SVN Spring Conference: Haiti Onward

Clothing drying on the line at a Haitian CampThe most emotionally charged session that I attended during the Spring SVN member gathering at Skamania Lodge was Haiti Onward.  In part, this was because the rawness of the earthquake and its aftermath, and in part because of my experience volunteering for several weeks with AMURTEL had me feeling connected deeply to the stories that were shared.  The session touched upon several organizations that are working on revitialization and the rebuilding effort and offered the SVN community the opportunity to be inspired to participate in that effort.  Following are a few brief pictures of what was heard during the session. Continue reading “SVN Spring Conference: Haiti Onward”

SVN Spring Conference: Small is Beautiful vs. Scale Matters

Friday night ended with a bang as Michelle Long of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) and Jay Coen Gilbert of B Lab engaged in a dialog on the issue of whether going to scale or staying local is more effective in building a sustainable economy.

Jay began with a humorous, but earnest, argument that ‘Bigger is Better’. He used examples to illustrate how scale can effect the whole on a greater level. He cited how employees of Wal-Mart, who had been discriminated against, came together to sue the company. He pointed out how as China invests in scaling solar the price per kilowatt will come under $1. And he pointed to one of the biggest challenges, and opportunities, for effecting change at scale – finding innovations that can help the 3 billion people living on less than $2 a day. He argued that these are solutions and challenges of such scale, that small, local initiatives could not effectively address them. Continue reading “SVN Spring Conference: Small is Beautiful vs. Scale Matters”

SVN Spring Conference: Financial Strategies to Expand Your Impact

While 9am on a Saturday might seem a bit early to discuss investing strategies, David Berge and David Chen had a lively and entertaining discussion about how to make sure your socially responsible investments have the impact you want.

The financial models for high-impact investing are not new. They can be expressed in many different ways, but the basics for these typse of investments have existed for a long time. But to make sure your investment has the impact you envision today you must envision the environment tomorrow. David Berge of Vancity Savings Credit Union suggests that entrepreneurs need to look at least 5 years out and realize that the influence of minority and women on markets is significant now and will only grow. Continue reading “SVN Spring Conference: Financial Strategies to Expand Your Impact”

SVN Spring Conference: Change Philanthropy

How wonderful it is to know that there are foundations out there going beyond the traditional; leading in a way that benefits innovative entrepreneurs and in turn society as a whole. The “Change Philanthropy” breakout session brought together three women who are leading the pack in this area- Alicia Korten of ReNual, Mary Stranahan of Needmor Foundation, and Julia Novy-Hildesley of Lemelson Foundation – to discuss high impact giving. Continue reading “SVN Spring Conference: Change Philanthropy”

SVN Spring Conference: Gunter Pauli’s Blue Economy

During a conversation at the Fall 2009 SVN conference over tea, Diana Lee of the Biomimicry Institute added this wisdom to our conversation; “There is no energy crisis in nature.” Waste exists in our minds and in our culture but in the natural world which we are a part of, the outputs of one process become the inputs of another.

The opening night plenary of the SVN Spring Member Gathering delved into this topic with Gunter Pauli, the co-founder of SVN Europe, Ecover, and the Zero Emissions Research & Initiatives (ZERI) took the stage.

Gunter wants you to believe that you can change the rules of the game and throughout the presentation, example after example showed just how much could be done toward preservation and conservation while doing just that. Continue reading “SVN Spring Conference: Gunter Pauli’s Blue Economy”

Leveraging Technology to Change the World

Randy Paynter of Care 2 brings up a good point when he says that businesses no longer controls their brand or marketing. This is because of the increasing interactions and communications in the digital world which are not controllable by an organization. He points out that today’s purchasing habits allow consumers to access reviews and alternative products with just a few clicks. In the past glossy advertising guided the public perception of a product, but today consumers are no longer limited to canned marketing campaigns medium to inform their opinions.

Leveraging Technology

Randy maintains that this massive shift in power from the seller to the buyer comes in part from the plethora of choices, thereby creating a commodity of any product. In order to achieve brand success he touts the importance of differentiating a product as well as influencing the conversations surrounding it. He suggests that we need to create and engage ‘fanatical evangelists’ to build and communicate brands online.
Listen to the full session here

Steve Newcomb has high aspirations. His company, “Virgance, is a startup incubator that finds great ideas and turns them into companies that change the world. Steve wondered if he could “break the rules and build companies that do good.” His commitment to 100% transparency puts him in front of the public so that they can ask any question about how business is conducted.

