"Capitalism is not immoral. But it is amoral and it needs instruction.”
– Bono at Skoll World Forum, Oxford
So said Bono, one of the world’s most recognized and honored citizens, during his onstage conversation at the Skoll World Forum 2017 with founder, Jeff Skoll, after accepting the Skoll Global Treasure Award at this annual gathering of social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, social impact investors and thought leaders.
Bono and another honorary Skoll awardee, Don Henley, didn’t come to Oxford with their famous bands (U2 and Eagles), but they certainly added an element of celebrity – and unexpectedly a little music too, when they were encouraged to join singer/songwriter Michael Franti on stage, along with Jeff Skoll.
Pretty quickly, an improvised chorus expanded to include the social entrepreneurs also honored this year as Skoll awardees: Babban Gona, which supports Nigerian farmers with innovations that increase crop yields and helps combat the recruiting of young farmers to extremist groups; Build Change, which helps homeowners in the developing world build safer and more secure homes; Last Mile Health bringing essential life saving services to the most isolated populations; and Polaris, data driven systems that are supporting all efforts to end human trafficking.
The individuals and social enterprises chosen each year by the Skoll Foundation’s team receive substantial annual grants and become part of the community that gathers in Oxford every Spring.
Getting to meet the social entrepreneurs and learn about their work is one of the compelling reasons that Scott (my husband) and I have attended 13 of the 14 years of the SWF. This year, we felt an even greater connection to the community as this was my first as a member of the Skoll Fund board.
Fourteen years ago, I suspect very few people at Oxford had heard of Jeff Skoll, the visionary cofounder of eBay, and then Participant Media, the Global Threats Fund and the Skoll Foundation, or even knew much about social entrepreneurship. And even fewer probably realized how big Jeff’s vision is and how deeply he is committed across all his activities and entities to building a better world.
He chose Oxford for this annual gathering after establishing the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University's Said Business School. When Jeff started, it was one of very few business schools offering courses in social entrepreneurship. Now there are more than 50, and among them, some of the world’s best. That’s good news because identifying and implementing the innovations and solutions to global crises and threats is coming from a growing community of what we now easily recognize and call social entrepreneurs.
Still, it isn’t an easy choice and without supporters like Skoll Foundation and impact investor funds like Acumen (the subject of my last blog post), and gatherings like this one, it would be even harder to stay the course of being a disrupter, an innovator, an entrepreneur with purpose.
The SWF has not only popularized the concept but also provides this annual forum, built and strengthened by a community of entrepreneurs.
At the opening plenary, Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima told the crowd that “eight men have more money than the other nearly 7 billion combined," setting the tone for the discussions that followed. Over the next few days, speakers focused on ideas for how global economies must rethink and reframe systems that leave more than half the world’s population below the poverty level – economic systems that perpetuate inequities of class, race and gender, and markets that have accumulated more wealth for the top 1% than is shared among the rest of the 99%.
This year’s overall theme was "Fault Lines: Creating Common Ground." The theme was rich for exploring with this community of passionate and highly engaged individuals. There were nearly a hundred different sessions on everything from “rethinking the refugee response and support” to “making markets accessible to the most marginalized” to the "future of news and creating civil discourse in the age of social media.”
This year, I was invited to help curate and moderate a multiple-session track on The Future of Media. And while that may not seem like a track that fits into a social entrepreneur forum, the fact is that more and more people are making the connection between the enormous challenges facing media businesses and journalists and the impact those challenges are having on everything from elections to investment portfolios to preserving support for the arts.
This, in turn, puts democracy and free and open societies everywhere at risk.
Major media company consolidation focused on profits and ratings results in less quality, more clickbait and shrinking reporting budgets for international and investigative reporting. At the same time, we’ve witnessed the impact on our civil discourse from echo chambers of fake news and alternative facts created by algorithm-driven social platforms. Personal attacks distract from the issues, policies, and developments that truly matter. All of these factors result in public trust in media falling to an all-time low.
And so it was time for SWF to take on media and try to generate some new ideas and innovations to get us past the hand wringing and onto solutions. Some new ideas emerged, such as a consortium of public interest media platforms coming together to share programming in new and innovative ways, as well as creating new funds for deeper reporting on the issues that matter to our society.
I expect more to develop from many of the ideas put forward, and I was especially gratified to have felt such strong support in all the media track sessions for a vital and robust public interest media — something for which I fought long and hard to preserve from the television perspective as president of PBS. With the specter of possible government defunding of public media in the US looming, NPR, PRI and other global public interest media were present to remind the social entrepreneurs, social impact investors and philanthropists that public media matters.
Without open access to reliable, trusted sources of information and news, we cannot defend human rights or sustain democratic governments.
In one of the final sessions of SWF, I led a discussion about the future of news with representatives from the Guardian, The New York Times, the Financial Times and NPR… on the very day that the US president had authorized bombings in Syria. It was a poignant reminder for all that we are living in a world of deep and dangerous fault lines.
But for me, somehow knowing that there is the large Skoll-funded community of social entrepreneurs dedicated to innovating solutions for food scarcity, clean air and water, and renewable energy sources; fighting to improve the lives and opportunities for education and jobs for the most marginalized; and struggling against the tide of rising populism and a growing number of displaced people, sustains a level of hope that we will bridge the enormous differences and divides to embrace our shared humanity.
I certainly felt that shared humanity when humanitarian, singer-songwriter Michael Franti, took the stage and reminded us to “feel the love,” and when Sally Osberg, president of the Skoll Foundation, so beautifully articulated our shared values as a community. "The story of our origin is the story of our destiny," she told the crowd. "Our humanity and our story bind us together in ubuntu. We are who we are through others, through community and society. ... "Tonight we celebrate... the story of how we've got to 'carry each other.' The story of the one we are and the one we will yet become."
Longtime SWF Oxford host, Stephan Chambers, in his inimitable style and much admired turn of phrase, summed up our week together this way: "I’ve seen our movement grow over the years,” he told the crowd. “Yours is hard, necessary, and sometimes lonely work. Sometimes this week can seem like a dream, [but] there were signs of real traction... Take these Skoll moments, treasure them, and store them for the days for when you are less hopeful.”
All this, plus the sessions (you can watch many of them on SWF's YouTube channel), the special convenings on social impact investing curated by Capricorn Investments and, for the first time ever, a specially curated TEDxSkoll, made this a very unique year at SWF.
Bringing together some of the change makers and ideas from this inspiring community, Renee Kaplan, Skoll Foundation’s head of strategic partnerships, brought TEDTalks to an audience gathered in the historic Sheldonian Theatre — a place where Charles Dickens might have given a talk and where today, graduates of Oxford gather for a final ceremony. Underneath a painted ceiling featuring the Goddess of Truth, the theme of this first TEDxSkoll was appropriately TRUTH and presenters delivered many variations on that theme as well as many ideas worth sharing.
Borrowing that theme of all TED conferences, I left Oxford more inspired than ever, feeling the privilege and responsibility that comes from being a part of a community of people dedicated to leading the innovations and actualizing the ideas that offer solutions to global challenges. Their ideas are worth sharing and I urge you to go deeper than I can share in one blog post by checking out the content on Skoll.org.
I have mentioned this book before, but Getting Beyond Better by Sally Osberg and SF board colleague Roger Martin, is definitely a book worth reading and sharing.