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SECON 2017: What is the bottom line in social enterprise?

By: Reilly Kiernan 02 Mar 2017

What is the bottom line in social enterprise? From some social enterprise’s own triple-bottom line — aspiring to financial, social, and environmental returns — to getting to the core of the social enterprise space’s most complex issues, the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference (SECON) will bring together like-minded students, academics, and professionals to participate in an engaging and interactive exploration of these critical concerns. 

A team of roughly 30 Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School students are hard at work on this year’s conference, the 18th iteration of one of the largest student-run conferences on campus. SECON has been recognized as one of the world’s leading forums for dialogue, debate, and networking around social enterprise and was named by Forbes Magazine as a Top 12 Executive Gathering in the World. SECON draws almost a thousand practitioners, academics, students, and young professionals each year over two days. Over the years, SECON has evolved to cover a wide and exciting set of topics—ranging from nonprofit models, to social entrepreneurship, to innovation in public systems, to impact investing, to creating shared value, to the role of business in society. 

This year, the conference will be March 25th and 26th. We will seek to address the big questions and central tensions in the field of social enterprise under the theme of “What’s the Bottom Line?”. The conference will feature an exciting line-up of speakers from leading organizations across sectors, including Acumen, US Digital Service, Ford Foundation, Root Capital, The Bridgespan Group, USAID, Facebook, Microsoft, Pfizer, Deloitte, Accion, and many more. 

As a team, we have designed a two-day experience that will lead to sustained learning, connection, and inspiration for participants. 


• Making learning stick: One of our goals for SECON 2018 is to structure content so that participants can really engage, learn, and retain. In addition to classic panel formats, with a moderator facilitating a conversation of experts, we will feature interactive solution sessions using human-centered design to generate ideas for solving big social problems, debates, networking, skills-based training, and “office hours” with social enterprise experts in legal issues, measurement, scaling, and more. 

• Big questions in cross-cutting tracks: Rather than divide the conference based on subject areas – like education, healthcare, sustainability—we created four tracks based on interdisciplinary questions and opportunities. The four tracks are:

  • Unleashing Human Potential: How can social innovation catalyze and unleash human potential? This track addresses critical questions around education, healthcare, economic opportunity, and competitiveness through the lens of social entrepreneurship. 
  • Startup Society: How can we leverage social enterprises better society? This track equips attendees with the tools and understanding to become agents of change using social enterprises to shape interactions across sectors, geographic borders, and individual differences.
  • Disruptive Potential, Unanswered Questions: Understanding how and when to scale, measure impacts, and meet changing demands are critical concerns of social enterprises, both new and well-established. This track will bring attendees deep into the social enterprise design process and help them navigate critical road blocks initiatives face.
  • Reimagining capitalism: What can social enterprises learn from business, and vice versa? This track explores this relationship and asks how the common goal of addressing social issues can be used to create more inclusive and global for-profit ventures.

Responsiveness to the moment: In a moment of social and political turmoil, social enterprise has an important role to play in supporting civic engagement and providing services to vulnerable populations. The backdrop for this year’s conference makes the conversations more important and urgent than ever, and we have sought to inject current debates into our programming. 

For more information or to buy tickets for this year’s conference, visit our website; www.socialenterpriseconference.org.

Reilly is a current second year in the joint MPP/MBA program at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School. She is serving as the SECON co-chair after participating as a member of the 2016 leadership team. She has a background in nonprofit consulting at Bridgespan and is interested in opportunities for impact across sectors.