Six SWF entrepreneurs closing the gap between business and social impact

This post was written by Pamela Hartigan, Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship.

I am often in awe of people’s capacity for combining ingenuity and market opportunity with a passion to influence our collective futures.  In that sense, hearing the stories of six entrepreneurs at the Skoll World Forum session, Navigating Unchartered Waters: For-Profit Companies with Social DNA – was a vivid reminder of the power that lies in bringing a sharp business mind with a passion to transform the status quo – for the better.

Kresse Wesling thinks about waste 24/7.   A business woman with three successful ventures to her credit, it wasn’t until she sat in the back of a room with “cute firemen” who were all taking a boring class on ISO standardization that she came up with the idea – recycling fire hose which goes to landfill into accessories for upscale markets.  Today, Elvis and Kresse is a profitable company that donates 50% of its earnings to the UK fire department.  What a way to guarantee your supply chain!  One of the investors at the Forum was so taken by Kresse’s business, her story and her products that she bought Kresse’s own bag (made from recycled fire hose, of course), saying “I am leaving for the US tomorrow, and I want your bag”.  So Kresse emptied the contents into a shopping bag and sold her bag to the determined woman (a potential investor?).  Lucky she did not ask for Kresse’s belt, also made from fire hose, or Kresse would have had a tough time keeping up her jeans.

Panelists' view. Courtesy of Thorkil Sonne

Gobion Rowlands wants to use games for social change.  He has been making games since he was a kid, and he and his colleagues at Red Redemption have just launched “Fate of the World”, a video game that allows you to destroy the world if you wish, but also challenges you to find the way to address massive climate change issue.  His first game on Climate Change was a big success. “How are you going to reach out beyond those gamers who believe the reality of climate change?” a participant queried.  “Well, many of our gamers are climate change sceptics,” Gobion noted. “They hate what we are doing but they are challenged to play the game just the same.  In fact, I have had three death threats in the past year”.  Being an entrepreneur is a risky business in more ways than one, it seems.

Then there is Thorkil Sonne whose son was diagnosed with autism at the age of 5.  The psychologists relayed what lay in his son’s future – ostracism, joblessness, and a life of dependency.  Thorkil thought of the dandelion, and how for some it is a weed, but for others it is a medicinal plant.  How could an autistic person’s social weaknesses become a strength?  He founded Specialistern, a Danish for profit company that employs only autistic workers to test software. Their focus, attention to detail and precision are exactly the kinds of skills needed in such a job.  His company became so successful that countries clamoured for Thorkil to help them replicate the initiative.  To do so, he sold the company to the Specialistern Foundation for twenty cents. The Foundation now owns the company, and Thorkil is spreading the method around the world.

Then there is Ariel Zylbersztejn who founded Cinepop in Mexico offering free family movies and entertainment as a way to increase quality of life for low-income families in Mexico – and local governments, NGOs and microfinance groups pay for the advertising platform – but only for products that have a social or environmental benefit for the population.

Each mission and business model was different from the other.  Victoria Kisyombe from Tanzania found herself a poverty-stricken widow with only a cow. That cow became her “asset” and supported her through this difficult period.  She founded a business, Sero Lease and Finance (Selfina) to increase the incomes of self-employed women in Tanzania through micro-leasing arrangements of livestock and equipment.  To date, she has changed the lived of 25,000 women.   It is the first social venture I have heard of named after a cow, Sero.

Marie So, co-founder of Shokay with Carol Chyau.  The two met as classmates at the Harvard Kennedy School’s MPA/ID program. Carol, from Taiwan, and Marie, from Hong Kong, saw in each other the passion and perseverance to promote the “social enterprise” concept in the Greater China region. After almost a year of researching and brainstorming, they decided that the best way to help catalyze the growth of social enterprise in China was to start one.

In January 2006, they visited Yunnan, where they saw a need for poverty alleviation. However, there they also saw abundant resources – YAKS! The seeds of Shokay were born.

