In early October, Calgary hosted 1,500 international delegates at the Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF). The event gave participants the opportunity to explore, discuss and challenge one another on topics such as social finance, Indigenous social enterprise, collaboration, policy and research and social innovation.
As the first Canadian financial institution to launch an initiative to support and invest in for-profit social enterprises, RBC recognizes the importance of connecting thought leaders to catalyze social finance. This allows for dialogue among individuals who are passionate about turning their ideas for social change into mainstream business practices. To contribute to the idea exchange, RBC sponsored the attendance of 13 social entrepreneurs at SEWF.
The sponsored delegates were chosen in partnership with the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) and the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing.
In the following profiles, some of the sponsored delegates share their experiences at SEWF and the effect it will have on their work.
Jo Flatt – Consultant, The Next Practice
I learned that the social enterprise sector has a lot of unique language. But sector-specific language creates barriers and draws lines between people. We need to change this so we don’t exclude the people we seek to help.
I was reminded of this while walking along 8th street in downtown Calgary. The street boasts a range of diverse city residents, from the corporate suits briskly walking home from work, to those who spend their nights bundled in blankets under shop awnings. Two extreme elements of society. Does either of those groups know what social enterprise is? And if we agree that neither is familiar, is it our role to share and connect them to it?
How can we as members of the social enterprise sector make this possible? Among our million other responsibilities, how do we make room for communication? Because the wider we open the range of stakeholders who can participate in our work, the better off we will be.
My goal is to spread the core ideas of social enterprise – what I’ve come to understand as taking the best ideas from across private, public and civic sectors, combined with collaborative practice, confident failure, creative constraints and unwavering passion. I want to work with the unusual suspects and get them involved in the missions that we’re building.
Chelsea Longaphy – Project Analyst, Centre for Social Innovation
My experiences at SEWF 2013 left me energized, inspired, motivated, and most importantly, they left me hopeful. Working in social finance as a social entrepreneur can feel overwhelming. Searching for work can be daunting and the newness of the sector can be chaotic. I’ve occasionally wondered if I can build a career in this field, or as the conference described it, be part of this movement. SEWF 2013 helped me realize I can be. I was able to see and meet many of the leaders in this field, giving me a host of new people to look up to and learn from. Just as importantly, SEWF 2013 made me realize the future of social enterprise is in the power of collaboration. I have watched social entrepreneurs from many backgrounds work together before, but I’ve never seen such powerful levels of collaboration across all sectors.
SEWF 2013 was a glimpse into a future where we can change the world for the better through the power of collaboration. As I continue to build my career, I will look up to the leaders that inspired me at SEWF 2013 and will continue to seek opportunities to collaborate and create a better world.
Monica Schroeder – Catering Coordinator, Friend Catering
I had the privilege of attending the SEWF 2013 World Conference in Calgary this past October and it really opened my eyes to the scope of social enterprise and the level to which this movement is making an impact in this country. I wasn’t fully aware of the various types of enterprise, including those with an educational and/or environmental focus and it was helpful to see that being successful. It was also interesting to hear about social enterprise on a political level, and to see the relationship between what is happening on the ground and what is happening in policy development. I thought the speech by Paul Martin was particularly eye-opening and one of plenary speakers that I enjoyed the most.
The best part for me though, was the opportunity to make some good connections with other enterprise managers from Toronto and Alberta and hear how they approach challenges similar to the ones our enterprise faces. I tried to connect with as many people as I could, heard some great stories and got an idea of what other groups are doing.
I went back to work with a better sense of what’s possible for our enterprise and a challenge to not limit ourselves in what we can achieve. I also felt the need to celebrate the impact that we’re already making in our community and to find new ways to share that with our customers and funders.
Leah Pollock – Program Coordinator, Centre for Social Innovation
Before SEWF, I carefully reviewed the program to figure out which workshops and presentations would help me create success for the members at the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI). We’ve been trying to identify and strengthen at trends in social innovation at CSI, and the Corporate Social Innovation workshop was excellent at identifying the investment of major corporations in social innovation. The corporations that stood out for their investment in real, progressive social innovations at home and in developing countries included Nike, Coke and Ideo.
This session strengthened my belief in collaboration across sectors to see big change. The word "social" no longer only applies to grassroots and charitable organizations. It’s now an integrated part of most corporate missions, as RBC well knows. I left the conference hopeful for the future of social innovation and inspired to create tangible and big solutions to the world’s major issues.
Ashley Kirk – Executive Director - Canadian hub, RLabs
When Ministers Jason Kenney and Dr. Eric Hoskins separately announced a better approach to solving problems through social enterprise, and how social entrepreneurs are needed to assist in the development, I had an "a-ha!" moment. I realized that there may be hope for a better functioning system sooner than I thought. It's so important to have a properly functioning system for social enterprises to make the greatest impact, and I'm looking forward to the government delivering on these ideas.
