Reflections on Social Venture Institute Vancouver

“I learned I don’t have to figure it out, I don’t have to assume, I can just ask.”

So said Melissa Hope of HiVE Vancouver, a shared workspace and ‘collaboratorium’ that’s dedicated to fostering positive social impact. Melissa was one of the more than 100 social entrepreneurs, advisors, mentors and financiers that gathered in Vancouver’s trendy Gastown neighbourhood for the 2015 edition of Social Venture Institute Vancouver.

Melissa’s sentiment echoes the feeling of a lot of social entrepreneurs: It’s lonely doing pioneering work in spaces like social justice and environmental conservation. It’s also hard, hard work building a business that adheres to new standards of social and environmental performance. And Melissa’s simple ‘aha moment’—one she shared with many at SVI Vancouver—is an important one. It’s all a bit easier when we work together, share lessons openly and honestly, and lend support to our peers when we can.

The SVI model is based on intergenerational, cross-sectoral, peer learning.

“I love it when my mind and heart are simultaneously blown!” – Angie Fleming, Humanising Data

“Our goal is to help support the psychological, spiritual, emotional and relational skills of each individual leader,” says Joel Solomon, one of SVI Vancouver’s Executive Producers. By doing this work, the SVI model fills an important gap that’s missed by most approaches to supporting social entrepreneurship: It recognizes that social enterprises and social or environmental movements only thrive when they’re lead by resilient, empathic, collaborative leaders that are committed to lifelong learning. In short, better leaders make for better enterprises.

The SVI Vancouver production team of Emira Mears, Dana Bass Solomon, Theo Lamb and Joel (with a long list of volunteers and allies in the social entrepreneurship community) not only personify this exceptional leadership, but they’re committed to cultivating it in others through their own work and through SVI.

Inspiration of stories of success….

One of the signature elements of Social Venture Institutes is the evening ‘True Confession’ keynote presentation. We invite established and successful social entrepreneurs to present the full and true stories of their success. It’s frequently been said that “an overnight success is 10 years in the making,” and that certainly was true of the two great presenters who shared their tales with SVI Vancouver.

Amy Hall of Eileen Fisher

Amy Hall is the Director of Social Consciousness at women’s fashion house Eileen Fisher. Having traveled the world extensively over the past two decades to develop a deep understanding of textile supply chains and challenges, Amy is one of the world’s leading sustainability mavens. Her story balanced the intricacies of international sourcing, the challenges of being ahead of her colleagues’ sustainability adoption curves, and the importance for every social entrepreneur of finding personal balance.

Peter van Stolk is the CEO of SPUD, a well-loved Vancouver-based social venture success story. Peter, too, spoke of the highs and lows of his experiences as an entrepreneur. As the founder of Jones Soda, and its CEO for 15+ years, Peter developed one of the fastest rising stars in consumer branding. He talked about the challenges of having a strong sustainability vision at Jones, and the challenges of raising equity from investors who perhaps did not see the world in quite the same way. After leaving SVI Vancouver, Peter was ready for a hard-earned break: He’s been working for months to complete an investment round with SPUD.

Exploration and engagement through Live Case Studies….

The second signature element of the Social Venture Institute model is a distinctive live case study, during which one courageous entrepreneur takes the ‘hot seat’ and explains a challenge they’re facing, or an opportunity they’re hoping to pursue. In turn, a panel of expert advisors and then the entire cohort of conference attendees take turns clarifying the challenge and then sharing the wisdom of their experience.


Janet Moore & Duane Elverum, CityStudio

On the first morning, Pat McCarthy of A Bread Affair shared the challenges his company is facing as the Canadian dollar falls against the greenback—forcing up supply costs. (A Bread Affair sources some ingredients from the US.) Advisors Karri Schuermans of Chambar, Adrienne Uy of SPUD and Ian Walker of Left Coast Naturals shared insights into supply chain management, alternatives that may be available north of the border here in Canada, and even adjustments to the A Bread Affair business model that might serve to strengthen the business against shocks like those they’re currently experiencing.

On the second day, SVI alumni Janet Moore and Duane Elverum of CityStudio took the stage and shared their current, incredible opportunity to scale the size and impact of their enterprise. Their advisors, Jill Earthy of Futurpreneur, Derek Gent of the Vancity Community Foundation, and Hillary Samson teased out new perspectives on the challenges within the opportunity, and like Pat the day before, Janet and Duane were soon drinking from the fire hose of expertise gathered in the room.

Insights and best practices from workshop leaders….

Finally, the third characteristic element of each SVI is a series of peer-facilitated workshops and panel discussions. Between panels on finance and marketing, workshops on ‘big data,’ building advisory boards (summary here), HR tips and techniques, the emerging practice of equity crowdfunding (presented by Junxion’s Chantal Schauch and our client Peter-Paul van Hoeken), search engine marketing, and leadership. Each workshop provided an opportunity to learn from an accomplished expert, and to share in great discussions with peers facing similar challenges, in similar sized enterprises.

Connections, conversations and revelry!…

No Social Venture Institute is complete without the diverse conversations that happen in the space between sessions, and SVI Vancouver left plenty of space for connections with one-on-one consultants and with peers. And the Thursday evening party at Fluevog‘s Gastown store was an opportunity to celebrate new learning, new ideas, and new friends.

There’s always a glow that lingers after Social Venture Institute—something that results from deep connection, meaningful inspiration, and new friendships. As the learning settles in, and as first-time attendees are added to the alumni database, one thing’s for sure: These entrepreneurs and their ventures will never be the same.

Mike Rowlands is a Principal at Junxion, and an Executive Producer of the celebrated, annual Social Venture Institute at Hollyhock. The 20th annual SVI Hollyhock will convene September 2 – 6.