September 19, 2017

SOCAP17 Guest Curator Spotlight: Jed Emerson of Blended Value

SOCAP Post Author

We will introduce a new content series at SOCAP17. Guest Curators, all leaders in the impact space, are developing their own SOCAP Spotlight sessions. Each Spotlight will dive deep into a key concept or question driving impact. Guest Curator Jed Emerson has put together Spotlight sessions that will focus on humanity’s past and present thinking regarding the purpose and meaning of capital.

The Core Inquiry of Jed Emerson’s Spotlight Sessions:

What if we were to re-engage our “how to” strategies in a deeper exploration of various community and individual understandings of the “why”, of The Purpose of Capital to ensure what we promote for the future is well grounded within our traditions, cultures and deep historical experiences of the past?
Jed Emerson is an internationally recognized thought leader within impact investing and social entrepreneurship, navigating the blend of economic, social and environmental value creation and stewardship. Jed originated the concept of Blended Value. Over his career he has played founder roles with some of the nation’s leading venture philanthropy, community venture capital and social enterprises. We sat down with him recently to discuss the sessions he is developing for the tenth anniversary Social Capital Markets Conference.

What are some of the core concepts you plan to explore through your Spotlight sessions at SOCAP17?

A lot of conversation in the field today has focused on the how. Everybody talks about strategy and metrics and performance and how to structure funds–the whole nine yards–all focused on execution. I think part of the reason why a lot of people struggle with how is that they assume everybody is on the same page in terms of why. They operate on generalized assumptions about our thinking regarding the meaning of impact and the purpose of capital.
We are missing out on a whole history of human experience exploring the purpose of capital. Too many of us think that this is a new conversation–that nobody thought about these things before. But, fundamentally, the question of economics and wellbeing is one that has been with us for centuries. I think it is a mistake to go into conversations about capital today without considering how philosophy and wisdom literature and the history of finance and economics could inform our thinking. These sessions will give us an opportunity to pause and think about that and to begin coming to terms with the challenges of deploying capital for more than money.
People say we need to have more equity in the world in terms of justice, but too often fail to talk about what that looks like or means. We don’t talk about legacy of racism and injustice as the framing for conversations about what justice means. And so what we want to do is put a pause on the conversation around how do you do this and step back and revisit and go more deeply into a discussion around why.

Why do you believe this a critical conversation the SOCAP Community should be engaging in now?

I think it is critical because of the growth in impact investing. There are large numbers of newcomers entering the conversation and mainstream institutions taking up the terms and the language and the brand of impact. We need to ensure we as a community are clear in terms of how we understand what that legacy of advancing impact means, whether you think of it in terms of 10 or 50 or 5000 year history. We need to make determinations on how are we going to educate ourselves and newcomers on the conversation about the deeper value and purpose of our work as opposed to simply seeing it as an opportunity for asset gathering or market development or a way to increase your client base.
These are deep and challenging questions. As we think about scaling impact, each of us, including those of us who are already in the community as well as newcomers, must engage in these conversations. I’m not saying that we all need to end up on the same page. But each of us must become more engaged in this discussion. If we do not we are going to end up over time with folks who are really good at deal structure, but who have very little appreciation or comprehension around the intent and purpose and meaning of that deal structure.

How has your work shaped your perspective on your core inquiry and the conversations you will be leading in your Spotlight sessions?

For me personally, I’ve spent the majority of my career as a capital activist I guess you’d say, (laughs). I have raised discussions about the degree to which foundation assets are not managed in alignment with an impact agenda and how the nonprofit sector has not really leveraged economics as a fundamental and core tool in the toolkit to advance justice in impact. I’ve always been out there promoting a vision and set of ideas together with a whole host of other actors.
The research I’ve been engaged in over the last two years around the purpose of capital has really helped me shut up (laughs) and not lead with my perspective. It has helped me try to become much more adept at hearing what a variety of different segments of our community are talking about and listening to the voices of history that do talk about these issues. This is not to say it is easy. Even after two years of research, I feel that I am on the front end of this process. The more you get into the history, the more you realize how little you actually understand or know (laughs). That can be a very humbling experience.

Can you share some details about the content that is planned as part of your sessions?

