I first became involved with the concept of social enterprise back in 2007, when I volunteered with StudioSTL and ended up helping the organization to win some big money at a Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Competition. Five years later, I find myself in Beijing, attending a forum titled, “First China Impact Investment Forum”, hosted by Avantage Ventures. While at the conference, I was invited to a similar event in Shanghai just a week later, with the peculiar title of, “First Social Enterprise and Social Investment Forum”.
From my research, these are not the first of its kinds. For example, Transist Impact Lab has held quite a few other similar events in the past, albeit maybe smaller in scale. The inclination to label this types of events as the industry’s “First” sums up my overall impression of the Beijing event: While social entrepreneurship and social investment are the hot topics in the West, the sector is very much nascent in China. Whereas the conferences that I’ve attended in the West focused on the “how” – How to be more effective? How to measure impact, etc., the discussions in Beijing were centered around the “why” – Why is social investment important? Why should there be a shift in conducting social-oriented businesses?
Understanding why social enterprise and social investment is important in the world is one thing, understanding the importance in the context of China makes this Conference interesting. Professor Mao Yushi made some insightful points. In the Confucius influenced Chinese culture, helping others is an altruistic endeavor, and one would never dare discussing profit anywhere near the discussion of philanthropy, much less combining the two ideas. Thus, social enterprise as an idea has to jump through a bigger culture hurdle than perhaps other societies in the world. Professor Mao emphasized something that I was trained as a Small Business Developer in Peace Corps – profit from the impoverished isn’t a bad thing, instead, it empowers people by giving them purchasing power.
According to Professor Mao, organizations have been divided into two kinds – the kind that makes money (private sector), and the kind that spends money (the social sector). This is true in most places in the world, but especially so in China, where capitalism has taken off so fiercely over the last 30 years. Making money isn’t hard, making money while helping others is not only hard, it’s impressive. Professor Mao ended his discussion with my favorite quote from the day, “為富人講話，幫窮人辦事.” As an impact investor, you should, “speak on behalf of the rich, and do on behalf of the poor.”
The landscape is changing, and discussions from the Sustainability Panel emphasized on the need for a new model of development in China. The rate of growth of people in urban areas, and subsequently the cars and the pollution, simply cannot sustain. The Panel urged a need to bring jobs into rural China in order to stop the urban gold rush. The general consensus is that businesses at large are inclined to partake in becoming more socially responsible and to address sustainability related issues. Yet, businesses aren’t currently being required. Panel suggested that public-listed and State-Owned Enterprises should be required to produce social and environmental impact reports as they are owned by the public at large.
Overall, it was an interesting forum that provided good insights as a newcomer, but nothing too earth shattering in terms of new information. It was indeed useful for me to identify the key players in the space within China, and was also encouraging to witness so many enthused individuals ready to bring the sector forward. True to my media-obssessed self, I was live-tweeting the event under the official hash tag #ChinaIIF2012 and also broadcasting the event on Weibo. New lesson: apparently live-tweet/broadcast is not a big thing in China, as I was doing most of the live broadcasting all day… Learning something new everyday! Attending the other similar event in Shanghai this weekend, stayed tuned!