Not Business as Usual: 2014 Social Enterprise Alliance Summit

The energy and excitement in the air was palpable as 400 social enterprise leaders came together to participate in the 2014 Social Enterprise Alliance Summit in Nashville. This year’s theme: Connecting For Purpose. As ever, it is inspiring to hear people’s stories, important to share lessons learned and gratifying to see social enterprise grow into a national movement.

Check out the event on our Facebook page.

Each year, the conference grows in scope, scale and ambition. There were more intensive workshops. More deep dives. And more young people attending who brought new ideas, new energy, and a new vision on how they can make a difference.

One of those new leaders is minister and entrepreneur Becca Stevens, who delivered a message of transformation and economic empowerment. Becca started Thistle Farms to give women who had worked as prostitutes, and had witnessed violence that had taken the lives of family members, the chance for a different kind of economic future. The social enterprise makes soap and candles. In sourcing a supply for their products the women of Thistle Farm forged a connection with women in Rwanda who survived the massacre there two decades ago. Today those survivors distill the essence of flowers grown in Rwanda to perfume Thistle Farms’ products.

Reverend Stevens’ inspiring words framed three days of engagement, connection and learning.  Peter Holbrook and Gerry Higgins from, respectively the UK and Scotland, explained how their organizing efforts have helped make social enterprise such an embedded component of national policy that the concept is taught in elementary schools!  We have a lot to learn from their campaigns to accelerate the growth of social enterprise here in the US.

REDF delivered a presentation that explained how to start a social enterprise by focusing on strong industry analysis. We provided best practices along with a checklist of questions to consider in industry ecosystem, job creation, market and business & operations. You can view the presentation on our website.

Later in the session, we participated in a panel discussion on the transitional work model of social enterprise and the challenges and lessons learned. Panelists includes three veterans of the field: Tamra Ryan of Women’s Bean Project; Mark Loranger from Chrysalis and Eric Weinheimer of Cara Program. Each brought their unique perspective to finding ways to create pathways into the workforce.

A fantastic book is available from Tamra Ryan of Women’s Bean Project that employs women through gourmet food and handcrafted jewelry manufacturing. Her book, The Third Law, shows us that even as chronically unemployed and impoverished women work to change their lives there are forces pushing back on that change. Before change can occur, societal obstacles must be overcome and internal demons must be fought.

The conference was an important reminder that working together we can create a strong movement to create social change and provide economic opportunity through socially responsible business practices.