Karaoke & Campfires: Building Support for Small and Growing Businesses

By Sarah Tinsley

When a conference has karaoke and a campfire on the official agenda, you know it’s going to be a little bit different, and the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE) annual conference did not disappoint.

This September, in my role as a Portfolio Manager for Impact Investing at World Vision Canada, I had the privilege of attending this unique gathering of 250 practitioners from around the world. Attendees included everyone from emerging entrepreneurs to large corporations, small business development firms to large international NGOs. The one thing everyone had in common was a commitment to supporting small and growing businesses around the world.

After spending two and a half days amongst this diverse group of people, I returned to Toronto with a couple of key takeaways:

1. The “correct” way to construct s’mores is a great icebreaker

Unlike most conferences I have attended, the focus of the ANDE Conference really seemed to be on creating a space for all these disparate organizations to come to together and find ways forward through collaboration and information sharing.

The panels were more facilitated discussions rather than talking heads. And the aforementioned karaoke and campfire (complete with a s’more making station, of course!) gave the attendees the space to talk and get to know one another outside the confines of the usual conference networking settings. Some of the most productive conversations I had happened around the campfire with a s’more in hand.

2. We need to stop reinventing the wheel

Social finance and impact investing is an emerging space. It presents the opportunity to find new and innovative ways to tackle poverty and support growth in emerging markets. A wide variety of organizations are looking for ways to engage, and this means that in the past few years, there has been a ton of research produced. The problem is that much of that knowledge is kept within the organization that produces it.

As professionals in this field, we need to be better at communicating and sharing information. We need to stop duplicating work that has already been done by other organizations, and redirect our resources towards more productive activities. The ANDE conference and platform is just one example of how we can do this,

3. We’re moving in the right direction

At World Vision Canada, our focus is on supporting the smallest of the small and growing businesses, and ANDE confirmed that this niche is one worth focusing on. There are an increasing number of NGOs and impact investment funds focusing on investments of $250,000 and above, but there are very few organizations dedicated to helping smaller businesses grow.

“We have the capital to invest, we just can’t find investment-ready businesses” is a constant complaint from the larger impact funds. The clear solution is that we need to work on building the capacity of small businesses so that eventually they will be ready for investment by these larger funds. This is no easy task, but World Vision Canada’s Small and Growing Business Fund is committed to supporting the growth of small businesses by providing both loans and business development coaching.

I came away from the conference looking forward to turning those campfire conversations into concrete collaborations.