Skoll Foundation


Jeff Skoll Opening Remarks at the 2006 Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship: “The Unseen University”

March 3, 2006 by

Introductory remarks by Jeff Skoll delivered March 3, 2006 at the 2006 Skoll World Forum, the University of Oxford.

For nearly 1,000 years, Oxford has been a pillar of the establishment. It has had a role in educating four British and eight foreign kings, 47 Nobel Prize winners, 28 foreign presidents, seven saints, 86 archbishops, 18 cardinals and one pope. Not to mention Hugh Grant!All of this stately history tends to obscure the fact that occasionally important rebellion also occurs here. After all, it was here that John Wyclif challenged the pope in the 14th century; that John Locke stood up for natural rights in the 17th century; and that academic colleges were first established for women back in 1878. That is the other Oxford University – the “unseen university.”

For me, the Skoll World Forum, the Skoll Centre, is where rebellion is being defined in the 21 century – not just for Oxford, but for the world. You might not know it, because we’re not waving placards and beating drums in the streets, but social entrepreneurs are rebelling against the collective thinking of billions of people, rebelling against one of the worst ideas that has every gripped mankind – namely that the problems that surround us are so big that ordinary men and women can’t make a difference.

Five years ago, Bill Clinton, the former president of the United States, came to Coventry and made a speech where he looked at the problems of the world today: environmental degradation, poverty, human rights violations and so on. He said that, although it seems that many of these problems are half a world away, through advances in technology like satellite and the Internet, we can no longer choose not to know about these problems. We can choose not to act, but we can no longer choose not to know.

It’s true. Whether it is disease and hunger in Africa, or poverty in the Middle East, or lack of education across the developing world, we all know the problems. However, unlike most people, social entrepreneurs see these problems as a call to action rather than a cause for despair. That’s what we mean at the Skoll Foundation when we say that social entrepreneurs have two kinds of power. The first is to directly work on the problem – bringing clean water to rural villages or education to those who can’t afford it. The second is the power to inspire – to prove to the cynics of the world that people can actually get involved, make a difference and crack the problem.

Some charities give people food. Some charities teach farmers to grow food. But social entrepreneurs aren’t happy with that. They have to teach the farmer to grow food, teach them how to make money, turn it back over to the farm and hire ten more people. They’re not satisfied until they have transformed the entire food industry.

At the same time, like other idealists, social entrepreneurs look at the world through rose-colored glasses, but they never forget the green eyeshades of the accountant – measuring return on investment, measuring results and finding new ways to scale up their sustainable social impact.

At the Skoll Foundation our job is threefold. First, we support social entrepreneurs by investing in their organizations through grants. Second, we support their work by connecting social entrepreneurs together through events like the Skoll World Forum and through our online community, Third, we support social entrepreneurs by celebrating their work and showing the world the results – the positive social change.

It’s the third part of this mission that I have been most entrenched in over the last few years. I think it’s clear to all of us that if we only celebrate social entrepreneurs at events like this and at schools like Saïd, then we’re not doing our job. We need a bigger ballpark. And that’s where the power of the media comes in. That’s one of the reasons I started my own company, Participant Productions, in Hollywood – to create films that can make a difference in the world.

Storytelling is so powerful. As one example, I want to give you a little update on a project that we announced last year at this Forum. The project is called The Gandhi Project. It was the idea of a friend of mine, Kamran Elahian, who was doing some social work in the West Bank in Ramallah and was very discouraged that the Palestinians around him saw violence as their only recourse.

Coincidentally, the night before I had this conversation with Kamran, I’d seen the movie Gandhi again. I asked him, “What do people think about Gandhi in the Palestinian territories?” And he said, “Well they don’t really know much about him.” Sure enough, the movie had never been dubbed into Arabic.

So, by the good graces of Columbia Pictures, who gave us the right to do it, and the wonderful work of a Palestinian filmmaker, Hanna Elias, who did the dub using Palestinian actors, we were able to create an Arabic-dubbed version of the film. With our partners at the Global Catalyst Foundation and Jake Edwards, who produced and financed Gandhi, and Sir Ben Kingsley, we went from the Forum last year directly to Ramallah, where we had a premiere of the movie. We also had premieres in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem. After that, we worked with local NGOs on rolling out the movie in schools and community centers, in refugee camps and even in private homes. Following those screenings were discussions.

It has been a remarkable process. The response has been beyond what we had hoped. After a lot of these screenings, we’ve seen Palestinian youths who’ve said, “You know, before I saw this movie, I was thinking about becoming a martyr (a suicide bomber), but now I see that there might be another way.”

So through the power of this great story about a great social entrepreneur, Gandhi, we hope to reach a few hundred thousand Palestinians by the time this project ends in 2007. It’s too early to tell if it will make a difference, but like all of you, we have to count on hope and faith and belief that this is really working.

It is hope that will transform the world, and that’s what all of you do. Your work creates the peaceful communities, the kindness and the inspiration that show others that people can really make a difference. Through your work, many more people are leading healthy and productive lives. It’s the hope that you give the world – the hope in people, the kindness, the hard work and the brightness of our shared future that I think is the antidote to many of these entrenched problems around the world. That to my mind is really rebellion – the unseen university.

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