Skoll Foundation


Jeff Skoll 2006 Skoll Awards Ceremony Remarks: “Live to Dream, Live Your Dream”

March 30, 2006 by

Remarks by Jeff Skoll delivered March 30, 2006 at the 2006 Skoll World Forum at Saïd Business School, the University of Oxford.

Thank you all very much. And thank you, Sally, for the kind words. Sally really is following Skoll’s first rule of public speaking: that it’s best to be introduced by someone you’ve hired for an important job. Thank you, Sally. Nobody does a better job than Sally. And the Skoll Foundation team is just fantastic.I’m honored and proud to be with you here tonight to celebrate.

I’d like to start by thanking the Academy and my agent.

Oh, I’m sorry. I got the wrong speech.

The last event of this kind that I was at celebrated a quirky writer, a transsexual housewife, a couple of gay cowboys and a 200-foot gorilla.

I swear, that’s the last time I go to a party at George Clooney’s house.

Of course, I’m actually talking about the Oscars. It’s been said of the Academy Awards that they are a reflection of the world that we live in. The truth is that it gives me hope because so many of the movies nominated this year had positive social messages.

But, at the same time, the fact that the five movies that were nominated for “Best Picture” featured themes of racism, murder, homophobia, abuse of power and terrorism is enough to make you want to double-lock your windows and hide under your bed.

But if the Academy Awards are a reflection of the world as it is today, I’d like to think that the Skoll Awards are a reflection of the world as it can be, and the world that we’d like it to be.

It’s easy to feel despair every time we read about tragedies that occur in the poorest parts of the world. But then I look at what Bunker Roy has achieved with Barefoot College, and I feel hope. And it’s easy to feel despair when we read about lives lost to violence, and then I think about Victoria Hale and the number of lives that will be saved because of one person’s idea, and I feel hope.

It’s easy to feel despair when we read about terror and acts of terror. But then I hear David Bornstein reminding us that the past 20 years the world has produced far more social entrepreneurs than it has terrorists, and I feel hope – a lot of it.

Even though social entrepreneurs are the world’s best hope, you’re still one of the world’s best-kept secrets. It is hard to believe, but around the same time that I graduated from college, not very long ago, Professor Gregory Dees was denied the right to teach a course in social entrepreneurship because the school didn’t think it was relevant.

Of course, it serves him right for teaching at Harvard Business School.

There’s a very good chance today – almost a perfect change – that if you read or hear a story about a social entrepreneur, someone is bound to ask: What is a social entrepreneur? You never hear that asked about doctors or lawyers or even cheerleaders.

I was curious, so I Googled “what is a social entrepreneur?” and I came up with 12,400 hits.

Then, I went one step further, and I Googled “Bill Drayton” and came up with 15,200 hits.

Then, for fun, I Googled “Britney Spears.” You guessed it: 15.7 million hits.

So, here’s our goal: to make Bill Drayton and Victoria Hale and Martin Burt as well known as Britney Spears.

So, what is a social entrepreneur, and what do those 12,400 hits say? Social entrepreneurs are people who apply rigorous discipline to social problems. They use many of the tools and techniques of business and apply them to the world of the social sector or the citizen sector. (I threw that in for Bill Drayton.) Their work is characterized by innovation, leverage, empowerment and lasting change. The difference is, their bottom line is not in profits earned, but in lives, communities and societies transformed.

In short, social entrepreneurs are people who believe and act on the unshakable conviction that individuals, acting alone or together, can truly make a difference in the world.

But how do we recognize them? During the Middle Ages, Oxford students were said to be recognizable by their knowledge of the seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Today, in some of these same lecture halls, Saïd students may learn that effective business executives are recognizable by seven habits – also known as the seven habits of highly effective people.

What about social entrepreneurs? What can we learn about the seven habits of highly effective social entrepreneurs from the stories in this room tonight?

Well, the first quality that stands out amongst the 16 people we honor here tonight is a profound sense of hearing loss.

Social entrepreneurs are incapable of understanding the words “it’s impossible,” “it can’t be done,” “you’ll never succeed” or “why bother trying?” Just the opposite: These words are like red flags to social entrepreneurs and seem to be their rallying call.

