7 lessons in saving the world

The planet’s most optimistic activists met in Oxford, England, this spring to share notes on why so many things are going wrong. It turns out structural change requires that you change first.

The world, at least on paper, is getting better. Never have so many people on this planet had better access to food, education, health care and human rights. All the same, we seem no closer to a just society. Solve one problem and two more take its place. Nagging concerns about social justice, inequality, nationalism, racism, corruption and human dignity, not to mention the environment, remind us that the closer we get to better, the farther we are from good enough.

This question of “Can we really, actually change the world?” haunted the 15th annual Skoll World Forum, which took place in April in Oxford. Founded by Canadian entrepreneur Jeffrey Skoll, the first president of eBay, every year Skoll World brings together business leaders, activists, not-for-profits, impact investors and philanthropists who identify with the label “social entrepreneur.” Placing purpose over profit, social entrepreneurs use business tools and innovative approaches to disrupt broken systems and catalyze social change, everywhere from a suicidal teenager’s bedroom in Toronto to impoverished villages in East Africa.

But in a world marked by political extremism, nationalism, intolerance and the climate crisis, the 1,200 attendees from 81 countries couldn’t help but wonder: Are social entrepreneurs and other progressives winning the battles and losing the war?

Success stories from the frontlines of social change boosted the spirit at this year’s Skoll World. As a sample, meet five game-changing organizations recognized with the 2019 Skoll Award for outstanding achievement:


• Located in Accra, Ghana, mPharma is reforming Africa’s fragmented medical-supply chain by providing innovative financing to more than 400,000 patients and supplying 200 pharmacies and 50 hospitals in five countries. Says CEO Gregory Rockson, “We achieve lower prices by aggregating and predicting demand.”

• The New York-based not-for-profit Crisis Text Line provides a free, 24/7, confidential support service to people in crisis, mainly youth, in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. The service has exchanged 102 million texts since 2013. Plus, Crisis Text shares trends data from these cases to build smarter, more cohesive mental-health systems.

• In Africa, counterfeit seeds and medical drugs can cost farmers their livelihoods and endanger innocent patients. mPedigree fights counterfeits with a mobile-based product identification system that allows customers to verify products before they buy. More than 100 million people in Africa and Asia have used mPedigree’s Goldkeys system to authenticate two billion products.

• Thorn, a Los Angeles-based technology company, battles the rising tide of child pornography and human trafficking with intelligent tools that comb the dark web to find exploitative material and then identify the material’s source. Cofounded in 2012 by actors Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, Thorn helps authorities in 30 countries identify, on average, eight child sex-trafficking victims a day.

• Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator is tackling South Africa’s 55% youth unemployment rate. It uses data analysis to help urban youth identify their true skills, which transcend education or experience. Through innovative partnerships and job training, Harambee has connected youth to 100,000 jobs.


These success stories reflect what’s special about social entrepreneurs. While conventional charities ease the suffering caused by longstanding social problems, social entrepreneurs have bolder goals. They don’t treat symptoms, they target systems.

Here are some lessons gleaned from the forum and why hope still flickers in the struggle for economic and social justice. You may even find some ideas on how to change your world, too.


“The universe is made of stories”

At the opening ceremony of the four-day conference, officials recalled the first Skoll conference in 2004. The foundation had invited 250 social entrepreneurs to Oxford to compare notes but was surprised when almost all of them showed up. Those attendees had two things in common: passion for their work, and the feeling that they were alone in what they did.

At Skoll, storytelling has become the medium through which social entrepreneurs share their hopes, problems, successes and failures. In response to the current political climate, one speaker quoted from “The Speed of Darkness,” a poem by 20th-century activist Muriel Rukeyser: “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” The message: we can all create the world we want.

Upbeat stories attract interest, create common purpose and encourage empathy. Proof of the need for inspiring stories was supplied, inadvertently, by Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan, who performed at the final award ceremony.

