The Skoll Centre’s Apprenticing with a Problem (AWAP) awards support individuals to engage in experiential learning and deep immersion around the challenges that they seek to tackle. Ana María Ñungo, of the Oxford Saïd MBA class 2016-17 set out to understand some of the issues surrounding access to higher education in Colombia, which has major consequences for social mobility.
Tell us a bit about your background
I was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia. However, for the last 10
years I have lived abroad. I am an electrical engineer, and prior to the MBA I
worked in the energy industry (utility and renewables) and also founded a
non-profit focused on energy access. During the MBA, I co-founded Language Amigo, a social
enterprise that creates opportunities for low income youth in Latin America.
the problem that you were interested in tackling?
I was looking at the current situation of university students in
Colombia who have to work while studying, and whether they have adequate job
opportunities. I was also interested in seeing how this problem relates to
student’s retention in higher education, as the dropout rate in Colombia is
almost 50%, which is amongst the highest even for Latin American countries.
Lastly, I wanted to learn about the development of the collaborative economy in
the country, as it can represent a good opportunity for these students who are
you use the AWAP award?
I travelled to Colombia and lived there for a few months, during which
time I was able to fully dedicate myself to looking into this issue on the
ground, working with universities, students, and other experts in higher
My main partner was the Universidad Distrital Francisco José de Caldas,
which is one of the largest public higher education institutions in the
country. With their help, I conducted a survey that reached +150 students and
gave me first-hand information about their thoughts and experiences on the
problem. I also interviewed students, as well as professors and other
university personnel that were experts in topics such as student drop out and
employment opportunities. This includes José Manuel Restrepo, who was the
chancellor of the Universidad del Rosario and is now the Minister of Commerce,
Industry and Tourism of Colombia. Additionally, I met and learned from people
who are leading projects to support the development of the collaborative
economy in in Latin America.
This experience also allowed me to meet some of the college students who
are now part of my social enterprise Language Amigo. They are not only
generating flexible income, but also learning and thriving as part of an early
stage international start-up.
stands out to you most from your learnings over the period?
So many learnings during this time! Amongst the most important for me
In a city like Bogotá, where my research was primarily based, most students think that there are job opportunities, however, most of them agree that the opportunities are not appropriate for students.
What most students want or need is flexibility, adequate compensation and opportunities that are aligned with their academic programs. Flexibility not only in terms of schedule but also location. Some students have to commute +3 hours/day in order to attend university and work, and over 70% of the surveyed students said that their compensation was lower than the minimum wage. Also, except for people who are doing internships (which are usually only available for a small percentage of final year students), most jobs are not related to their fields of study.
Universities, employers, and even government organizations are either ignoring this issue or trying to address it in a siloed way.
While there are many factors that lead students to drop out of university, socio-economic issues are one of the most significant. I heard in interviews that for many low- or middle-income families, this drop-out problem represents a frustrated dream for a whole family and for all the people that supported the student and believed that they were going to have a different future.
your most surprising finding?
While the collaborative and digital economy is a good potential
opportunity for students who are in much need of flexibility, there is very
little knowledge about digital platforms that offer self-employment or
freelancing opportunities. Only 21% of students knew about these digital platforms
and just 5% had actually worked with them. In addition, one of the biggest challenges
for collaborative economy entrepreneurs in Latin America was that people simply
didn’t know about them or their platforms.
I think that students are very immersed in the digital world, however,
they are not yet utilizing it to find the flexible jobs that already exist on
Apprenticing with a Problem changed the approach you are taking to tackling
I learned how to reach
college students in more efficient and effective ways. Even just to have
students answer a survey or be interviewed seemed to be a challenge at first.
But strategies like having strong partnerships and learning about the specific
social media where students are active were key to catching students’ attention
and obtaining a response.
