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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Skoll World Forum: Awards and Closing Ceremonies Set the High Points for the Venue

By Vinay Nagaraju

Sheldoninan Theater at Oxford University.

Folks, here is my final piece from the Skoll World Forum 2009 in Oxford. Being there last few days was a humbling, inspiring, overwhelming, connecting and a fulfilling experience. Two high points during the venue were the Skoll Awards for Social Entrepreneurship and the Skoll Forum Closing Ceremony.

Skoll Awards for Social Entrepreneurship

Words deceive me to express how inspired the space was at the Skoll awards ceremony last Thursday evening. Set at the magnificent Sheldonian, the awards were a tribute to the indomitable courage and energy that takes a social entrepreneur in any part of the world to be a catalyst and bring about change.

The evening began to foot tapping performance by KT Tunstall , a Scottish singer-songwriter and guitarist. In introducing her Sally Osberg, President and CEO of Skoll Foundation said that KT has been contributing to the cause of Climate Change by taking buses on tours that run on bio-diesel. I knew little about her but thanks to Wikipedia I am now enlightened on this amazing performer.

Sally Osberg rightly said that the Skoll Forum was convening in exceptional circumstances when the old order was collapsing and the challenge to create and morally justifiable and sustainable world was in front of us. She likened Social Entrepreneurs to 'scouts' in ant communities that go out in search of new sites. "Social Entrepreneurs are humanities scouts. - signally there is something out there that is hopeful. Skoll amplifies such signals." Follow her address were three short films on healthcare and IT footprint, Root Capital and their transformative work with Tanzanian farmers and one on the use of IT education to bridge the digital divide in marginalized youth communities in Brazil. Titled Uncommon Heroes, the film series clearly resonated with the topic of the Winning Hearts and Minds I wrote about before.

R.K.Pachauri, Nobel Peace Prize winner and chair of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  delivered the keynote address. He praised Social Entrepreneurs as missionaries of a fair and just society who are today fashioning a new development paradigm in tune with grassroots realities. "Social Entrepreneurs also provide a form of powerful governance." He shared an anecdote of Mahatma Gandhi while stressing the importance of sustainable use of natural resources. I paraphrase it here: Once, a British friend of Gandhi asked him if he did not want India to proposer like Britain. Gandhi paused and said that if Britain needed half the resources in the world to be what it was, then imagine what would happen if India wanted to be as prosperous as Britain.

Climate change, he said, is only a subset of the dangers of unsustainable development and the most affected in any catastrophes are the poorest of the poor. This is an inequitable impact. In addition, while giving the shocking statistic that there are 1.6 billion homes without access to electricity in the world, he shared his dream of lighting a billion homes.

This was followed by the Skoll Award distribution to 9 awardees including Root Capital, one of the undisputable leaders and pioneers in the Development through Enterprise space. The audience was inspired and were on their feet applauding the significant impact each of these awardees had on their communities. More than $5 million was given as grants to these people.  The evening concluded with a few more songs by KT and a reception at the Examination Schools at High Street.

In all, an enthralling evening, great fellowship, bright ideas, uncommon heroes and common good!

Skoll Forum Closing Ceremony

A morning full of equally engaging sessions separated the Awards ceremony from the Skoll World Forum closing ceremony, which focused on the role of education in the social entrepreneurship space.

Pamela Hartigan, the Director of Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Said Business School was the hostess of the closing plenary. She began by telling us that the Skoll World Forum was 6th most twittered event in the world in the last couple of days. Hosting it at Oxford University, the oldest university in the English speaking world was illustrating the importance of it. She said that her vision for the Skoll center was to have Social Entrepreneurship as a harbinger of future systems and practices in this space. Skoll center has been awarding scholarships for MBA students that have worked on transformational change.

So far, 25 Skollars (as the Skoll Scholars are called) are influencing ecosystems where they work and are the first line ambassadors of Skoll. This year there are more than 60 MBA students interested in this space and member of the Social Entrepreneurship OBN (Oxford Business Network). These students serve as infectious agents combining markets and meaning. She added that Skoll intends to contribute by convening researchers and practitioners. Skoll center is now actively pursuing the teaching fraternity at the B-school to introduce case studies on SE in subjects of Finance, Strategy etc. developing a business culture with a passion for social change.

Lord David Puttnam who spoke on "Citizens, Institutions and Shifting Power", is a filmmaker and politician and a member of the House of Lords. He has spent recent years in the field of education that he says are the building blocks for children's lives. Known for producing Oscar award winning movies like 'Chariots of Fire' he was drawing upon his rich know-how in various sectors. Quoting HG Well he said "History is a race between education and catastrophe." He hopes in future Education triumphs. He said there was a need for a movie like Inconvenient Truth to stress on education. He held the world premiere of his new work by showing a 7-minute clip on education to the audience.

The present threat to our planet is inaction in the face of global challenges. This inaction will precipitate matters. He was glad that there was hope, however, and said that he was confident to see that social entrepreneurs in the gathering were well equipped to deliver on that hope.

Soraya Salti, Senior Vice President, MENA, INJAZ al-Arab, spoke of the golden age of Islam and the current state of the education system, and said this had created unprecedented rates of unemployment in the Arab world. She spoke of the need to invest in education for prospering. She quoted Khalil Gibran on Work: "You work so that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth. For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons and to step out of life's processions that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite...when you work you fulfil a part of earth's furthest dream assigned to you when that dream was born". She also said she'd come from the land of prophets and wanted to present a book to the 'modern day prophet' Jeff Skoll. The audience gave a standing ovation to Jeff Skoll as they witnessed this gesture.  

Jeff Skoll, summed up what a great forum we had. Referring again to urgency and hope, the two issues of today he said "Both are on an upward path". Charles Darwin, whose bicentenary Oxford is celebrating, had impact on science, religion and society. Not until the DNA double helix model was discovered to provide hard scientific evidence to the work he had done on the Beagles journey. Jeff said a similar process is in play in Social Entrepreneurship space. The Social Enterprise field has evolved, strengthened and been challenged over time. Now is the time for it to be on the mainstream.

Indeed, the economic crisis may solidify social entrepreneurship model to be the model for social and economic change. Referring to the SE community he said "You are a keystone species in the social change architecture. Your role is strengthened by the economic crisis. We leave Oxford with a renewed sense of what is possible. Last year we said Social Entrepreneurs had arrived; now I say they are to take lead and show the way to the rest of the world. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste."

Colin Mayer, Dean of Said Business School gave the concluding remarks. Referring to the evolution of Kaizen in Japan in post World War II period, he said that institutional innovation was the need of this decade of the 21st century. Skoll Forum was a contrast to the gloom and doom in other conferences he has attended in recent times. Forum is an enduring innovation in its own right he added.

Pamela concluded with an Irish blessing:

"May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be ever at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rain fall softly on your fields. And until we meet again, May God hold you in the hollow of his hand."

The closing plenary was followed by a networking event called "Conversations - Leaders for the Future". Current MBA students spend time speaking to practitioners and delegates discussing ideas revolving on various themes from Human Rights, Education to Youth empowerment and media.

"Be the change you want to see in the world." - Mahatma Gandhi

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