There is a community supported agriculture program in Denmark in which 150 co-worker farmers serve 50,000 homes with organic produce brought direct from field to house. It is believed to be the largest such effort anywhere in the world. In community supported agriculture the customers are also investors - they buy shares in the farms. Thomas Harttung, the farmer, investor, entrepreneur behind the effort, called Aarstiderne, is a regular participant at Investors Circle, my third conference in four days.
This single example presents some of the key themes and opportunities for the Investors Circle community, and I would argue, most everyone else.
- Where does our food come from?
- What is capital for?
- What and who is in my community?
- Will the planet survive?
This moment in time, unlike any other I'm aware, is being defined by simultaneous global rises in prices of food and gasoline. But the solutions to the two problems may or may not be similar, they may or may not be linked, and the ways we invest capital (environmental, financial, human, and intellectual) and the returns we seek may or may not be the same.
It is hard, intellectually and emotionally, to simultaneously consider the relationships between the headlines. How do we think about all of these issues - global warming, food shortages, water crises, calamitous weather damage, political isolationism - and the ways they relate to each other? How can we separate out realistic strategies that take into account the complex systems in which both the problems emerge and the solutions must be implemented?
These are the kinds of questions I can depend on Investors Circle to raise. There is enough commonality and diversity of participants and topics so that patterns emerge and new ideas are generated. I always learn something I simply did not know before I came. The 300 or so people gathered here question the assumptions of plenary speakers, challenge the powerpoint presentations at breakout sessions, and debate the key points during and after each formal talk. The conference attracts foundations, bankers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and investors - most with at least two bottom lines in mind.
Since I've been to three conferences in four days let me make a few comments about conferences:
- I am more likely to actually learn something when there are multiple perspectives and different opinions being actively discussed. This requires people coming from different positions in a system (entrepreneurs and investors/funders and grantees, at the very least).
- Smaller is better for finding people you might actually work with over time.
- Larger is good for meeting people in the halls and seeing such a variety of vendors and exhibitors that you might actually question the choices you've made about how to do your work. Do I need a donor advised fund or a private foundation? Do I want to bank in line with my values as well as invest? Why are there attorneys here, what questions did I forget to ask?
- Content that draws in and involves people from different countries and cultures is more interesting than panels on "the international fill-in-the-blank."
- Small groups that give people a place to participate as both audience and panelist are great as long as they also find ways to bring in new voices.
- I hope that I never have to organize a conference and I appreciate the efforts of those who do.