Sunday, October 09, 2011

Hartford's Dan Haar's Write-up on @OccupyHartford

"Dan Haar 12:24 p.m. EDT, October 4, 2011 I was pleased to see that Hartford has finally joined the Occupy Wall Street movement, with a gathering scheduled for this Wednesday morning in Bushnell Park. 

It's not that I care deeply about the message of the protesters. They're off-base in many ways, though their overall point about wealth and finance in America is hard to refute. 

No, what I care about is Hartford's opportunity to piggyback on this youthful national firestorm to create some local energy. The energy is building on all sides. By remarkable coincidence, at 8:30 a.m., the very moment when Occupy Hartford unfurls its first banners, an event a few hundred feet away will do more to reshape the profit-driven U.S. corporate structure than all the placard-waving, zombie-dressed protesters in the streets. And it's happening, of all places, at the capital city's historic bastion of corporate culture, The Hartford Club. 

"Beyond Business as Usual" is a conference on social enterprise, organized by the local group reSET, the Social Enterprise Trust. This movement, in contrast to the bring-down-the-system energy happening in financial districts across America, is about creating something — a parallel way for firms to organize themselves based on the interests of employees and the community, as well as owners. 

In the afternoon, reSET will name the winners of its first social entrepreneur awards, giving thousands of dollars for business plans and startups that advance the core ideas. 

What are those core ideas? For now, social enterprise is broadly defined. What sets it apart from the plethora of excellent corporate community activities out there is that a social enterprise firm is organized — legally, in its charter, in many cases — for social good from the start. Many universities have institutes to prod the idea forward. 

Some might argue that the best way to create social good is to help companies make money, so they can hire more people and pay higher wages. That question will come up Wednesday, I'm certain, because — full disclosure here — I'm moderating the first panel discussion, with some heavyweights of social enterprise. 

Kate Emery, CEO of the IT consulting firm Walker Systems Support in Farmington, and founder of reSET, has a lot of respect for the Occupy Wall Street protests, which she likens to the marches of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. "They bring attention to situations in our society that might otherwise pass as acceptable," she said. 

Social enterprise picks up on the dissatisfaction with a system that doesn't spread wealth very effectively, and offers "a positive, plausible alternative," Emery said. 

"It doesn't need to replace the current way of doing business, it can live alongside and demonstrate through the free market that it works," she said. "And people can then choose which business model they want to support." 

The back-and-forth brings a nice departure from the polarized political debate about free market vs. government control — a debate that misses the obvious point, we've always been a regulated market economy and always will be. With social enterprise, it's Market Type-A vs. Market Type B. 

The keynote speaker Wednesday is Robert Egger, founder and president of the 22-year-old DC Central Kitchen, which uses food donated by hotels, restaurants and farms in a culinary arts job training program. It has fed thousands of people and helped hundreds get jobs in the business, and it has spun off other firms. 

"Robert says it well, that rather than boycotts, let's have 'buycotts' - let's have people voting with their wallets, their business, their loyalty, on which model they think is best," Emery said in an email. "That's what the free market is all about!""