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In Defense of Founders – Report from the Skoll World Forum

April 13th, 2014 No comments

In addition to being a Skoll Scholar and MBA Student, Kjerstin Erickson is the Founder and Executive Director of FORGE, an international NGO that provides education, skills training, and entrepreneurial resources to more than 70,000 refugees in war-torn Africa.Kjerstin Erickson

Ahh, the age-old entrepreneurial debate: how can an enterprise transition from startup to scale without losing its zeal, passion, and sense of purpose? And what role do founders play in helping or hurting these transitions?  

In the session Founder’s Challenge: To Scale and Keep the Vision Alive, Skoll Centre Director Pamela Hartigan conducted a conversation with Wendy Kopp of Teach for America, Cheryl Dorsey of Echoing Green, Andrea Coleman of Riders for Health, and Subramaniam Ramadorai of National Skill Development Agency

While the panel was balanced between founding and non-founding social entrepreneurs, the overarching tone was decidedly pro-founder. Wendy Kopp pointed to research showing that founder-led company outperformed the rest of the market. Cheryl Dorsey reminded the crowd to “never discount the power of heros and legends.” And Andrea Coleman noted that the celebrity status of founders can be extremely helpful in attracting attention, resources, and talent.

Founders Challenge panel

Pamela Hartigan, Subramaniam Ramadorai, Cheryl Dorsey, Wendy Kopp and Andrea Coleman, The Founders' Challenge: To Scale and keep the Vision Alive

Of course, there are risks that organizations can become overly founder-centric or reliant. Subramaniam Ramadorai pointed out that “institutions are bigger than any one individual,” noting that it is critical that organizations be prepared for founder transitions at any point in time. Andrea Coleman discussed the need for founders to find their appropriate complementors and collaborators, noting that “founders are really good at something, but not at everything Wendy Kopp pointed out that “there are different kinds of founders,” and went on to discuss how she believes much of her success as a founder was due to a focus on finding and empowering great talent to innovate within the organization. In an interesting tangent, Wendy also discussed how her 25-year history as a public figure and fundraiser may actually be hindering her in building Teach for All. Because “after 25 years you owe a lot of people a lot of stuff,” she has to hope that “the organization doesn’t fall apart while I go out and give this speech.”

The part of the discussion that stood out the most for me was Wendy Kopp’s description of her primary role at Teach for America, which she describes as “25 years of pushing a boulder up a hill to try to get people to understand our theory of change.” For Wendy, keeping TFA focused on their theory of change and empowered to make decisions which reflect it has provided a sense of strategic clarity that guided them through many tough years. As a social entrepreneur myself, I resonate deeply with the vision of a founder forging a stake into the ground then using it as the beacon for untold challenges ahead. I left the session feeling even more inspired by the humility and strength of will it takes founders to successfully scale an organization while keeping its values intact.

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A report from the Skoll Awards for Social Entrepreneurship 2014

April 12th, 2014 No comments
CK Raine

CK Raine

This account of the Skoll Awards for Social Entrepreneurship comes from Chris (CK) Raine, MBA student and Skoll Scholar.

“Caminante, no hay camino,

se hace camino al andar.”

(translation: ‘Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking’.)

These are the words that were crafted by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado and chosen by Yves Moury, one of the seven Skoll Award winners in 2014, to express the universal journey of the social entrepreneur. They are words that really befit all the Skoll Award winners and perhaps even the social entrepreneurship movement. To step into the unknown, not having a path – but with a vision and the courage to pursue it.

The Skoll Award ceremony celebrates the inspiring paths that several social entrepreneurs and their organizations have forged towards creating a better world. Each one of these awardees is a shining light of leadership and courage and the bravery needed to take such steps. The Skoll Award is an affirmation of their work and a way to help them step even further. As Sally Osberg, President and CEO of the Skoll Foundation states, “These are not lifetime achievement awards, these are bets on the people who will create better futures for millions.”

