Disruptive Entrepreneurship Part I: We’re Going to Change the World

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For just three days once a year, I don’t have to explain myself. The notion that business and social impact are in fact mutually reinforcing — rather than at odds — is implicit. In this sacred and magical space, everyone is using entrepreneurship to change the world through disrupting obsolete systems that no longer serve humanity, and finding innovative ways to use the tools of capitalism for the good of society and our planet.

Every year, almost 1000 hand-picked social entrepreneurs travel to one of the world’s oldest academic institutions, Oxford University, to the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship—widely regarded as the ‘Davos’ of social innovation.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Forum, and it’s hard to believe that today, the social entrepreneurship movement has galvanized some 300 million people around the world.

After an energetic opening performance by female Rwandan drummers Ignoma Nysha, Jeff Skoll, former ebay President and founder of both the Skoll Foundation and Oscar-winning production company Participant Media, left attendees with his vision for the future: a world where every child receives a basic education, pandemics appear in history books, and weapons were only sold in antique shops.

Other plenaries featured leading global pioneers (and some of my greatest inspirations) like: former Norwegian (and first female) Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Bruntland—after whom the 1980s UN sustainable development Bruntland Commission is named; Wall Street executive turned impact investor Jacqueline Novogratz, Founder and CEO of the Acumen Fund; 2006 Nobel Laureate and Grameen Bank Founder, Muhammad Yunus who received the Skoll Global Treasure Award, and whose soprano daughter Monica performed at the Forum; and the captivating singer song-writer HIV/AIDS activist Annie Lennox, who received an honorary Skoll Award.

With a choice of 8 parallel sessions at one time, I faced the usual predicament of wanting to attend more sessions than was physically possible. The menu of topics included ‘Re-examining Your Personal Theory of Change’, ‘Measuring to Improve (and Not Just to Prove)’, ‘ The Science and Anthropology of Aggression’, and ‘Young, Educated and Out of Work: The Middle East’s Jobless Generation’.

Delegate-led lunch discussions delved into topics like ‘Managing your Social Enterprise for Growth’, ‘Social Finance Innovation’ and ‘The Carbon Conversation’.

Whether in-between sessions, over dinners at the Harry Potter-esque Oxford Colleges, or karaoke at the Oxford Retreat, everything and everyone at Skoll exudes energy, positivity and momentum. Every conversation offers a learning moment, a potential for collaboration, or a blaze of inspiration. Everyone comes here to offer you his or her story of change.

One such moving story was witnessed during the screening of Rafea: Solar Mama, which documents the journey of an illiterate Bedouin Jordanian woman who trains to become a solar engineer at Barefoot College in India.

Other warriors of change were this year’s Skoll awardees, categorized into three main areas:

Peace & Security

  • Independent Diplomat (ID) helps marginalized countries and groups have a say in international negotiations about their own future.
  • Remaining entirely behind-the-scenes as a catalyst and coordinator, Crisis Action brings human rights and humanitarian organizations together across continents to protect civilians from armed conflict.

Education

  • Khan Academy strives to provide a free, self-paced world-class education for anyone, anywhere – through online content delivered directly to independent learners worldwide and through a blended learning model that includes direct implementations and its freely available online teacher toolkit.
  • The Citizens Foundation provides affordable primary and secondary private education to low-income students, with a focus on girls in urban slums and rural areas in Pakistan.

Healthcare

  • BasicNeeds raises awareness and drives more effective treatment of mental health problems that impact millions in developing countries, but are often misunderstood, underfunded and considered taboo. 
  • By taking an innovative market-based approach to health care delivery, World Health Partners improves the quality of rural health care on a large scale by creating a complete service delivery ecosystem. Among its services, it connects informal rural health providers to qualified doctors through telemedicine, thereby providing access to a wide range of critical health services and products.

The Forum also saw Harvard Business School Professor and creator of the ‘shared value’ concept, Michael Porter, launch the Social Progress Index (SPI) across 50 countries.

The index measures a nation's social progress using 50 non-economic indicators, including nutrition, sanitation, ecosystem sustainability and personal freedom.

Sweden ranks number one as the most socially advanced country globally, followed by the UK. In the MENA region, the UAE ranked 19th,Tunisia 28th, Morocco 37th, Egypt 40th, and Jordan 48th.

So what were my key takeaways from this year’s Skoll World Forum? Stay tuned for Part II.

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