The Opening Plenary

Denise Hearn

Denise Hearn

Current Oxford MBA student Denise Hearn gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘The Opening Plenary’.

Belief is inherently partial (read: not neutral). Belief demands we choose – choose the ways in which we view the world, ourselves, and, others. Often unaware of the fundamental principles which underpin our own actions, most beliefs are inherited not chosen. Selecting to theme this year’s Skoll Forum around belief was potentially risky with the current proliferation of destructive and dangerous ideologies. However, no human is bereft of belief, whether those beliefs are pessimism about the future, skepticism of a higher power, or assent to specific religious doctrines.

The opening Skoll plenary, presided by Chairman of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, Stephen Chambers, kicked off with the acknowledgment that belief is mysterious and contains elements of doubt. Acumen founder, Jacqueline Novogratz, described her personal journey of determining what beliefs were fixed and fluid.  She described the iterative process of determining which beliefs are inherited from family and tradition, teasing them apart, and consciously choosing which frameworks to carry forward.  Arguing that belief should be audacious and relevant, Jacqueline issued a challenge for all to consider which beliefs were essential for progress and which needed to be retired like old bric-a-brac. Jacqueline is guided by pursuing human dignity and the belief that only justice, not charity, will change the world. This theme of evolution of belief was quite powerfully addressed by Zak Ebrahim, the non-violence advocate and lecturer whose father was a terrorist involved with planning the first World Trade Center bombings in 1993. He reminded us all that belief is a choice, isolation is a fuel for ideological indoctrination, and that choosing to move away from religious affiliation did not undermine the spiritual values inherited from his mother.

Jeff Skoll, interviewed by Mabel van Oranje from Girls not Brides, reiterated the belief upon which eBay was purportedly principled: “good people doing good things.” This seemingly simple axiom undergirded Skoll’s take on good leadership qualities. Firstly, a moral compass or ethical framework, revealing that he was raised in a Jewish family in middle-class Canada. Secondly, an ability to rally people earnestly, which is a natural outflowing magnetism birthed from true passion, and thirdly, stamina and hard work for the long journey. Skoll, as evidenced by convening us all at the Forum, seems to believe that good leaders choosing to apply their talents to good causes is our true hope for future global progress.


Opening Plenary, L-R: Jaqueline Novogratz, Zak Ebrahim, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond M. Tutu, Reverend Mpho A. Tutu, Ophelia Dahl.

Ophelia Dahl, Executive Director of Partners in Health and daughter of Roald Dahl, described the role of imagination and creativity as a fodder for belief about future positive outcomes, recounting a tale of her father claiming that her math problems in school would be solved by a giant blowing answer through the school window. Her inheritance? Change can take place because of imagination.

I would be remiss to not mention, of course, the star of the evening: Archbishop Desmond Tutu whose boy-like cackle was only the second most laughter-inducing element of the evening, following behind the quick-witted response of his daughter, Reverend Mpho A. Tutu. Responding to Novogratz’s question of what it was like to be raised by such an extraordinary person, Mpho replied: “yes, thank you. I agree – my MOTHER is one of the most extraordinary people on the planet” to great peals of laughter from the crowd and from her distinguished father. Reverend Tutu stated that her beliefs were formed from observing the mutual respect and trust modelled in her parents was her training ground to see faith embodied and lived.

There was, ultimately, much discussion of the inherited set of beliefs often adopted via parents and surrounding culture. It is clear that each illustrious panellist has undergone great lengths to either solidify or reject those inherited beliefs – each choosing to work towards the establishment of justice and increased human unification in unique ways.

Desmond Tutu reminded us that we do not stand alone and are upheld in our beliefs by the strength of community. Recounting his amazement and gratitude for our interconnectivity, he recalled a woman he met years ago who stated she would begin her day by waking up and praying for him. He mused, “If I am being prayed for at 2am in the woods in California, what chance does Apartheid stand?”

We inherit, we choose, we change, and ultimately we believe in our ability to create a better, more human future.