I flew in directly from Nepal, where I was working on a project with National Geographic and women's healthcare issues, to the Social Venture Network's fall conference in Rye Brook, New York. The revolutionary progressive business community that supported such giants such as Ben and Jerry's, Eileen Fisher and Stonyfield Farm was celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. The 21-hour flight was well worth it, as the days that followed were full of some of the most inspiring and truly brilliant presentations I have ever seen.
The attendees at the Social Venture Network (SVN) conference ranged from first-time entrepreneurs to CEOs of major corporations to some of the industry's leading investment advisors and marketing firms. Whether one runs a socially-responsible business that serves as a model, or is curious and interested in starting one, the SVN is the place to be every six months. The fall and spring conferences are networking events that, for many years, were perhaps beyond their time. But they are now coming into their own as the world catches up with the relevance of social enterprise.
The four-day fall conference was broken up into plenary sessions, where SVN brought together successful entrepreneurs to present, often in an interactive interview format. These dynamic sessions allowed conference attendees to think through complex social issues and connect with other participants. Colorful round-table discussions led to solid connections for all involved. Those looking to learn from business leaders, or perhaps get doorways to raising funds, found great benefit from these intimate meetings, as well as from the advisory meetings offered by select leaders in the community. The open format both during and after the presentations allowed some of the heavy hitters to become more easily approachable, giving budding entrepreneurs amazing inside access.
The first plenary session I attended was an interview with Doug Ullman, CEO of Lance Armstrong's LIVESTRONG Foundation. This plenary, "Courage in the Face of Adversity," allowed Ullman to share his personal struggles -- being diagnosed with several types of cancer at a young age -- along with his story of success: he formed a cancer fund and was eventually approached by Armstrong to help form LIVESTRONG. Ullman spoke about his valuable lessons around filling gaps in community, and how he helped build LIVESTRONG into a global organization without it becoming a bureaucratic, multi-office organization.
Most people know LIVESTRONG because of their hugely successful yellow wristband campaign. Ullman explained how this campaign was originally rejected, but now, after selling 88 million wristbands, he hopes the concept of "wristband philanthropy" will be further investigated and researched. LIVESTRONG operates with an impressive budget, raising about $50 million this year, and spending about $44 million on projects. "We want to develop services and products by participating with other people. This has been one of our great strengths," he said. A perfect example of what he's talking about is LIVESTRONG's partnership with the YMCA, which has led to active programs in 375 YMCAs and will eventually be in all YMCA locations.
Barefoot College of India
The second presenter wowed the SVN community with his brilliant, globally-sweeping campaign to bring clean light to those without means. Bunker Roy, founder of The Barefoot College of India, shared his stories of training illiterate grandmothers from areas of India and Africa to build and install solar power systems in their communities, giving those without the means to artificial light after sundown a bright and clean alternative to expensive and dirty kerosene.
Why grandmothers? "We found very quickly that men are un-trainable," joked Bunker. "As soon as we train a man, he wants a certificate, and as soon as we give him a certificate, he is packing up to leave town to try and get a job elsewhere." He continued, "This is, in many ways, what inhibits progress in the West: the need for paper qualifications. In these remote places, we are training illiterate people to install and build solar systems that are lighting entire villages. Where does it say that you have to be able to read and write to be trained and have a valuable purpose? We reject that theory."
Today, Barefoot College of India is in over seventeen countries across three continents, and has enlisted the help of over one thousand illiterate and semi-literate villagers. A documentary, Solar Mama, reported on their success, and they are working with Stanford University on a revolutionary application to allow illiterate grandmothers to order supplies using symbols. They are also launching a grandmother-to-grandmother program to connect those in the Western world with those in developing nations.
Plenary sessions continued at the SVN. The co-founder of Stonyfield Farm, Gary Hirshberg, presented a brilliant campaign and interactive session around justlabelit.com, his web site arguing for GMO labeling. "How can we, together, find the power to reach further?" he inspired us. "This is the group to do it; this is the future of business."
Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle, presented on the last night of the conference, with a mind-blowing presentation about his organization's achievements. TerraCycle has created ways to recycle everything from used baby diapers to cigarette buts to chewing gum -- but perhaps most impressive is their list of partners and the global reach they are achieving with high speed. This direct tie-in to SVN, and the members that have helped this organization flourish, both as advisors and investors, solidified the real impact that this community has. Look out for a article all about TerraCycle here from yours truly, coming soon.
The passion of every member I met at the conference was infectious and a great welcome back to the West. Not just a group of like-minded business people exchanging cards, this was a group coming together intentionally because they care so much about changing the world -- and they actually are. See you in the spring, SVN.
Follow Jesse Seaver on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jesseseaver