Burdened by social conscience, McLachlan wrote a 2003 ballad called “World on Fire” (“The world’s on fire and it’s more than I can handle”). Rather than spend big bucks on a promotional video, she sang the song, barefoot, in a one-take video that cost all of $15 to produce. Noting, for example, that the $5,000 cost of makeup and hair design could finance a year of school for 145 girls in Afghanistan, McLachlan donated the $150,000 production budget to impactful causes such as War Child, CARE USA, and Engineers Without Borders (Canada). Between songs, she declared that she was “humbled and inspired” by the Skoll award winners. “In these divisive times I can barely watch the news,” she said. “You’ve re-energized me.”


Share the power

There’s always an imbalance when wealth meets need. Throughout the conference, many participants remarked on the blind spots of global do-gooders. Those who would fix recurring social ills have to park their assumptions and seek the perspectives of those who experience those ills every day. “Our challenge is to keep falling in love with the problem and to not stay in love with our solutions,” said one speaker. Added another: “It’s smart to be closer to your investees than your investors. That’s how you create impact.”

Acknowledging this problem can be tough for the privileged well-intended. Edgar Villanueva, a native American specialist in social justice philanthropy and the author of Decolonizing Wealth, noted that “colonial dynamics” still determine how wealth gets distributed. “Colonization is atrocity,” he insisted. “We still see a very small percentage of philanthropic dollars being invested in communities of colour.” Villanueva called on decision makers to “lean in” to discomfort and diversity.

“Change is happening in the margins. A lot of solutions, good ideas and brave thinking are coming from people who haven’t been part of the circle, and we need to tap into that in order to see change.”

To its credit, Skoll World addressed these issues head on. One major session explored “Driving Change at the Local Level” through community-based organizations that often understand local issues better than governments or large organizations.

Another session on impact ecosystems in Latin America was conducted in Spanish—a first for the Skoll conference and a huge source of pride for two Peruvian delegates I met.

Another session asked the question “Is Philanthropy the Solution or Part of the Problem?” (The conclusion seems to be yes to both.) On that panel, Rodney Foxworth, the executive director of BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies), urged philanthropists, investors and entrepreneurs to get comfortable not just redistributing money but also power.

Humility can be a power tool. When Julie Cordua joined Thorn as CEO in 2011, she had ideas about how to fight child sex trafficking. But she started by going into the field to meet the experts – ranging from police to victims to tech companies – and just listen. “Incredible power sits in not knowing,” she said in her Skoll Award acceptance speech. “A bit of being naïve can open up incredible possibilities for innovation…It forced us to partner deeply with those on the front lines who did know.”


Every cause starts with education

Movie night at Skoll is special. Jeff Skoll founded his own production company, Participant Media, to produce socially relevant content and its latest film, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, was screened at Skoll World. Writer, director and star Chiwetel Ejiofor introduced the film, a love letter to the transformative power of education. He plays Trywell Kamkwamba, a farmer in Malawi whose family suffers through flood, drought and political corruption. As the family’s resources shrivel, his son William has to leave school. When neighbours start to leave, William offers to build a windmill to irrigate during the dry season. But first he needs to use parts from the family bicycle, which is also Trywell’s proudest possession. Now showing on Netflix, the film explores themes such as independence, community, trust, indulging curiosity and the paramount importance of learning. Where governments and institutions fail, knowledge can make the difference.

The real William Kamkwamba, now 31, is developing a machine that villagers can use to drill their own wells. He’s also working to start an innovation centre that will connect young Malawians with mentors and resources to build the next generation of innovations.


Double down on local solutions that work

Inspired by The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, I met with Molly Burke, an American living in northern Uganda who runs CycleConnect, a firm that helps rural residents finance bicycles. As the film suggests, a bicycle is a source of wealth in villages with no electricity and few motor vehicles. It gives people essential, low-cost mobility to fields, markets, schools and health care. “It’s their future, and their children’s future,” says Burke.

CycleConnect (originally called Bicycles against Poverty) distributes rugged, single-gear bikes along with a basic toolkit and insurance. The cost is $90, payable in ten monthly installments. In recent years, the company has added other products including motorcycles, an ox and plow, and a grinding machine. Grinding maize into cornmeal porridge, a basic food in East Africa, earns farmers more money than selling the unprocessed grain. Burke says every product is geared towards helping customers increase their incomes. With a bike, they can buy products at the regional market and resell them in their villages. They can rent out their bicycle, ox, or grinder or start a taxi service with their motorcycle.

