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Rethinking Social Impact Competitions

Written by Julian Cottee (Social Innovation and Sustainability Expert) and Chris Blues (Programme Manager for Social Ventures).

Competitions, accelerators and prizes are now well-established fixtures in the social entrepreneurship world.

The Chivas Venture, The Earthshot Prize, Nesta Challenges, The Audacious Project, European Social Innovation Competition, Food System Vision Prize and Tata Social Enterprise Challenge to name only a few.

The ‘Gardeners’

Outside of award schemes that recognise retrospective excellence and best practice (like the UK Social Enterprise Awards for example), competitions come in a number of flavours. On the one hand there are the ‘gardeners’, who delve through the undergrowth looking for the green shoots of promising innovation to nurture. These are prizes like our own Skoll Venture Awards, which aims to spot potential and deploy small but targeted doses of no-strings capital to encourage growth. Other variants of the gardener paradigm are more involved, seeking to actively engage in and boost the evolution of new businesses.

In addition to publicity and funding, accelerator programmes offer a range of other services including learning and development opportunities, networking and access to investment, sometimes taking a stake in the business in return. 

The ‘Architects’

Elsewhere in the innovation support ecosystem are the ‘architects’ – challenge prizes that carefully identify problems that they or their funders are particularly keen on solving, and design tailored competitions to promote innovation in the sector. This is an idea with a long history. Famously, the British government in 1714 offered an award equivalent to several million pounds in today’s money for anyone who could come up with an innovation to precisely determine a ship’s longitude at sea. Today the X Prize Foundation offers similar amounts, and more, to those who can offer advances in diagnosis for medical conditions, or remove CO2 from the atmosphere. 

Both the gardeners and the architects of the social entrepreneurship world have in common the ambition of supporting innovation that our societies need, but for which there is not yet (or might never be) the market demand to unlock capital from traditional investors. They support young ventures with innovative ideas and high social impact potential, but with business plans that are still unproven. In between this high-risk grant capital and the world of traditional growth finance, is the world of social investment, which plays off the calculus of return on investment against the chance of societal benefit.

Systemic Challenges

But how well is our landscape of capital and other support for social ventures really enabling the potential of the best social entrepreneurs to ideate, prototype, launch and grow new businesses that provide answers to the world’s systemic challenges at the scale we need? Even since the inception of the Skoll Venture Awards in 2012, the number and breadth of organisations (corporates, governments, nonprofits, and academic institutions) building awards that catalyse social ventures has grown exponentially. The ecosystem might seem crowded, but are we filling all the right niches, and are we providing support at all of the crucial pinch points along the social entrepreneur’s journey to allow beautiful, wise and impact-led ventures to grow, and to fill the landscape? 

Social innovation needs gardeners and architects, and like any ecosystem, thrives on diversity and plurality. But by combining the best of these two approaches we might see something else too. Taking the big picture approach of the architect alongside the gardener’s ability to see possibility and provide it with what it needs to grow, we can map the system that enables and shapes social ventures to thrive, and ask how it could be improved. How are competitions feeding into the wider social innovation and investment ecosystem? Are we collectively selecting for and nurturing the most important attributes of truly impactful ventures? Are we duplicating efforts? How might social ventures move from one competition or accelerator to another most beneficially? How might we partner for increased impact? 

Competitions play a key role in celebrating and supporting individuals and teams who have chosen to follow their imagination and to demonstrate leadership and courage through building a venture. To serve them better we can step back and consider how we can work together towards just, equitable and sustainable systems.

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Diversity, Equality and Inclusion in Impact Investment

Tara Sabre Collier, Social Entrepreneur in Residence at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Skoll Scholar alumna joins Chris Blues, Programme Manager for Social Ventures at the Skoll Centre, in examining inequalities within the Impact Investment industry.

Inequality is one of the greatest challenges of our time, hampering growth, spurring strife and instability and impeding human development.

Income inequality has been worsening across countries since the turn of the century and is likely to be tremendously exacerbated by COVID-19. The impact investment sector has been a powerful force for progress towards many SDGs but needs to take a critical look at how, as a sector, it is advancing or exacerbating SDG 10. In most of the world, income and wealth inequality are inextricably tied to race, ethnicity, gender, national/origin migration status but most impact investors have not fully interrogated their roles in fostering equity and inclusion across their organizations and portfolios.

