SVN Launches “Best Advice I Never Got” Video Series

Posted on: July 1st, 2014 by social venture network No Comments

Posted by Social Venture Network, @SVNetwork

We hear a lot of advice from business leaders focused on profit. But what about the growing community of mission-driven business leaders who are leveraging their company to do good? What does it take to align profit and purpose?

Social Venture Network members have launched some of the most innovative organizations in the mission-driven business community. They’ve experienced success, failure, setbacks and breakthroughs…and are very candid about the lessons they learned the hard way.

From learning how to deal with unaligned investors to transforming a company culture gone sour, these leaders have a lot of wisdom to share about dealing with the challenges and opportunities entrepreneurs face every day.

Check out the advice SVN members wish they had heard when they were just starting out, now in our new video series, “The Best Advice I Never Got.

Communities by Design: Multiple Layers of Good

Posted on: May 9th, 2014 by social venture network No Comments

Written by Casey Lauderdale, Social Venture Network, @Radiant_City

Bob Massaro and Bonny Meyer are in the business of community building, but it may not be what you think- they aren’t community organizers or political activists in the sense normally associated the phrase “community building.” Rather, they literally build communities. Together they’ve founded Thriving Communities, a real estate development company that designs and builds housing on the principals of people, planet, and prosperity, creating not just housing, but multiple layers of good.

Bob’s journey to co-founding Thriving Communities began with a constant feeling of insecurity brought on by the poor design of his childhood housing. Cheap post-WW2 structures, called by one housing official as “warehousing for people who need housing the most”, were built with poor insulation and building materials and characterized by crime.

Bob first entered into the healthcare field, but later switched to housing development, bringing a unique understanding of the importance of healthy and environmentally-safe building materials.

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Bonny started out as a wine-maker, co-founding Silver Oak Cellars in Napa and later Meyer Family Cellars. Upon selling Silver Oak, she took an interest in both investment and philanthropy and later discovered a way to marry the two through impact investing, where she could support companies that were aligned with her values.

After meeting Bob and co-founding Thriving Communities, LLC, Bonny discovered something uniquely positive to housing development: that investment in housing is real. It provides a physical asset that impacts lives and can’t vanish in the same way, for instance, a technology company can.

The impact of affordable, healthy homes is also very real for the many working families and seniors who now live in a Thriving Communities’ development. The company builds for those who need affordable housing and their homes are typically priced at 10-15% below market rate. They are ADA accessible and designed so that people can grow old in their homes. Rent-to-own programs also support long-term occupancy and owner-investment in the community.

The buildings are constructed without harmful and toxic materials, which means that children are less likely to miss school from illness due to asthma or allergies. The materials and construction process that is used also greatly contributes to economic savings for the company, investors, and, of course, the residents. Their construction partner, Healthy Buildings, can complete projects in 40% less time than traditional methods, and their result is net-zero energy homes with lower water consumption. With no electrical bill and a smaller water bill coupled with lower rents, residents have more disposable income to put back into the local economy.

thriving communities logo

Finally, the projects are designed to foster community. Parking is placed a short walk from housing, rather than in front of homes, so that front doors open up to community space. Everything is designed to produce more encounters between neighbors – from the on-site community center to including open porches in front of homes – in order to foster relationships.

With this model Thriving Communities provides a stronger foundation for hard working individuals and families and is helping to build robust, healthier communities. When communities are strong, the ripple effects into the wider society are significant- it creates multiple layers of good.

The Way of the Urgent Warrior

Posted on: May 6th, 2014 by social venture network No Comments

Written by Alana Kambury, MBA Candidate at Bainbridge Graduate Institute, @lanabury

Social Venture Network 2014 Spring Conference Plenary: Leadership and the Road Ahead featuring Gary Hirshberg, Founder of Stonyfield in conversation with Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods

Where is the line between big solutions that may come with unforeseen externalities and local endeavors that fall short of actual impact? The SVN crowd may cringe at the idea of Wal Mart, yet can we acknowledge their demand for organic produce can substantially bolster the organic movement? Or is that giving them a hall pass for all the damage that has done to local businesses, labor equality, and consumer culture? Is ‘Go Big or Go Home’ a one-size fits all for change?