I also realized that
it made more sense for my start-up to recruit youngsters who are studying
languages as they can find and provide more value to our mission. We are
basically applying the lesson of aligning the job opportunities with their
fields of study.
advice would you give to other setting out to tackle complex social or
It is definitely useful, and I would say it’s almost a must, to have partners on the ground that are very familiar with the problem and have access to your target population. Do as much field research as possible by yourself as well.
Don’t be shy and ask others who have researched similar issues. Prior to going to Colombia, I read many articles and emailed all the authors I found. The response was positive and many of them were happy to give me an interview.
Be open-minded, some of the information on the ground may be completely different from what you had thought. In my case, I thought I knew the university student life in Bogotá since I studied there for almost 4 years. However, things have changed quite significantly! I ended up joining over 20 Facebook groups to learn about current student life and reach out to them.
The Skoll Centre’s Apprenticing with a Problem awards support individuals to engage in experiential learning and deep immersion around the challenges that they seek to tackle.
Oxford MBA alumna, Melissa McCoy, is a 2016-17 awardee whose apprenticeship took her to South Africa to learn about the real challenges faced in the healthcare system, from those who experience it first-hand.
About two years ago, I started trying to solve South African public healthcare challenges before setting foot in the country. For my Oxford MSc Computer Science thesis project, I built a low bandwidth-optimised online telehealth platform and a machine-learning based triage tool for South African patients to solve issues of doctor scarcity and misdistribution. While this sounds logical, I jumped into creating a solution before truly understanding the problem space.
The Skoll Centre’s Global Challenge competition, which resulted in an Apprenticing with a Problem grant, was a huge blessing. It gave me the resources and thought space to understand South African healthcare challenges from several angles and ensure I was tackling the problems in the right way.
The resulting research that my team and I completed focused on visiting 15 healthcare facilities, spanning several characteristic types:
Primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of healthcare
Gauteng, Western Cape, North West, and Mpumalanga provinces
Remote rural, rural, and urban geographies.
The research also focused on speaking with four types of stakeholders (doctors, nurses, facility managers, ICT professionals) that represent the various healthcare system perspectives.
While our findings around the problem space were extremely valuable (and are fully detailed in our report), we also took away some surprising insights:
Willingness to embrace change: Contrary to our initial beliefs, people in the public healthcare system in South Africa do not enjoy the status quo. They are cognisant of the challenges and inefficiencies in the system. They also believe that while there is a lot that rests on the powers that be, there is a lot that they can do themselves to bring about change. Our visits were viewed with optimism and most facilities were hopeful and confident that our suggestions would be beneficial for them. A system that is not cynical and is open to feedback is bound to see progress in due course of time. The positive attitude of practitioners and the administration alike towards embracing technological improvements was a huge motivational factor for us.
Bottom-up, Organic Tech Solutions: While many facilities lacked digital infrastructure to allow for referrals and sharing information, healthcare facilities & professionals devised their own ways to facilitate these processes. Doctors had created WhatsApp groups to discuss difficult patient cases. Nurses had equally formed networks among themselves and would send SMS messages to each other to communicate bed occupancy and information about referred patients.
Learning from field interviews is hard: We came into the research with several pre-conceived ideas around the core problems and the appropriate solutions to solve them. We wanted to validate if our hypotheses were correct without biasing interviewees in the process. In Rob Fitzpatrick’s book, The Mom Test (which we referenced often), he summarises the challenges of this process well: ‘Trying to learn from field conversations is like excavating a delicate archaeological site. While each blow with your shovel gets you closer to the truth, you’re liable to smash it into a million little pieces if you use too blunt an instrument. I see a lot of teams using a bulldozer and crate of dynamite for their excavation. They use heavy-handed questions like “do you think it’s a good idea” and shatter their prize. At the other end of the spectrum, some founders are using a toothbrush to unearth a city, flinching away from digging deep and finding out whether anything of value is actually buried down there.’ We botched at least a dozen conversations with stakeholder, by either introducing our concept of interest too early or never bringing it up and getting their true thoughts. This was a skill we gradually improved upon with every interaction.
