Friday, November 27, 2009

Amsterdam and Lille – Worlds Apart?

I just attended two conferences in Europe, in Amsterdam and Lille (Northern France), that were quite different from each other though there was significant overlap in the topics they covered. I first was in Amsterdam taking part in the European Venture Philanthropy Association’s (EVPA) annual conference that can be summarized as a large networking event (over 300 participants this year) and a substantive forum. This year, the emphasis was placed on social enterprise per se and how Venture Philanthropy (VP) actors (those with money in short) can effectively support social enterprises, be they for-profit companies or NGOs. The content was of uneven quality as is often the case. As one of the speakers said, venture philanthropy or EVPA for that matter is a very big church with multiple denominations. I don’t know whether the agnostics or atheists among us will be comfortable with the metaphor but it is true that a) the definition of what venture philanthropy is and how it should be done still varies quite widely, even as the concept has been around for over 10 years in the US and 7-8 years in Europe, and b) a lot of those who attend the event every year are somewhat parochial and seem to think that the way they do things is the only right way.

That slightly (sic) narrow-mindedness led one of the speakers to open a session on the use of equity or debt in venture philanthropy by making ludicrous statements on grant-making, i.e. grants inherently generate laziness and can’t be effective. The result was a discussion on the merits of grant-making, which was not the subject, and it took way too long for the actual topic to be addressed.

In another session, that one on the possible creation of a VP fund focusing on the arts, one moderator had thoroughly thought about the systemic obstacles that explain why no such fund has been created so far while the other one merely presented his organization, which had a good illustrative value but missed the broader point.

However, other sessions, for instance on best ways to scale a social enterprise or on Ireland’s Foundation One’s story since its inception, were filled with interesting lessons.

As always, the best part of that conference is in the networking per se. Over the years, an actual European VP community – though “multi-denominational” – has emerged and thus, catching up with colleagues and enjoying that sense of camaraderie is both pleasant and valuable. Also, everyone is very much focused on meeting others and the conference is structured to allow ample breaks for networking.

Lille was quite a stark departure from the Amsterdam Conference. The so-called World Forum on Sustainable Finance (is there an epidemic of World Forums? What’s up with the name?) revolved around sustainable finance. It was a mish-mash of economists, social sector practitioners, investors, and finance professionals from all horizons, and as much as EVPA folks represent a wide array of understanding of what VP is and/or should be, I can tell you that in contrast they form a very homogenous group compared to the people I heard or ran into in Lille. 

The fundamental difference is that all EVPA folks are business people and bring that mentality to whatever philanthropic activities they have. This impacts their vision of the world, typically “I want to invest my money in order to produce tangible results”, and the way they convey it, i.e. very pragmatically and generally clearly and concisely.

In Lille, there was everything in terms of content, from crystal-clear powerpoint presentations to lengthy boring speeches that – good thing – got me to catch up on sleep (!!). The views of what sustainable finance means and how it should brought about differed also very widely. Thus, there was probably more richness and variety in Lille but the event as a result was a bit all over the place.

It is actually ironic, and probably telling, that everyone I talked to in Amsterdam to whom I said that I was on my way to Lille had not even heard of that World Forum…

Amsterdam and Lille, two worlds apart then? 

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

God Save Charlie’s – A few lessons Charlie’s teaches us

I had breakfast at Charlie’s in the South End the other day as we wanted to show this legendary diner to a young friend of ours who was in town for a few days. It was a worthy visit because not only did it delight my palate and senses but also it gave me some food for thought…

Charlie’s teaches us a thing or two about business. It is also the last symbolic bastion of the old South End in an ultra-gentrified neighborhood.

Charlie’s has been a staple in the South End for decades – it has found the formula for staying in business all these years: Consistency and Value… Consistency in their staff, quality of the food, and attention of the service. Charlie’s has been staffed and managed by the same 4 folks since the 70’s (two women and two men). Good people, very welcoming – they each have a different personality but just seem happy to be there. Prices are fine given the quality of the food and the huge portion size but the place is not cheap. You’ll order pancakes, or French toasts, or an omelet – order for two and coffee, you are looking at a $20 check. But Charlie’s offers excellent value: they serve the best French toasts I have ever eaten (and I am big and demanding on anything sweet) and thus, the “package” given the quality of the food and of the welcome is very compelling.

So, in short, a few simple lessons: provide consistent quality and value, know who you are and don’t change your personality (or corporate identity / DNA for that matter)…

Charlie’s is also one of the remnants of the old South End, i.e. the neighborhood as it was pre-gentrification. I am not going to romanticize that era – granted, it had a higher crime rate than today and a lot of the sections were just decrepit. There was much less activity all around and there was no such thing as “Restaurant Row” like today.

