Note: This blog originally appeared on the website. It has been re-published here with permission from the author. 

SOCAP is like the impact investing-focused university you wished you could have attended.

Like all major universities, SOCAP has many of the traditional components. There’s a venue. There are lots of people (some 1,800 social innovators made it out for this year’s event). There are those that are labeled “teachers” and those more focused on learning. And there are a legion of talented paid staff and volunteers who make the whole thing go-round.

There are raucous parties and moments of dining-hall awkwardness. There are the “popular kids”, and those left circling the room, feeling as though they’re on the outside of the cool club. There are deep insights and oft-uttered platitudes. There is a culture of learning and the moments when napping seems more appealing than networking.

But what makes SOCAP U different is that many of these traditional components have been hacked. They’ve been deeply re-imagined, iterated on and designed anew. Though challenges persist—those including accessibility, affordability and diversity—SOCAP is doing a lot of things right. Here’s a few of the things that this attendee noticed.

Sunny locale and inspiring colleagues

1. At SOCAP, you go to school at the historic Fort Mason Centre, a site of learning on the shores of San Francisco Bay, overlooking Alcatraz to the east and the Golden Gate Bridge to the west. It seems to be sunny everyday, and there are very snazzy, ergonomic boulders to sit on as you chat with friends and colleagues.

2. Here, professors are your colleagues and your superheroes. They’re folks with backgrounds in community organizing, in venture capital, in social justice and in wealth management. While buzz words abound (#innovation, #collaboration, #SIBs), many of the presentations are deeply inspiring, engendering that type of butterfly-in-the-stomach feeling that makes you believe change really is possible.

3. At SOCAP U, many folks make a concerted effort to name the tension in the room. “If we’re having a discussion about gender, privilege and power, why is the panel made up of five white women?” one woman asked. “I like where you’re going with hacking systems, but how do you make sure that the community is part of the ideation, development and implementation of solutions that affect them?” asked another man. And finally: “How can we make sure that unaccredited investors can gain access to new financial opportunities? And how do we talk about these products using language(s) that is/are accessible for all parties involved?”

Programming for communities often left out

4. The school’s principals (Kevin Doyle Jones and Rosa Lee Harden) and their team of talented staff have worked hard to engage a variety of different communities in the discussion of money and meaning. This year’s event featured programming focused on the oceans, faith-based communities, art and health—communities often left out of social finance and impact investing discussions. Furthermore, like many innovative schools, SOCAP U has harnessed the power of technology in order to disseminate information. All of this year’s plenary sessions were live streamed from San Francisco into living rooms around the world. And this year, SOCAP U staff also went to great lengths to promote gender diversity amongst their professors. At this year’s event, there was at least one woman on each panel.

Entrepreneurs at SOCAP

5. The perceived “in-group/ out-group” dichotomies are an illusion. The “cool kids” want to be a part of conversations with those who haven’t yet written books, published articles or developed their first fund. The seniors are perfectly happy to chat with the freshman (and freshman are nervously thrilled to speak with seniors). And many of the folks who pose questions in the Q+A are just as nervous to do so as the professors on stage are to answer.

6. The “open parties” are genuinely cool. They serve vegetarian empanadas and Vietnamese noodles from the parked food trucks. They have open bars that serve good quality beer and vino. And folks drink responsibly.

7. While some students are of the super elite socioeconomic bracket, most aren’t. Many struggle to pay off debt, to finance risky health innovation products, and to live more modestly 365 days a year in order to finance projects that they believe will make the world a better place. It is at SOCAP U that these folks are treated like rock stars and are given the opportunity to spend time sharing stories and learnings with similarly-minded colleagues before heading back to work on Monday.

Smart questions and vehicles for knowledge transmission

8. Students ask very smart questions. “Are you getting any push back from unions or civil sector workers when seeking to ‘hack’ the public safety system?” one asked. “Is it possible to replicate the model that you’re using for sourcing community-powered solar in other sectors?” another wondered. Additionally, very few students nap during presentations. (And those that do feel quite silly about having stayed out so late the night before, incapable of dragging themselves from the conversations about pay-for-performance contracts, the difference between accelerators and incubators or measures of social return on investment).

9. Students recognize that the whole world isn’t like SOCAP. They recognize that SOCAP is a vehicle for the transmission of knowledge and the sharing of stories, as well as a platform that allows students and teachers to gain access to ideas, networks and skills that enable them to work more effectively, efficiently and purposefully within their communities.

As SOCAP13 winds down, I’m left feeling deeply privileged to have attended this year’s event. I thank organizers, fellow attendees and volunteers for their efforts to making this year’s event such a productive, dynamic environment and for creating a space in which a 24-year old with little financial training felt comfortable asking questions and being part of the discussion.

Photo credit: Social Capital Markets 

Bronwyn Oatley

Bronwyn was an Associate with Studio Y where she focused on community and partnerships. See more…