Tag Archives: Social entrepreneurship

What I Learned At My First SOCAP Conference

5 Oct

 

This week I attended my first Social Capital Markets (SOCAP) conference at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco.  SOCAP brings together entrepreneurs, impact investors, thought-leaders, changemakers, and change enablers, at the intersection of money and meaning, with the goal of supporting businesses and initiatives that are changing the world.   

I had the opportunity to interview several of these individuals over the course of the week, and will be profiling their inspiring stories in the coming weeks for New Empire Builders, a SOCAP media partner.

If you have difficulty paying attention for long periods of time, or are easily distracted by buzz and activity like I am, SOCAP can be a whirlwind.  You’re constantly being introduced to new people, doing that awkward thing where you try to look at their badge to see where they work and what their title is (usually “Founder”)– while still trying to make eye contact – which is not humanly possible.  You’re constantly noticing interesting – or good looking – or interesting and good looking people going by, and you always feel like you should be somewhere you’re not.

I found myself deeply stressed on the first day of the conference, agonizing about whether to attend a panel on “The New Connectivity:  Storytelling For The Digital Age,” or “At The Table:  Where The Sectors Work Together,” which were both scheduled at the same time.  FOMO got the best of me, and I attended neither, instead finding myself sitting in a comfortable bright green chair in the HUB:Create lounge area drinking an organic Runa “focused energy” iced tea, staring into space, when my friend Michael who I met this summer in Boulder came up and said:  “Smiley!  Great to see you buddy, I’m off to the meditation room!”  I was starting to explain how I really wanted to attend two different sessions, both of which I was already late to, when I stopped myself, and replied, “Awesome.  I’m in.”

So, in the midst of 1800 conference participants running around, and ten simultaneous sessions on themes ranging from “the new economy” to “social design” to “tech for good” to “meaning,” we went to Room 210C – which was empty – and laid down on a yoga mat and closed our eyes for twenty minutes.  Afterwards, we both felt present for the first time all day.  A calm feeling washed over me and I stopped trying to be in six places all at once, and instead spent the rest of the conference just talking to people who seemed interesting. 

Thus, the most important lesson I learned at SOCAP:  The real value is the wealth of knowledge of the people in the room.  Business cards are nice – I now have a huge stack, but infinitely more valuable are the conversations I had with the people there, simply by sitting down at a random table or walking around the Festival pavilion.  Take, for example: 

Paseka Lesolang, WHC South Africa

Paseka Lesolang from WHC South Africa.   Paseka was invited as part of SOCAP’s impact accelerator program this weekend at the HUB Bay Area, which brought 100 entrepreneurs from 25 countries on scholarship.  Paskea is a 2012 Unreasonable Institute Fellow who runs a company that has created a retrofitable technology called the Leak-Less Valve for toilets that can save 132 gallons of water a day, helping to reduce water waste in South Africa, which faces an extreme water crisis.  

Veronica D’Souza, co-founder of Ruby Cup.  Ruby Cup is a menstrual cup that can be re-used for up to 10 years, and is sold to women and girls living in developing countries who cannot afford sanitary pads, and because of this, are forced to stay at home from work and school.  Ruby Cup is sold through a network of female entrepreneurs in Kenya to create local employment, increase health education, and empower local women.  

Ryan Wagner, co-founder of Penyo-Pal.  Ryan and I met washing our hands in the men’s bathroom and started talking about his venture, Penyo-Pal, which is a digital game designed to teach 4-7 year-olds foreign language skills.  In only a few minutes, I myself even learned a little Mandarin. 

There’s a reason SOCAP brings together so many people from different backgrounds, with unique skill sets and passions.  We need to continue to cultivate this HUB, this robust ecosystem of social change catalysts; the grassroots entrepreneur, the investment banker turned impact investor, the traditional finance expert and the new economy professor, the tech developer and the community designer, the Indiegogo crowdfunding platform and the seasoned incubator program.  As Fabian Pfortmüller, co-founder of Sandbox told me, “We need to take the dreamers and doers and surround them with people like them.”  We need to continue to accelerate the accelerators, who come from all sectors, from all over the world.  You can’t solve these challenges alone.

