Thursday, 26 March 2009

Skoll 2009: Welcome to the new paradigm

As a journalist, I go to a lot of conferences but unfortunately not all prove to be particularly useful. That description however can in no way be applied to the Skoll World Forum which I had the pleasure of being part of today.

Not wishing to exaggerate but at times it really felt like a revolution is just around the corner. The overwhelming message coming out of Oxford's Said Business School, the main venue for the conference organised by the Skoll Foundation, is that it is entrepreneurs with a social conscience who hold the key to getting us out of the financial mess we're currently all in.

Speaker after speaker stressed that the old order is no longer sustainable. An economy based on extreme risk taking has proved to be unworkable (and that's a huge understatement) so a different type of approach is what's required.

Sir Ronald CoSir Ronald Cohen at the Skoll World Forum 2009hen, the father of the British venture capital industry and a key player in the social investment market, summed it up the best. Referring to a "new paradigm", he told attendees including me at a session entitled 'Capital markets in crisis: Threat or opportunity?': "Philantro-capitalism is an idea that needs to come through strong in the new economic environment and it is up to social entrepreneurs to demonstrate its value to the powers that be."

"The role of the social market", he continued, "is to do what the government can't for the benefit of society. We are here and we will do the job."

That's not to say that the sector's complacent because, as we all well know, it isn't going to be easy. Like Sir Ronald warned, social entrepreneurs will get "lost in the noise" unless they raise their profile by lobbying government, speaking to the press and commissioning research.

It's not like we're stuck for examples of social enterprise in action though. I learnt of some pretty amazing businesses during my few hours at Skoll. I'll be blogging in detail about them in another post but some of my favourites are Better World Books which has raised in excess of $6m for literacy initiatives worldwide by selling used books and Apopo which trains sniffer rats to detect explosives and diagnose disease in Africa.

Apopo was one of seven social enterprises which received a grant of £500,000 at the Skoll Foundation's annual awards announced in the magnificant surroundings of the Sheldonian Theatre on Thursday evening.

Hosting the event, Skoll Foundation CEO Sally Osberg also welcomed the dawn of a 'new paradigm'. In a rousing speech, she told delegates: "The old order is crumbling as we create a morally justifiable and sustainable world. Social entrepreneurs are humanity's scouts looking for opportunities and returning with news of what real change looks like."

Now who wouldn't be inspired by that?

I'll be tweeting from day three of the Skoll World Forum on 27 March. Follow me at

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