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.

Advancing Good Governance Seminar: Fancy Alliteration or Food for Action?

The Skoll Centre recently partnered with Linklaters, Camfed, and the Blavatnik School for Government to host the 1st annual seminar on Advancing Good Governance in International Development.  The theme this year was “accountability to the client.”

The spotlight focused on how organisations operating in the social sector can enhance responsiveness and accountability to its clients. But what does “client” really mean?  Are we talking beneficiaries, stakeholders, funders, partnering organisations? How do we make sure we are “accountable” to each of them, and all of them collectively, but which “them” do we put first?  This seminar was designed to explore and unpack precisely these complexities, and sparked some lively discussions.

Whether you are a social entrepreneur or policy maker, I think we all agree the field of international development, let alone achieving good governance within it, is complex.  However, there is hope. The seminar not only got folks talking, but went beyond providing food for thought and unveiled an effort to take action.  It put academics and practitioners in the same room and started to identify gaps and possible solutions/practices that need to be explored further.  These areas are being evaluated as we speak and a call for papers to address gaps in the existing literature is forthcoming (with a £20K stipend slated to go to the winner).

Of course a simple call for papers won’t solve the complexity of governance, but it is a start.  And it will serve as an impetus for the conversation until the second annual seminar next year.

Speaker Series: Becky Buell of Meteos

In our latest edition of the Skoll Centre Speaker Series, we heard from Becky Buell, Founder and Director of Meteos.

Meteos, through its EnergyFutures project, is working to map perspectives on how to change our deeply embedded energy system. How do you compel businesses and their investors to reconceptualise what the future of their industries- and their investment portfolios- will look like in the next 20-30- years?

EnergyFutures, an investor-led dialogue, brings together companies from across the energy, utility and automotive sectors to explore the long-term value drivers that will reshape their industries. This space for discussion brings to light some interesting themes, and often conflicting views.

Most interesting to me was how Becky and her team frame the dialogue not about climate and environmental responsibility per se, but about financial bottom line.  For example, a company is valued at x, but in pratice, if a climate policy caps the production of one of their assets, then their full valuation can never be realized. Fund managers, then, are taking a second look at the reality of their investments and valuation, which clearly have a trickle effect into changing the system. The context that sticks with fund managers and senior company executives is around maintaining stable and predictable returns from energy investments in an uncertain operating environment.  Ultimately though, this translates into significant impacts for the future of energy, conceptualised both equitably and sustainably.

Becky shared humbling facts and posed challenging questions:

  • We are struggling to meet milestones of current International Energy Agency (IEA) climate scenarios.  If we keep doing business as usual, we’re looking at a 6 degree (!!) increase in temperature worldwide
  • The cost of energy is rising.  Who carries the burden of this cost?  And who has access to begin with?
  • Climate change is impacting infrastructure, which is under extreme pressure to meet demand and may be on the verge of collapse. Impacts in infrastructure in turn impacts investment portfolios.
  • Reinsurers are requiring insurers to have more cash on hand to cover a 1 in 200 year catostrophic event. Investors are waking up to the reality of climate change.

What are the game changers? What is helping move the system in the right direction?

  • Safety and insurance requirements
  • Efficiency standards
  • Unburnable carbon
  • Removal of oil and gas subsidies
  • Carbon price
  • Public investment in energy efficiency and innovation

With all the complexity surrounding the issue, we’re glad to see the major players coming together in dialogue. It seems that change is imminent, but the question is how will happen?  Admittedly, Energy Futures is just one player in the wider ecosystem of climate change agents, but as Becky says, EnergyFutures is giving companies and investors the “wind in their sails” needed to transition our destructive system into a sustainable one.

Goodbye Michaelmas. Hello Hilary.

