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Nurturing a new kind of entrepreneur at Hollyhock's Social Venture Institute

Mark Brand was one of 140 social entrepreneurs attending Social Venture Institute Hollyhock. Photo credit Sara Dent

Vancouver restaurateur Mark Brand came to Social Venture Institute (SVI)  at Hollyhock Centre “kicking and screaming.”

He was singing a different tune four days into the conference, which brings social entrepreneurs together to share the challenges of not only building and growing a business but embedding it with social values.

“You guys are pretty cool,” Brand admitted to the audience after sharing his inhibitions of attending SVI, which is known to venture into the personal and playful with antics that include shoeless sessions and group singing.

“I’m going to be flying the flag of this place for sure, and you can expect to see me every year.”

The 17th annual conference in September was SVI’s largest yet, with 140 entrepreneurs – 80 of them first timers and 60 per cent female. They represented a range of social ventures, including an integrated health care clinic, a small format fresh food grocery chain targeting food deserts, ethically-mined jewelry and sustainable children’s furniture and toys, as well as some non-profit leaders.

Brand had been invited to SVI by Vancity, which is investing in his latest and most ambitious project Save-on-Meats – a butcher shop, diner and restaurant incubator with a mission to serve the Downtown Eastside through affordable food and employments options.

Brand was able to present Save-on-Meats and its future growth plans to serve non-profits as a case study where he received feedback from an expert panel and the audience.

Building a safe place for social entrepreneurs to fine-tune business strategies and build lasting relationships with business peers and mentors has been SVI’s goal since Stonyfield Farm creator Gary Hirshberg founded it 17 years ago.

Since then, more than 3,000 socially-conscious business leaders have walked the densely wooded trails on the Hollyhock campus on Cortes Island, finding rejuvenation in the retreat centre’s natural splendour and the camaraderie of a diverse group bound by a common purpose.

“I believe we’re in need of a very massive grassroots uprising of people who choose to take back the tools of business and finance towards social goods,” event organizer Joel Solomon said on opening night.

“There is no rule book that I know of about how to do that. It’s not well taught in business schools or other places, so this is our modest contribution — to make a place where these things can be considered and where we might improve our own practices, skills and help each other.”

The conference aimed to boost sustainable business by focusing on three themes. The first is bringing in successful leaders like Ogden Publications founder Bryan Welch to share their personal trials and triumphs when building a values-based venture.

One of three True Confessions speakers, Welch, whose company publishes Mother Earth News and Utne Reader, recounted the value of being able to quickly pay off his investors’ initial investment. It allowed him to make subsequent gaffs without the same scrutiny.

“Cash flow is the best deodorant,” he told participants to hoots of laughter.

In case-study sessions, three leaders including Brand shared a business opportunity or challenge, followed by a question-and-answer period, and feedback from a panel and the audience.

For instance, Housing Foundation of BC (HFBC) executive director Barbara Bacon asked about her organization’s potential to fulfil its mandate to provide more affordable housing units while ensuring its long-term sustainability.

The final SVI success ingredient is ample opportunities for mentorship and advice. More than 30 advisors offered one-to-one consulting sessions ranging from marketing and strategy to leadership and investment.

Then there’s the informal networking with evening parties and events happening almost every night.

“As a new participant, I’m seeing that every opportunity, the walk to and from sessions, mealtimes, scheduled one-on-ones, everything is an opportunity for conversation,” said Susan Hughes, executive director of the Disabled Skiers Association of BC.

“You don’t have to gear up and warm up for the big ask. People are here to learn.”

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