Reflections on the 6th Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship

I'm a self-confessed Skoll World Forum veteran, having attended all six. Which must mean a lifetime achievement award or something is due sooner or later. I can even remember when it was free (!) and there was a filing cabinet in the centre of the lobby to organise meetings. So I approach the event each year with a mixture of excitement (at the networking / opportunities) and trepidation (at its full-on nature), mixed with a small dash of paracetamol (or Advil, for US readers)…because like many conferences, the good stuff happens in the bar, in the pub and over a glass of something or other.

First up, before I get going, check out everyone else! There is a huge amount of coverage online. My tips for the top to start with would be:

Social Edge where many of the sessions are listenable / viewable online
– Nat Whittemore over at SocialEntrepreneurship.Change.Org (nice to meet you in person, Nat), who took a bunch of interesting video interviews
Social Enterprise Magazine
Ashoka at SWF

But if you search for swf09 or #swf09 (esp. on twitter), you'll find loads. Indeed, for me, this was the event where I really began to understand the full potential of Twitter. So apologies to those following us at @SchSocEnt for the deluge that followed. But it was fascinating to see an alternative conversation and cross-session dialogues going on; questions from someone next door being asked; critiques from people thousands of miles away; dry humour to undercut the worthiness. See here for someone who writes about it better. Or Peter Deitz from Social Actions who said that "Frankly, there are two conferences going on: one for the tweeters and
one for everyone else….The twittering delegates are
having a distributed conversation with people here and around the
world. The others aren't."
Never thought I'd both agree with and understand that sentiment.

Of the planned sessions, I enjoyed the Kiva-GlobalGiving-MyC4 one the most; you may have heard of the first two, but MyC4 was a great find (as was Mads, its founder); another portal for channelling loans and investment to businesses / small scale entrepreneurs. He was also the most 'challenging' member of the panel, acknowledging the need to consider greater collaboration / possible merging, and challenging the Kiva co-CEO to say how much he earned last year (didn't necessarily agree with him on either, but at least he was prepared to divert from the norm). And, of course, these were great practitioner organisations.

Elsewhere, I found sessions on leadership and social capital markets to be dry, occasionally enlightening and fairly frustrating. A familiar malaise of Skoll is to have too many speakers on a panel, not chair them well (so they overrun), and then have little time for questions and answers…that's a problem with lots of conferences, of course, but I guess more so at Skoll because they have such a rich guest list to choose from. But reducing the Q and A also makes for a safer event: no-one challenging someone from UBS heading up a leadership session, for example, or questioning whether, given the collapse in private equity and investment banking, we should be mimicking their models, still, in the social space.

More creative spaces to get practitioners, academics, funders etc learning and working together would add to the mix. Indeed, one of the best sessions for me was straight after the final plenary, where the Skollars (see what they did?) hosted a networking session, having lured us in with wine. It was random (in terms of who you sat with), fairly open (in what you could talk about) and led to some really interesting debates and discussions. We had students, funders, practitioners (incuding the amazing Mothers2mothers co-founder Gene Falk), support/learning agencies (including ourselves and INSEAD) all around one table, and it was fascinating.

Of course, Brits tend to find the standing ovations and awards a bit much for our cynical, repressed selves, so there was also some good home turf networking to be found in pubs nearby whilst the opening / awards were going on (though apparently Ken Blecher + KT Tunstall were great, if you're seeking out highlights online). One of my main highlights, though, was in the bar of the Malmaison at about 2am, meeting David Bornstein (who wrote "How to Change the World"); what a nice, engaging guy, with really great knowledge of this field.

And then, before you knew it, it was all over for another year and back, a little, to reality…to take lessons and learning, to follow up networks and leads, to decipher the jargon, to unload a hundredweight of business cards, to remember good people (Jessica, Rod, Ben, Artur, Richard, Sat, Nigel, Liam, Sean, Jessica (2), Sam, et al), to come back with renewed inspiration, to come back with renewed belief in what SSE is doing…and to remember why I've been five times before.

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