Crooked into the arm of one of the world's oldest universities, a group of compassionate human beings met this week to talk not about history, not about the body of knowledge one usually hears in an academic environment, but what's going on right this minute and what the future might just look like. The phrase on everyone's lips? Social entrepreneurship.
Oxford University's Said Business School was home to the sixth annual Skoll World Forum on social entrepreneurship. I've been writing about Skoll and social entrepreneurs for the last few weeks. This was my first forum, and everyone who'd been before told me to expect a mad whirl where every single person I met - of some 800 attendees - would be doing something world-changing. How to tell all of their stories? Or whose particular tale, whose mission, whose wild-eyed look and heart-racing commentary would be enough to capture a sense of this time and place?
Of course, one story isn't enough (what was that advertising line, 'bet you can't eat just one'?)...
Instead, sitting in the Sheldonian Theatre last night, where England's first Queen Elizabeth once bestowed awards on subjects who pleased her, I watched this year's Skoll Foundation Award recipients graciously accept the recognition bestowed on them and realized that my work had been done for me. So, yes, in the weeks to come, I will tell the individual stories of the extraordinary men and women I met in the last few days. But for now, from my room at Exeter College, where Tolkien once wrote a new world into being, I will share some stories about the people the experts in this field have chosen as being exemplary. Specifically, this year's Skoll Award winners have this in common - that their work has the potential for large-scale impact on the critical challenges of our time. And I invite you to visit http://www.socialedge.org to read more about the forum and this year's winners.
Bart Weetjens - Apopo:
As a boy, Bart loved rodents. In the early 1990s, he read about African communities relying on foreign expertise to help them address their landmine problems. A classic New Radical (that is, people who've leveraged the expertise of their first career and put it to work on the world's greatest challenges, for more, please see archived articles), Bart merged his passion for and knowledge of rats with his training as a product design engineer and launched Apopos. The organization trains giant African rats to run detection missions - an idea that has proven so successful that these rats are now the preferred method. Today, Apopo's rats are learning how to detect a new danger - - tuberculosis.
Munqeth Mehyar, Nader Khateeb, and Gidon Bromberg - EcoPeace:
Such a simple idea: the notion that environmental issues don't recognize political borders. These three founded an organization the promotes co-operation in the Middle East through protection of the region's shared water resources and environmental heritage. They are, for instance, rehabilitating the Lower Jordan River, as a way to foster collaboration and increase awareness of common interests.
Wendy Kopp - Teach for All:
I've written about Wendy before, and she's one of the people I profiled in my book, We Are The New Radicals. Wendy founded Teach for America as a way to address educational inequity in the U.S. - recruiting students straight out of university to work for two years as teachers in inner city and rural schools across the nation. Teach for America is now one of the largest recruiters in the States, on par with Microsoft, Procter and Gamble, and General Electric. Now, with the help of the Skoll Foundation, Wendy is taking the model to the world. Teach for All will work with independent, locally-governed organizations, enlisting bright young people who want to help throw open the doors of education to others.
William Foote - Root Capital:
William is a recovering investment banker. He saw first-hand the effects the devaluation of the peso had on the Latin American poor, and soon founded an organization that would provide funding to help people start small businesses. It was a powerful idea when he began, and it's even more relevant today, as Root funds what's known as the missing middle - that is, the gap in funding between micro-finance (with the Grameen Bank being the best-known example) and the kinds of investments that venture capital funds and traditional financial institutions make. Root has made 550 loans to rural producers in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia - for those who like metrics, they've lent more than $120 million to date, and the repayment rate is 99 percent.
Jenny Bowen - Half the Sky:
Jenny Bowen learned the devastating effects of institutionalization when she and her husband adopted a toddler from a Chinese orphanage. Almost two, their child could not walk or talk. In time, she blossomed, and this gave the Bowens the idea to launch an organization whose mission would be to provide family-style nurturing to thousands of children who haven't found homes, and who remain in orphanages around the country. They started small, and, in 2007, the Chinese government invited them to expand the program. They hope ultimately that the Chinese will operate this life-saving program themselves.
This, dear readers, is just a whiff, a mere sampling of the people who want to share their stories with you. Who want to encourage you to re-imagine your work, too. To know that, despite the headlines, good is happening in our world. And that each of us can make a difference. I invite you to visit their websites, to read more about the forum any of the Skoll sites, and to share with us what you are doing, or where your dreams take you. Please comment below, or email me directly at Julia@wearethenewradicals.com.
Julia Moulden writes speeches for people who want to change the world. Please visit http://www.wearethenewradicals.com and http://www.juliamoulden.com for more.