Nov. 5, 2019 8:57 am

Our values, ourselves: Unpacking the challenges and repping the future of social impact at ADVANCE

A diverse group of nonprofit and social impact powerhouses gathered at Harrisburg University's Philadelphia campus for Generocity's inaugural half-day conference this past Friday.

Jennifer Walters-Michalec, second from right, makes a point as co-panelists, from left, Yancey Strickler, Markita Morris-Louis, Tiffany Tavarez and moderator Sabrina Vourvoulias listen.

Photo by Marta Rusek

The first edition of ADVANCE, Generocity’s pilot conference for leaders and advocates eager to jumpstart their impact in the Greater Philadelphia Area, celebrated the power of cooperation, self-care, and bento thinking this past Friday.

Held at Harrisburg University’s spacious and fittingly futuristic-looking Philadelphia campus near Spring Garden Street, the half-day gathering brought together innovators like tech entrepreneur and author Yancey Strickler, public health trailblazer Vanessa Briggs, and dedicated community connectors like Tiffany Tavarez of Wells Fargo and Reading Terminal Market’s Anuj Gupta.

An innovation masterclass with a “treat yo self” vibe — thanks to the mindfulness and self-care lounge and music by Baroque Pop cellist Daniel de Jesús — the ADVANCE conference openned with a keynote by Strickler, known for cofounding the popular community funding platform Kickstarter.

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His talk perfectly outlined societal challenges that impact how people and organizations define value. He described the current mindset of “financial maximization,” where the right choice in any setting is the one that makes the most money. This has led to what Strickler calls a “mullet economy,” where one side (the wealthy and well-off) keeps growing, while the other (that’s the rest of us) does not.

“We’re living under the fundamentalist wing of capitalism,” he said. “Productivity has increased, but no one is getting paid for it.”

For Strickler, Kickstarter’s focus on “creative maximization,” a concept he defines as “what we can build together,” was the starting point of his values-based approach to collective innovation detailed in his new book, This Could Be Our Future. The approach, “bento thinking” (or bentoism), involves asking questions and focusing in on your values as a result of your answers.

“Bentoism is about incrementally improving where we are now,” he said.

The “Envisioning a Future Driven by You” follow-up panel with Strickler and community leaders Markita Morris-Louis of Compass Working Capital, Tavarez of Wells Fargo, and Jennifer Walters-Michalec of Capital One built upon his manifesto for the future, but with a real world check-in.

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Tavarez acknowledged that, while expanding the definition of value and inviting people to shape the future they want are two important steps toward smarter impact, the leaders who deliver the message need to use their position to boost the signal for those who cannot.

“Power without influence is like a tree falling in the woods,” she said during an exchange that resulted in enthusiastic snaps from attendees. “What are you doing to get people on board and drive impact?”

In addition to understanding impact, the concept of defining and understanding one’s values was a significant thread that wove the conference together.

"It takes courage to be the first person to speak up, and it takes courage to be the first person to walk through the door."
Vanessa Briggs

In her presentation “Intrinsic Values Shape More than Your Personal Story,” Briggs talked about the values that spurred her to become the first African American leader for various public health organizations throughout her career, including her current leadership role at the Brandywine Health Foundation.

“It takes courage to be the first person to speak up, and it takes courage to be the first person to walk through the door,” she said, as audience members committed her words to Twitter with lightning speed.

Briggs’ determination and desire to engage a diverse team helped her shift the culture and mission at Brandywine Health Foundation. Evolving the company’s scope to focus on philanthropy and community-based solutions was an involved process, but it made the most sense to Briggs and her team.

“It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are,” she said.

ADVANCE also addressed the way values can bridge the divide between vastly different cultures and communities, beginning with a presentation by staff and board members from the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians. What began as the result of one person’s experiences overcoming barriers when they came to the U.S. more than 17 years ago has become an organization that fosters connection and changes narratives.

“Immigrants are assets,” said Executive Director Peter Gonzales, a sentiment that was echoed by Director of Civic Engagement Manuel Portillo. “When many people think of immigrants, they think of ‘needs,’” Portillo said. “That is a deficit way of thinking. We say, ‘look at their skills and how many languages they speak.’ That shift creates opportunities for collaboration.”

"I'm thrilled to be a resource now."
Stephanie Sun

Employee-turned-board-member Stephanie Sun said that one of the biggest challenges immigrants face when they come to America is feeling valued, both in their jobs and their day-to-day lives. “I am thrilled to be a resource now,” said Sun, who currently serves on the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs in Pennsylvania.

To close the conference out, Gupta, the general manager of the Reading Terminal Market, talked about using an “economic powerhouse in our city built on the model of small business” to bridge cultures and create opportunities for finding common ground.

“[Our program] Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers had a simple premise — if we can get people to connect over cuisines, we can get them to connect as individuals,” Gupta said.

The program has been so successful it has inspired programming at the market that imparts life skills and an appreciation for food and culture to children and teens. Incidentally, Reading Terminal is also bridging communities and cultures with entrepreneurial vendors from the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians’ Global Craft Market.

As human beings, we’ve been conditioned to go to the default that’s in front us and make choices based on what we know, what we’re most comfortable with, and what will make us the most financially secure. Thanks to practices and examples shared by the presenters at the first ADVANCE conference, attendees can fearlessly set out to redefine value, find common ground, and explore creative ways to bring people together for a better Philadelphia.


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