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SEE Change editor-in-chief Elisa Birnbaum traveled to Calgary for the much-anticipated Social Enterprise World Forum. Running from October 2nd till the 4th, the event saw over 1000 practitioners in the field of social entrepreneurship converge for a few days of inspiration, education and discourse.

In this outspoken post, Elisa shares her thoughts on the global event and its uniquely impactful resonance on the way-too-many social entrepreneurs working in the trenches, often alone.

Moving Beyond the Silos

It’s no secret that many folks in this space we call “social entrepreneurship” spend a lot of their time working in silos. Sometimes it’s by choice, with practitioners believing the only way to get work done is with blinders on, nose affixed to the proverbial grindstone, intimately focused on their next bold step forward. For others, it’s just the reality of getting so bogged down in the day-to-day that they seldom notice the world around them.

No matter the reason, silos are as commonplace as pumpkin-flavoured everything in October, whether or not you enjoy the big orange fruit. I, for one, do not but that doesn’t prevent baristas from trying to convince me to ingest their god-awful squash lattes at every turn. But I digress.

That’s what made SEWF so refreshing. A synergistic confluence of discourse, knowledge-sharing and networking, the event successfully pulled socially charged zombies from the woodwork and into common ground with positively impressive results. You may have seen these folks, they’re kind’ve hard to miss. They walk slowly at first, uncertain, sniffing about their new environment, eyes and ears set at high alert, trepidatiously taking in the sights and sounds.

Eventually, like any mammal who finds safety and potential in novel surroundings, the siloed start to warm up. Like at a Star Trek convention – with its shared language, values and heated opinions but without the turtlenecks and autograph sessions – they began to delight in like-mindedness.

Soon, with caution thrown to the wind, these folks proceed to engage, banter, commiserate, collude, imbibe, no longer relegated to chattering to themselves or their partners who secretly wish they’d get out more.

Canadians are Ready to Lead

All this to say, for many, SEWF was exactly what the doctor ordered. From an educational perspective, the sessions had something for practitioners at every level and interest. Want to learn more about impact investing? You got it. Social finance? Check. Corporate social innovation? Yup. Working across cultural and geographical boundaries? Initiatives designed for Aboriginal communities? Yes and yes. The smorgasbord of data, info and knowledge was as impressive as the hodgepodge of experts who generously shared their learnings and time.

Through it all, SEWF organizers made something exceptionally clear: Canadians are ready, able and willing to assert themselves as leaders in this far-ranging field of social entrepreneurship. No longer content to sit on the sidelines of the discussion, they are now in the thick, heat and heart of it, taking their role as teachers, mentors and advisors seriously. As they should.

The diverse and informative sessions aside, if what I heard from fellow attendees is any indication, it was what SEWF offered informally—whether networking in the Collaboratorium, in the hallways or at pubs in the evenings—that proved as valuable or even more so.

The Power of Engagement on the Periphery

It’s not hard to see why. Having the opportunity to speak and engage with others who share one’s ideals, challenges and frustrations has far-reaching impact practically, emotionally and, yes, even spiritually.

Let’s be honest, this field ain’t an easy one to work in. It’s as tough as nails to find funding, tougher still to survive, let alone thrive. Banging one’s head against the wall is a daily sport, par for the course for many. It’s an especially true reality for those working in silos and on the periphery. By that I mean, those not part of heavily funded organizations who typically take their seat behind microphones, on podiums and at front rows.

The folks I’m referring to are active in smaller, quieter ways. Their work and success may not be accompanied with great fanfare or self-promotion but their contributions are immense. Yet, while their dedication knows no bounds, neither do their struggles, leaving many feeling very alone and discouraged.

But for three days in October, SEWF allowed them to feel a part of something bigger. For three days they emerged from beyond their silos and were happy they did. Their attendance didn’t necessarily give them an easier road to sustainability, though it may have.

What it gave them was a rare opportunity to meet others just like them, to feel they weren’t alone. It was a chance to connect, share, collaborate, celebrate – and, yes, even to commiserate. Each a good thing, each a worthy endeavor. SEWF gave them that and more.

And for that, they are grateful.

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Elisa Birnbaum is the co-founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of SEE Change Magazine, and works as a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant. She is also the president of Elle Communications.

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