Right now the plan is that I’ll give a ten minute talk from the main stage that will lay out some of the context and then we’ll present two other sessions that I am really looking forward to.
One panel will include Umar Moghul, an author and expert in Islamic finance. He will discuss the meaning, principles, and values of Islamic finance. He will also reflect on what asset owners might learn from that tradition. We’ll also have Alison Lingane from Project Equity. Alison will reflect upon our understanding of ownership and what asset owners might learn from the various practices within the cooperative movement for structuring capital in innovative ways that builds equity among workers. We will discuss how we understand the purpose of capital within that context and questions surrounding balancing the interests of investors with the interests of worker owners. We’ll also have Morgan Simon who has spent the better part of the last ten years working with ultra high-net worth folks on many of these same issues. She has a new book coming out called Real Impact: The New Economics of Social Change. She’ll be reflecting on some of the concepts that are in her book.
Our goal is to use these reflections as a jumping off point for us to break into small working groups where each participant will reflect with their group on how they understand their tradition and perspectives on the purpose of capital. We hope to open up a conversation about this among all participants. Everyone in the workshop will have the opportunity to talk about their perspective and experience and history and the traditions that inform their understanding of the purpose of capital.
We are developing our third session in partnership with Evan Steiner from A Whole Person Economy. They have been looking at these issues of meaning and purpose and intent from a cultural and a historical perspective and will be presenting some of their research and findings. They are coming at it from a systems level perspective. We’ll try to come to a better understanding what we, broadly speaking, as a community have done over the centuries and ways we can bring that wisdom into conversations today.
So we are going to have three different perspectives on this and three different opportunities to engage with these questions. I hope these sessions will begin new and deeper conversations that will continue long after the conference.

Of the research you’ve done, or the conversations you’ve had as you’ve worked with your collaborators to develop these sessions, what have you found most inspiring?

There are a whole host of things I could name. In terms of leadership for the workshop session, each of these individuals has done a great amount of work on their own, and they all represent communities of interest that have been advancing many of these ideas for a number of years.
Sometimes we get so focused in our own silo and area of work that we can forget to celebrate the breadth of innovation and creativity that a whole number of communities are advancing in this field. And we forget that those individuals really represent the latest iteration of generational thinking about the challenge and purpose of capital.
For me, it isn’t any one voice, but an awareness that these voices form a chorus that we need to pause, appreciate, and hear that I find most inspiring. That gets forgotten sometimes when we get into panels and start discussing and comparing strategies and the specific challenges in executing one approach versus another.

What do you hope to see this conversation evolve into within the next decade?

It is going to be really fascinating. I have spent the last two years in what I have described as a reading life. I have gone off circuit. Over this past year, I’ve given a ten minute talk at SOCAP16 and a ten minute talk at Toniic. Other than that I haven’t given any keynotes or big addresses, in part, so I could bring myself up to speed more fully on this topic of the purpose of capital.
This summer I went offline to pull together some of my thinking and write what I thought was going to be a forty-page framing paper on the issues and vision of where this could go. I ended up writing a 340 page document called The Purpose of Capital that explores a whole host of considerations. Two thirds is my perspective and writing and the rest is made up of excerpts from a host of different thought leaders, historians, and economists.
I think over the next decade, what I would like to see all of us become more literate about what we, collectively, already know. Which is how to think about these issues and manage these challenges and not become convinced that because we are the latest generation, we are somehow the pinnacle of evolution in terms of human thinking and practice. In my own work, I’ve been struck by how many of our ideas have their roots in a history of thought and practice that goes back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It gives you pause. It makes you realize that just because you have a thought it doesn’t make you a thought leader. This process has been really interesting. I would love to see our community create a better place to have this type of conversation and educate ourselves. We operate out of ignorance much of the time and I think I am as guilty of that as anybody, which is why I have really focused on this as an area of personal and professional development over the last two years.

What do you hope attendees will bring with them when they come to your sessions and what do you hope they will leave with?

I hope people will leave with a greater appreciation of the importance of this conversation and the need for all of us to be a little more reflective on the traditions that we come out of–whatever those may be. There are a diverse set of communities and actors involved in this conversation today. If that is all people leave with, that is pretty good. Because once you go down that path it is really hard to go back. I would hope people leave with a personal enthusiasm for reading more and finding pieces that can lead them to new thought and perspectives about our work today in part based on what we’ve already done historically and how we’ve thought about this over the centuries.
I hope in anticipation of that, people will bring an open mind, but also if people in advance of attending our sessions could reflect upon how they view this. How do they understand and think about the purpose of capital, from their own personal journey, from the perspective of whatever communities they come to this conversation from, and to be reflecting more about questions to do with meaning, purpose, and value than upon questions of how to “do” impact investing.

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