The Social Enterprise Initiative (SEI) spoke with Adam Nathan, one of the leaders of the 2014 Social Enterprise Conference (SECON), to discuss its growth and evolution, as well as its unique value proposition to HBS students and the broader social enterprise community
SEI: What do you see as the mission of the Social Enterprise Conference? What impact do you hope to achieve with SECON 2014?
Adam: The aim of this year's Social Enterprise Conference, on its 15th anniversary, is to energize and equip social entrepreneurs to solve “unsolvable” problems. We say “unsolvable” because communities around the world face such daunting, complex problems - ranging from providing safe, healthy water and food for all, to ensuring educational and economic opportunity - and it can be easy to accept the state of things as they are and just give up. However, social entrepreneurs reject status quo as such, and are working every day to make change in ever bigger and better ways. We know, as students of global challenges and foot soldiers ourselves, that making “a dent in the universe” is not just strategically difficult, but also personally exhausting at times. As such, we want SECON 2014 to be a place where social entrepreneurs of all kinds can come together and teach and inspire each other to make an even bigger difference on the problems they're most passionate about.
SEI: How has the conference evolved in recent years?
Adam: I think the conference has grown in sophistication with the state of the social enterprise field. Originally, much of SECON's programming revolved around questions exploring the nature of the social problems we face. Today, we understand not just the dynamics of many complicated social issues, but we also have an empirical sense of “what works” in solving them. As such, this year's programming revolves around sharing programmatic, organizational, and financial solutions for social enterprises at every level of sophistication, from startup to growth to maturity. In addition to a $15,000 “Pitch for Change” Competition, a Career Fair, and skill-building workshops - a hallmark of SECON 2014 will be “Action Labs”, where attendees design solutions for real problems that social entrepreneurs are working on right now.
SEI: Why did you decide to get involved in the conference?
Adam: As an HBS student, we mostly adopt the role of studying the dynamics, challenges, and opportunities of the private sector from afar. SECON gives students an opportunity to tangibly affect the conversation, trends, and insights in an part of the economy that has a real impact not just financially, but also socially and environmentally. It's a real privilege to have this opportunity as a member of the Harvard community—I can't imagine another place where this kind of impact would be possible!
SEI: What is the role of Social Enterprise at HBS? Why is it important?
Adam: The HBS learning model is centered on understanding the relational dynamics of the world through reflecting, discussing, and practicing on real organizational problems. The Social Enterprise Initiative helps students, faculty, alumni, and practitioners connect and apply these insights to the social sector, advancing our knowledge of social challenges and catalyzing solutions around them.
If you read the front page of the newspaper any day, it's increasingly obvious that social and environmental externalities cannot be separated from the business and market opportunities that create them, and that we ignore these aspects of business at our own peril. The future will reward leaders who deliver impact not just on their balance sheets, but to the communities and environments they serve. The Social Enterprise Initiative reminds the HBS community of this lesson each day, and gives us the tools to make a difference ourselves.
SEI: What does social enterprise mean to you?
Adam: To me, social enterprise is about creatively using all the organizational tools we have at our disposal—from businesses and markets to governments, nonprofits, and local community institutions—to bend the arc of history a little bit more towards justice, opportunity, and fairness for all. It's about actively reshaping the world to reflect the better angels of our nature.