Deb Nelson, Executive Director of Social Venture Network began the plenary by asking how can we transform systems. How do we free ourselves from attachment and perfection? How do we let go into growth, even if it’s uncomfortable? To start the weekend on this powerful note, she posed these questions and introduced Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield, who welcomed Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods onto the stage for a discussion of leadership and impact.

Gary, a previous board member returned to SVN with Walter and spoke with familiarity and love. The friendship that the two shared was apparent in their humor.  Nevertheless, they presented stark realities; our agricultural issues are more complex, more drastic, with more uncertain effects than ever. 60%-100% rainfall in Iowa has tested containing herbicides, and the quantity of herbicides are increasing in tow. The road ahead is volatile and serious.

“The enemy is consumer confusion.” To combat this point in the system, Gary has transitioned from Stonyfield to the Just Label It campaign, advocating for the labeling of GE foods. Walter has directed his attention to his suppliers, by demanding that by 2018, all their vendors declare any GMO ingredients on their labeling. Can awareness of the consumer shift the market? Vermont has become the leading edge, so can we hope for a cascade of state-regulations to occur over the next few years? And beyond making labels more transparent, can we reveal the externalities of GMO agri-businesses and mono-cropping?

The discussion felt like a campaign to an issue the crowd already agreed upon, leaving no debate on whether the solution Whole Foods presented had any weak-points or side-effects of its own. Can SVN be that network that encourages companies to act now, and act as a voice of dissent against group think? Walter highlighted the need for immediate action instead of hesitating from systems overload.  It would have been fascinating to include a discussion around how we can collaborate as a community to recover when urgency leads to unforeseen externalities. Stretching ourselves reveals vulnerabilities and risks integrity, and here is where collaboration within in a network, or between an inner city community and a national grocery-chain, can simultaneously insure accountability and protection.

“To create meaningful change, communities and companies have to reimagine what it looks like to work together.” –WR

I am a personal advocate of collaboration through my own connectivity, my graduate work at B Lab for my MBA from the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, and my work to scale Starvation Alley Farms, Washington’s first organic cranberry farm and the only cold-pressed cranberry juice company in the NW.

How do you stretch yourself? In agreement with Walter and Gary, innovative solutions rely on collaborative efforts between education, policy, agriculture, grocers, communities, and businesses who approach the discussion not with assumptions or individual solutions, but contributive investments. I think we need to go deeper in these discussions, not focusing on how the current system is broken, but on how we can scale with transparency so that we don’t repeat history.

Venturing into a frontier of unconventional business, with qualities that would once deem impossible to quantify, requires frontiersmen and women that have the intellect, courage, and creativity to think outside the box and make the business case for collaborative efforts.

Quote of the night:

“No matter how cynical I get, it’s hard to keep up” – Lily Tomlin

4 Ways We Can Catalyze Positive Change

Posted on: May 2nd, 2014 by social venture network No Comments

Written by Kasey Kissick, Social Venture Network, @SVNetwork

Addressing climate change. Confronting malnutrition. Helping veterans heal. Building an equitable workforce. At the 2014 SVN Spring Conference, a speaker series titled “Catalyzing Positive Change” brought together four unique social and environmental issues presented by four fearless leaders: Amy Larkin, Neil Grimmer, Lee Klinger Lesser and Konda Mason. While the topics were diverse, the speakers each shared in their determination to create a more just, humane and sustainable world. Each asked us to think and act in a new way, and each challenged us to stretch ourselves to do more. Taken together, these four speakers left conference attendees inspired and ready to join them in catalyzing positive change.

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The Rules of Business and the Laws of Nature

“Nothing except for nature can transform the world as swiftly as can business – for better or for worse.”

