Peter Drobac believes society is at a critical “inflection point.” On one hand, he says, rising nationalism in some of the world’s wealthiest nations points to a backslide of social and environmental progress. But it’s also true that social and political grassroots activism has been ignited, galvanized by the threat to decades — some would say a century’s worth — of political and social progress.
“In my lifetime, we have seen greater worldwide increases in health and prosperity than at any other time in human history,” Drobac tells We See Genius. “But that progress feels tenuous right now. The risk of widespread social disruption and environmental — and therefore economic — destruction is real and urgent. Whether we continue on the path of increasing human development and opportunity, or face real catastrophe, will be determined by the actions of the next generation.”
Drobac has long matched words with action. First with social change agent Partners in Health and later as executive director and co-founder of the University of Global Health Equity, he has spent years in Rwanda overseeing a revolution in healthcare delivery for treatment of everything from HIV to cancer. Now he’ll bring that record to a new, academic space when he takes over as the director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School in October.
“I am thrilled that Peter will be joining the school as the new Director of the Skoll Centre,” Oxford Saïd Dean Peter Tufano said in a prepared statement from the school. “Peter’s work has had a profound impact on the health of the people of Rwanda and across borders, and he has led interventions that have enabled the poorest in society to overcome poverty. His extensive experience in social change more broadly will ensure that we continue to address and deliver solutions to some of the most challenging issues the world is facing.”
ANNOUNCEMENT CONCLUDES YEAR-LONG INTERIM AFTER TRAGIC PASSING OF PAMELA HARTIGAN
Drobac’s hiring concludes a nearly year-long — and emotional — search for the Skoll Centre. He succeeds founding director Pamela Hartigan, who succumbed to cancer last August — “a devastating blow to all of us who so loved and admired her,” Skoll Foundation President and CEO Sally Osberg wrote last year.
Drobac earned his doctor of medicine from the Medical College of Wisconsin in 2002. since 2003 he has worked for Partners In Health, the global health organization founded by Dr. Paul Farmer that is the subject of New York Times bestseller Mountains Beyond Mountains, written by Tracy Kidder. In addition to his work with Partners In Health, which operates the University of Global Health Equity, since 2009 Drobac has been an instructor at Harvard Medical School.
“Peter Drobac embodies the spirit of the social entrepreneur: a tough-minded optimist who has devoted his life to redesigning systems bound by an unjust status quo,” Osberg said in a prepared statement from Oxford. “His decade-long work in Rwanda with Partners in Health has driven equilibrium change in healthcare delivery, from HIV to cancer. Under his leadership, Rwanda’s remarkable new University of Global Health Equity is a beacon for healthcare innovation. I can think of no one better suited than Peter to lead the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship forward.”
It’s tough to imagine a better fit for the position than Drobac: As he points out, he has been blending education, research, and service throughout his career.
“This is exactly the approach that sets the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship apart,” he says. “The Centre combines two powerful assets: a world-class business school at Oxford Saïd with a deep commitment to entrepreneurship and solving world-scale problems, and the Skoll Foundation, which provides thought leadership and curates a global ecosystem of social entrepreneurs. This mix of academic and practitioner expertise is novel and important, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”
OXFORD DEBUTING LONG-AWAITED INCUBATOR SPACE LATER THIS YEAR
Up first for Drobac and his team: developing a “vision and strategy” for the next decade of growth at the Skoll Centre. Drobac aims to enlist the help of students, faculty, practitioners, and thought leaders on how the center can continue to be an “academic center for social innovation in the world.”
The next priority, Drobac says, will be developing the Oxford Foundry. Set to open later this year, the Foundry is Oxford’s university incubator, which will be housed under the umbrella of Oxford Saïd. A converted former ice factory, the multimillion-dollar space will have co-working rooms, a café, presentation stage, and lecture hall. LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman was the first founding member to make a donation for the space.
“So much of what makes social entrepreneurs successful can’t be learned in the classroom, but must be learned by doing,” Drobac says. “I’m excited to work with Dean Tufano, the Foundry’s incoming director Ana Bakshi, and the Skoll Centre team to leverage this exciting new platform to help aspiring social entrepreneurs turn ideas into action.”
Drobac remains undaunted by his lack of a traditional business background.
“It’s an exciting challenge,” he says. “Social entrepreneurship is inherently multidisciplinary — innovation comes from bringing people with different expertise and worldviews together to solve problems. I’ve learned this first-hand working in global health. Social forces play a far greater role than biology in determining who gets sick and who does not.”
BUSINESS AS THE INITIAL PROBLEM AND HOPEFUL SOLUTION
Another source of society’s woes can also be a solution, Drobac says.
“I think there is a fair critique that in the 20th century, business contributed to many of the problems we face today — inequality of wealth and opportunity, and climate change, to name two,” he says.
But, he adds, the pendulum is swinging. “There is compelling evidence that the most successful businesses in the 21st century will be those that recognize that financial success and the creation of social value are mutually reinforcing priorities,” Drobac says.
Businesses — and their resources that are often greater than government, nonprofit, and non-government organizations — can step up and fill spaces left by current organizations tackling society’s toughest issues, he says. “Businesses have the resources, commitment to innovation, and practice of measurement and continuous improvement that are too often lacking in governments and nonprofits. Business is also uniquely positioned to scale and spread effective solutions across borders.”
It’s that potential — and the possibility of cross-sector collaboration — that Drobac plans to tap into.
“Society’s largest problems are inherently complex, and cannot be solved by a single entrepreneur or organization,” he says. “We need to foster collaboration across the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors. That is exactly why social entrepreneurship is not confined to any one sector.”
DON’T MISS A WHARTON I-BANKER DOES A SOCIAL STARTUP and PODCAST INTERVIEW WITH OXFORD SAID’S MARK O’BRIEN