SOCAP Voices: A Conversation on Bridge Building, Art, and Entrepreneurial Ecosystems with Social Impact Pioneer Penelope Douglas

Posted by on July 19th, 2016

Penelope Douglas is a pioneer in social finance and entrepreneurship, who is currently working as a bridge builder across banking, community development finance, social enterprise, impact investing and the arts. She is also a lifelong visual artist. In the Spring of 2015 Penelope was named to a year long Artist in Residence position at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, one of the nation’s most innovative contemporary art centers. Douglas formerly served as a longtime Executive, Senior Advisor and Chair of Mission HUB and has been an integral part of the SOCAP team. We sat down with Penelope to hear her thoughts on the evolution of the social capital markets, bridge building, and her passion for art and for building an equitable future for us all.

SOCAP has hit a new profile as the field has gotten bigger. You’ve been involved since the early days. What are your reflections on the growth of the conference and of the field?

Penelope Douglas: In the early years of my involvement, our operating principle was “to lay the table well” regarding SOCAP. That allowed a creative and constructive framework for SOCAP to be a big tent but also to constantly question participants and thought leaders about the intentions of the social finance and impact investing movement. It is that ability to lay the table well along with keeping alive that kind of creative tension that has allowed SOCAP to move and grow along with the field of impact investing and other movements. That’s my most important observation.

Something else that I have thought a lot about is to try to honor those who began this work decades ago. We need a better way to hold and not lose this expertise. I’ve often felt that we in this movement seem to have particular difficulty being able to respect and thus fully utilize the work that’s been done before what we’re doing right now. That strikes me as ironic, given the vision I think we want to achieve. But wiser people than I remind me that in all great movements there are a lot of strong personalities involved, lots of starts and re-starts, and lots of disagreement about how to achieve our goals. I guess I want us to do better at capturing our knowledge and using it.

Your career has constantly evolved over the years, from entrepreneur to impact investor to executive to advisor to bridge builder. Can you talk about your path to becoming a bridge builder and how your current work builds upon other roles you have played at earlier stages of your career?

The reason that I determined I would be a bridge builder for this part of my professional journey was quite simply my gut response to the landscape that I saw around me. While I think there’s tremendous growth in the social finance/impact investing arena, I also observe a tremendous number of siloed sectors and initiatives, and even whole industries that don’t speak articulately to one another. I see surges of activities, like the activity of accelerator models, or the activity of seed capital, or the activity of leadership programs, but I see little scale or strategic leverage across the whole movement.

Again, those who are students of history tell me that this is is often the case when big movements are being built. There’s disagreement, there’s argument over definition, there are people who go to their corners, there’s the disposition of resources by those who have them, and then there’s just simply the natural entrepreneurial instinct which is to build your own thing.

So, after contemplating the fact that I actually am very fortunate to have the breadth and depth of experience that spans across many segments from community development finance to social enterprise to corporate responsibility to sustainable banking, I felt I could possibly navigate and influence in a bridge building role without frankly pissing people off. My goals have been to transfer knowledge, increase genuine and even radical collaboration, help drive positive growth through strategic thinking, and inspire a new type of leadership role model.

I will say that it’s been much, much harder than I thought it would be. Not so much the actual activity of bridge building, which in a moment by moment sense, is very rewarding, but the fact that it takes so much of your energy and so much time. A lot of energy has to be directed to prodding X person to go talk to Y person, nudging conversations together and figuring out what a collaborative decision making process might look like. And it’s difficult to be an influencer of change.

And it’s hard economically. It’s not a position description yet, where an institution says, “Ah good. Let’s offer her this position and we’ll make sure that she’s well taken care of in compensation for holding this position.” It’s actually, in some ways, the most entrepreneurial thing I’ve ever done.

You have a strong interest and record of developing entrepreneurial ecosystems. What are the greatest needs for building thriving entrepreneurial ecosystems in 2016?

Well, first and foremost, much less duplication of effort. I was at two separate conferences not too long ago all about the entrepreneurial ecosystem. What was surprising and a bit depressing to me, quite honestly, was how many next generation leaders were talking on stage about this big new idea that they had about their local entrepreneurial ecosystem development. They’ve been given that job and they were telling us how they were going to do that job. Yet they seemed to have no historical base of reference.

There is actually a considerable knowledge base in this area of entrepreneurial ecosystem development, whether you look at it from the mainstream, whether you look at it from the social enterprise perspective, or whether you look at it from the community development perspective. So much less duplication of effort, and again I’d love to see much more investment in systems and knowledge translation tools for this ecosystem work.

