Francisco Noguera

Miami Social Enterprise Conference: Why It Mattered

I open my laptop in my plane seat as we slowly start heading south west over the Caribbean. I sneak over my neighbor’s shoulder to get a glimpse of Miami’s sunset and the last view of a city home to so many immigrants and so many Latin American dreams. We slowly leave behind the silhouette of Miami Beach, where the Miami Social Enterprise Conference came to an end just a few days ago. I feel an urge to write and report on my impressions of what happened last week and will happen this week, which is something I and many fellow Latin Americans have wished for many times in the past: an open, truly regional discussion about the potential of social enterprise to address our region’s challenges.

While I find my way to one of the oldest cities in the hemisphere, I open up my notes to share some impressions of what I saw in Miami, why I thought it was an important step for the region’s social enterprise movement and how it ties to what will be further discussed this week in Granada. I hope many of my colleagues and peers who attended the conference -and those who didn’t- will chime in with thoughts and insights of their own.

Let’s start with some numbers: Reportedly, more than 700 attendees from 40+ countries attended the simultaneous Social Enterprise and Sustainable Haiti conferences, and nearly 260 speakers entertained a large number of panels and sessions that spun across a wide range of topics. That’s a lot of content and I’ll go back in a minute to reference some of the panels I attended; first, however, I’ll say that the tone of the conference and the case for its relevance was very well set by Matthew Bishop’s opening keynote. I was pleasantly surprised by his intervention and impressed, not only by his understanding of where this industry is at and where it can go, but also by his knowledge of what makes Latin America unique and sets it apart from India or parts of Africa, where social enterprise has flourished at a faster pace.

He was right to remark how, as the most unequal region in the world (in terms of per capita income), Latin America is home to acute poverty but also enormous fortunes that, for the most part, have not been channeled to advance social innovations or innovative philanthropic models. In effect, it’s interesting that artists, like Shakira, have set the pace in showing the leverage and impact philanthropic investments can have in reinventing education, for instance. In addition, the region’s dependence on natural resources and extractive industries was remarked as a distinctive trait, which poses environmental challenges and also exposes the region to the cycles of severe price fluctuations. When I interviewed John Rosser, founder and convener of the Miami conference, he made the same point about the region’s dependence on natural resource booms, adding that he hoped the conference would help unveil alternative approaches to tackling its challenges. I believe it did and the diversity of the panels attested to that.

The sessions I attended were led mostly by local organizations devoted to the promotion of entrepreneurship and market-based approaches to poverty in the region, including new funds like Vox in Brazil, Inversor in Colombia, enterprise development leaders like FUNDES and the social business arm of Ashoka in the region. The topics were broad and covered a lot of topics, but the concept of ecosystems of support for entrepreneurship was mentioned extensively throughout the sessions. This was interesting and also made the absence of some players most notable; in fact, if I could make a suggestion for a next version of the conference, it would be bringing more diversity of actors to the conversation, specifically representatives from the public sector and Universities. Their role was discussed tangentially in many sessions but their presence could be given more prominence in the agenda of future versions.

As in any conference, what happened in the hallways was just as or even more important than the panel and plenary discussions. It was very well attended and I met several colleagues, both natives from Latin America and global actors interested in exploring opportunities in the region. This is exciting for a couple of reasons: one is that Latin Americans tend to be insular, not as prone to networking and finding synergies as Americans or Indians, for instance. The mountains and forests that separate our countries have prevented a richer conversation, let alone awareness of each country’s distinctive traits. TYo see engagement among ourselves was a highlight of the week in an of itself. Similarly, it was exciting to see that the social enterprise in Latin America is alive and kicking, as was evident by the large number of organizations in the room.

Learning what has worked in other places and what hasn’t will be fundamental in the development of a vibrant regional ecosystem for social enterprise. The Miami conference could position itself as a yearly gathering that bridges Latin American with the global trends in the development of social enterprise; similarly, gatherings like the ANDE Regional Conference -which starts in a few hours- can become a place where trends are discussed briefly and emphasis is placed on collaboration an partnerships on actual projects. I’m excited to be in Granada and will report on the happenings of the conference.

Meanwhile, I would like to thank the organizing team for the Miami conference. All in all, it was a valuable venue, of the kind that is critical to start conversations and forge partnerships that drive the sector forward in the region. I look forward to learning what’s next and hope the event will become an institution in itself.

Stay tuned for more from Granada! Latin America remains in the spotlight.