Pioneering Community-Based Student Finance

Following the success of the Oxford Social Innovation Case Competition on 30th April at Saïd Business School, Project Manager and MBA Student, Min Ji Kim takes time to interview Cameron Stevens, CEO of Prodigy Finance.

The 3rd annual Oxford Social Innovation Case Competition (OSICC) – a competition that challenges teams of students from any and all Cameron Stevnes - Prodigydegree programmes from the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University to find the best solution to difficult questions faced by real social entrepreneurs – was held at the University of Oxford Saïd Business School on April 30th 2016. In the lead-up to the big event, we sat down with Cameron Stevens, CEO of Prodigy Finance, a co-sponsor with Oxford’s Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship of this year’s OSICC, to speak about the journey of the company he founded and his personal journey as an entrepreneur.

Learn more here about the way that alumni can support the incoming class of Oxford SBS September 2016 students.

What does Prodigy Finance do?

Prodigy Finance is a company that provides student loans exclusively to postgraduate students attending the world’s top business schools and universities. We believe the talent map is global, yet the current student lending credit model is not. We are committed to changing this, and have built a borderless lending model that prizes academic potential over geography.

Would you consider yourself a social entrepreneur? What in your life journey do you think prepared you to start and build a company like Prodigy?

I’ve always thought the purpose of any great business was to solve problems, and have constantly been very interested in addressing social issues via entrepreneurship. Particularly, the concept of combining a social and profit dimension in businesses that can grow to size and scale.

For instance, when I was in university in South Africa, I started a corporate events planning company and designed it in a way to address employment inequality. We provided people with the skills to transition into full employment and grew the company to 65 full time staff. Later, I moved to Malaysia for six years and founded another company there, which I successfully scaled and sold. And ever since, I have always associated business success with doing good in the world and making a positive impact.

What specifically triggered the idea behind Prodigy? What was the specific problem or gap you and your founding team were trying to address?

Shortly after arriving to INSEAD to pursue my MBA, a few of my friends and I were lamenting over a beer the challenges we all had financing our business school education. We really had only three options: (a) self-fund from family, friends, and personal savings, (b) sell or dispose any existent assets, or (c) borrow at usurious rates from banks in our home countries and eat the costs of foreign exchange rates and fees. At the same time, despite being at a well-recognised school like INSEAD, no financial institutions in France would lend us because we did not have local credit history.

At this time, I was very influenced by Mohamed Yunus and the microfinance movement and thought to bring those same principles to plug the gap I was witnessing; enable anyone accepted at a top MBA programme to achieve their dreams and complete the course, no matter where they came from.

What was the biggest challenge in getting Prodigy started? How did you respond?

My founding team and I worked on developing and re-developing the business model of Prodigy during our time in INSEAD and a bit beyond. We managed to attract the attention of Barclays bank and were working out an investment agreement for them to provide the initial loan base, but just as we were about to seal the deal the 2008 financial crisis hit. By the time of our next scheduled meeting with the Barclays team, the team as well as our intended agreement had all but evaporated. The global economy and the appetite for investment in new ideas dried up.

It, felt surreal, a bit like a slap in the face. We were completely deflated, so we did the natural thing. We went back to the drawing board. Clearly our initial idea of getting institutional backing from big banks wasn’t going to work anymore. The model had to change – or at least the investment source needed to. It was around this time that I recalled that I had written my university thesis on crowdfunding in 1999, except of course back then it wasn’t called that. We also needed people with available money who understood the funding plight MBA students faced: alumni. That’s how Prodigy came to be a peer-to-peer platform allowing alumni investors to invest in future classes of MBA students.

What lesson in that experience would you say is the most important for social entrepreneurs?

(Laughs) I’m not sure what I would advise someone…it was not rational or intelligent at the time. The rational thing to do would have been to listen to the people telling us at that time to stop and do something else. On a serious note, I suppose I’d say you need to be very resilient. Problem-solving and being quite stubborn are also personality traits I naturally have, and ended up helping me through the difficult times with setting up Prodigy.

How important is the alumni community aspect of the business model to you? Would you say that it has a role beyond guaranteeing financial returns?

Very important. The alumni community is at the core of our business model. Through their long-term sustainable capital, the alumni community gets to see the tremendous impact their monies have in supporting global talent. Plus, as we extend the model to other adjacencies the alumni community becomes even more important. We are already seeing how the alumni community is genuinely interested in connecting to fill available job positions or to fund new entrepreneurial ventures.

What’s next for Prodigy?

We’ve grown quite fast over the last two years and have now expanded beyond MBAs to support postgraduate students studying for other non-MBA business programmes (e.g. Masters in Finance, International Management, etc.) LLMs, MPPs, and Masters in Engineering at selected schools. We face typical challenges from a business with social impact achieving size and scale, but isn’t this why we signed up to be a case for this competition (laughs)? So you tell me! I look forward to hearing the suggestions of the talented teams in this competition of how and where Prodigy should be focusing on.

Read Min’s last article, Prodigy Finance: From Capital to Community.