Last month, I attended the Social Enterprise Conference at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School, which brought together leaders in the field of social innovation, including Cheryl Dorsey of Echoing Green and Premal Shah of Kiva. Here are a few interesting points made in the keynote talks and one of the panel discussions. The social enterprise movement can learn from the civil rights movement. Social enterprise, said Cheryl Dorsey, is a global social movement, bearing all the necessary hallmarks: a discontented group sharing common grievances, a set of strategic leaders, recruitment of young people (who are creating functional identities through the movement), and a culture created through narratives (e.g. as in Forbes’ 30 under 30: Social Entrepreneurs list). For the social enterprise movement to succeed, though, it needs to spread through all sectors of society, and grow through deep personal ties. In addition, young people need to get involved – if they won’t, asked Dorsey, who will?
We need to create a culture of empathy. As presented by Premal Shah, Kiva U, Kiva’s education arm, helps to create a “culture of empathy” among students by connecting them with loan recipients abroad. Leila Janah of Samasource, which outsources data work to facilities it operates in East Africa and India, suggested that the outsourcing industry can improve by better connecting companies with the people involved in their supply chains – in other words, by increasing the company’s capacity for empathy for those workers. Jill Dumain of Patagonia echoed this idea, adding that it is sadly uncommon for a company to have intimate knowledge of human side of its supply chain. Dumain quoted a customer: “I know more about the chicken who lays my eggs than the person who sews my clothes.”
The broader system needs to change. In the panel “Scaling Social Capitalism,” speakers enumerated system-level changes necessary for a socially-conscious economy to reach scale. Carolien de Bruin of Monitor Group suggested that we move away from relying solely on GDP to define national progress, and instead rethink value to more closely align with social progress. James Gifford of Harvard Kennedy School called for a closer connection between the public and investment managers of public funds (e.g. pension funds). Panelists also suggested making costs related to social programs more immediate, such as through Social Impact Bonds or better pricing of externalities. However, system-level change is difficult, as systems are created through the interaction of structures and culture, which are tightly linked and thus hard to change separately.