A Social Innovations Conference Happily Struggles to Scale in Lithuania

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A social innovations conference in Lithuania that features the sound of African drums and crowds of lively people, and which is hosted during three summer days, has yet to attract much attention. It’s far from being just another indoor event where you listen to presentations all day. On top of being innovative, since it was the first event of its kind, it presents a unique opportunity for those who call themselves social entrepreneurs to mingle.

 Despite a festive environment, Bizzz lacks the draw of other innovation conferences in Lithuania.

Photo courtesy of Ashley MacKinnon/Flickr.

Despite a festive environment, Bizzz lacks the draw of other innovation conferences in Lithuania.

The conference, amusingly titled Bizzz, doesn’t attract a gathering of social entrepreneurs so much as it does a circle of people; last year, only 250 attendants made up the event’s biggest crowd yet. In contrast, LOGIN, a more established Lithuanian innovations conference that focuses primarily on high-tech innovations, attracted as many as 4,000 visitors earlier this year. The conferences’ target groups differ somewhat, but both are meant to hook the world’s innovators, those at the forefront of their fields. So why the alarming difference in attendance number?

“Social innovation [is] kind of a social economy mix,” explains Phil Tulba, a social entrepreneur, presenter and consultant from the U.K. “It’s the idea of innovating for a social benefit.” Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that not many people are seeking what Bizzz provides, given that more people choose to work in pursuit of their own welfare than for the pursuit of a social benefit.

But it is precisely the latter type of person who brings the most value to society, and chooses to attend Bizzz. And the selfless passion driving these people can be contagious, as experienced at the conference.

“If you have a drive, great: Come generate and create ideas,” says Monika Stankevičiūtė, one of Bizzz 2013’s organizers and a member of NVO “Avilys” (NGO Beehive). “I wasn’t involved in it in 2012, when it was first organized. But as far as I know, the idea was born very quickly, and the whole event was organized in less than a month.” In that first run-through, the organizers were surprised to see 90 visitors show up.

After a great start, the organizers understood that they could reach far more people and make the event even bigger—and they did so last year.

“There were about 250 people, and some 80 percent of them were young: university graduates, young professionals or others already involved in business making,” says Andzelika Rusteikienė, organizer of both Bizzz 2013 and the Social Enterprise Summit 2014. “We have tried to invite as many different businesspeople as we can, [since] we wanted them to share their ideas and experience.”

Those whom the organizers have been successful in recruiting have fostered an atmosphere of assistance and advocacy. “These people are innovators. For example, if they like the idea, they can [help spread the word],” says Aurelija Dzedzevičiūtė, whose social enterprise Human.Box, was just a business plan during Bizzz 2013 and has since been launched and implemented. “They are advocating for your project, and they can connect you with [other] people, because many of them are in … similar situations. They like trying to start something.”

Energized word-of-mouth is one way in which Bizzz can continue to grow. “Bizzz brings confidence and optimism among people,” and as a result, “there are more people talking about it,” says Tulba.

Even more than that, someone felt it was necessary to offer social entrepreneurs an opportunity to get back together and share progress on their work throughout the year. That gave rise to the Social Enterprise Summit. Imantas Bernotas, project manager of “Create for Lithuania” and the organizer of the Social Enterprise Summit, says, “We call Bizzz a conference and bring together all enthusiasts, who are interested in what social enterprise is. Social Enterprise Summit is more like a forum, which is for people who are experts in this area.”

Some leading (and optimistic) minds in the social enterprise field attend the Social Enterprise Summit.

Student Reporter/Dainius Glumbakas

Some leading (and optimistic) minds in the social enterprise field attend the Social Enterprise Summit.

Thus, a meaningful tradition has been created in Lithuania: Twice a year, a social entrepreneur gets the chance to gather with his or her fellows. “It is very good that there is such … continuity: In the summer, we are talking about social enterprises sitting outdoors on the armchairs, and in the early spring we come [to] share their ideas in workshops,” Bernotas says.

Bizzz’s organizers are far from disappointed that the number of attendees is 20 times less than that of other conferences in Lithuania and elsewhere. On the contrary, they believe in the potential that such an event carries and are plotting a scenario full of new activities for this summer.

“This year, we are planning to have more workshops,” Stankevičiūtė says. “Our guests will get a chance to work on case studies with examples of unsuccessful social enterprises and will try to analyse them and find possible solutions. It will be a win-win for everyone.”

Some will say that Lithuania is not yet ready for social entrepreneurship—even the country’s government does not provide financial support to events like Bizzz or follow-ups like the Social Enterprise Summit. But the idea of having social enterprises as part of the innovation environment is relatively new, and it has escalated quickly. As Tulba says, “We are in the early stage of the journey.”

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