There is no aggregate global diversity and inclusion data for the impact investment industry.

Data from the UK, one of the world’s leading countries for impact investment, show a clear discrepancy in the ecosystem, with people of colour occupying less than 7% and women outnumbered 2:1 in board directorships. While the UK does not necessarily represent the entire impact investment industry, it is an important global hub. Moreover, there are a number of global commonalities in terms of wealth distribution, private capital markets and philanthropy that indicate other Western impact investment markets will similarly fall short. The impact investment industry hybridises investment, philanthropy, and social enterprise traits; talent, staffing and leadership trends will reflect this DNA. A few global highlights from these sectors (across UK and USA) reveal less than admirable diversity and inclusion track record.

Venture Capital

The United States is the world’s leading VC market. White men are 30% of the country’s population yet nearly 80% of VCs and 80-90% of leadership in venture-backed companies. This demographic disparity, is replicated in the European VC ecosystem. Furthermore, research shows that venture capitalists are far more likely to partner with people who share their gender or race, leading to far less funding for women entrepreneurs and founders of colour.

Philanthropy

Women are about 56% of US philanthropic foundations CEOs, but people of colour only occupy 11% of said roles, despite a significant philanthropic emphasis on serving communities of colour in the US. There’s now evidence that this disparity is reflected in philanthropic funding for social entrepreneurs of colour, with a recent Bridgespan study showing Black-led social enterprises have 76% smaller net assets than white-led counterparts, mostly attributed to bias.

Social sector

Just 3% of UK charity CEOs were of non-white backgrounds, despite the fact that a large share of the UK sector’s work likewise addresses communities of colour. On the international front, an older study indicated less than 10% of the largest international NGOs had African board members, despite Africa being the largest market for INGO grant funding and programs.  Likewise, despite women comprising 70% of INGO staff, women are still vastly under-represented (i.e. approximately 30%) as CEOs and leaders of these organizations.

These select examples demonstrate a pattern of diversity paucity which contravenes the vision of impact investing.

Two painted multicoloured hands, holding hands

If the impact investing industry replicates these disparities, there is a risk of reinforcing income inequality, instead of combatting it.

The representation gap also points to a possible market failure whereby impact capital is likely not being efficiently distributed to many promising ventures with potential to solve societal challenges because of a disconnect between primarily Western white male funders and under-represented social enterprise founders, especially in the Global South. Furthermore, the lack of representation in impact investment teams and portfolios would likely detract from the sector’s financial performance, given the proven linkages between gender/racial diversity and financial performance. There’s no dearth of evidence for the commercial benefits of representation but nevertheless a handful are mentioned below:

While the corporate sector continues to rise to the occasion on diversity and inclusion efforts, the impact investment industry is yet to get on board with really advancing the inclusion agenda beyond gender. In the face of what we are learning from the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no time like now to decidedly develop diversity and inclusion initiatives that will improve financial/social returns. If impact investors are truly serious about the SDGs, including SDG 10, we must fight the hazards of inequality, starting with our own industry.

Authors:
Chris Blues, Programme Manager for Social Ventures, Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship

Tara Sabre-Collier, Social Entrepreneur in Residence, Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship

A new decade of impact investment: Three tactics to accelerate towards the SDGs

Tara Sabre Collier is not only a 2012-13 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA graduate- in 2019 she joined the Centre as a Social Entrepreneur in Residence. She has extensive experience in the world of social finance and international development, as a social entrepreneur and impact investment advisor.  As we begin a new year and decade, Tara Sabre shines a light on how far we’ve come (and how far we have to go) in achieving the UN SDGs.

This January kicks off an inflection point to consider the realities we have created since 2010 and those we aim to create by 2030. As of 2020, we now have ten years remaining to reach the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which serve as guiding pillars for envisioning a better future for the world.

Twenty years ago, the last time the UN set forth the ambitious Millenium Development Goals, we fell short of accomplishing some of the outcomes we envisaged. 2020 is different and can be a watershed moment for global development. Today, the private sector and public sector have partnered at historically unprecedented levels to tackle the world’s challenges. New allies have emerged, leveraging far greater amounts of philanthropic and commercial capital and every kind of vehicle in between. Impact investing, which was valued over $500 billion in 2018, continue to grow by leaps and bounds. By 2025, 30% of family offices expect to allocate 25% or more of the funds to social impact investments.

