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Letter from Zurich, Day 3

Conferences like this summit offer far more to the attendees than the content listed on the program. There certainly are insights to be gleaned from the speeches and panels, but the comments heard in the hall and the connections made over the lunch table almost invariably offer the most value. I personally learned about a few fascinating initiatives between croissants and coffee:


  • Lex Mundi – Lex Mundi is a global non-profit that leverages a worldwide network of 160 law firms to support social entrepreneurs around the world on a pro-bono basis. Managing Director Dave Roll, former chairman of DC power firm Steptoe & Johnson, and board member Ben Greer talked about their work to aid innovative organizations in developing countries using the first-rate legal talent of their enormous roster of attorneys. Absolutely a first rate idea.

  • The Elders, a new initiative being developed by Richard Branson. It has not (yet) been officially unveiled, but it sounds a bit like a real-life Justice League. Imagine a team of celestial personalities headed up by Nelson Mandela and who are called on by world leaders in times of great need (no word on whether they will use the Bat signal) to help solve difficult global challenges. I am not making this up: Branson himself discussed the concept in a meeting in Toronto last September.

  • GoogleSoft At an afternoon panel on Monday, Larry Brillant casually mentioned that he had just met Akhtar Badshah who manages the global community affairs program for Microsoft and suggested they work together. Badshah confirmed today that, when they met, a conversation in Urdu ensued (this itself seems noteworthy) and the two counterparts decided to explore a possible corporate alliance. Their focus will be to develop technology to enable early warning detection of natural disasters. Amazing what a casual meeting in this setting can muster. I wonder whether this partnership will have NOAA crying antirust…

Along with these interesting moments, the program was inspiring. The day started with a panel moderated by longtime politico David Gergen who currently teaches at the Kennedy School at Harvard and has been a fixture of American politics for more than 30 years. He brought gravitas to the proceedings which highlighted the experiences of social entrepreneurs who have moved in and out of government in the careers in order to affect change.

It was an esteemed group that included Wu Qing who has served in the People’s Assembly in China for 24 years. We learned that her nickname is ‘the constitution lady’ because she carries a copy with her constantly and waves it about when opponents challenge her ideas. She was a fireball who talked about her desire to shift China from ‘the rule of man to the rule of law’ through her work outside the government through her NGO and via her role as a legislator.

The asymmetric power relations between women and men repeatedly arose throughout the conference. I personally have seen the problem manifest itself again and again in less developed countries. Wu Qing should be lauded for attacking the problem with such vigor despite the constraints of an extremely patriarchal culture and an illiberal governmental structure.

Another panelist, Mercham Viravaidya, called himself the king of condoms, but has enjoyed an extraordinary career as an activist and bureaucrat in Thailand as he managed one of the most successful family planning efforts in Asia, if not the world. Gergen credited him as the person primarily responsible for Thailand’s governmental campaign to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS across the country which he called the most impressive in the world. His endorsement certainly got the attention of everyone in the conference.

The irascible Bunker Roy posed an interesting point. He criticized government and described his own efforts to educate and empower citizens as inherently political, claiming that he and other social entrepreneurs were “detaching the politics from politicians? through their work. UN Head Tim Wirth who sat on the panel nodded in agreement, going so far as to describe himself as a ‘political entrepreneur’ rather than simply a politician.

I suppose there is a case to made that the steps required to run for office – setting up a campaign, hiring a staff, raising funds, developing message, buying media, etc. – sounds a lot like a start-up. But affixing the entrepreneur label onto a political candidate seems a bit of a stretch. Politicians who aspire to be part of the system and join the bureaucracy seem diametrically opposed to entrepreneurs who want to create change outside of the system and avoid all bureaucracy. I am not saying that one role is preferable or more important, however these personality profiles seem quite different.

Regardless, it seems clear that government must be leveraged to solve societal challenges. Scale can be achieved quickly and universally with the advent of effective policy, for example once you legislate emission standards. Moreover, while social movements tend to start in the NGO world, it is often only when they migrate into the political realm that they can achieve widespread impact. These social entrepreneurs seemed to respect the power of government which is a nice change from the typical views of libertarian entrepreneurs in the US who often evince little respect (and a somewhat tenuous hold on reality) when they simply bash government for any and all ills – real, perceived or otherwise.

