Saturday, May 13, 2006

THE 2006 SKOLL WORLD FORUM ON SOCIAL entrepreneurship, part 1

A little more than six weeks have passed since the final session of The 2006 Skoll World Forum On Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford closed. Although many delegates have already posted their reviews of this year’s event, I’ve been struggling with mine. I would like to say that it was fantastic, and that it significantly advanced the field of social entrepreneurship, but I can’t.

There is, of course, much about the 2006 Forum that is worthy of praise. It’s always a thrill to be amongst people who are committed to increasing the supply of social and humanitarian good in our world, and Jeff Skoll’s generosity in making such gatherings possible deserves our thanks.

It is a privilege to mix and mingle, if ever so briefly, with legendary figures such as Ashoka’s CEO Bill Drayton and Grameen Bank founder Muhammed Yunus. It is equally a privilege to meet and share ideas with academics such as Gordon Bloom (Director of Harvard’s Social Entrepreneurship Collaboratory), Dr. David Hopkins (Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver), and Everett Hendrickson (UCLA). And, the high calibre of student this year's forum attracted is heartening. (I was especially impressed by Stephen Bardle and Ruchika Singhal. Stephen is completing his D.Phil in English (here at Oxford), and simultaneously serving as the managing director of Wear Fair ( Ruchika is a member of the Oxford MBA Class of 2005-2006.)

However, I must confess, that despite the many positive moments, this year’s Skoll Forum, was an overall disappointment.

The Forum is billed as "THE SKOLL WORLD FORUM ON SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP," but a more accurate description, I think, would be "THE SKOLL WORLD FORUM ON SOCIAL entrepreneurship."

The majority of delegates that I met were about as entrepreneurial as your average bank clerk. Don’t misunderstand, I am not bashing bank clerks, nor am I bashing the delegates. Indeed, most of the delegates I met are truly splendid people, but few, if any, in my opinion, are destined to have a major entrepreneurial impact on our world. I hasten to add, I am not suggesting that they will be without impact, only, that not many, if any, will have an entrepreneurial impact.

Entrepreneurs are a daring lot. They are not cut from bureaucratic cloth. Entrepreneurs disrupt the status quo. They embrace risk. Entrepreneurs welcome uncertainty.

The economist Joseph Schumpeter describes entrepreneurial activity as process of "creative destruction." Harvard’s Howard Stevenson adds that entrepreneurs, as opposed to business administrators and bureaucrats, pursue "opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled."

The efforts of Henry Ford, Steve Jobs and Jeff Skoll reveal these qualities. In a time before petrol stations and highways were commonplace, Ford set out to mass produce and sell motorcars. His family and friends thought him crazy, but Ford persisted. Steve Jobs, sold his car to fund his Apple vision. He literally put his money where his mouth was. At last year’s Skoll Forum, I learned from Joel Podolny, one of Jeff Skoll’s instructors at Stanford (and now Dean of Yale’s Business School) that he (Joel) told Jeff that he didn’t think the eBay concept had much potential. Fortunately, Jeff didn’t take Joel’s comments to heart.

Although most entrepreneurs have a more limited impact on society than Ford, Jobs, and Skoll, they, nonetheless, do act boldly in pursuit of opportunities to transform the world through means of entrepreneurship. I would argue that most entrepreneurs, social or not, seek to improve the world. I see scant evidence to support any contention that Ford, or Thomas Edison, or Andrew Carnegie were opposed, or even indifferent, to the creation of humanitarian good. They were, of course, flawed individuals, just as we are, and they undoubtedly made mistakes that diminished the supply of social good, but it would be difficult to establish that such outcomes reflected their intent.

I think that there is even less evidence to suggest that Steve Jobs, or Sergey Brinn, or Jeff Skoll are hostile, or indifferent, to the creation of humanitarian good. In fact, Apple, Google and eBay, although commercial rather than social enterprises, have, on balance, increased our world’s supply of social and humanitarian good. (I’ll not argue my case now, but will return to this theme on another day.)

What alarms me is the ease with which many Skoll delegates, this and last year, ignore the humanitarian good created by commercially minded entrepreneurs. (One 2005 Skoll Award winner warned, "There is no such thing as compassionate capitalism" even as he accepted the recognition of, and funding from, a compassionate capitalist entrepreneur.)

Mo Ibrahim, Chair of Cel Tel International, and one of only a few genuine entrepreneurs at this year’s event, openly rejected the title "social entrepreneur." Social good, he maintained, is a normal accompaniment of ordinary entrepreneurship. Few appeared to accept his insight, and open derision greeted Matthew Bishop (American Business Editor, The Economist), and his critique of social entrepreneurship. Ibrahim and Bishop were voices crying in the wilderness.

To be continued . . .

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