The series was kicked off by Amy Larkin, award-winning environmental activist and author of Environmental Debt: The Hidden Costs of a Changing Global Economy. Hailing financial accountants as her biggest heroes, Amy argued for the economic benefits of green business. She reminded us of the financial impacts of recent extreme weather events and also of the sad truth that today’s biggest polluters also make the biggest profits. She made a simple plea: pollution can no longer be free. It can’t be subsidized. From an economic standpoint, it makes no sense. Through working with Greenpeace Solutions, Amy is chipping away at this ‘environmental debt,’ getting 400 of the world’s largest brands to eliminate HFCs from new equipment by 2015 – a move that will reduce 1-2% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. She is also pushing for the use of accelerated depreciation for green infrastructure to promote investments in environmentally friendly business. Amy left us with an excerpt from her book: “Nothing except for nature can transform the world as swiftly as can business – for better or for worse.” She urged us to use it for the greater good.

The Full Effect

10155901_10152265458629733_3789047919441958500_n“Starvation in America isn’t about calories, it’s about nutrition.”

Continuing the series was Neil Grimmer, co-founder and president of Plum Organics, a leading organic kids nutrition company. Since becoming a father, Neil has been on a mission to provide healthy food to his kids and to kids across the nation. Neil explained that the first 36 months of life determine a child’s ability to reach his or her full potential – and nutritious food is a big part of the equation. In the US, 1 in 5 children are hungry. They’re not hungry for calories – but for nutrition. They’re hungry for healthy, nutritious food. Enter Plum Organics – a certified B Corp that produces nutritious organic food for babies and toddlers and also donates to underserved communities across the nation through The Full Effect program. Plum Organics has donated more than ½ million smoothies and 3.5 million snacks to kids in need across the nation, but that’s just scratching the surface. He estimated that 17 billion meals are needed per year, and he challenged the audience to consider day-to-day changes that might bring this number down to create a truly healthy and thriving nation.

Commitment to Self, Commitment to Service: A Healing Path for Veterans

10001356_10152265458804733_4420698937877051990_n“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or even the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around”

The next presentation was lead by Lee Klinger Lesser, co-founder and executive director of Honoring the Path of the Warrior (HPW), a program that helps veterans make positive transitions from military to civilian life. Lee was joined on stage by veteran marine, Megan Lowry, who began her service in 2005 and became an elite guard for president George W. Bush. In a gesture of true strength and perseverance, she spoke despite finding out just days prior that her father, also a veteran, had committed suicide. Megan bravely recounted her story – of being raped by a superior during service, ostracized for reporting the incident, and told that rape and sexual assault are occupational hazards for women in the military. Before finding a supportive community in HPW, she’d struggled with PTSD and attempted suicide four times. Megan told the audience the reason she shares her story is because so many share in her struggle. Twenty-two veterans commit suicide each and every day, and she is determined to change that figure. Lee founded HPW knowing very little about military culture, but recognizing the unique challenges faced by veterans and seeing an area in which she could have true impact through teaching meditation and mindfulness. She’s been leading retreats with HPW since 2007, finding that teaching the veteran community not only provides them with solace, but also saves lives. “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or even the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around” – an anonymous quote shared by Megan on the power of love, support and HPW.

Peak Inequity

1486879_10152265458984733_4834831799801696847_n“Your zip code has more to do with your life expectancy than your genetic code.”

Konda Mason, co-founder and CEO of Impact Hub Oakland, finished the series with a discussion on social equity. She opened with a picture of her 21-year-old godson, Trevor, whose life was cut short by a drive-by shooting on the front porch of his mother’s home in Watts, Los Angeles. In Watts, less than 3% of residents have a 4-year college degree, and it claims the lowest median income and the highest density in all of Los Angeles. So despite Trevor having no involvement in gangs, and being smart, driven, and on the path to success, his life was cut short – just because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Konda told the audience that zip code determines life expectancy more than genetic code, concluding quite simply that “place matters.” While 78% of white males in the US will graduate from high school, only 58% of Latinos and only 52% of black males will do the same. So, “race also matters.” Konda told us that today in the US, most babies are born of color, and in 30 years, the US will be a majority people of color nation. In order to build a future workforce that is educated and equipped to lead the nation, these discrepancies need to be understood, quantified, studied and addressed. And in doing so, we’ll get closer to creating a more just, thriving and sustainable world for generations to come.

