Wednesday, January 27, 2010

First day in Davos

I’m joining many other social entrepreneurs on our journey to Davos, home of the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. The journey itself is magical: you take a series of trains getting ever smaller, until the final hour meanders through the middle of mountain villages with a foot to spare on either side of the train, through tunnels and beneath spectacular mountains. Although this is my sixth time to Davos for the WEF, the train trip never fails to enchant me.

And then we're in a small ski village in Switzerland!

The Schwab Foundation arranges for the social entrepreneurs to stay in the Schatzalp mountain hotel. This is the hotel made famous in Thomas Mann’s book The Magic Mountain: it’s 600 feet up the mountain above Davos, and you ride a funicular railroad to get to it. The benefits of collocating the social entrepreneurs in one place has been proven in past years: a large amount of the value of attending the WEF is meeting with global social entrepreneur colleagues, and trading notes about the best ways to change the world for the better. The time out from the normal grind, plus the influence of dynamic peers, often leads to a leap of creativity. I’m already getting into the spirit.

My first event was the orientation for new Schwab social entrepreneurs. A few of the more experienced SEs join the Foundation staff in helping the new attendees get the maximum value out of the conference. Every year I’m amazed at the cool SEs I’ve never heard of, each of whom seem to be changing the lives of a million people already (something I’m still aspiring towards!).

We then joined the social entrepreneurship dinner. There are roughly thirty social entrepreneurs here at the Forum, headlined by such famous leading SEs as Muhammad Yunus and Fazle Abed of Bangladesh. Hilde Schwab, co-founder of the Schwab Foundation, welcomed us to the event, and highlighted the role of social entrepreneurs in the Global Redesign Initiative (GRI) that the WEF is pursuing. Four of the social entrepreneurs then made brief presentations about their GRI proposals that had been chosen by the WEF to present to the conference.

Martin Fisher of KickStart noted that technology innovations don’t tend to be adopted by poor rural farmers: technology that could change their lives dramatically for the better. His proposal was that time-limited “smart subsidies” be used to encourage the adoption of these innovations until the adoption curve gets to the point where the commercial market takes over.

Harish Hande of Selco of India advocated passionately to involve the poor in the planning for ventures and initiatives designed to help them. I think that many social entrepreneurs get intuitively that social change is best done with people rather than to people, and hope that this is more widely adopted.

Andreas Heinecke of Dialogue in the Dark (a social enterprise that employs blind people in putting on experiences in complete darkness) joked that he had never written a business plan: that his enterprise (which has expanded to many countries) just grew organically. He did highlight the importance of dialogue, and getting people out of their comfort zone to actually explore new ideas.

I spoke on Benetech’s GRI proposal to get intellectual property to more fully benefit all of humanity, not just the top 10%. I use examples like Victoria Hale’s nonprofit pharma companies, that take drug ideas that don’t make enough money for traditional pharma, but could save hundreds of thousands of lives. We have recommendations to government, companies, universities and the media around how to bring more of the benefits of humanity’s knowledge to the bulk of the planet, while balancing that with the needs of businesses to make money in bona fide profitable enterprises.

Getting a bunch of social entrepreneurs together in one room is a great way to start the week. The room was buzzing with ideas about improving society, and taking advantage of this precious opportunity to interact with the captains of industry and government leaders. The shocks of the last year or so has heightened the interest of finding new solutions to improve the world. We know social entrepreneurs are at the leading edge of that effort!

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