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September 03, 2012

Rebranded, the SRI Conference Heads East
    by Robert Kropp

SocialFunds.com talks with Steve Schueth of First Affirmative Financial Network about the history of the conference and the decision to locate it at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut this year. First of a two-part series.

SocialFunds.com -- There may have been a few raised eyebrows among language purists when the long-running SRI in the Rockies conference was held in New Orleans last year. This year's conference, which opens on October 2nd, heads even further east—all the way to the Mohegan Sun Conference Center in Connecticut—but the conference has been rebranded as The SRI Conference on Sustainable, Responsible, Impact Investing, in part as an acknowledgement to geography but mostly, according to Steve Schueth of First Affirmative Financial Network, to register the evolution of an increasingly influential industry.

"The new brand flows from our belief that all investment decisions have impact," Schueth told SocialFunds.com. "The question is whether the investor is paying attention and making a conscious choice."

"What continues to evolve is more and more emphasis on positive impact, as opposed to where we started, which was avoiding the bad guys," he continued. "Now it's about catalyzing businesses to help us build a more sustainable future."

As President of First Affirmative, Schueth has been involved in producing the conference for the past 20 years. But in fact, his involvement in it began when he was an executive with Calvert Investments, which, he noted, was the earliest sponsor of the conference.

"The commitment that Calvert has always had to SRI, and the support that Calvert has always provided for the conference, is significant," Schueth said.

The conference actually originated as a compliance meeting in 1990, when First Affirmative's CEO George Gay gathered 46 representatives together in Colorado, and named the meeting SRI in the Rockies.

The conference remained a meeting of First Affirmative representatives until 1996, when Schueth was chairman of the Social Investment Forum, now US SIF: The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment. "A strategic partnership between the Forum and First Affirmative led to SRI in the Rockies becoming an industry conference," Schueth said. "That first conference attracted 240 people and was held in Jackson Hole, Wyoming."

By 2007, almost 700 investors and investment professionals attended the conference, and the number of attendees this year is expected to be about 600.

"We're very successful in being the gathering place for investors and investment professionals who are interested in using money in a more positive and transformative way," Schueth said. "It's still the largest and longest-running event of its kind in North America."

Much of the focus of last year's conference was on the contribution of community investment to the recovery of New Orleans from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. This year, Schueth said, "The fact that we'll be in the Northeast will be a little bit more convenient for those folks in the major finance centers of Boston and New York."

Furthermore, he added, "What attracted us to the Mohegan Sun was the tribe itself." Lynn Malerba, who is only the second woman chief of the Mohegan tribe in at least 300 years, will deliver the keynote address; she will also take part in a session on tribal sovereignty.

"What happens to the revenue stream and the profits from the Mohegan businesses?" Schueth asked. "It goes to the community." The tribe is also one of the largest taxpayers to the state of Connecticut; furthermore, Schueth added, "They share their profits with other tribes around the country. There are not that many tribes that are located near major metropolitan areas where they can build businesses that attract money. The vast majority of Native American tribes are still dirt-poor."

Also featured on the conference agenda is Bruce Bozsum, the chairman of the Mohegan Tribal Council as well as the spiritual leader of the tribe. In addition to taking part in a breakout session on entrepreneurship and economic development in Native American communities, Boszum will also perform a traditional welcoming ritual at the start of the conference.

Given that negative screens remain the most widely used form of sustainable investment—according to US SIF's 2010 Trends Report, 90% of sustainable investment dollars are invested in negative screens—it is not surprising that locating the conference at a site most widely known for gaming resulted in a measure of controversy. "It was not our intention to make gaming and Native American economic development a lightning rod for the 2012 conference," Schueth wrote in March. "We believe that our choice of the Mohegan Sun Conference Center makes great sense for the SRI/ESG industry, in terms of promoting diversity and encouraging a greater focus on community impact investing."

"There was a long process in thinking through and weighing the trade-offs," Schueth told SocialFunds.com. "We feel it is important to have the conversation so that the SRI community understands a different aspect of community impact investing as it is practiced by native tribes."

"Running a conference is clearly not our core business, but we've always looked at this as a service to the industry," Schueth said. "It is not designed to make money. The number of new initiatives that come out of this conference every year, especially on the shareholder advocacy front but also for community investing as well, has been a real value add for the industry."

Next: The list of speakers at this year's SRI Conference on Sustainable, Responsible, Impact Investing include Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus, author Deepak Chopra, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

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