Skoll Award winners 2014

The 2014 recipients of the Skoll Awards for Social Entrepreneurship

So who are the Skoll Foundation making their $1.25 million (each) bet on this year?

B Lab - An organisation fuelling a global movement to redefine “success” in business, so that all companies compete not only to be the best in the world, but the best for the world.

Fundación Capital - a pioneer in inclusive finance innovation to help the poor save; grow and invest their assets; insure their families against risk; and chart a permanent path out of poverty.

Girls Not Brides – a movement to create a world without child brides.

Global Witness - an organisation that investigates and exposes the shadow networks that underlie deals that fuel conflict, corruption, and environmental destruction.

Medic Mobile - builds mobile applications for community health workers, caregivers, and patients to increase life-saving health care coverage.

Slum Dwellers International (SDI) - an organisation that facilitates the collective action of slum dwellers to take control of their futures; improve their living conditions; and gain recognition as equal partners with governments and international organizations in the creation of inclusive cities.

Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) - an organisation that  has turned the traditional charity model on its head by developing commercially-viable models to bring water and sanitation to nearly two million people in urban slums in six countries.

Malala Yousafzai

Jeff Skoll, 2014 Skoll Global Treasure awardee Malala Yousafzai, and Sally Osberg

It would seem that here we have seven very different paths. Several very different bets. But to hear each of the awardees speak as they received their award, there was an inspiration, passion and commitment to purpose that resonated through each of their words. These sentiments were echoed through the keynote presentation of Skoll Global Treasure awardee Malala Yousafzai, as she shared her own vision for a world in which all young women had access to education and a life without oppression – a vision that was received with an extended standing ovation.

The whole ceremony left me with a sense of being both inspired and the feeling of the preciousness of life that connects us all. That feeling filled the room and, rather than the typical mad rush to exit at events, a large percentage of people just seemed to stay in the theatre chatting away – laughing, connecting. The Skoll World Forum really isn’t a conference – it is more like a homecoming.

I guess, like most of the recipients, the delegates at the ceremony each walk their own ‘camino’. Carving a way forward step-by-step. Some have walked far from home to far-flung lands across the world to help people in need. Some have walked over the coals of tribulations and some have stumbled along the way. Yet we are here, with our scars, our stories and our dreams – celebrating that journey. That is the social entrepreneurship calling. Corny as it might be – it is what we believe and who we are. It is here that we come home to honor our very special brothers and sisters with a Skoll Award and then tomorrow we pack our bags, we fling ourselves out into the world again and return to our paths, for another year.

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What do smallhold farmers need to succeed? Report from the Skoll World Forum

April 11th, 2014 No comments

Oxford MBA student Isabella Gawith gives us her thoughts on yesterday’s session at the Skoll World Forum, entitled “The 450 million farmer opportunity: large scale change through smallholder finance.”isabella gawith

I come from a farming family in New Zealand. My grandparents were farmers, and although I grew up in a city, several of my uncles are farmers. Being a farmer is tough, even in a developed country like New Zealand. You are the owner of a business on which your entire family depends. You provide most of the labour for that business, so you need technical skills in planting, crop management and harvesting.  You are manager of that business, so you need to make decisions about which crops to grow and who to sell to. You are the CFO, so you have to secure financing and manage cash flows in a very cyclical business.

450 farmer opportunity

Thomas Carroll, Michael van den Berg, Willy Foote, Laura Mecagni and Sean De Cleene, The 450 Million Farmer Opportunity

Smallhold farmers across the developing world need similar skills to succeed: technical skills, access to finance, ability to manage risk, and access to an effective supply chain to sell their produce. In the session “The 450 Million Farmer Opportunity: Large Scale Change Through Smallholder Finance”, we debated what smallholder farmers need to succeed. Session moderator, Thomas Carroll, set the tone: “today’s session will be a brokered democratic discussion between all delegates”.

