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
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2201 GMT (0601 HKT)
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT