Monday, May 14, 2018

Meet the world's top social entrepreneurs

This year's Skoll World Forum for social entrepreneurs took place in Oxford, UK, April 10-13. Sadly, it marked the conference’s first year without founder Jeff Skoll, the Canadian-born engineer who became the first president of eBay. Now virtually the patron saint of social entrepreneurs, Jeff stayed home in California to recover from back surgery.

Jimmy Carter acceptance speech
But 1300 people showed up to the conference, making it the largest Skoll World ever. They presented a “Global Treasure” award to Jimmy Carter, and explored issues such as improving global healthcare, sustainable economic development, preserving indigenous cultures, enhancing agriculture in Africa, and fighting indentured slavery. 

After the 2017 conference, which was still reeling in shock from the election of Trump and his band of narcissistic nationalists, the world’s best social entrepreneurs proved this year that they're back in fighting form and ready to move forward again with their innovative, inspiring agendas for improving the human condition.

Dinner at Oxford's 600-year-old Divinity School
I wrote three stories on the Skoll conference. Here’s a quick summary.

“Proximity triggers empathy.” 
My first story for the Financial Post explored the conference’s surprising but very meaningful theme, “The Power of Proximity.” As I wrote, in phrasing that gained some Twitter traction, “Yes, this sounds like the business bromide ‘Get closer to your customer.’ But Skoll’s adoption of this theme demonstrated that this advice applies to any entrepreneur — especially when times are tough. It’s so easy to neglect your mission amid the day-to-day struggle to survive. As a leader, you have to stay focused on relationships even when things are so hard and complex that you feel you’ll never get home for dinner again.”

Jehiel Oliver of Hello Tractor
The story explored “proximity” through the case study of a social venture called “Hello Tractor.” U.S. founder Jehiel Oliver confessed that his initial plan to disrupt African agriculture by getting affordable tractors in the hands of small landholders failed because he didn't wasn’t close enough to the market. “We tried to do it the Silicon Valley way,” says Oliver. “But we had to do it the community way instead.”

"To whom much is given, much is required." 
My second Post story zoomed in on a key challenge for social entrepreneurs and the world: how to make governments more efficient. As I wrote, “Government waste breeds cynicism, inequality and despair. The entrepreneurs tackling this intractable problem could spur new efficiencies around the world.”

2018 Skoll Award winners
I looked at two ventures that this year received Skoll Awards, which are given annually to promising social ventures whose innovations have already had significant, proven impact on some of the world’s most pressing problems.

Code for America trains tech-savvy “fellows” to improve the ways governments offer services, by embracing concepts such as design thinking and iterative, user-centered approaches. According to founder Jennifer Pahlka, CFA now has 70 local “brigades” whose work has helped more than 500,000 people. 

Just as important, she says CFA’s efforts are firing up public servants. “The people we call bureaucrats are actually a massive force for good, who are just hungry for the tools and approaches that will let them effectively help their fellow citizens. And we, the people, can help them unlock that enormous potential.” 
(There's now also a Code for Canada, doing similar work. Visit https://codefor.ca/)

The second winner was Barbara Bush, the daughter of former U.S. president George H.W. Bush, co-founder of New York City-based GlobalHealth Corps. “Our ‘big idea’ was – and still is – that great ideas don’t change the world, great people do,” Bush told me in an interview by email. GHC has now trained and placed 1,000 “fellows” under the age of 30 in medical facilities and governments in the U.S., Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia. They are young, educated and committed catalysts for change, says Bush:

“We realized that there was a major implementation gap in global health. Millions were dying from treatable illnesses because they weren’t being reached with the incredible life-saving tools and information we have. On the flip side, we saw a huge supply of passionate, talented young leaders who wanted to change the world.  So we set out to maximize this interest by recruiting and training a new generation of leaders to ensure people can live full, healthy lives. We are seeding the global health field with incredible talent who will effect change throughout their careers.”



"You are a barrier against disinformation, duplicity and destruction.”
My third story was written for Corporate Knights magazine (the issue will be out in June, but it was posted online last week.) It’s a collection of highlights from the whole Skoll event – from Jimmy Carter’s acceptance speech to an Indian lawyer’s story of his journey out of slavery.

Gwynne Shotwell of Space X
I also couldn't resist quoting Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX, on how to create bold, successful change:

  • Execute missions that seem impossible.
  • Relentless focus on progress and improving every cycle.
  • Drive feedback to ensure we learn and fix quickly.
  • Superior staff is the only way to achieve great things.

(Sorry about that downer ending. But the best way to create social justice is to recognize inequality in your own backyard.)


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