Monday, November 09, 2009

BYU ESR conference on Social Entrepreneurship

I just got back from the Economic Self-Reliance Conference at Brigham Young University in Utah. When I attend conferences to give a keynote, I usually try to stick around for more of the conference and listen in to the other presenters. This practice was especially awarded at the ESR conference.

David Wiley's keynote was on the social returns from a new venture he helped create, Flat World Knowledge. His projection was that students were going to save more money on textbooks after three semesters of Flat World operations than investors had put into it. Not the typical SROI calculation, but the dramatic point was that Flat World is making impact the center piece of their foray into Open Educational Resources (OERs). OERs are the open source equivalent of open source software. My biggest concern about OERs has been that few people developing them have been measuring the impact: they celebrate the creation of the open content textbook or coursework, but don't collect the information on whether anybody is using them.

Flat World is a for-profit social enterprise that gives away its core textbooks under a creative commons license, and makes its money on ancillary products like a black and white print version for $30 (vs. $120, $150 or $180 from a regular, evil textbook company like Pearson, where Flat World's two main founders come out of). Wiley put up the projected economic numbers and showed how authors made as much money selling their book through Flat World as through a traditional publisher, how students saved a boatload, and how Flat World and their investors would make good money. I think they are onto something. The Bookshare team is excited because we can take these books and do all the accessibility work because they are under an open license!

I've already blogged about Kushal Chakrabati of Vittana, who gave a funny keynote as a startup social entrepreneur in the trenches. The slide that resonated most with me was his contention that 99% of his job is doing email, and he put up a graph showing his email traffic by hour averaged over a one week period. Moderate dips at 4 am and 4 pm... Anyway, Vittana continues to grow as Kushal pursues his goal of making educational loans in the developing world as mainstream as microcredit is today.

Geoff Wooley spoke about a range of things, including his Ten Commandments for Social Entrepreneurs Working on Poverty. But, the most noteworthy item was the successful Unitus equity fund for microcredit. We hear a lot of talk about making equity social investments, but very few people are doing it (like my buddies at GoodCap). Geoff is on the board at Unitus, and was talking about how their equity fund for investing in microcredit institutions like SKS had done really well and achieved VC-like equity returns.

I was the other keynoter, and as usual enjoyed the opportunity to try to get people excited about social entrepreneurship. This was my first long version of my "Not Business as Usual" speech, which I debuted at the Social Enterprise Alliance Summit in New Orleans. My other challenge was speaking two other times at BYU, and coming up with three different talks was fun. The biggest turnout was one thousand students for my lecture to engineering and business students. And, I tried out a new talk on the theme of "Return on Humanity" as my thank-you speech for getting the Social Innovator of the Year Award. It was an honor to receive the award, especially following in the footsteps of Martin Burt, last year's recipient!

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