Walking through the Skoll World Forum last week was like watching the ingredients to make a cake get mixed in a bowl. Each had been hand picked and was being mixed together to make something no one part could create on its own. The man mixing the pot is Jeff Skoll, a founder at Ebay who has used his wealth to create The Jeff Skoll Group, his recipe book for social change.
Most social enterprise leaders are only able to directly control the limited actions within their one organization. For example, if they are managing a group selling eco-friendly products, the directors need to use their relationships to influence the system around them to align with their goals: sales channels, media aimed at shifting mindsets towards eco-awareness, financial institutions to provide growth capital, etc. Like a conglomerate company created to control a whole supply change, The Jeff Skoll Group has been designed to support the various inflection points in the eco-system of social change as they work “to live in a sustainable world of peace and prosperity.” This puts Jeff Skoll in a rather unique situation, able to influence a spectrum of social change organizations from a 30,000 foot view of a large portfolio.
Politics is the typical track for those who want to control a whole system of change, but I have a feeling government channels would have seemed too slow for Jeff. Like a benevolent dictator, he channeled his wealth into creating a finance group to fund his world-changing initiatives (Capricorn Investments), a media company to create conversations and salience about social issues (Participant Media), a company designed to turn those movies into social action (Take Part), a social entrepreneurship platform and support system to connect, recognize, and create social change makers (The Skoll Foundation), and a group dedicated to focusing on solutions for the biggest threats to our society (Skoll Global Threats Fund).
How does he manage this network of change? He leaves a lot of the vision and system building to the heads of each of his organizations who are successful and influential system-builders and they appear to each have been given an uncharacteristically high level of autonomy, thereby allowing them the freedom to create the impact they are looking to see. Note that I didn’t say the change Jeff is trying to see. The halls of the Skoll World Forum are flowing with the entrepreneurs he hired who had already proven a dedication and leadership in their field. By giving these thought-leaders autonomy to experiment with the paths to success and by connecting them through a network of co-creation, they are each able to take risks and take on long-term changes that other institutions would struggle to do on their own.
When Jeff Skoll started this work, the word “social entrepreneurship” was rarely used, but now his team is part of a dialogue, network, and group of role models for a movement. The mainstream has embraced his work with Participant Media having been nominated for 22 Oscars and winning 5 through funding films as diverse as Waiting for Superman, The Help, Inconvenient Truth, and Contagion. Participant Media and Take Part’s work has created the dialogues and debates which are needed to generate wider support in areas such as the environment, educational change, and global pandemics. And there are now 39 Skoll Scholars who have been supported by Jeff to get an MBA degree at Oxford and dozens of organizations that have benefited from the funding, recognition and support of the Skoll Awards for Social Entrepreneurship.
Billionaires – take note! This social change machine proves that eco-system building does not need to be left to those with political and corporate agendas. Like other philanthropists before him, Jeff has proven that our funding does not need to be limited to investing in a list of disparate organizations but can have far greater impact than the sum of its parts by creating a network, a movement, and a unified system of change focused on investing in people.
I’m grateful for Jeff Skoll’s vision and leadership and I hope many others follow suit by committing to high impact through investing in entrepreneurs and building networks of change. His system of change resonates with me: it’s about investing in people, not just through providing them with money, but with ideas, networks, skills, and inspiration to create the changes they want to see in the world. These lessons in leadership might be some of the most-important things I take away from my year at business school in Oxford.