The Case for Renewable Energy Simplified into Two Pieces: Oil and Electricity

Posted on: April 30th, 2014 by social venture network No Comments

Written by Kasey Kissick, Social Venture Network, @SVNetwork

“Would you rather die of oil well fires, climate change, nuclear holocaust, or all of the above?” asked a wry Amory Lovins, an internationally acclaimed physicist and co-founder, Chief Scientist and Chairman Emeritis of the Rocky Mountain Institute. At the 2014 SVN Spring Conference, Amory gave his take on the current state of renewable energy in a session titled Reinventing Fire. Prompting both surprise and laughter amongst the crowd with his opening line, he then proceeded to offer the audience another option: “What about none of the above?” What if we could stop using fossil fuels and do away with all the dangers they pose to both humans and the earth? While 90% of America’s energy currently comes from fossil fuels, Amory is confident that we can successfully transition to renewables, we can do it today, and it’s economically sound. According to Amory, switching from coal, oil, and gas to renewables like wind and solar power would save the US $5 trillion. How’s that possible? He broke the argument down into two pieces: oil and electricity.

Amory Lovins 
Oil & Autos

75% of the world’s oil goes to transportation – cars, trucks, buses, ships and planes. The biggest oil sink by far is the automobile industry. Amory methodically walked us through a number of innovations in automobile manufacturing, from design to materials to production processes. He proclaimed the need to “take obesity out of cars,” explaining that most of the energy required to move a car is due to its weight. The introduction of light carbon-fiber materials has made a big difference. The reduction of car parts in the most efficient models to a total of 14 is also a big improvement compared to a normal steel SUV which would use up to 20 times more parts. He hailed the development of electric autos as “game-changing” and likened their invention to the shift from typewriters to computers—highlighting leading manufacturers and models available on the market like Prius, Tesla,Volkswagon and BMW.

Electricity & Efficiency

Just as the bulk of oil fuels transportation, 75% of electricity goes to buildings. In the case of electricity, Amory explained that the biggest problem is waste. Efficiency technologies are actually advancing faster than we can apply them. If we were to implement modern energy-saving technologies across the world, we could quadruple efficiency in buildings and double it in industry. The key is disruptive building design. Amory gave us a glimpse into his ultra efficient home in Snowmass, Colorado, which uses an integrative design that virtually eliminates the need for heating even during the coldest winters. He explained that simply rearranging pumps and motors, insulating walls, swapping out windows, and choosing energy efficient LED light bulbs – a process called retrofitting – can save up to 60% of energy costs. And designing brand new buildings with efficiency in mind can save even more.

What’s Ahead

Amory closed the session by discussing global trends in renewable energy use. Long story short, costs to produce renewables are plummeting and demand to use renewables is rising. He said that by next year, the electricity generated by solar and wind power will exceed that of nuclear power. He also noted China’s rapidly increasing renewable production; in 2012, China generated more wind than nuclear power, and in 2013, the country produced more solar power than the US for the first time. He mentioned the trend toward decentralized energy sources like home solar panels, and he noted that today, a handful of European countries already get up to half of their power from renewable sources. In Amory’s mind, it’s clear that we’ve already reinvented fire. And it’s a fire that’s permanent, plentiful, and inexpensive. The real challenge is and will continue to be working with government and industry to implement these changes. Fortunately, with a ‘carrot’ of trillions of saved dollars, Amory is optimistic people will transition to renewable energy sooner rather than later.

Leading the Way Through Collaboration

Posted on: April 28th, 2014 by social venture network No Comments

Written by Liz Smith, MBA Candidate at Bainbridge Graduate Institute

People are the greatest asset within our organizations, and it is through the quality of their collaboration that we get the most out of their contributions. Yet creating a culture of collaboration within an organization is a highly nuanced and complicated process. At the Spring ’14 SVN Conference in San Diego, Judith Katz and Fredrick Miller, colleagues and authors of the book Opening the Door to Teamwork and Collaboration: 4 Keys That Change Everything, shared their 40 years of experience and expertise in helping teams and individuals to collaborate effectively, and begged us to ask ourselves the question: who do I need to be thinking with?

