The entire Impact Hub network grieves the loss of Dr. Pamela Hartigan, legend in the social enterprise realm. We knew her best as Director of the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, a position she held since 2009, after an eight-year run as Managing Director of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. She was a fierce leader who helped pioneer the social entrepreneurship movement around the world and later shook up the entire concept, calling for the term to be redefined.
"I absolutely despise the term social entrepreneur. What is an entrepreneur? It’s someone who sees an opportunity, seizes that opportunity, is highly resourceful, in terms of how he or she leverages the resources needed to get that going. A commercial and a social entrepreneur, they’re two sides of the same coin—they’re basically cut from the same cloth. The difference is that the commercial entrepreneur usually gets investors on board that are looking for a return, whereas for the social entrepreneur, money is a means to actually drive social change. I dream of the world where every entrepreneur has to be a social entrepreneur, because we cannot continue the kind of path we’re on unless that actually happens."
Since she passed away from cancer on August 12, 2016, the Saïd Business School describes being “overwhelmed by the number of people who have come forward to tell of the impact she had on their life and career.” Throughout our global network, many have been inspired by her, some have worked with her directly, and one is lucky enough to call her a second mother.
CEO and Co-Founder of Impact Hub Singapore, Grace Sai began her foray into social entrepreneurship at age 24, when she founded Books For Hope, an impact venture that has brought access to literacy to over 25,000 children in Indonesia. She was later accepted into the University of Oxford as a Skoll Scholar, where she developed a special bond with Pamela that continued long after earning her MBA. Grace went on to play a leading role in developing the social entrepreneurship and startup ecosystem in Singapore, following in her mentor’s footsteps through speaking, teaching, and disrupting the status quo. She currently sits on the Advisory Board for Ben & Jerry's Singapore, is Entrepreneur-in-Residence at INSEAD, and is a TEDx Singapore speaker.
In an interview with Impact Hub Global (IHG), Grace (GS) shared personal reflections on her relationship with Pamela, leaving us with intimate insights into the tenacious changemaker’s character, vision, and eternal wisdom.
GS: I wanted to further my studies in the UK, and when I read about Oxford's MBA program that was so tightly linked to Skoll Center and its focus on social entrepreneurship, I knew it was what I was looking for in developing my life calling around using business and entrepreneurship for society and a larger purpose. Then I read up about the Skoll Scholarship. It was one of those moments where I went “Oh my god, that's me!” And you just have that hunch that you belong there and it’s looking for you. When I read other Skoll Scholar profiles from the past, I was totally intimidated because they were all so accomplished, and I was probably the youngest ever in cohort at that time (I was 25). It’s unusual to be admitted not only as a scholar but into an MBA program of Oxford's caliber at that age. I think Pamela had a big role to play in that.
She was the one who interviewed me to be a Skoll Scholar; and she was the one who fought for me to be one, even though we only had a conversation on Skype. I remember the interview with her was very surreal. Before then, I already knew about her because I read her book, The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World (I highly recommend it). So when we spoke, she was a bit of a rock star for me; it was a bit of an idol moment. But she was so down to earth. And she even said, “You know, Grace, you remind me of myself when I was young.” And that moment never left me because, when you're my age, you can't imagine someone of her caliber saying that to you. That speaks of Pamela through and through—someone who takes bets on people.
At Oxford, we spent an amazing year together and we were very close. Some people called her my second mom and she called herself that, too. And the relationship continued for years afterwards, until she passed on. We supported each other. During her first Emerge Conference at Oxford, I went to speak for her, and for Impact Hub Singapore's first anniversary, she made the effort to be our Guest of Honor. Then the Skoll Foundation had a 10th anniversary during the Skoll Forum, and I represented the Scholar group and spoke on their behalf. That was also because of her. I had a voice and she gave me a stage.
GS: When I first really met her in person, I just thought she was crazy (laughs). She was very personable but also very direct. She was smart, funny, refreshing. We were five Skoll Scholars that year, and every month she hosted a dinner for us at her house. So that also made an impression on me. It was a personal yet effective way of mainstreaming social entrepreneurship. Each of us could bring a friend to the house once a month. Imagine a whole year: five of us, 10 months, times five friends each—we could actually almost reach an entire class.
