Top 11 TED talks on how the power of social entrepreneurship is changing the world

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TED talks are inspiring, often spurring people to action, who are looking to change the world. While there are many top 10 or top 20 lists of most inspiring TED talks ever, there aren’t many that singles out individuals who have had enduring social impact through their work. We took our time to scour through many TED talks and handpick these 11 videos that highlight social entrepreneurs, academics and practitioners who have had a profound impact in the world of social entrepreneurship.

We obviously would have missed many captivating talks; do add to our list, by pasting the web links in the comments section below.

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Watch on.

1) Ebay’s employee number 2, Jeff Skoll is a fascinating human being: here he talks about the power of using movies for social good:

Skoll talks about his journey from Silicon Valley to Hollywood, founding the Skoll Foundation, and problems like poverty, illiteracy and that of the widely spread ‘opportunity gap’. Skoll wanted to start write stories about the world being small and interconnected, and thereby using that as a medium to get people to make a difference. But he got a wake-up call when he was 14 years old and his Dad was afflicted with cancer. His Dad said he was more concerned about not being able to do all the things that he wanted to do in life than about dying.

After co-founding eBay and benefiting from its successful IPO, Skoll went from living off five guys in Palo Alto and eating their leftovers, to suddenly having access to a large amount of wealth. He wondered what he should do with it and asked John W. Gardner for suggestions. Gardner advised him to start a foundation and bet on people (like Muhammad Yunus and Victoria Hale) doing good things, .

He founded the Skoll Foundation to execute on this goal. Soon after in 2003, he thought about all the movies that inspired him, like Gandhi and Schildler’s List and wondered which studio made movies like these. This was when he decided to make movies that promotes and encourages social change.

Skoll has been very successful so far, his studio Participant Productions, has made features and documentaries that address social and political issues and drive real change. They include North Country, An Inconvenient Truth, The Kite Runner, The Visitor, Food Inc., The Cove, and Oceans.

Watch this talk to be spurred into action from a man who has spent his billions wisely.

Quotable quotes:

“Someone, at some point, came up with this very bad idea that an ordinary individual couldn’t make a difference in the world. I think that’s just a horrible thing.”

“Bet on good people doing good things.” — quoting John Gardner.

2) Sugata Mitra, academic, on building a school in the cloud:

In this illuminating talk, Mitra bemoans the current education system that goes back well over 300 years old, to the time of the British Empire. He says that the British education system produced identical individuals who could read, write and do mathematics, and were designed to be one global human computer. He criticizes the system for lack of creativity and innovation, and calls the it outdated.

Mitra talks about new ways that children can learn by exploring innovative ways to educate them. He asks the difficult question on how present day learning systems will prepare us for future jobs. Through his research and insights he decided to do the ‘hole in the wall’ experiment which involved children being left alone with a computer. In nine months the children reached the same standard of proficiency as an office secretary in the West.

The ‘Hole in the wall’ experiment has earned Mitra a $1 million prize from TED.

His talk will surely leave you wondering about what might be possible if we thought outside the box.

Quotable quotes:

“We are producing identical people for a machine that does not exist.”

“It took nature 100 million years to make the ape stand up and become Homo sapiens. It took us only 10,000 to make knowing obsolete.”

“It’s quite fashionable to say that the education system’s broken — it’s not broken, it’s wonderfully constructed. It’s just that we don’t need it anymore. It’s outdated.”


3) Kiva’s co-founder, Jessica Jackley, talks of poverty, money and love:

Jackley was six years old when she first heard about the poor, and was told that it was her job, to help the poor with clothes and money. Then she was told no matter what she did, the poor would always remain in the world. This upset her and she wanted to do something about it in spite of being overwhelmed by the mere possibility. In the years that followed she heard stories of war, helplessness and poverty.

She started giving to appease her own conscience and release her own suffering whenever negativity built up. But this was a transaction. All this changed when Jackley heard a speech by Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus. She says, “I was so completely blown away by the idea that I quit my job, dropped everything and moved to East Africa to help.” In late 2005 she co-founded with Matt Flannery.

Kiva uses a peer-to-peer model in which lenders sort through profiles of potential borrowers and make loans to those they find most appealing. The minimum loan is $25 with a zero percent interest rate. The repayment rate for loans is more than 98%. She’s also the founder of ProFounder: a platform that helps small businesses in the United States access startup funding through community investing.

