The annual gathering at Said Business School, Oxford University, attracted 800+ social enterprise participants in social, academic, finance, corporate, and policy sectors from over sixty countries. It was perhaps the only celebration of capitalism in a country hit by "anti-capitalist warriors" protesting the G20 meetings. As Jeff Skoll, founder of the Skoll Centre noted, the mood was as effervescent as you would expect from a group of "people with a purpose who know their time has come."
Skoll, an American, was the first president of eBay and now chairs Participant Media, the film company that produced An Inconvenient Truth and Syriana. The forum was bookended by speeches from film company leaders, with an opening plenary that included Kenneth Brecher, Executive Director of the Sundance Institute, and a closing plenary with Lord Puttnam, producer of Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields, and Midnight Express, who now focuses on education and the environment. These speakers engaged the passion of attendees while promoting the ability of video to build awareness and engage people in addressing social ills. But where was the link to building effective business organizations?
A panel on storytelling offered an explanation that should appeal to my branding colleagues: Both are opportunities for intervention. Getting people to be empathetic is the key to activation, as one filmmaker put it, to move them to consider "What would I do?" Marrying that moral imperative to a product could become increasingly important in a world where, as one delegate commented, marketing is the new fossil fuel.
Participants–To my surprise, many wore suits and some ties and had a sophisticated financial orientation, just like traditional entrepreneurs. Sessions were built around subjects like financial models, accountability and measurement, strategies for scaling and business tools such as the talk on branding. A senior editor from Fast Company bemoaned the formal dress but loved the excitement of the conference and wished the topic of social enterprise were given a special section in his magazine. No publication currently owns the space and he sees an opportunity for Fast Company.
This pro-market environment was reinforced by luxe lecture rooms in the modern Said Business School and the Oxford locations used in the evening. Dinner was held in various Oxford College dining halls—I was assigned to Keble, a truly Hogwartsian setting—and the following evening's reception was in the Examination Schools, also steeped in conservative tradition. Evening plenaries were held in the Sheldonian, a magnificent 17th century building where Oxford's honorary degrees are presented.
Sustainability was defined more broadly than the environment, and all environmental entrepreneurs had products with a social justice benefit as well. Three of the nine Skoll Awards went to organizations that had an environmental product or service. For example, I met founders of companies that produced wind turbines and solar panels, both offering low-cost or easy-to-operate products, but distributed in less developed markets.
Academia–There was a fair degree of focus on academia as Social Entrepreneurship struggles to become an accepted discipline within business schools. I spoke to faculty and deans from schools like INSEAD, Cambridge, Vanderbilt, and NYU who likened the field's awkward "adolescent-like" status to Entrepreneurship twenty-five years ago, before there were enough studies conducted and papers published to validate the field. Even the definitions are not set, and sister fields such as Social Enterprise and Social Innovation confuse and dilute the meaning of Social Entrepreneurship.