Francisco Noguera

Two Ideas for SEKN – The Social Enterprise Knowledge Network

SEKNThe Social Enterprise Knowledge Network (SEKN) brings together a number of Latin America academic institutions interested in exploring the concept of social enterprise and market-based solutions to poverty. Last week the network convened for a research colloquium in Harvard Business School to share the major findings of their upcoming publication titled Inclusive Business in Iberoamerica: Challenges and Opportunities.

It was an interesting venue in which I had the opportunity to learn about thriving BoP business models in Latin America like Cruzsalud in Venezuela, which is bringing high-quality healthcare services to the poor of Caracas. It was?also?exciting to meet and talk to very interesting people like Nancy Barry and Michael Chu, surely two of the most influential characters of the microfinance revolution. Interestingly, both have moved on from microfinance to engage in the broader BoP/ Social Enterprise space. Stay tuned for upcoming posts in which I’ll summarize my conversations with both of them and their current ventures.

I would like to use the rest of this post to present two simple ideas that I believe could be of use to SEKN, as it enters its new research cycle. In particular, I see great opportunities for the network to more effectively deliver its messages and findings?while also turning their academic research into action, by further engaging with students and practitioners in the countries where the network is present.????????1. Let’s tell more stories and let’s keep it simple

I have been reading lately about communications, trying to better understand what it takes to deliver a message effectively. Indeed, it is now more challenging than ever to capture the attention of any audience and make your message stick. All the folks I’ve been reading and listening to have their tweaks here and there, but they agree on one thing: telling stories is a very -probably the most– powerful tool to deliver a message.

SEKN’s colloquium last week failed, for the most part, to use stories as a vehicle to deliver their research findings. In two days, only two sessions followed an open case discussion format – the bread and butter at Harvard Business School. Most of the conference followed a rather stiff and theoretical format that made the findings and conclusions less clear and less sticky than they could have been. I am pointing this out because it seems most of SEKN’s research activities have been completed and the time has come for the network to communicate the ideas and conclusions exposed in their publication.??

I believe that there is no single activity with more compelling stories than this social enterprise/ BoP movement. Nothing is more effective in making the point than showing how a particular person or community’s quality of life improved thanks to improved access to, say, healthcare services. All the theory in the world cannot convey the power of inclusive business and social enterprise more effectively. Thus SEKN faces an exciting challenge: using the stories that are at the heart of their research to convey its message across schools in Latin America -which is the ultimate goal of the network. This will also help to simplify the messages and concepts that frame the research and ultimately have a stronger impact in the next generation of leaders in the region.??

2. Let’s turn that SEKN’s knowledge into action

Carlos Cavelier, a Colombian business leader who attended the conference, made a timely suggestion during the closing session last Tuesday. He said “let’s create SEAN, a Social Enterprise Action Network, to work along with SEKN. These ideas must leave the classroom and translate into new projects”. I couldn’t agree more. It would be very compelling to see SEKN’s research translating into a more active engagement on social enterprise by the students and practitioners in general.

Here is an idea of how to accelerate that process: under HBS’s leadership, universities in Latin America could replicate very successful experiences that have gained ground in universities across the U.S. and Europe, as students demand more and more opportunities to put their skills and knowledge into action and make social/environmental issues a core component of their curricula and subsequent careers.

The programs I refer to are using multidisciplinary approaches to bring students and faculty together and tackle challenging issues in the field. Some examples include MIT’s D-Lab, Stanford’s d.School, Michigan’s MAP Projects (not exclusively focused on social enterprise although a big portion of the projects do have a social and environmental character) and TU Delft’s Design4Billions. Other examples include business plan competitions for students, like the Global Social Venture Competition, as well as HBS’s the University of Washington’s own venues. If you’re still curious of how this approach works, I encourage you to read Rob’s post from this year’s International Development Design Summit. You’ll see how different disciplines can and need to interact for any BoP/ social enterprise to scale and have a lasting impact.?????

The pieces to establish such programs in Latin American universities are all there. I can easily picture it taking place in Universidad de los Andes, the only one I know well enough. The school could bring together its excellent schools of design, management, engineering and architecture to think creatively and develop interdisciplinary projects for social impact to tackle, for example, water treatment and distribution challenges in Colombia’s Choc? or sustainable housing solutions for displaced populations.

When I went to college I didn’t see such opportunities to engage in social initiatives. Only one isolated elective allowed me to have a first feeling of the way business and development goals could go together. In fact, only recently I have been able to learn more and understand the role of, for example, design thinking in social/ environmental issues.

I’m convinced that that hundreds of students would immediately sign up to join such a SEAN?that offered them?a different?angle to social?change and?exciting?opportunities to make a difference.???

Wrapping up, it is very gratifying to see SEKN moving forward in the purpose of building a strong academic movement around social enterprise in Latin America. I hope the two suggestions above will make the academic discussion richer as well as motivate more action, which is what ultimately leads to the impact and tangible change that is needed in every country represented last week in Cambridge. ???