By Brij Kothari*

For a social entrepreneur like me, and I suspect other ‘Schwabies’, September to January is a peak season for conferences.  We get high on the hope it brings to advance our cause but, over time, also sobered by the experience of outcomes.

This year my season kicked off with the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) in September in New York.  October brought with it the Tech Awards Gala in San Jose.  We’re in November and I find myself with the indomitable Sakena Yacoobi at the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Doha, still wondering how we got here.  The invitation felt a bit like a lottery ticket that landed in the mail.

Sakena is on her way to several engagements in San Francisco.  My next stop is the India Economic Summit (IES) in Mumbai.  In January there looms an Ashoka Globalizer programme in Munich.  Who knows what else is on the path.

That does sound like an awful case of ‘conference-dropping’ but it is also an opportune moment to reflect on something that I haven’t yet figured out how to accomplish.  Call it ‘triangulated networking’.

Networking in twos is easy.  Indeed most informal networking is in dyads.  As social entrepreneurs we look forward to making our pitch to someone from the government, or the private sector.  However, triangulated networking, or the ability to bring together, over an informal cup of coffee, someone from the corporate sector, the government, and the social innovation space, is hard. And yet, that is where, I believe, the magic of sustainable social change comes to life.

The key words are ‘informal’ and ‘purposeful’.  Triangulated networking is not a formal meeting.  However, it rarely happens organically, and therefore, may have to be nudged in a playful context.

At WISE I saw the utility of a table for speed networking, out there in the vortex of the main lobby.  Six random people were coaxed to gather around a table and we all had five minutes to interact with the person across the rectangular table.  When timer ran out, we all rotated one seat, clockwise and repeated the process.  Often, but not always, we were left wanting more.  Speed dating does introduce a palpable sense of fun.

At conferences that do manage to attract a critical mass of people from the government, corporations and civil society, where individuals could be colour-coded to represent their sector, would it be feasible to nudge people toward triangulated networking?

*Brij Kothari is Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur, Ashoka Fellow, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and Founder, PlanetRead and BookBox Literacy for a Billion.