Steve has approached the idea of sustainability as he would any market sector and he sees the market opportunity as enormous. The change needed will require not a single Apollo-sized project by hundreds. Seeking to change the very nature of capitalism, Virgance companies adhere to five tenets:

  1. “Cause as much direct and measurable change as possible.”
  2. “Always use the carrot and never use the stick.”
  3. “Use technology and the powers of social networks to get the job done.”
  4. “Have business models that allow these businesses to be self-sustaining.”
  5. “Try to involve and empower people to make the change.”

But the plenary wouldn’t have been complete without Malika Chopra, who began the session by guiding the SVN community in a beautiful mediation of gratitude, showing her heritage as the daughter of internationally renowned, Deepak Chopra. While her childhood exposure to the self-help arena and her presence around people who were on a journey of self-exploration, Malika’s early interests steered her to work for MTV initially. But it was while in Bombay that she had a change of heart after seeing a group of barefoot children huddled around a TV watching MTV. “Oh my God, what am I doing?” was all she could think and she decided to quit MTV the next day.

Today, Malika spends her time building a community on Intent, a sanctuary on the web for users to share their intentions and dreams with each other. Malika, a self-proclaimed “social media maven,” has a unique perspective on things because she is coming at it from the perspective of a mother and a woman.

Both Malika and Steve remind us that powerful movements and changes have been created through the use of blogs, Facebook and Twitter. Activities like ‘flash mobs,’ ‘tweet storms,’ and ‘carrot mobs’ can or have been used to create positive social change. The energy generated by this group’s discussion seemed to electrify the air, and that crackling interest will likely lead many of the participants to delve further into their own use of social media in order to create change.

Tips from the Top on Social Finance

Jason Graham-Nye of gDiapers, Shaula Massena an Angel Investor, and Don Shaffer of RSF Social Finance gathered with a room full of attendees to discuss the big picture on social finance. While there was a great amount of interaction and numerous ideas that got discussed, the big take-aways from each speaker can be distilled down to three elements each.

Jason Graham Nye’s tips for business owners looking to bring in money:

1) Know what your motivation is for taking outside money.
2) Make sure that money is in alignment with your mission.
3) Nothing (no package) is standard.

Shaula Massena’s suggestions when looking to Angel or VC funding:

1) Understand dilution. The pie gets bigger the more money you take in.
2) Have a full path to become cash flow positive.
3) Don’t be addicted to control.

Don Shaffer shares questions that RSF uses in its decision making process:

1) What is the management like? Do they invest in people? What are their intentions?
2) If it a business that has raised funds – Who are their other owners and are they also committed to the triple bottom line focus?
3) Why are they coming to RSF for financing? – RSF prefers to work with those that are not just looking for the best rate, they are looking for unconventional funding?

Overall these guidelines provide a good perspective to a business owner who is looking to bring in money. Understanding the mindset of all the parties and how and why they make their decisions is an important factor to deciding which route to use.

But even “traditional funding” sources are trying to get more creative. Three Twins Ice Cream self-described ‘indirect direct public offering’ in which they company raised $610,000 out of a needed $675,000 from its customers by using a small sign in their stores. Another novel route to funding involves employing alternative legal structure, something Criterion Ventures Structure Labs is promoting.

Micro Finance in California

When you think of micro finance you’re likely to envision Kiva or the Grameen Bank making tiny loans to poor people on the other side of the world so that they can create a small business and lift themselves out of poverty. But micro finance is helping to empower entrepreneurs closer to home as well and this panel highlighted the successes of micro finance enterprises right here in California.

Claudia Veik of CAMEO (California Association for Micro Enterprise Opportunity) guided this intimate breakout session. With the current financial slump, many small businesses are having an even harder time qualifying for loans from traditional banks, Claudia explained, which is driving demand for alternative funding. It is estimated that 5% of the unemployed are entrepreneurial, and with the necessary loans some of those unemployed could begin to build the economy is a more sustainable manner, Claudia said. Claudia suggests that we “call on the entrepreneurial energy of the unemployed” to help revitalize our economy.

Elizabeth Makee of ACCION San Diego serves low and moderate income business owners. Instead of basing loans solely on credit scores or debit to credit, ACCION San Diego checks references from suppliers, family, neighbors and measures the experience of the applicant when making a decision. Applicants that have had past credit challenges could potentially become successful. Along with getting to know their clients well, the organization matches borrowers needs with skill workshops to help the success rates.

