Another successful year for ForSE 2009

Another successful conference on Social Entrepreneurship was held on October 23rd, this time at Babson College in Boston’s Wellesley suburb. Details on the conference and photos were posted in a local e-magazine, and are reproduced below for those who could not attend.

For the third year in a row, the Forum for Social Entrepreneurs held its annual conference that brought together a diverse crowd of social innovators, students, professionals and leading proponents to focus on the key issues and challenges in the social entrepreneurship area. Co-sponsored by TIE Boston Social Entrepreneurs Group and Net Impact Undergrad, Babson College, with support from the Deshpande Foundation, it was hosted at Olin Hall at Babson College.

The day was led off by a call to action by Andre Porter, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Small Business and Entrepreneurship Office. He recognized that many in the audience would represent the next generation of emerging business ideas and assured them of the support and backing of the state. Carol Cone, founder of Cone LLC, a leader in the field of corporate branding who has been guiding companies towards a strategy of social responsibility for over 25 years, drew from her rich background to identify opportunities where young social entrepreneurs could engage with corporate programs in win-win partnerships.

Nearly 200 attendees had the opportunity to hear leading practitioners in a number of fields in four different panel discussions.

  • Social Media for Social Entrepreneurs: One of the more popular sessions in the past, the cross-section of experts on the panel ranged from John Haydon, a social media consultant, Kate Brodock who advises firms on media strategies, Tushneem Dharmagadda who has successfully applied a number of social media tactics to grow two non-profits in the past several years and Dan Croak, whose firm thoughtbot has several tools that can be used to monitor online brand mentions about firms.
  • Sustainable Business Models for Social Ventures: A rich panel of practitioners with several innovative business models provided attendees with numerous perspectives on how a socially focused operation can also augment its core mission with revenue generating activities. Panelists included Jodi Rosenbaum Tillinger from More than Words an organization that empowers foster kids by teaching them how to run a business; Jack Freele from New England Rain barrel, a ecologically responsible company; and Michael Kochka, Farm Manager for Revision Urban Farm an urban farm operation that teaches the homeless job skills while producing wholesome and organic produce for local merchants and restaurants. Prof Nitin Joglekar from Boston University was the moderator.
  • Valuing Social Enterprises: A challenge facing most social investors is how to evaluate a social focused business on metrics other than strict return on investment. Fortunately there are several organizations represented on the panel that have developed some interesting approaches to this subject. Shruti Sehra from New Profit, one of the first “Venture Philanthropy” organizations, helped frame the discussion from their experience evaluating social investments over the past decade. Susan Musinsky from Social Innovation Forum emphasized the need for continuous monitoring and assessment to ensure growth and impact. Miguel Granier from Invested Development outlined the social and investment metrics that need to be monitored. The discussion was ably moderated by Prof. John Whitman from Babson College.
  • Investor’s perspective of Microfinance: With microfinance becoming increasingly mainstream, the discussion focused on the worldwide opportunities for investment in this field. The area was still new and the major investment opportunities were still out of the reach of the ordinary investor. Funds like the Omidyar-Tufts Microfinance Fund, managed by one of the panelists, Tryfan Evans, did show a positive return in the past year as other sectors tanked. There was a concern that certain sectors in countries like India were getting a bit too rich in valuation. Long term the panel felt there was still room to grow and significant parts of the world still had a lot of potential for future investment.  The other panelists were Deborah Drake, VP Accion and Paresh Patel, CEO Sandstone Capital. Iqbal Dhaliwal, Director of Policy for the Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT moderated.

The afternoon was led off by an inspiring speech by Babson College President Leonard Schlesinger where he exhorted the new entrepreneurs to not only go out and start new enterprises but to also be aware of others who might be doing similar things. While he encouraged new ideas, he cautioned against the multiple different organizations pursuing the same issues, fragmenting the total effort that might be applied to solve a problem.

Three interactive case based sessions followed where teams of attendees, worked together to brainstorm ideas and solutions for challenges posed by three social entrepreneurs. The cases consisted of:

  • Lokvani,com: Faced with an inflexion point in its growth, Lokvani tapped into the collective experience of the crowd to strategize alternate approaches to diversifying and growing its business. The session was moderated by Kimi Ceridon, founder of Kalepa-Tech, a design consultancy.
  • Peacetones: Jeff Aresty described how his grassroots effort using the process of marketing art and music from artistes in war ravaged countries to also teach them about the basic principles of internet law and legal transactions had grown dramatically in the past few years. Faced with the dilemma of growing his organization to support this growth, he turned to his audience for inputs and ideas. Skillfully moderated by Rakesh Pandey, who also serves as a consultant to social entrepreneurs, the session generated several pages of new suggestions for Peactones to digest.
  • Equal Exchange an innovative workers cooperative that has been around for a while in Massachusetts has been one of the pioneers in the fair trade and organically grown market. It has been supplying coffee, tea and chocolate to a number of establishments. Rodney North from Equal Exchange described its challenge of raising its profile and visibility. With the help of moderator, Gaurav Rohatgi, Principal at Continuum a leading design consultancy, Rodney was able to draw a number of useful suggestions from the assembled audience.

The finale for the day was the first ever Pitch Contest that allowed social entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges and compete for a cash prize and free consulting from several organizations. The response to the call for applications was overwhelming with nearly 20 applicants from all over the world responding. With the guidance of Anil Saigal, Pitch Contest Coordinator, the field was whittled down to a final five who were invited to present at Babson. In addition several wild cards were selected from the remaining applicants on the day of the event. A terrific range of ideas were presented and the judging was close but the final winners were:

  • First Prize: Kathleen Fleming and her pitch about working on converting used shipping containers to modular clinics that can be shipped to developing countries. They won a cash prize plus an hour of consulting from Root Cause and Accounting Management Solutions.
  • Second Prize: Eric Esteves presentation on Cyber Safety Campaign to help educate parents and children about online risks.
  • Third Prize: Bottom of the Pyramid Eenrgy & Environmental Innovations won with Ani Atre’s presentation about their innovative solution for pedal powered charging stations to provide lighting in off grid locations.

The final keynoter was Pamela Hawley, who was one of the founders of Volunteer Match one of the earliest online sites that allowed individuals to find places to volunteer. She since has founded Universal Giving an online donation and volunteer site. Pamela’s lively and interactive presentation encouraged the young entrepreneurs to focus on their team, to make sure they kept time aside for themselves as their organizations grew, and to focus on excellence and not fuss about perfection.

This year ForSE was supported by Hemang Dave, Puran Dang, Subu Kota, the Deshpande Foundation, and Lokvani. In addition a TIE Social Entrepreneurs core team consisting of Vithal Deshpande, Manu Gosain, Rakesh Pandey, Ranjani Saigal and Raj Melville strongly supported by Esha Bawa, VP External Events, Net Impact Undergrad, Babson College helped organize the event.

The impressive turnout and the great interaction during and throughout the conference once again emphasized that ForSE has grown to become Boston’s dynamic hub of social innovation and impact.

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