4 social entrepreneurs who are changing the world

By Laura Montini, special to CNBC.com

When these four social entrepreneurs found conditions they observed in the field to be unsatisfactory, they immediately took action. Today their ideas have fundamentally transformed the way people around the world use natural resources, educate young girls and manage their land.

For their bold work, Alasdair Harris, Ma Jun, Safeena Husain and Jagdeesh Rao were named the recipients of the 2015 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. The honor, which comes with a $1.25 million award, recognizes entrepreneurs who have had a proven impact on a large-scale problem. Below are the details of their efforts.

Alasdair Harris, founder, Blue Ventures, London

Local workers harvesting red “cottonii” seaweed from a Blue Ventures-sponsored aquaculture program in Toliara, Madagascar
Gabriel Diamond | Skoll Foundation

Blue Ventures organizes projects that rally coastal communities in the developing world around local conservation efforts. "Typically, conservation alienates people," Blue Ventures founder Alasdair Harris said. "It has the opposite of the effect that it needs to achieve."

That's why the main focus of his organization, founded in 2003, is to demonstrate the benefits environmental projects can yield. "If we can succeed in doing it, then I believe we can have a chance of growing conservation to a completely different scale," he explained.

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One of Harris' first demonstrations involved temporarily cordoning off an octopus-fishing area in Madagascar. By allowing the ecosystem to rebuild, octopi and other sea life flourished, leading to an increase in catch and profits. Blue Ventures has since carried out similar projects in Fiji, Malaysia, and Belize.

Ma Jun, director, Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, Beijing

Ma Jun, head of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, photographing water outfall pipe, documenting industrial pollution in China.
Gabriel Diamond | Skoll Foundation

"Our main focus is to control air, water and soil pollution in our country. And our main way of doing this is to use transparency to promote public participation to drive change," said Ma Jun of his nonprofit. Since 2006 the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs has maintained a publicly accessible national pollution database, where the data is displayed on an interactive online map of China. Users also can search individual companies' environmental supervision records.

Jun was struck for the need for such a repository after traveling throughout his country doing research for his 1999 book "China's Water Crisis." He found that although national environmental standards existed, pollution was widespread. He was convinced that greater transparency could change industrial practices.

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Journalists, non-governmental organizations and researchers were some of the first to use his database to advocate for change, Jun said. But now brands like Apple, Hewlett-Packard and H&M are using the data to monitor their suppliers. Jun said that the information has prompted 1,800 factories to change their processes.

Safeena Husain, CEO, Educate Girls, Mumbai, India

Teacher instructing students in math as part of an Educate Girls school program.
Gabriel Diamond | Skoll Foundation

Educate Girls has two main goals. First, to bring Indian girls who aren't in school into the education system. And second, once they are there, to make sure they are really learning. Founder Safeena Husain employs a very hands-on approach to make this all happen. In order to find girls who aren't in the classroom, her staff must go door to door.

"[We find out] are there 50 girls in a village out of school or five?" Husain explained. "And once we know exactly who they are, then we conduct village meetings and get the village leadership, the teacher, the headmaster, the parents, everybody involved."

Changing entrenched views about girls and education is a long-term process, she said, but so far her organization's efforts have brought more than 80,000 girls into the school system.

Jagdeesh Rao, CEO, Foundation for Ecological Security, Gujarat, India

Jagdeesh Rao, Foundation for Ecological Security
Gabriel Diamond | Skoll Foundation

About 200 million people in India rely on government-owned common land for their livelihood. Historically, these areas have been overexploited, since without ownership rights, people have lacked a strong incentive to preserve local resources. That's why in 2001 Rao founded the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) to help local villagers set up formal institutions—like forest protection, management and grazing land committees—in order to better maintain publicly owned land.

Rao hopes to empower people to make decisions that benefit their communities in the long term. By educating them about sustainable practices—for example, harvesting water and protecting biodiverse food areas from cattle—the organization aims to restore the environment and provide them with greater economic security.

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Rao has been working on the problem since 1984, when he first visited Hyderabad as an undergraduate studying agriculture sciences. Through FES he has collaborated with more than 7,000 villages to bring 3.7 million acres of common land under local management.

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