Finance designed for farmers

At different times in the session, we touched on what makes financing smallhold farmers different from financing other sectors. Three key challenges were identified:

  • Agriculture is a long term investment. As Chris Isaac from AgDevCo reminded us, “agriculture is a 10, 15, 20 year investment. You are not going to be able to exit after 3 years”.
  • Agriculture is risky. An investment in fertiliser doesn’t help if there is an extreme drought. An investment in improved irrigation doesn’t help if there is a crop disease outbreak.
  • Cash flows from agriculture are irregular and lumpy. Traditional microfinance schemes, with very short grace periods, and regular payments, are poorly suited to smallhold farmers. Unlike a stall owner, smallhold farmers have a big time lag between the injection of capital and the increased profits.  We need new microfinance tools designed for the cash flows of smallhold farmers.

Some solutions to the specific challenges of farmer financing included educating banks, and designing new financing tools. There was mention of blended finance – with venture capital tolerating risk, while philanthropy willing to accept lower returns in return for social impact.

Is finance enough?

Willy Foote from Root Capital broadened the debate from smallholder finance: “we need an ecosystem that is healthy enough to support farmer finance…. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link”. So while finance is one crucial link in the chain to improved farmer livelihoods, finance alone will not solve the problem. “Yes lend, yes advise on financial management and training, but it doesn’t mean much if you are not catalysing change in an industry”. On a similar cautionary note, another audience member pointed out that it is “irresponsible to give people access to finance if you are not also giving them the skills to handle it”.

So if finance is not enough, what else is needed? One key complementer is technical assistance to farmers so that they can make the most of the capital injection to raise productivity. Debbie Aung Din Taylor from Proximity Designs put it this way: we need “Best-fit practices for Myanmar farmers, not best-practices”. She said they used a farmer-centric approach to identify 10 agronomic practices that farmers can afford and implement easily. State-of-the-art, hugely expensive technologies used in developed markets may be “best practice” internationally, but they don’t fit with smallhold farmers needs.

A reoccurring theme of the conference was partnership. The panel included diverse members: including Laura O’Connor Mecagni, Head of the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP), Michaël van den Berg of Triodos Sustainable Trade Fund, Willy Foote from Root Capital, and Sean De Cleene from Yara International.  Being from such diverse backgrounds, the panel members focussed the conversation on the importance of partnership. Willy talked about the importance of making uncomfortable partnerships, which required “dog-whispering” to work towards common goals. A key theme that emerged from this discussion was the need to balance collaboration and competition. Collaboration helps build scale, sharing and replicating best practice. However competition is needed to fuel continued innovation.

After the slightly more theoretical discussion of partnerships, Simon Winter from Technoserve brought the conversation back down to earth: “at the end of the day, we are talking about poor people being a little less poor” so all interventions should focus on farmer value at the core. He identified two steps. The first step being capital investments in infrastructure and farmer skills. These investment in infrastructure and skills should allow farmers to operate sustainably (step two). Simon cautioned that we need to do our homework upfront about whether the economics of the operating stage make sense – you should only make investments in infrastructure and training if you know you it can move smallhold farmers to a stage where they can operate profitably in the long run without subsidies.

The parting message that I took from the session is that being a successful farmer is hard. However there are successful farmers in countries like New Zealand. The final remark from the audience was questioning what it takes to turn smallhold farmers into successful standardised businesses, with the right mix of farmer training, access to finance, risk management and access to markets. One Acre Fund is already combining these elements successfully for smallhold farmers in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. Let’s build on this model to make smallhold farmers successful around the world.

 

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Re-Visioning Ambition: Skoll World Forum 2014 Opening Plenary

April 11th, 2014 No comments

MBA student Yashveer Singh is head of the Social Impact Oxford Business Network (OBN) at the Saïd Business School for the current academic year. Yashveer Singh

For me, the Skoll World Forum is an opportunity to listen to the incredible stories of hundreds of social entrepreneurs, CEOs, authors, entrepreneurs and creatives; and the opening plenary was a beautiful dawn to this roller coaster ride.  Taking “Ambition” as its main aim, it sets out to challenge and capture the imagination of participants from across the world. In the presence of so many agents of positive ambition at the event, the theme aptly resonated with the burning desire amongst these entrepreneurs to create a force for a sustainable future.

