Opportunity Collaboration 2010 Recap

October 20, 2010 · Print This Article

I went to Opportunity Collaboration skeptical. Why was a conference on poverty alleviation being held at a beach resort in Mexico?

I left Opportunity Collaboration on Tuesday morning in awe of what the conference had accomplished. It was a rare masterpiece of an ‘unconference’, organized by Jonathan Lewis of MicroCredit Enterprises, and put on by COO Topher Wilkins with the help of quite a strong team of volunteers.

While I would rather have been less separated from the local communities of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo, Mexico, I must admit the setting did serve the purpose of allowing the 300 attendees to connect deeply in a relaxed environment.

The attendees, called “delegates”, were a mix of entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, investors, foundation directors, and non-profit directors. The conference also welcomed 50 Cordes Fellows which greatly added to the age and geographic diversity of the crowd.

The conference ran from Friday night through Tuesday night. I left Tuesday morning to get back to iContact as we have a very big week getting ready to move 235 team members this Friday to our new offices in Morrisville.

The schedule for each day looked something like:

8am – Swim in Pacific/Breakfast
9am – Colloquium for the Common Good (Discussion on a Reading in a Group of 25)
11am – Open (we used it to convene a group of millennial social entrepreneurs each day)
12pm – Lunch, with breakout groups called cluster forks
1:30pm – Wellness time – Soccer, kayaking, volleyball, sailing, archery
3pm – Collaboration Challenge (topical discussions)
5:30pm – Open for 1-1 meetings
6:30pm – Dinner, with breakout groups called cluster forks
8:30pm – Companies and Causes – 60 Second Pitch Session
10:00pm – Networking on the Deck

There were no panels and no keynotes. This led to people having the time to connect in deep conversations. It was one of the more enjoyable long weekends I can remember in my 26 years of life. Having the opportunity to engage deeply with some of the most innovative practitioners in the field of poverty alleviation and social entrepreneurship was immensely inspiring and beneficial.

Being laser-focused on getting iContact to an IPO in the next couple years and now having a great staff who can attend our 25 or so company trade shows each year, I’ve scaled back the number of conferences I attend in the past couple years. I tend to limit it to Summit Series, the Skoll World Forum, Renaissance Weekend, and a couple investment bank or analyst conferences per year. I will now add Opportunity Collaboration to the select annual list.

Why Did I Choose to Come?

OppColl was talked about heavily when I was at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford in April and came recommended to me by people whose opinion I trust–Nathaniel Whittemore of AssetMap, Kim Scheinberg of Presumed Abundance, Jonny Dorsey of Global Health Corps, Mike Del Ponte of SparkSeed and Ben Abram of Westly Group. And so I signed up, not really knowing what would come of it.

My interest in being at OppColl was four-fold.

  1. Vacation & Strategic Reflection: After working non-stop since February on our $40M Series B fundraise at iContact it was good to take three days off for a mini-vacation. Any time I can get out of my normal environment I find I can think more clearly about our strategy and get a big picture perspective. It turned out to be quite a valuable experience just from an iContact perspective, as there were a number of deep discussions on leadership I gained from and I wonderfully ran into at least ten of our customers who I always love connecting with about what they think about our company and product and what their additional needs are.
  2. A Passion for Ending Extreme Poverty: A large part of my interest in attending goes back to a lifelong passion I have of wanting to be part of a generational movement to end extreme poverty in our lifetimes and learn all I can about the topic. In a world with so much, it just does not make sense that 2.5 billion people live on under $2 per day and 22,000 children five or younger die every day in the developing world—most needlessly from preventable disease and starvation. I think I can make the biggest difference in extreme poverty in the mid-term via investing and private-sector job creation, but I’m very aware that it requires all three sectors (government, business, and civil sector) to work together. To actually create sustainable economic development the trifecta of transparent, non-corrupt, responsible, and well-run government, civil sector (NGOs/NPOs), and businesses must exist. OppColl does a great job of bringing together folks from all three sectors to collaborate.
  3. Nourish International: The non-profit organization for which I serve as Board Chairman, Nourish International, is at an important point in its history. It is transitioning from a completely donor-reliant model to a more sustainable model that includes a portion of its revenue from earned income. I came to connect to other non-profit directors and board members that have successfully created substantial earned income models for their organizations.
  4. Humanity Fund: I launched a small personal investment fund called the Humanity Fund in January. Going to OppColl was perhaps the easiest way to connect directly with the leaders of the microequity field. Through the Humanity Fund we invest $10k to $100k at a time in socially responsible high-growth for-profit businesses in Africa, Latin America, and the USA. This is a small effort for now in which I want to dip my toes into the water and make a couple investments per year as a way of gaining some learning lessons, getting exposure to high-growth businesses in “frontier markets” and investing in creating jobs in high-growth socially responsible businesses that are growing quickly. My hope over time is to show that it is very possible with the right structure, even with the challenges of transaction costs, trust, and liquidity, to achieve above-market returns by investing in microequity and investing in the missing-middle of SME financing in which growth capital simply is not presently available.

The People

Of the 300 delegates, the folks I spent the most time with at the conference were:

I already have a sense a number of these will turn into lifelong friendships.

