Making a Stand For Moral Leadership: Reflecting on GES 2016

When we started Acumen in 2001, few had heard of the terms “impact investing” and “social entrepreneurship.” The world is a different place today. In the last week, we have seen both The White House and the Vatican not only acknowledge but champion the need to support entrepreneurs who are focused not on profits but on solving the world’s toughest problems. This is a moment for serious change, and it is thrilling to see institutions like these asking the hard questions.

Both President Barack Obama and the Pope are making stands for moral leadership, recognizing that innovation springs from grounds across this small planet that we share and that we need solutions that start with the poor. President Obama has made entrepreneurship a major theme of his presidency. I was honored to join his seventhGlobal Entrepreneurship Summit (GES 2016), where thousands of entrepreneurs who care about solving the world’s biggest problems gathered with investors who recognize the value in both social and financial returns. At the Vatican Impact Investing Conference, Catholic and non-Catholics alike looked to bridge the ideals of social justice with the efficiencies of impact capital to affect more sustainable change to reach more people.

If there were a single theme at both gatherings among those with whom I interacted, it is this. In this age of inequality, instability and growing fear, we must focus all of our efforts on solving the world’s toughest problems. It starts with seeing impact investing not as an end but as a means. Capital is simply a tool that we control. It should not control us. There is a hopeful shift in conversation toward understanding that if we start by focusing on the problem we want to solve, we now have many tools at our disposal — grants, philanthropy-backed pioneer capital, which is necessarily patient capital, impact capital and more traditional capital seeking higher returns. We need this spectrum of tools, and we need to keep the conversation focused on the problems we are solving.

There are a few naysayers, of course, who believe that you cannot be a slave to two masters and the tension between financial returns and social impact is just that. This is an excuse for inaction. Instead, we have to change the narrative to one that recognizes the societal imperative of focusing all of our efforts on building the future we want to share. If we start with impact, we can make financial returns serve it, and ultimately, shareholders so they can create more impact in the world. Anyway, isn’t that the point of why we are all here?

Of course, this argument requires impact metrics that are as rigorous as measuring financial returns. The good news is that we are seeing many organizations taking this on. What is needed is not only rigor, but also a set of metrics that are useful to all stakeholders, including investors, companies and their customers. Our work in Lean Data is making great strides here. Ultimately, what we measure is a reflection of what we value. If we are to create a more inclusive capitalism, then what and how we measure the way we use resources, both human and environmental must be considered in how we create financial gain.

It also was thrilling to see the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders bringing their energy and hope to the conversations. Many spoke of the need to invest in more young leaders and build platforms that support them in the earliest stages of business and organizational creation. At Acumen, we celebrated Fellow Steph Speirs and her company, Solstice Initiative, who was awarded the Obvious Ventures #WorldPositive Prize for creating community solar across the United States. East Africa Fellow Marion Atieno Moon, the founder of Wanda Organic, spoke about her work to help Kenya’s smallholder farmers increase their yields and improve their livelihoods. Pakistan FellowHira Batool Rizvi, a GES delegate, created She`Kab, a tech platform that fosters the empowerment of Pakistani women by easing the transportation woes of working women. Abubaker Musuuza, a GES delegateand Acumen Fellow, is building a network of solar shops across rural Uganda through his company, Village Energy.

In the last 15 years, we have seen a global rise in entrepreneurship and the emergence of a new kind of entrepreneur driven by purpose rather than profit. We need to give these entrepreneurs the access and agency they need to push their ideas forward. As Secretary of State John Kerry said at GES, we need to let these entrepreneurs do what they do best: “innovate, experiment, identify the needs in the market, come up with good ideas to meet them, build competitive economies where jobs are created, and where hope and opportunity are widespread and refuse to take no as an answer.”

Our job is to help them join forces and support their efforts, so they can disrupt the market and bring forth new solutions to transform society in a positive way. We need to help remove the obstacles holding these entrepreneurs back and create a runway for their companies to scale and succeed. We need to change the culture and cultivate an environment where experimentation is encouraged and failure is accepted. We need to shift our thinking so all business is working on solving society’s biggest problems and every investment is insistent on impact. We need to push for open markets and good governance and put an end to antiquated structures that preserve rather than challenge the status quo. We need to deepen the ties between public and private to create new systems and traditions defined by the promise of free enterprise, fair competition and inclusive economies, not just for some.

We need to come together, as one world, and recognize that investing is a means rather than an end — a powerful tool to accomplish what we value most as a society and to build a world based on dignity.


This post was originally published on Acumen:Ideas on

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Posted on July 1, 2016, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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