on essential learning from impressive speakers. Jessica Anderson and Naima Shalhoub lifted our hearts with songs inspired by injustice. And Kane Smego spoke pictures: “The sky begins at our ankles. We have always known how to fly.”
But Social Venture Network is perhaps most effective when it focuses the diverse wisdom of its members on those who are building new enterprises, or navigating transition, as well as focusing on social impact. Countless one-on-one connections turn into prospective collaborations—mutual support on ‘the road less traveled.’
The first cohort of SVN Innovation Entrepreneurs will benefit from this generosity. Ambitious, dedicated and heartful, each of these amazing, young leaders was selected for their commitment to using business to solve thorny social or environmental problems in their communities. Like every entrepreneur, their descriptions of their businesses were framed in optimism. Their explicit courage is impressive. Yet lurking just beneath the surface are the myriad questions that keep entrepreneurs awake at night: How will I make the time to write a business plan that potential investors will like? Am I taking on too much by paying attention to financial, social and environmental bottom lines? Will we make payroll next week? Over the next year, SVN will make space and opportunity for these questions to rise to the surface, and for the Innovation Entrepreneurs to find answers from the hundreds of mentors within SVN who’ve ‘been there and done that.’
Reinventions sits at the heart of learning, and nothing great was ever achieved by perpetuating the status quo.
Others are navigating change in their enterprises or careers, and seek out their peers for insights. As career chapters turn, it’s not easy to re-envision roles and capacities, and develop new missions and goals. Yet reinvention sits at the heart of learning, and nothing great was ever achieved by those who would perpetuate the status quo. How does an artist continue to inspire when the world of commissioned art is driven by less responsible vested interests? How can a successful entrepreneur launch a new venture without abandoning old partners? How can anyone cultivate the courage and commitment to keep moving forward in the face of adversity and mounting challenges? At every turn this week, SVN members sat together in deep, concentrated conversations, talking through challenges, sharing perspectives and ideas, and ultimately lending the support that’s essential to navigating change.
Woven throughout the conference was an extended conversation about justice and equity. It’s no small feat to hold space for productive, additive discussion of the unfathomably hard questions of equity across genders, races and communities. Just as we think we have a handle on the answers, we find another layer of complexity. Just one example from many this week: in a market where women are paid 78% of what men make for the same work, is it enough to teach women to negotiate higher salaries? Or should our focus be on the issue that what is viewed as ambitious and bold in a man is all too often seen as pushy and aggressive in a woman? There are no simple answers to complex, systemic challenges.
Yet elegant responses to meaningful challenges do emerge—sometimes in the least likely of places. Co-founded by husband and wife team Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti, The Last Mile was designed to teach incarcerated men and women fundamental business skills and entrepreneurship. It’s touted as the most progressive prison program in the world. It’s too early to tell whether this program will help redress the 60% recidivism rates at San Quentin, but it certainly feels likely: prison residents’ enrolment in post-secondary learning is significantly increasing. (It’s a prerequisite for participation in The Last Mile program.) And the program is rolling out to more prisons in the next couple of years.
Every SVN Conference is a gathering of remarkable, smart and dedicated entrepreneurs who have found a sharp point of focus, and are contributing to a more just, sustainable and equitable world. For the members of Social Venture Network, this is the real purpose of business.