USC Price School of Public Policy

CPPP Lecture

Social Entrepreneurs Who Change the World

By Cristy Lytal

Sally Osberg Sally Osberg, president and CEO of the Skoll Foundation, delivers the keynote address at a recent CPPP event.
Photo by Lee Salem

“I like to say that the social entrepreneur is to the entrepreneur what Ginger Rogers was to Fred Astaire, because the social entrepreneur has to do everything the entrepreneur does but backwards and in high heels,” said Sally Osberg, president and CEO of the Skoll Foundation.

High heels aside, social entrepreneurs create innovations that disrupt the status quo and transform the world for the better, and they’re the main focus of the Skoll Foundation’s investments.

Osberg delved into the topic when she addressed nearly 200 leaders from philanthropy, the nonprofit sector, government and industry as part of the USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy (CPPP) 2010-2011 Distinguished Speakers Series.

CPPP is one of 12 research centers in the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development (SPPD) and the only academic research center in the country with a focus on philanthropy and its links to public problem solving.

CPPP’s annual Distinguished Speakers Series seeks to raise the profile of philanthropy by providing a venue for leaders to share their views on the role of philanthropy in addressing the challenges facing communities.

Osberg described how the Skoll Foundation achieves its mission to drive “large-scale change by investing in, connecting and celebrating social entrepreneurs and other innovators dedicated to solving the world’s most pressing problems.”

In 1999, eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll started the foundation with a vision “to live in a sustainable world of peace and prosperity,” said Osberg. Even before he had encountered the term “social entrepreneur,” he knew that he wanted to leverage the foundation’s impact by investing in smart, disciplined, effective people working on scalable projects that benefit humanity.

Over the past 10 years, the foundation awarded more than $250 million, including investments in 83 social entrepreneurs and more than 65 organizations on five continents. These social entrepreneurs are creating innovative solutions like bringing literacy to millions of Afghan women and girls, and founding the first nonprofit pharmaceutical company.

In 2003, the Skoll Foundation partnered with the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford to launch the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. Their signature program is the Skoll World Forum, an annual gathering designed to share what’s working in the field and shine a spotlight on social entrepreneurs and their innovations.

The foundation also harnesses the power of the media to tell their social entrepreneurs’ stories. “They are incredible human beings,” said Osberg. “They deserve to be the celebrities that our culture writes about, thinks about, recognizes and supports.”

In addition to the Skoll Foundation, Jeff Skoll, who attended the luncheon along with other members of his leadership team, has a portfolio of ventures to promote social change — including a media company and an investment group that seeks business opportunities that provide financial returns while promoting the greater good.

“The Skoll Foundation has demonstrated extraordinary leadership in building the field of social entrepreneurship,” said James Ferris, CPPP director and holder of SPPD’s Emery Evans Olson Chair in Nonprofit Entrepreneurship and Public Policy. “One of the many unique features of the Skoll Foundation that Sally highlighted is how they work with other members of the Skoll Group—Participant Media,, the Skoll World Forum, the Skoll Global Threats Fund and Capricorn Investment Group—to unleash a collective impact that none of their organizations could achieve alone. Their ‘portfolio approach’ to philanthropy typifies a type of new philanthropic strategy that is focused on achieving greater leverage and impact.”

Osberg concluded her remarks with a touching example of the “portfolio approach” in action. When the Skoll Foundation was still in its infancy, it backed a pair of social entrepreneurs named Rajiv Vinnakota and Eric Adler, who created a nonprofit college preparatory boarding school in the inner city. One of its students is a promising boy named Anthony, who is also one of the stars of Participant Media’s new documentary “Waiting For Superman,” which reveals many of the problems with the public school system.

“You can imagine how we all felt at the Skoll Foundation when our friends at Participant and the kids from the film, including Anthony and his grandparents, were all invited for a special screening of ‘Waiting for Superman’ at the White House,” said Osberg. “Jeff sent me a picture of Anthony and the President under the Lincoln portrait. It tells you what the face of change looks like. Social entrepreneurs work to make sure the possibilities in human beings, in the Anthony’s of the world, are possibilities that are realized. When I opened this photo, I wept.”