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Diary of a Social Venture Start-up: Notes From the Feast

Here's a riddle: What do a techie, a Grammy-nominated recording artist, an innovative Danish edcuator, and a 24-year-old...

Here's a riddle: What do a techie, a Grammy-nominated recording artist, an innovative Danish edcuator, and a 24-year-old athletic director from New Orleans have in common? Honestly, probably nothing. But a few weeks ago, they all gathered to speak at the Feast conference here in New York, and they were all inspiring as hell.

A while back, I wrote about the importance of conferences for networking. Beyond that, however, the truth is that a lot of them are lame. You show up and listen to some people talk, you swap a million business cards, you yak about yourself in 30 second soundbites, and, hopefully, you meet a few interesting people. But every now and again, the right conference can give you the kick you need to remember why you love what you do.

If starting a business were easy, everyone would do it. The fact that it's hard makes it feel like it's worthwhile. But, as every entrepreneur knows, the fact that it's hard also makes it feel like it's, well, just really damn hard. That's sort of where I was at when the Feast rolled around-going back and forth with lawyers, trying to arrange an endless list of meetings. It was all important, but when there's a lot of preparing and not a whole lot of doing, it's hard to feel like you're making progress. You need something to keep you energized.

At the Feast, one of the most interesting bits of knowledge came from Kenna (whose first album, New Sacred Cow, you should own, and who Malcolm Gladwell writes about at some length in Blink). While opening for No Doubt, Kenna refused to have his name listed on any of the tickets or promotional material for the concerts. This flies in the face of traditional marketing, which is all about getting your name out there. But think about it: Most people show up late to concerts, skipping the opening act. By not listing his name on the bill, everyone showed up on time, not wanting to miss No Doubt's set. Instead of playing for five or six hundred people, he was playing for 10,000 or 15,000. The lesson? Challenge traditional ideas.

As young, creative people who spend much of our time online, it's easy to get caught up in believing that the newest technology holds all the answers. Ken Banks, founder of FrontlineSMS, took a moment to remind us that's not always the case. If you're really looking to change the world, argued Banks, forget the internet-because most of the people who most need your help don't have web access. While he certainly wasn't dismissing the web altogether, his point is well taken. The flashiest solution isn't always the best solution.

Brian Bordainick is one of the most extraordinary 24-year-olds you're likely to meet. As the Athletic Director of George Washington Carver High School in New Orleans, he's launched the 9th Ward Field of Dreams to help fund a 1,000 seat, $1.85 million football field and track in an area that was all but ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. It sounds like a pipe dream but after landing high-profile sponsors like Nike and the NFL, he's more than 60 percent toward his goal. He got there by refusing to take no for an answer. Persistence is a trait that often separates those who succeed from those who don't. You need to keep pushing, to hustle, to find alternate solutions-you need to make it work.

Finally, Uffe Elbæk, founder of The KaosPilots International School of New Business Design & Social Innovation, taught us perhaps the most important lesson in social entrepreneurship: It's not about you. Elbæk made the school's mission clear with a nuanced distinction, stating, "We don't want to be the best school in the world; we want to be the best school for the world." It's not about becoming famous. It's about making a difference.

And that, I suppose, is what we're all trying to do. It's always refreshing to sit in a room full of people who are in the middle of doing extraordinary things, if only to be reminded that anyone can create world-shaking change.

You can watch all of the talks here.

The Takeaway: We're smack in the middle of a ton of innovation. People with good ideas are actually making a true, measurable difference. So get energized, put your head down, and get back to work. I know I am.

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