Friday, January 28, 2005

My next piece for BBC News was published today as their Davos Diary 'Enlightened self interest'. I was luck enough to be chosen as the Davos attendee asked to provide diary entries. My third and last one should be out early next week as a wrap up on my Davos experience.

Here's the text of my piece from the article (looks nicer on the BBC site, though!).

Davos diary: 'Enlightened self interest' By Jim Fruchterman
President, The Benetech Initiative


The tone of this Davos strikes me as more socially oriented than the past two.

As a social entrepreneur attendee, I quite appreciate this.

On Wednesday, the World Economic Forum tried an experiment of a town-hall meeting to find out what the top issues for the attendees were.

The top three amazed me: fighting poverty, equitable globalisation and climate change.

Each of these topics received votes from the majority of the attendees.

Have I fallen into a den of liberal thinkers?

Tony Blair's talk (on Africa and global warming) had a quote that I think explains why: "it is based on enlightened self-interest".

He was talking about something else at the time, but it is completely applicable!

Bad for business?

The word here from many of the business leaders is that major world problems are bad for business: poverty is bad for business, the backlash against inequitable globalisation is bad for business and climate change looks like it will be terrible for business!

That is not to say that the major investment firms are likely to stop focusing solely on return, but social considerations are creeping in.

For example, I attended a social investing session on Thursday.

Steve Pagliuca of Bain Capital, the big leveraged buyout firm, talked about the fact that they are avoiding investments in fields like gambling and arms.

He went further and said that if one of their firms could invest in a business in a good neighbourhood or a bad neighbourhood, they would invest in the poor neighbourhood if the returns were the same.

Not willing to take sub-par returns, but definitely thinking about the social side.


Schmoozing


Social investing is not the only topic being bandied about.

The socially-oriented ideas are flowing around here fast and furious.

In less than 24 hours, I have had conversations about how to set up the ideal next generation foundation (so we can make helpful suggestions to the Google founders), how to bring digital books to the blind in Egypt, job creation in Cambodia, putting an incredible Paraguayan social entrepreneur's successes into wider distribution, tough political stands with a top politician, helping dyslexic kids, advancing the civil rights of the African-American community in California and more things to boot.

Like any other conference I attend, the people-meeting part, the schmoozing, is the most important.

The programme is incredible, but its real point is to generate conversations among the attendees.

Coming from an engineering background, schmoozing is not always the easiest thing for me to do! After being here a few times, it gets much easier.

Doing deals

I understand the appeal of the conference to the average business leader well.

It is a rare opportunity to interact with peers.

A rare chance to brainstorm

The Schwab Foundation has done an incredible job of bringing the world's top social entrepreneurs together here in Davos.

In between sessions and meetings with corporate, political and non-profit leaders, we have a corner of the conference centre where we hang around together and trade notes about our challenges.

It is a rare chance to brainstorm on ways to advance the entire movement with strong social entrepreneurs from all over the world.

People talk about how Davos is a place where deals get done.

However, that deal could easily be between a social leader and a corporation, or between two non-profits. I hope the Forum continues to create an environment where this kind of progress can be made.


Benetech is a non-profit venture that combines technology and social entrepreneurship to help disadvantaged communities across the world.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

My second day at the WEF, and I'm blogging on the WEF's site and writing my pieces for the BBC. Communications overload. Here's a link to my latest WEF blog, on the Social Investing session.

Monday, January 24, 2005

My first article for the BBC is already up: Davos diary: This is not about money. Be sure to give it a read!

Sunday, January 23, 2005

I am heading off to Davos for my third World Economic Forum meeting. I have been tapped to write for the BBC website as well as a guest blogger for the Forum. So, expect my posts on the BeneBlog to be a little more frequent as I post these.

Here's my first Forumblog.org post: Packing up. I've inserted it below:

Just packing my bags and getting ready to head Davos-ward. It's been a sunny warm day in California, and it takes a bit of thought to get ready for the snow.

