The 4th Annual Conference on Social Enterprise

February 22nd marked a banner day in Harvard Business School’s mission to “create leaders who make a difference” when 400 students and 200 leaders of for-profit, non-profit, and government organizations converged on campus to attend the 4th annual Conference on Social Enterprise. This year’s theme, “The Exchange – Change Starts Here,” set the tone for a day of active dialogue between sectors on solving social problems. “We hope you didn’t expect to sit back and relax today.” cautioned Amanda Merryman, co-chair of the conference. “We hope today serves as a catalyst for the exchange of ideas on the issues that you feel most passionate about.”

In a year marred by poor behavior of a handful of highly visible alumni, the success of the conference illustrated the HBS community’s commitment to leadership beyond self-interest. “I was surprised that the conference was being held at HBS,” said an unnamed graduate student from Columbia, “but few other places could attract such notable leaders.”

Burden auditorium was packed as keynote speaker William Reilly, the chairman of the World Wildlife Fund, encouraged students to consider using their skills in the non-profit and government sectors. “NGOs have grown and become more effective due to the movement into and out of organizations of people with a variety of experience…it has deeply improved the constructiveness of debate as well as the quality of public policy.” Mr. Reilly addressed his own distinguished career progression with great humor and humility, but did not gloss over the magnitude of environmental problems he continues to address in his recent private sector venture with the Texas Pacific Group, a private equity firm investing in products and services that serve the water industry in developing countries. “47% of deaths in Bangkok are from waterborne disease, 95% of the rivers in Mexico are severely polluted.”

Eli Segal, Founding CEO of Americorps, the Welfare to Work Partnership, and successful entrepreneur, reflected on a career that transitioned between the for-profit, non-profit, and government world. Of his service during the Clinton administration, he remarked “For years I built balance sheets…in the nineties I built lives.” Mr. Segal reported that since the welfare to work program’s inception, 1.1 million people have transitioned off the welfare rolls, due to the 20,000 American companies that committed to hire and retain former welfare recipients. He concluded: “The skills you have [as MBAs] are in short supply, and the rewards of giving back are priceless.”

This year’s conference was truly international in scope. A panel entitled “International Development and Multinational NGOs: Social Services and Humanitarian Outreach” included Iqbal Noor Ali, the CEO of the Aga Khan Foundation, Dr. Nafis Sadik, Special Advisor to the Secretary General of the United Nations and Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Asia, as well as Thomas Tighe, President of Direct Relief International, and William Warhauser, VP of Population Services International. Panels on venture philanthropy, performance measurement, corporate social investment, and education attracted attendees from as far as Munich, Hawaii, and Tokyo.

What drove the record-setting attendance of the rare cross-sector forum, despite freezing rain and the recent snowstorm? Amidst the post-conference wave of gratitude and congratulations Katie Cunningham, conference co-chair, commented “the dedication of the conference team, the collaboration with the Kennedy School, the participation of a diverse set of speakers, and the generous support of multiple sponsors that made this conference such a great success!… I hope that the conference has served to renew and invigorate a commitment to social enterprise among all who were here to experience this incredible day.”

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