Skoll Foundation


Jeff Skoll Opening Remarks at 2010 Skoll World Forum: “From Curiosity to a Force in Society”

April 4, 2010 by

Introductory remarks by Jeff Skoll delivered April 14, 2010 at the Skoll World Forum at the University of Oxford.

It is my honor to welcome all of you to the seventh annual Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship.  I’d also like to take a moment to thank everyone from the Skoll Foundation and the Skoll Centre for your hard work preparing for this event.

It is hard to believe how far social entrepreneurship has come in these past seven years.  We’ve gone from a curiosity to a force in society.  Mohammed Yunus, Bill Drayton, Craig Kielburger and Paul Farmer have become rock stars.  And the term social entrepreneurship has entered the public lexicon and one day may even be in the Oxford dictionary.

Speaking of Oxford, I came across an interesting story the other day.

For five centuries, it was believed that the founder of University College – generally agreed to be Oxford’s oldest surviving college – was none other than King Alfred, the ninth king of Wessex, slayer of Viking invaders, and the first great hero of English history.

For nearly six centuries, King Alfred was celebrated with anniversary dinners, toasts, and tributes in these halls.

That is – until one day, somebody questioned the legend, did a little digging, and found that King Alfred had nothing at all to do with the founding of University College.

It turns out that in 1381, during a dispute over property rights, some students of the University forged documents to suggest that King Alfred founded the college—and since it had royal roots, the monarch should be its protector in the dispute.  The crown agreed, and the legend served University College well for centuries.

But over time, as people learned the truth, the legend disintegrated.  The final straw came in 1872, when a famous historian excused himself from an elaborate banquet in Alfred’s honor by sending along two burnt cakes in his place—a reference to a famous story about Alfred.

So, Dean Mayer, as you know, we have a tradition of giving unique gifts at this forum.  To help celebrate tonight’s dinner, I’d like to offer two magnificent cakes—not the least bit burned—for your staff to enjoy.

The point of this story is that old myths die hard.  Even when people have evidence that a myth is untrue, even when they have evidence that it has never been true, it still takes a great deal of time to fade.

Now, what does that have to do with us?

For much of the past 50 years, there has been a myth perpetrated across the globe that ordinary people cannot change the world.

Too many people have come to believe that we can have no discernable effect on the problems that surround us.  The media has made people more aware of the issues we face, at the same time that it’s brought more attention to the real and perceived failure of big institutions to bring change.

That combination has left many people dispirited and cynical.

But I know a solution that works every time: I tell people about you.

I tell them about Sakena Yacoobi, fighting poverty and warfare in Afghanistan with reading and writing, educating more than 350,000 women and girls each year.

I tell them about Martin von Hildebrand and how Gaia Amazonas has helped put nearly 62 million acres of Amazon rainforest in Colombia back into indigenous hands.

I tell them about Bart Weetjens and those brave HeroRats that have helped clear more than 400,000 square meters of land mines in Africa.

I tell them about John Wood and Room to Read—which has built 765 schools, 7,000 libraries, and brought 5 million new books to Nepal.

I tell them about Amitbha Sadangi and IDE India, which has helped poor farmers accumulate $1 billion in wealth while reducing 2 million tons of carbon emissions.

And I tell them about Paul Farmer, and how the healthcare delivery model he piloted in Haiti is being replicated now in 6 countries on 4 continents. You’ll be hearing from Paul later in the program this evening.

I know that the problems we face are incredibly, sometimes impossibly, large.

But I also know this: right here in this very room is the evidence that every day, we have a chance to issue our own response to the problems in the world.

In every corner of society, there are optimists, agitators, and rabble-rousers: people who have never lost hope.  And everywhere, there are social entrepreneurs who give them new avenues to channel that hope.  You have proven that your models work—and now we need help to bring these solutions to scale.

That is why our theme this year is Catalyzing Collaboration for Large-Scale Change.  Our call to action now is to identify and mobilize an entire ecosystem—across all sectors—for change.

In Brazil, for instance, it means reaching out to key ministers in the Brazilian government, who can help enact a policy for preserving the rainforest. In the Philippines it means partnering with shipping and airline companies, government agencies, lawyers and law enforcement agencies to eliminate human trafficking. In the Middle East, it means engaging Israeli and Palestinian groups interested in building peace by addressing the shortage of water.

I feel privileged that I personally am able to contribute in various ways.

First, I am proud of the work of social entrepreneurs and continue to support you via the Skoll Foundation.  Second, I have been able to make investments in companies that lead to positive social change, companies like Tesla and Nanosolar.  Third, I started a new organization last year called the Skoll Global Threats Fund.  It focuses on major issues that urgently threaten the future of the planet, including climate change, Middle East peace, nuclear weapons, pandemics and water.  Finally, I work to inspire public will through various forms of media, including film, TV and online, through my company, Participant Media.  Participant has released 23 films in the last five years, including An Inconvenient Truth, The Cove, Food Inc and The Kite Runner.

Together, every single part of my personal ecosystem is vital to catalyzing, on a global scale, the kind of change that we need in the world.  We will all be talking at length this week about how we can make change, together.

But right now, I am delighted to announce two special treats for the Skoll World Forum audience.

For the first time, we have been able to bring not one, but two new movies from Participant to be shown here at Oxford – Countdown to Zero and Oceans.

The first film, Countdown to Zero, is about the very important but somewhat forgotten issue of nuclear weapons.  With our partner GlobalZero, we began this movie 2.5 years ago.  It made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January and it opens in theaters in the US in July.  I am very proud of this film, and I encourage you to attend the screening tonight if you can.  It will be shown at the X theater at 9:??pm tonight.  There are only Y seats, so please get there on time as it may fill up.

The second movie, called Oceans, has recently been released in Europe after 6 years in the making.  Filmed in every ocean of the world, the cameras have captured the magic that is under the sea.  Our good friend, Jake Eberts, will present the film tomorrow night at 9:??.  If you have ever seen the film Winged Migration or watched the series Planet Earth, you will be blown away by this film.

In closing, as I think of you and the past seven years, I am reminded of the words of the Irish poet Brendan Kennelly, who wrote, “If you want to serve the age, betray it.”

What are the ideas worth betraying today?  To me, it begins with toppling the myth once and for all that the world proceeds along without us; that there are problems beyond our reach; that we are too small to have an impact, and too cynical to try.

We can’t fix every problem.  There are some challenges that have been with us since the time of King Alfred. But the ones that we can solve, we must.

Together, we are not helpless against the world as it .  We can bend it—a little bit at a time—to the way we want it to be.   I hope you enjoy your time here this week.

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