The annual Skoll World Forum in Oxford —called the “Davos for social entrepreneurs”—is always about celebrating up-and-coming and established entrepreneurs who don’t simply want to get rich but also want to forge innovative solutions to the world’s social problems. But this year’s event, sold-out despite the dismal global economy, was as much about achieving some legitimacy, at last, for the fledgling new field. At the time of the first Skoll Forum six years ago, social entrepreneurship was seen “as an interesting but ephemeral fad” by those in mainstream business, academia, government, and the media, said Skoll Centre Director Pamela Hartigan. But not anymore: these same people, Hartigan said, are now finding that social entrepreneurship has been “a harbinger of future organizations, systems, and practices.”
The forum—which was held in what Skoll’s Oxford Centre Chairman Stephan Chambers called “the most chilling economic environment we’ve ever experienced”—was hosted by Oxford University and Jeff Skoll’s social enterprise foundation last week. [Skoll, who was the first employee and first president of eBay, also is the founder of the independent movie company, Participant Productions.]
Some 785 delegates from 65 countries attended the event, the biggest-ever Skoll forum, including Kailash Satyarthi, chairman of the Global March Against Child Labor; Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and currently the founder and president of Peace Worlds Group, and Soraya Salti, senior vice president of INJAZ al-Arab, a youth education and empowerment project in Jordan. A wide range of panels Thursday and Friday included talks entitled The Uses and Abuses of Power in Social Innovation, Capital Markets in Crisis, Powerful Women: Shifting the Status Quo, Technology and Shifting Power in a Hyper-Connected World, and Tomorrow’s News: Models for an Everyone-is-Media World.
Cause Global covered parts of the conference, which we at SSIR will be cross-posting this week. Among some of the first-day’s highlights:
- Roger Martin, the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, urged conferees to be “the kinds of leaders who reject the traditional choices between two or more unsatisfactory alternatives and instead create new courses of action in the world.” Martin, during an opening ceremony at the historic Sheldonian Theatre, referred to President Obama’s inaugural speech, in which Obama asserted: “For our common defense, we reject as false a choice between our safety and our ideals.” Rotman said that time and again, highly successful leaders reject unsatisfactory options and create new alternatives. “They understand the power of the paradox,” Martin said. “The critical take-away for social entrepreneurs, specifically, is that you must reject the notion that existing business models equal reality. The status-quo business model versus civil society is not a choice but rather the root of a new model, a new set of solutions for our times.”
- Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and now president of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalisation Initiative, underscored the importance of government to help bring order to the current “chaotic” climate of change that is being felt around the world. She said: “One of the shifts taking place in this severe economic crisis is a recognition that government matters and that it’s very important to the 21st century. We had been in a neo-liberal phase when there was a reduction of government and the private sector was supposed to be so efficient and we didn’t need regulation. I am hoping we are now seeing a new era of more appropriate government, governments that are more responsive and also more welcoming to younger people with their tools of the information society. We need for people to become more participative in their communities and societies and their movements. We need more people holding those in power to account. How are social entrepreneurs holding existing institutions to account? We need more of that. It’s important to do that and that’s what social entrepreneurs and young people with their tools can do very well.”
- Ken Brecher, the executive director of the Sundance Institute and an anthropologist by training, delivered an eloquent speech that underscored the importance of passion and persistence in the pursuit of the common good. He received a hearty round of applause when he compared the traits of social entrepreneurs to those traits which characterized and qualified the fearless crews recruited by the early 20th century explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton. [Brecher quoted an advertisement that Shackleton placed in The London Times in 1907: “Wanted: Men for hazardous journey, low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in the event of success.”] Brecher also spoke about the perserverance and resilience that characterized the life of the late Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who received an honorary degree from Oxford in 1965, when she was 76 years old, during a ceremony in the Sheldonian Theatre [the spot where Skoll conferees were assembled Wednesday night]. Brecher urged social entrepreneurs to heed Akhmatova’s example of creativity and passion against brutal odds to bring new levels of sanity to the world. “You can use your skills to bring order from chaos and in doing so fulfill the highest human function, not as visionary but with a strong sense of reality. (Akhmatova’s life was) a reproach to those who feel that a single individual can never stand up to the march of history.”
We’ll be running more highlights through the week. For more on social entrepreneurs and the state of social innovation, see this recent article in The Economist.
Marcia Stepanek is Founding Editor-in-Chief and President, News and Information, for Contribute Media, a New York-based magazine, Web site, and conference series about the new people and ideas of giving. She is the publisher of Cause Global, an acclaimed new blog about the use of digital media for social change. She also serves as moderator and producer of New Conversations for Change, Contribute’s forum series highlighting social entrepreneurs and new trends in philanthropy.