Overall, the exploration was invaluable and one-of-a-kind. It set the stage for how our company, ConnectMed, planned to work with the South African public healthcare system, as well as how we now think about engaging the Kenyan system.
Melissa recently completed her MSc Computer Science and MBA at University of Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship and is now working on a Africa-focused digital health venture, ConnectMed, in South Africa and Kenya. She previously worked in the Americas and Africa as an engineer, entrepreneur, and consultant.
The Skoll Centre’s Apprenticing with a Problem awards support individuals to engage in experiential learning and deep immersion around the challenges that they seek to tackle.
Oxford MBA alumna, Laura Taylor was a 2016-17 awardee whose apprenticeship took her to New Zealand to learn about indigenous social entrepreneurship and cultural resilience.
Growing up in Hawai‘i, I learned early on that there are many ways of seeing the world—that each culture encompasses unique values, beliefs, and norms that influence our decisions and interactions. From an early age, I’ve been drawn to the issue of cultural resilience.
In a globalised economy, how can we protect the practices and perspectives that have sustained peoples and environments for generations? In an era of migration and resettling, how can we uplift the humanity that connects us, while preserving the diversity of thought, language and identity that enriches us?
These are questions I brought to my Apprenticeship—and indeed, to the MBA. Midway through Michaelmas term, as I grappled with conflicting worldviews, I was told, “Adding does not mean losing. A beautiful polished table would not be so if not for the wood underneath; rather, each new layer adds onto the next, building depth.” I held onto this reassurance: as I learned new theories, new methods, and new perspectives, I would not lose the knowledge, beliefs and values that I carried with me. Instead I would enrich them through new layers of understanding.
During my four-month Apprenticeship in Aotearoa New Zealand, I focused on social entrepreneurship as a vehicle for healing the cultural trauma of colonisation.
My intention was to learn from the Māori people who, in my home of Hawai‘i, are held up as exemplars in rebuilding an indigenous economy. Sharing similar histories of traumatic disconnect from their land, language and economic base, the Māori of Aotearoa and the Kanaka Maoli of Hawai‘i face similar disparities in health, income and educational attainment. From years of working alongside communities indigenous to Hawai‘i and the Pacific, I saw these disparities as rooted in the loss of identity and culture. And I saw the growth of indigenous enterprise as a key opportunity for restoration and healing.
The Treaty of Waitangi established Aotearoa New Zealand as a land of two cultures, and it provides legitimacy—a metaphorical/political tūrangawaewae (ground upon which to stand)—for Māori people. The right for Māori to be, to own, and to prosper has been embedded within the country’s laws and economic structures, and within Māori psyches, in a way that has not happened for Native Hawaiians.
Indeed Hawai’i can learn from this ownership-based approach, in order to bring greater control and a more equitable distribution of assets to Kanaka Maoli.
At the same time, through my Apprenticeship in Aotearoa, I have seen Hawai‘i’s strengths revealed. These include:
Its multicultural inclusivity—built on the value of welcoming that is integral to the Hawaiian culture, and the generations of cultures coming to thrive side-by-side (challenged, yet ever more important, with each new wave of immigration);
The hunger of its young people for spiritual and cultural sustenance;
And the establishment across the Hawaiian islands of sustainable, reciprocal models of relationship with the land.
While the control of land assets and the ownership of largescale farming, forestry, and fishing enterprises have uplifted Māori iwi (tribes) financially, New Zealand’s economic structure is arguably fueling rather than healing the rift between values and practice for Māori people. Indeed, I have come to believe that in order for healing to occur within business models, it must first take place spiritually and psychologically, within communities and individuals.
In Hawai‘i we are on track to get this right, and to build from this place of reconciliation a more inclusive, restorative, sustainable economy. In Aotearoa, I have found a need for something more.
