Harvard’s 2016 Social Enterprise Conference: A Q&A with Co-Chair Paola Cordovez Cereceda

blogimage_SECONWe’re excited to be attending and participating in the Social Enterprise Conference (SECON), an annual event hosted by the students of Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School. This year we’ll be moderating the panel “Leading Community Entrepreneurship: Boston,” which will explore how Boston has leveraged strengths across sectors to promote economic growth and opportunity in the complex ecosystem of urban entrepreneurship and community development.

SECON, now in its 17th year, brings together thought leaders, practitioners, and students who are passionate about social enterprise. The conference includes a host of panels, keynote address, workshops, and problem solving labs.

We recently spoke with Paola Cordovez Cereceda, one of SECON’s co-chairs, to discuss the theme of this year’s conference, “the untold truths of Social Enterprise,” and to get her take on what to expect from SECON 2016.

The focus of this year’s SECON is on “the untold truths of social enterprise.” Can you elaborate on what this means?
For 17 years SECON has been a forum for real dialogue on social entrepreneurship. Typical issues like education, healthcare, and the environment are touched on every year through challenging and inspiring conversations between our panelists and attendees. But this time we thought, what if we could go one step further? What if we could get all attendees excited about discussing things that are not normally associated with social entrepreneurship, but that are in fact becoming increasingly relevant in the field? What if we could talk not only about who is at the table when discussing social entrepreneurship, but who isn’t, and how we can make sure to include them? And that’s what we’re aiming for this year. We’re having people discuss how to make the boards of social enterprises more diverse. We’re having talks with big corporations about their social impact strategies. We’re going over human trafficking issues in supply chains and how to address them. We’re touching on difficult, controversial topics and making sure everyone who attends SECON understands how social entrepreneurship is changing landscapes in every field and why it is such an important model for business. Moreover, we’re making SECON a place for learning — We have top people in the industry teaching workshops, sharing knowledge, and making sure these honest conversations also translate into a skill-building experience. This year’s SECON is a two-way street between presenters and attendees. The more each gives the more that each will receive.

What aspects of the conference have you found most valuable in your past experience?
Last year was admittedly one of my first personal forays into social entrepreneurship, but since then it has become a huge part of my life. That is the value that the conference brings to the table – It opens minds. And it wasn’t just the keynotes or the panelists but the people I met. SECON is not only an amazing networking platform, with people flying in from all corners of the world, but a great way to meet like-minded people and create long-lasting friendships. It gives you an opportunity to dream big and to find people willing to help you make those dreams bigger. We can do everything on our end to line up a program that challenges attendees, but we are nothing without the rich experiences that our attendees bring year after year. This is a conference that continues to grow because of what our attendees put in. Overall that is the SECON magic that keeps us going and what people continue to find valuable about attending.

SECONWhat type of audience does SECON tend to attract? Students, practitioners, academics? And from what fields?
All of the above! SECON brings together students from Harvard and from universities across the United States and the globe. It attracts practitioners working in social enterprises and in different business-related fields. And it welcomes academics who want to engage in the discussions happening around social entrepreneurship. Last year, the audience was pretty much evenly split between students and practitioners, and there were more than 40 countries represented. This year will be very similar although we have focused specifically on bringing attendees who might not typically attend an event like this. Our goal is to have a significant percentage of attendees be at SECON for the first time. Those attendees are what keeps the conference voice dynamic.

What new trends and emerging themes from social enterprise do you expect to be hot topics at this year’s conference?
In general, most of our panels are about new ways of looking at issues. I think some of the hot topics this year will revolve around diversity and inclusion. There’s a panel on social entrepreneurs reforming the criminal justice system that I’m particularly excited about. And of course we’re very much looking forward to hearing from our keynotes, Andrea Jung, Elisa Villanueva Beard, Daniel A. Koh, Marcus Shingles, and Casey Gerald! If you look at the sheer range and background that those individuals come from it says a lot about how we think about this conference: incredibly focused on making a difference, but through a myriad of different platforms and skill sets.

Is there anything else we should know about SECON?
SECON would have never happened in the past without amazing team members involved. And this year is no exception. My co-chair Sam and I got extremely lucky — We were joined by 28 proactive, passionate, incredible people equally (if not more) excited to turn this year’s SECON into the best one yet. SECON is a combination the stories and passions of each team member. It is the result of months and months of hard work, late meetings, incredible brainstorming sessions — and lots of pizza. It has been an amazing, exhilarating experience with 29 fascinating people and by far the most meaningful experience of my time at Harvard. What’s especially important to know about these people is that they have volunteered many hours of their week since the summer to make SECON happen. This conference is the product of all that work and will express the passion of everyone who has been involved. We believe that passion and energy will be palpable throughout the weekend.