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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Skoll World Forum 2009: Opening Plenary

By Vinay Nagaraju

Panel session at Skoll World Forum.

Editor's note: NextBillion.net will cover the Skoll World Forum 2009 through a team of Guest Writers. Vinay Nagaraju, author of this post, comes from Bangalore in India. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science and Engineering from Bangalore University and is currently pursuing his MBA at the Said Business School at Oxford University. 

By Vinay Nagaraju

The day I was waiting for finally arrived! As the opening plenary of the sixth edition of the Skoll World Forum unfolded yesterday evening at the magnificent Sheldonian Theatre at the heart of Oxford, I remembered the time when I chose to pursue my MBA at Saïd Business School. The opportunity to witness the forum and connect with people in the social entrepreneurship space was a primary reason behind my choice. Last night, the time had come to live those moments.

As I look forward to the next few days of intense conversations and possible crystallization of various ideas, I intend to share my experiences here on NextBillion.net. A brief account of today's ceremony will be a good preface to the ensuing write-ups.

Stephan Chambers in his opening remarks introduced this year's theme: "Shifting Power Dynamics". Invoking German philosopher Emmanuel Kant who had said that some day there will be a universal peace, and that it would come about by human insight or by catastrophe; he hoped it was the former. He set the stage for the forum at a time of global upheaval and the need for peace and change. In his speech, Jeff Skoll welcomed the 785 delegates hailing from 65 countries and said that there were burning issues facing the world populace. The big challenges of water scarcity, climate change, violence and the recent financial crisis were all staring at our face. He deemed that the conversations this year in comparison to the last have changed focus from creative capitalism to future of capitalism. He also said that social entrepreneurs had two gaps to fill for humanity - those of opportunity and hope that real change is possible. In his inimitable sense of humor, signifying the changing times (read global financial crisis) he presented the Said Business School, the co-hosts of the forum a piggy bank.

Roger L. Martin, Dean, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto spoke on The Power Paradox. While quoting from Obama's inaugural speech when he said "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals", he said that Social Entrepreneurs had to reject the notion that existing models are the reality. He goaded the audience to question status quo and embrace the power of paradox.

These speeches were followed by a panel discussion titled "Power to the People: Citizen Engagement and Social Transformation". The speakers were Kailash Satyarthi, President, Global Campaign for Education, Chairman, Global March Against Child Labour, The Honorable Mary Robinson, President, "Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative", and Daniel Lubetzky, Founder and President of PeaceWorks Group. All of them stressed on leadership and how social entrepreneurs can connect the worlds of the powerless and the powerful and creating lasting social impact.

The most inspiring address was the final one by Kenneth S. Brecher, Executive Director of the Sundance Institute. In an eloquent way he began with the history of the Sheldonian theatre itself and told the moving and inspiring tale of Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet who was given an honorary doctorate at the very place where we were. Isaiah Berlin speaking of her had said that she was not a visionary and that she had, for the most part, a strong sense of reality. He said that this was an attribute, all social entrepreneurs assembled here probably had. Towards the end, the audience were on their feet applauding not just his inspiring speech but as a reflection of the space that was created this evening.

"Few new truths have ever won their way against the resistance of established ideas save by being overstated."  Isaiah Berlin

After these venues, delegates enjoyed dinners across Oxford's many colleges and spent the rest of the evening in meaning conversations and connecting with one another. We'll continue to report here over the next few days. 

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