As a SOCAP debutante, I had heard accounts of the productive chaos that the four days of SOCAP are supposed to be. As I travelled the 19 hours from Mumbai to San Francisco, my thoughts raced back to exactly three years ago when I first moved to Mumbai from New York – armed with nothing but a college degree, five years on Wall Street and a starry–eyed wonder about the concept of sustainable development. I had wanted to be close to the action, get to know the target customers, and learn from practitioners on the ground. I was now one of them, and was excited to carry my experiences back.
SOCAP 2014 was all that it promised to be. Enjoying one of the best views that the Golden Gate city has to offer, we were a massive gathering of over 2,100 folks of all shapes and sizes – philanthropists, foundations, corporations, impact investors, ecosystem builders and entrepreneurs. The days started early with hobnobbing around delicious breakfasts at the Impact Hub and usually ended with fun cocktail hours and eclectic music. Sandwiched in between were back-to-back meetings, conversations on collaborations, strategic partnerships, new initiatives, and fundraising. The breadth of the session content was unmatchable – spanning five continents with discussions on diverse topics such as the budding interest of wealth managers in impact investing, building the Rwandan social enterprise ecosystem, investing without exits, and enterprise showcases across India, Africa and Latin America.
Interestingly, of all the brilliant people that I got a chance to meet, the people that most leveraged the essence of SOCAP were the attendees who were completely new to the space. These newbies had heard that SOCAP is the place to be, and decided to just show up! They had no agenda. While the rest of us went from one Pathable-powered meeting to another trying to make business happen, they had the luxury of sitting in sessions and enjoying the blue skies. They were not cynical, busy, or worried about striking up the next partnership, raising the next grant, collaborating for a specific project, or meeting up with co-investors to discuss a difficult investment. They came with a clean slate, a pure intent to learn, and a sense of wonder that reminded me of myself three years ago – when anything was possible.
In the closing plenary, SOCAP founder Kevin Jones and Intellecap chairman Vineet Rai raised the question: ‘As the impact investing industry grows from an adolescent to a teenager, don’t we have the responsibility to be honest about whether we have actually delivered on all the hype that we have created?’ I would like to put a somewhat related thought out there: as we grow from an adolescent to a teenager, have we lost the sense of wonder that has brought us so far in the first place?
How many of us attended a completely unrelated session at SOCAP with the goal of just learning? We have become more mature and have gained the ability to tackle more complex problems, but have we also become more cynical? While focus is great, have we become myopic and moved away from freshness of thought? Are we all chasing the same good entrepreneurs, the same pockets of funding, the same ideas with a twist? Are we simply creating 2.0 versions of things that are already out there?
As we settle back into our daily work routines after SOCAP 2014, let us remind ourselves every day to bring back the wonder and keep the freshness alive. I believe that this is the only way to cover the long haul itinerary of the developmental journey that we’ve mapped out for ourselves.
Aditi Shrivastava is head ofIntellecap Impact Investment Network.