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Startup Culture

At Jeff Skoll’s Annual Woodstock for Social Entrepreneurs


Jeff Skoll made his fortune as the first full-time employee and president of eBay. Now, as a philanthropist, he uses his eponymous foundation to back people tackling problems like education inequality and disease. At 48, Skoll says  he expects to give away  the majority of his estimated net worth of $3.7 billion

Not bad for a guy who pumped gas to pay his way through college.

A few weeks ago I attended the Skoll Foundation’s tenth annual World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. (“Social entrepreneur” is one of those terms that mean different things to different people; Skoll defines it broadly as a person who changes the world for the better.) The three-day event takes place at the Saïd Business School at Oxford University, where in 2003 Skoll endowed a center devoted to social entrepreneurship. “Skoll,” as it’s known to insiders, attracts 1,000 invited attendees from around the world, a mix of academics, entrepreneurs, donors, and nonprofit execs. They pay between $500 and $2,700—depending on their sector—for the opportunity to network, catch up with people who work in remote locations, and share ideas about fundraising, partnerships, and other practical issues that help their organizations.

They also get a pep talk. With much talk of bravery, disruption, and bold thinking, the mood was often self-congratulatory. Sessions included a performance by Rwanda’s first-ever all female drumming group, a mix of Hutu and Tutsi women who were on opposite sides during the 1994 genocide. Marina Silva, a Brazilian environmentalist and politician, described her rise from extreme poverty to the upper ranks of Brazilian politics. Prince Charles delivered opening remarks via a pre-recorded video. Singer and AIDS activist Annie Lennox accepted an honorary award.

Technology is increasingly integral to the projects celebrated at Skoll. Salman Khan, one of the six recipients of this year’s $1.25 million Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, provides free, online educational videos through the nonprofit Khan Academy.

In a panel called “Big Data. Big Deal?” a group of data scientists—from the UN and elsewhere—talked about harnessing data for social good. Across sectors, delegates talked up the potential of mobile technology: from banking to agriculture to health care. Skoll Entrepreneur Gopi Gopalakrishnan created World Health Partners, which allows patients in rural India to connect with a city doctor through a computer or cell phone. Panelist Premal Shah cofounded Kiva.org, which acts as an online intermediary between donors and the nonprofits they support.

Workshops and panel sessions on topics like “Mo(bile)mentum: Accelerating Mobile for Development” were held in lecture halls at the business school. Delegate-led lunchtime discussions—like “Big Data for Real Impact in Social Enterprises”—took place under a giant tent in the courtyard.

On Tuesday night, the Foundation provided dinner in the Oxford dining halls on long, candlelit tables that had Harry Potter enthusiasts reaching for their cameras. At my dinner in Balliol College, Larry Brilliant of the Skoll Global Threats Fund (and previously, Google.org) gave the opening remarks.

Oxford oozes tradition, yet the Saïd Business School is glassy and sleek. Attendees connected with each other through a private social network. In a lecture hall built with eBay money, entrepreneurs could Skype with a colleague in Africa—who could then stream a live video of the event. The hope, of course, was that it would all help tackle problems that have strained the world for centuries.

(Disclosure: The author traveled to Oxford with support from the Skoll Foundation.)

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