This talk will make you want to live life employing your innermost values and principles.

Quotable quotes:

“The stories we tell about each other matter very much. The stories we tell ourselves, about our own lives, matter. And most of all, the way we participate in each other’s stories, is of deep importance.”

“I was giving to alleviate my own suffering and not someone else’s. Truth be told, I was giving out of that place, and not from a genuine place of hope, and excitement to help and of generosity. It became a transaction for me, a trade. I was buying my right to go on with my day.”

“I did hear stories of change, and stories of life change, and amazing little details of change. I would hear of goat herders who had bought more goats, their business trajectory would change. They would make a little bit more money, they standard of living would shift and get better. And, they would make little adjustments in their life, like send their children to school, they might be able to buy mosquito nets, buy a lock for the door and feel secure or maybe they could put sugar in their tea and offer it to me, which made them feel proud.”

4) Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of Acumen Fund talks about how to live a life full of purpose:

Novogratz talks about her experiences with young people who want to live a meaningful life but do not know where to start because they feel marginalized. She talks about the cost associated with wanting to live a life of immersion and the positive trade-offs after that choice has been made.

She talks about Ingrid Washinawatok, a Native American woman, who taught Jacqueline the lesson of sustainable living while keeping in mind future generations. Tragically Washinawatok paid with her life, when she was abducted an killed by the FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army) when she was working in Colombia. Novogratz says that in spite of her short life, Washinawatok leaves a rich legacy behind.

This talk has many such tales from Rwanda, Cambodia and many other countries.

Novogratz’s talk will help make the tough choice of living a life of balance easy.

Quotable quotes:

“Your job is not to be perfect. Your job is only to be human.”

“At the end of the day, dignity is more important to the human spirit than wealth.”

“People really don’t want handouts, they want to make their own decisions; they want to solve their own problems.”

5) Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Younus talks his journey with Grameen Bank and how he achieved his enormous success:

In this wonderful talk explaining his success and the journey that started with $27 and led to him and his organization being awarded the Nobel Prize in 2006. Yunus, talks about the birth of Grameen Bank, and how it became such a big success, by not following the traditional rules of banks of having rich males own the bank and loaning money to those who had collateral. But instead, Yunus made poor women the owners of the bank, and also loaned money to those that had no collateral to offer.

His social business model ploughs back all the money back into the bank and does not pay dividends or make profits.

Yunus’ talk will impress upon the fact that massive social change can happen with a little money and a big heart.

Quotable quotes:

“We are not interested in the past of our borrowers, we are only interested by their future.”

“We are the only lawyer-free bank in the world.”

“The banking system was standing on its head, we have tried to put it on its legs.”

“Poverty is not created by the poor people. Its created by the system and externally imposed.”

6) Sendhil Mullainathan: Solving social problems with a nudge:

Mullainathan was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant ($500,000 purse that can be used for anything) in 2002.  He has produced and collaborated on various research papers that seek to better understand economic behavior and the functioning of markets. One of them included a study of the corruptive practices involved in getting a driver’s license in India.

In this absorbing talk, Mullainathan shares a lot of insights that range from reducing child deaths due to diarrhea, preventing diabetes-related blindness and how to implement solar-cell technology.  He also poses some troubling questions on after knowing fully well on how we can solve these problems, we somehow don’t- why?

Quotable quotes:

“See, we spent a lot of energy, in many domains—technological, scientific, hard work, creativity, human ingenuity, — to crack important social problems with technology solutions. That’s been the discoveries of the last 2,000 years, that’s mankind moving forward. But in this case we cracked it, but the part of the problem remains. Nine hundred and ninety-nine miles went well, the last mile’s proving incredibly stubborn.”

“The last mile is, everywhere, problematic. Alright, what’s the problem? The problem is this little three-pound machine that’s behind your eyes and between your ears. This machine is really strange, and one of the consequences is that people are weird. They do lots of inconsistent things. And the inconsistencies create, fundamentally, this last mile problem.”

“Here’s another example of this. This is from a company called Positive Energy. This is about energy efficiency. We’re spending a lot of time on fuel cells right now. What this company does is they send a letter to households that say, “Here’s your energy use, here’s your neighbor’s energy use: You’re doing well.” Smiley face. “You’re doing worse.” Frown. And what they find is just this letter, nothing else, has a two to three percent reduction in electricity use.”

