04/10/2012 11:52 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Lessons From a Global Family

I returned from the annual Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship—as I have every one of the eight years I have participated—with new ideas and a huge dose of inspiration. The DNA of this event is so unique because of those who gather year after year—social entrepreneurs, grassroots activists, writers, artists, journalists, philanthropists, and leaders working in humanitarian organizations.

Part of that DNA is inarguably about lifelong learning. I always learn so much during the three days we are together at Oxford University. Indeed, it’s an appropriate place for learning; one cannot help but be a little awed (cowed, perhaps) by the history that seeps from every building. While some traditions seems stuck in a time warp, the legacy of curious minds coming there for more than 500 years is an undeniable presence at this forum.

As such, I’d like to spend the next week sharing lessons learned this time around. To start us off, here’s a bit of background on the Forum itself:

Jeff Skoll who founded eBay and sold it, becoming a billionaire before he was forty, has used his fortune to raise global awareness of social entrepreneurs whose innovations and inventions, passions and commitments are creating change where it is needed most. Through the Skoll Foundation and its smart and effective leader, Sally Osberg, some of these social entrepreneurs are selected to receive support through multi-year grants and the unique program offered them at the Saïd Business School where Skoll funded a Center for Social Entrepreneurship.

I feel privileged to be a part of the Skoll World Forum—as a moderator, from time to time, and always as an admirer of the people I meet there, the work I hear about, and the ideas and insights I take away.

This year the sun was bright every day—a true rarity as anyone who visits England in the spring knows. It was warm enough to leave coats and boots behind. People’s spirits also seemed particularly high, even as the news of the world outside Oxford was on everyone's minds and there were many reminders among us, too, of the challenges that would still be there when the social entrepreneurs returned to their work in places like rural India, the Amazon rain forest, Myanmar, the Philippines, Congo, Sudan, Somalia etc.

Social entrepreneurs, contrary to some stereotypes, are not Polyannas. No matter how committed they are, no matter how innovative their work or how life changing their inventions or services, there are still millions living in extreme poverty without enough to eat and without access to clean air, water, or basic human rights. They know that, which makes them such great teachers in pragmatic idealism. The other 360 days of the year, they fight the global epidemics outside the ivy-covered walls of Oxford, but for these five, they come in and share their wisdom. Lucky us.