Exploring Unexpected Connections at the Skoll World Forum

> Posted by Joshua Goldstein, Principal Director for Economic Citizenship & Disability Inclusion, CFI

I spent the first two hours of the conference in a speed dating exercise called First Connections, where delegates had five minutes to give each other their elevator pitches before moving chairs to meet the next delegate. I recognize that common perceptions of this sort of activity perceive it as always awkward and often a waste of time. In this case, however, my speed dating was at the annual Skoll World Forum, and its value was indicative of the diverse connections needed to solve the complex challenges of my work on disability inclusion, and of those attending the Forum.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I2-cHGq8FMU?rel=0]

The Skoll World Forum, held in Oxford, England, brings together social entrepreneurs, as well as funders, politicians, media, and others who, in Founder Jeff Skoll’s words, are committed to “solving the world’s most pressing problems.” I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in the 11th annual Forum, based on my contribution to a global civil rights struggle to end discrimination against persons with disabilities. My scope of work within this ambitious movement has been developing a set of tools and trainings with my colleagues at the Center for Financial Inclusion to make microfinance institutions and other financial service providers disability inclusive. Along with facilitating the industry’s integration of these tools and trainings, we’re working with in-country stakeholders to develop disability inclusion plans in Ecuador, India, Paraguay, and elsewhere. But achieving disability inclusion in financial services requires more than financial services providers. It also requires the involvement of technology providers, telcos, government officials, educators, community groups, and other actors.

Over 1,000 people from 60 countries gathered to share their ideas and innovations at Skoll. The hope of event organizers is that such a high-level convening of disparate leaders will produce new collaborations and lead to new innovations. And when I say disparate, I mean disparate. I crossed paths with Eli Williamson, Co-Founder of Leave No Veteran Behind, an organization providing educational and employment assistance to veterans facing hardship, as well as Chris Underhill, MBE, Founder of the global mental health organization Basic Needs, and Mabel van Oranje, Chair of Girls Not Brides, which combats child marriage.

One need only look at some of this year’s Skoll Awards for Social Entrepreneurship to get a full sense of the wide ranging achievements of this year’s attendees. For example, award recipient Jenny Bowen is Founder and CEO of Half the Sky Foundation, which has had great success in reforming Chinese orphanages to make them more humane. Closer to my professional interests, Yves Moury of Fundación Capital has led a successful initiative to turn conditional cash transfers from the government, typically used for consumption, into an asset building program for the poor in Colombia. At first blush it might look like there was no way my disability work could be useful to Half the Sky, but this proved to be a faulty assumption.

With such a wealth of delegates how does one maximize one’s chances to make personal connections with the right people that will lead to fruitful collaborations? Prior to the conference, even after doing my homework and emailing a number of delegates, this prospect seemed daunting.

But the experienced Skoll folks organize the conference in such a way that strangers meet and mix from day one. Ice breaking is critical. Out of the First Connections speed dating came a number of promising encounters, including initial meetings with delegates from Kiva and Mercy Corps, which paid dividends later in the conference.

By the end of the three days, I had met and had substantial conversations with far more people than I could have expected. Of course there were last minute cancellations and other frustrations but overall I was pleasantly surprised at how much productive networking took place. And hearing an impassioned keynote by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was nearly assassinated by the Taliban for insisting on her right to an education, was worth the price of admission. She was truly extraordinary.

The proof is that since the conference I have scheduled follow up conversations with, among others, Half the Sky Foundation on how they might make the staff of their orphanages more sensitive to the needs of children with disabilities. I have helped Roots for Peace, an organization that replaces minefields with vineyards, think about how to be more disability inclusive in their Vietnam operations. I have connected with several individuals interested in exploring funding CFI’s disability inclusion work. And I have had discussions with Fundación Capital about joining their Board. All because of Skoll’s three-day event.

Video credit: Skoll World Forum

Have you read?

A How-To Guide to Realizing Disability Inclusion at MFIs Is Now Available

A Call for Disability Inclusive Development at the UN

Combatting Exclusion for Persons With Disabilities in India and Mexico