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In April, Horizons co-founder Richard attended the Nexus European Summit 2018 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Here he reflects on a trip which provided as much introspective insight as knowledge regarding the outside world.

As my 5:30am alarm bleated and I was shocked awake, it took a few moments to figure out what was going on. Why on earth am I awake? To catch a plane to Rotterdam was the answer, for the Nexus European Summit.

Heading to the airport, I stared out at a London which was just beginning to muster a rush hour frenzy that would see millions of people going about their day. I felt tentative…and in need of coffee. Although I had heard so much from different people about Nexus, this was my first personal experience of the global community that connects wealth with impact investors, social entrepreneurship and philanthropy.

I didn’t really know what the next few days would bring. Networking? Collaboration? Inspiration? Life lessons? A session on hugging? As I would find out, all of the above.

But what was playing on my mind was whether this “summit” was just a fancy word for conference, and if the room would be filled with positive people with unrealistic expectations. The un-caffeinated cynic in me trundled towards the airport unprepared for what was to come.

 

 

Day 1 – In at the deep end

Upon arrival, the first session – a small workshop with about 10 people – began straight away: “Creating a safe space – Key to continuity”. The term ‘safe space’ is often thrown around as a cliché, so I thought that deploying the classic tactic of hiding at the back would help ease me into the Nexus experience.

The opening words from session-leader Franceso[MSH1]  Lombardo were very powerful as he shared an experience from his life when he was vulnerable. At this moment I clearly had a choice: placate the cynic in me and sit quietly; or get out of my comfort zone, engage with this group of strangers and just maybe I might learn a thing or two. One of the most valuable things I have learned since co-founding Horizons is the importance of pushing the boat out, and how much value can be derived from taking a dive into the unknown, outside of the everyday narrative by which we define ourselves.

Clearly, there was only one real choice. Leap out of the comfort zone, find something private I have buried away, and reveal it to a group of people who, for the most part, I had met about 10 minutes earlier.

The fear of judgment rises as the sceptical voice in my head screams “You fool! Everyone will mock you”, (apparently the sceptic in me is a little dramatic). But I listened to others tell their stories, and when the time came I shared mine, just as they had. Of course it was fine; everyone was in that session to enable themselves and, in order to do that, we must all face a personal fear and admit it. Only then can we address and challenge it!

It was honestly quite a cathartic moment, but not some sort of ray of light beaming on me as warmth filled my soul. No, this was a pragmatic cathartic moment. I had vocalised a negative aspect of myself and by externalising it, can now do something positive about it. Inadvertently it also enabled a group of hitherto strangers to track each other’s progress on a very personal issue for the next few days.

This session adjusted my frame of mind for the evening plenary of networking drinks and dinner. I often find myself trying to find that familiar face, scurrying over to them, and latching on like a limpet. But this time I thought I should try meeting new people, ultimately increasing the number of individuals I could latch on to like a limpet at future gatherings.

 

 

Day 2 – Whirlwind

Unfortunately I didn’t make it to the 7am yoga class. I would like to blame a glass too many of the sustainably sourced organic wine but the reality is, I just can’t do yoga, and you would have needed a grenade to get me out of bed that morning. Too much catharsis is tiring stuff, apparently.

So what would today hold? I sat in the morning plenary expecting a similar dose of inspirational speakers and ideas about changing the world, when a young man in a very cool tribal style robe…thing…appeared and started talking about hugging.

That cynical voice returned with vengeance, laughing hysterically at me and this predicament I found myself in, hugging strangers. I can embrace pragmatic ideas which improve mindfulness, but needlessly initiating physical contact with strangers at ten in the morning felt a stretch. I was sat in the middle of a row, surrounded. The awkward Brit in me wouldn’t allow a run for the exit. It was too late. A practical lesson in hugging was unavoidable.

Just so you know, as you have probably been doing it wrong, here is a quick heads up on how to hug:

  •     Square up and don’t stick your ass out.
  •     Lean the head to the right, yes the right. It might seem wrong, but just do it.
  •    Hold on a little longer than what naturally feels comfortable. Just that little bit longer.

The result: a pretty damn good hug, and mild awkwardness.

Whilst re-learning how to hug might not be what I flew to Rotterdam for, it was an effective icebreaker. Afterwards, even if you were meeting someone for the first time, you hugged.

After the hugging, it was time to deal with the business of how we can change the world with a day rammed with rousing speakers and workshops.

 

Day 3 – Reflect

I realise at this point you must be wondering what this is all about. Breaking out of comfort zones, hugging, inspirational speakers, but no real detail about the actual content. The reason for that is because there was simply too much; attempting to cover all of the content in 1000 words – from reshaping urban living to funding companies in Africa would be doing these professionals a disservice. Needless to say they all influenced my thinking in their own unique way.

My most important takeaway was to reignite the enthusiasm for impact investing. It is easy to get caught up in quotidian life and let your passion for disrupting traditional institutions falter, your cynical voice convincing you that there is nothing you can do to change the way the world is.

But there is. Everyone I met is attacking this space from a different angle to disrupt the norm. Top down, bottom up, grass roots, traditional institutions, and everything in between. And the bottom line is that we can only bring about genuine change through all of these approaches.

Nexus is not just about hippy ideals and a gathering of lofty sentiments. It is about creating sustainable change through the traditional means of business. Financial returns and having a positive impact on society are not mutually exclusive. Today, the best businesses are combining the two, and we should strive to join them.

Richard Blackwell