Nonetheless, the size of the impact investment required to reach the SDGs appears daunting in some cases. For example, achievement of SDG #7 (universal access to affordable and clean energy) would require $1.3-1.4 trillion per year until 2030. So how do we (the impact investment ecosystem) improve our odds of reaching the SDGs by 2030?

One important tactic that impact investors can take on is to pursue synergies across multiple SDGs. Researchers at Aberdeen University and University of Potsdam have already embarked upon fascinating research to analyze and forecast the synergies and trade-offs across the SDGs. This provides an evidence base for impact investors to accelerate and measure progress investing in multiple-SDG strategies, from gender-smart agribusiness development to climate-friendly infrastructure.

Another tactic is to innovate cross-sector partnerships. When impact investors pour capital into agriculture or education enterprises that impact SDGs, the business enabling environment can make or break the potential financial success and social impact of said ventures.  This is why alignment between impact investors and public sector will continue to be crucial; innovation can play a vital role in amplifying these alignments. Development impact bonds were the last decade’s major step towards innovating cross-sector alliances. The 2020s are an opportunity to bring technology, such as big data, blockchain and AI modalities, to continue innovating these alliances for more effectiveness.

Perhaps the most important tactic to accomplish the SDGs is to counteract “impact washing, i.e. the practice of funds or enterprises claiming impact in bad faith without generating any demonstrable social or environmental benefits. B Lab is one of the oldest sector-agnostic certification initiatives to bring accountability and transparency to the social enterprise ecosystem. And IFC launched their own impact investment standards in 2019. But for intentionally aligning impact investment with reaching the SDGs specifically, the Future Fit Business Benchmark is potentially one of the most powerful new tools for companies to understand and operationalize their impact.

Twenty years ago, there was no impact investment industry, no development impact bonds, no blockchain, no social impact certification agencies and barely any smartphones! And yet, despite the shortcomings, the period of the Millennium Development Goals was marked by biggest drop in global poverty in recorded history. Today, we have a fleet of new technological advancement, more supportive business enabling environments and a thriving new asset class supercharging our progress towards global development. Even with the enormous scope of the Sustainable Development Goals, with continued progress we may be on pace to accomplish them this decade.

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What’s new in the war on food waste?

An interview with Winnow’s Marc Zornes. 

Image source: World Economic Forum/REUTERS/Ben Nelms

Jeremy Sigmon is currently pursuing his MSc in water science, policy, and management with the School of Geography and the Environment.  He joined Oxford with 15 years of experience in the U.S. green building industry which is when he had his first of many inspiring sustainability conversations with global food waste expert and entrepreneur Marc Zornes, co-founder of Winnow, one of the top 100 fastest growing companies in Europe.

Whether in our homes, at the market, in transport from farms, or at the restaurant, food is so often wasted.  In developed countries, most of the waste occurs in kitchens or is left on the plate, since the food supply chain has been generally optimized so that minimal food is wasted from farm to market.  In less developed countries, the inverse is true: food may spoil at ports, in transport, or at the market due to inefficient supply systems, but the food that is purchased by consumers is usually consumed.

With a fast-growing global population and increasing pressures on global resources exacerbated by climate change, some have begun looking at increasing the end-to-end efficiency of our food system, from farm to fork, as an essential way to ensure we can feed the world today and tomorrow (see also McKinsey’s Resource Revolution, which Zornes coauthored).  What’s more, Marc Zornes has also discovered that fixing the problem is good for the environment and profitable, too.  I sat down with him to learn more about it.

Jeremy Sigmon (JS): Food waste appears to be a much bigger issue than I had previously imagined, and you think a lot about it.  What keeps you up at night?

American-born, London-based, international food waste warrior, Marc Zornes, founder of Winnow.

