Thinking with the Heart: Social Venture Institute 2019

A few weeks ago, everyone in each of Junxion’s offices left work to walk in solidarity with the world’s youth during the international Climate Strike actions. We joined millions—richly diverse groups of people young and old, student and professional, who perhaps had little else in common, but were definitely united in their passion for the planet. Looking at the throngs of people surrounding me that day, I knew I was walking with my people!

I’d been disconcerted the night before at being unable to rally some close friends to participate in and support the cause. Perhaps they felt ‘what can one person do?’ Perhaps they felt the climate emergency is someone else’s responsibility. Or perhaps they, like so many, were succumbing to the despair that seems to be claiming so many. Whatever the case, it was disappointing to feel unable to bring my friends out in support of the very air we breathe every day.

This insight came right on the heels of my experience at the annual Social Venture Institute conference. In fact, it cascaded directly from SVI. When the world of work (and life!) is unfortunately still focused on the bottom line, ‘unconferences’ like SVI become distinctive, important moments for healing, grounding, and regrouping, especially for social entrepreneurs who are so dedicated to working differently.

Sometimes learning involves some unlearning. In the course of my career and education, I’ve been to numerous conferences. My takeaways have included how to build business cases, how to increase return on investment, how to do cost-benefit analyses, how to boost production, manufacture more for less, and so on. Lukewarm cups of coffee, feeble handshakes, and polite nods so easily lead to countless business cards later relegated to some dark corner of a dusty desk drawer.

How is it nobody has taught me how to feel like a leader?

So post-SVI, here’s the question that had me reflecting on my friends’ choices: With all these efforts to teach me how to talk like a leader, think like a leader, make deals like a leader, and work the room like a leader, how is it until now nobody has ever taught me how to feel like a leader?

As consultant with a background in design and psychology, my brain actively seeks to uncover patterns. I delight both in the big picture and in unraveling the intricacies of interconnections.

With that perspective, in addition to a connection-centric format, it’s the radically different approach that makes SVI work: no rules, no models, no magic formulas. Just peer-learning and a no-strings-attached sharing of lived experiences.

So, what exactly makes SVI so different?

For me, it was what I’d like to refer to as the ‘relationship lens’ to business problems. (This is familiar to me, given it’s such a central, essential part of Junxion’s philosophy and approach). Take the daily Live Case Studies, for example.

Unlike anything you’ll come across in business school, these were three-dimensional, fully-rounded, whole accounts by the entrepreneurs themselves as they bravely detailed their specific challenges at this particular moment in their journey. Toni Desrosiers, CEO of Abeego; Oona Krieg, Chief Operations Officer, Brave Technology Coop; and Carolina Ibarra of Brightside Community Homes Foundation spoke of their unique challenges. The thoughtful, empathetic setup ensured these weren’t held as ‘problems to be solved,’ but more as dynamic, evolving issues.

Practical solutions blend with personal empathy in the daily Live Case Studies.

After some empathic listening, the panel and the entire SVI audience offered insights from their own expertise and experience. They wove practical solutions and empathy together in a way that threw out the window my traditional notions of case study ‘solving.’ Suggestions included saying no to wrong opportunities even though they might be monetarily profitable; prioritizing self-care; identifying one’s unique leadership style; picking the right mentors and partnerships; having a pulse on team temperature, capacity, and performance; and self- awareness during growth.

The rawness of the unembellished live case studies and similar, but smaller and more intimate Business Problem Solving Sessions brought to life the nuanced struggles of being an entrepreneur—which are only more complex for the social entrepreneur. The dialogues aided not just the entrepreneur, but everyone present; each of us took away rich lessons to adapt to our own work and experience.

Afternoon Peer Workshops spanned a long list of topics. I attended sessions on recruiting for diversity, somatic leadership, and using technology to streamline project management. We explored the conscious and unconscious biases that cloud our judgment, holding us back from meaningful connections. We engaged with our bodies and minds, decoding the sensations that different kinds of contact and affect have on our emotions and consequently our experiences. And we learned insider tricks to streamline daily workflow.

Inspiring leaders invite us to walk with them in a retrospective of their journeys.

Each day ended with a True Confession keynote address. Reminiscent of fireside chats, True Confessions gives the stage to inspirational leaders who invite us to walk with them in a retrospective of their life journeys—lives dedicated to building institutions that are testament to the tenacity of their spirit. These stirring, rousing, intimate revelations celebrated the many winding, rocky roads to success.

Akaya Windwood, Principal at WiseBridge, shook everyone out of their travel fatigue on day one with an inspired take on a fair and equitable society and community. She revealed the inconsistencies in the spaces we create between one another, showing us that in fact, we are all irrevocably interconnected. As ‘cousins,’ we owe it to ourselves and one another to be active in supporting and boosting each other, rather than merely passively cheering from the sidelines.

Global change maker Shainoor Khoja from Thrive Community eloquently shared the heartwarming story of her personal journey—from the first ‘victory’ of having a telephone installed in her office to her valiant efforts to help a sick child’s family, and the eloquent obituary she wrote for herself, first as an assignment and much later as a well-deserved celebration of a life well-lived—a life that continues to give vastly to families, communities, and humanity.

Finally, in an introspective vein punctuated with droll witticisms, Julian Giacomelli of RISE Kombucha had the audience in splits as he recounted his first experience of the start-up that he eventually made his own. He painted a vivid picture of the joys and uncertainties of being a first mover and the power of having faith in one’s instincts and the tremendous strength that can be found in letting go.

How would leaders be different if they took their leadership cue from SVI?

Emotional intelligence is essential to strong leadership. While this is widely recognized now, it is still not as sought after as other technical management skills. While churning out a mean spreadsheet or applying the most relevant business framework are nifty capabilities, the skills of cultivating a curious mind, applying learning, contextualizing, and collaborating across differences are invaluable. Among many others, these are the foundational lessons that were laid out for me at SVI 2019.

Everyone can use time away from busyness, but to have that time filled with courageous, raw, conversations, brave and generous sharing of life knowledge, unconditional, loving mentorship, and unparalleled learning—some of it technical, most of it emotional…. This was the heart of Social Venture Institute. Most of all, the moments of spontaneous, uncontrived, soul-to-soul connections with peers and mentors was the essence of what so many alumni call “the SVI magic.”

In the end, my biggest takeaway is the rich map of interconnectedness and interdependency of each of us at SVI 2019, and across the larger SVI family. Each of us is on a different path and at a different junction on our journeys, but we are bound together by our overarching purpose—to make the world a better place for having been in it.


Menaka Premkumar is a Consultant in Junxion’s Vancouver office. Reach out to her via [email protected]


Image: Junxion CEO Mike Rowlands addresses SVI 2019 participants, mentors, facilitators and staff.
Image Credit: Jason Guile, Stream of Consciousness

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