image Social Venture Network has figured out how to hold a great conference: Bring together 250 people passionate about creating social change through business; plan long full days of stimulating presentations interspersed with yoga, men’s and women’s circles, and live music; and locate the conference in the beautiful desert foothills overlooking Tucson. Going to SVN for the first time, I felt right away that it was no ordinary “business” conference.

The attendees were entrepreneurs with an intense personal and professional commitment to building a just and sustainable world through business. (Think Aveda, New Leaf Paper, Calvert, Eileen Fisher.) This year’s conference theme was Economic Justice, so many presentations focused on addressing the growing gap between rich and poor through a variety of business approaches such as employee ownership, limiting CEO wages to a multiple of the lowest employee’s wage, and committing to a living wage. The triple bottom line–people, planet, and profits–came up repeatedly in sessions.

One of the most inspirational talks was by Julius Walls Jr. from Greyston Bakery, in Yonkers, N.Y., who told an extraordinary story of building a profitable company based on hiring “chronically unemployable” workers. Greyston practices an unusual policy of “open hiring”—hiring the first person to apply for a job opening—rather than interviewing and then selecting the most qualified candidate. This approach, coupled with Greyston’s commitment to treating employees with “clarity of communication, consistency, and compassion” has worked very well. Walls said that open hiring sends an important message to staff from the very beginning that the company has confidence that every employee can be successful if he or she wants to be.

As I sat outside by the pool in the perfect warm evening weather, enjoying the evening guitar strumming and group singing, it was hard not to compare this event with one I’ll be attending in New York City in two weeks, the Business for Social Responsibility Conference. (It’s hard to imagine singing Motown tunes in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt).

BSR was one of several groups that evolved out of SVN. (SVN was founded in 1987, BSR in 1992). Now, BSR is seen as an organization comprising mostly larger companies incorporating socially responsible behaviors as part of their overall business strategy. SVN’s mission is to “inspire a community of business and social leaders to build a just economy and sustainable planet;” while BSR “seeks to create a just and sustainable world by working with companies to promote more responsible business practices, innovation and collaboration.”

I don’t understand why there weren’t more representatives from larger companies at SVN, and I look forward to gaining a better understanding of the differences between the two organizations when I attend the upcoming BSR conference. Although the culture of the events will be different—I know I won’t spend evenings gazing up at a star-studded western sky—I am hoping to find the same passion and commitment to social change through business in NYC that I found in Tucson.


Regina Starr Ridley is the publishing director of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.