Judith Katz

Building our “Thinking Team”
The first step in building a culture of collaboration is to get really clear on one thing: identifying whom the individuals are that we need to be thinking with. Whether from within or outside of the organization, by surrounding ourselves with a thoughtful group that balances out our leadership style and skill sets – a group Katz & Miller call our “thinking team” – we can bring depth of wisdom to our companies.

Judging vs. Joining
Merely teaming up with the right group of people is not guaranteed to lead to collaboration. In fact we cannot effectively collaborate or be part of high performing teams if we cannot communicate with each other. Katz offers the view that we have a fundamental species choice to make: do we want to judge – an action that leads to defensiveness, frustration, and a shutting-down of the creative process – or do we want to join one another? To join together, the epitome of collaboration, is to look your team, your employees, yourself, in the eye and say, “yes, I trust you”.

One place we can begin to “join” is within our own organizations. Katz looks to the hiring process to explore this concept. Company hiring is an activity that requires a tremendous amount of resources as we vet candidates to join our team. Yet oftentimes, when we make the hire, we force the employee to go through a process of proving themselves, resulting in a culture of judging. If we want to start joining one another, we must create an environment that fosters collaboration and teamwork within our organization. This all starts with the conversations we have with one another. Ask yourself: am I engaging with this person in a way that makes them feel big; feel valued? When we start from that place we set in motion the trust that’s necessary in order for high-performing teams to thrive.

The EILEEN FISHER Story
This methodology of developing thinking teams to co-create collaboration has been put into practice by Katz & Miller through their consulting firm, The Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, in a number of organizations around the country, including at EILEEN FISHER, a mission-driven women’s apparel company. In attendance at the SVN conference to share her experience of how Katz & Miller’s work impacted the organization was Susan Schor, Chief Culture Officer at EILEEN FISHER. After first meeting 12 years prior at an SVN conference, the three partnered to develop their own thinking team. It is thanks to their work and the effectiveness of this process that EILEEN FISHER has experienced significant corporate structural changes which have led employees to feel a sense of ownership over the work and the company, while fostering a culture of collaboration, ultimately leading to overall company growth and development.

Collaboration begins with who you sit at the table with. Look around you and identify the people you need to be thinking with in order to foster collaboration and bring out the full potential of our greatest assets – ourselves.

Brand Souls

Posted on: April 1st, 2014 by social venture network No Comments

Written by SVN member Jared Levy, Founder, Guru Media Solutions

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Several years ago the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are to be treated as individuals in the eyes of the law. I certainly don’t agree with that as it pertains to campaign donations and other issues of democracy, but when it comes to the new age of marketing I couldn’t agree more.

Corporations, more than ever, need to become brands. Brands that are individualized. That have souls and stories that people (aka: consumers, targets) can get invested in. Brands are now being morphed and pressured into becoming content creators, media publishers and thought leaders.

This is the logical evolution of our society where those sitting in the tallest buildings feel the obligation to lead. From Nation States to Religion to Business it has been an organic movement through the ages. This is a natural role for business to take and I believe brands are up for the challenge, but to keep the relationship with their loyalists symbiotic their voice must stay authentic, must provide some sort of value and they must not lose their soul as they carry out their role.

The form must fit the function. The content must be true to who you are as a brand. If you have nothing to say, then say nothing. We are knee deep in an age of information oversaturation and as we navigate this challenging landscape those brands that will win will be “conscious businesses that find their dharma,” said best by the great mystic Ram Dass from the Love, Serve Remember Foundation and Social Venture Network.

An Open Letter to Larry Page

Posted on: March 28th, 2014 by social venture network No Comments

Guest post from SVN member Mal Warwick, Business Solution to Poverty, @MalWarwick

Dear Larry,

Paul Polak speaks about commercialization and scale at Cornell University

In your recent conversation with Charlie Rose at TED, you said you’d rather hand over your cash to Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX, Solar City) instead of donating it to a philanthropic organization. I understand the sentiment. The nonprofit sphere has generally proved itself incapable of solving many of society’s most intractable problems. In particular, 2.7 billion people left behind in the most extreme poverty—40% of the world’s population, living on $2 per day or less—while global wealth concentrates in fewer and fewer hands, putting humanity on an unsustainable course.