Although my Apprenticeship is over, this learning and this work will continue for the rest of my life. I have settled in Aotearoa and am working at World Vision in an intrapreneurial role that involves nurturing social entrepreneurship, writing on the role of faith and spirituality in development, and supporting ambiculturalism within this 60-year-old non-profit.
At the same time I am staying connected to Hawai‘i and its burgeoning indigenous enterprise sector. Traveling home again in March I met with friends and former colleagues who are figuring out where enterprise models fit—and where they do not—within their mission to uplift communities. And two weeks ago I received an email from a Māori carver who, while visiting Hawai‘i, had happened upon my former workplace, Ho‘oulu ‘Āina, where his holiday revealed a broader purpose. Now back in Aotearoa, he has committed to fostering an exchange across our islands. His deep knowledge of Māori carving and heritage tourism will be shared with young Kanaka Maoli in Kalihi, while Kalihi’s knowledge of wa‘a (canoeing) will be brought back to Aotearoa to help to revive Māori’s own tradition of navigation. I aim to support this as best I can, serving as a bridge between my adopted lands.
Download the Laura’s Apprenticing with a Problem report.
Read more about Apprenticing with a Problem on the Skoll Centre website.
[image source: ‘Silver Fern New Zealand Icon’ by Simon Falvo via Flickr]
My Oxford is the Oxford of Saïd Business School, and within that, it is the busy hub of social entrepreneurship that is the Skoll Centre. Our programme delivery team and the entrepreneurial individuals we champion and work with are heavily biased towards execution and have a tendency to hurtle towards action. A full hour planning meeting for a new programme would be a long one for us. A day spent conducting research before moving into designing a new initiative is rare.
Thankfully, our Centre exists in the heart of a different Oxford – an Oxford which stretches between our Park End Street, down to Magdalen Bridge, and up to Summertown, and is home to those who prize evidence above all else. This Oxford is made up of people who might find the idea of launching headfirst into implementing a new solution without understanding the problem as well as they possibly can quite ludicrous.
So, last week, the week of the Skoll World Forum, when a good proportion of the global social entrepreneurship ecosystem poured into our ancient city, we conducted an experiment. Early on a Thursday morning, we deliberately gathered 30 ‘practitioners’ and 30 researchers interested in social impact, to consider how we bridge the gap between research and action to create better social and environmental outcomes, and to hear from those who are doing this already.
Our own Julian Cottee provoked us by outlining why the Skoll Centre thinks these unlikely bedfellows need to cosy up. He put forward that researchers can help us to better understand social and environmental problems, as well as the efficacy of existing solutions. He noted that research can support the innovation that needs to happen in the gap between the problem and existing solutions, and can assess the impact of social innovation, aiding better decision-making and allocation of resources going forward. Researchers also may have the perspective to guide which initiatives should be replicated across geographies and disciplines. Finally, they can consider the structural frameworks and power dynamics which underpin this social entrepreneurship ecosystem, and make the criticisms that those of us who are too close to the action are ill-positioned to make.
Over breakfast, we heard rapid fire pitches from those who are already in long-term research/practice relationships – like Muhammad Meki, an Oxford development economist who is designing a randomised control trial to assess the effectiveness of microfinance for micro-entrepreneurs in Nairobi, Kenya. The project is part of Mars Inc’s Mutuality in Business project, based here at Oxford Saïd.
The energy in the room was tangible, and the Skoll Centre will follow up to understand if the group found this first experiment useful, and what connections formed. We are also available to entrepreneurs/practitioners who want to tap into the Oxford research community in order to accelerate the impact of their work. We’ll have a thought leadership series on the role of academic research in the social entrepreneurship ecosystem coming out later this year, and look forward to receiving contributions to that from those who helped shape this early conversation.
Finally, we are excited to live out our belief in the importance of research as an informant and shaper of social innovation, with the expansion of The Global Challenge to institutions across the world in 2017. The Challenge is a Skoll Centre founded competition that requires students to display a deep understanding of a chosen problem and its existing solutions, rather than jumping to developing a business plan. We’ve been amazed at the ‘ecosystem maps’ that are resulting from this Challenge, and invite the public to join us to see the outputs at The Global Challenge final, here in Oxford on 1 May.
