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The Age Before Impossible: Young Voices, Big Dreams

April 21st, 2015 Comments off

Elina Naydenova

Current Oxford DPhil student Elina Naydenova gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘The Age Before Impossible: Young Voices, Big Dreams’.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” – Albert Einstein.

The problem space is changing – global challenges today are different from yesterday, they require a fresh mindset and unbiased solutions, designed for our current demons rather than ghosts of the past. BUT how do we re-invent our solutions and re-equip our ‘toolboxes’? How do we restructure our healthcare systems, re-imagine our school curriculums and create new economic opportunities?

With belief at the core of this year’s Skoll Forum, what better a way to end the week than with a discussion on young entrepreneurs. This session was an electric chemical reaction between:

  • Four agents of change: Misan Rewane (WAVE), Jimena Vallejos (Fundacion Paraguaya), Joseph Opoku (African Leadership Academy) and Noam Angrist (Young 1ove) who each shared their personal young entrepreneurial stories
  • Three catalysts of change: Pamel Hartigan (Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship), Ahsan Jamil (The Arnan Foundation) and Fred Swaniker (African Leadership Group) who each create eco-systems to nurture and accelerate the development of hundreds of young entrepreneurs

The Age Before Impossible: Young Voices, Big Dreams, L-R: Kristin Gilliss, Ahsan Jamil, Fred Swaniker, Pamela Hartigan.

Kristin Gilliss from Mulago Foundation gave a wonderful narration that united these seven powerful voices and transformed the conversation into a recipe on how to create young entrepreneurs on a larger SCALE – a recipe for how we can move beyond individual success stories towards an entrepreneurial movement amongst young people globally.

“It’s not the years in your life but the life in your years that counts.” A young entrepreneur is a big dreamer determined to find a way to voice their passion for change. What Misan, Jimens, Joseph and Noam all shared was a unshakable belief in a better future and a profound responsibility to realise this future for all of us.

“We don’t empower people, they empower themselves, if provided with the right support and opportunities” insisted Pamela Hartigan. The skills our young people need today are often not taught at school: optimism, relationship building and empathy. Fred, Ahsan and Pamela, at their respective institutions, are working to equip young people these attitudes and unleash their entrepreneurial potential through incredible opportunities and life-changing experiences.

Magical fairies who sweep in to solve all our problems may not exist, but giving our young people the wings to fly might just do the trick. Let’s start a movement: let’s stop thinking of youth as a problem we need to solve and instead consider it an opportunity to change the world.


What’s So Funny? The Role of Comedy in Social Change

April 21st, 2015 Comments off

Current Oxford MBA student Marina Nuri gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘What’s So Funny? The Role of Comedy in Social Change’.

Marina Nuri

Marina Nuri

The last day of the Skoll World Forum treated the audience to likely the most fun (and yes, funny!) session this year. The session started off as a comedy show with all four panel members, and the moderator, Jess Search from BRITDOC Foundation, diving into sexual humour involving bananas and nuts, making the whole audience laugh within the first five minutes of the programme.

Despite the silliness of the tone, the session was covering an interesting issue – how can we change the views, principles, habits and beliefs which inhibit progress and that are embedded so deeply into certain societies that most of the standard behaviour-change methods are not working? Humour has long been among the handy tools used by artists from Plato to modern day practitioner days to expose society’s vices and strive towards positive change.

The members of today’s session have also embraced the power of laughter to change lives. Bassem Youssef uses political Jon Stewart-style satire to expose government in Egypt, help people start thinking critically about what is happening and enable them for action. Surgeon by profession, Bassem said he was admiring the Daily Show for years and dreaming to see something like this at home in Egypt, where TV was more Fox-news style with constant brainwashing. In 2011, the Arab Spring brought media revolution. Bassem started recording short satirical videos for YouTube that instantly went viral. This popularity helped him get his first serious TV offer. However, this style of programming was unusual for Arab audiences. Bassem’s satire was projected from specific personalities towards the society roots and religion. Bassem was called a CIA spy “trained by Jon Steward himself” and was kicked off TV several times, each time moving back to the online space. According to Bassem, when a country is politically charged, what people need is the outlet for their concerns and fears and a way for them to feel their own strength and the power to change things.  There are many dark stories behind satire, but satire is not afraid of power; power is afraid of satire.


What’s So Funny? The Role of Comedy in Social Change, L-R: Jess Search, Caty Borum Chattoo and Bassem Youssef.

A different take on humour was demonstrated by Machai Viravaida and Jack Sim, or, as they called themselves during the session, Mr. Condom and Mr. Toilet. The humour they use is more ironic and even juvenile. The reason? The topics they tackle are kind of embarrassing and not discussed in some societies.

