The angel is in the details

Six takeaways from the conference centre on Cortes Island that has been stirring up dissent and fuelling social entpreneurs

Photo by Zack Embree

Off the coast of British Columbia, three ferry rides north of Vancouver, lies a pine-studded island called Cortes. Floating like a puzzle piece in the Salish Sea, named for a Spanish conquistador and bursting with black bears, eagles, otters and orcas, you couldn’t imagine a less likely site to be fomenting revolution.

For the last 25 years Hollyhock, a conference centre on Cortes’s sandy south shore, has been stirring up dissent, promoting social activism and talking cash flow through a movement called the Social Venture Institute (SVI). Founded by a trio of Greenpeace activists from the “Save the Whales” 1970s, Hollyhock began by offering weary urbanites programs in personal growth and the healing arts. In 1995, 30 entrepreneurs who had assembled to explore how business can heal the planet ended up founding what is now SVI. In the years since, Hollyhock’s lush gardens and cedar lodges have become a crucible for more than 3,000 practical altruists who believe the best way to achieve equity and social justice is to build your own change-making platforms.

Through annual events at Hollyhock and in Vancouver, Banff and San Francisco, SVI has developed robust networks of values-driven activists in sectors such as organic food, climate-change mitigation and sustainable tourism. Happy Planet – the Burnaby, B.C., producer of organic juices and smoothies now carried by most Canadian grocers – came out of the SVI community. So did Happy Planet’s co-founder, Gregor Robertson, an organic farmer who served three terms as Vancouver’s greenest mayor.

Caring communities are contagious, says SVI co-founder Joel Solomon: “SVI was a petri dish out of which a lot of good things grew.” SVI has spun off such prominent organizations as Canadian Business for Social Responsibility, which also turned 25 last year; Net Impact, a global non-profit that helps business students pursue social purpose in 435 universities; and MakeWay (formerly Tides Canada), a donor-driven foundation that changed its name last year to distance itself from the US-based Tides Foundation.

Why focus on entrepreneurs? Social ventures have the potential to become self-sustaining agents of change. Where most non-profits struggle for funding, and reform-minded governments may be blocked by stubborn lobbyists, progressive entrepreneurs fund themselves – and need no one’s permission to grow. As they build new business models in finance, food, health products, energy, workplace training and even the arts, they’re also building ecosystems of social innovation. Where 1960s activists railed against corporations, today’s social entrepreneur knows that power grows out of a solid business plan.

“Business and finance are close to neutral tools,” says Solomon. “The values and purpose we put into them is what matters.”

SVI events come with unusual ground rules. Solomon, a Vancouver impact investor who sat on Hollyhock’s board for 30 years, says SVI organizers personally select their attendees, ensuring that two-thirds come from for-profit businesses, one-third from not-for-profits. (They also throw in lawyers and accountants, because entrepreneurs can never have too many professionals on speed dial.) SVI also seeks a majority of women attendees.

“We’re trying to feminize business a bit,” says Solomon. “We want to get away from the macho ruthless business model to a more collaborative one.”

“Business and finance are close to neutral tools. The values you put into them is what matters.”

— Joel Solomon

SVI sets another quota: half of attendees should be first-timers. “The do-good conspiracy,” as Solomon calls it, isn’t building a club; it’s seeding a movement. Before COVID-19 struck, SVI was planning to expand to Toronto, and maybe New York. Which is good news, because social entrepreneurship isn’t just a West Coast thing. And it’s hard, sometimes lonely work.

A 2016 survey by Mount Royal and Simon Fraser universities found social enterprises sprinkled across Canada, employing 31,000 people and generating revenues of $1.2 billion (the sector has grown significantly since then). Their average profit margin was a reasonable 4.8%. But two-thirds of the surveyed companies were more than 16 years old, so those findings don’t reflect the difficulty of launching a business or battling the status quo.

Enter SVI, whose events develop not only business savvy but resilience, empathy and connectedness. Because of COVID, SVI’s fall conference was held virtually. Gone were sunrise yoga and long walks in the rain, but the organizers orchestrated four days of highly engineered learning and mentorship for 230 attendees on Zoom. For those who couldn’t make it, here are six top takeaways from SVI 25 for anyone hoping to make change.

