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Letter from Zurich, Day 1
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This week I'm in Zurich attending an annual conference -- not the World Economic Forum, happening concurrently in Davos -- but the Social Entrepreneurs Summit sponsored by the Schwab Foundation. I do not expect to bump into any world leaders, high powered CEOs, global pundits, and certainly not Bono or Brangelina. Nonetheless, if you are interested in market-oriented approaches to development and if Bill Drayton and Muhammad Yunus are your idea of celebrities, then it's a phenomenal program.

And you still get a whiff of the Davos pixie dust. Just heading to my seat on the flight from Dulles, I bumped into former US Senator and UN Foundation CEO Tim Wirth. A few more feet and I was engaged in conversation with Dr. Larry Brilliant, the executive director of Google.org. As I fumbled toward the back of the plane, I reflected that it was refreshing to see two thought leaders walking the walk on climate change. It's far more efficient to amortize the carbon footprint of their trans-Atlantic trip across a tightly packed 757 rather than taking the luxurious but somewhat excessive Google jet to Switzerland.

Social entrepreneurship benefits from tremendous hype these days, but I am optimistic that the conference will tackle some of the thornier issues facing the sector. It's an ideal forum to probe the challenges of worldchanging philanthropy that recently have been discussed on this site. Should small social ventures engage in holistic assessment of their practices at their inception or simply focus on building their businesses at whatever costs, then self-audit after they have attained scale? Can large scale corporate actors truly innovate in a responsible manner when their total footprint might generate negative social returns? How can the mega-donors and large foundations drive systemic change in the Global South? And where does ordinary citizenry fit into the mix? Services like GlobalGiving might represent a first step, but how can the average person truly effect change on the other side of the planet, or even leverage the principles of social entrepreneurship to innovate in their own local communities? I hope we will be asking these questions all week.

I was not able to attend any of the formal program on the opening day, but participated in an extremely interesting dinner where attendees grappled with the question of how to effectively share information among participants in this very nascent, extremely dynamic and highly fractured space. How can wildly diverse social entrepreneurs connect with one another and build networks? Organized by the Grassroots Business Initiative of the IFC, it brought together the senior leadership of several prominent foundations, including the Skoll Foundation, the Lemelson Foundation and the United Nations Foundation for a discussion of knowledge management around social entrepreneurship.

The discussion, unsurprisingly, focused on the investor perspective. The group contemplated whether it would be possible to manage deal flow more effectively. We talked at length about how you could expose investment opportunities to the widest range of institutional and philanthropic supporters. We talked about online and offline strategies to scale up more investment into the space.

The group looked toward microfinance for learnings. They noted how the sector has evolved considerably over the past two decades and is far more mature than the emerging field of social entrepreneurship. We discussed how groups like Accion and Grameen paved the way for more recent phenomena like Trickle Up and Microvest, both of which enable a wider pool of actors to get involved. The incursion of major institutional investors like Citigroup and Goldman Sachs suggest that even more capital will be flowing into the space. I almost wonder if we shouldn’t simply let the marketplace continue to hum along…

While the conversation focused on facilitating the opportunities for investors, I found myself a bit at odds from a practitioner perspective. Deal flow for large-scale investors is important, but as a social entrepreneur myself, I see different near-term challenges. For example, when my business partner and I were starting Ethos Water, we both struggled to find accessible role models who could provide insight into best practices. My firsthand experience suggests that mentorship is one of the most critical gaps on the landscape and a daunting hurdle for would-be entrepreneurs.

In my opinion, the time might be right to explore the creation of a SCORE for social entrepreneurs. Imagine the power of creating a network of real-world mentors that could support fledgling ventures. While online resources and communities do exist, such as Social Edge and Omidyar.net, nothing is more helpful than the high-touch experience of a phone call or in-person meeting with a trusted source to problem-solve and seek advice. Such contact can be far more useful than an email or post that might not be returned in a timely basis or by a credible person.

Suffice to say, the vast majority of the social entrepreneurs in the US and around the world will not be making the trek to Zurich. We need approaches to defy the inherent exclusivity of this type of gathering and to promulgate the information that we gather. Why not task each participant to return to his/her community and provide counsel to local activists who are innovating through enterprise? I could envision that MeetUp might be an ideal tool to enable this type of activity. I think a SCORE that matches seasoned innovators with needy non-profits and for-profit organizations is long overdue. Let’s see if I can integrate this idea into my talk later this week.

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Comments

I suspect that the discussions at the Social Entrepreneurs Summit have a little more substance than the glamfest that Davos has become. I am quite curious to find out how investment houses deal with non-profits, since I presume there is no expectation of any return.


Posted by: Deepak on 22 Jan 07

Jonathan, it would be worth exploring what Origo is doing on the mentoring front; their entrepreneur-in-residence (Jesse Patel) told me last month about a fledgling project of his called Innovatorz that does exactly what you're proposing - a SCORE for social entrepreneurs. Thanks for the excellent report; looking forward to the next one.


Posted by: Rob Katz on 23 Jan 07



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