That’s how Machai goes about tackling the problems of unsustainable population growth in Thailand. Through humour accompanied by more robust education efforts, he is striving to make contraceptives available and, more importantly, actively used throughout the country. How to make people actually buy them – first, make it easy for them to buy them, or even get them for free. What about encouraging policemen, taxi drivers, hairdressers and the like, instead of the regular crowds of volunteers in the streets, distribute condoms? Second – change views on using them. Why not to ask a monk to bless contraceptives with holy water, and then make the pictures of it ubiquitous in all the villages? Why not organise a condom-blowing competition in schools, or ask Bill Gates-Sr. to endorse condoms? Or why not make funny pictures around the condom theme, using well-known images like Mona Lisa or Churchill, to attract people’s attention, make them laugh – and through laughter, open their eyes and show them that contraceptives are normal.

When Jack Sim decided to ‘make a toilet the happiest room in India’, he realised he could not change behavior at village level without humour targeting people’s in-depth habits that have not changed for generations. First – understand why people are not using toilets. It’s because defecating outside is more fun and offers “fresh air, nice view, and the ability to chat with neighbours”. So Jack’s objective was to make a toilet an even more fun place to visit. Playing on Indian villagers’ desire to have a status and brag about cool possessions to others, he made a toilet seem ‘cool’ and ‘sexy’ – something to be proud of owning and using.

Caty Borum Chattoo told the audience about her project Stand up Planet, funded by Gates Foundation. This project focuses on sanitation in India and HIV in South Africa, and tries to advance social issues through the use of stand-up comedy.

More importantly, Caty shared some facts from her recent survey on the impact of comedy on the audience. Among key takeaways – people like entertaining format, easy and inspiring messages, connection to their own lives. At the same time, even people who are usually skeptical about the social messaging reported being moved and more concerned about social issues after watching comedy.

It partly explains the success of using other types of humours as well. Laughter can help people not only to ‘learn’ but also to have an emotional response. And from emotion to action, the path is very short.





Beyond Better: How Do We Know We’re Changing The Status Quo?

April 21st, 2015 Comments off
Nikhil Nair

Nikhil Nair

Current Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA student Nikhil Nair gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘Beyond Better: How Do We Know We’re Changing The Status Quo?’.

“We cannot stop at changing a pattern, we need to change the mind-set” said Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka. Entrepreneurs are going beyond just fixing a isolated problem, they are looking at the system as a whole and try to create a solution that are looking at fixing a larger systemic problem. Systemic problems are very complex, but social entrepreneurs are tough minded optimists that ask themselves the question “if not now, when? If not me, who?”

Moderater Jeff Kohoe asked Sally Osberg about her experience at the Skoll Foundation. Sally explained one part of her job as taking the DNA of a successful entrepreneur, and replicating that DNA into social minded entrepreneurs that are trying to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

Beyond Better: How Do We Know We’re Changing The Status Quo? Heather Mason

Nandan Nilekani spoke about his project based around creating national unique identification numbers/cards for every citizen in India. As of today India has 800 million unique identifications issued, and this is expected to reach a billion people by end 2015. This is by far the largest project the world has seen with respect to national identifications. This initiative is changing the status quo by creating a platform that can now take healthcare services, financial services, government subsidies and other benefits directly to the millions of people in India.

Social entrepreneurs are constantly pushing the boundaries of possibilities by managing the tension between all the resources and various stakeholders. Unlike in the days where leaders were defined only by their followers, today leaders are thinking about change together with various other collaborators. Such movements around the world are pushing for a much-needed mindset of change rather than just a pattern change.


April 20th, 2015 Comments off

Naina Bhushan

Current Oxford MBA student Naina Bhushan gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘Lessons from a Social Entrepreneur’.

“Andrea Coleman (Co-founder and CEO for Riders for Health) is a social entrepreneur for the past 25 years, from even before such a title existed.”

This introduction by Carlos Miranda, the CEO of I.G. Advisors, instantly reminded me of my mother, who I would call a social entrepreneur. She runs a small business of hand-embroidered Indian wear manufactured in the shanty areas of a city in India employing 100 women and preserving the dying handicraft industry. But my mother wouldn’t agree with me; she started her business 25 years ago when such a concept of social entrepreneurship did not exist. However, I believe I grew up with an inspiring mother and a motivating entrepreneur, if not a social entrepreneur.

Throughout the delegate run discussion, I couldn’t help but find similarities between my mother and Andrea Coleman, especially in the way that both are such go-getters – an important ingredient for a successful entrepreneurial life. Andrea, along with her husband (Barry Coleman), found an opportunity in the healthcare delivery industry in Africa backed with her passion for motorcycles. It took grit to swim against the tide and establish Riders for Health in a time when the social sector had little to no focus and support. So, what does it take to be a social entrepreneur, especially to be a successful one like Andrea? Andrea believes that you just have to go with your instinct and trust your judgment, however challenging and daunting the task may be. You just can’t give up.