“Ideas, connection and dialogue”.  Jeff Skoll, Founder of the Skoll Foundation, welcomed the guests by outlining the history and purpose of this annual event. Through my own experiences of working with young social innovators in India, I appreciate the importance of recognizing the efforts of social entrepreneurs in a public forum, and this forum is truly international in flavour.

When Jeff Skoll narrated one of his experience while starting his film production company – “Participant Media”, that aims to produce movies with political or social messages, he met and asked many movie producers that “what are you most proud of?” and interestingly the answer from most of them was “Issue based movies”. For me, the story had a great message and it offered an effective way to evaluate our actions and make right decisions, for every opportunity that comes our way–be it a new venture,  initiative, event, partnership, deal, or a decision to take a job– to ask yourself, “Would it make me feel proud ?”

branson and naqvi skoll world forum

Sir Richard Branson and Arif Naqvi in conversation with Mindy Lubber

One of my personal expectations from the session was to understand the future approaches of businesses. Mindy Lubber, President of Ceres conducted an interview with Sir Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group and Arif Naqvi, Founder & CEO, The Abraaj Group. Both of them had plenty of insights to offer, and both are role models to thousands of entrepreneurs. The two key strategies highlighted by them to help businesses break through the status quo are:

  • Stakeholder engagement – Engaging actively and sustainability should be at the core and the way forward for businesses. Many times the focus gets restricted by national boundaries although the need is to explore commonalities and work around them as strength.
  • Long-term thinking – Indispensable to work together to create large scale social change, different sectors should come together to achieve the common goals.

The session challenged the audience to think differently about businesses and the role of leaders. Also, it was interesting to know about Sir Richard Branson’s new global initiative, The B Team, whose aim is to catalyse a better way of doing business for the wellbeing of people and the planet.

Sir Ronald Cohen

Sir Ronald Cohen

The photographs showcased by Marcus Bleasdale, a renowned photographer with National Geographic magazine was helpful to understand how arts could be used as an effective tool to bring positive change and especially in the way people think. Moreover, Sir Ronald Cohen, Chairman, Social Impact Investment Taskforce in his talk expressed the need to build a stage where social entrepreneurs could get help the way tech entrepreneurs do;  He concluded his talk by a leaving a very powerful message for the audience, “Lets bring the invisible heart of market with invisible hand of market.”

I couldn’t have asked for a better culmination of the session than through the live performance by Miri Ben-Ari, Grammy award-winning artist, her violin performance was simply phenomenal and no wonder it kept me on the edge of my seat throughout her performance.

The insights generated during the opening plenary left the audience with the burning question of “how do we achieve our ambition?” And I am sure the conversations and various sessions over the next 2 days will help them find some of the answers.

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Future-proofing Businesses: report from the Skoll World Forum

April 11th, 2014 No comments

MBA Student Meagan Sutton-Bonwit gives us her perspective on yesterday’s Skoll World Forum session on looking beyond CSR, PR and Charity. 

Meagan Sutton-Bonwit

In yesterday’s session ‘Future-Proofing Businesses: Beyond CSR, PR, and Charity’, we had the opportunity to hear key sustainability leaders at large, highly-visible corporations speak about what sustainability looks like now and in the future in their companies. But while I was expecting the conversation to focus on future-proofing business through sustainability, each sustainability leader seemed equally concerned about future-proofing the future itself, as for them, the two are synonymous.

