Francisco Noguera

NextThought: Quick Reflections from Harvard’s Social Enterprise Conference

You can’t go wrong with a day starts with live music at 9 in the morning. If the concert comes as a closing for an inspiring talk on a topic you care about, you know it will be a day to remember. Yesterday was one of those days for me. By 9:15 I’d heard Willy Foote sing Guatemalan revolutionary songs and inspire a big audience with a genuine, thoughtful talk about entrepreneurship, life choices and the trail of social innovation his organization, Root Capital, is helping to create.

I left the room thinking that Willy had set the bar a little bit too high. We’ll see what the day brings with it … what can be expected after such a performance? I was wrong to even doubt it; the students of Harvard met and exceeded expectations at their annual Social Enterprise Conference through a healthy mix of panel discussions, hands-on workshops and a student-driven entrepreneurial spirit that was palpable in every hallway.

I have several pages of notes that will hopefully turn into blog posts in the next week or so. I’d certainly like to tell you about the sessions I sat on, like one on the future of microfinance that addressed many of the findings on Portfolios of the Poor, a good one on mobile money and yet a third one on “reverse innovation” and why it’s a trend to be reckoned with. In addition to panel discussions, I sat at a workshop that brought to life the loan approval process at Root Capital, and voted for my favorite venture at the Pitch for Change competition.

This last bit was probably my favorite part of the day; faced with the challenge of bringing their points across in 60 seconds or less, the finalists – entrepreneurs from Harvard and several other universities – did an amazing job making fun and sticky pitches of intriguing ideas that aim to serve the base of the pyramid. Wello, one of the recently announced Unreasonable Fellows, took the first prize. You can check out the rest of the teams and ideas here.

I felt exhausted yet inspired as I made my way back home last night. A good conference is a chance to reconnect with likeminded friends and acquaintances, as well as to find new ideas and projects to poke around with. Eric Kacou is one of the remarkable people I met this weekend; I recently became familiar with his work and can’t wait to read and review his new book Entrepreneurial Solutions for Prosperity in BoP Markets. His notion of the “survival trap” faced by BoP ventures and the challenges to create an entrepreneurial mindset in BoP settings resonate with many of the ideas we discuss in this forum.

Thanks to the Harvard team for putting together a remarkable gathering. This is not the only sign that the ideas of inclusive capitalism are gaining traction at the university. For more on the ideas that are coming out of Harvard as of late, don’t miss Brian Trelstad’s review of the shared value idea brought forth by Michael Porter as a “Big Idea” very recently.

Finance, Social Enterprise
Base of the Pyramid, microfinance, social enterprise