Many interesting and informative moments occurred at SEWF, but one of the most memorable was when I attended the session "Global Trends and their Impact on Social Enterprises" with speakers Wendy Cukier, Vinod Rajasekaran and Willa Black. The speakers discussed universities and their role in today's society, global hubs and trends of social enterprises in Northern Canada. It was interesting to see the historical patterns we’re repeating today. Only in recent years have we started looking at the facts and asking "is this really the only way to learn?" or "how can we do this better"? As a result of SEWF 2013, I will increase my focus on developing strong partnerships with other social entrepreneurs and leaders of social enterprises, government, and universities so that we can work to strengthen our impact.
Dr. Jasvinder S. Obhi, Co-Founder & COO RocketOwl Inc.
This was my first social enterprise conference. It was a useful primer on what is going on in the world of social enterprise. As someone new to this sector, it allowed me to set the context of our business at RocketOwl.
The conference was very well attended and I was impressed with the “big” names that were there, including Craig Kielburger and Paul Martin. The networking opportunities were paramount and I made some very important connections.
The two most valuable sessions for me included the panel “Thinking Big: Make more than Change for Early Stage Ventures” and “Open Data: Driving Scale and Impact”. The first panel discussed the challenges associated with building a social enterprise company, and how these challenges were overcome - from initial funding to evolving structure of companies depending on growth trajectories.
The second panel discussed how open data can affect change. Parallels were drawn between conventional corporate ecosystems, social enterprises and gaps that need to be addressed. Of note was the need for sifting through the vast amounts of data that already exist in order to create meaningful and sustainable paths to change.
I was impressed by the discussions at coffee breaks and in the lobby about the need for system change. Current systems were described as broken and responsible for the struggles that are being experienced. I think we are living in times of dramatic change and the systems we have do not deal well with this pace of change. New systems are needed to grow social enterprises that are increasingly pushing for the triple bottom line – people, planet and profit.
Prince Sibanda - Project Coordinator, Local Immigration Partnership
One of the most memorable plenary addresses I attended at SEWF 2013 brought to mind how poverty and social isolation in Northern Canada are our two biggest disabilities. The canoe is a traditional symbol of Canada’s North, and we are building our canoe as we ride it. Committed organizations, financial institutions, community agencies and individuals are going out of their comfort zones to make social enterprise work in Canada. From re-defining sustainable finance to building inclusive economies and giving an innovative idea a chance, I learned about some of the groundbreaking opportunities, challenges and ideas dedicated to social impact.
I left SEWF believing that a different economy is possible. I look at the communities I serve through a different lens. I see homeless youth and wonder if there is an opportunity to involve them in a recycling program or some hi-tech express delivery project that will keep them off the street. I see a grocer and wonder how they can be linked to local markets so they can support local farmers. I see a food bank and wonder why the model hasn’t evolved over the years, why it cannot be a celebration of community spirit and bringing together folks in celebration of food rather than as a means of mere sustenance?
The conference also reminded of the richness and diversity we have. The First Nations dance, the Rodeo Stampede, the laughter, the great food. Thanks to the sponsors, particularly RBC, for sponsoring one of my greatest Canadian experiences to date. Now let me paddle my canoe towards creating inclusive economies and giving newcomers to Canada a chance to realize their dreams!
Stephen Bentley – Community Animator, Centre for Social Innovation
I’ve been affected and so I cannot help but contribute. How are you measuring your personal social return on investment?
Between the silver-lined Rocky Mountains, the rolling hills, the universal perspectives, the hospitable Calgarians, the bull-rides and the Evergreens, innovation happened here. Where people with the self-confidence to trust the frontier of the unknown and untested we are on the verge of. The concept of social enterprise is not a new one, but it is an idea whose time has come. There’s a lot of energy behind the idea of having a positive impact while still making money. The mission driven heart of non-profits and the business engine behind enterprises have realized that social enterprise is profitable and measureable. This new way of doing business is showing the world a new value, and a new possibility for mass adoption.
When expecting to go to a business conference to make deals, negotiations, and strategic partnerships, I never would have expected that if we just changed the conversation from profit to people, many more will walk away with meaningful relationships.
Kerry-Ann Ingram - Sales & Marketing Coordinator, Windfall Brides Boutique
The conference was jam packed with tons of useful information on the direction of social innovation and social enterprises.
One of my most valued experiences at the conference was visiting the three pre-selected local social enterprises. In doing so, I had a firsthand look at other social enterprise management, and their innovative ways to leverage themselves and their charities to obtain a positive ROI within the communities. I also learned about all the different ways companies can get involved with their communities and the mutually benefits.
Thank you to RBC for their generous contribution which allowed me to attend SEWF in Calgary.