The late morning panel featured senior leadership from leading service firms, including Boston Consulting Group, Deutsche Bank, Ernst & Young, Microsoft and Salesforce.com. These executives came together to talk about the value of social entrepreneurship in their world. Though the whole panel was quite strong, two of the speakers made important points worth sharing here. First, Paul Ostling, E&Y COO, admitted that his company’s celebration of entrepreneurs and increasing attention to the field of social entrepreneurship serves a range of purposes, including as a retention strategy. It allows them to keep the best and the brightest at the firm as these young people are compelled by the message of service and social responsibility. It’s rare to hear such candor from such a senior executive at a global services business about the rationale for its CSR-esque activities.

I also appreciated the comments of Asad Mahmood from Deutsche Bank. Detusche Bank has been working in microfinance for decades and has a rich understanding of the category. He compared the state of social entrepreneurship today to that of the early microfinance industry ten years earlier in terms of its overall maturity and appeal to external actors. Mahmood predicted that, in just ten years, the investment community would be probing for deal flow generated by social entrepreneurs. I admire his optimism and hope this is the case.

They day concluded with a talk by Paolo Coehlo, the Brazilian novelist who wrote The Alchemist. An avid mountaineer who now lives in the Pyrenees, he used his remarks to build a metaphor of social entrepreneurship as climbing a mountain. It seemed appropriate because the crowd dispersed shortly thereafter with many of the delegates catching trains to make the trek up to the ski resort hosting the World Economic Forum.

I will not be headed up to Davos this evening, but I would guess it will be quite an affair. If the energy, ideas and talent of the 2007 Social Entrepreneurs Summit were any indication, it’s hard to see a limit to the possibilities when you bring together 2000 more people, including 800 CEOs, 24 world leaders, and a brigade of impassioned social entrepreneurs to share ideas and to explore strategies for collaboration. As someone once said, dream big.

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Comments

J-

Some great posts from Zurich. You are capturing the gestalt well. I have been to several of those but then ran out of gas on the conference front and decided to cut back... But some of these conferences are good to go to, and I love spending time with people like Bunker, who are the real deal.

Here are three telling sections of your blogs, and my notes, for what they are worth:

* "We need approaches to defy the inherent exclusivity of this type of gathering" : This is one of my main conclusions after spending so much time at the World Bank. It was what the Development Marketplace showed
me. Elitists approaches make those of us who went to Ivy League Schools, l'ENA, worked at the White House, World Bank, etc, feel good, but they don't really achieve jack. Top down is dead. Central planning is dead. Long live bottom-up, open-access, emergent marketplaces of ideas and funding.


* "Definitions were a recurring theme throughout the panels" - This has been the case at many of these fests over the past six years. I thinkif I hear one more discussion of definitions I may shoot myself. There are 2-3 major camps who are constantly at war over definitions and belittling each other instead of just getting on with the real work. This is partly because the non-profit sector as a whole has poor ways of exchanging value among itself. Bragging rights rule, rather than the bottom line. It would be as if, pre-Starbucks, you insisted that Ethos Water were better than Dasani Water and for that reason refused a deal with Coke to distribute Ethos!!

* "Should small social ventures engage in holistic assessment of their practices at their inception or simply focus on building their businesses at whatever costs, then self-audit after they have attained scale?" : Most small ventures in this space fail to scale because they spend too much time analyzing and speaking on panels that have nothing to do with developing and selling their service or product! This was a trap I fell into at the beginning, because I did not know any better.

Keep up the good blogs!

Dennis

www.globalgiving.com
www.denniswhittle.blogspot.com


Posted by: Dennis Whittle on 25 Jan 07

From what I am learning here, it appears that the exclusive group of people at the WEF know how to "make a buck" but when that option is not readily available to them, they become masters of the fabled "pass the buck" game.

If businesses cannot make a buck on environmental problems, for example, then they pass the buck through politicians to some agency that is ostensibly 'charged' with responsibility for solving these problems. In this pass the buck game government agencies are issued unfunded mandates.

So goes the political economy.....


Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D., M.P.A. on 26 Jan 07



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