Ambition to Audacity: Takeaways from the 2014 Skoll World Forum
Social entrepreneurship is getting bolder.
Each year, Skoll World Forum serves as a leitmotif for the field of social entrepreneurship. In 2012, the forum’s theme was “Flux,” signifying the unstable and uncertain environment in which most social entrepreneurs operate. Last year, the theme was “Disruption,” signifying the recalcitrant spirit of social entrepreneurs.
This year, the theme portrayed a newfound maturity and confidence about social entrepreneurship that wasn’t present in past years: “Ambition.” Indeed, there was a palpable sense of audacity that permeated the forum this year, most evident in the daring session titles, among them: “The Ambitious Power of And,” “Cracking The Code on Social Impact,” “Unlocking The Entrepreneurial Ambition Of Women,” and “Achieving The China Dream, which was hosted by Walmart’s former strategy guru, Leslie Dach. Malala Yousafzai, an audacious young Pakistani who dared to defy the Taliban, received the Skoll Foundation’s Global Treasure Award. And the mere presence of Miri Ben-Ari—a stunning, Grammy Award-winning Israeli hip-hop violinist who wowed at the opening plenary—pretty much said it all.
I took some time to reflect on what we learned this year at the 2014 Skoll World Forum, as I have in the past. Here are my top five takeaways:
1. Even the rich struggle. This year was Jeff Skoll’s true coming out party. Most see him as the forum’s generous and self-effacing patron billionaire. But this year, we saw a different side of Jeff Skoll—the struggling-but-determined, triumphant social entrepreneur. It was a very humanizing moment for a larger-than-life figure like Skoll. In his opening plenary address, he spoke about his own daunting challenge to launch a social impact film company, Participant Media. He spoke about how he overcame insurmountable odds, facing doubters who poked fun at his ambition and cautioned, “The surest way to become a millionaire is to start by being a billionaire and go into the movie business!” Participant’s success speaks for itself. And he pronounced an even more ambitious vision to create “the world’s most important media company” by taking Participant international.
2. Mixed media can change the world. One emerging theme this year was the power of media to create widespread change—and not just traditional “media” like television, radio, or print media. We met Marcus Bleasdale, a merchant banker-turned-National Geographic photographer. Bleasdale proclaimed that we can use photography as a “tool for decision makers and policymakers to press for change and peace.” By documenting conflicts around the world—in the Balkans, Sierra Leon, Liberia, Somalia, Darfur, Chad, and Central African Republic—he has educated governments and multi-national corporations on natural resource exploitation and the use of conflict minerals. This year’s forum also coined the term “social art-epreneurs” at a session titled “Artists as Activists: Using Creative Talent for Social Progress.” The session explored the special role that artists play in social movements—per the Skoll website, “whether capturing the soul of a moment through song, documenting global change and the people behind it through film or photography, or imagining a new world through a painting or new media.” And my friend Nolan Gasser, the famed musicologist behind Pandora, discussed the similarities between musicology and impact measurement.
3. “Good enough” solutions are worth pursuing. Is an urban slum a social innovation? Management guru Clay Christensen coined the term “disruptive innovation” to signify an innovation that “allows a whole new population of consumers at the bottom of a market access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill.” In a session titled “The 21st Century City: Future Opportunity or Future Threat?” journalist and award-winning author of the book Arrival City Doug Saunders actually argued that urban slums are a good thing! Saunders sees slums as one of the most successful forms of development—the first step in urbanization of the rural poor. Saunders claims that small, micro-interventions such as bus connections, streetlights, or granting ownership deeds can have transformational impact on quality of life and economic opportunity for inhabitants. In another session, “Interesting Voices, Innovative Ideas, Ambitious Outcomes,” Fredrick Ouko, executive director of the Action Network for the Disabled, shared another disruptive innovation in social entrepreneurship, noting how as little as $150 can help poor populations launch small-scale businesses that can change lives.
4. The invisible heart of markets is beating. When it comes to corporations “doing good,” there was a new level of discourse this year, focused on integrating social innovations into the business. “Let us bring the invisible heart of markets to those the invisible hand of markets has left behind,” exclaimed Sir Ronald Cohen, chairman of the G8’s Social Impact Investment Taskforce and chairman of Big Society Capital. Representatives from companies such as Unilever, Citigroup, Syngenta, the Body Shop, and Marks & Spencer participated in panels this year. And almost universally, the conversation centered on the “business case” for doing good. Many argued that multinationals could do more good with operations (for example, supply chains) than philanthropy. And others like Marcela Manubens, Unilever’s global vice president of social impact, argued that corporations must also tap market demand for social value. When asked what corporations should do if consumers won’t actually pay more for sustainable products, Manubens argued, “Our job is to educate them so they do!”
5. Meta-measurement is here. Of course my favorite topic, measurement, also predominated at the forum this year, with near-ubiquitous mention throughout presentations, session Q&As, and hallway chatter. The call for better measurement came early in the forum. In the opening plenary, Sir Cohen called for “a revolution in the way that we tackle social issues” and exclaimed that social impact bonds created a breakthrough in measurement: “Linking social performance with financial return is the key to that revolution; it is the key to the capital markets; it is the key to giving social entrepreneurs access to capital on the same basis as a for-profit entrepreneur.” There was probably no greater testament to the prominence of measurement at the forum than the enormous marquee promoting Michael Porter’s Social Progress Index. What was particularly poignant this year was the emergence of a new generation of measurement—what I call “meta-level” measurement, or deriving data from data. The Social Progress Index, a measure of measures, aggregates important national indicators of social progress into an overall meta-level score. At a session titled “Cracking the Code on Social Impact,” Gasser and I introduced another application of meta-measurement: the Impact Genome Project, which uses evidence-based factors to predict social outcomes. Across all sessions, the forum dialogue reinforced Sir Cohen’s point: Measurement is critical to capital for social entrepreneurs.