Lessons from a Social Entrepreneur, L-R: Kristine Pearson Naina Bhushan

I could see nods around the room showing agreement to Andrea’s advice. This was followed by a healthy discussion, where Andrea, along with others, shared her lessons from being a social entrepreneur, especially with respect to fundraising.

Andrea said fundraising is a two-way exchange between the organisation and the donor. This is something she learnt when she made her first grant proposal in 1999 that was rejected. The reason being she only stated what she wanted and not what she could offer to her donors.

Andrea advised:

– Develop deep relationships with you donors; listen to their needs and realise that what you are saying to them is a powerful thing.

– Understand the role of restricted vs. unrestricted funding.

– Respect donor money because investing in a social entrepreneur is a significant risk.

– Be honest to your donor and share everything early on. It takes time to build trust.

– Human connection is of prime importance.

Ruben Vardanyan, Founder and Chairman of RVVZ Foundation, and Robin D’ Alessandro, CEO of Vitol Foundation, strongly supported Andrea’s advice. Ruben emphasized that developing professional and personal trust is important in a donor-organisation relationship. Beyond fundraising, he mentioned that it is imperative to be result-oriented and hire the best people at competitive compensations to be successful in delivering the impact.

With respect to fundraising, Robin, a donor for many social and environmental projects, said it is important for organisations and donors to be honest to each other. There’s nothing wrong if things don’t go as expected in a social enterprise, given the social sector complexities.

For effective fundraising, Justin Williams from Riders for Health suggested that telling the story of your need, individuals and impact that engages people’s imagination is critical. It is your passion and your story backed up by your statistics that will unlock the money.

That being said, Andrea urged that there needs to be a shift in the way philanthropy is done; social enterprises must move from donor dependency to sustainability – show your work; show that it works; and find partners that would pay for your solution at a reasonable cost. Riders for Health is striving to achieve a balance of doing the right thing – improving and saving the lives of many in Africa by building a robust healthcare delivery infrastructure – and making sure that the organisation survives to do the right things.

The life of a social entrepreneur is definitely not a cookie-cut path, but a roller coaster ride that comes with its thrills and fears. Even successful social entrepreneurs like Andrea get jaded and tired while wrapped up in the mundane activities of running an organisation. However, visiting the field time and again makes her realise that impact is not a distant thing; it refuels her passion and reenergises her to continue on the arduous, yet rewarding, journey of change. Kristine Pearson, the CEO of Lifeline Technologies, said it is the kids (the beneficiaries) and the impact that helps her withstand problems such as failing partnerships.

Seasoned entrepreneurs like my mother and Andrea may not fancy the more recently coined title, ‘social entrepreneur,’ but they definitely are among the many resilient and inspiring people that are weaving the social fabric of the world.

For more social impact insights by Andrea, I would suggest reading the blog written by Carlos Miranda in the Huffington Post.


April 20th, 2015 Comments off

Current Oxford MBA student Charlotte Ntim gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘The Promise of Social Entrepreneurship in Emerging Markets’.

Charlotte Ntim

The topic of social entrepreneurship in emerging markets is admittedly broad. In a room of practitioners ranging from the head of impact at online crowd-sourcing platform Indiegogo, to representatives from Nigerian impact investing firm Doreo Partners, the possibilities of conversation were indeed endless.

The session’s moderator Randall Kempner  of the Aspen Institute focused discussions by drawing on a quote from Jeff Skoll the prior evening and the promise of “Good people doing good things” to change the status quo. In the impact investing landscape, there are many positives to draw on from the 3000 Ashoka investments to Acumen’s 80. But there are also some question marks. Drawing on the analogy of the impact investments accounting for the size of an index finger in the entire body of the investment landscape, Kempner challenged participants to consider the amount of “talk” found in social entrepreneurship, versus the actual amount of cheques. While transactions currently total approximately $19 billion globally, this figure is less than Walmart’s operating profit for the past year. And while the surface area of one’s index finger may make a relatable analogy, the fact that this forms the amount raised and not necessarily invested, makes impact investments a mere fingernail on the body of total transactional value of investments worldwide. While what followed were a string of lively debates, all appeared to agree that while promising, the industry has some ways to go.

emerging markets

The Promise of Social Entrepreneurship in Emerging Markets

One of these debates centred on the interaction between social enterprise and mainstream business practices and the balance of profit and purpose, in defining measurement metrics. Others like Unreasonable Capital’s Ashok Reddy, questioned the focus on funds raised as a metric of success, noting its use in private equity, and acknowledging that it may be too narrow an approach for fields that look beyond one bottom line. Following the trend of analogies, he drew on a comparison to cooking stoves – “How many are sold, versus how many are actually used”.

