Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Social entrepreneurs dare to change the world

By Jeff Skoll and Sally Osberg, Special to CNN
October 7, 2013 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
Joel Otieno, a clinical health assistant at the FACES community-based organization in Kenya, rides to his next appointment. He is supported by an organization called Riders for Health, founded by Andrea and Barry Coleman, who share a passion for motorcycles. Through the racing world, they became involved in fundraising for children in Africa and soon recognized the vital role of transportation in providing health care. Joel Otieno, a clinical health assistant at the FACES community-based organization in Kenya, rides to his next appointment. He is supported by an organization called Riders for Health, founded by Andrea and Barry Coleman, who share a passion for motorcycles. Through the racing world, they became involved in fundraising for children in Africa and soon recognized the vital role of transportation in providing health care.
HIDE CAPTION
Global change makers
Global change makers
Global change makers
Global change makers
Global change makers
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jeff Skoll created foundation to help support social entrepreneurs
  • Authors: Social entrepreneurs adopt lessons from business but aim at solving social problems
  • It's smart to leverage efforts by drawing on governments, business, networks of trust, they say
  • Authors: Social entrepreneurs working to improve health care, protect fisheries, provide safe water

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of CNN Opinion pieces on people who are finding new ways to help solve the world's biggest problems. The founding president of eBay, Jeff Skoll is a philanthropist and founder and chairman of the Skoll Foundation, Participant Media and the Skoll Global Threats Fund, organizations aiming to help build a sustainable world of peace and prosperity. Sally Osberg is President and CEO of the Skoll Foundation, which produces the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship.

(CNN) -- Motorcycle racer Andrea Coleman and her journalist husband, Barry Coleman, couldn't forget what they saw during a trip to Somalia in 1986: hemorrhaging patients being carted to clinics in wheelbarrows, rusting vehicles abandoned by the side of the road, community health workers making their rounds by foot.

What all this signaled to the Colemans was a delivery system in deep disarray. It wasn't simply the medical supplies that were lacking -- vaccines, for example, or bed nets -- but more mundane basics such as oil filters and lug nuts, along with the mechanics and maintenance protocols required to ensure transport that was fully functional.

As racers, the Colemans knew what it would take to build such a system. Upon returning to England, they got cracking, eventually mortgaging their house to found Riders for Health.

Jeff Skoll and Sally Osberg
Jeff Skoll and Sally Osberg

From food insecurity to lack of access to health care to growing environmental threats -- if we're going to solve the world's most pressing problems, we need social entrepreneurs like the Colemans every bit as much as we need great institutions and great global leaders.

As European Union architect Jean Monnet put it, "Nothing changes without men; nothing lasts without institutions." Working on the front lines, social entrepreneurs fight disease, poverty and injustice with their innovative approaches, proving that health care can be delivered efficiently and equitably, that sustainability trumps depletion, and that we're in this together.

We need these change-makers; we need their agency -- the creativity, discipline and drive they bring to challenges confronting humanity and the planet. But what is it more specifically that makes them so distinctive and so indispensable?

First of all, social entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs. Like business pioneers, social entrepreneurs are utterly determined to drive change with their innovative ideas.

Both aim, in effect, to disrupt a status quo they see as sub-optimal. To the business entrepreneur, this might be a product or service that doesn't work terribly well, but offers customers their only choice.

Consider, for example, the limited, inefficient and unreliable options available for document or parcel delivery before Fred Smith's FedEx came on to the scene.

To the social entrepreneur, the challenge at hand doesn't only cause inconvenience or inefficiency; it causes outright harm, with that burden falling most heavily on poor and marginalized populations. Think of the millions who die miserable deaths from contaminated water in developing world countries, the victims of non-existent or dysfunctional sanitation systems.

Now consider what's required to address misery at this scale, with 2.5 billion of the world's population lacking access to a secure, safe supply of clean water.

What may come most readily to mind are thousands of social service provider organizations dispensing bottled water or boring new wells. Such nongovernmental or civil society entities play a vital role in ameliorating suffering; their interventions save countless lives.

Focusing as they do on meeting critical needs, their frame for action is the near to immediate term.