Shokay sources its yak fiber directly from Tibetan herders, enabling them to earn a long-term sustainable living while preserving their traditional lifestyle. By investing and reinvesting its success into the local communities, Shokay ensures the opportunity of choice for future Tibetan generations.  Shokay can now be found around the world in over 100 stores in 10 countries.  I can attest to the warmth and softness of yak fiber thanks to a gift from Shokay, a beautiful scarf that has been well used during Oxford’s cold and damp winters, which seem to last forever.

You might wonder why I am so taken by for-profit social ventures such as the ones showcased at the Skoll World Forum?  For one, these are the types of ventures our business school students at Oxford want to pursue, so finding and highlighting the mission, business models and impact achieved by these entrepreneurs is incredibly exciting.  But as importantly, the examples are proof that one does not have to forego social and environmental priorities to make money – and that is the key to sustainable and transformational change.

For more, listen to the podcast of the session here, or read other delegates’ reflections on the session here.

Update: Interview with Marie Shokay at the Forum can be found here

Inspiration, Instigation, Imagination

Another Skoll World Forum has come to an end.  Looking around the business school on Monday, you’d have no sense of what descended upon it a mere few days earlier.  Delegates are gone,  corridors are cleared, Forum posters stripped down, students long departed for spring break.

So when all is gone, what lingers?

Perhaps the physical presence of the Skoll World Forum has dissipated, but I believe it is only now that we can begin to process its effects.

The Forum experience is different for each and every delegate.  So I can only share my own journey of meeting more incredible people and hearing more remarkable ideas than I think the human brain can process in such a short period of time.  It was utter creative overload.

For me three major themes arose, both within the sessions and among conversations with delegates.


Joyful Archbiship Tutu on Deep Leadership panel

There is no doubt this Forum revitalizes the spirit. Others have already spoken about the gift of having Archbishop Tutu with us, who was no less than an beacon of humility and hope.  But inspiration was not just felt through blockbuster speakers leaving us in awe of their leadership, but also through those very same leaders admitting defeat, setback, challenges, and utter, total existential doubt.  I found nothing more truthful than the conversations in the “Deep Leadership” panel and “Is Heroism Obsolete?” session (watch them both here) where the greats of our field opened up the desperately needed conversation about the things we all know and are often frightened to admit: that this stuff is hard (personally and professionally, emotionally and intellectually, physically and mentally) and that’s OK. It was equally humbling and inspiring.


Along similar lines, I thought this Forum made some headway by being a bit of a instigator.  No longer was there solely  the sense of self-congratulation or successes-lauding (though much of that did occur) but there was also a feeling of criticalness and troublemaking.  As the field continues to mature, it demands a deeper, more rigorous eye on the growing complexity of our solutions. (Watch the wonderful opening microfinance debate for precisely this).  The finance tracks similarly explored its progress with not just hopeful anticipation, but also a sophisticated self-awareness I hadn’t sensed previously.


Skoll Centre Director, Pamela Hartigan, at the Closing Plenary pushing us to think about convergence and collaboration

For me, some of the most exciting sessions were those that stretched our creative imaginations and offered multi-disciplinary frameworks for creating change.  There was a real infusion of  dialogue around ideation, design processes, systems change structures, human-centred design, convergence, and innovation cartography (my new favorite phrase thanks Richard Jefferson). I felt my capacity for how to think through complex problems – and not just to arise at the solution – stretched to a whole new level.  There was a delicate tug to encourage us to open up our minds and broaden our creative potential beyond the frameworks we are used to working in.

There’s lots more insights from the week than I can sum up in this post. Instead, most of it is captured here from a diversity of voices, as well as some great videos and images of the week.

Until next year, when you all descend on us again: keep inspiring, instigating, and imaging.

7 things I learned at Day 1 of the Skoll World Forum

Student and star bloggers gear up for the day

1. Don’t over-think, just write.  This was tip number one at today’s blogger meet-up – so I’m embracing this philosophy to hack out a quick post before the evening events at the Skoll World Forum continue.  The Forum bloggers had a chance to meet, share top tips, and remind one other of our important role of getting what’s happening inside out to you all. We also learned that readers are more likely to read posts that have a list of “non-rounded” items, such as 13 or 7.  So I arbitrarily went with 7, which I am positive is why you are still reading.

