Monday, January 30, 2006

Jimmy Does Davos

At the suggestion of Victor D'Allant (Mr. Social Edge), I've invited my 20-year-old son to comment on his experience accompanying me to Davos. Jimmy wasn't admitted to the core Forum events, but was able to attend about half of what I did.

My Davos Experience
-Jimmy Fruchterman

I really wasn't sure what to expect coming to Davos. When my father offered to take me I accepted without hesitation. Who would pass on Switzerland, not to mention a short jaunt to Austria and Liechtenstein? I tried not to prejudge the adventure, but of course I thought I'd see some famous people, go to some meetings which could be cool but I wasn't entirely confident I'd understand. Some of my expectations came true, some not.

I had the privilege of attending all the social entrepreneur sessions, and learned a number of things. Everybody there is smart, passionate, and doing wonderful things for the world, but they're still human. Many don't yet have the skills to sell themselves, and that was something I thought that 90% of them could have improved upon. They were generally much better one on one than in speaking to the group. Passion doesn't always translate into good communication of your ideas. And one of the major problems social entrepreneurs have is getting the word out properly. However, it is still very difficult to come out of these sessions not wanting to be one of them 10 years down the road.

I had planned on attending the Open Forum (anyone can attend) but ended up never making it into any of the sessions. The one that I had planned on attending was unbeknownst to me also being attended by Angelina Jolie, whose name I felt like I heard a minimum of three times a day. I learned that celebrity fever afflicts all types. The outcome of her attendance was that there were lines to get in hours before the event and I only showed up about 10 minutes early. Oops.

I was able to witness some protesters, and some odd behaviors amongst them. Several oddly dressed young men and women were passing out fake US dollar bills, and protesting for "the losers of WEF." Unfortunately I often felt that the protesters knew only what they were protesting against, and not what they were protesting for. Some of the ones I saw with my dad the next day were clearer in their message, protesting against China's mistreatment of individuals following a certain religion. There were also kids dressed up in worn suits smoking cigars blowing smoke in people's faces, seemingly trying to start a fight? I glared at them as they passed by hard enough that they didn't do anything to me. I also saw two of them posing with briefcases, not moving or even blinking, for the 5 or so minutes I observed them. But for the mist of their breath they could have been statues. I found this to be one of the more... creative protests.

I should wrap this up so I won't say much about the snowboarding, suffice it to say I thoroughly enjoyed a chance to get out on the slopes, and even got my dad to join me for a couple of hours on the slopes.

One of the highlights was going to several cocktail parties, in particular Friday night's Architects of Global Change party (honoring the social entrepreneurs), and the Google/Accel party. At the former I saw Michael Douglas and Peter Gabriel,so I did manage to get in a few famous faces. I also got to see that all the Davos people are completely human. They eat, they drink (too much at times) and at times the social interaction isn't all too advanced from a college gathering. At the Google party I had the pleasure of meeting Larry Page, who was down to earth and very friendly. I was flattered that he actually spoke to me and my dad for a while, and even more so that he remembered me when I saw him at the outdoors Sunday luncheon at the Schatzalp, which was spectacular. I was able to advise him from prior experience that he should be careful on how much hot food he put on his plate, as it generally got cold before you could get through it all.

My experience at Davos was deeply rewarding, and I really appreciate the Schwab Foundation for allowing me to attend.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Social Responsibility in Davos

I attended a great breakfast this morning on the digital divide. Now, digital divide has been a buzzword for a long time, but we've learned a lot from different initiatives and the ICT industry is very interested in continuing to work on the issue from a lot of angles. This morning's breakfast was a very active discussion with about fifty people from industry, government and NGOs (the nonprofit sector), ably moderated by David Kirkpatrick of Fortume Magazine. Many attendees were CEOs, SVPs and CTOs from their companies, as well as ministers of ICT. The discussions were interesting because groups that are normally at each other's competitive throat are trying to figure out how to advance social issues in the developing world like education, economic development and health, issues that redound to their long term business interests, but are not tied at all to next quarter's results!

Davos rules are that these conversations are off record. Without quoting anyone, I can tell you that people were really excited and engaged. It is gratifying to see the immense brainpower of top leaders figuring out how to drop rhetoric and talk about actual action steps.

I was quoted in a International Herald Tribune article today with a Davos byline entitled A trend with legs as well as a heart. Thomas Crampton has cast a critical eye on corporate social responsibility and does acknowledge that it is a growing trend that is actually part of good business.

Friday, January 27, 2006

The Value of Attending Davos

Trying to explain the value of being here runs a real risk. I call it the name-dropping risk. There are so many cool people here, and in many cases this is my main opportunity to say hi to them in a year. The other thing is that I'm almost exclusively talking to people with an active interest in social entrepreneurship or a particular social cause. Serving society actively engages the great majority of people who are attending Davos.