As Daniela Papi-Thornton, founder of The Global Challenge and author of Tackling Heropreneurship, has succinctly put it – action without knowledge is foolishness, and knowledge without action is selfishness. It is the aim of our Research for Action initiative to help develop a cadre of wise and selfless partnerships in the pursuit of powerful impact.
Anisha Gururaj is studying an MRes in the Medical Sciences Division, at the University of Oxford. In June 2016, she and her teammate, Ashley Pople, DPhil in Economics at University of Oxford, won our inaugural Oxford Global Challenge competition. Their topic? Maternal Depression. Anisha describes her account of the competition, how she found her topic and the benefits of undertaking the Challenge.
There are few opportunities where the incentives to be most effective and also do the right thing are aligned. The Global Challenge is one of these initiatives, because it provides the chance—the imperative, really—to delve into the contextual landscape of a problem and the existing solutions as we know them.
I was missing a more holistic understanding, a bigger picture of how solutions to global problems fit into global societal structures.
As it happens, this is the reason I came to Oxford. As an undergrad engineering student, I loved the idea of designing technological solutions to solving problems in global health. But after working on a few projects and actually engaging in fieldwork for low-cost diagnostic devices, I felt that I was missing a more holistic understanding, a bigger picture of how solutions to global problems fit into global societal structures.
The Global Challenge emphasises that an important part of the design research phase for any solution needs to be deep engagement with structural context, often best understood and communicated through visualisations. Why is this important?
First, it enables a very deliberate and specific problem definition process. My teammate Ashley and I spent quite a bit of time upfront exploring larger themes we wanted to focus on, like global health, gender discrimination, and building awareness around mental health, to get a feel for what the broader health landscape looks like. Focusing on the intersections between fields is particularly promising because global issues don’t usually fall within the lines of academic divisions and asking interdisciplinary questions is often not done well. Through intentional scoping, we identified our topic as maternal mental health in specific cultural contexts, India and South Africa, because it was truly a confluence of so many of the fields mentioned above and which was rendered invisible by very specific social factors in both of these countries.
ensuring that we examined the entire landscape reduced the risk of “falling in love” with a particular idea.
Second, the format of the Challenge forces us to question our own underlying assumptions, which is why earlier stage ideas are more conducive to this kind of exploration. As an engineer, I brought a particular bias into my research, just as Ashley did as an economist. For example, I was particularly intrigued by mobile solutions for diagnosing depression, but ensuring that we examined the entire landscape reduced the risk of “falling in love” with a particular idea.
Finally, the Challenge provides a platform to be more innovative about how we research. Academic journals and the results of randomized controlled trials are important. But the most rewarding part of this whole experience for both of us was interviewing a large range of experts around the world, from academics to leaders of nonprofits, to clinicians in both countries, to pregnant mothers right here in Oxford. This allowed us to tap into experiential information that we could not have uncovered otherwise.
Of course, the research and design of visual ecosystem maps is just the beginning—they provide a comprehensive framework with which to engage with solving the problem. But too often we jump into solution-building before taking the time to “apprentice with the problem,” resulting in costly assumptions. Our world of limited resources and increasing need deserves better.
The Global Challenge offers participants a chance to learn more about an issue they care about, by researching what is fuelling the challenge and holding the status quo in place, what is already being done to try to solve the issue, as well as the gaps in the landscape of solutions. Entrants are then asked to compile the findings into an ecosystem map as well as a report and bibliography outlining their research. Winners are awarded cash prizes and tickets to the Skoll World Forum, with top teams also given the opportunity to apply for Apprenticing with a Problem funding. This funding provides students with the opportunity to go out into the world and ‘apprentice’ with issues the care about, through research projects, internships, or secondments, giving them opportunities to learn more about how they might use their careers to create positive change.
