02/12/2014 11:03 am ET Updated Apr 14, 2014

Hidden in Plain Sight

Not that long ago, I was having a conversation with a friend.[1] Like a lot of conversations I have, this was on the topic of impact investing . Frequently, this involves me explaining what exactly impact investing is. I've got a fairly standard way of describing the practice (generating for-profit returns while addressing a social issue) and a collection of slides for anyone who hasn't reached their PowerPoint quota for the day. But that wasn't where this conversation needed to go. I didn't really need to convince the friend that the idea of impact was good. Who doesn't want to believe that you can do good, and make money, at the same time? I needed to show that it worked. And that's when I realized that impact is hidden in plain sight.

So instead of launching into an academic explanation, I started naming companies. Companies I knew. Companies my friend knew. One company producing healthier school lunches. A company waging a money-making assault on predatory payday lenders. Another transforming education through technology. I named no fewer than three companies that have recently gone public. At least two having been part of major acquisitions. All of them were venture backed. And it continued. I ran the gamut, from health to energy, agriculture to education, finance to housing. When I finished, my friend nodded and said, "so I guess I've made some impact investments too?"

There's a funny thing about theories and ideas. People tend not to believe in them, right up until they realize they've been looking at them all along. It just turns out that, when you don't know what you're looking for, you also don't know what you're looking at. So the challenge for impact investing isn't so much about explaining an entirely new approach to portfolio construction, or economic engagement, it's about showing folks that it's already being done.

But that challenge isn't exclusive to impact. It's not even exclusive to industry. It's an immutable characteristic of the human condition. We want to believe in the possibility of better things. But we want to see how they can actually happen, too. That showing isn't always easy, even when the examples already exist.

This realization, of the need to make the invisible visible, will drive much of our work at the upcoming Global Innovation Summit in Silicon Valley. We're bringing together some of the leading minds from around the world to focus on the work of creating, fostering, and growing innovation ecosystems. Think of it as the invisible systems that enable innovation. The soft assets that make the hard assets work. The support structures that can take an idea to implementation, connect an innovator to resources they didn't know existed, or enable effective communication across barriers that have rarely been bridged.

And so it's fitting that we'll be gathered in Silicon Valley. It's where so much of what's normally invisible sits right at the surface. It's where we can point to a convergence of innovation and investment that resonates with almost lyrical glee. It's where we can point to an ecosystem that changed the world and say, "this too was once hidden in plain sight."

This post is part of a series produced in partnership by the Global Innovation Summit and The Huffington Post around impact, innovation, and technology. For more information on the Summit, click here.


[1]: What follows is taken from a series of conversations, generally following a similar pattern. Like I said, I talk about impact investing a lot.