Harvard SECON Blog Post


This year, we had the opportunity to represent Vanderbilt and the Turner Family Center for Social Ventures at Harvard’s annual Social Enterprise Conference (SECON) in Cambridge, MA. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn from social business practitioners and thinkers across a variety of fields, and also to network and share with students involved in similar efforts at other universities.

Now in its 17th year, in 2016 SECON focused on “the untold truths of Social Enterprise and challenge participants to dare to take the steps necessary to make a difference,” and included panels and breakout sessions in the following tracks: Transforming Cities, Investing with Purpose, the Opportunity Divide, and Environment and Sustainability. The two of us split our time between events which we thought would be most relevant to our TFC constituents (driven in part by a pre-conference survey we ran). The featured speakers spanned the gamut of social business stakeholders: from start-ups pioneering novel approaches to delivering basic needs like water and shelter, to corporate actors like WalMart and Deloitte who are recognizing the huge market potential for goods and services that tap into the “triple bottom line,” to academics and non-profits driving the conversation, challenging existing models, and facilitating innovative partnerships. The lineup of keynote speakers included some incredibly inspiring, accomplished names: Andrea Jung (CEO of Grameen America), Casey Gerald (Founder of MBAs Across America), and Elisa Villanueva Beard (CEO of Teach for America), among others.


For Matt, two key takeaways emerged during the two-day series of events: partnerships are critical, and technology is changing everything. Neither of these may seem terribly profound, but it was enlightening to see how these ideas are playing out in different contexts. For example, the City of Boston is demonstrating how municipalities can benefit from tech-driven public-private partnerships by collaborating with groups like Waze (the social media traffic app) and citizen advocacy technologists to optimize city services. In another model PPP, the Clinton Global Initiative is working with Samsung to connect people around the world through virtual reality technology – Matt got to sit in a room (virtually, but emphasis on the reality of it) with Bill Clinton and a group of women smallholder famers in Uganda who have benefitted from improved agricultural training and local market data through a CGI inclusive technology program. And Marcus Shingles of the X-Prize generally blew everyone’s mind in his discussion of the pace of technological change, and the fact that we’re just reaching the “knee” in the exponential curve. In other words, think about how much the internet and mobile tech has changed the world in the last twenty years – and project that out into the next ten, times about a thousand percent. He challenged us to think about how to ensure the benefits of technology are best distributed across the socio-economic, geographic, and political global landscape. As he reminded us, in the words of science fiction author William Gibson, “The future is here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”

Given that Sarah is pursuing a Community Development and Action program at Vanderbilt, a key takeaway for her was that the importance of effective and ethical community development, as well as how powerful it can be and how much potential it holds, is not something that is recognized only by people working strictly in the confines of the development sector. The fact that leaders in the business and social enterprise sphere were placing a heavy emphasis on the importance of community development came as a very pleasant surprise to her. During her session, Elisa Villanueva Beard made an important and impactful statement – ‘Movements happen through communities, not to communities’. Another relevant session that Sarah attended was on ‘Leading Community Entrepreneurship in Boston’ which offered insights and experiences of a panel of founders of community-based organizations in Boston, and how they are using community development as a key tool to generate change.

Sarah attended a number of sessions on impact investing, which recognized that while millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in the past few years, progress is uneven around the world and millions continue to stay deprived of access to basic resources. These sessions addressed the potential impact investing holds to catalyze the next stage of progress empowering entrepreneurs, employees and clients instead of beneficiaries of aid.  A number of specific sessions in this topic area were offered at the conference, including Urban Impact Investing, Green Impact Investing and The Future of Impact Investing.

Sarah also attended a Human Centered Design workshop which was a two-part crash course in how design thinking can be applied to organizations who seek to achieve greater social impact. This workshop and a number of other sessions during the conference emphasized the importance of technology and social innovation in order to maximize social impact.


In addition to our topical takeaways, we were excited to learn from the SECON organizers that the conference is completely student-run, and that each year, all invited guests pay their own way to the conference, freeing up valuable resources for the organizers to focus on promoting and running the conference itself. This approach validates our strategy at TFC, which is built around the ideas of student leadership and value creation for all partners.