From Silos to SEWF: A Journey of Engagement

Elisa BirnbaumBy Elisa Birnbaum, editor-in-chief, SEE Change Magazine

Moving Beyond the Silos

It’s no secret that many folks in this space we call “social entrepreneurship” spend a lot of their time working in silos. Sometimes it’s by choice, with practitioners believing the only way to get work done is with blinders on, nose affixed to the proverbial grindstone, intimately focused on their next bold step forward. For others, it’s just the reality of getting so bogged down in the day-to-day that they seldom notice the world around them.

No matter the reason, silos are as commonplace as pumpkin-flavoured everything in October, whether or not you enjoy the big orange fruit. I, for one, do not but that doesn’t prevent baristas from trying to convince me to ingest their god-awful squash lattes at every turn. But I digress.

That’s what made SEWF so refreshing. A synergistic confluence of discourse, knowledge-sharing and networking, the event successfully pulled socially charged zombies from the woodwork and into common ground with positively impressive results. You may have seen these folks, they’re kind’ve hard to miss. They walk slowly at first, uncertain, sniffing about their new environment, eyes and ears set at high alert, trepidatiously taking in the sights and sounds.

Eventually, like any mammal who finds safety and potential in novel surroundings, the siloed start to warm up. Like at a Star Trek convention – with its shared language, values and heated opinions but without the turtlenecks and autograph sessions – they began to delight in like-mindedness.

Soon, with caution thrown to the wind, these folks proceed to engage, banter, commiserate, collude, imbibe, no longer relegated to chattering to themselves or their partners who secretly wish they’d get out more.

Canadians are Ready to Lead

All this to say, for many, SEWF was exactly what the doctor ordered. From an educational perspective, the sessions had something for practitioners at every level and interest. Want to learn more about impact investing? You got it. Social finance? Check. Corporate social innovation? Yup. Working across cultural and geographical boundaries? Initiatives designed for Aboriginal communities? Yes and yes. The smorgasbord of data, info and knowledge was as impressive as the hodgepodge of experts who generously shared their learnings and time.

Through it all, SEWF organizers made something exceptionally clear: Canadians are ready, able and willing to assert themselves as leaders in this far-ranging field of social entrepreneurship. No longer content to sit on the sidelines of the discussion, they are now in the thick, heat and heart of it, taking their role as teachers, mentors and advisors seriously. As they should.

The diverse and informative sessions aside, if what I heard from fellow attendees is any indication, it was what SEWF offered informally—whether networking in the Collaboratorium, in the hallways or at pubs in the evenings—that proved as valuable or even more so.

The Power of Engagement on the Periphery

It’s not hard to see why. Having the opportunity to speak and engage with others who share one’s ideals, challenges and frustrations has far-reaching impact practically, emotionally and, yes, even spiritually.

Let’s be honest, this field ain’t an easy one to work in. It’s as tough as nails to find funding, tougher still to survive, let alone thrive. Banging one’s head against the wall is a daily sport, par for the course for many. It’s an especially true reality for those working in silos and on the periphery. By that I mean, those not part of heavily funded organizations who typically take their seat behind microphones, on podiums and at front rows.

The folks I’m referring to are active in smaller, quieter ways. Their work and success may not be accompanied with great fanfare or self-promotion but their contributions are immense. Yet, while their dedication knows no bounds, neither do their struggles, leaving many feeling very alone and discouraged.

But for three days in October, SEWF allowed them to feel a part of something bigger. For three days they emerged from beyond their silos and were happy they did. Their attendance didn’t necessarily give them an easier road to sustainability, though it may have.

What it gave them was a rare opportunity to meet others just like them, to feel they weren’t alone. It was a chance to connect, share, collaborate, celebrate – and, yes, even to commiserate. Each a good thing, each a worthy endeavor. SEWF gave them that and more.

And for that, they are grateful.

SEE Change Magazine


SEE Change Magazine is Canada’s publication on social entrepreneurship with a mission to inform, educate, and inspire social entrepreneurs and anyone who wants to see change in our world. Much like other entrepreneurial endeavours, it was created in response to a need – the need to spread the word about an important business movement that has the capacity to change the way we live and engage with our communities. For more info and to subscribe:


SEE Change Magazine is also a SEWF 2013 media partner.


More About SEWF


sewfThe Trico Charitable Foundation was honoured to host SEWF 2013. It made history in a number of ways – it was a first for Canada and attracted a record number of speakers and attendees (1,000 individuals from more than 30 countries and over 100 speakers from 20 countries) – but we are most proud of the quality of the discussions on Skills Building, Social Finance, Indigenous Social Enterprise, Collaboration, Policy and Research, and Social Innovation.


We would like to thank the following partners for making SEWF 2013 possible:


Organizing Partners:

Lead Sponsors:

Presenting Partners:

Supporting Partners:

Friends of SEWF:

Media Partners:

SEWF2014 web bannerEach year SEWF gives a different host country an incredible opportunity to celebrate and nurture its own social enterprise movement. The inaugural SEWF met in Edinburgh, Scotland. Since then it has been to Melbourne, Australia; San Francisco, U.S.A; Johannesburg, Africa; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Learn more about SEWF’s history here.


SEWF 2014 will be held in Seoul, Korea from October 12-16. Hosted by the Work Together Foundation, this significant international gathering has an ambitious agenda: “Social Change through Social Enterprise”. Learn more here.

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