Jonathan Waldroup is the Operations and Finance Manager at Impact Business Leaders, an organisation that provides career opportunities for professionals looking to develop business solutions that solve major global challenges.
Six years ago this December I did the unthinkable: I dropped out of Oxford.
Now, as I prepare to return to Oxford under completely different circumstances, I couldn’t be more thankful for that decision. In the six years in between, I have struggled with the search for a fulfilling career, as have many in my generation. My search led me to Impact Business Leaders and a renewed optimism in the very topic I left behind when I dropped out of Oxford. This is a story of how I came to believe in the power of a practical, impactful economics, known by the name of social enterprise.
“Saving Economics from the Economists”
I arrived in Oxford in September 2008 to study for an MPhil in Economics, just as world markets found themselves plummeting into the abyss. Living and studying in Oxford was a dream come true, and my wife and I still remember our time there as one of the most formative experiences of our lives. But it became clear all too quickly that a career as an academic economist was not going to work for me.
Theoretically I understood how different the highly specialized, mathematical approach of academic economics was from the more logic-based undergraduate economics that I so thoroughly enjoyed. But as I attended class and observed the world around me, it seemed that the discipline was out of sync with reality. How could anyone speak with such certainty about models and theories when the realities they claimed to explain were crashing down all around? I simply could not square the claims of rigor and precision in the classroom with the messy facts outside.
Ronald Coase, a Nobel laureate in Economics, put to words a few years later exactly what I had felt:
“Economics as currently presented in textbooks and taught in the classroom does not have much to do with business management, and still less with entrepreneurship. The degree to which economics is isolated from the ordinary business of life is extraordinary and unfortunate….[It] ignor[es] the influences of society, history, culture, and politics on the working of the economy. It is time to reengage the severely impoverished field of economics with the economy.”
The Oxford Econ Department was not to blame for this problem – it was an issue that slowly accreted across institutions as economics morphed from a study of everyday life and business into a specialized tool of policy (as Coase also points out in his article). There are many legitimate and helpful uses of academic economics, but I needed something more tangibly impactful.
After the Crisis
Returning to the US, I worked in the corporate world for a few years while I struggled to find some direction. After much deliberation, I decided to pursue the same types of international issues I had originally hoped to address with economics, but now from a more holistic perspective. I took up a degree in international affairs in Washington, DC.
It was during this time that I discovered the field of social enterprise, and spent a summer working with Village Capital in Nairobi, setting up an accelerator program for social enterprises. Here was a group of innovators that drew on the key insights of economics in a practical way, driving impactful results every day through the simple concepts of supply and demand.
Social entrepreneurs, and the impact investors who provide capital to them, realize that social impact is often more sustainable when driven by the market. Businesses can be firmly built on the demand from those at the Base of the Pyramid (BoP)—who live on a few dollars a day or less—generating solid financial results while simultaneously creating positive social impact. The companies I saw working with VilCap were enough to convince me of the value of social enterprise, and I left Kenya with a renewed appreciation for a more practical and empathetic economics.
Having finished my degree in DC, I was committed to pursuing a career in social enterprise and had the good fortune to get involved with Impact Business Leaders (IBL) in its early days. At IBL, we recognize that there are many people like myself, who have become disenchanted with the prevailing economic notion that business exists purely for profit, and equally with the notion that social impact can only be achieved through handouts.
But moving between the traditional corporate world (or government, academe, NGOs, etc.) and the social enterprise/impact investing world can be surprisingly difficult. Social enterprise is still a nascent sector driven largely by personal connections, and still heavily segmented geographically. IBL helps bridge the gap, connecting professionals with job opportunities around the world, and preparing those professionals for the opportunity with practical training from our group of experienced instructors, all of whom are practitioners in the field.
So when I return to Oxford in October for the upcoming IBL@Oxford program, in partnership with Oxford’s Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, I will be completing a circle that began in Oxford six years ago. I left Oxford disenchanted about economics; I return to Oxford hopeful about how economics can be practically applied to make a difference in the world, through the host of innovative entrepreneurs around the world who care about more than profit.
If you find yourself questioning why you do what you do, perhaps it is time you consider a program like IBL@Oxford. Applications are still available online through September 15, and we would be glad to speak with you more if you have any questions.
- Jonathan Waldroup is the Operations and Finance Manager at Impact Business Leaders and can be reached at jwaldroup[at]impactbusinessleaders[dot]com.