The five day ethical MBA: Hollyhock's Social Venture Institute

Brant Cheetham fills up at Hollyhock's garden gourmet table.

Social Venture Institute--real. powerful. change.
I knew exactly two things about Social Venture Institute before attending the mid-September event at Hollyhock Centre this year: 1) some of the most prescient and brilliant social entrepreneurs in North America attend this event and 2) Hollyhock reportedly has a clothing-optional hot tub (a good enough reason alone to attend). More about number two later.

The Social Venture Institute at Hollyhock has been an annual retreat for the new and the established in corporate sustainability, social enterprising, and green business since 1995. Participants share, talk, eat, listen, dance and sing in a kind of organic garden of business thinking.

SVI participants get closer in Olatunji Hall

But don’t get me wrong, this is not Five Easy Steps to Sustainable Business Practices. It isn’t passive, it isn’t a Powerpoint and fancy ice-sculpture b2b seminar. This is the organic brown bread of business conferences; it requires serious contemplation, chewing and digesting. You have to sit down and listen and share and think and process.

I had a headache after the first day. And I think that was a good sign, a sign that my brain was working hard.

Home to Hollyhock
Hollyhock Centre on Cortes Island is the prototype for ethical, sustainable business and provides an authentic and spectacular natural setting for SVI. The beautiful oceanfront surroundings provide a continuous lesson in the art of sustainability. A large, diverse garden provides the inspiration for incredible meals, island-based employees and volunteers provide support and programming, and its expansive grounds and comfortable accommodations nourish both body and business.

The veneer of professionalism and individualism gets stripped away here. Here you take off your shoes before going inside the building, here you share meals from the garden that you walk through on your way in, here you dance and sing, here you hear others’ best and worst business stories.  Here everyone, including participants, works together in a shared community in what may be the weekend’s greatest learning of all.

Where t-shirts replace ties
SVI’s structured program of case studies, workshops, presentations, and scheduled networking allows intimate access to the best examples of building and maintaining a values-based business. I also took advantage of several of the one-on-one coaching sessions with business professionals that were available. This was one of the most valuable experiences of the weekend as I was able to discuss issues specific to our venture with some incredibly knowledgeable people in a very relaxed environment. It makes for an easy and fruitful incubation of ideas and expertise.

Social entrepreneurs like Bruce Poon Tip of Gap Adventrues and Terry McBride of Nettwerk Records were just two of the several business mentors who spoke to the larger assembly. Smaller, interactive workshops were led by other social venture leaders like new media maven Micheal Tippett and finance wizard David Berge. 

Steve Rio, Aaron Handford 'y sus amigos' jam on talent night.

There were also continuous opportunities—at meals, evening socials, outdoor activities, and the oyster barbecue—to meet the other participants. They were principals of neighbourhood businesses and those trying to fill the gap between social need and support. They were lawyers, chefs, artists, venture capitalists, and farmers.

Change. For the better.
Social Venture Institute is an experience that forces the participant to have a visceral reaction to sustainability. 

Many of the participating businesses and entrepreneurs are not just trying to improve their triple bottom line but are trying to effect social and cultural change. They are trying to change the way we think about energy consumption, the way we think about food distribution, the way we think about financial systems, the cultural imperative of menstruation, the ecological and social impact of our current burial practices—big, important cultural changes. 

Throughout the five-day conference, I heard about social media concerns as often as its opportunities, which was refreshing. I heard criticism of the corporate sell out as often as I did promotion of improving a triple bottom line. I saw the enthusiasm and energy of those just starting social ventures and businesses and heard about career burnout from some. There was optimism, energy, healing, and maybe some regret. There was wisdom.

In a world where we acquire friends in the hundreds through social media, Social Venture Institute is an opportunity to create authentic and supportive relationships with real people making a real difference in our local community. 

Oh, about the hot tub? Can't tell. I’ll leave it to you to find out at the next Social Venture Institute.

All photos courtesy Sara Dent

For more information about Social Venture Institute-Hollyhock visit their website.

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