The other thing that I think is really important is, there’s a dynamic aspect of building an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Last year at SOCAP and the year before we had discussions about this question of mapping ecosystems, and people come at it in a variety of different ways which is great, very exciting. One thing people were eager to keep talking about was the dynamic,  always changing aspect in any ecosystem. How we can get better at developing a kind of process template for how you continue that constant process of inquiry that is refining the questions and captures the dynamic changes in an ecosystem.

You are very open and passionate about your belief that we need significant cultural shifts in order to move to a more equitable society. Can you elaborate on your vision of that change?

To me, what the impact investing and social capital movement has not yet done is own up to the very important, very difficult, very time-consuming, and frankly risky question of whether we’re willing to “cop to” a real systemic change in the entire paradigm that we’re using for purposes of all of the financial and other capital flowing into places and ideas to solve intractable social and economic problems.

And that system shift, that paradigm shift, for lack of a better word, that we really need to fully embrace, in my view, is the question of whether we’re able to create a culture of equity. Are we really trying to create a culture of equity? Do we understand and appreciate that if we’re really committing to solving our world’s most intractable social and economic problems, at the root of those problems is a culture of inequity. And so how far can we push ourselves to put culture at the center of our system of investment. So that’s I guess the most succinct way that I could describe what I see of the issue and the vision. The vision is of culture being at the center of the value proposition of impact investment as opposed to a possible outcome.

During your recent residency at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts you explored Labor and the Value of Our Work. Can you describe the work you were doing in that role?

The residency lasted a full year. Participants in the program, who were a diverse group of citizens, were invited to engage as often as they wished. During the course of the year, we continued to explore the question: What is the Value of our Work?

Our responses developed and changed over the course of the year through a process that was collaborative and creative. For the first two sessions I worked to create an atmosphere in which people could think about themselves in the context of this question. I designed a program of creative activities designed to foster that environment. One activity, for example, was to try to call on and actually think about our adaptability. How we need to both be ourselves, but how we also need to adapt to our environments in order to do our best work. So, I had developed an idea about our “almost selves.” This activity offers a way to think about who it is that you almost are but you never quite let yourself be. And we used performance and spoken art as a way for people to get that across. So I had a group of people who were almost rock singers get together and create a rock band. A group of people that were almost dancers performed as a dance ensemble. There was also a spoken word group. As the year progressed, it became much more about the participants themselves, thinking about their responses. And then the culmination of all this was a presentation of their responses at the Town Square at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Performances, pieces of art, and technology driven participatory performance art, were all produced by our group that day.

How does your residency work fit into that cultural shift you believe needs to happen?

I got a really good insight into how to do the work by my residency at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The process YBCA has fully embraced includes the constant use of inquiry back and forth and a lot of the purpose of that inquiry is to improve the big questions. And I think that technique can be extremely valuable to exploring such a big shift as the kind of paradigm shift that we were talking about a minute ago.

In my residency, my participants inquired of one another, and of me, about the question that we started with, and it isn’t the question we ended up with. We ended up with a better question to answer. It’s not so different from what technologists do in terms of prototyping, or what any critical process does to better define a problem. But this is more inclusive. You don’t have to have a certain kind of academic degree or a certain kind of experience or certain kind of approach to life to be able to utilize this kind of inquiry. I like that very much.

What was your major takeaway from this residency experience?

My first biggest takeaway from the experience was the original anxiety and tension, and even anger among participants, in the context of this particular question, just to even figure out how to talk to one another. And I think that again is so directly an important concept to place into this question of how we achieve the vision that we described a minute ago, right?

Figuring out how to talk to one another is an important component. But more tactically and more tangibly, the other thing that was a real takeaway for me was how big an opportunity we have to use more fully the powerful voices of artists and creative entrepreneurs.

How we can really capitalize on these incredibly powerful people with their powerful voices to leverage some of the critical thinking that we need to do is a really important takeaway for me. And we see this, and hear this evidence a lot of on the ground anecdotes about our work.

What is inspiring you in 2016? What gives you hope?

People.  Always. Those who find the big loves, as David Brooks the NY Times columnist would call it, and can keep the small loves alive every day as well.

How would you define your Big Loves?

For me, my big love is an equitable future for us all. I’m so in love with life on this planet as I know it. But I am also so aware and sensitive to how hard it is for so many of us to even live here today, much less imagine living here 100 years from now. That’s my big love.
NRB Headshots-39Penelope Douglas is a social entrepreneur, pioneer in community development investment, investor, co-founder and CEO of Pacific Community Ventures, and former Chair of the Board of Mission HUB and SOCAP. She serves as a Board Director at New Resource Bank, Opportunity Finance Network, and StartGrid. Penelope is an Advisor to the RSF Social Finance Social Investment Fund, the Wells Fargo Bank New Markets Tax Credit Investment, Fund Good Jobs, Heritas Group, and Halloran Philanthropies. Between Spring 2015 and Spring 2016 Penelope served as Artist in Residence at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.