Pamela Hartigan, Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship reflects on Emerge 2015. 

On November 7-8th, the Skoll Centre held the seventh annual Emerge conference, an event that started in 2009 with around 100 participants and today has become one of the leading gatherings of approximately 700 aspiring entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs in Europe, increasingly attracting participants of all ages from around the world.  As one of the UK’s leaders in entrepreneurship wrote, “I can say without hesitation that Emerge has by far the best energy and programming of all the numerous conferences in the sector”.

While the majority of participants at Emerge are what we call “Millennials”, a growing number of seasoned business leaders are among the participants.  This reflects a general growing concern with the state of the world in general – from poverty and continued human rights abuses to environmental deterioration and climate change. Such concerns are not felt only by young people but by an increasing cross-section of corporate executives who realise that social and environmental causes are too important to be sidelined.  People no longer want to separate how they make their money and how they find meaning in their lives – they seek to combine markets and human values.

And that is what Emerge is all about.  This year’s inspiring speakers included Sir Tim Smit, founder of the Eden Project, now leading its adaptation as a result of demand from countries, most importantly China.  James Brett, founder of Plant for Peace, brought the audience to its feet on conclusion of his moving life story and his amazing achievements.  The closing speaker, Melissa Fleming, spokesperson for UNHCR, broke out of the usual “UN speak” to share her experience with men and women, risking their lives to flee their war-torn countries to seek a better life for their families.

But such plenaries are few at Emerge and are meant to inspire.  The format at Emerge is about conversations, engaging master classes and learning through hands-on workshops.  Participants hear from seasoned and renowned thought leaders in a wide variety topics about key issues and trends.  This year’s master class highlights included the Collaborative Economy given by Rachel Botsman, a recognized global thought leader in mapping and describing this fascinating and disruptive business model; Laughter vs Crying: Using Emotion to generate transformational social change delivered by the inspirational and provocative Jack Sim, founder and CEO of the WTO (the World Toilet Organization, that is); and Cracking the Code on Impact Investing, an ever-popular master class subject taught by Henry Gonzalez, Skoll Scholar alum and head of research at impact investing firm responsAbility, and Karen Wilson, a lead author on the subject at OPEC.

Conversations such as “The Big Me” explored how we might rethink our priorities and strive to build rich inner lives as well as rewarding careers; “The Circular Economy” inspired and engaged participants to rethink their relationship to goods and services. Workshops provided participants with hands-on opportunities in a variety of areas.  For example, one focused on understanding how 3D printing can be used to create new products, new services, even whole new businesses all of which can have a social impact directly or indirectly. Another workshop focused on human centred design and provided participants with an understanding of how design thinking can be applied to address social challenges.

Emerge is just one event in the year. Yet its underlying philosophy, orientation and methodologies permeate the Skoll Centre’s year long approach to engaging students in particular to develop an ‘entrepreneuring’ mindset, one which seeks to challenge their assumptions, expose them to new experiences, and stimulate them to delve deeply into one or more of the major and ever-changing challenges that we confront as a global community.