Source: Skoll; The great Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Peter Gabriel, who performed a song in his honor during the Forum.

Kalsoom here, one of your friendly virtual neighborhood TC-P managing editors. I write this post the morning of the third and last day (Friday) of the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford, England. The Skoll Forum is a program of the Skoll Foundation and is co-produced with the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the Saïd Business School at Oxford University. For those of us in the social entrepreneurship/innovation space, it is one of the conferences of the year, bringing together 800 delegates from the social, finance, private and public sectors and delving into topics and important questions related to the field.

During Wednesday’s Opening Plenary, there was an incredibly poignant talk entitled, “Microfinance in the Balance” with Roshaneh Zafar, the founder and managing director of Kashf Foundation in Pakistan and Alvaro Rodriguez, the chair of Mexico’s largest MF Bank, Compartamos Banco. Given that Grameen Bank’s Muhammad Yunus, the father of microfinance, is currently under fire by the Bangladeshi government (a fact that frankly, is terrible) and stories of suicides in India this year, moderator Jonathan Lewis did a fantastic job of asking the right questions about the industry. As a Pakistani, I was so proud of Zafar, who talked about Kashf’s work and the issue of “Microfinance Plus” articulately and with poise. Rodriguez was more controversial on the panel, defending Compartamos Banco, a for-profit bank that has drawn criticism from more traditional voices in the microfinance sector for its high interest rates and its drive to achieve profit. The talk was significant because it highlighted two prominent organizations in the sphere with relatively divergent perspectives, further highlighting the diversity of the industry.

Yesterday and today, topics ranged from grants versus investments, scaling social change, market reform versus rebuild, and food security. But perhaps the highlight of my Skoll experience – nay, my year, was listening to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who spoke on a panel with Joe Madiath, Executive Director, Gram Vikas, Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, Founding President and Executive Director, Visayan Forum Foundation, Inc., and Paul Farmer, Founder, Partners In Health. To say the panel, entitled, “Deep Leadership,” was inspirational is a gross understatement. Tutu, who later received the Skoll Global Treasure Award, reminded us all to remain grounded, listen constantly, and always find humor in everything.

As Skoll comes to an end today (a more in-depth post to come), I have been thinking about conference structure in general and how attendees can and should get more out of the experience. I am by no means an expert, but given that there are so many forums throughout the year, and most who are new to the sphere have no idea where to start, here are some tips I’ve gleaned from incredible friends who are far more experienced than I:

  1. Don’t go to every bloody conference. Seriously. Conferences can be extremely expensive. Every year, pick up to three to attend, making sure that each poses tremendous value to you.
  2. Figure out your reason for attending. Before applying or signing up for a conference, ask yourself why you want to go – do you want to learn more about the industry? Are you a social entrepreneur looking for investors or donors? Do you just want to bring more visibility to your organization? Answering that question ensures that you get the most out of the conference you attend, because…
  3. The best part of conferences is the networking. Ok. That might just be my personal opinion. Yes, the conference substance (the panels, speakers, etc.) is very important. But so are the connections you make, which you can leverage for future potential partnerships, investments, and collaborations.
  4. Know your pitch. You meet a lot of people at conferences, and knowing your 10-second “this is who I am, this is what I do, this is why I’m different” elevator speech is essential and allows you to network efficiently.
  5. Business cards. This is an obvious tip, but always have your business cards handy. You will not believe how many times I’ve forgotten mine or run out.
  6. Have 100 conversations. Jonathan Lewis, the founder of Opportunity Collaboration, advised us all during a panel yesterday to have 100 different conversations with people, noting, “out of that 100, you will find at least 10 or even just one person that will be an incredible long-term collaborator, partner, mentor, or investor.” In order to engage someone, he added, tell them one thing about you that they will remember, not ten things no one will remember. Ask them what they do rather than just trying to blurt out exactly what you do – once they start talking, you can find out how to best position yourself in the conversation.
  7. Have fun. Seriously. At Skoll, I’ve had conversations with people about horror films, restaurants, politics, my borderline crazy love for dogs, the list goes on. Relax and enjoy the amazing and interesting people that you meet at these forums. Some of them could become great friends.

Have a tip that I may have forgotten or a question that we could answer? Share it in the comments section. A more in-depth post on Skoll to come.