I will be attending for my third Forum as a social entrepreneur. My goals are to talk to people about the causes I am passionate about: literacy, access and human rights. As a Silicon Valley technology person, I especially want other leaders in the tech community to be thinking about what technology can do for the people who can least afford it. I am also representing my movement, the social entrepreneurs of the world who are busy coming up with new approaches to old problems, and filling the gap when the market fails to solve a problem.

I think it's great that the Forum thinks social entrepreneurs have an important role in the Davos mix.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Disability technology is my major focus this week. BBC Radio 4 interviewed me about the international expansion possibilities of Bookshare.org: it's a 20 minute long segment about the desire to access a Bookshare.org-style service in the UK.

I spent the last two days at the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard meetings: the U.S. has just passed a law mandating this standard in education for students with disability. The law includes setting up a repository for publishers to deposit textbooks in electronic form. Bookshare.org is on the NIMAS Development Committee, so Janice Carter and I were able to participate in some of the debates on how to implement this new standard. Good news: the Bookshare.org books are essentially already compliant with this standard.

Today and tomorrow are the ATIA 2005 Conference & Exhibition. This is probably the second biggest U.S. conference on assistive technology. All the big players are here, and it's where I get the chance to brainstorm with the leaders in the field over how we could be better working together to improve access.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Great events at Bookshare.org! We just hit 20,000 titles on our electronic book library for people with print disabilities. We are delivering more and more books that meet the literacy needs of our users, by providing the latest bestsellers, textbooks and daily newspapers into accessible form.

Another great piece of news is that Janice Carter has joined Benetech as our Director of Literacy Programs, and is now general manager of Bookshare.org. Janice is an experienced executive from the media and technology industries, and I am quite excited to have a senior executive adding her perspective in our operations!

Janice and I are heading out to Florida this week for the NIMAS meeting on the new national digital textbook repository and the ATIA disability technology conference. Should be a fun week, and important for moving access to books forward.

Monday, January 10, 2005

The end of the year is always exciting, and 2004 was no exception. One of our Bookshare.org users, Jay Leventhal, contacted me about making a donation at the end of the year. Jay was particularly interested in making the search capabilities of Bookshare.org better than our existing simple author or title searches. This is something we have been wanting to do for a long time: something more like the advanced search of Google or Amazon.

In a rapid flurry of email, our engineering and Bookshare.org teams came up with quick estimate of time and cost to implement such a feature and we ran it by Jay. Jay made the donation the last Friday of 2004 and we are already at work figuring out how to implement the feature over the next couple of months, which will benefit not only Jay but thousands of Bookshare.org users.

Funding engineering work is always our biggest challenge, because it is not typical philanthropy. We really appreciate funders who actively engage us both in funding engineering and who understand what these improvements mean to the users of our technology.

Friday, January 07, 2005

I am happy to report that I met with the product manager for Google Print/Google Library and a couple of people from their accessibility team recently. They are very interested in understanding the access issues around their projects, and we'll be working on providing them with more information about possible solutions. While it's premature to discuss any commitments or solutions (and Google would need to consult with their content partners on any changes), I was pleased about the level of engagement I saw from the Google team.

Feel free to circulate this to interested parties. I'm especially interested in assistive technology vendors weighing in with suggestions. I'm hoping to provide some initial thoughts on these issues to Google and the disability community soon.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Benetech's Patrick Ball was on National Public Radio's Morning Edition show today in a piece entitled Uncertainty the Rule in Gauging Deaths from Tsunami. Patrick's main point was that getting a precise number of those lost in the tsunami was less important than working on aiding the survivors. This contrasts with Patrick's work in political violence, where assessing the numbers and patterns of human rights violations is important for accountability.

Like the rest of the world, we have been following the Asian disaster closely. Our staff are actively working in the region in Sri Lanka and East Timor, but on December 26th were not in harm's way. Our partner groups and friends in Sri Lanka have also fared well, to our relief. I was especially happy to hear from my friend Professor Weerakkody of the University of Peradeniya that he and his family were safe. He's a regional leader in adaptive technology for the blind and I have worked with him for more than a decade.