“I am most inspired by the next generation of entrepreneurs who understand what it means to be a mission-driven leader and mission-driven company.”
Social Venture Network (SVN) created the first peer-to-peer community of entrepreneurs and business leaders dedicated to transforming the way the world does business. This pioneering organization connects and empowers its members – which include many of the most well-known sustainable business visionaries – to leverage the power of business to address social and environmental problems and to create a more just, humane, and sustainable world. We got the chance to speak with Executive Director Deb Nelson about the insights she has gained from mentoring and interacting with mission-driven business leaders for the last 14 years.
We’d love to start from the beginning with you and talk about your journey to becoming the leader of SVN.
Deb Nelson: I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon and that was a life-changing experience for me. After that, I went to business school, where I attended a Students for Responsible Business conference and heard Ben Cohen from Ben & Jerry’s and Anita Roddick from The Body Shop speak. They were early members of Social Venture Network. They were talking about leveraging the power of business to solve social problems, and they were fired up, fierce, unapologetic, funny, and innovative, and I thought, “This is what I want to do with my life. I want to use the skills that I’ve learned in business and do meaningful work.”
My parents, who were almost polar opposites, also factored into my career path. My father was an entrepreneur and my mother was a minister, and Social Venture Network operates at the intersection of the business community and spirit.
When I arrived at my first SVN conference 15 years ago, I just fell in love with the people and the mission of the organization. A year later, I was actually working at Social Venture Network and it’s been 14 years now. I am more inspired to be a part of this community and a part of this movement than I’ve ever been. It’s the most hopeful place I could imagine working.
What are the most common challenges that you’re seeing entrepreneurs face and what are the skillsets needed to help them overcome these common challenges?
DN: What entrepreneurs typically need are the right solutions at the right time. There’s no one-size-fits-all challenge. For some entrepreneurs it’s raising capital and then it’s managing growth and then it’s organizational and HR issues and then it’s sales and marketing. The problems change and the problems never go away.
You never have slow steady growth to the top and then you’ve made it! It’s always hard and there are always challenges. Being part of a community of trusted, respected leaders, and having a group of people that you can call on for the right advice, connection, or idea so you can get to the best solution at the right time is critical.
Entrepreneurs can’t step out of their business and spend several weeks figuring out the right solution to their most pressing problem. They need real-time, immediate help. If they already have a support community and trusted relationships, they can get the solutions that they need in real time.
Have you identified any traits that most effective leaders share?
DN: I think about this all the time because we do so much work on leadership. There are two answers; one is connected to an article that I read years ago by Leigh Buchanan called “Between Venus and Mars: 7 Traits of True Leaders.” It’s about leadership traits that were once considered feminine, like empathy, vulnerability, humility, inclusiveness, generosity, balance, and patience. The whole article is about how important it is to have leadership teams that have both feminine qualities of leadership and masculine qualities of leadership. The new economy is crying out for feminine qualities of leadership. Feminine qualities can show up in men and women. The old models of leadership, such as command and control, just don’t work anymore.
You really need to be inclusive, as Eileen Fisher is. You really have to have humility, as Margot Fraser from Birkenstock has. You really need to have generosity, as Ellen Dorsey from Wallace Global Fund has. No one has all the answers; no one even has most of the answers. So asking the right questions, surrounding yourself with a diverse and inclusive team, and really having excellent listening skills, especially in tough times, is critical. While all of those traits are key, really remember that when the going gets tough, that’s when you need to listen.
The other thing that pops up is the “outsider’s advantage.” One of the things that I’ve noticed as I’ve worked with and interviewed SVN members over the past 14 years is that the leaders who have had an outsider experience, whether it’s a physical outsider experience – they’ve lived in a foreign country for part of their lives – or an outsider experience where they were not part of the insider group – they looked different, they acted different, they spoke differently, they were different – have greater listening skills, greater empathy, greater humility, greater patience, and greater generosity.
When you are an outsider, you have to look and listen very closely, you have to experiment with different things, you have to make a lot of mistakes, you have to know resilience and perseverance. All of those things that you learn as an outsider serve you well as a leader and they also help you with innovation.
For example, Margot Fraser from Birkenstock USA came of age in Germany during World War II. Her family was against the Nazis. So they were outsiders in Germany and then she moved to Canada. She lived in Canada and the US after World War II when it was not popular to be German. Then she decided to start this shoe company with no experience in the shoe industry, none whatsoever. She said if she had had any experience in the shoe industry, she never would have started her company, but it was the combination of having humility, patience, empathy, and resilience that led to her ultimate success.
What advice do you have for mission-driven entrepreneurs in businesses that are working to get off the ground?
DN: I would say connect with a group that you can lean on and that you can learn from. For some entrepreneurs, that will mean creating a small advisory board of smart, experienced people who are different from the entrepreneurs in some important ways – fresh ideas, advice, new perspectives. Join a community like Social Venture Network, which was designed to create a safe space for people to talk about their challenges and to share what’s working, and to share resources, connections, and ideas. There are so many wonderful groups and communities that are out there.
Regardless of whether its an advisory board or SVN or something else entirely, it’s so important to have a support group that is not just your family, friends, or employees. It has to be a different group that you can call upon for fresh ideas and a group that you can share openly with. There are lots of different ways that you can become connected to a group of peers that can support you.
“People are no longer arguing about whether mission-driven business principles make sense or not. They are wondering, ‘How do I do this in the smartest, most effective way’”?
What is inspiring you most right now and what is giving you hope for the future?
DN: I am most inspired by the next generation of entrepreneurs who understand what it means to be a mission-driven leader and mission-driven company. When SVN was first created in 1987, people thought the business leaders in the network were crazy.
People laughed at our members, saying the purpose of business was not social and not environmental; the purpose of business was to generate a profit, that’s it, end of story.
Today, young people get it. They understand from a very early age that it makes total sense to account for people, planet, and profit. It makes sense in terms of ethics, but it also is just smart business to them. To see so many people talking about the best way to create and grow a mission-driven company is amazing. They’re asking, “How can I be the best leader I can possibly be and really embed my values and my mission into everything that I do?”
Comparing that to 28 years ago when people were saying “That’s ridiculous – you’re crazy,” now people are saying, “Wow, those early mission-driven businesses and leaders were visionaries.” To see that change – and to read a magazine like Conscious Company and see all the innovative ways that people are creating conscious companies – gives me hope. People are no longer arguing about whether mission-driven business principles make sense or not. They are wondering, “How do I do this in the smartest, most effective way?” That gives me hope for the future.