7) Khan Academy has changed the world of education and continues to do, listen to the Salman Khan talk about his endeavor:

Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, which produces educational videos for school children, is a real life hero. His many admirers include Bill Gates. In a short period of time he has revolutionized the way videos are being used by children the world over to learn new concepts at their own pace.

In this fascinating video he talks about how he got started on his remarkable journey in 2006 when began making videos to remotely tutor his cousins in New Orleans from his home in Boston. His cousins loved it because they could learn anytime, and in the privacy of their homes. The videos started to rapidly proliferate the web, and soon Khan Academy was born, making Khan a sensation.

Watch Khan as he talks about his first baby steps with his academy and the way it grew beyond his wildest dreams- helping kids with autism, students who had trouble with math, teachers used them in classrooms, and enabled people to have fun while learning complex mathematical theories. Khan’s current obsession is with changing the way classroom education can be delivered using the power of video.

Quotable quotes:

“I started getting some comments and some letters and all sorts of feedback from random people from around the world. And these are just a few. This is actually from one of the original calculus videos. And someone wrote just on YouTube — it was a YouTube comment: “First time I smiled doing a derivative.” And let’s pause here. This person did a derivative and then they smiled. And then in a response to that same comment — this is on the thread. You can go on YouTube and look at these comments — someone else wrote: “Same thing here. I actually got a natural high and a good mood for the entire day. Since I remember seeing all of this matrix text in class, and here I’m all like, ‘I know kung fu.’”

“When you talk about technology in the classroom — by removing the one-size-fits-all lecture from the classroom and letting students have a self-paced lecture at home, and then when you go to the classroom, letting them do work, having the teacher walk around, having the peers actually be able to interact with each other, these teachers have used technology to humanize the classroom. They took a fundamentally dehumanizing experience — 30 kids with their fingers on their lips, not allowed to interact with each other. A teacher, no matter how good, has to give this one-size-fits-all lecture to 30 students — blank faces, slightly antagonistic — and now it’s a human experience. Now they’re actually interacting with each other.”

“But when you let every student work at their own pace — and we see it over and over and over again — you see students who took a little bit [of] extra time on one concept or the other, but once they get through that concept, they just race ahead. And so the same kids that you thought were slow six weeks ago, you now would think are gifted. And we’re seeing it over and over and over again. And it makes you really wonder how much all of the labels maybe a lot of us have benefited from were really just due to a coincidence of time.”

8) Bunker Roy, a true Indian social pioneer talks about his journey:

Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy is one of India’s first social entrepreneurs who have been engaging with the poor and the marginalized to provide them with models of sustainable living for close to four decades now. Roy’s journey started in 1965, when he was a young post graduate student from St Stephen’s College, Delhi, and volunteered to spend a summer working mapping 100 drought prone areas in famine-affected Palamu District, Jharkhand (earlier part of Bihar). His experience there led him to found Social Works and Research Centre(SWRC) in 1972 to find ways to address rural poverty by using new models and strategies. SWRC morphed into Barefoot College. Roy through Barefoot College trains villagers to develop solutions in solar energy, water, education, health care, rural handicrafts, people’s action, communication, women’s empowerment and wasteland development.

In this talk Roy talks about his ‘45 year-old love story’ with the poor. Roy’s story is all the more remarkable because he went from being a young post-graduate from the elite St Stephen’s College in Delhi (he was also the national squash champion for three years) to giving it all up to live on less than one dollar a day and founding Barefoot College.

This talk will leave you inspired.

Quotable quotes:

“We went to Ladakh … and we asked this woman, ‘What was the benefit you had from solar electricity?’ And she thought for a minute and said, ‘It’s the first time I can see my husband’s face in winter.’”

“[The Barefoot College is] the only college where the teacher is the learner and the learner is the teacher.”

““The prime minister is 12 years old. She looks after 20 goats in the morning, but she’s prime minister in the evening.”” — on student governance at a Barefoot College.

9) Dan Pallotta: The way we think about charity is dead wrong

Pallotta gets to bottom of the problem of attracting top quality talent to the non-profit and social business sector.