But for all of us, it’s a practical challenge, not just a guilt trip. The poor drive the population explosion with high birth rates; they represent a catastrophic waste of human talent; they contribute to global warming through deforestation, habitat destruction, and systemically wasteful use of the planet’s resources. Meanwhile the poor partake only minimally in the market economy that enriches the rest of us.

Poverty’s persistence, despite hundreds of billions in nonprofit and NGO resources vaporized trying to “solve” it, remains one of humanity’s greatest failures.

But poverty can be ended—in precisely the way you suggest—by designing and deploying a new breed of for-profit business that address critical human needs while making a profit.

downloadI offer Google an audacious challenge: select a region or a country with a population of, say, 100 million, which has a huge endemic poverty rate—perhaps in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa—and bring Google’s resources to bear on a project to end poverty decisively in that region in 15 years. And you wouldn’t have to give away a dime, just invest. The result? A model for ending poverty planet-wide.

I’d like to suggest a framework for deploying a set of these new breed businesses based on my thirty years of work using market mechanisms in some of the world’s poorest countries to launch 20 million people permanently out of poverty.

The key to meeting this challenge is to build businesses in the target region around a common core of enabling technologies you already have at hand, including:

  • Low-cost or no-cost ubiquitous wireless connectivity in the region (Project Loon, etc.)
  • A set of relatively low-tech Android devices, emphasizing text-to-speech and speech-to-text alternatives, to create digital access for the illiterate
  • A generation of ultra-low cost digital devices emphasizing ruggedness, replaceable batteries, and low power consumption
  • A fair, secure, and very low-cost ubiquitous micro-payment system

Carried by that core, incubate a suite of rapidly scalable businesses that address critical needs of the ultra-poor, including:

  • Distributed healthcare, including low-cost diagnostics and treatment of curable diseases at the village level
  • A village “power station” driven by radically affordable solar, which provides low carbon-emission energy to recharge batteries, pump irrigation water, power post-harvest processing, and support LED-based home electricity
  • A high-quality pay-as-you-go childhood education system, drawing on digital resources such as Khan Academy and priced at $4 to $6 per month per child
  • Agricultural information services delivered digitally which are proven to raise incomes and nutrition levels dramatically among small-hold farmers
  • Companies to distribute safe drinking water, upgrade and build new housing, rationalize food distribution, provide insurance and financial services, and possibly many others: the opportunities seem endless.

Designing businesses that address the critical needs of poor populations while turning a profit has been the focus of my life for the last 30 years. There are numerous examples of this type of initiative, some of which I have started personally. They all treat the poor as partners and customers, rather than victims and helpless consumers of charity

I would be very happy to sit down with you personally to explore these ideas. In 30 minutes I can explain to you simply and directly how you could make this vision work.  Bringing it about would be a strategic accomplishment for Google, and it would put the world on a steady upward path much more surely than hoping we can colonize Mars. Google could pioneer this effort and make a profit by doing so.

Sincerely,

Paul R. Polak

Author, The Business Solution to Poverty: Designing Products and Services for Three Billion New Customers

Prospering in Common

Posted on: March 12th, 2014 by social venture network No Comments

Written by G. Benjamin Bingham, 3Sisters Sustainable Management, @GBBingham

Stuart Williams is back on the international conference scene and instead of his very successful SRI firm, Strategic Research Institute, that created conferences for 300,000 global corporate executives, he is bringing together environmentalists, corporate sustainability experts, indigenous leaders, social change architects and financial managers to reinvent the new SRI, Socially Responsible Investing, from the bottom up. As an international environmental consultant now focused on creating green financing for a sustainable transportation system in Paraguay, Stuart is a practical visionary who understands that mutual prosperity is a necessity. In other words, when all the cells of the planet are healthy, the whole planet will be healthy. This includes surprising interrelationships from the fate of grizzly bears in North America to the emergence of eco-farmers in the virgin forests of Rumania; and from the call of indigenous people for control of sacred lands to the call of investors for a new definition of fiduciary responsibility that includes the protection of our shared natural resources.