Saïd Business School offered the first Global Challenge this year, with leadership from the Skoll Centre and a partnership with Malaysia’s Sunway University, inviting students from two ends of the globe to partake in the inaugural challenge. After an initial problem assessment round with nearly 50 applicants, The Global Challenge received 23 final applications from individuals and teams across both Universities, and then nine teams were selected as semi-finalists to present to an esteemed panel of global judges.
The winners were announced that evening, and included an additional prize for Best Presentation decided by live audience vote. Papi-Thornton commented after the event: ‘We designed the Global Challenge and the Apprenticing with a Problem funding to support students to learn about and get involved in the global issues they care about. At the Skoll Centre we don’t think the only path to impact is by starting new ventures. We will feel successful in our work at the Centre if the students we work with go on to effect change as intrapreneurs, policy makers, thought leaders, or by plugging into any gap in the landscape of solutions for the issues they care about’.
‘[The Global Challenge] is such an important piece of preparation for students to become the change-makers the world needs!’ Shams-Lau also commented.
One purpose of this contest is to change the discourse around traditional business plan competitions. The Global Challenge team plans to open this contest up to partner universities around the world next year in the hope of influencing other universities to create funding and support for students to ‘apprentice with problems’. Papi-Thornton added, ‘By creating an award that encourages and celebrates an understanding of the existing landscape of solutions to a given challenge and helps students build upon the work of others before asking them to ‘solve’ problems they don’t yet understand, we hope to help more students build successful social impact careers.’
Anisha Gururaj, MSc in Global Governance, University of Oxford, 2016 and MSc in Evidence-based Social Intervention, University of Oxford, 2017; Ashley Pople, MSc in Economics for Development, University of Oxford, 2017
Fresh Produce Value Chain in Sierra Leone
Songqiao Yao, Kaspar Baumann, Ryan Chen-Wing – all MBA, Oxford Saïd, 2015-16; Julian Cottee, Researcher at Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford
Third Prize (and the Best Presentation Award)
An Analysis of Gaps and Opportunities in Germany’s Refugee Integration System
Noura Ismail, Avinash Nanda, Karen Ng, Amrinder Singh – all MBA, Oxford Saïd, 2015-16
Cultural Trauma and Resilience in the Pacific: Ho’owaiwai
Laura Taylor, MBA, Oxford Saïd, 2015-16
Urban Air Pollution in Kuala Lumpur
Seng Zhen Lee, BSc in Accounting and Finance, Sunway University Business School
Kaspar Baumann, Ryan Chen-Wing, Julian Cottee, Songqiao Yao
This team will travel to Sierra Leon and learn more about the barriers to success and opportunities for scale in fresh and canned produce distribution.
Noura Ismail, Avinash Nanda , Karen Ng, Amrinder Singh
The team will volunteer/research in Germany and learn more about the solutions landscape and gaps in the work addressing the refugee crisis.
Taylor will travel to New Zealand and intern with successful organisations working with Maori cultural preservation and economic empowerment, and then take that learning back to Hawaii to share with local organisations there.
Zweli Gwebityala, Melissa McCoy, Allan-Roy Sekeitto
The funding will enable the team to spend the next 3+ months in South Africa testing assumptions about technical solutions to doctor scarcity, to learn more about the public healthcare system, and to map and understand the reasons other global telemedicine initiatives have succeeded or failed.
The funding will support Littaye’s follow up trip to Mexico to do further research on the state of milpa farmers and the potential for commercializing blue corn products and to spend a few months working with a successful agricultural product export company, likely in Ghana, to understand how their business works, the difficulties and barriers they have faced, and what lessons can be applied to a potential business model in Mexico.
Yandell will return to Jordan and spend 3+ months volunteering with a skills-training organization in the region, to understand their model, and see if/how it can be expanded.
Further reports will be created by the teams and individuals, so be sure to watch this space!