For example, I got to talk to Sir Richard Branson (with a dozen social entrepreneurs), and Peter Gabriel. I went to a lunch with young global leaders with the guy who heads the Xbox360 project for Microsoft, Brian Behlendorf (Mr. Apache, the open source web server), as well as sitting next to John Wood, founder of Room to Read, and next to him was an gold medal winning Olympic athlete who works to help poor kids in war-torn countries learn to and have access to play. John Wood is writing a book on his experiences to be published this year, and I'm hoping to do the same next year. His advice was very helpful.

I was able to sit with big league Silicon Valley types, such as Larry Page of Google, the venture capitalists Ann Winblad and Vinod Khosla, and got to catch up with my Caltech classmate Bill Gross, Mr. Idealab and currently working on what we dubbed "half price solar." I tried to connect Bill with Bunker Roy, Mr. Barefoot College in India, who trains illiterate people to be solar power engineers.

So, back to the name dropping issue. I'm not here to be able to drop these names; I'm here because these people have the power and the inclination to improve our society. They control intellectual property, capital and expertise, all of which is needed to make the world better. This is a rare chance to bring up issues, engage the interest of these folks in hearing more. As I usually disclaim, I'm not here to ask rich people for money. I am here to ask world leaders in different fields to be interested in what our movement does and try to connect them to the right opportunities to make change. And some of those opportunities might lead to working with Benetech!

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Voices of Davos

This meeting is all about conversations. It's an opportunity to connect with interesting people from around the world, all with important perspectives. I just want to share some of the voices I've heard so far this week. These are based on my contemporaneous notes. It will give you a great idea of why this is such a blast.

Zanelle Mbeki (first lady of South Africa), talked about the opportunities in market failure. Pointed out that most of the public does not know what social entrepreneurship is, and that in the nonprofit world it is such a buzzword that all groups seeking funds are saying they are social entrepreneurs.

Paolo Coelho (Brazilian author, The Alchemist) talked about what we aren't willing to talk about: the role of love in what we do. He pointed out three kinds of love: eros, agape and philos. He focused on the last, philos, love of your neighbor, pointing out that this word is related to philanthropy.
He made it clear that we need to be less uncomfortable about this love: love is why we do what we do (he was speaking to social entrepreneurs, but he felt it was bigger). His closing remark to us was:
"In every single eye in the WEF, is this one sentence from McCartney and Lennon, 'all you need is love.'"

I have had great chats with different social entrepreneurs. Isaac from Nigeria makes mobile toilets and gives them to poor widows to use to generate income: "shit business is serious business." Sheela Patel of SPARC in Mumbai, India, and I talked about IT needs for her communities: the poor. Sounded like she needs something I've seen in Brazil, and so I hope to make the connection. She also explained that the illiterate poor women she serves are more committed to literacy for their children than for themselves.

Rory Stear, the head of Freeplay Energy, met with Nicholas Negroponte of MIT's Media Lab about their $100 laptop project. Rory is normally quite skeptical, but he was enthusiastic about the possibility that this would really make an impact. Later on, I had the chance to chat with Negroponte about getting a development unit to use to write software for this platform, and I was definitely encouraged.

Maritta Koch-Weser, the head of GEXSI, met in front of my poster at the social entrepreneur meeting, and we ended up talking at length about the kind of socially beneficial projects she wants to fund. Someday Benetech may have a project for them, but it was very important for me to understand what Maritta is looking for, since I run into great social entrepreneurial ideas every week that Benetech cannot begin to work on!

That's less than a quarter of the conversations I've had over the last day or two. I'm learning, connecting, exploring every hours. Really intense, but an opportunity not to be missed for the communities I serve, and of course Benetech!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Putting the Social Into Davos

I arrived in Davos Sunday night for the Schwab Social Entrepreneur Summit. Dr. Klaus Schwab has made social entrepreneurship his cause, and over the past five year has brought social entrepreneurs into the World Economic Forum. That's easy for him to do because he founded the Forum!

Forty Schwab SEs are here, and a bunch of them are new. Many were picked through national efforts co-managed by the Schwab Foundation and major press outlets in each country. One of the highlights of any gathering of social entrepreneurs is simply getting together and swapping our experiences. For example, one of the issues we talked about was succession planning. How does a socially entrepreneurial organization grow and thrive when the founder moves on? It also touches on the fact that part of becoming a really successful organization means that you have to move beyond being so tied to the founder as an individual. I had the benefit of sitting at the table with Chris Elias, PATH's second CEO, and Bruce McNamer, Technoserve's third CEO, to get those perspectives of the leaders who followed the first social entrepreneur/founder.

