04/16/2012 06:42 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2012

The Real Stars of Oxford

I saw Annie Lennox play a surprise performance last week in Oxford. Under other circumstances, I would have been blown away, but at this event she was strictly second billing. Don't get me wrong, she put on a great show, demonstrating impressive range and a commanding voice as she moved through old-school Eurythmics tunes into blues and reggae numbers.

But at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship Awards Ceremony, her impression on the audience couldn't match that of the awardees, who are making great strides to impact their local communities and address global poverty. This year there were four social entrepreneurs honored:
  • Tony Meloto and Jose Luis Oquinena from Gawad Kalinga, an NGO that transforms urban slums into peaceful and productive communities. It works with 2,000 communities in the Philippines and other countries in the region to build strong economic and cultural institutions.
  • Tim Hanstad of Landesa, a group that focuses on supporting land rights globally, in the service of giving poor people real assets. Landesa launched the Landesa Center for Women's Land Rights to ensure millions more women are able to claim these legal rights to their land.
  • Arabind Singh of Nidan, who champions the rights of informal workers in India's north and east. Nidan organizes these workers, incubates sector-based collectives and partners with government to demonstrate that models of rights-based, inclusive growth can work.
  • Debbie Sung Din Taylor of Proximity Designs, a firm that uses a design-centric approach to boost agricultural productivity and increase income for millions of small-holder farm families in Burma. The organization makes markets affordable products and services that vulnerable rural families use to transform their lives.

These honorees, through their focus on economic and social equity, are making lives better in tangible ways for thousands of poor people. They don't generally get a lot of recognition, and they certainly don't get record contracts. But for one night every year in Oxford, the social entrepreneurship community celebrates its own version of the Grammys, and the Jose's and Arabind's of the world take their rightful place in the global spotlight. And it's glorious.

For those of us in the entrepreneurship development space, the Skoll World Forum is an annual shot in the arm, an opportunity to be inspired and reenergized by the hard work of people who are driven by a deep desire to address the world's greatest challenges. For me, it makes the long hours, the airplane layovers, and hairy moments in Lagos or Mumbai traffic worth it.

And in the end, while I did not meet Annie Lennox, I did have a brush with more traditional stardom. On the way back through customs at Dulles International Airport, the woman in front of me dropped her business card case. After picking up the scattered cards, I handed them back to none other than Arianna Huffington, a speaker at the Skoll World Forum. Despite our jet-laggedness, we had a great conversation about the discussions at Skoll and what can and should happen next. Turns out she too was enthused by her experience in Oxford.