Faith Bautista’s work at the Mabuhay Alliance has helped ‘empower minority communities’ as well as challenge big businesses to see the value in those communities. Mabuhay is a voice for the Phillipino and PanAsian activists in the Unites States. 260 business owners have graduated from this organization’s training. Similar to ACCION’s model, Mabuhay helps to connect its borrowers with technical assistance that they need to thrive in the marketplace.

Participants also had the honor to meet Mario Lewis, a business owner who has received two loans from ACCION. His bad credit stemmed from an attempt at restaurant ownership which he felt failed due to a lack of knowledge of marketing and advertising. Mario had used those two loans to first build and then expand his barber shop. Imperial Barber Shop is a tremendous success and has grown to now employ nine people. His success is in part due to his vision of the ‘old school’ barber shop which serves as a community meeting place.

For his accomplishments, Mario has received an award for being a community resource, as well as a letter of recognition from his congressman. Mario’s future plans include opening another shop and expanding into a line of hair care products as well as raising money in the community to send a second member of the community to Barber school.

Mario’s story and the great work being done by CAMEO, ACCION San Diego, and the Mabuhay Alliance are a reminder of just how well micro enterprise can work within our country to strengthen and build communities.

Dealing with the Tough Stuff

Dealing with the Tough Stuff, the latest in the SVN book series by Margot Fraser and Lisa Lorimer, was the topic of Friday afternoon’s plenary where the authors talked about their own struggles in their businesses and helped lead “feedback circles” for participants to get support with their own challenges.Dealing with the Tough Stuff

Lisa Lorimer, former President and owner of Vermont Bread Company in Brattleboro, Vt., spoke with passion about what it’s like to be in challenging situations as a business owner. Her great empathy comes from her own vast experience. She knows what it’s like to have to decide what to do when payroll is due and there is no money in the account. Lisa stressed that business owners need to have a place where they are able to talk about the realities of the business, something which was practiced later in the session in an exercise.

Although Birkenstocks are now a ubiquitous sight on college campuses all over the country, Margot Fraser, founder of Birkenstock USA, did not find the U.S. to initially be a receptive market for the cork-souled sandals. Her first distribution deal with the manufacturer was based on a “handshake” and her narrow focus on selling only one product made others call her crazy, but Margot admits she would have liked some seasoned advice when she was first starting out. Both Margot and Lisa agreed that creating a competent and skilled advisory board can be a lifesaver for a struggling entrepreneur.

The session wrapped up with a half an hour exercise with the participants shared their own challenges and offered advice to each other in small groups. This exercise not only got me much needed assistance, but it also demonstrated just how helpful it is to have a sounding board for not only idea but also troubles. I look forward to reading the book, which was included in each participant’s bag, and gaining even more insight of these two women.

Diversity for Sustainability Sake

Evan Shapiro, president of IFC tv and the Sundance Channel, kicked off the Fall 2009 Social Ventures Network Conference with an entertaining, insightful and frequently funny talk on the challenges and necessity of building a diverse business.

Evan likened the strengths of a diverse culture and workforce to the importance of planting a diversity of crops in agriculture. By encouraging diversity within our ranks and rows we will be able to reap a far richer crop. Throughout his talk, Evan wove statistics and anecdotes together to illustrate the concept of how diversity is necessary in order to achieve success.

Evan stressed that in order to find that “qualified, diverse candidate” we need to start looking long before we post a job opening. Business must provide opportunities to access so that both the employer and potential employee gain exposure. These opportunities can simply be inviting students in to see how an office environment operates or setting up an internship program. Success in piercing the glass ceiling hinges upon such interactions.

Evan is working with educational institutions in order to reach a more diverse population before that population is out of the running. Building that “pipeline” early is critical for both the future job seeker and the business. Returning to his farming analogy, Evan said “when you are hungry you can’t go plant a seed.” The key is to make the connection before a job is needed.

Evan points out that although “we are a more diverse culture every single day” we are still likely to look within our own social circles to fill positions. We’ve got to break these walls down when we endeavor to create and encourage diversity within the sustainability movement.

**Check out Brick City on Sundance, the five part documentary trailer Evan mentioned

***One resource suggested by a participant regarding diversity and providing the necessary education to break through the glass ceiling was the The Providence Effect