Of course, we also have fun. We're all staying in the same hotel, the Schatzalp, which is 1000 feet above Davos. You take a train (well, sort of a funicular) up the mountain to get to the hotel. Night before last, a dozen social entrepreneurs took sleds down the mountain in the dark.

Great views, too!

The energy is great here as we get ready to tackle the main Forum. More as that happens!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Anti-WEF Protest in Zurich

Anti-WEF Protest in Zurich

I'm not supposed to start blogging about Davos and the World Economic Forum until Tuesday, but the WEF found me in Zurich on Saturday night. My son, Jimmy, and I were wandering through the old town to find dinner and we ran into a good-sized protest against the WEF by a couple of hundred folks in black ski masks. They stopped right in front of us (outside the Zic Zac Rock Hotel) and someone did a five minute harangue in German over a megaphone. The protesters were pretty well behaved, and I didn't see a police presence.

The protesters lit off some fireworks: first time one went off I nearly jumped out of my skin.

The main thing the protesters were doing illegal was spraypainting hammers and sickles and anti-WEF slogans. I really liked the "Dance Out WEF," but we didn't find that part of the protest.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Online Memorial to Iranian Victims

Roya and Ladan Boroumand might be the first to say that they are not "techies". But you would hardly know it from looking at the beautiful website they just released. Their website, found at, is an on-line memorial honoring over nine thousand victims allegedly killed by the Islamic Republic of Iran since the revolution in 1979 and an extensive library of documents relating to human rights and democracy.

Roya and Ladan are the founders of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation (ABF) named in honor of their father, Abdorrahman Boroumand, an Iranian lawyer and pro-democracy activist who was assassinated allegedly by agents of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Paris on April 18, 1991.

Our Human Rights Program has been advising and working with the ABF since 2002. They are using our Analyzer human rights database system to collect information about the victims in Omid, which is then published to the website. Analyzer enables the ABF to process a mass of overlapping information recording all available sources so that the reported data can be traced to its sources.

Omid, named for the word "hope" in Farsi, is truly unique and inspired. An extensive public archive, Omid intertwines the fate of victims with a discussion about the inherent human rights which they were denied. By placing Omid on the Internet, Roya and Ladan hope to reach Iranians in Iran and all over the world (as long as access to the site is not blocked in Iran) and encourage friends and relatives of victims of the Islamic Republic to contribute and make changes to it. More broadly, they hope to generate dialogue about the truth and price of living under an ideologically driven regime.

Talk about technology serving humanity! Benetech is proud to contribute to this project.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Uncovering the truth about deaths in East Timor

Uncovering the truth about deaths in East Timor

One of Benetech's biggest Human Rights projects has been our work for Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor (CAVR). The report has been completed, but not released publicly. There have been many articles about what the report does or does not say, and Benetech human rights team has not been able to comment because of the still-confidential nature of the report. However, some of the results we helped create are starting to be released. On January 4, some of the key statistical findings were disclosed in a press release that corrects some of the incorrect press reports.

This is very important work for us. We helped the CAVR with the most technically challenging and advanced statistical work of any truth commission to date: understanding what happened over the 25 years since the Indonesian army invaded East Timor. It reminds me of the Caltech motto: "the truth shall make you free." Truth is a difficult subject in large scale human rights abuses, but we have brought state of the art science and technology to bear on finding the best statistical estimates of the truth of East Timor's very difficult recent history.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Four Big Questions about the Future of the Web

Four Big Questions about the Future of the Web

I am part of supporting Compumentor's big NetSquared event, and they asked me to answer four key questions about the future of the web and the nonprofit sector. I had fun answering the questions, and also tapped the considerable brainpower and experience here at Benetech in answering the questions.

I'll just quote the last question and my answer, because these are really critical issues!

What's the bad news? What are the greatest barriers preventing web-based technology from producing social change?:

What's the great barrier to producing social change in general? Funding availability, especially to the most capable and dynamic groups. The web-based modifier doesn't change that fact.

A second issue is the difficulty in designing effective software for the social sector. The sector is reasonably balkanized, and market incentives don't provide enough push to make better software, with a few exceptions (i.e., fund raising software). Plus, the users are not developers, and so it's hard to understand what mission-critical tasks the software can effectively assist with.

Distribution in the broadest sense is the third big barrier. Building it doesn't make them come, generally. Marketing doesn't come naturally to most social change groups.

IP rights are the fourth significant barrier. When the money is not there, owners of intellectual property believe they cannot afford to go after socially oriented applications.

Although these are all barriers, people are working on each one of them and making progress. We just need to make even more progress!

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Donated Servers

Donated Servers

We just received several servers donated by an anonymous investment firm in our area over the holidays. These are going to come in handy for experimenting with new server projects, as well as being a backup for our main in-house server. We really appreciate this kind of support: in-kind technology donations of things we need are very helpful!