However, a sign that shows that the neighborhood has not only changed for the better is that Charlie’s $20 bill for an omelet and coffee for two seems actually dirt cheap compared to the neighborhood’s funky “eateries” (what a terrible word…) where you’ll have to pay about $15 just to get an order of pancakes or French toasts over brunch.

I also find it quite striking that we live in an actual state of de facto segregation in the South End today.

For those of you who don’t know the neighborhood, the South End has historically been the home of several housing projects. Since Boston is required by law to have at least 15% of its housing stock as social housing, the South End projects are not going anywhere. In the past 10-15 years, the folks who were paying market rate rents were priced out by inflation and moved further out and a lot of those who owned places cashed in and left.

As it was getting more hip and lively, the neighborhood kept attracting a younger, whiter, and wealthier crowd and that trend has not stopped. I’ve been in the South End for 5+ years now and disparities keep growing wider and wider.

I look around me and I sense that in most cases people of color look at white folks with mistrust and unease – and conversely.

Again, I don’t want to romanticize the old times but there is a consensus among the old-timers that the neighborhood had much more of a community feel in the 80’s and 90’s as folks loving the Victorian architecture or all the studio loft spaces that were available for almost nothing moved in.

I don’t sense any of this today. Most residents seem to care more about property values and new “eateries” and lounges than about their fellow neighbors.

How did we get there?

Gentrification of historic neighborhoods in downtown areas is not unique to Boston. The same has happened in a lot of big cities around the world, in the US and in Europe in particular. But this is where urban planning comes into play. It should be an essential goal of every large municipality to preserve the “social fabric” of its neighborhoods and do whatever is possible to maintain a representation of all levels of income.

By encouraging new construction or building conversions that only catered to the high end / luxury segment, the City of Boston has in my opinion failed its constituency and failed to make the downtown area a place that is lively and welcoming to everyone - where people from all walks of life feel equally comfortable.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Nutella: Healthy Breakfast or Guilty Pleasure?

Nutella has been running a TV ad in the last couple of weeks that left me dumb-founded when I saw it recently. It basically said that Nutella is an essential part of a healthy breakfast for kids… In my head, Nutella has always been associated with guilty pleasure – at 541 calories for 100 grams (per the Nutella web site and its section on Nutrition Facts) and knowing that adults need between 2000 and 2500 calories per day to function properly (according to the USDA, the US Department of Agriculture), you’d better not feel guilty too much or too often…

1600 calories being the suggested daily intake for kids, 100 grams of Nutella and their 541 calories, that already 1/3 of what a kid needs in his or her everyday life.

Now, the folks at Nutella are smart, or scared of the outrage they could cause, or overly politically correct, or even health-conscious - or maybe all of the above... The commercial that shows a girl and a boy with their Mom at breakfast enjoying a few slices of bread with Nutella spread on them is cautious to say through the mother’s voice that “I [the mother] spread a little on all kinds of healthy things like multigrain toasts” (I put the italics). The text further adds that Nutella is made of “wholesome quality ingredients”, i.e. you don’t make your kids ingest garbage… The commercial ends with a glorious “breakfast never tasted this good”… Perfect, the “Holy Trinity” of foods, i.e. taste, quality of ingredients, and healthy nature of all. That’s a home run, Nutella – bravo, Signor Ferrero!!

It is interesting however to note that Nutella’s web site does not say anything about the 541 calories upfront – you have to dig up and find the page on Nutrition Facts where a Nutella jar label is displayed. And you are in luck only if you thought of taking your calculator with you or if the one in your cell phone has not been bugged by your GPS or something… You’ll see on the label that you’ll ingest 200 calories for 37 grams of Nutella (including 100 grams of fat…), i.e. 541 calories for 100 grams. Thank you, Mom – “I use Nutella to get my kids to eat healthy foods” says she in the commercial, yeah, right!!

If you genuinely care about nutrition for your kids, Nutella while not running away from the actual nutrition facts that are less glorious than its Holy Trinity commercial would suggest has you work pretty hard. The web site does mention “Food Pyramid and Guidelines” but only briefly. The Nutella folks have preferred to post a convenient external link to USDA’s MyPyramid’s web site, a tool explaining how to have a balanced diet.

So, alright, we get it… Nutella has a bunch of lawyers who told them how not to go overboard on the “kid targeting” craziness and thus avoid having obese young adults sue them for selling those guys breakfast that maybe tasted good but had them gulp down an insane amount of calories throughout their childhoods.

And targeting kids and their parents is a smart, sort of long-term strategy that helps Nutella build its brand equity over time to speak business language.

But if Nutella and Ferrero are as responsible as I am sure they claim to be, they’d better stop targeting our children and rather feel free to tempt us adults to succumb to guilty pleasures from time to time…

Leave our kids alone, Nutella people!!