How do you balance between being a mission-driven organization and a financially profitable company? That was the central question we posed to participants and speakers of this year’s Social Enterprise Conference (SECON).

The 19th annual SECON took place from February 10th - 11th, 2018 at both the Harvard Business School (HBS) and Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). Our team of 30 students from both schools were very grateful for the lack of snow and rain that weekend as we welcomed more than 1,500 people to our campuses. While some were only a walking distance away from Harvard, others flew in from as far as Japan and New Zealand. It was a great honor and experience to meet students, professionals and practitioners hailing from many parts of the world.

SECON kicked off to a great start as Matt Forti, Managing Director of One Acre Fund (OAF), opened the conference in the fully transformed Shad Hall. Matt shared with us the growing pains OAF endured from being merely an idea born during his MBA years in Kellogg School of Management with Andrew Youn (founder of OAF) to the global organization that it is today. As Matt shared videos and asked for audience participation to showcase how OAF is helping small-holder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa thrive, it was clear that OAF is living up to its mission of putting Farmers First. Over the past 10 years, OAF has grown from operating in one country alone, into now working in six countries and serving nearly 500,000 clients. Their willingness to learn from local communities truly has allowed them to effectively balance meeting its mission and being financially sustainable.

With nearly 50 panels, a Pitch Competition, a Showcase event and various other special events held in partnership with local non-profit organizations such as Inner City Weightlifting – we made sure that our attendees did not have a lack of events to participate in. To help them navigate the conference, we constructed four tracks that followed the lifecycle of a social enterprise. The four tracks were: Build, Scale, Fund and Innovate. Each track had its own keynote speaker such as, Vivian Wu from Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Nancy Pfund from DBL Partners. Overall, we had the pleasure to welcome many great speakers from leading organizations, including Google, Omidyar Network, Pfizer, Root Capital, Accion, Mastercard, the Rockefeller Foundation, Accenture and many more. In total, we hosted nearly 200 speakers from across sectors to come share and debate their thoughts on the topic of “Mission + Profit: What’s the Balance?”

Finally, after a packed two days of riveting conversations, we had Sheryl Wu Dunn (co-founder of FullSky Partners, MBA ‘86) close the conference in the newly renovated HKS campus. Sheryl shared about her and her husband’s – Nicholas Kristoff (renowned columnist for the New York Times) - work against human trafficking and how her experience working across sectors have helped her become a better advocate for the marginalized. Sheryl started her career in investment banking with Goldman Sachs before moving into journalism and most recently, a founder of an anti-trafficking non-profit organization. Her latest book, A Path Appear, spoke about altruism and the importance of evidence-based strategies to enact lasting change.

Thinking back to the question we posed above, while balancing mission and profit is a challenging task, we are grateful for the many speakers who showed that it is possible. As we closed the conference, it was thrilling to see so many faces sharing the same dedication we have towards social entrepreneurship. We look forward to see even more people join the journey next year as we celebrate the 20th annual SECON.