Skoll Foundation


Jeff Skoll Opening Remarks to the 2007 Skoll World Forum: “From the Margins of Society to the Mainstream of Our Larger World”

March 27, 2007 by

Opening remarks by Jeff Skoll delivered March, 27, 2007 at the Skoll World Forum, the University of Oxford.

It is a source of great pride for all of us at the Skoll Foundation that Oxford University and the Said School of Business have been such terrific hosts for the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship. I want to say a special thanks to Alex Nicholls, Rowena Young, and the entire Skoll Centre team for all their hard work.As many of you know, at last year’s ceremony, we established a tradition of giving creative gifts to the leadership of this fine school to say “thank you.”

So, once again, I went on eBay and did a search for “Stephan Chambers.” But I am sorry to report that there was only one listing: a science fiction novel written by a Stephan Chambers, entitled, “Hope’s End.”

As intriguing as that sounds, I didn’t think it was appropriate to kick off a forum of social entrepreneurs with a book entitled, “Hope’s End.” So, I went to the Oxford University bookstore, and bought you a pen instead. It’s medium point. Blue.

As a former publisher, you know – this can be mightier than a sword. Use it well.

It is my pleasure to join Stephan in welcoming all of you to the fourth Annual Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship.

I would also like to say a special thank you to my good friend, Salman Ahmad. I met Salman last fall when we were on a panel together at the Clinton Global Initiative.

Not only is he a musician and a cool dude – he is also a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador for HIV/AIDS, and the founder of South Asia’s most popular rock band, named Junoon – which means “passion.” I couldn’t think of a more appropriate name. I’ve become a big fan of Salman’s music and I know you will be too.

The men and women sitting around you today come from 40 different countries on six continents – evidence that the Skoll World Forum for Social Entrepreneurship continues to grow each year.

It is a big part of the reason why we moved to a new venue and are meeting today in this magnificent theater.

The Sheldonian was built between 1664 and 1669 for the function it still serves: awarding degrees. Everyone from Samuel Johnson to Sir Walter Raleigh to Hugh Grant received degrees in this room.

It has been described “as the most splendid room in Europe,” and was welcomed into the world with an eight-hour ceremony back in 1669. Unfortunately, for our purposes here this week, a 2003 poll of art lovers also named it “the most uncomfortable arts venue in Britain” with “very nasty modern chairs.”

It is not entirely confirmed that the famed architect who built the Sheldonian, Christopher Wren, was the inspiration for the expression, to “wrench your back,” but you may feel that way after tonight. So, we apologize in advance to you — and your chiropractor.

Last year when we came to Oxford, it was clear that even though social entrepreneurs were the best hope for the future of humanity, you were also one of the world’s best-kept secrets. It seemed every story written about social entrepreneurs invariably still started with the same question: what is a social entrepreneur?

So, last year, we set an ambitious goal: to make Bill Drayton and Victoria Hale and Martin Fisher as well-known as Britney Spears.

Sadly, in the past year, Britney Spears has raised the bar a little bit.

But a remarkable thing has happened along the way. In 2006, social entrepreneurs moved from the margins of society to the mainstream of our larger world.

The 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner is a social entrepreneur: Muhammad Yunus, who has generously agreed to join us here this week.

One of the leading nominees for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize is not only a social entrepreneur; he was one of the keynote speakers of last year’s forum – Al Gore, who has been nominated for his work on climate change.

Granted, the number of Google hits for Britney Spears increased by about 50 percent this past year. But the number of Google hits for Bill Drayton increased more than 100 percent. The number of Google hits for Martin Fisher increased more than 200 percent. And the number of Google hits for Victoria Hale increased more than 400 percent.

In fact, I am pleased to tell you that last fall, the government of India approved a drug developed in just seven years by Victoria Hale’s Institute for One World Health to treat black fever, a disease that affects nearly half a million Indians each year. Over the next decade, this drug is expected to save millions of lives.

Of all the stories written about people like Victoria Hale in the past year, many go out of their way to describe social entrepreneurs as the changing face of philanthropy. They talk about business techniques being applied to solve social problems. They say the center of gravity of philanthropy is shifting – and coin new phrases like “philanthro-capitalists” and “philanthro-preneurs.”

[In fact my favorite comes from our very own Sally Osberg, who says that instead of “social capitalists” we should say, “social CAT-apultists – as in “catapult” – since social entrepreneurs slingshot their way into the bulls-eye of whatever social problem they are trying to solve.”]

It’s true – and we are all proud to be part of that change. But it misses the point.

We are not just witnessing the center of gravity in philanthropy shift. We are witnessing a shift in the center of gravity of social change itself – from institutions to individuals . . . from governments to people.

Every place that a social challenge today is at its worst, you will find a social entrepreneur.

You are in the rural, most desperately poor villages of Paraguay teaching children to play music (Luis Szaran). You are in the villages of Peru, turning waste collection in urban areas into a profitable enterprise, creating jobs and improving health (Albina Ruiz). You are in homes across Pakistan, using microcredit to give opportunity to more than 100,000 families (Roshaneh Zafar). You are in oceans around the world, replenishing the world’s fishing stocks and improving environmental performance (Rupert Howes).

You are everywhere that social problems call for innovation, inspiration and the inability to take failure for an option. In the process, you are replacing cynicism and desperation with hope, optimism, energy, and love.

At the Skoll Foundation, we are proud to be there with you, supporting your work in three ways: by investing in your organizations; by connecting social entrepreneurs to each other, and by celebrating your efforts to effect positive social change.

Some may say this vision is impossible, that the problems are too big, or that the challenges are too many. But as Goethe once reminded us, we should “dream no small dreams, for they have no power to move the hearts of men.”

This year, our big dreams come to a bigger stage, and that is appropriate. You have earned it. Thank you . . .

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