GoldieBlox- The Engineering Toy For Girls

At the opening plenary session, Katherine Fulton, president of the Monitor Institute, mentioned that despite a 200% increase in impact investing capital between 2000 and 2010, the verdict is still out on impact investing, and that courage will be required moving forward. Speculation remains from the mainstream business community about the viability of investing in social ventures and small and medium-size entrepreneurs, with smaller returns on investment over longer periods of time.  New innovations in crowd-funding and crowd-investing will be game-changers for poverty alleviation, and improving education, health, food access, and expanding democratized economies and community initiatives, offering both remarkable possibilities as well as new challenges.

While the road ahead will not be easy, and will require us to go beyond the echo chamber and reach across the aisle to build new alliances with mainstream audiences outside the social impact space (as well as make frequent visits to the meditation room); the growing ecosystem is ready, willing, and able to innovate and sustain the initiatives that are tackling the world’s most pressing problems.  

Just For Life (Why I Quit My Job)

27 May

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”Annie Dillard

Friday was my last day working for the federal government.  I had been working in government a little more than two years, so several colleagues took to calling me “short-timer” before I left.  Two years is far less than the long federal careers most people usually have, who are attracted to public service, long-term job security and benefits.  However, bureaucracy is not kind to anyone, let alone a twenty-something with a creative spirit that likes to ask tough questions.

It is never easy to quit your job; it is especially difficult when you truly believe in the mission of the organization you’re working for, and even harder when you don’t have another job or grad school lined up.   I told someone last week that I was leaving and moving to San Francisco, and she replied, “Oh, wonderful, where are you going to be working?”  “I don’t have a job yet,” I replied.  “Oh, great, where are you going to graduate school?”  “I’m not going to school,” I said.  “So you’re just going…for life???” she said, dumbfounded.  She looked at me like I was from another planet.

Just for life.  As if life was not good enough.  Is there a better reason to quit your job than the fact that you are not happy, that you are not fulfilled, that you are not living out your full potential in life? I want to do something different with my life.  What that is—I’m not exactly sure—but I want it anyway.  I know it will involve me pursuing my personal interests (writing, supporting social entrepreneurs who are creating positive change) and being the best version of me; a passionate, creative me that wants to make others happy and empower people to live out their full potential in life.   

In his book Walking on Water, author and environmental activist Derrick Jensen refers to the concept of fittingness, that is, how well your actions match your unique gifts, match who you are.  He says we should all be asking ourselves the question:  “What’s the biggest and most important problem I can solve with my gifts and skills?”  ReWork, an innovative company that tries to connect exceptional professionals with positions in organizations with a social or environmental mission, emphasizes the importance of finding where you as an individual (your skills, your interests, your passions) fit best with an organization.  While I deeply respect the work my organization does, and am grateful for my tremendously kind and passionate colleagues, who will remain mentors and close friends, I personally was no longer inspired by the day-to-day work I did there, and in the end, that’s all that matters.

You can work at the most impact-driven social enterprise, an innovative non-profit or company that is changing the world, the place where your friends or your parents or your career counselor think you should work, but in the end, it’s all about whether the particular job itself within that organization is a good fit for you.  You’re the one that has to be happy.  I remain hopeful that I’ll find a job where I feel passion, happiness, and excitement about what I’m going to do tomorrow morning at 10:15am.  Maybe not every single day, but at least the majority of the time.  As I enter the next phase of my life, there will undoubtedly be bumps in the road and moments of fear, frustration, and failure, but the challenge excites me, and waking up knowing that I’m spending my days listening to my heart will keep me going.  

Smiley’s Moleskine

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