Social Innovation Summit 2013: What's Next?

What happens when 800 social innovators get together to share ideas?

I recently attended the 2013 Social Innovation Summit, a two-day conference held in New York at JPMorgan and the General Assembly of the United Nations. This biannual conference launched in 2010 by Landmark Ventures, a New York-based strategic and financial advisory firm, the summit brings together venture capitalists, social entrepreneurs, Fortune 500 executives, government officials and heads of foundations discuss and share innovative solutions to some of today's most challenging social issues, including education, global healthcare, veterans, women and girls, environment and sustainability.

Carrying the theme of "What's Next?" in social innovation, the summit is designed to connect and inspire "a global network of leaders to discuss the key strategies and business innovations creating social transformation…analyze innovative approaches for problem-solving, and build lasting partnerships that enable them and their organizations to maximize social impact."


The speakers included executives from companies like Intel (INTC), Microsoft (MSFT), Verizon (VZ), Facebook (FB), Cisco (CSCO), HP (HPQ), Hilton Group and PwC. There was also a strong presence from foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Team Gleason Foundation, PeaceJam Foundation and Grameen Foundation, as well as non-profits like UNICEF, Hekima Place, Giving Back Fund,,, Foundation Center and World Toilet Organization.

The summit also had its share of Hollywood star power, like Rooney Mara. Though she may be more known for being the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo than for being a social innovator, for the summit attendees it was Mara's work as the latter that was most interesting. Mara, who is also an ambassador for Oxfam America, was there in her role as the president of the Uweza Foundation, a charity that supports community-based empowerment programs for children and families in Kibera, one of Africa's largest slums, located in Nairobi, Kenya.

"When I first went to Kenya, I was just 20 years old and I didn't really know what to expect. I didn't know what I was getting myself into," said Mara, who traveled alone to Kenya seven years ago on an independent study trip for school that involved volunteer work in Kibera. "All it took was just one walk through the Kibera slum and I knew that my experience there would change my life. But I also knew I didn't want to just leave having had the experience change me. I also wanted to make some sort of a difference and a change for the kids I had come to know and love during my time there."

"Through Uweza, we try to empower youth and families in Kibera to break the cycle of poverty," she said. "Building on its residents' resilience and resourcefulness, we try to create opportunities and support sustainable development with community empowerment projects like educational scholarships, a soccer academy, life skills training, after-school tutoring, journalism, dance—a number of enrichment programs that these kids would otherwise have no access to."

Actress Glenn Close was also there to discuss her work as the co-founder of Bring Change 2 Mind, a San Francisco-based non-profit working to end the stigma and discrimination that stems from mental illness. She screened their new PSA, "Schizo," which features Close and two people close to her who suffer from mental illness: her sister Jessie and her nephew Calen.

"For someone living with mental illness, people think that is who they are," said the six-time Academy Award nominee. "But in truth, they are not their illness. They are still who they are. And because of ignorance and fear, big misconceptions have been built up around people with mental illness. And there's a huge amount of self-stigma because of the shame and isolation that that has engendered."


At the beginning the summit, Lois Backon, the head of strategic community partnership and global philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase (JPM), said, "My hope is that we're going to listen, we're going to learn, and with 800 people, I know that we're going to meet new partners and we're going to work together to solve challenges."

Her hopes were fairly realized. During the summit, in a display of the instantaneously gratifying power of technology, attendees voted via iPad for non-profit organizations to receive grants from JPMorgan. The 11 winners were granted $275,000 as part of the Chase Community Giving Program. They included Green Bronx Machine International, which teaches students in the South Bronx self-sustainability through cultivating edible gardens in the classroom; 10x10 Fund, a social action campaign around investing in adolescent girls' education in the developing world; Bright Pink, which supports the prevention and early detection of breast and ovarian cancer in young women; Unreasonable Institute, which teaches entrepreneurs how to launch financially sustainable businesses and non-profits;, which supports the growth of computer programming education; charity: water, which works to bring clean and safe drinking water to every person in the world; Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, which provides free transformational healing for seriously ill children and their families in the Northeast; Right to Play, which uses play to empower youth to overcome the effects of poverty, conflict and disease; Venture for America, which provides a program for talented graduates to spend two years with a start-up to help mobilize them as entrepreneurs; K9S For Warriors, which provides service canines to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress; and Dixon Center, which addresses the urgent needs of military service members and veterans and their families.


From mental health to poverty, veteran affairs to sick children, so many important issues were discussed. But one issue was tackled that affects all of us: the environment. How do we work together to protect it for future generations?

In a recent op-ed on, Michael Klare, a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, warned of the coming crisis of global resource depletion, which is the focus of his new book, The Race for What's Left: The Global Scramble for the World's Last Resources: "Two nightmare scenarios—a global scarcity of vital resources and the onset of extreme climate change—are already beginning to converge and in the coming decades are likely to produce a tidal wave of unrest, rebellion, competition, and conflict."

At the summit, this issue was touched upon by representatives from industries that have traditionally been at odds with each other, now working together towards the shared goal of common good: Matthew Arnold, the head of environmental affairs at JPMorgan Chase, and Jason Clay, senior vice president of market transformation at the World Wildlife Fund.

Panda protectors working with big banks? Today, these forces are not such strange bedfellows; they are forging new-fangled cross-sector alliances that see supply chains as opportunities for sustainability and environmental stewardship. What made sense to environmentalists long ago is now becoming crystal clear for the manufacturing and finance industries: The unsustainable plundering of the Earth's finite resources is bad for the triple bottom line (people, planet and profit).

"What does 'fit for purpose' mean for social innovation, for environmental innovation?" asked Clay, who spent more than 25 years working with human rights and environmental organizations before joining WWF in 1999. "It doesn't mean more of the same. It means change. It means leverage. It means influence. It means getting to scale faster. As an NGO, we don't buy or sell anything. We don't make laws or regulations. We have to influence the people who do, those companies, those governments." Clay's goal at WWF is to create global standards for extracting and producing raw materials to achieve sustainability in the world of commodities.

Arnold described the WWF's new role today: "A group that was formed to create parks and protect panda bears is now collaborating with companies, governments and financial institutions all over the world to figure out how to transform food and fiber markets—soy, beef, timber, palm, et cetera—so that we can feed and clothe and house 10 billion people by 2050 without wrecking the planet."

Clay said that WWF identified 35 distinct places around the world that are key to the planet's ecosystem services. They then identified the 15 commodities that are the biggest threats to those places. More calculations revealed that between 60-70 percent of those commodities are touched by between 300 to 500 companies. That's the core group that WWF will be targeting in their effort to create global standards for resource exploitation.

In his influential book Democracy in America, the 19th-century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, "I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all." He obviously never went to a Social Innovation Summit.

image: Steven Ritz, founder of Green Bronx Machine, about to get a standing ovation at the 2013 Social Innovation Summit.