This is part one in a series of posts about Africa, Women and Millennial Entrepreneurs.
This week in New York City, Mashable's Social Good Summit and the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting bookended the United Nations General Assembly with think tanks, celebrity speakers and mile-long caravans of black SUVs.
The two conferences -- one with a daily ticket price of $50, the other with an entrance fee ranging into the thousands of dollars (make a guess) -- attract international audiences interested in global issues and schmoozing. These forums provide world leaders, celebs, philanthropists and corporate CEOs an opportunity to preen in front of senior management from top NGOs and wow journalists with insider access to innovations they hope can solve our planet's many problems. Here's what else SGS and CGI have in common: an increasing number of inspiring, overachiever millennials who make saving the world look simple.
As easy as it is to be cynical about gatherings where young influencers tout huge social media followings -- and wear ridiculously shiny patent leather shoes -- often, there's lots to learn from such events, and indelible memories can be made in the seemingly endless lineup of discussion groups.
This year, things got really good when panelists of all ages veered off script. At SGS, Al Gore broke into a sweat and tore off his jacket while getting all red in the face about climate change (we ate it up!); at CGI, Bono, in his activist persona, did a knee-slappingly funny impersonation of Bill Clinton before ripping into oil companies for violating transparency ethics (that's my boy!). And on a separate field trip to the UN for Bono's ONE campaign and Okay Africa, we saw savvy Al Jazeera personality Femi Oke grill a group of young African entrepreneurs about best practices from which we generous Americans should take a cue. The best of all: in a moment of authenticity and fragility from the former POTUS, Bill Clinton teared up at CGI's opening plenary while recounting a personal connection to one of the victims of the recent mall shootings in Kenya. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. In a split second, the world seemed so very small -- and a hotel ballroom full of 1000+ likeminded do-gooders felt as intimate as a bathtub.
The week was a lot of fun. Sesame Street muppet Rosita joined Chelsea Clinton (love her!) onstage to announce a commitment for healthier futures for women and children at CGI; at the CGI awards dinner a few nights later, American Idol's Randy Jackson introduced an insanely cool set by The Roots, who swelled to more than a dozen members after adding vocalists Rahzel, Emily Bell, Fatoumata Diawara, and Elvis Costello to the mix. Will.i.am sounded so smart at SGS onstage with Jessica Matthews, a Harvard grad who co-invented Soccket, a soccer ball embedded with a kinetically-charged battery and an electrical outlet that provides 3 hours of electricity for every 30 minutes of play. Spunky YouTuber Christina Grimmie wrapped Day 1 at SGS as she sang her heart out on a grand piano to promote ONE's agit8 partnership with Spotify. The most stunning performance happened at CGI, when a young vocal soloist with Mexico's Esperanza Azteca youth orchestra belted out an operatic version of "Besame Mucho," prompting the crowd at the closing plenary to jump to its feet in joyful amazement.
The elegant Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, held her own onstage with Bill Clinton and Bono (and suavely alluded to her best selling book, Lean In), but it was Melinda Gates' understated speech about access to health resources at SGS that wooed me. I am convinced she and Hillary Clinton are the ones who will persist in championing women when the trendiness of women's and girls' empowerment recedes. At CGI, Hillary held sway over the likes of notable fellow advocates in the movement, including Jordan's Queen Rania, former Ireland President Mary Robinson, CARE CEO Helene Gayle, and girls' education icon, Malala Yousafzai, whose rousing acceptance speech at the Clinton Global Initiative's Global Citizen Awards rallied the crowd with its chant of "Books, not guns!" If Hillary doesn't become the next US president, I'd vote for Malala if she were eligible!
While Mashable's content (strung together in whirlwind 10-minute increments for our short-attention-span society) is perhaps more readily absorbed, CGI offers a rare opportunity to witness the world's gamechangers taking action. The meeting's commitments -- pledges by corporations and individuals to fund and organize projects for good -- are what set this gathering apart from all others. This year, those numbers totaled $10.8 billion. Sadly, there was little talk of how this amazing gathering of humans could help those suffering in the humanitarian crisis in Syria, even though CGI member Cameron Sinclair brought the issue to the forefront with a pointed comment during the closing plenary.
An hour-long sit down between Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama amounted to little more than a tireless stump for the Affordable Healthcare Act and felt like a wasted opportunity for what could have been a lively discourse on foreign affairs in front of a diverse group of international attendees. Yet, two days later, Bill Clinton's closing thoughts made up for it: He captured every heart in a plea for the future, a talk sprinkled with the poetry of the late Seamus Heaney (see video in slide show above) about how each us work hard to make hope and history rhyme within our lifetimes. His words spoke to the imperfections and aspirations of everyone who desires to make the world a better place.