During introductions moderated by John Elkington, Founder and Executive Chairman at Volans Ventures, the first speaker opened with a question. It was Feike Sijbesma, Chairman and CEO of Royal DSM speaking, and he asked the audience if we were happy. The audience response was modest, but a positive “yes!” Feike then asked if we had heard the latest news report that 3000 children had died today. We were all confused- what news report? This audience doesn’t usually miss a beat in the world’s happenings. Feike went on to explain that we did not know about this because it wasn’t in the news. He elaborated on statistics of the world’s sufferings, emphasizing the lack of voice and visibility these problems often have in the world’s mainstream media.

future proofing businesses

Marcela Manubens, Feike Sijbesma and John Elkington: Future - Proofing Businesses

He then asked if these issues belong to us, the audience, and if so, then why we were so happy.  A provocative opening, but one that set the tone for the rest of the discussion. As Feike Sijbesma spoke about the critical roles that the public and private sector play in effecting change, it was clear that he believed in the importance of mainstreaming sustainability practices. Sure, such practices are oftentimes profitable for businesses as well, but it also seemed to me that for Feike, doing business sustainably is a moral imperative. Feike Sijbesma pursues sustainability as a business driver despite resistance, and in challenging convention it is leaders like him that are paving the way for my generation of leaders.

Also paving the way is Mike Barry, Director of Sustainable Business at Marks & Spencer, who highlighted the seven failures Marks & Spencer made along its path to sustainability and how they learned from these. In these lessons, it was clear that Marks & Spencer truly understood that introducing sustainability principles involved a fundamental cultural shift that required them to engage heavily with both internal and external stakeholders. And, as Marcela Manubens, Global VP for Social Impact at Unilever noted, we are engaging with an increasingly complex world.

Marcela Manubens began her talk by showing us a Jackson Pollock painting, likening the wild, intricate and flowing nature of the artwork to today’s complex world where we live with “fishbowl values” and ideas flow across borders. As she spoke, I also began to realize that our perception that the world is becoming increasingly complex is not simply a product of increasing complexity in the world, but is also due to the fact that we are becoming better at recognizing and mapping those complexities. The better we are able to do this, the more power we have to capitalize on complexity rather than be concerned by it.

While I continue to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism of the true effectiveness of CSR in social impact, I do believe that there are examples of companies that are moving beyond ‘CSR, PR, and charity’ and are undergoing an entire paradigm shift so that, as Feike Sijbesma proposed, sustainability principles are simply the “given” in business best practice. But this journey is far from over, even for these pioneers. As Mike Barry very candidly noted, 80% of Marks & Spencer’s activities are currently not rooted in sustainable practice – there still remains a lot of work to be done.

And this work will continue to be done by my generation- we who are in our 30’s and inheriting these challenges. During the audience Q&A, entrepreneur and business leader Liam Black (co-founder of Wavelength) probed the panelists about how they are preparing the next generation of leaders, steering the conversation to focus on how we can ‘unlearn the MBA bull’. As a current MBA student, of course my ears perked!

But ultimately, I was not concerned that my current MBA education was actually ‘bull’. Rather, what I take away from the discussion is that post-graduation, we need to leverage our skills and resources to solve the world’s challenges (rather than focus on maximizing income). Where do we start? By first recognizing we don’t know everything and that frameworks and models won’t solve these problems (they are merely tools). Rather, we need to start with ‘getting in the trenches’ and understanding the problems up close, as Mike Barry noted in his lessons-learned, and then be unafraid to challenge convention to effect transformational change.

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Campaign Models & Engaging Audiences – Report from the Skoll World Forum

April 10th, 2014 No comments

MBA student Holden Bonwit provides an update from this morning’s session at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, which was moderated by Cathy Galvin of the United Nations Foundation.

Holden Bonwit

In just six days, a 29 minute video had been viewed by more than 100 million people around the world. Bucking the trend for youtube videos, these viewers had watched the long video all the way through.  How did the Kony 2012 video, created by film makers Invisible Children accomplish this?

Ben Keesey,  Invisible Children’s CEO, shared a few reasons he thinks they were able to achieve such success:

1. Recognize that nobody really cares right at the beginning – you must start with a simple, single human, and use them as the cipher to tell an engaging story.

