The Social Enterprise Conference: Reflections on Service

Posted by on February 8, 2010 in Entrepreneurship, Featured

Emily Wren is a first year student at the Harvard Business School. An engineer by training, she studied at Duke University where she worked with the Duke chapter of Engineers Without Borders. She is currently the Media Co-Director for the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference.

At one of those inevitably awkward “meet-and-greets” for the Social Enterprise Conference leadership team, I was asked why I got involved. I’m sure my newfound colleagues were expecting the typical answer: I want to work in Social Enterprise. I have contacts in the field. I have experience.

However, I’m not sure any of these things describe me perfectly. My commitment to the idea of “making a difference” has taken on many forms; five years ago I was in a remote village in Indonesia teaching a community how to engineer a retaining wall as part of my non-profit’s first development project. It was the kind of tangible, get-your-hands-dirty experience that makes you feel like you moved the needle and made an impact. I loved it. Fast forward to today and I am in my first year of business school, which is, perhaps, an atypical way to make a social impact.

Why business school? Look closely, and you’ll find business has many lessons to offer the non-profit community. I believe a critical source of innovation in social enterprise will be the creative application of business methods to solve social problems, and therefore understanding these methods is a critical first step.

I have plenty to learn: Leading a non-profit made clear the importance of sustainability, not just the sustainability of the products we created, but the sustainability of our organization. I began to wrestle with the problem of sustaining people’s commitment to giving back. How do you transform “service” from a one-time deed to a life-long habit? I wondered how to make the very idea of “making a difference” marketable, easy; a consumer choice as simple and unquestionably necessary as the purchase of toothpaste.

Too often we quantify the magnitude of service by how much one had to sacrifice to provide it, making sacrifice synonymous with service. But what if we could create a way to give back that doesn’t feel like sacrifice at all? Could we rally more people to serve? Could we create a sustainable model for giving back, and engineer a society that reinvests in itself as a natural consequence of conducting business? I would argue yes, and I believe the power to realize this vision lies as much in the for-profit sector as it does in non-profit.

Adopting a narrow definition of service does little to encourage its proliferation. If we redefine service as something in which everyone can participate, then the market opportunity for the social enterprise movement is tremendous. The new era of service requires individuals to consider how they can most meaningfully contribute at any given time, making a commitment not to a particular role, but to simply making a difference through their lives.

Today, the field of social enterprise is ripe for innovation, and the Social Enterprise Conference provides the interdisciplinary, intellectual environment for that innovation to occur. That our conference takes place at the Harvard Business School speaks volumes of the opportunity before us to merge business and non-profit into a unified social enterprise movement. Working to make this conference a premiere destination for the field is my way of ensuring the WORLD has a place to cultivate the next big ideas about service.

So what IS that next big idea? How will you redefine service and integrate it into your life? This is the new frontier, and at the Social Enterprise Conference we’ll be showcasing myriad ways people have answered these questions. What will you say?

About the Social Enterprise Conference 2010:

On the 27th and 28th of February, 1,400 practitioners and students will join together at the Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School for the 2010 Social Enterprise Conference. Please go to to learn more, take part, and help us redefine service.

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