She would also always surprise us with secret guests that would be at dinner. As you know, as a pioneer in our field, she was influential. Specifically, she had this golden phonebook. She could literally call up anyone if she thought you deserved to meet them or that they should meet you—all the way from Muhammad Yunus to Richard Branson, whomever! We had dinner with a couple who was fighting for Arab peace; Rodrigo Baggio came, the founder of CDI Brazil; and many Skoll Awardees who were passing by. So for the whole year we were being mentored and exposed and building friendships with people who have literally changed a part of the world.
GS: She was fearless. Some people call her a diva because she didn't care what you said. She just got what she wanted, what she believed she needed to get done right in order to achieve something. She was stubborn, strong, proud, loving, gentle and funny. She was a backer of people. It changes your life when someone bets on you that much. That’s how I think individuals can change people, and change the world as a result. She just kept believing in us, and of course with her very prolific background, she also knew how to create systemic change.
Oxford is a 900-year-old university and she wanted to do things to it that no one had ever thought was possible: bringing different schools together to understand social entrepreneurship; joining degrees to create double degrees cutting across business, the environment or politics. In the past, social entrepreneurship was only available as electives to business school students, but Oxford is made up of many separate schools. A few students wrote to her from other schools (zoology, philosophy, etc.) asking to learn about social entrepreneurship. She was like, “Ok. If you give your word that you guys will be committed to coming in every Saturday, and we get a class of 50 people, I will teach the course for free.” She’s just that kind of person. And she did it. Because these people did not have that subject available to them, she just went out of the system, to create a new one.
GS: For every business to be social, without abusing or greenwashing it, without the whole CSR thing. She didn't like the word social entrepreneurship anymore. She popularized it, but she then also shot it down in the last few years. She believed that every business should have positive impact for the wider society.
GS: I remember having insecurities during the MBA. At a young age, I questioned if I was fitting in, or if I was polite enough, popular enough. And she would always say, “If you ever change yourself, I will never talk to you again.” She made it OK to just be me. I think the profoundness of believing in yourself—and having the confidence that you don't need to be perfect to affect change and do cool stuff—is the biggest lesson from her. And she’s one person who lived that, too. She wasn’t diplomatic either; she was rough on the edges because she wanted to be, because she could. She didn’t care. And people loved her because of that, not despite of it.
GS: I think so. During the MBA I focused on creating environments for the emergence of entrepreneurs. So rather than just me building a venture of a product or service, I wanted to be an entrepreneur that built entrepreneurship ecosystems. Through her and other professors at the business school, I learned the literature and science behind it. So starting the Impact Hub Singapore there was a lot more grounding to it. And when I told her I was thinking of doing it, she connected me to someone who eventually found us our first space. So she literally had a role in our existence and relative success today.
GS: Impact Hub Singapore has embraced her vision. For the first two to three years we were a place for social entrepreneurs and purpose-driven entrepreneurs. But in the last one and a half years we have completely pivoted and opened up to just serving the startup ecosystem of Singapore. Period. So there’s no more segregation of social or tech, VC or impact investing; everyone who shares the vision and our values is one in our community. Around 30% are social, and the other 70% are tech and other creatives.
We even started our own VC fund, the Hub Ventures Fund, to invest in our members. We get to observe founders 24/7 and be a more accurate judge of character and potential—very much like what Pamela would have done—as she did with me. So I think that’s how we will seed the next generation of innovators. In many ways I am greatly influenced by Pamela’s approach, which is much more open, confident but inclusive, stubborn with our values without putting ourselves in a corner; I like to think of our approach as inclusive exclusivity.
GS: To be humbly unreasonable. Don't blindly adapt to the systems and the world around you, but have them adapt to you if you are building something meaningful and different. People close to me will tell you that I have very little regard for the existing rules because that actually limits solutions and imagination. In short, whatever we have in place now—whether it be systems, government or capitalism—I do not take for granted that they know all the answers. It’s very much our responsibility to create the kind of future we want to see or to create the kind of new system that we want. I don’t even know what the word is. It’s not ‘empowerment,’ it’s just the very grounded knowledge that everyone is equal, and that there is a lot of power in the ordinary person, and more so, in the power of many, not a few.
The Impact Hub network honors Pamela’s life and will continue to drive social entrepreneurship forward in her ‘unreasonable’ spirit. Keep her memory alive by watching the Skoll Foundation’s tribute video, reading the Saïd Business School’s remembrance, or contributing to her online memorial page.