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Karen's thoughts on the Social Economy

The US Social Venture Experience

Thursday, 29th November 2012

Some people may take pleasure in casually bagging the USA, but at their best they are just amazing at what they do – as I found out at a New York social venture conference in recent days.

I returned just two days ago from attending the Social Venture Network 25th anniversary conference outside New York, with a bag full of contacts and a head full of future possibilities. Four hundred people attended over three solid days and nights.

The Social Venture Network “connect, supports and inspires business leaders and social entrepreneurs in expanding practices that build a just and sustainable economy”. Their members have included a huge array of the names we now know as leading “mission driven” organisations: Ben and Jerrys, Interface, Stoneyfields Farm, Birkenstock, Eileen Fisher, to name a few.

In the room were a combination of Impact funders, social entrepreneurs of all vintages and levels of experience and a variety successes and failures under their belt.

It would have been fabulous to have a network of likeminded people like this when I was starting up Pro Bono Australia 13 years ago. That being said – I still think Australia is lacking such a forum/conference/network. Food for thought.

For me, the very special sauce of the conference was obvious from the moment the “rules of engagement” were outlined.

Some of these were: 1. Don’t be looking over the shoulder of the person you are talking to to see who else is in the room because the person standing in front of you is likely to be the person you are meant to be talking to and likely to be interesting. 2. In your conversation think how you can help the other person, not what you want 3. Listen. Hard.

It’s rare to have met a such a bunch of open and friendly people. Important conversations were had, trivial conversation quickly dismissed. Fun was part of the agenda: dance, music, film, poetry, circles – mens and womens and good food.

And to add to that a gobsmacking array of speakers. Standouts were Bunker Roy of Barefoot College (, Maria Rodale of Rodale Inc (, Tom Skazy of TerraCycle (, Jean Oelwang of Virgin Unite, the Not for Profit foundation of the Virgin Group (, William Foote of Root Capital, Tracy Palandjan of Social Finance. Stephen deBerry of Bronze Investments and ex monk Greg Burdulis.

All these people are doing business differently on a vast scale. The upcoming Global Shifts conference on Dec 12th – 14th in Melbourne appears to have a flavour similar to SVN and Bunker Roy will also present here. 

In future blogs I’ll go into more of what was presented and the issues surrounding them. Until next time.


Karen Mahlab AM is the Founder and CEO of Pro Bono Australia. In 2015 she was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia for her contribution to the Not for Profit sector and philanthropic initiatives.
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