Enterprise conference inspires communication, legislation

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, March 19, 2012

Social enterprise is like many spokes connected at a central hub, said Melanie Friedrichs, an organizer of the first ever Social Enterprise Ecosystem and Economic Development Summit.

“You have the ecosystem’s enterprise hub and different spokes of organizations that reach out to those social ventures in the city,” she said. “You want to make sure everyone is kind of connected to the hub so they’re all talking to each other.”

The summit, which drew more than 400 attendees to campus last weekend, aimed to encourage this sort of communication. During the conference, organized by Brown’s Social Innovation Initiative and Social Venture Partners Rhode Island, participants discussed the models and philosophy of social enterprise – a business model that seeks to fuse economic sustainability with a commitment to improving social good. The conference also featured events designed to connect attendees with social enterprise resources.

During the conference’s closing event Saturday. Rep. David Cicilline ’83, D-R.I., announced to a standing ovation that he is sponsoring a bill to further federal government support for social enterprises. The bill, informally called the “SEEED Bill” in honor of the conference,  is the first national piece of legislation to deal directly with social enterprises, said conference organizer Josephine Korijn ’13.

Sowing the SEEED

The SEEED summit drew inspiration from previous social enterprise conferences ­- primarily the Social Enterprise Rhode Island Summit hosted by Social Venture Partners Rhode Island at Bryant University in 2009 and 2010. The conference moved to Brown to make it “more nationally accessible,” said Kim Hanson, program director for SVPRI.

The move was also a part of an effort to make Providence “a social enterprise hub for the country,” said Hilary McConnaughey GS, a master’s student in public policy and a conference organizer who managed the SEEED website. The conference organizers wanted the summit to serve more as “a national platform,” she said. “It’s almost like a new conference.”

Attendees hailed from as far away as the West Coast. McConnaughey attributed the turnout to social media outreach.

“It’s had more of an impact than we anticipated,” she said. “We’re actually getting registration from people that we didn’t even try to reach out to, especially people out of New England.”

“The SEEED name just kept going, which is really exciting,” she added.

Branching out

The conference fostered connections among students, aspiring entrepreneurs and professionals in attendance.

“We’ve tried to create an environment where people can easily talk even in panel discussions,” said conference organizer Josephine Korijn ’13. “We’ve seen a lot of collaboration because of that.”

Participants in the conference agreed that collaboration was a key aspect of the summit.

The conference “provided a lot of basic information and a lot of inspiring models,” said Chris Ackley, a staff member for Olneyville Housing Corporation. “It’s really just the support – seeing people doing similar work and the passion people are bringing to it. It just reaffirms your desire to do this work.”

The conference also showcased entrepreneurs from the ages of 11 to 18 in a panel entitled, “Teenagers and Kids Who Are Changing the World.” Social Venture Partners Rhode Island, which invited the panelists from its Young Social Innovators Program, sought to highlight their work and to connect them with community sponsors at the conference.

Hanson, who helps run the program, noted that the experience was valuable for both the young entrepreneurs and the audience. It was “an opportunity to see what the young people are doing,” but it also offered “an opportunity for young people to be involved at a national conference,” she said.

Riley Kinsella, 11, the youngest of the speakers, said the panel was “a great networking opportunity.” He said he “got a lot of very good ideas from the other panelists.”

Kinsella has hand-crafted and sold more than 100 flutes since he began his business, “The Music Smith,” two years ago.

Members of the audience also expressed interest in following up with its speakers, Hanson said. 

“I had about three to four people who would be willing to mentor the students (after the panel),” Hanson said. “A lot of adults are interested in learning more.”

“A big takeaway for (the attendees) was the power of young people,” Hanson added. “They are our future.”

Nurtured growth

The conference also offered opportunities in mentorship and coaching. Events like BIG Challenge Coaching provided 30-minute sessions with business experts and leaders. Larger panels and workshops promoted networking with sponsors and investors.

Korijn, who helped organize the coaching sessions, said it went “exactly how (she) hoped it would go.” All 75 spots for Friday’s sessions were booked, and some of Saturday’s sessions were only 15 minutes long to accommodate the influx of attendees who wanted to participate, she said.

The coaching has been very exciting for participants, Korijn said. “Thirty minutes can change your entire venture,” she added.

Sun Yeong Chang, a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design, attended a session Friday and said the sessions were more personal than the larger lecture events.

“You can have a really close relationship” between coaches and mentees, she added.

David Poritz ’12, CEO of Executive Origin and former executive director of Esperanza International, used his experience in social entrepreneurship in his coaching at the conference. He noted that most of the advice he gave was gained through his personal experiences. 

“Through experience, you learn what works and what doesn’t work,” he said. “The more advice you get, the fewer mistakes you make.”

Poritz also noted that the support offered at the conference was especially invaluable for college students.

“The beauty of starting a business in college is that there’s the almost never-ending network of support,” he said. “SEEED is an example of that.”

Putting down roots

Part of SEEED’s goal is to bring so
cial enterprise into the national spotlight.

The organizers of the summit have announced plans for a conference next year and hope that it becomes an annual event, McConnaughey said.

“With time, it’s only going to get more renowned and more popular, and we can really build a name for ourselves,” she added.

Organizers observed the fruit of their efforts when Cicilline announced the new national social enterprise bill he is sponsoring.

“It was a really wonderful ending to the conference,” Korijn said. “People were left with the biggest buzz.”

Korijn acknowledged that even if the bill does not pass, “it’s a step, more than anything, that will build awareness.” 

Friedrichs noted that social enterprise plays a valuable role in social change that for-profit businesses and non-profit organizations cannot fulfill. This niche has a specific appeal to Brown students, she said. 

“Social enterprise is already a large part of the student body,” she said. “Being Brown, we have a lot of people who want to make a difference in the world. Social enterprise is one of those growing movements – it’s a new way to approach changing the world.”