17 September 2008

Revolution Through Social Experience

First Year, Bryan Zirkel, talks about his experience at the Revolution Through Social Enterprise Conference last Friday

The Revolution Through Social Enterprise Conference, presented by the law school’s Palmer Center and directed by Pepperdine’s own microfinance professor, Melanie Howard, took place last Friday at the Villa Graziadio Executive Center. The conference, which brought together experts in microfinance, sustainability, social entrepreneurship, and environmental causes, was an inspiring and eye-opening experience for me.

For those of you that don’t know me, my name is Bryan Zirkel. I’m a GMBS first-year who joined NetImpact because I – like many of you, I’m sure – want to make a difference in the world while meeting people and making connections along the way. You can’t go a day without reading or hearing or seeing something about corporate social responsibility, or greening, or sustainable business processes. For me the Revolution Conference took those ideas and showed me people who’ve become successes in their business and made it their passion to help others and raise awareness of social issues.

The opening speaker, Alex Counts, is the President and CEO of the Grameen Foundation. Grameen combats global poverty through microfinance efforts around the world, providing capital to the world’s poorest inhabitants to allow them – through their own entrepreneurial efforts – to make a difference in their own lives. Talk about empowerment. Talk about breaking through stereotypes. How often have the world’s poor been considered a byproduct of global development? Some people are able to better themselves, some just don’t care to. Alex Counts, and his Nobel Prize-winning mentor, Muhammad Yunus break through these social norms and proved how many people, given the chance, would take the initiative to work hard to better themselves. His story inspired me so much that when I found out that Grameen’s board is meeting in my hometown of San Diego in a few months, I asked if there was anything I could do to volunteer. We’re currently communicating via email.

Later in the day there was a roundtable discussion with two of the most fascinating people I’d never heard of: Sam Labudde and John Picard. Sam Labudde was one of the key forces in getting fishing boats to stop using drift nets when tuna fishing, which kill thousands of dolphins annually. John Picard is an innovator in the field of sustainable building and one of the most impassioned speakers I’ve ever heard. John and Sam, with the addition of Mariel Hemmingway, made for a lively discussion on everything from how essential each animal in an ecosystem is, to how one can find balance through yoga, to how easily it would be to minimize Pepperdine’s carbon footprint. Hello Campus Greening Initiative! I spoke with John Picard about the work he’s doing with Ohio State University on their own campus greening project and asked him to share any suggestions he might have. Hopefully he’ll volunteer some useful tips that we can take and make our own.

Sam Labudde came, through no volition but hunger, and sat down at my table for lunch. He spoke with us all about his views on where the world is headed (they generally weren’t very promising) but he also encouraged not only to attend conferences like Revolution but to do something with the knowledge gained afterwards.

Furthering the microfinance message of the conference, I listened to Matt Flannery, CEO of Kiva.com, speak. Matt developed Kiva.com in his spare time while working for Tivo and has grown it into the world’s premier person-to-person microlending site. If you’re unfamiliar with the idea, I highly suggest you check it out. Although I’m sure most of us are currently used to being on the receiving-end of the lending spectrum, it’s really amazing what switching to the lending-end and giving as little as $25 can accomplish. I’d really encourage you to check out and signup for Kiva.com.

The conference closed with Jonathan Greenblatt, cofounder of Ethos Water and GOOD Magazine. As someone who has long prescribed to the idea that bottled water is a celebration of excessiveness and waste, I didn’t really expect to have much in common with the former CEO of a bottled water company. However Ethos Water set a goal to donate 50% of their gross profits to causes that provided clean water to children around the world. The company has since been bought out by Starbucks and Jon went on to found GOOD, whose slogan is “For People Who Give a Damn.” Not only is Jon a fascinating case study in social enterprise, he’s a plain ol’ fascinating entrepreneur. Check out http://www.goodmagazine.com/ to read some well-written, insightful articles.

If all this wasn’t enough, I spoke one-on-one with Professor Melanie Howard and she’s awesome! Professor Howard teaches a microfinance course for the law school that will be available for b-school students in the spring, and she sits on the board of Fonkoze (Fawn-koh-zay), the largest microfinance institution in Haiti. As you may or may not know, Haiti is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, it was recently devastated by a series of hurricanes and tropical storms, and was subject to food riots earlier this year relating to the cost of staple foods like rice. Fonkoze seeks to give Haitians a chance to participate in the economic development of their country by starting their own businesses, improving the living situation, and educating them on public health and sanitation issues. While speaking with Professor Howard I expressed my interest in participating in the Fonkoze program and she mentioned the possibility of getting involved with the Fonkoze Board.

When I was approached originally to write this article for Pepperdine NetImpact by Erica Lutzker I was a little hesitant. I didn’t know what I was going to write because, as a first year, I wasn’t sure how much I could contribute. What I’ve come to realize though is that hopefully my experience can serve as a platform for others to encourage them to attend a conference or listen to a speaker, to walk up to someone they don’t know and introduce themselves, to get involved outside of class, and to reach beyond what you think you’re capable of doing. You never know where it will lead you.

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