Invest. Connect. Celebrate. This is the Skoll Foundation’s mission and deep commitment to the field of social entrepreneurship. The Skoll World Forum is one of our greatest opportunities for the ‘celebrate’ part of that mission. For one week every April, social entrepreneurs and other innovators descend on the charming, medieval town of Oxford to exchange ideas and share solutions to the world’s most intractable problems.
The pinnacle of the week for me and for many delegates is the Awards Ceremony, held in New Theatre, a beautiful art deco performing arts hall where we honor the newest cohort of Skoll Awardees. These inductees join the growing Skoll portfolio of awardees, game-changing organizations including Barefoot College, B Lab, Health Leads, Kiva, One Acre Fund, OneSky, Partners in Health, Root Capital, and Water.org.
This is a chance for the social entrepreneurship community to recognize the tireless, grueling work of these organizations and the distinctive vision of the founders. It’s an opportunity to spotlight innovations that have shifted the equilibrium towards a more just and equal society. It’s lonely work for many of these social entrepreneurs, and this is a time to applaud the ingenuity, passion, and humanity of every one of these changemakers.
Sally Osberg opened the evening by acknowledging the deep political rifts and how communities around the globe are “grappling with what feels like earth-shattering change.” She noted though that this divide has been building for years. Millions are born into poor communities, battling poverty, starvation, and disease, she reminded the crowd in Oxford. “If there were a Richter scale to measure the build-up of societal pressure, the needle would long ago have hit the danger zone,” she said.
“At such times, good people rise to renounce human misery, to reject inequality,” she continued. “But times of such political and social upheaval, demand more than heightened rhetoric. They demand new solutions. They call for solidarity and perseverance. They fuel ingenuity and social entrepreneurship.”
Through this lens, she presented the four newest Skoll Awardees their award for innovations in social entrepreneurship.
Build Change saves lives through their proven designs that help prevent structural damage during earthquakes and typhoons. Working summers with her dad as a bricklayer, Dr. Elizabeth Hausler learned from an early age the importance of a strong foundation and strategic design. She launched that knowledge into an organization that prevents disaster before it happens by shifting “the equilibrium toward safe construction around the world.”
Babban Gona helps prevent extremism in Nigeria – where youth face a 50 percent unemployment rate – by creating viable livelihoods in farming. Their important work has helped to revitalize the agricultural sector, making it a more sustainable form of income – and has kept thousands of youth viably employed. Managing Director Kola Masha founded Babban Gona to attract youth away from extremism and insurgencies by creating “market forces that will draw millions of young people into the sector as entrepreneurs.”
Last Mile Health trains community health workers to reach the most remote communities in the world. Over one billion people globally lack access to healthcare because they live too far for a doctor or clinic. Dr. Raj Panjabi founded Last Mile Health to combat this seemingly intractable problem. “Our goal is to ensure access to quality health services in the worlds’ hardest to reach places,” he told the crowd, “To rewrite stories of fear and despair into stories of hope and love.”
Polaris disrupts human trafficking networks through its data driven anti-trafficking hotlines, data-sharing, and protection policies for victims and vulnerable populations. Polaris is working to end the 25 different types of trafficking, each requiring tailored solutions. Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris, implored the audience to join the fight to end human trafficking, “The solutions exist,” he said. “That’s what 15 years of work has found. Now we need to deliver on those solutions, and we need to take that to scale.”
These four organizations are just a few of the many inspired solutions represented every year at the Skoll World Forum by hundreds of organizations each doing their part to shift the equilibrium towards a more just status quo. In this time of political turmoil, violence, disease, and climate-induced disasters, these social entrepreneurs give us all cause for hope.
Tim Carlberg, Principal with the Portfolio and Investments team here at Skoll, had only been on the job for a few days before the week in Oxford. He arrived with fresh eyes and ears and was struck by the resonance of this award ceremony, this pedestal with which Skoll publicly celebrates people making great change in the world. “We get to see them for the stars that they are,” Tim told me. “And while Skoll recognizes the individual, it celebrates the organization to acknowledge the contributions of the many others who helped realize the entrepreneur’s vision.”
Later that evening, music legend, Bono, was honored with the Skoll Global Treasure Award in recognition of social entrepreneurship on a global scale. Previous recipients have included Muhammad Yunus, Graça Machel, Archbishop Tutu, Malala, and the Dalai Lama. Bono’s activism is legendary and he has co-founded several life-saving organizations including ONE and (RED), dedicated respectively to wiping out global poverty and eradicating AIDS.
Jeff Skoll joined Bono in conversation on the main stage. “I just want to say, I’m experiencing an emotion that I don’t get an awful lot, which is just utter humility in the face of these honorees, who are just incredible,” he told Jeff. “I just can’t believe I’m in your company.” Jeff asked about what he has learned in his many years of activism. “It’s very important to be bottom up rather than top down,” Bono said. “We’ve all made the mistakes of galloping out ahead of ourselves. In the end, it is not about any single personalities, no matter how luminous, it is always social movements that change the world.”
The evening ended with a rousing performance by musician, filmmaker, activist, and founder of the Do It For the Love Foundation, Michael Franti. His words and vibrant music were a perfect way to celebrate the dedicated women and men gathered in a collective moment of sheer joy. “I always thought that if you really want to make a statement about something that’s happening, you should write angry songs about heavy issues,” Franti said. “But what I found is the opposite. If you can attract people through happiness, through dance, through kindness, through love, they’re a lot more interested in hearing whatever it is that you have to say.”