In contrast, social entrepreneurs working on this issue aim at permanent change, seeking to put in place a new system that will secure communities' safe drinking water for the long-term.

For example, in 2003, Gary White developed WaterCredit, offering the poor a market-based alternative from the charity-driven water and sanitation solutions they were accustomed to.

Water.org's innovative approach was to make small loans available to households via microfinance institutions, empowering residents to take control of their water supply and vastly reducing the time required to fetch water from a local well. Now, $28 million in loans have now been made, with 840,000 people benefitting directly from WaterCredit.

Disruption of an existing status quo, replacing what exists with an entirely new system, demands scale. For business entrepreneurs, this translates to market dominance, with sufficient profits to fuel their ventures' growth through steadily expanding customer uptake.

Andrea and Barry Coleman founded Riders for Health which seeks to ensure that health workers and health facilities have access to reliable vehicles to carry out their work effectively, so that communities across Africa receive regular, reliable health care.
Andrea and Barry Coleman founded Riders for Health which seeks to ensure that health workers and health facilities have access to reliable vehicles to carry out their work effectively, so that communities across Africa receive regular, reliable health care.

Social entrepreneurs, too, must get to scale, but it's scale of impact they're after, with little to no chance of generating financial profit from the impoverished or marginalized populations they serve. And yet, they're every bit as driven as business entrepreneurs.

While the successful commercial entrepreneur will compete fiercely in order to establish and maintain market dominance, the successful social entrepreneur will collaborate just as intensely, engaging those with the greatest stake in the change as essential partners -- citizens, governments, and business.

In other words, social entrepreneurs are defined not only by their determination to effect social change, but by the way they work: in common cause with those they serve and through high-leverage partnerships with enlightened governments and businesses. Their ultimate objective is social transformation, and their modus operandi is social as well.

The great social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus didn't simply build an entirely new system of credit -- called microfinance, which provides financial services to those who haven't traditionally had access to banks -- to serve the poor; he structured Grameen Bank so that its poor borrowers were its owners, fully enfranchised in every dimension of the model.

Over more than two decades, social entrepreneurs Andrea and Barry Coleman have dedicated their lives to building a completely reliable, scalable healthcare delivery transportation system on the African continent. Operating nationally and regionally in seven African countries, Riders helps health care reach more than 12 million people. In Zimbabwe, malarial mortality rates in districts served by Riders' program dropped by more than 60%. In Gambia, its work has been the key to a comprehensive national health-care coverage.

Structured as a nonprofit social enterprise, Riders for Health secures its operating capital from African government ministries and from private philanthropy, with the latter source subsidizing the gap between what governments are able to pay and the system's costs.

In building networks of trust that enroll and support citizens, bolster local institutions and engage global partners, social entrepreneurs strengthen social networks for social good. To address the growing crisis of overfishing, Rupert Howes recognized that the Marine Stewardship Council faced a formidable task.

Over the past several years, he's succeeded in bringing 10% of the world's fisheries into the organization's certification program, not simply by arguing the case for sustainability, but by creating demand. With mega-retailers like Walmart and consumer-facing brands like McDonald's committing to source 100% of their fish from MSC-certified suppliers, his organization has begun to tip the market for wild-caught fish.

Within every social entrepreneur is an unwavering belief that big, seemingly intractable problems offer unsurpassed opportunities for change.
Jeff Skoll and Sally Osberg

Howes understands what's on the line: millions of livelihoods that depend on sustainable fish stocks, food security for a world that looks to fish as its primary source of protein, and biodiversity for the planet's oceans. But to get from a reality presaged by the collapse of the cod fishing industry in the early 1990s to sustainable practice, he understood the need to engage everyone who was part of the system in its transformation: fishermen and consumers, fisheries and processors, suppliers and buyers.

Within every social entrepreneur is an unwavering belief that big, seemingly intractable problems offer unsurpassed opportunities for change. Instead of cursing the darkness, social entrepreneurs choose to ignite the flames of possibility and prove that even our toughest problems can be solved. The Skoll Foundation provides support for many of these change makers, and we're proud to count ourselves as their partners.

Their stories, their approaches and their results deserve to be better known so that business, government, and citizens the world over can join them in creating a future that works for everyone.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT