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Investing in Community Power event

Delane Sims stood in the GSB gathering hall, tearing up. After sharing her story of building a nail business focused on providing opportunities for single moms in Oakland, then being pushed out because of rising rent costs, she asked the opening panel a question.

“How can I stay in Oakland and make my business thrive?” Sims asked, and later, after being encouraged by different panel members to come talk to them after the panel for advice, she teared up,“I feel like I’m going to get help.”

On March 9, the Center for Socially Responsible Business and Lorry I. Lokey School of Business and Public Policy hosted the 10th annual conference, titled Investing in Community Power: Elevating the Collaborative Bay Area Economy. 

The event, organized by Mills College 2018 MBA candidate Naima McQueen and several others, advertised in their program that the event was to “gather the most creative, engaged, and transformative leaders in the Bay Area who are working diligently to contribute to the vibrancy of our community and local economy through initiatives that support entrepreneurs, community programs and small businesses.”

“I have all these cool ideas, and met all these awesome people, and there’s so much incredible work,” Mills graduate student Aidé Aceves said.

With over 45 speakers, almost all being representative of local community organizations or part of local government, 10 panel sessions, and four workshops, the event was a magnet for budding entrepreneurs and established entrepreneurs. Not only were the invited participants resources of knowledge, but so were the attendees that filled the lobby, classrooms and hall.

The conference went for a full nine and a half hours, starting at 8:00 a.m. It was set up as a build-your-own day, providing two panel choices every session and two workshops for every option as well. Breakfast was provided, lunch was catered by Mamacitas, a restaurant not far from Mills, and the closing reception featured local food and beverage vendors.

“For me, the strongest gesture, that we haven’t had in the past, was have local vendors at the reception. If you’re going to invest in local communities then the first thing that’s easy is buying from local vendors and so I thought that was beautiful,” Aceves said. “There were a lot of community members, also, first time participants in the conference that were just from the community, either aspiring entrepreneurs or somehow interested in that idea. So I thought that that was two concrete ways that the theme really showed through, not just through what we were talking about, but who’s in the room, right? Who is benefitting from this conversation?”

Panel topics included Anchor Institutions, Environmental Justice Business Models, Capital Raising & Investment, Speed Advising: 30 Minute Consultations, and the Cannabis Industry Landscape, among others. Each panel lasted for 45 minutes, with 15 minute breaks, while the workshops went for 90 minutes, overlapping two panel sessions.

Aceves attended the Cannabis and the Anchor Institutions panels.

“The cannabis panel I really appreciated because I didn’t know the in’s and out’s of the equity program and how unique it is, and how Oakland is really taking the lead and making sure that those who have been criminalized and marginalized because of the war on drugs are now actually having an opportunity to be front and center and get capital from it, make money from it,” Aceves said. “Both of those I thought were really insightful discussions they were having, again, sparking a lot of thoughts in my head, not necessarily about those specific topics, but other things that can be influenced by some of the things that they were touching on.”

Some of the local organizations tabling in the lobby of GSB included Impact Hub Oakland, whose CEO and co-founder Konda Mason was the keynote speaker for the event, StartUp, Working Solutions, the Bay Area Alliance for Community Development, Pacific Community Ventures, Beneficial State Bank and Bay Area Black Market.

Many of the panelists were part of the organizations tabling, but they weren’t the only ones invited. Some panelists were Mills professors, some were Mills alums, all were from the local area.

During the opening welcome panel, Darcelle Lahr announced the name change of the CSRB to the Center for Transformative Action in the Lorry I. Lokey School of Business and Public Policy. Lahr is now the Director of the Center, formerly the CSRB.

“We are at a wonderfully exciting moment for our Center,” Lahr said. “Let’s start today, please embrace all our discoveries so we can pursue our transformative action.”

After Lahr announced the name change, the opening panel took the stage with James Head as moderator, discussing the ways that the panelists use their power in their own ways to push change. Carroll Fife, Mike Hannigan, Nayeli Maxson and Marissa Raya responded to questions indicative of the direction for the conference: what is a just society? How do you or your company work toward that vision?

Mills Masters of Applied Economics student Beza Getahun talked about one moment in the opening panel when Hannigan touched on the disproportionate wealth distribution in America.  

“I think, like me, a lot of people in that room feel that a big issue right now in America is income inequality, and the fact that so few people hold the wealth in their hands and the power in their hands, democracy’s not possible when that’s the situation,” Getahun said. “When he said ‘it’s not like the one percent wake up in the morning and think ‘how can I get even more of the wealth’ I do think there’s some truth to that. I think a lot of it has to do with a corrupt system — that has been planned by people, don’t get me wrong, there were people and who continue to lobby and work for that — but I’d like to believe that there are also people, Warren Buffet’s an example, who are like ‘this isn’t right.’”

Fife politely disagreed with Hannigan and shared her opinion.

“There was the other perspective in the room, and she was saying ‘I disagree with that, I do think people wake up and plan how to do that.’ I think it’s a both/and situation, there’s truth to both of those things and I thought that conversation was interesting. I appreciate hearing both perspectives. I did wish we got to hear more from Mike because there’s a lot of information sharing that I think the room missed out on,” Getahun said. “I’m so glad for voices like hers, that are saying the truth and are not afraid of what people have to say about it, because it’s true, it’s messed up, and we shouldn’t just be sitting complacent. It’s kind of ‘working within the system’ and ‘totally pushing the system’ — you have to do both, you have to be realistic at some point.”

That conversation showed the push and pull of the visionary situation, the balance between the realistic and the radical.

“Being that we’re at a college and there’s a lot of young people, there’s a lot of idealism,” Getahun said. “The older you get the more you realize that all that’s great, and all that’s even true, and we have what we have and have to work within that system.”

This event may have been hopeful and idealistic, but it also served as a resource for students and community members, looking for advice and support. The event was accessible to students who might not be going into or taking classes of the economic kind, because everything is intersectional. There were cooking entrepreneurs, gardening nonprofits, people who had started nail salon businesses, those who push for thriving cannabis businesses for communities of color and many more. There were panels on how to raise money, and how to become a modest investor.

“Kondra Masons closing speech was very powerful. I thought that just closing on the internal work that we need to do to inspire that change was super fitting,” Aceves said. “You still have power dynamics with the reality of politics, money and politics, and what do you do with that? For Kondra to have us meditate on ‘we have everything that we need, it’s inside of us, and we’re built to care,’ that left me feeling with a lot of hope.”

As Sims expressed, it was applicable to anyone who is looking for resources. With general admission at over $100, tickets for Mills students sit at a pretty $15. Even if you aren’t interested in business, finance, or economics, consider attending next year.

“Transformation is not always comfortable,” Fife said, going on to explain that nacre is the substance that creates a pearl. “It starts with an irritant that says that we can create something beautiful and priceless with that irritation.”