Gloria de Souza, the Indian schoolteacher who became the first elected fellow of Ashoka, tried in the early 1970s to convince her colleagues to adopt a new technique for teaching that stressed experiential and environmental learning over rote memorization. She heard, “no, no and no” repeatedly. It took her five years to get administrators to say “yes.” Then she heard the same no’s when she tried to take the model to Bombay. More years of no. But she persisted, and she persisted, and by the late 1980s, her early-education model became the standard for every first, second and third grader in India.

That’s not just persistence – that’s unshakable resolve and gritty determination.

Closely coupled with that persistence is quality Number 2: Social entrepreneurs are “A” students who are not afraid to get “F’s.”

By that, I mean they are not afraid to risk failure. Nick Moon and Martin Fisher spent a decade in Kenya inventing one product after another that didn’t quite catch on – but each insight eventually led to their low-cost, human-powered irrigation pumps that have helped start more than 36,000 new businesses in Kenya, Tanzania and Mali, driving almost 1 percent of Gross Domestic Product in Kenya alone.

You never know where a good idea will lead, if you stick with it.

Third, social entrepreneurs know when to boil the clothes.

One of history’s most remarkable social entrepreneurs is Florence Nightingale. When Florence Nightingale first arrived in Turkey during the Crimean War, she found thousands of sick and wounded soldiers, all lying in dirty, flea-infested clothing, and people were wondering how to get them well. Her inexpensive solution: Boil the clothes in water. In three months, that simple solution helped cut the death rate in British [army] hospitals [in Scutari] from 43 percent to 2 percent.

That kind of practical genius is everywhere among social entrepreneurs – people like Inderjit Khurana, a schoolteacher who saw dozens of children on the platforms of the train stations in India, and she wondered how she could get them to school. Her innovation was to bring the school to them by setting up platform classrooms. Simple is sometimes best.

Fourth, social entrepreneurs inhabit zones of lesser gravity.

An astronaut who walks on the moon is able to jump six times higher than he can on earth because of the lesser force of gravity. Somehow, social entrepreneurs replicate that effect and do more with less than anybody thinks possible. This is evidenced when one considers that Muhammad Yunus has been credited with lifting more than 70 million people out of poverty, all starting with a few dollars from his own pocket.

The fifth habit of highly effective social entrepreneurs is an ability to make molehills out of mountains.

You have a knack for taking big, complex problems and then boiling them down to something at a more human level, a smaller level.

Maybe you can’t fix an entire school system on your own – but you can find a way to teach computer skills to 500,000 of the poorest children in Brazil’s pavelas, as Rodrigo Baggio has done. Or maybe you don’t feel as if you can protect the environment on your own – but you can create a lending model that helps farmers transition to green production, as William Foote has done through EcoLogic Finance in Mexico, improving management of more than 75,000 acres. Finding the molehill in the mountain is a skill you all share.

Sixth: Social entrepreneurs have X-ray vision.

Where some people look at the half of humanity that lives on a dollar or less a day and see only poverty and squalor, social entrepreneurs see talent and potential. Luis Szaran was the eighth child of struggling farmers when he was “discovered” by a prominent musician and was given the opportunity to study music with master teachers in Europe. He founded Sonidas de La Tierra in Paraguay to give similar opportunities to children from the same kinds of backgrounds. If you ask him why, Luis says that “young people who play Mozart by day do not break windows at night.” In the midst of oppressive poverty, Sonidas de La Tierra has helped residents of 18 communities establish philharmonic societies and has worked to directly improve the future for thousands. That’s X-ray vision, indeed.

Seventh and final habit: Social entrepreneurs are all pyromaniacs at heart.

It’s impossible for any of you to talk about your work without setting a room on fire. A great American abolitionist named Wendell Phillips was once asked why he got so fired up when he talked about the issue of slavery. He replied, “I am on fire because I’ve got mountains of ice to melt.”

Whether the ice you’ve got to melt is poverty or hunger, child labor or whether it means standing up for human rights – to me, social entrepreneurs are the real heroes in our world today. When people like Sakena Yacoobi, Albina Ruiz and Ann Cotton dedicate their lives to their work, often in dangerous or unsafe conditions, there is no better definition of the word “hero.” And these heroes are setting the world on fire.

I believe that you all represent the best hope for a brighter tomorrow. That’s why we celebrate tonight names like Drayton and Yunus and Hale. And we add 16 new names to that roll – names like John Wood and Jim Fruchterman and Jeroo Billimoria. These names might not be as well known today as Britney Spears, but I think they should be.

So, all 16 of you, please accept your Skoll Oscar tonight with pride.

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