Ambition sets the tone for the Skoll World Forum 2014

The ambition of the 2014 Skoll World Forum for social entrepreneurship, which kicks off today, doesn't stop with fostering successful social enterprise – this year there's a big emphasis on 'beyond CSR' for corporates and on mobilising young leaders of social entrepreneurship.

The Skoll World Forum sets the tone for the global social enterprise movement every year. But “this year feels markedly different”, said Jeff Skoll, chairman of the Skoll Foundation.

From today until Friday, the city of Oxford in the UK will see 1,000 or so delegates from 60 countries navigate cobbled streets and narrow passageways as they soak up inspiring ideas, expert insight and social entrepreneur success stories.

Ambition: fueling opportunity, scaling progress, is the central theme at this year’s event. Climate catastrophe and social chaos narratives to one side, the focus is on the opportunities that lie ahead. “We are at a defining moment, at which we have the opportunity to change the course of the next decade,” said Skoll ahead of today’s conference opening. 

With a focus on ambition, the hopes and expectations for social enterprise in the coming years are high.“It is not about palliative approaches to the social and environmental ills that afflict our societies. That work is what charities do, and they perform a very important function in our societies, But they don’t get at the root causes of the problem” Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, told Pioneers Post.

“Entrepreneurs are not social service organisations,” she said. “They are innovators who find new or better ways to address the root causes of problems, and in doing that, they up-end the status quo.”

There is also a strong emphasis on the active participation of corporations this year and efforts which use private sector resources to tackle social and environmental issues. 

“There has been a concerted effort to include leaders from the corporate sector, particularly from global companies who are working to pivot their companies’ operations so that they incorporate a concern for “people, planet and profits” throughout their operations,” said Hartigan.

The opening plenary will feature Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group whose forays into social causes include work under the umbrella group Virgin Unite, and the B Team, a non-profit advocating for business that prioritises people and planet alongside profit.

Arif Naqvi founder and group chief executive of the Abraaj Group, a private equity investor in global growth markets, which manage US$7.5 billion, will also take the stage.

And Sir Ronald Cohen, chair of the G8 Social Investment Taskforce, widely recognised for his role in spearheading the social investment movement around the globe, will address delegates later today.

Entrepreneurs who are system changers that don't focus on financial profit alone can never have too much ambition.

The forum is looking to spotlight corporate action that reaches "beyond CSR, and goes to the heart of their core business," said Hartigan.

Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a non-profit organisation advocating for sustainable business practice, who is due to speak later this evening, said in a blog leading up to the event that attitudes in the corporate sector were shifting. She used the example of Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest fossil fuel company, responsible for spilling 260,000 barrels of crude oil into Alaskan waters 25 years ago, and its recent decision to report to investors on how climate change will affect its core business model.

This includes “the prospect that major portions of its oil reserves may need to be left in the ground as carbon-reducing policies and expanded use of renewable energy take hold globally".

"This is in stark contrast to just a few years ago, when climate change was seen as a tree-hugger issue relevant more to polar bears than financial bottom lines,” she said.

Organisers have also brought in young leaders this year to represent the world of social entrepreneurship including Malala Yousafzai, co-founder of the Malala Fund, who has become internationally known for campaigning for the right of everyone to receive an education, and will be speaking at the Skoll Awards Ceremony.

There are also more faculties from Oxford University included in the programme, who have been doing research in key areas of global concern, including education, health, growing megacities, social unrest, and governance.

Social entrepreneurs, big business and young leaders will share the main stage at Skoll this year, and the message is: “Entrepreneurs who are system changers that don't focus on financial profit alone can never have too much ambition. The most important thing is for them to remember to bring others along and infect them with that same ambition,” said Hartigan.