I also connected with some key people in the emerging and fascinating field of microequity and impact investing:

I was also particularly impressed by the economic potential (in addition to the social impact) of ventures of:

The Colloquium for the Common Good

The morning “Colloquium for the Common Good” offered an opportunity to connect deeply with a group 25-30 randomly selected delegates through two hours of discussion on a set of readings related to poverty alleviation (though I must admit I still struggle to understand why we were asked to read Antigone for day two). Our colloquium group was moderated by the well-known photographer Paola Gianturco. On the Saturday night a group of the millennial generation social entrepreneurs decided to have an ad hoc “indigenous community cultural immersion exercise” and went dancing in Ixtapa for a few hours so I regrettably missed out on the Sunday morning discussion of Antigone.

The readings for the Colloquium included:

  • A Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • The Brothers Grimm, “The Wonderful Musician” (story)
  • Antigone (play)
  • Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (essay selection)
  • Frantz Fanon, “On Violence in the International Context”, from The Wretched of the Earth (essay)
  • Hernando de Soto, “By Way of Conclusion,” from The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else (chapter from study)
  • H.D. Thoreau, “Economy,” selections from Walden (essay)

The Millennial Social Entrepreneurs

We used the 11am hour two of the days to convene a group of younger entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs to mind-map out on a whiteboard what we are currently doing to be part of ending extreme poverty. Then we shared our plans for scaling our impact over the next four decades and being part of the global movement to actually end extreme poverty by 2050. This was perhaps the hour of discussion I most looked forward to each day. Being able to map out the role I hope to play and gain feedback and go deep with Saul Garlick of ThinkImpact, Jonny Dorsey of Global Health Corps, Mark Hanis of the Genocide Intervention Network, Ben Abrams of Westly Group, Asher Hasan of Naya Jeevan, Leticia Casanueva of CREA, Amity Weiss of Rwanda Nziza, Mohamed Ali Niang of Malo Traders, and Elizabeth Dearborn Davis of Akilah Institute was intriguing and energizing.

Lunch & Wellness Time

Lunch provided ample opportunity to join a breakout “clusterfork” or have 1-1 meetings with other delegates. Example Cluster Fork topics included:

  • Do Gooders With Spreadsheets
  • Building Wealth and Assets Across Borders
  • Money and Power for the World’s Poorest Women Through Savings
  • Impact Investors: Get More Deal Flow
  • Preparing the Next Gen Global Leaders

After lunch we had time to relax or exercise. Having 90 minutes built in each day for “wellness” was unique and much appreciated for a conference. I kayaked, played soccer, swam, and even trapezed during this time.

Collaboration Challenges

The 3pm sessions convened groups of 30-40 in a chair-circle format to discuss a particular topic. My favorite “Collaboration Challenge” was the Millennial Social Entrepreneur themed session on Monday, particularly when we split off into a group to discuss for-profit social entrepreneurship and how to use the great power of markets and investment capital to increase social impact.

Some folks in the room thought that by definition you couldn’t be a social entrepreneur if you ran a for-profit business. No consensus from the group emerged, but I along with others made every effort to make the point that the entrepreneur who runs a socially responsible enterprise, regardless of entity structure, is a social entrepreneur. Personally, I define a social entrepreneur as a “problem solver who takes action.” To me, there are for-profit social entrepreneurs and non-profit social entrepreneurs and in some cases you can actually make a larger social impact by choosing to organize as a for-profit and be able to access capital and talent markets more effectively.

Example topics for Collaboration Challenges included:

  • Profits and Pitfalls in Social Investing
  • Fattening Up the Food Supply
  • Jobs at the Base of the Pyramid
  • Poverty and Pollution: The Poisonous Paid
  • Conscience of a Capitalist

Companies & Causes

Finally, each night after dinner was capped off by “Companies and Causes” a 60-second pitch session run by R. Paul Herman, author of HIP Investor. Perhaps 40 of the attendees pitched each night.

These pitches were generally good, with the sole exception of the unfortunate rule that if you combined into a larger group you would get as much as 3 minutes each instead of 1 minute. This caused the room to lose energy and the hour long pitch session to go 90-100 minutes, beyond the interest of most attendees who ended up hanging out instead in the adjacent bar. Overall, “Companies and Causes” was a great new addition to the conference, however I’d recommend keeping every pitch to 60-75 seconds next year. Less truly can be more.

Each night seemed to end with a spontaneous group of 20 and 30-somethings swimming in the Pacific.

So Should You Go to OppColl Next Year?

And so, if you’re working in the field of social entrepreneurship broadly defined, are interested in meeting the CEOs of entrepreneurial ventures that have a huge potential for both financial and social return, care deeply about humanity, or care deeply about actually ending extreme poverty in our lifetimes, Opportunity Collaboration is probably the best conference to come to for the deep relationships it affords.

It is not the best conference for content or big-name speakers–the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship is much better for that–but it is the best conference I’ve been to for facilitating the creation of deep, meaningful, beneficial relationships that can help both parties make an increased positive impact in the world. The conference is not inexpensive, so if funding is an issue be sure to apply early for a 2011 Cordes Fellowship.

Hope to see you there in 2011!


Were you there? What were your experiences? Do you wish you were? Is it justifiable to have an expensive conference on poverty alleviation at a resort if it brings great people together who in fact due to the connections they make are able to more effectively scale their social impact and more quickly end extreme poverty? We’d love your comments.


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