2. Take risks – let people take control, both in developing content before release, and in supporting you after release.

3. Avoid the greatest sin: to be boring – put in the energy to make something engaging and shareable.

4. Show the young people agency – give them a way to help, and the belief that they can make a difference.

5. Remember that building advocacy takes time. Kony 2012 seemed like an “instant success” – but its powerful community of young advocates was eight years in the making. The team travelled to 10,000 high schools and colleges to promote similar films, and engage young audiences. When Kony 2012 was made, these advocates spread the film locally and then nationally via social media. They embraced it and took it to heart. For them, it was personal.

campaign models panel

Cathy Galvin, Ben Keesey, Ido Leffler and Gabrielle Fitzgerald: Campaign Models: Driving Your Audience to Engage

The result of the media campaign was undeniable. (On the ground, effects are harder to measure: though Kony himself was not captured, the effects of the film and movement seem to be real: a 93% reduction in killings.) As Ben posted on his twitter feed: “For every single one that comes out, the war is over- at least for them.”

Ido Leffler of Yes To Carrots used a “buy one, give one” type program to multiply resources and engage consumers of ‘flu vaccines in the “Get a shot, Give a Shot” program with Walgreens.  In just six weeks, the result was three million gifted polio and measles vaccines.  Ido echoed that these projects take a massive amount of work behind the scenes and lots of promotion of your vision. Online campaigns are their lifeblood at “Yes To” –  recently, with a hashtag campaign on Facebook, the company gave away 50,000 meals – but there remain questions around the efficacy of “click activism” or “clicktivism”.

The direct link between hashtags and improved nutrition is tenuous. Ben chimed in that in themselves, the clicks don’t do anything on their own, but on aggregate the big numbers are meaningful, and the Invisible Children team has influenced policy makers with reams of printed online petitions. Further, Invisible Children mines their 3 million followers to find the best of them, to act as community leaders and make a difference in the real world (IRL).

Gabrielle Fitzgerald at the Gates Foundation followed on regarding the “Get a shot, Give a shot” initiative – there are only a few hundred cases of Polio currently, and there is a goal of elimination by 2018. That achievement can only be reached through system building – even the Gates Foundation with its funding can’t achieve this alone, and has formed what Gabrielle calls “catalytic coalitions” including the WHO, CDC, the government of Abu Dhabi, and others at the Global Vaccine Summit. Another strategy she shared was to tie in the joining of “grass top” campaigns with “grass roots” campaigns – funding initiatives that others wish to do, but need assistance to take forward. An example of these “grass tops” were the joining of ministers of sport and ministers of health for the malaria campaign “Nothing But Nets” during the FIFA World Cup tournament of 2010 in South Africa. Although Gabrielle definitely realizes there is more to malaria eradication than simply bed nets, creating a message that was tangible for sports fans was the key to engaging them. To excite fans, they got local sports teams involved from all the participating regions.

Gabrielle shared the three ‘M’s that are a prerequisite for any successful campaign: Money, Motivation and Momentum.

Chris Gebhard at Participant Media  added a fourth factor: serendipity. He stressed that you don’t just need an audience, but rather you need to form a community, and then give them a mission. His latest initiative, TAG was born when people said “we love these films, how can we work with you?”

Questions remain.  Ben is struggling with how to reach a truly international audience through one pipe – his followers are ready to take activism advice, but is that appropriate given that some do not live in democracies? Would that endanger them? How can Ben suggest concrete steps to take when he doesn’t know the intricacies of each system?  — Reach out if you have some ideas to Ben Keesey on Twitter: @BenKeesey

To close up the session, our moderator Cathy Calvin shared a final quote, from Eleanor Roosevelt:

“It is more intelligent to hope rather than to fear, to try rather than not to try. For one thing we know beyond all doubt: Nothing has ever been achieved by the person who says, `It can’t be done.’ ”

 - You Learn By Living (1960); Eleanor Roosevelt

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