Opening Plenary: Focus on Resilience

Posted by on September 4th, 2014

By: Meg Watkins

At this morning’s Plenary Session, in a room full of attentive entrepreneurs, investors and managers, in yoga pants, suits or saris, Judith Rodin of the Rockefeller Foundation referenced the famous 1906 earthquake that decimated San Francisco. After some of the smoke had cleared, Edward Harriman of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company saw a unique opportunity: he focused rebuilding his lines in the areas that had been most severely damaged, thus creating a business-savvy investment that also helped the citizens of the city most in need. As Rodin pointed out, this was only the beginning of the rich history of combining meaning and money in the Bay Area.

 

Kevin Jones - Blog

 

At this morning’s Plenary Session, in a room full of attentive entrepreneurs, investors and managers, in yoga pants, suits or saris, Judith Rodin of the Rockefeller Foundation referenced the famous 1906 earthquake that decimated San Francisco. After some of the smoke had cleared, Edward Harriman of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company saw a unique opportunity: he focused rebuilding his lines in the areas that had been most severely damaged, thus creating a business-savvy investment that also helped the citizens of the city most in need. As Rodin pointed out, this was only the beginning of the rich history of combining meaning and money in the Bay Area.

Each new stress or shock to our economy reinforces the relevance and necessity of investment in robust systems as well as individual organizations. Several speakers at this morning’s Plenary – Kevin Jones, co-founder of SOCAP, Antony Bugg-Levine of Nonprofit Finance Fund, and Sir Ronald Cohen among them – stressed the importance of investment in infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, there are several sessions this week on building resilient communities (including one on the Rockefeller Foundation’s initiative 100 Resilient Cities); after all, the advent of impact investing as a defined sector has coincided with a period of worldwide economic shocks. Willy Foote of Root Capital, when asked about his organization’s learnings in the past few years, talked about appreciating how any one endeavor is just a participant in its ecosystem. As Judy Wicks of White Dog Café pointed out, “There is no such thing as a sustainable business, only a sustainable system.”

This holistic focus on systems is exactly what SOCAP is for.  When SOCAP began eight years ago, it filled a hole by providing a forum for connection, to help make individual organizations more impactful and, of course, more resilient. This coordination has helped the sector grow tremendously and enabled organizations to become increasingly specialized. Just like Harriman’s railroad, these linkages help the community to fill gaps in the market, which helps everybody.  Kevin Jones attributed SOCAP’s growth to the “unlikely ally” effect: the interdependence that arises when private and public and non-profit collide. Eight years after its founding, SOCAP now welcomes hundreds of “unlikely allies”, from corporations trying to access new markets at the bottom of the pyramid to small-scale entrepreneurs. Each one is a crucial member of this community, which requires an unprecedented level of cross-sector interdependence to flourish. If the past few years of growth and the spirited discourse at SOCAP 2014 are any indication, that interdependence is thriving, and so is the sector’s resilience.

Last week the Bay Area experienced another earthquake. This one did not result in the vicious fires of 1906, but it did serve as a reminder of how crucial it is to create and support hardy systems by choosing our investments wisely. SOCAP is the perfect place to look for a different kind of disruption, and to ignite – not fragile homes and cities – but vibrant, healthy, rock-solid communities to action.

Meg Watkins is a 2014 graduate of the Yale School of Management and a San Francisco resident.