What better way to kick off a new term here at the Skoll Centre than to celebrate the highlights of the previous one! A few top highlights of the 2011 Michaelmas Term:

  • Days of Conversation on Social Innovation:  Over half of the MBA class joined us for a vibrant kick off to the year. We gathered to talk about the mega-trends and global challenges of the future, and the business opportunities these present. Entrepreneurs and academics alike weighed with their perspectives about how to use markets to create social and environmental value.
  • Emerge 2011: The Emerge Conference did it again!  It connected university students aspiring to drive transformational change with current global change-agents leading.  We had a packed house and welcomed over 60 international speakers over the weekend.
  • The Associate Fellowship Programme:  In its third  year, the Associate Fellowship programme supports leading students across Oxford University working at the forefront of social entrepreneurship. We selected our 2011-2012 cohort this autumn, and gathered for our first retreat to plot what we and the world will look like in 2020.
  • The Skoll Centre Speaker Series: Social Entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs covered everything from waste collection to at-risk youth to BOP access to health care.  These engaging, practical discussions raised some great questions and maybe even provided steps toward the answers too.

So until next year Michaelmas Term, we at the Skoll Centre say farewell!  And to Hiliary Term, we offer a warm hello and say get ready for making and sharing more highlights!

Don’t be an entrepreneur, build systems


This past June, TedxOxbridge premiered at SBS.  It was a provacative day of big ideas on how we can rethink business for the 21st century. It featured entrepreneurs, academics, social innovators, designers and behavorial scientists – who were all asking “How can we imagine Business as Unusual?”

All videos from the day are now up on the TEDx site. Personal favorites include:

But perhaps the one video getting the most pick-up is by SBS’s very own Professor Marc Ventresca.  Marc, an economic and organizational sociologist, proposes a bold critique of the “entrepreneur”, suggesting that greater, large-scale value creation comes  from system-builders, not entrepreneurs. It’s an arguement for networks, collaboration and connectivity across institutions – rather than a focus on the “heroic individual”.

Harvard Business Review’s Grant McCracken recently picked up on Marc’s talk.  According to the HBR piece, Grant pushes back on the notion of entrepreneurs as systems-builders. He argues: “Real acts of innovation are something more than acts of combination.” In other words, the role of the entrepreneur is not to re-assemble, but to work “de novo in the production of real novelty.”

What do you think? Who and what is an entrepreneur?

Read the full debate (including live commentary between the authors) on HBR and leave your comments below.




Diving Deep, Crossing Boundaries: A SOCAP WrapUp

This post was written by SBS MBA Nikhil Neelakantan, who has just returned to Oxford after 3 days at SOCAP/Europe.

Courtesy of twentytwentystudios

Last night’s six-member panel brought SOCAP/Europe to an appropriate end.

The panel consisted of social entrepreneurs, volunteers and the founding members of SOCAP/Europe, Kevin Jones and Frank van Beuningen. This was typical of the conference: people from all backgrounds brought together by an interest and passion for impact investing.

This resulted in conversations that frequently needed translation (No, structured banking does not deal with the architecture of banks!) but it also meant that people were exposed to different points of view.

This also meant that there was space for a deep-dive into the details of impact investing as well as an opportunity to learn about innovative organizations using SMS technology in developing countries.

Another feature of the conference were the participant-driven Open Space sessions. I was able to attend two of these sessions, which were “held” in an Unconference format. The first described the work of the World Bank in creating the Development Marketplace. The World Bank Institute created the Development Marketplace over 12 years ago to provide grants to innovative social ventures. Now it is looking to help these social entrepreneurs get commercial investments.

The second Open Space session that I attended was built around the question of providing financing to SME’s trying to build businesses in rural India. We had participants who were eager to start asking questions of those who had already built these links in India. The consensus was that there was lots of opportunity but that one had to proceed by developing partnerships with Indians who were already working in this space (this includes government agencies such as IDBI).

The conference also brought some reflection on the future of SOCAP/Europe. Where is it going next? It seems logical that it will stay physically in Amsterdam (The Dutch have $7bn invested by retail investors in social enterprises through organizations like Triodos Bank and Oikocredit. They are surely the world’s epicenter in social investment).

However will the format remain the same? Will more policy makers and government entities get involved? Despite the lingering questions, we left the conference buoyed by the fact that we were setting the foundation for a larger group of people who were willing to venture forward into the brave new world of impact investing.