2. Always carry more business cards than you think neccessary. How have I run out already?

3.  The state of microfinance is complex, ethically challenging, and border blurring.  The fanastic opening panel asked tough questions, and offered often contradicting views on where the movement/industry of microfinance is going.  What they did agree upon, though, is that it will continue to be a wild ride.  (See live stream of enitre Opening here)

4.  No need for your inside voices at the Forum — it is loud, boisterous, and bursting with energy.   It makes the forum a hive of activity (as expressed by Skoll Associate Fellows Erica Mackey and Beth Richey) but also a terrible place to capture a noiseless video (sorry!):


5. No matter where you sit at a dinner or a session, you will enjoy your company.  At the Skoll World Forum serendipedity is on your side.

6.  The Forum is an untapped resources of ideas.  And the next two days will be showcasing some of these brightest innovations to make sure they don’t stand locked away in our community. As Stephan Chambers said in the Opening Plenary,  “We need to know in public what we know in private”.

7. Baaba Maal rocks.


It’s not every day an Archbishop says grace before dinner

Day 2 of the Skollar Summit is kicking off downstairs as we speak, and Skoll World Forum delegates are starting to roll in.  Before we dive into the excitement of the Forum, we’d be remiss not to recognize the incredible dinner hosted by our friends at the Skoll Foundation last evening at Christ Church. (Think Harry Potter).

A bit of a surreal evening – with social entrepreneutship “celebrities” at every turn.  Great evening of celebrating and networking among the Skollar alumni community, the extended family from the Jeff Skoll Group, the Skoll Foundation team, the Skoll Awardees and others.

Top two highlights, without a doubt:

1) Archbiship Desmond Tutu saying grace before dinner in front of the great portraits of Christ Church.  A little bit of history right there!

2) The 2011 Skollars had a chance to meet and connect with Jeff Skoll for the first time.  Good looking crew, no?!

T-minus 4 hours til the Forum offically opens! Onward!

Reunited and it feels so good

A lively day here at Oxford SBS for the Annual Skollar Summit!

This annual gathering brings together the Skoll Skollars of years past – social entrepreneurs who were selected and funded to spend a year with the Skoll Centre studying for their MBA.  Now in it’s 7th year, the Skollar’s programme consists of 35 entrepreneurial changemakers from all over the world.

Peter Tufano on the future of business

Also, we were fortunate to have with us today this year’s and last year’s class of Skoll Centre Associate Fellows (MBAs at SBS who focus on social impact).    It’s amazing to see the growing community of students and alumni of the Skoll Centre, and all the incredible work they are up to.

The day was full of energy – from catching up with old friends to white-boarding ideas for new ventures. We also  had the pleasure of hearing from Dr. Larry Brilliant, President of Skoll Global Threats Fund, who spoke about the increasingly fragility of our world and routes for action to combat these great threats.  The new incoming Dean of SBS, Professor Peter Tufano, also paid a visit to share his vision for the future of  business education at SBS – with an eye towards solving the wicked problems of our times.

Hear more about the day from the Skollars and Associate Fellows themselves below.  Day 2 of the Summit continues tomorrow – and then onward to the Skoll World Forum!

Grace Sai, Skollar ’09-’10 reflects on what it means to be reunited with this community.


We also caught up with Henery Gonzalez, Skollar ’04-’05.


And finally, Chris McCormick, a current Skoll Centre Associate Fellow talks about the anticipation of attending his first Skoll World Forum:


A Sneak Peek at Skoll World Forum 2011

We’re a few days to go until the 8th Skoll World Forum – and are deep in the throes of preparing for hundreds of social entrepreneurs from around the world to descend on our small city of Oxford, troche UK. Over the three days of the Forum, try we’ve packed in a stunning amount of content, and of course, critical time to connect with allies and partners.

This year’s Forum, like years past, tackles issues far and wide, encompassing the growing reach of players within the social innovation ecosystem. As you know, we’re not exclusively an impact investor event – nor do we pretend to be. We all know the frustrations of having conversations in silos– funders lamenting the lack of good investments at one conference while cash-tight entrepreneurs rack their brain for investment options at another event down the road. Instead, we aim to mix things up – stirring in a variety of people, passions, and ideas that when whisked together create potential for impact found nowhere else.

