Oxford, Saïd, Skoll Centre and What’s Coming

Last but not least, buy Skoll Scholar, rx Michael Thornton, price shares his thoughts.


IBITDA, amortization, price discrimination, stocks, bonds, capital…  As an engineer and non-profit manager, all this is wonderfully new to me.  The Saïd Business School at Oxford University has all this plus Shakespeare, Sartre, genomics, international intrigue, mathematical physics, speakers from around the world and more and more.  The depth of academic firepower, cutting edge thinking and variety of geniuses, experts and eccentrics of all types leave you with the impression that the world of smarts is sloped and smartness rolls downhill to Oxford (civil engineers see everything in terms of gradients and flows…).  It’s truly a humbling and unbelievable honor to be able to study here.  And equally and energizing one.  As Sabre outlined earlier, every day we are presented with a hundred opportunities to connect with amazing individuals, partake in events that expose us to fields new to us or expand our understanding of those we know.  We are engaged now in an exercise of choice: how do we spend our time here?  Where do we focus our efforts and what doors do we fight to open and which do we close?

I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life – at a very early age I remember selling “magical bouncing pine cones” with a friend to others in the neighborhood.  Just as fervently, I’ve always been an environmentally focused person – I remember at four cursing out the developers who leveled the woods I used to play in behind my childhood home to put in a sub-division.  In my undergraduate schooling and subsequent career I married these two as much as I could delving into renewable energy and green building.  At Sherwood Design Engineers, we built a truly 21st century engineering company, founded on the pillars of solid engineering, collaborative design and ecologically sound solutions. We did this through a series of day-to-day choices to not just serve our client’s engineering needs, but to educate them and work closely with them to push as much environmental thinking into each project as we could.   To extend our mission further, we formed a non-profit, Sherwood Institute, through which we spread the gospel of sustainable infrastructure.  While Sherwood Design Engineers wasn’t specifically created to solve the world’s environmental problems, these certainly became true social enterprises; businesses that made a substantial difference (as well as a profit in SDE’s case).

At Saïd, I’ve now been formally exposed to and will have the chance to study social entrepreneurism: businesses created to solve specific societal problems from the word go.  In some particularly exciting examples like Bridges Ventures, market gaps, like insufficient low cost elder care housing or social issues like prisoner rehabilitation are specifically targeted and businesses are either found or created to fill them.  These purpose-built, for profit businesses are what I’m starting to see as a second type of social venture – a step more deliberate than the co-missioning of an existing venture.

The next type I’m curious about is the large businesses that weren’t built for sustainability but might be turned the way Sherwood turned full force into sustainable design, making it a core tenet.  I couldn’t be more excited to work through the Skoll Centre and the host of professors, peers and contacts who have worked in that capacity at various companies to learn more about this type.

The final type of for-profit social company I see as the Holy Grail that doesn’t yet exist: a fortune global 50 leviathan built specifically to solve a major global issue – and make a profit doing so.  Imagine the Exxon of carbon-sequestering energy. With the amount of motivated, brilliant, truly excited people I’ve met here in the last few weeks from every sector, from finance to operations to field warriors, who have flocked around the Skoll flame so far, I now feel that the coming of this type of company is a when, not if, and I couldn’t be happier for it!