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Thoughts on TEDxPresidio 2011

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Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of attending TEDxPresidio. It was the first Presidio version of the ever-expanding family of TEDx independent events. TED, the brand, is known for the high quality of their invited speakers and their ability to capture your imagination, inspiring you to learn and do more. TEDx is a franchise of that brand, with local folks licensing the name and methods and adapting an event to the local terrain.


Here’s the pitch, direct from the site…“TEDxPresidio brings together some of the brightest thought leaders in business who are shaping the future of their sectors. Covering evolving 21st Century business trends like CSR, competition in a global marketplace, entrepreneurship, technological tools, survival in the digital age, and the changing set of internal and external values emerging from the C-Suite, employees, customers and partners – this is Business 3.0 – Not Business as Usual.”

Ah, yeah. Let’s disentangle the jargon: CSR, C-Suite, Business 3.0…First: CSR, or Corporate Social Responsibility, can be thought of as corporate conscience, the antithesis of a company’s reptilian hindbrain. The C-Suite is the Big Suits, the guys and gals with “Chief” in the titles, like CEO, CIO, CTO and C3PO. Lastly, Business 3.0 is a phrase that, like “shero,” should have been shot and buried long ago. Oh well, this is San Francisco after all, and annoying has been the new cute ever since the Dot Boom.

For me, the TEDx event was a no-brainer. I live and work in the Presidio, I run a San Francisco Green Business, and I pay more than passing attention to the legacy we all will entrust to our children. Bearing that in mind, I ambled over to the Palace of Fine Arts across the street from the Letterman Center and, after introductions, settled in for some enlightenment.

The first speaker was Ari Derfel, Executive Director of Slow Money. With humor and restraint, Ari’s presentation set the tone for the whole day. He talked about his belief that business should be a force for good: business as activism. He stressed that integrity and positive, solid relationships are what makes a well-run business better.

Next up, Rick Aubry, Founder and CEO of New Foundry Ventures. His emphasis: evolution in the wild is a combination of cooperation and competition, and good business practices should follow that path as well. After Rick, Dr. Kellie McElhaney, consultant and Faculty Director for the Center for Responsible Business at UCal-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business took the stage. Her message: be authentic, which is as applicable to life in general as it is to work. She pointed out that trust is a rare commodity in the business world, and that maximizing profit demands that you maintain the trust of your customers and clients.

During the show, I asked McElhaney: How can small businesses, which are currently under serious financial duress, better balance profitability against their environmental footprint? Her response, in a word, was focus. Here’s what she said: “For small businesses? You know, I get asked that question a lot, and so I first struggle with why should a small business be different from a medium business or a large business, and I expect that the question is coming from [the perspective of] ‘We’re not as big, we’re not as powerful, we don’t have as much money. Our brand isn’t as powerful,’ so I think it’s more incumbent on a small business to be laser-focused on two things:

Dr. Kellie McElhaney

“One is to pick a CSR strategy which, to me, is the umbrella that’s green, that’s social, that’s human rights, that’s human resources [embodied] in your own employees. I think it’s important for small businesses to be laser-sharply focused on your business objectives, maybe just your top two. So, if it’s to increase sales, or to grab market share, pick a CRS strategy that is really focused on how it’ll help you do that. So, just be smarter with the strategy, not that big companies don’t but they have a little more wiggle room for waste…

“The first strategy is be laser-sharply focused on business objectives and only two or three, don’t try to go wild and make it match all eight of your business objectives. But the second component is probably even more important for small or mid–size enterprises, it’s to focus on what you think your core competency is. So, if you’re a small to mid–size office supply company, then your CRS strategy should be intimately linked to your ability to get the right office supplies into the right office as fast as possible…breast cancer shouldn’t be your issue or, saving the whales should not be your issue, even though there are thousands of great issues out there.

“And then the last thing I would say is, I think, and again, big business messes up on this (and has the elasticity to tolerate any missteps) but, for small business, your biggest asset is your people, your employees. So, starting there, starting with, not only getting your employees involved in helping develop your CSR strategy, but getting your employees involved with executing your CSR strategy is really critical. By and large, for the rest of it, it’s not that different for a small business from a medium or a big business.”

The presentations continued, mostly insightful and of high quality. One of my heros, Gary Hirshberg, who is Chairman, President, and “CE-Yo” of Stonyfield Farm, provided a video presentation reminding us that environmental impact need not be a barrier to success. Early in his career, Hirshberg was a member of the New Alchemy Institute, a crazy cool experiment into alternative ag, energy and architecture on Cape Cod. As a teen, it rocked my world.

I had gone in skeptical, not sure that a spinoff could be as good as The Real Thing, but was pleasantly surprised by my TEDx–perience. I met a bunch of interesting and diverse people, received some valuable wisdom and reminders, and came away from the conference a better entrepreneur. As with all things TED, there’ll be streaming video of all the presentations on the TEDxPresidio site so, check in there periodically to grab a bit of your own inspiration. In the meantime, take a look at a short clip of the show’s lunchtime tumult.

In closing, I’ll leave you with toothsome bits gleaned from Maria Giudice’s afternoon talk. She’s CEO and founder of Hot Studio, so design is her passion. Though she emphasized that good design is part of any strong solution, she echoed Rick Aubrey’s message earlier, that it’s collaboration, cooperation, and teamwork that helps an organization iterate and evolve. “Be open to change,” she said. Not new or novel, but worth repeating. One snippet in particular is germane, I think, to all of us stressed-out participants in the current business cycle. It was her reminder to focus on We, not Me: Good advice at home and at work.

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About Oliver Masciarotte

A graduate of the Lowell Institute of MIT, Oliver A. Masciarotte has spent over 30 years immersed in entertainment tech, working with top companies & clients on marketing, production and product development…More at www.seneschal.net/about/
  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    I must say, that McElhaney quote was singularly uninspiring… it reads like doublespeak covering up a lack of anything real to say. Maybe there just isn’t a good answer for small businesses. As the question suggested, they’re just busy trying to stay afloat! I’m glad the conference was an overall good experience, though.

  • http://www.seneschal.net/ Oliver Masciarotte

    Hey Jon,

    According to McElhaney, there really isn’t a magic bullet for small businesses. I can boil down her discussion to: stay focused, don’t stray from core competency.