“Remember to continuously fall in love with the problem you are working on – and not the solution you have created for that problem.” These words echoed through the New Theater in Oxford, England earlier this month during a very impressive awards ceremony. They were shared by the two women founders of Harambee – a South African youth employment accelerator start-up—as they accepted their 2019 Skoll World Forum Awardand the $1 million investment into their business that comes with it. The Skoll Foundation was established by e-Bay co-founder, Jeff Skoll, with the explicit goal of supporting social entrepreneurs who have built transformational solutions at scale to the world most pressing challenges. The awards are given out at the annual conference, Skoll World Forum, hosted at SAID Business School in Oxford, England. The Skoll World Forum aims to convene entrepreneurs, non-governmental organization, corporates, investors, and media organizations to explore their roles in building a world where poverty, suffering, and injustice is obsolete – a world where humans can thrive. The Turner Family Center for Social Ventures housed in Vanderbilt’s business school is a long-time partner of Skoll’s and as the Student Board Chair, I had the excellent fortune to be one of the 2000 entrepreneurial change makers in attendance.
I came to business school at Owen from a career with the large international NGO, Mercy Corps, where I worked on programs that harnessed the power of the markets to transform how rural agrarian communities accessed better farming inputs, more substantial buyer contracts, and improved incomes, education, healthcare, and lives. Always impressed by the power business had in changing the status quo in the rural communities we served, I knew the hard skills I could build through an MBA at Owen would make me more effective in my work addressing social inequity. Attending Skoll felt like I had rejoined those who are the most dedicated to making our world a better place to live for everyone.
The Annual Skoll Awards is the pinnacle of the conference and alongside Harambeestood four other equally inspiring start-ups: mPharma, which provides innovative finance and inventory management services to reduce supply chain constraints for hospitals and pharmacies across five African countries; Crisis Text Line, which delivers 24-hour crisis prevention services via SMS text and is also amassing the largest data set on mental health in the history of the world; Thorn, which had developed a revolutionary AI-based software to assist police forces to pursue human and children sex traffickers; and, mPedigree, which provides traceability and authentication to medicine and seed products in Africa, where 4 out 5 pills sold are counterfeit.
During the three-day conference, through countless workshops, panels, speakers, and after-hours networking events, spun the theme of the 2019 conference: Accelerating Possibility. Discussions centered on building cross-sector partnerships, conducting systems-level analysis and design, digging in to find root cause, and developing methods for deconstructing barriers to access. The passionate leaders in their respective field that I interacted with shared their experience wrestling with many challenges: How can education be extended to the most vulnerable? How can technology be applied in a rural healthcare setting to transform diagnostics and care? How can subsistence farmers access critical market information to change their ability to negotiate on prices? What is the role of government in aiding this work? Can the power of corporates accelerate the reach of these big goals?
Certainly, these are questions that you can dedicate your life to and still not have an answer. Staying focused on the problems and not the solutions, the question and not the first answer you arrive at is essential in this work. The best part of attending the Skoll World Forum for me was the reminder that many wonderfully talented and deep thinkers are dedicating their lives to wrestle with these questions. And they will not give up in their pursuit of the iterations of answers it may take to establish a new status quo. After meeting so many new and inspiring people, forging friendships and even some nascent business partnerships, I headed back to Nashville to go back to school. The questions, however, dance in my mind and inform the work that I will continue to do at Owen, at the Turner Family Center for Social Ventures, and beyond.