Too many nonprofits, he says, are rewarded for how little they spend — not for what they get done. Instead of equating frugality with morality, he asks us to start rewarding charities for their big goals and big accomplishments, even it means it involves big expenses. We have two rule books he says- one for the for-profit sector and the other for the non-profit sector. He talks about the power of compensation by explaining that you can make $50 million making violent games for children and be on the cover of Wired magazine. But if you make $0.5 million trying to solve the problem malaria among kids you are considered a parasite.

The brightest minds go directly to the for-profit world because they have to make a tough choice of making money and providing for their families or doing good for the world. Pallotta explains how an MBA from Stanford, has a median income of $400,000, but a CEO of a hunger charity is paid just $84, 028. Pallotta says the Stanford MBA graduate may not just be greedy, but smart.  It is cheaper for him to give away $100,000 to the hunger charity and sit on its board, and get the benefits of being involved in a charity and make a lot of money.

This talk will make you rethink the world of charity, why non-profits are still needed and ways to attract more top talent into the industry.

Quotable quotes:

“We send people marching from the nonprofit sector into the for-profit sector, because they’re not willing to make that kind of compromise,” says Pallotta. “Not a lot of people with $400K talent will make a $316K sacrifice every year.” And actually, it turns out it’s more financially advantageous for these talented business minds to take the big paycheck, give $100K to a hunger charity each year, reap the tax benefits and get the label of “philanthropist.”

“People are yearning to be asked to use the full measure of their potential for somthing they care about.”

10) Anil Gupta talks about Indian hotbeds of innovation in the hinterland:

Gupta, is a business professor at IIM-Ahemedabad, who after being inspired by the innovations and raw talent that he witnessed in the rural areas, was motivated to start the Honey Bee Network. The organization searches for such innovations, helps commercialize some of them and also protects them by filing patents. Some of the innovations that Gupta has helped uncover are: a pedal-operated washing machine, a micro-windmill battery charger and a hoe powered by a bicycle. Gupta has also been instrumental in establishing the National Innovation Foundation that seeks to uncover such innovations and provide the entrepreneurs with funding.

In this engrossing video, Gupta talks about inventors from slums and the hinterland who have created many wonderful inventions through their ingenuity and resourcefulness. He urges the government to look at them as resourceful people who can use their creativity to rid themselves of poverty. Perhaps all that they might be need is the creation of market linkages and access to capital. He speaks of quality solutions that serve local needs that does not necessarily need scaling up.

He talks about Muhammed Rojadeen has made a cooker for coffee which gives you espresso coffee, Sheikh Jehangir from Jalgaon, Maharashtra has made a portable dry grinder and washing machine as well, Janaki Devi from Western Champaran, Bihar has developed a herbal pesticide.

Watch this talk to see India’s villages in a new light.

Quotable quotes:

“There could be nothing more wrong than the Maslowian model of hierarchy of needs. … Please do not ever think that only after meeting your physiological needs and other needs can you be thinking about your spiritual needs or your enlightenment.”

“You cannot have two principles of justice, one for yourself and one for others.”

11) Asher Hasan, helps dispel myths about the people from Pakistan:

While Hasan is founder CEO of Naya Jeevan, may not be a well-known name compared to the other luminaries on this list, we loved his passionate talk on how India and Pakistan are two nations are cut from the same cloth. Hasan says Pakistanis are often times, misunderstood, and have the same dreams and aspirations as everybody else. He also talks about how economic growth maybe a reality, but has not benefited everybody equally, and details solutions on growth could be more evenly distributed.

Hasan’s social enterprise Naya Jeevan provides affordable access to quality healthcare to low-income families in developing countries. He is a Draper Richards Social Entrepreneur Fellow and joined TEDIndia in 2009 as a TEDIndia Fellow.

Quotable quotes:

“It is often said that we fear that which we do not know. Pakistan, in this particular vein … has provoked, and does provoke, a visceral anxiety in the bellies of many a Western soul, especially when viewed through the monochromatic lens of turbulence and turmoil.”

“A rising tide lifts all boats. The rising tide of India’s spectacular economic growth has lifted over 400 million Indians into a buoyant middle class; but there are still over 650 million Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Nepalese, who remain washed up on the shores of poverty.”


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Nelson Vinod Moses

Nelson Vinod Moses

Journalist with a keen interest in all things social entrepreneurship.