March 17, 2014
Entrepreneurs of Reform Gather at the Antigua Forum
A small group meets at the 2013 Antigua Forum Azhar Aslam, a London-based plastic surgeon originally from Pakistan, developed a remarkable literacy program. He had proved it worked in small pilots of a few dozen children. In just six months, they gained the basics of reading and writing with a couple of hours of teaching each day. By starting small, he came to realize a bigger question: how might the program be scaled up so that it could benefit his country of origin, a place in which illiteracy is correlated with poverty, intolerance, and violence?The Antigua Forum proved fundamental in finding the answer. A project of Universidad Francisco Marroquín, based in Guatemala City, and sponsored through a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, the Forum brings together entrepreneurs and reformers from around the world to “think disruptively”; that is, to reflect differently about institutions so that they may better serve human needs. Collectively, these individuals generate the know-how that increases the chances of reform so that innovative ideas can actually be delivered.
Aslam had wondered about hiring teachers or raising funds. Discussions at the Antigua Forum suggested a different approach by focusing on the root of the problem—how to distribute his program, called the Speed Literacy Program, cheaply and effectively. The upshot is that, after 6 months, the program is being considered to be adopted by a regional government in Pakistan and is changing the future prospects of thousands of young pupils.
“The Antigua Forum arose after a dinner discussion,” explains Wayne Leighton, the Forum’s executive director. “We noticed that at many conferences across the globe, smart people come together to discuss how to improve the lives of their fellows, but too often the ideas come to nothing. We wondered whether the problem was one of know-how. How can insightful analysis, deep knowledge of problems, and brilliant solutions actually be made to happen? We formed annual meetings where we cultivate the entrepreneurial spirit that gets things done.”
The process is a key factor and the Forum is not like a traditional conference. There are no long presentations, but instead pitches and short talks, small group discussions, and hands-on workshops. To put it another way, a “how-to” spirit is fostered from the outset by clarifying the nature of the challenge, the options for addressing problems, the best option for addressing them, and then the strategy to make the project happen. “The process is deeply personal, often challenging,” Leighton explains. “We have confidential, off-the-record discussions so that individuals can share past mistakes as well as successes, and can learn from their fears as well as aspirations. An atmosphere of trust and support is key, in which ideas can be canned if necessary, as well as nurtured.”
Other projects that the Antigua Forum has helped develop include sharing pedagogical tools in India, which had proven difficult in part because public schools are not allowed to make a profit, and Free To Choose Medicine in the United States, for which Forum participants suggested a rethinking of the originally planned approach to provide more targeted and quicker access to new and potentially life-saving drugs.
“An element of luck is always a factor in human endeavors,” adds Leighton. “But when entrepreneurial reformers add commitment, creativity, and the right knowledge, their chances for success increase. The Antigua Forum raises these odds by promoting real learning and forging a trusted, worldwide network.”
“These folks are brilliant,” continues Rod Martin, a serial entrepreneur and member of the startup team at PayPal. “You get them together, you hit them with a problem they’ve never thought about before, and they come up with a solution in record time.”
Alongside the meetings, the Forum generates publications, videos, and other materials that analyze the lessons learned from specific reform experiences, or offer insights and tools that can be applied to current or future efforts. It is hard to overstate the value of digging to discover what has worked before, what did not, and why. In just over three years since it was first conceived in 2010, Antigua Forum alumni have applied their learning from this event to advance tangible reforms on the ground. The insights gained are helping to improve the lives of many others.