Last week, I spent three days in Oxford at the Skoll Forum for Social Entrepreneurship, a three-day shindig at Oxford's Said Business School. A wide range of speakers were there, including "the man who used to be the next President of the United States", Al Gore; Robert "what is wrong with today's society is its obsession with celebrity" Redford (shoehorned in as a social entrepreneur himself....OK, so it's a broad church, but Sundance is pretty cool); Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank fame, Noreena Hertz and many more.
Its focus was primarily on finance, which lent it a particular feel (at times, like a US asset management conference) but there was inspiration and information packed in as well, particularly in the fringe events and the dedicated seminars. It's an interesting field at the moment: lots of innovations and developments, but also differences of opinion, of definition, of focus, of value....so it's an interesting place to be.
I'll (retrospectively) blog about the main two days shortly, but just to give an overview of the opening session first up:
Began with the Adivasis playing music to welcome people into the main hall. Then an intro from the business school's dean, Anthony Hopwood, who told us that 30% of students there now take a social entrepreneurship module.
Jeff Skoll (serial entrepreneur, philanthropist and, according to Ben Kingsley last year, a human silk route) then introduced the forum, saying that "social entrepreneurship is not a passing fad but an international phenomenon" and that this field was where "rebellion is being defined in the 21st century". He also talked about something which the Global Ideas Bank has always believed in: that social inventors and entrepreneurs have two types of power: the power to work directly on the problem they are aiming to solve, and the power to inspire.
Next up was Bunker Roy, the founder of the extraordinary Barefoot College. I won't say much here, but you should look at the site and get inspired. He talked about redefining the very idea of 'professional', so that if you have (indigenous) knowledge and skills, you are a (barefoot) professional, and that this is "far more valuable than any paper qualification" (always a nice thing to be heard at one of the world's leading academic institutions!). He also talked about legitimate, local knowledge, rather than taught knowledge....and had some nice party pieces about World Bank reports (which they use to make communication puppets) and the quotable "never let school interfere with your education" (who did he take that from?). Finally, something we could all listen to, when thinking about social change: "only if it is community-managed and community-owned will the solution be sustainable and have a lasting impact".
Moving swiftly on, we had Noreena Hertz, of globalization writing fame, and Ian Goldin, of deputy something at the World Bank fame. This was a bizarre session, which ostensibly was a conversation about how governments and business could help encourage or facilitate social entrepreneurship. Somewhat inevitably given their areas of expertise it went on to international development and globalisation...and neither seemed to know much about the subject of the forum...particularly Hertz, who floundered somewhat in the Q & A, and came up with some marvellous lines (addressing the "level to which the playing field is unlevel" and talked of "disembedding" things....). Hey ho: both obviously know their stuff...but maybe at another event?
Then came the highlight of Wednesday evening: John Elkington, David Blood and Al Gore (memorably introduced by Jeff Skoll with the line, "some vice-presidents spend their time quail-hunting with friends...or just quail-hunting their friends"). Blood and Gore, as they are affectionately known, have started up Generation Investment which aims to counter the short-term mania in markets (so not announcing its profits before three years are up) and not look at value through a purely monetary lens. So they evaluate the businesses they invest in based on sustainability too, on the basis that "sustainability will drive business over the next 50 years" and those that pre-empt this will do best. There was much talk about internalising the externalities as well...so things like the environment are directly factored in....They also discussed the spectrum of return (purely social/philanthropic at one end, and purely financial at the other) they think of.
Gore was excellent, and very entertaining, with the occasional sideswipe at the current US administration and reference to his current status (well prompted by a question from the floor by a self-confessed "impudent Scot"). And excellent because he and his partner Blood were concise, eloquent and unevasive with their answers....
Next up was Robert Redford who, as I mentioned above, talked of society's obsession with celebrity which, seeing as that was really the main reason he was talking, was rather ironic. To be fair, Redford has been committed politically and in his film career, and the Sundance Festival (and film workshops etc which it does) have been a force for good, both with documentaries and in revitalising independent and, to a degree, world cinema. He also resisted the definition being thrust upon him of social entrepreneur, saying simply that "I resist definitions", although there was a link with earlier words when he mentioned that his education took place outside of the classroom...
So an interesting opening. Almost four hours straight without a break, but everyone just about made it through to the reception for the most important part of any conference/event: the networking over a drink.