Lessons From the Skoll World Forum

There's been a lot of talk lately of successful tech entrepreneurs taking over the Bay Area --focusing more on making gobs of money and not doing enough to give back to the community and address societies most critical problems.

Jeff Skoll is not one of those guys--instead he is a role model and a visionary--an example of a very successful Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur who made his billions and is using his wealth and his influence for social good.

Jeff describes himself as a philanthropist and social entrepreneur. He was the first full time employee and president of eBay, developed its initial business plan and led the company through its IPO. In 1999 Jeff left eBay and started the Skoll Foundation which has become the world's largest foundation for social entrepreneurship. He has dedicated himself to making a change in the world through his Foundation.

The Foundation gives awards to social entrepreneurs around the globe and for the last 12 years has been hosting the Skoll World Forum in Oxford England.

For anyone working in the world of social change, the Skoll Forum has taken on somewhat mythical status as a place where amazing things happen--participants are inspired, long lasting friendships and connections are made and social change happens. This year, for the first time, I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend and speak on "Leveraging Time and Talent for Social Impact".

It was a magical week--almost 1,000 social entrepreneurs, funders, partners and people interested in making a change in the world coming together. There was a lot of talking, laughter, tears, dancing, singing and a very unexpected ending.

I met some incredible entrepreneurs from everywhere from Myanmar  to Minneapolis, working on a variety of issues including Miatta Zenabu Gbanya from the Ministry of Health in Liberia who was on the frontlines of stopping the spread of Ebola, Noam Anngrist, a 20-something year old MIT grad working in Botswana to educate almost 30,000 youth on "sugar daddy awareness" to reduce HIV transmission and Emmanuelle Werner-Gillioz who is working on programs to protect children in Cambodian orphanages. 

The Skoll Forum organizers did a wonderful job of providing so many opportunities to meet people doing inspiring work from the first night's serendipity dinners where I ran into my old friend Asahn Jamil doing important work in Pakistan for education and healthcare, to speed networking sessions and dinner in Oxford's classic dining halls (think Harry Potter becomes a social entrepreneur) and many, many spontaneous meetings over the 3 days.

I've had a chance to rest and reflect on everything that I learned at the Forum and here are my key takeaways:

Our future is promising 
The opening plenary was an inspiring event highlighted by a panel including Zak Ebrahim author of The Terrorist's Son: A Story of Choice whose father helped plan the 1993 World Trade Center bombers and who has renounced his father and is now going around speaking of peace and acceptance, Jacqueline Novogratz of Acumen and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and his daughter. It was a thrill to see Archbishop Tutu (one of the Elders) in person--he was truly magical to hear. 

The Elders were an inspiration, but it was the young leaders who really gave me hope for our future. Noam Angrist was joined by Misan Rewane and Joseph Opoku all 20-somethings who are making the world a better place.

Groups like Massukos a band which goes into villages in Africa to sing about sanitation and washing hands are finding innovative ways to get their messages across. These ideas not just out of the box, as John Ilkington of Sustainability put it, "these social entrepreneurs are breaking the concrete."

There's nothing better than a natural plant in your audience 
There's a high bar for speaking at the Skoll Forum. How do I compete with fellow speakers Kevin Starr from the Mulago foundation speaking about Fighting Poverty, Designing for Happiness at the same time, or the panel talking about the Future of Work or the legendaries like Michael Porter, Diana Good and Paul Farmer talking about The Great Paradigm Shift. I had an hour and 15 minutes--just me standing up there.

Luckily for me, there were several people in the room who had experienced the power of leveraging skilled volunteers for social impact. I was so grateful that Erin Dietrich of NetSuite pro bono advocate extraordinaire (and quite a talented karaoke singer, too) happened to be in the room and shared her story about hearing about Taproot's 8 models of pro bono and creating her own powerful pro bono programs using corporate employees first at Discovery Communications and now at NetSuite. Thanks, Erin.

Carry your Passport
The Closing Plenary was a wonderful end to an amazing week It included Darren Walker from Ford Foundation talking about his love of art from an early age and now Ford's continued commitment to support the arts, Monica Yunus (Mohammed Yunus' daughter) and her co-founder in Sing for Hope which puts pianos in public places to bring music to the community performed and Bassem Youssef the Egyptian who was inspired by Jon Stewart to develop a satirical news program that was later banned.

Just as things were winding down, came the announcement. There was a fire at the Randolph hotel nearby where many of us had been staying. Very thankfully, no one was hurt. The smoke was billowing out and the streets surrounding the hotel were closed off. I had checked out but my bags were still with the concierge. Thankfully, for some reason, I had stuck my passport in my purse that morning. Many people had not checked out yet, so their bags and passports were in their rooms. The Skoll team was extraordinary in their crisis response. They immediately set up a communication plan and worked to get everyone whatever they needed from hotel rooms and toiletries to flights and started looking into contacting embassies for new passports when necessary. They opened up their staff party to all of us while we waited for news.  Given the stories we had been hearing all week of people with no running water, poor sanitation, lack of food, etc. in the end, the potential of losing clothing and computers was a very minor inconvenience. It even turned into quite a bonding experience with the party going well into the night with karaoke and dancing. Jeff Skoll personally stopped in throughout the night to give updates and reassure people that their team was at our disposal. I was incredibly impressed and thankful for his leadership. In the end, we were lucky and by the next day, everyone had safely recovered their belongings are were on their way.

I left Oxford a little later than planned and with slightly smoky smelling luggage, but more importantly I left completely humbled by the minds I met and fully energized to continue working to support the many social entrepreneurs who are working to drive social change around the globe.

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