Another issue is how such metrics, once they were defined could be communicated to potential stakeholders. Was it really a question of “knowing your audience”? Indiegogo’s Gwen Nguyen drew on the example of Gravity Light, one of the platform’s most successful initiatives. After years struggling to raise capital from traditional sources due to their bottom-of-the-pyramid focus and low profit margin, the team was able to raise almost $400,000. A similar story is Kite Patch, who raised over $550,000. While objective successes in terms of funds raised, Nguyen stressed on the importance of efficient use of capital as opposed to explicit numbers.

For many practitioners in the room, there appeared to be a realist approach to the Rules of the Game in that the broader metrics applied in impact investing would not necessarily change things, but had forced practitioners to develop creative workarounds such as financing projects through strategic partners such as Telecoms companies. The topic inevitably found itself around the issue of government engagement and policy. Doreo Partners’ Kola Masha pointed to the fact that, in Nigeria as well as several other emerging markets, weak tax structures mean that governments draw little revenues from citizens and as such, have little incentive to invest in projects with impact beyond the bottom line. While the growth of the private sector provides hope, Masha pointed to the need for patience in affecting policy, noting the tendency for private sector players to gain more pull will government bodies, after several years of accumulating both financial and social acumen; it may simply be too early in the life cycle of many social enterprises and impact investors. That being said, the session stayed true to its title and the inspiring idealism of practitioners to hold onto the hope of improving access to finance, human capital and markets for social enterprises globally.


April 20th, 2015 Comments off

Ryan Glasgo

Current Oxford MBA student Ryan Glasgo gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘Divesting From Fossil Fuels/Investing in Healthy Energy’.

“Climate change is fundamentally a public health issue,” Gary Cohen, Executive Director of Healthcare Without Harm, began a stimulating lunchtime session on Divesting From Fossil Fuels.

The link to public health is essential to divestment, he argued. “Seven million people per annum die from causes related to burning fossil fuels – five hundred thousand in China alone. That’s more than malaria, TB and AIDS combined.”

Mark Campanale, Founder of Carbon Tracker, expanded upon Gary’s argument: “the divestment movement also has a financial underpinning to it. 92% of oil sands projects need to have oil prices above $95/barrel to make money.”

With current WTI crude oil prices currently at $55, the argument for divestment is gaining momentum not only among University Endowment fund managers who receive significant pressure from their constituents, but also from Wall Street analysts who answer to Ben Franklin first and foremost. As a result, 98% of shareholders in BP recently voted for a resolution that climate change should be on the immediate agenda due to increasingly alarming risks of stranded assets. Shell’s shareholders have expressed similar sentiments.

For Mark, divestment doesn’t necessarily equate to exiting a company entirely. It could simply mean encouraging large oil and gas players to liquidate unprofitable investments and pay out dividends in the coming years.

Ben Caldecott, director of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment Stranded Assets Programme, continued to say that fossil fuel divestment is “by far the fastest growing divestment campaign”. This proliferation is largely thanks to social media and people like Bill McKibbon at However, it’s not the selling of shares alone that has the greatest impact – the indirect affect of selling shares is what’s key: stigma can have an enormous impact on policy and regulation changes, political influence of fossil fuel companies, recruitment and retention, cost of capital and supplier relationships.

Josh Karliner, also from Healthcare Without Harm explained that for 18 years there was basically zero discussion of health in climate change conversations. Now it’s engrained in the climate agenda in a big way: recently, the U.S. Surgeon General stood next to Obama to articulate the health impacts of climate change. Why are we so familiar with the surgeon general? Because of tobacco risks. Highlighting tobacco risks to doctors eventually led to divestment; the same is happening in with the fossil fuel industry now. “Clean air resonates more than polar bears,” Josh quipped.

During the discussion, many unanswered questions bubbled to the surface:

  • Will Oxford’s endowment divest? The proposal is currently on the table.
  • How will divestment detrimentally affect oil rich, developing countries?
  • With China burning more coal than the rest of the world combined, how can we address the issue there immediately? According to Qi Ye, Director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center, “In China, it is not a question of why, we know why; it is a question of how.”
  • How will divestment affect government resources (particularly countries like the UK where fuel excise duty at the pump is currently 25 billion pounds per annum)?
  • Why aren’t CEOs of major energy companies willing to invest significant resources in renewable forms of energy instead of being forced to pay out dividends and potentially even wind down? As free cash flow becomes increasingly limited due to low oil prices, the time for new direction from business leaders may be now or never.

Although these questions may leave gaps and hurdles in the exact path and timeline of our energy future, Gary Cohen concluded with a simple message, “climate change is the existential issue of our time.”