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Skoll Day 1: “Here we are: Social entrepreneurs have arrived.”

By Alisha Miranda on March 26, 2008No Comment

Those were the words of Jeff Skoll, Founder and Chairman of the Skoll Foundation (and probably one of the most well-known social entrepreneurs kicking off the fifth annual Skoll World Forum earlier this afternoon. Social entrepreneurship is already huge, Skoll said, citing recent of it by Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and Barack Obama. There are “more headlines, more awards, more adjectives, more allies than ever,” he said. “But there’s one thing we don’t have more of that we desperately need: time.”

Here’s one thing they do have: a group of global delegates who are all motivated and committed to using innovative ideas to create real, potent social change. This year’s conference is about culture, and there was no lack of it as representatives from over 40 countries filled Oxford’s Sheldonian Theater for the opening plenary session that featured calls to action (like Skoll’s), a few laughs (including hearty applause for Lord Anthony Giddens when he told this joke: “George Bush finally decided to take climate change seriously…so he’s sending 10,000 troops to the sun.”) and stimulating ideas and speeches.

Culture, on first glance, is perhaps an interesting choice for a conference on social entrepreneurship, but frankly, couldn’t be more relevant to today’s critical issues.  Chairman of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, Stephen Chambers said:

    “We chose this theme because we understand that sometimes the problems we face aren’t about cash, or the supply chain, or incentives. Often the solutions we seek…are about behaviors, or habits – our focus will be on the human reality, the complications of culture – unpredictable and sometimes perverse truth of who we are, what we do, and what we make.”

The conference organizers understand the idea that cultural norms can disadvantage not just cultural/ethnic minorities, but women – it’s a key group that becomes oppressed, and interestingly one large target of social entrepreneurship programs (for instance, you see many successful microfinance programs with 80%+ women borrowers). This focus is welcome, as was the representation of women panelists today. One of the most lively panels was all women: moderated by Pat Mitchell of the Paley Center and featuring Karen Tse (International Bridges to Justice), Jody Williams (Nobel Laureate), and Nafis Sadik, MD (of the UN).

The three women who spoke – all tireless activists and entrepreneurs in their own right – discussed their varied experiences (from debating reproductive health issues with the Pope to training police officers in Cambodia to respect human rights) with an eye to culture and the barriers and opportunities to social change it can create. Their messages were ones to me that, as a long-time student of gender studies, were commonplace, but somewhat revolutionary in a room of public and private sector actors, many from mainstream organizations. Preaching about “a culture of shared experience,” Tse dismissed “superficial notions of culture” that pit nationalities against nationalities and that don’t understand that, for example, a public defender in Cambodia may have more in common with a public defender in Afghanistan that with a person in a vastly different location within their own culture. And Sadik was bold as well, telling the audience that, of course, you have to take culture into account, but at the same time, “can’t allow traditional values to be used to justify actions that discriminate against women or don’t allow them to have rights.”

As the first day comes to a close, I’m struck by the tenor of this conference, and take the train back to London as a believer in Chambers’ opening mandate: that we should leave here inspired, infused, and invigorated. At the drinks reception, held at the gorgeous Trinity College after the opening plenary, I found myself in conversation with (at the same time), a social entrepreneur from Beirut (via California), a student and professor from California (via Spain), and a family foundation representative from India (where funding comes from a London company). We were doing exactly what the Skoll Conference has asked: examining and indeed embracing our cultures as a way to create long-term social change. I can’t wait to see what we can do tomorrow.

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