The first of a series of conferences designed by Williams and friends called Beyond Sustainability was held on the beautiful Kiawah Island, SC, which in itself is a microcosm of the global struggle to marry ecological necessity in the form of a conservancy, holding together the extraordinary lush forests and wildlife, with the desires for material comfort in the form of ever more and bigger condos and PGA standard golf courses. The purpose ostensibly was to reframe the interests of the various contingencies represented in some universal language which might then affect change globally. What could one say or write that would spark change universally and bring about health, enlightened education and prosperity? Obviously, this was a daunting task, which was not taken lightly nor belabored.

Many players in the room have been at this for decades and have heard slogans for change many times before. “Yes We Can!” for example, has done a great deal of damage in terms of sound bite credibility. That said, we all can testify to the power of language in fostering change and surely we sit at an unprecedented turning point with more people, more natural degradation, more technology for change and more information at our fingertips than ever. Reframing language is a worthy effort that may, at a time like this, spark dramatic change. This is why I write.

The verbal link between conservatism and conservation was not to be missed. Ultra-high net worth networks were represented whose conservative side could easily see that conservation of the wildlife and conservation of wealth are extremely interrelated. No one laughed when I told the joke about the two trustees looking down on a burning earth and the one says: “ At least we did our fiduciary duty.” And the other replies: “ Yeah, but dammit, look at all that oil going to waste!” They know that the Arctic ice cap is almost gone and understand the dire situation of the bears described by Chris Morgan.

Prospering in Common

On the other hand, as value investors the advisors for these family offices have sat and watched any number of times when the next big thing promised to change everything only to fizzle. So we may be wary of saying that this time it is different. And yet the message of the conference was that we are at a unique point in history and that our investments in aggregate may just be enough to stave off the worst of a critical transition. At the same time there is much opportunity for profit through innovation to meet the problems of our time.

There were many refreshing initiatives presented and new possibilities showed up:

  • What if The Willow School  in New Jersey expanded its ethical, place based model moved on to guide and grow other sister schools globally?
  • What if Vital Systems became a network connector to all things local and down to earth?
  • What if a network of ultra high net worth investors decided to “put care first” in all their investments?

Hazel Henderson with her mini-multi-national: Ethical Markets Media conglomerate, described the good news that nature has already solved whatever problems we seem to have dreamed up. The amount of solar energy available to us dwarfs any other resource if we would but focus on it. Alisa Gravitz, founder and CEO of Green America shared the good news that solar production has grown exponentially in the last two years dwarfing nuclear production. She also described the power of opinion on big corporations and how Cheerios was the first of a number of cereal producers who have recently sworn off GMO’s. A kind of tide seems to be turning.

Behind all this is an inherent human love for Nature and our intimate feeling of oneness with it. Katherine Collins was the former head of Equity Research at Fidelity, and continues independently, centered on investing as service. She posed the question: “What if we invested not in nature but as nature?”  Her forthcoming book The Nature of Investing will tell all.

Lessons Learned from Enterprise Opportunity Trip to Cuba

Posted on: March 11th, 2014 by social venture network No Comments

Written by Erin Roach, Social Venture Network

Cuba rockface

Mural de la Prehistoria, painted by Leovigildo Gonzalez Morillo, 1961

Stately old movie houses from the ‘40s dot Havana. Films are everywhere, but the titles I see advertised are mostly Italian, Cuban, French. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the only American film I see on the marquee is Elysium, a story about a dystopian universe where the rich enjoy one perfect planet and the rest of the living beings in existence are relegated to virtual slavery in service of it. Matt Damon and a few brave others see through the guise and vow to break out and take it down. And so it goes with the Cuban revolution, a promise that all Cubans may enjoy the same privileges, the same access to resources no matter what their vocation.

But has it worked? That’s what I and a group of Social Venture Network (SVN) members spanning decades and a breadth of experience related to socially responsible business were there to find out.

