Opening the Circle

Skoll Skollar, Sabre Collier, shares her thoughts on Emerge 2012.


Recently I had the privilege of attending the Emerge Conference one of the top venues for students and young professionals to converge with global innovators, leaders and funders in the field of social entrepreneurship.

I’ve dedicated most of my adult life trying to promote economic empowerment in lower-income communities and regions so clearly, there’s no place I’d rather spend a weekend.  The conference was well organized and overflowing with energy and ideas. It was spectacular interacting with and learning from bright colleagues, cutting-edge social entrepreneurs and international investors and philanthropists.  And there were many beautiful ventures and programs aimed at serving disenfranchised communities, empowering the Base of the Pyramid and bringing essential services to Africa and other developing regions.

Yet as our amazing visiting fellow John Hugget noted, The best way to solve social problems is to give power to those with the problems

In light of this, how many people from the Bottom of the Pyramid or local disenfranchised communities were there, able to rub shoulders with directors from the Skoll Foundation, Shell Foundation or the BBC? How many attendees from Africa were there, to articulate how the investments from presenters Aureos and Triodos and GBF were playing out on the ground, in their everyday life?

They were noticeably under-represented and this phenomenon, its attributors and consequences, were well summarized by Huggett in his Guardian article on social entrepreneurship blind spots.

“We favour our own. We shine the light on meritocratic entrepreneurs with linear logic. Meritocrats in government and philanthropy give support, contracts and capital to those they trust. Trustees are usually well-spoken and well-heeled. Awards ceremonies can show a hierarchy, with the great and the good at the top, the entrepreneur in the middle, and the ‘beneficiaries’ at the bottom.”

Given that Emerge is such a hub for social investors and philanthropic organizations with an interest in their problems, how can we include more of the people facing problems?

In the interest of sound business strategy, how can we amplify the voices and engage the participation of those consuming our products/services?

Opening the circle makes social enterprises more competent and competitive because there are so many lessons and epiphanies uniquely embedded in the economic, social, cultural and structural context of a community or country.  From a marketing perspective, greater customer understanding and engagement is a fundamental way to drive sales.  Linguistic competency is just the first step- market entry takes understanding government, social interactions, cultural traditions, innumerable factors.  Even McDonalds and Starbucks invest millions to hire and train locals, translate their menus, adjust their pricing and most of all, adapt their product based on tons of local market data.  Starbucks in the Middle East had amazing date frappucinos during fall- a nod to the Muslim tradition of breaking Ramadan fast with dates.   (plug: I will likely explore this theme further within the context of designing products for emerging markets and the base of the pyramid). Both companies heavily invested in understanding and engaging because they needed their customers.  Yet this marketing insight is often lost within the social sector, especially when customers are turned into “beneficiaries”.

As we switch to more financially self-sufficient social entrepreneurship models, it becomes clearer that we need our customer/beneficiaries just as they need us.

So lets think critically about how, as a new generation, we can make this field even more inclusive.

Emerge was a first step in this direction, firstly by helping bring the world-renowned Skoll World Forum to a broader, younger audience.  Emerge also broadened access by including a few social entrepreneurs from the Oxford area as well as highlighting the opportunity for Oxford MBAs to provide volunteer consulting to local social enterprises.

Perhaps for next year, we could consider partnerships with universities in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia to do livestreaming so that their students in developing countries could also pose questions to speakers and virtually participate…… Or perhaps we could help partner universities host their own Emerge Conferences and have a few grants for exchange opportunities.

We could also create partnerships with a few community organizations and have them submit their major pressing social and organizational problems as business cases. Emerge participants could tackle the business cases within break-out sessions, and discuss the strategies with community reps on webcam during the conference, while getting feedback from social investors present.

Or, acknowledging that many low-income social entrepreneurs and leaders may lack the access, vocabulary and grooming to optimize opportunities with funders and philanthropists, perhaps we can consider a mentorship component.

There are many things we can do, and given the Skoll Centre‘s vision and commitment, I’m sure this post will be followed with further brainstorming, refining and subsequent actions.

But the overarching point is still about shifting our vision to create more inclusion and endogenous vision within social entrepreneurship.

Truly activating the power of the social entrepreneurship will likely require a more circular partnership, where the people with the problems are protagonists, not just beneficiaries.

I’m not asserting that semi-literate villagers in developing countries or marginalized youth in high-risk communities are the only ones capable of creating the best BOP products or social impact programs.  I’m just asserting that privileged highly-educated and relatively high-income Western students and professionals are not only ones who can change the world.

In fact, the best way for us to change the world is by opening the circle, collectively learning, acting and growing together.