Take Action!

Inspiring quotes from giants in social enterprise lined the walls of Spangler, welcoming over 950 individuals to the 5th Annual Social Enterprise Conference. The quotes set the tone for a day filled with opportunities for participants to listen to business and nonprofit leaders, to ask questions, and to learn-all as a precursor to creating positive social change.

This year’s conference, sponsored by the HBS Social Enterprise Club and the Kennedy School of Government, featured the theme “Take Action.”

Conference co-chair Leisle Chung (OG) explained, “We chose the theme because we believe that change requires more than dialogue and ideas.

Real change will come because individuals are willing to act out their values. . . because individuals will commit to live what they believe”
The conference drew record numbers of participants from as far away as Asia, Europe, and Africa and was one of the largest conferences on the HBS campus this year. “The high interest reflects the growing social consciousness on this campus and in the world at large,” said co-chair Li-Kai Chen (OH). “Social enterprise is no longer regarded as an arena for nonprofits. There is increased awareness that we need leaders from all sectors to have an impact.”

Indeed, the day’s activities reflected this. Conference attendees had a wealth of opportunities to explore: 4 keynote speakers, 18 panels featuring 90 different presenters, a career fair with over 25 participating recruiters, 50 speaker lunches, film screenings, and workshop sessions packed the day.

Professor Jim Austin, Chair of the HBS Initiative on Social Enterprise, welcomed participants on behalf of Dean Kim Clark and the Social Enterprise faculty. He introduced keynote speaker Tom Tierney, Chairman & Founder of the Bridgespan Group and former Worldwide Managing Director of Bain & Company. Tierney urged participants to not wait until they had learned and earned before giving back. He explained that to be effective, one must develop expertise in social enterprise throughout one’s life-through volunteering, sitting on boards, or advancing the field on a full-time basis. He explained that he made the difficult decision to leave Bain at the prime of his career, in order to follow his passion; accordingly, he urged the audience to “build a life, not a resume.”

Burden auditorium was overflowing as Senator Bill Bradley and Paul Jansen, Director of McKinsey’s Nonprofit section, presented the mid-day keynote. Paul Jansen talked about the opportunity to infuse an additional $100B into the nonprofit sector through distribution of “excess” funds currently kept in foundations and trusts, as well as savings generated by improvements in operating and fundraising efficiencies. Senator Bradley encouraged all attendees to work together to address social problems because like a “three legged stool, with the legs representing business, nonprofit, and government,” all three are required to make the stool stand.

Three panel breakout sessions, featuring 18 different panels, interspersed the keynotes. Panels ranging from “Venture Capital in the Developing World” to “Social Marketing” to “Corporate Social Responsibility” attracted enthusiastic attendees, often with standing-room-only turnout. Panelists spoke about their personal commitment and their organization’s commitment to social change. They represented for-profits such as Merck, Bain & Company, Miramax, and Vulcan Capital, and also leading nonprofits like United Way, ACCION, Endeavor, and City Year. In addition, the conference’s lead sponsor, Booz Allen Hamilton, organized a panel on Internet Strategies for Nonprofit Marketing, Campaigning, Advocacy, and Community-Building.

Grabbing bagged lunches during the two hour lunch session, attendees could attend one of 50 small group speaker lunches, 6 workshops, film screenings, or the career fair. The first conference career fair, organized with the support of HBS Career Services, included over 25 recruiters including Teach for America, Booz Allen Hamilton, and Wellspring Consulting.

Nancy Barry, President of Women’s World Banking, ended the day with a broad overview of the field of social enterprise. She explained that HBS grads may be more effective in advancing the field of social enterprise through the private and government sectors, rather than through the non-profit sector alone; her aim was to ensure a comprehensive understanding of the breadth of the field. The remainder of Barry’s speech resembled a strategy case on the microfinance industry. More specifically, she sized the market as 500 million potential consumers and highlighted asset building and remittances as two of the emerging trends with the greatest potential to alleviate poverty.

Conference co-chair, Bhakti Mirchandani (NH) hoped the conference “created a renewed sense of commitment in participants to take action in their lives and communities.” She appropriately closed the conference echoing the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Become the change you seek in this world.”