The trip to Cuba was organized by SVN member Eric Leenson of Sol Economies, who for half a century has been committed to social justice and the economic development of Latin America. We were there to learn how Cuba is opening up its economy and how this once great hope for an ideal system of human coexistence can jibe politically with private interests and environmental welfare. A new economic system that Eric and his partners economist Rafael Betancourt and lawyer Gregory Biniowski envision as the “social and solidarity economy” driven by socially responsible business.

Our group of 17 consisted of eight SVN members (Ariane Van Buren, Erin Roach, Garry Spanner, Judy Wicks, Claudia Viek, Mecca Franklin, Matt Patsky, Omer Rains) and three of their family members, a Googler, two sets of philanthropists and an academic.

BarberiaCuban FarmersEric planned an itinerary packed with thought-provoking lectures and cultural highlights. On the six-day trip, we met with sustainable farmers and workers from all types of cooperatives; we witnessed burgeoning social enterprises where profits made from services like cutting hair restored vitality to an entire neighborhood in Old Havana. We toured a tobacco farm, took in excellent live theatre and music, soaked up mojitos and salsa-danced at an adult day care center (Cuba has a notoriously aging population). We cruised the coastline in vintage convertibles from the 1950’s. Overall, the trip was a great mix of camaraderie, fun and enrichment.

As much as I wanted to witness the dream of a consumer-less society with wealth equally distributed to all, my observation was that it hasn’t worked. People are hungry, buildings are crumbling, resources are scarce and spread unevenly. There is virtually no manufacturing and 75% of their food is imported. Nobody is rich and there is not abject poverty, but there is still the problem of haves and have-nots, if not the problem of rich and poor. There are certainly many poor, but no more pronounced than the country itself. It’s totally broke – there’s no money at all for infrastructure or to support a decent standard of living. In fact, for a country that produces more doctors per-capita than any other, it is noteworthy that one cannot reliably wash ones hands after using the lavatory.

Is this to say that I am anti-socialism? Absolutely not. It is only to say that Fidel Castro’s vision seems to be unrealizable in the context of a society that aspires to be beyond a subsistence level of sustainability.

I’ve seen successful villages that actualize what the Cubans call solidarity. An equal sharing of resources—the young taking care of the old and visa-versa. No one having more than they need—or their fair share—to get by. Surpluses stored away for when needed and never hoarded by any one individual. But this was in the most rural areas of the Amazon, where most people had never been exposed to the excess of the outside world, and therefore knew no different. Most people there had no more than a primary education, if that.

It’s not clear to me that the vision of equally shared resources is scalable when any one person or group of individuals is aware that another person, or another group has more. Inject aspiration into the mix, and the house of cards collapses. Why? There are so many reasons:

FidelHavana

1. Human nature
2. A great surplus of any one thing, even education, requires a larger market to absorb it.
3. An economy doesn’t have to rely on consumption, but scalability requires demand from somewhere.

Therein lies the difficulty with the United States. Because we won’t trade with Cuba on any level, we are greatly resented by many people there. We will not absorb its goods or allow even our philanthropic support. But I don’t believe that we are Cuba’s problem.

I liken Cuba’s situation to a parent that doesn’t believe in vaccination: They won’t take the health risk involved with inoculating their own child, but it’s okay as long as everyone else is inoculated. This is a fundamentally self-centered approach and it is similar to what is going on in Cuba: All their problems are blamed on the US’ refusal to trade with them.

But what if the US adopted the same standards for our own society and also became a socialist economy? What if we, too, chose not to inoculate? Who would buy our goods if not ourselves? As it stands, the US has been made out by itself and every other country to be the consumers to the world, and as we at SVN know too well, that vision is also not sustainable.

What the US and Cuba have in common is a need to find a better balance between collective and individual interests, an aim central to the work of SVN for the better part of three decades. The Cubans have a unique opportunity to find a way out of their economic quagmire by thoughtfully constructing a new economic model that equally serves the needs of people, profit and planet. And so many SVN member organizations show that it can be done successfully.

Eric is planning future trips to Cuba for SVN members and Cubans to continue dialoguing about the possibilities of socially responsible business. It’s a rare moment in time for Cuba and I highly recommend the opportunity to take part.