Friday, January 29, 2010

Three Fabulous Conversations

The WEF is all about having a critical mass of incredible people. This enables great conversations: the serendipity effect is huge. I just wanted to highlight three conversations I had today, each of which shows why this is such a great opportunity for Benetech to attend.

Conversation One
Just as I finished my breakfast, I looked across the way and saw Larry Brilliant, the new head of the Skoll Urgent Threats Fund. That shortchanges Larry’s background: he was the key leader in the campaign to eliminate smallpox in India, cofounded the Seva Foundation and a couple of high tech companies, and was most recently running

We then spent an hour in a wide ranging and stimulating conversation about the new Fund, its first grants, how to help social entrepreneurs we both know and admire, the energy coming from college and grad students eager to make a difference and the challenges of bringing more measured conversations back into a global society faced with enormous issues with significant uncertainty. What a great kick-off for a day!

Conversation Two
I had agreed to act as a mentor to a Global Changemaker, in this case Mousa Mousawy, an Iraqi teenager now living in Jordan. Mousa and I talked about his dream of helping centers for blind people in Iraq get the tech equipment they need. I had no idea when I agreed to the mentor gig that there would be something like this I actually know something (a lot) about. We brainstormed about people he needed to connect with like European Braille embosser makers, the Library of Alexandria (working on Arabic content for the blind) and of course Bookshare. It’s great to see someone who is not yet 20 with many creative ideas about how to help, and the drive to make it happen.

Conversation Three
When I got back late to the hotel and stopped by the bar, I found the founders of Waste Concern of Dhaka, Bangladesh, Maqsood Sinha and Iftekhar Enayetullah getting a late dinner of sandwiches. I’d visited them in Dhaka a few years back (and written a blog post), and they have a very impressive social enterprise that offers a municipality the following deal: let us haul away your waste for free. By collecting the waste and composting it using a technology that Waste Concern has created, they can access carbon credits sufficient to pay for the entire enterprise (including the capital to get the venture launched). They have expanded from Dhaka to at least ten cities, and are now wrestling with the right way to expand outside of Bangladesh.

The coolest thing was that they then explained that there was a big opportunity for someone like Benetech to write software to help them with this kind of expansion. It was a triple-play kind of opportunity: every city in the developing world needs help grappling with waste and with greenhouse gas challenges. The Waste Concern approach creates good jobs for waste pickers, keeps the city clean, reduces green house gases, and prevents corruption (the auditing process for carbon credits is rigorous and doesn’t leave much room for funny business). They just need software to help cities understand the size of their challenges around these issues. I’m going to chew on this more, but it sounded like a terrific opportunity for someone like Benetech!

Don’t get the idea that these are the only conversations that I’ve been having: but they were just a sampling of the kind of discussions I’m having every day here at the WEF. A veritable intellectual and social smorgasbord!

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