In planning this year’s Forum programme, we simply could not ignore the momentum of social finance. You can no longer talk about collaboration or the potential for large-scale impact without recognizing the massive force social capital markets can play. You’ll see this line of thinking front and centre, and woven throughout, the Forum programme.

So, for you impact investors out there, here’s a sneak peak at some interesting ideas arising out of the Forum– and key sessions to look out for:

Grants funding is still – and will always be – critical

There is no doubt that impact investing has captivated public imagination – and in the process has made philanthropic grant funding seem, well, boring. But let’s not forget that impact investing is a long ways from being a cure all. This year’s Forum highlights how grants are vital in providing the initial unencumbered resources to get enterprises investment ready (Session to watch: “Grants Powering Growth: Jet Fuel for Social Impact?”).

Yet, the challenge now is to understand how the drip-feed of grant funding can work together with (rather than in lieu of) investments to create long-term, complimentary funding streams. Sessions such as “Building the Conveyor Belt: A Collaborative Approach for Lifecycle Funding will address this need to evolve across different types of financiers while “Grants vs Investments: How to Best Decide” will help inform the decisions of entrepreneurs and investors in choosing grants or investment (or both) in their quest for creating maximum impact.

The potential of impact investing is only as powerful as the ventures it can to invest in

First and foremost, innovative models to social solutions take the stage at the Forum. After all, it’s the business model capable of large-scale impact we’re all after – whether to invest in, showcase, replicate, or scale. A whole track on critical issues such as water, energy, aging, and food security will feature the latest innovations. Similarly, sessions such as “Systems Innovation: Breaking Barriers to Large Scale Change” as well as “Markets: Reform or Rebuild” are ones to watch for pioneering innovators.

We’re boldly going where no man or woman has gone before

Let’s be honest: it’s not easy being neither fish nor fowl. We’re all performing a delicate dance in this hazy new space of hybridity – and with that comes contradictions, confusion, and complexity. Sessions such as “Navigating Uncharted Waters: For Profit Companies with Social DNA” and “Pioneering Corporate and Legal Structures for Social Entrepreneurship” address this head on. Other sessions such as “Demonstrating Impact: Innovation and Infrastructure in Metrics” will further highlight these grey-area challenges, and reinforce the need for supporting infrastructure in the social capital landscape.

We work in an ever-increasing connected, collaborative world

This year, the theme of collaboration and exchange arises again and again. Collaboration across regional borders (such as the timely “Risks and opportunities in the MENA Region”) as well as across sectors (“Innovation in Financial Products: Social Impact Bonds and Beyond”) show how a variety of countries and actors are working across conventional party lines.

This notion of connectedness also appears in the ways in which we communicate, share, and interact. Ones to watch include “Clouds, Crowds and Social Change” and “Say What? Storytelling, Language and Culture” on how the power of technology and stories are bridging the people, institutions and information required for large-scale change.

Take care of yourself (ie we need you for the long-haul!)

With all the talk around creating sustainable change, we often forget that there will be no organizational sustainability without sustaining happy, healthy individuals. This year’s Forum aims to recognize that great leaders know how to take care of themselves as they care for their organizations. Sessions such as “Deep Leadership: Interior Dimensions of Large Scale Change”,and “Leadership Renewal: From Good to Great” will take a very personal look at leadership for the long-haul. Similarly, I’m looking forward to the BBC hosted session “Is Heroism Obsolete?” – which is bound to get us questioning the notion of the “heroic entrepreneur” and our own sense of personal fortitude. Anyone building social capital markets knows it is a long, arduous (though exciting) battle ahead –these sessions will remind you to take care of yourself so you can take care of the real work we so desperately need you driving.

Whether you are joining us in personal or virtually at the Skoll World Forum (March 30-April 1), follow along with up-to-date session blogs and recaps at and live feeds at See you on twitter at #skollwf.

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