1. SVI 25 opened on a Tuesday evening with music and a review of the Hollyhock rules. The most important one turns out to be even more relevant in real life than at any conference: “Relationships first, business second.

2. In a session called True Confessions, Karina Birch of Rocky Mountain Soap Company spoke about growing her Canmore, Alberta, soap business into an international brand with 200 employees. Working with a chemist, she insisted that her soaps be 100% natural – using only “pronounceable” ingredients, with no chemicals or preservatives. When the chemist argued that 98% natural was good enough, Birch insisted on 100%. Even her business philosophy gets boiled into pronounceable steps: Trust your intuition. Go rogue. (“Everyone in the company has the ability to do something they don’t have approval for,” says Birch. “It doesn’t always work, but neither do the things I do.”) And finally, stay humble and keep learning. As her company grew, Birch took a course at Harvard to learn how to manage a complex organization. “I started as the soapmaker,” she says. “I had to earn the job of CEO.”

3. Unlearn your biases: Like many organizations, SVI is struggling to address systemic racism. In a frank session called Anti-Oppression, CEO Peter Wrinch shared Hollyhock’s diversity journey. “We were making strides, but to a limited form of inclusion,” he admitted. “We said, ‘Let’s invite more racialized people – but let’s not do anything to examine what the space feels like for those people.’” Similarly, Hollyhock had long welcomed the island’s Indigenous Klahoose community, shared job ads with them and gladly sold their art. But at heart, Wrinch said, “the relationship was all about us.” As part of what Wrinch calls “decolonizing work,” Hollyhock called on the Klahoose to actually listen to their goals. This year, a 14-day Klahoose expedition setting out to visit families in Washington State, 200 kilometres away, beached their canoes on Hollyhock’s shore. As Wrinch greeted the group, he wondered why he was welcoming Indigenous people to land on their own traditional territory: “We’re just at the beginning of our journey of unlearning.”

4. There’s no learning without reflection. An odd SVI habit is to pause a session to give the audience time to mull over what they’re learning. Compare that to most conferences, where people race from session to session and never get time to reflect. SVI makes time for thinking, because that’s the important part.

5. In a second True Confessions session, Adnan Durrani, CEO of Connecticut-based Saffron Road, spoke about the troubled launch of his Halal-certified food company. Durrani’s products debuted nationally at Whole Foods in 2010, just in time for Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and self-reflection. The retail chain welcomed Saffron Road with signs saying “Happy Ramadan,” but one Texas manager tore the signs down, saying Ramadan would not be celebrated in his store. Durrani’s response expertly blended composure and commercialism. Before going on CNN to discuss the incident, he negotiated to display his products on-screen – and then refused to criticize his client when the reporter asked, “Did Whole Foods do anything wrong?” Instead, Durrani focused on how new his product was, how helpful the retailer had been, and how the Texas incident was an anomaly. Whole Foods was delighted, and sales took off. Durrani urged SVI attendees to use “halal-jitsu” to turn problems into growth opportunities. “I know there’s a lot of darkness out there,” he said. “Instead of being a victim, be the driver of change.”

6. On Thursday evening, just before SVI’s virtual 25th anniversary party, attendees heard from one of the organization’s founders. Gary Hirshberg, chairman and “chief organic optimist” at Stonyfield Farm, one of the world’s leading organic yogurt producers, urged change agents to embrace the everyday challenges of business: cash flow, marketing, how to treat people, how to retain ownership. “This is where we make or break it,” he said. “The angel is in the details.”

Wearing a cap that said “Make Earth Cool Again,” Hirshberg said that for social entrepreneurs, the challenge is just beginning. “It’s no longer about slowing climate change, it’s about reversing it: taking carbon out of the air and putting it back into the soil.”

“Business,” said Hirshberg, “is the only force strong enough to move us in a different direction.”

Rick Spence is a business writer, speaker and consultant in Toronto specializing in entrepreneurship, innovation and growth. He is also a senior editor at Corporate Knights.

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