Skoll World Forum 2014: from the most touching stories to the coollest innovation


Caroline Hartnell

Caroline Hartnell

Caroline Hartnell

The Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, to give it its full title, is more than anything about celebrating social entrepreneurs. The 2014 Skoll World Forum, held in Oxford 9-11 April, was no exception. The awards ceremony, though less glitzy than previous years, and all the better for that, is the supreme moment of celebration.

Social entrepreneurs are disruptive, said Skoll Foundation president Sally Osberg, introducing the ceremony (‘disruptive’ is a favourite Skoll word). ‘They take aim at perverse systems and uncover solutions; they disrupt the status quo … Getting rid of global problems is no task for the faint-hearted.’

No task for the faint-hearted

Malala after receiving her award

Malala after receiving her award

It certainly isn’t! Take Girls Not Brides, whose founder Mabel van Oranje ‘wants to end child marriage in one generation’. Currently 14 million girls get married under 18 each year. Launched in September 2011, Girls Not Brides is now a global partnership of more than 300 civil society organizations working across 50 countries. Or Fundación Capital, whose founder Yves Moury aims to get 100 million families set up with bank accounts and financial training in the next six or seven years. Or Malala Yousafzai, known simply as ‘Malala’, who is only the third ever recipient of Skoll’s ‘Golden Global Treasure’ award, and wants all children in school by 2015. Clearly not goals for the faint-hearted!

And the other Skoll awardees were no less impressive – B Lab, Global Witness, Medic Mobile, Slum Dwellers International and Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP). Click here to read more about them>

The most touching stories …
Everyone at Skoll – and in the philanthropy world more widely – is keen on the idea of ‘stories’, and many of the social entrepreneurs at the Skoll Forum had wonderful stories. Often whole enterprises had grown from a single experience. Sam Parker of WSUP described how, eight years ago, he saw a 2-year-old sitting on the ground with sewage running over his feet. There was a tap nearby but no water coming out. WSUP is now providing water and sanitation to nearly 2 million people in urban slums in six countries.

Mabel van Oranje of Girls Not Brides remembered talking to a 14-year-old girl in Bihar about her wedding day. ‘I was afraid,’ she said. ‘I was a child.’ As the mother of two daughters, aged 7 and 9, the story hit her.
For Jenny Bowen, a previous Skoll awardee and founder of Half the Sky Foundation‎, it all began when she adopted a little girl from a Chinese orphanage. The child was suffering physically and emotionally from the effects of institutionalization, but a year’s love transformed her. This experience determined Bowen that providing training and support for carers in Chinese orphanages could transform the lives of other children. Founded in 1998, Half the Sky Foundation is now the biggest NGO in China, with 1,700 staff, working in partnership with the Chinese government in 54 cities in China.

The biggest buzz …
Impressive as these social enterprises are, what they achieve is still only a drop in the ocean compared to the problems to be solved. While Fundación Capital aims to reach 100 million families in the next six or seven years, a hugely ambitious target, the world has 2.5 billion adults who are unbanked, ie lacking access to financial services.

Achieving scale was the focus of a session on Friday afternoon which saw the launch of Monitor Inclusive Markets’ (MIM) new report Beyond the Pioneer: Getting inclusive industries to scale. The report looks at the key barriers to scale at the level of the ecosystem rather than the individual business and identifies the role of ‘facilitators’ in removing them. Harvey Koh, one of the authors, described how MIM’s housing programme had moved from building houses to getting affordable finance to working with government.

There was a real buzz in this session. Scaling is a critical issue for many, as attested by the packed room. ‘If I was a social entrepreneur, I’d love to have Shell Foundation coming in and hugging me, or DFID “tweaking” with government,’ commented Skoll Foundation’s Alex Sloan, an excellent ‘facilitator’. Shell Foundation and DFID are two of the facilitators cited in the MIM report.

The work of B Lab, one of this year’s Skoll awardees, is all about creating the infrastructure for social businesses. B Corps or Benefit Corporations are companies with a social purpose that serve both their shareholders and society more broadly. Before the creation of B Corps in 2007, people trying to use businesses to solve social problems were often constrained by their legal structure. With 20 states in the US having passed Benefit Corporation legislation, nearly 1,000 B Corps certified, and 16,000 companies using its tools, B Lab is now focused on accelerating the global adoption of this new model.

… and the coollest innovation

Will Marshall with the Dove

Will Marshall with the Dove

I have to end with Will Marshall of Planet Labs, who featured in a star-studded closing plenary. ‘What could you do if you had access to images of the earth every single day?’ was the question he threw out. Social entrepreneurs tend to work in places with little data and little information, he said. Satellites are big and expensive, and existing images of the planet are old. How to democratize access to satellites and satellite data? Well, working in a garage, Planet Labs has created a tiny satellite called Dove, measuring just 30 by 10 by 10 centimetres. Twenty-eight have already been launched and soon there will be 100 in orbit. Forming a continuous line round the earth, they will take a picture of each part of the earth every 24 hours as the earth rotates. Someone monitoring deforestation due to illegal logging will be able to see daily changes. How cool is that!

Caroline Hartnell, is editor of Alliance magazine.

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