I attended SOCAP (Social Capital Markets Conference) this year, after about 5 years, and I must say it was a rather reflective journey for me. It was evident that the social enterprise sector has grown in leaps and bounds in the last decade or so, and the sheer number of people at the 4-day conference was testimony to that. Coincidentally I was also visiting San Francisco, the host city of SOCAP again after about 15 years, so the journey became nostalgic for me.

In many ways the Bay Area has been the epitome of entrepreneurial success in the last 15 years or so, after the likes of Zuckerberg, Larry Page and now Kalanick & Camp (of Uber fame) revolutionized our lives. This innovation all happened within a few square miles in and around San Francisco. So it was more than fitting to reflect upon this tremendous success on one end, in contrast to the increased rate of homelessness in the city, along with other underlying social issues and contrasts. (The conversations with Uber drivers can be very informative, especially when you tell them you’re attending a social impact conference…)

Ishani's Top 5 Learnings:

  • Adopt long arc thinking (big picture – understand history and have a clear sense of long term success and build outcome based systems)
  • Australia actually ranks pretty low in a report recently released about “the best place to be a social enterprise”. London, Hong Kong and Santiago are all places we can learn from. As well as Berlin and Nairobi.

At SOCAP I was left wondering, are we just too caught up in our own story? Is the work we are doing really creating any impact? And if so, is the impact marginal or transformative? The larger question was “Are we fixing present issues (social problems, environmental concerns etc.) or are we designing a better future?”

Turns out SOCAP was thinking this too, and one of the key themes in the many conversations and panels I attended was really around whose narrative are we listening to and who is at the table? SOCAP emphasized that thus far we have really been hearing the narrative of a select few, and if we continue that trend we are being exclusive, and in doing so we are the ones missing out. “Culture precedes change”, one of the speakers said, and rightly so. As business owners, intermediaries or investors in this space we need to really ask -and I mean really ask- what’s the culture we have collectively created and therefore own? And if we own it then are we willing to choreograph it?

  • Have realistic models for exit from social enterprises. Investors need to be open to that, rather than seeking similar exit models to traditional investments
  • Culture precedes change…. so let’s understand our culture.
  • Last but not the least.. for your key discussions, understand who you have around the table. Whose narrative are you listening to?

This is not just about being inclusive for the sake of being inclusive, or holding up a gender lens because that’s what the new wave of thinking is telling us to do. This is really about applying common sense principles. Trying the same thing we have already tried and coming from a place of “I know this” will only deliver the same outcomes.

Therefore, isn’t it imperative to step back and really assess the situation and furthermore assess ourselves, as individuals, organisations and an eco-system as a whole?

Isn’t it imperative to ask, are we talking to the right people, are we bringing all perspectives in and, are we resilient and self-aware enough to accept our failures and understand we haven’t figured it all out? Are we still curious enough to continue our inquiry even if it means we might have got it wrong?

Isn’t it imperative to admit we are far off from solving any of the key social and/or environmental issues of our time and for innovative approaches to be born and scaled we need to define risk differently? (Investors are you listening?) We need to understand the problem better, and policy has to speak to it (Governments are you listening?) And we have to collaborate and merge ideas. (Entrepreneurs are you listening?) We need to draw out variant views amongst employees and stakeholders. (Companies are you listening)?

The very basis of diversity and inclusion is really to me an application of common sense principles – Aristotle told us in circa 347 BC that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What we can achieve in this sector as a whole is much more powerful and transformative than we realise. Are we willing and ready?