Celebrating Social Venture Leadership at SVI 2013

There’s always an atmosphere of possibility and potential in the days leading up to the annual Social Venture Institute—Hollyhock. And it gets positively palpable in the hours before each year’s cohort of social entrepreneurs arrives at this remarkable retreat centre on Cortes Island, off Canada’s west coast.

This year—the 18th in SVI’s storied history—was no exception, and the record assembly of over 145 attendees certainly fulfilled all the expectations of a production team that had worked tirelessly to curate and design an event that at once informed, inspired and connected each of the attendees.

Each day began with SVI’s signature live case study, an opportunity for everyone present to share their ideas, advice and wisdom, to serve an entrepreneur courageous enough to ‘take the hot seat’ and present a significant challenge or opportunity that lies ahead for their business. The three enterprises this year were a diverse group indeed:

  • Fresh Roots Urban Farm’s Ilana Labow and Marc Schutzbank spoke at length about their combination of food production, educational programming and community engagement, and sought their peers’ advice on how best to market their complicated product to institutional clients that might host their farms. Wearing their hearts on their sleeves, and infecting the entire audience with their passion, Ilana and Marc demonstrated focus, humility and ambition—all at the same time.
  • James-Johnson-Piett-insetJames Johnson-Piett, founder of Urbane Development, talked about his commitment to fostering neighbourhood connections in his New York community. He wondered whether a consulting model or a real estate development model was the right route forward, and heard fresh ideas from an engaged audience that was eager to see this big-hearted man succeed in his work.
  • Father and son duo Daniel and Theo Terry presented the challenge of growing the pioneering Denman Island Chocolate, without sacrificing their commitment to their rural, island community, or to their organic, artisanal heritage. For many, it was the beautiful connection between father and son that stood out as the most important value to be nurtured in their business.

And in keeping with SVI tradition, each day ended with a ‘True Confession’ keynote—a speech by a more seasoned and accomplished entrepreneur to share insights into their trials, tribulations, setbacks and ultimate successes in business.


  • Judy Wicks, heroine of the local food movement and subsequently the local living economies movement, shared her story, implicitly giving everyone permission to trust their instincts, and lead from their hearts. Hilarious and poignant, Judy’s diverse experience as an entrepreneur, activist and author left many of us wondering how so much good work could be accomplished in just one lifetime!
  • On the second night, longtime friends Ian Walker, CEO at Left Coast Naturals, and Matt Breech, CEO at Tall Grass, played hilariously off one another as they shared the story of their businesses’ simultaneous development. Both companies sell into natural foods and health products stores, with Left Coast making and distributing food brands, and Tall Grass focused on health and beauty products. Their cross-town connections are a shining example of how collaboration across organisational boundaries can lead to greater outcomes for everyone.
  • The anchor presenter was Vancouver’s own John Fluevog, a fashion icon whose shoes have graced fashion runways, stomped concert stages, and walked the world’s streets on the feet of style mavens of all stripes. John’s openness about the challenges of achieving sustainability in the competitive fashion business was eye opening for many—and sparked healthy and productive debate among his audience. And like Judy, Ian and Matt, John spoke about the importance of vision, imagination, and chutzpah for entrepreneurs of all stripes.

This year’s workshop presenters shared diverse lessons on strategy, marketing, leadership, fundraising and more. The informal, interactive nature of SVI, along with the producers’ dedication to openness and mutual support, collectively make for boundless opportunities to ask hard questions, seek out experts’ advice, share ideas, and ultimately define visions of a world made better by our work.

The true magic of SVI shows up in the space between the formal sessions—times when people get to connect with their ideas, and open up about their dreams and aspirations. By Friday afternoon (two days into the five-day conference), dozens and dozens of intimate one-on-one consulting sessions were happening throughout the lodge building and around campus. The vast potential of these focused dialogues and connections is hard to imagine: new ideas are translated into new business plans; business plans are matched up to the financing they need to lift off; and talented newcomers fit fortuitously into open roles with established ventures.

As the campus went quiet again on Sunday afternoon, the echoes of these conversations rebounded off the mighty rainforest that surrounds Hollyhock. As this year’s alumni returned to their homes and their work, taking with them helpful lessons, new connections, and hopefully a healthy dose of inspiration, three important themes from SVI 2013 emerged for me…

SVI Group shot

First, it’s profoundly important for everyone, and especially for entrepreneurs, to make time and space to step away from their work and conspire with their peers to polish their approach and enhance their plans. Time whizzes by (and SVI 2014 will be upon us before we know it), but by focusing on our best opportunities, we can quickly develop significant value through our work. The challenge is to stay focused, firmly placing each step as we walk down our entrepreneurial paths.

Second, I’m reminded again of the singular power of a “small group of thoughtful and committed citizens.” This group of dedicated entrepreneurs is focused on solutions to some of the profound challenges of our time. From water security, to resource development run amok, to local economic development, I’m left hopeful that bright ideas will turn into innovative new businesses, and contribute to making our communities, our countries and our world more safe and resilient.

And third, those leaders who we celebrate and revere in business are more like each of us than we often imagine. Challenged by the hard times, humble when fortune shines their way, and helpful to those around them, leaders in social venture (as in other sectors) are the ones who recognise the next great idea can come from anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Somehow, I feel sure a number of ‘next great ideas’ will emerge from this year’s Social Venture Institute. And for me, this is the ultimate contribution of SVI.

Photos by Sara Dent

Join us at SVI Sept 2014

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