CycleConnect seems to be a poster child for the kinder, gentler values that Skoll advocates for social ventures. Burke says the company screens for humility in hiring staff. When researching new products, staff don’t just survey customers, they ask prospects about their ambitions and dreams. They use visual aids to probe product preferences, and play dice games to understand how people feel about money and risk.

That extra effort has helped the company avoid mistakes, such as offering tractors and solar lamps, which customers said they didn’t want. “It also helped us build a better project,” says Burke. “We learned how to market and how to train our customers better.”

Burke says CycleConnect will sell to 3,000 clients this year, up from 2,000 in 2018. But what’s more important is that 75% of its customers start businesses and are seeing their incomes grow by up to 65%. And many customers, two-thirds of whom are women, come back to upgrade from a bicycle to an ox or even a motorcycle. The company aims to make a profit in order to end its dependence on grants, and is looking to expand to other countries by teaching other organizations to replicate its distribution model.

It’s not about the bike. CycleConnect is aiming to break the cycle of poverty in East Africa and beyond.


To change the system, you may have to play hardball

The best social entrepreneurs create impact by leveraging business tools such as big data, mobile technologies, agile development and product-market fit. But sometimes you just need a bazooka. That’s the strategy of Alyssa Ely and Sandra Fisher-Martins, cofounders of Oxford-based Asymmetry Research. Their new startup hopes to encourage big public companies to adopt more sustainable values and practices by using the black art of short-selling.

“Selling short” means making money by selling shares you don’t own (they’re borrowed) in troubled companies with the intention of buying the shares back later at a lower price. “Shorts” are the black sheep of the investment world, but they also provide liquidity to markets and help expose investment risks. Asymmetry is building a network of investigative researchers and values-driven investors to co-ordinate “short” assaults on companies that put themselves at risk by covering up environmental problems and unsustainable business practices.


“Incredible power sits in not knowing. A bit of being naive can open up incredible possibilities for innovation.”


“Public companies,” says Ely, “are not financially incentivized to meaningfully embrace sustainability. Markets are rewarded for looking the other way.” Asymmetry hopes to launch its first campaign this fall. It would likely involve identifying a target company that’s not playing by the rules and commissioning rigorous research to assess the risk. That information is then circulated to potential investors and the sustainability community.

If the company’s stock falls, that should attract management’s attention and hopefully stimulate a broader conversation about the risks of not practising sustainability. Ely hopes it won’t take too many campaigns to change attitudes on financial markets. “We just have to increase the cost of doing the wrong things.”


Inclusion wins

One of the most ambitious entrepreneurs at Skoll World was Safeena Husain, founder of Educate Girls, a not-for-profit based in Mumbai. A graduate of the London School of Economics, Husain champions education for women. India’s patriarchal culture has discouraged millions of girls from attending school; their lack of education often means they become child brides or unskilled workers. Educate Girls has sent 380,000 girls aged six to 14 to school in the past 12 years in 13,000 rural villages in the states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Its goal is 20 million girls staying in school.

In a country of 1.3 billion people, systemic change seems impossible. But understanding the data makes a difference. Husain discovered that just 5% of villages in India account for 40% of the country’s “out-of-school” girls. This makes the problem easier to address: volunteers can go door-to-door to find girls who’ve left school and then try to bring them back.

Husain, a 2015 Skoll Award winner, said that investing in girls’ education accelerates impact. “It is the key to solving so many social issues, including climate.” Nine of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals can be directly addressed by educating girls. Education plus empowerment makes economic change possible.


The opposition may be a sign

Following Husain’s presentation, I asked her what kind of resistance she’d faced. Just when Educate Girls starts getting traction, she said, the opposition grows. “After we have some success in a village and the girls are back in school and feeling good about it, that’s when the community starts pushing back.” As hard as starting is, it’s essential to reserve resources for the big fights yet to come.

So if you’re serious about social change, know that it gets harder before it gets easier. And when the opposition fights hardest, maybe that means you’re starting to win.


Rick Spence is a business writer, speaker and consultant in Toronto specializing in entrepreneurship, innovation and growth.

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