Experience at SOCAP12

SOCAP12, which stands for Social Capital Markets, was held this week at Ft. Mason, the rehabilitated military base overlooking picturesque San Francisco Bay.  It brings together organizations and individuals interested in social entrepreneurship, the idea that you can build a sustainable and profitable business model with a socially beneficial mission at its heart.  The company I work for, ThoughtWorks, believes strongly in this idea and its reflected in our Three Pillar Model (originally from Ben & Jerry’s).

While the conference mostly focused on social entrepreneurship in general, I mostly attended the tech-focused sessions.

Ed. Tech Entrepreneurs: Addressing Education Inequality with Technology

This was an interesting panel that talked about the latest approaches to applying technology to educational inequality.  Introducing new technology into education has always been a tough sell, but things are becoming easier because A) the teacher population is getting younger and more tech savvy and B) budget cuts are forcing districts to consider creative/non-traditional solutions.

Two of the companies that were part of the panel caught my interest:

  1. Wishbone.org.  If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell (or the original research he uses), you’ve heard of the summer achievement gap between low- and high-income students, which they hypothesize results from the high-income students spending their summers with a jam-packed brain-stimulating schedule of what amounts to school substitution.  To counteract this, Wishbone allows students to apply for scholarships (or crowd source) to attend summer activities that are in line with their passion.
  2. Beyond 12. Students who are the first in their families to attend college are twice as likely to dropout after their first year at university than their peers.  Attempting to provide support structures for these students (often immigrants), Beyond 12 is trying to help this group succeed.

Building a Values-Driven Tech Startup with a Social Mission

I was curious to attend this session to see if the lessons people have learned in the startup world apply to a 2000-employee global corporation like ThoughtWorks.  The most directly applicable lesson is that recruiting is an even harder task in this type of organization because you still want the most technically strong candidates, but on top of that its vital to find people who share the same passion for the mission.  All of the panelists agreed that it’s better to stick to your mission, even if it means going more slowly, than taking on employees (or worse yet, investors) who may not align with the mission.

Big Data for Good

This session was packed, an even more encouraging sign since it was at the last time slot of the last day of the conference and people had flights to catch.

Bernardo Huberman, Director of Social Computing at HP, talked about the frightening lack of privacy for consumer data being gathered by Facebook and Google.  He made a useful analogy: telephone records have been protected for 100 years but nowhere near the same protections apply to data about user behavior of internet companies.  And when these companies release research based on the data, it’s impossible for others to replicate or peer review because the data set is private.

Jim Fruchterman, founder of Benetech, outlined some very interesting projects they have helped work on and some of the challenges of gathering and keeping sensitive data like reports of sexual assault and government repression.  He also pointed out that in the world of social data analysis, in some ways it’s not really primarily a technical problem because consumer companies already solved many of the technical challenges years ago.  The biggest challenge left is to gather data as part of people’s existing work rather than bolting on some additional data-collection step/survey.

Looking Ahead

I enjoyed learning about all the exciting ideas happening around the world.  It was quite a refreshing change from the culture of TechCrunch Disrupt.  I could see it even in the makeup of the audience: on average, attendees were older and much more likely to be female or part of an ethnic minority.  I hope next year that ThoughtWorks is participating in this conference and presenting our first case study of helping a social startup succeed.