Marc Zornes (MZ): Food waste is one of the biggest environmental issues we have today.  We now know this because our data on the scale of the problem are getting clearer.  30% of all food that is grown is never eaten.  This is a $1 trillion problem that will grow to $1.5 trillion by 2030.  What keeps me up is how we scale solutions to address this issue.  This is one of the clearest win-win opportunities in environment and business.  We save money by throwing away less food, it is better for the environment, and it’s morally the right thing to do.  Fortunately, there are a growing number of solutions out there that can be scaled to address this issue.

JS: How is circular economy thinking finding its way into the food industry?

MZ: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation just released a major report that explores this topic: ‘Cities and Circular Economy for Food’.  For starters, nature’s food system is circular.  The question is how to reorient the industrial food system we’ve built.  Fundamentally, this begins with redesigning systems that radically minimize waste.  We then need robust systems for nutrient recovery rather than disposal.  Landfills release lots of methane gas and – for safety reasons – are actually not designed for decomposition.  We’ve found nutrient-rich cabbage in a landfill still trying to decompose decades later.  We need a coherent, systems approach to ensure we neither waste food nor lose its nutrients.

JS: I understand you’re focused on commercial kitchens.  What’s your approach?

MZ: We focus in on commercial kitchens because they have a big economic opportunity in food waste prevention.  Kitchens throw away about 15% of the food they buy, and the majority of the waste happens before it even gets to a plate.  By providing analytics on the waste generated and supporting the production planning process of the kitchen, we ultimately help cut the value of food waste in half or more.  This leads to big cost savings for the kitchen – from 3% to 8% of what they spend on food.  Of course, this is also a very attractive investment.  We deliver a 200% to 1,000% ROI to our clients in the first year.

Winnow Vision, released in March, is the newest weapon in the war on food waste, and powered by artificial intelligence.

JS: I just read about a new Winnow technology that could be a game-changer.  Tell us more!

MZ: The original ambition of Winnow was to use artificial intelligence (AI) to measure and analyse food waste in kitchens.  In order for food waste monitoring and measurement to be seamlessly integrated into a very busy commercial kitchen, you really need a fully automated system. When I founded Winnow in 2013, this automation wasn’t possible, so we built a system that asked staff to identify the food wasted on a touchscreen tablet.  Winnow Vision, our latest product, is the realisation of that original ambition.  Winnow Vision is a camera-based system that looks into the bin and uses computer vision to identify all food being wasted.  It really is a game-changer for our business and a great, practical example of AI for good.

JS: What parting words of wisdom do you have for students of the circular economy and social enterprise?

MZ: There’s a massive opportunity in helping the world transition to a low-carbon, more circular economy.  My biggest advice: if you have something you believe in that needs building, build it.  We don’t have a lot of time and we need more solutions to scale.  It’s hard work for sure.  That said, it’s the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.

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My journey from an impact business in India to a world-class MBA

Daniela Gheorghe is one of our 2018-19 Skoll Scholars on the Oxford MBA. Natively from Romania, Daniela has lived and worked in India for the last seven years where she has helped numerous families gain access to affordable health and education. Here she describes her journey to Oxford.

It was 2008. I was on a plane to Germany. I just received an Erasmus scholarship to study at a German university for six months. I spent 30 minutes writing my application for the scholarship three months before. That’s how much it took me to accomplish this on my own: my first time flying, my first time out of Romania. There, while looking at the clouds, I understood that I could achieve anything I intend to achieve. If I set my mind on the goal, I can do anything (and fly anywhere)!

Above the clouds, in that minute, I understood my potential for the first time! I was 22.

But what if all children understand and realize their potential early? Imagine what that world would look like.

For the last four years, I have been serving poor parents’ aspiration. Families with a household income of less than $300 per month spend 13% of this income on education. What is their return on investment? Their return on primary education investment is very low as children spend five years in schools without being able to calculate, read or express themselves in the language of their books.

When aspirations meet willingness to pay, demand is defined and so, a market.

In 2014, I co-founded vChalk. At vChalk, we sell fun English learning activities on a mobile app to schools and parents for students to transition from learning English as a second language to being confident and expressive using it. Four years have passed; bootstrapping, improving the model, winning national and international competitions (we raised about $35,000 from different awards). We supported more than 80 teachers and 2500 students to catch up on foundation skills for learning. We tested a pricing model of less than $10 per year/child. We crossed a sales revenue of$12,000 in 2017. However, the business model was not ready for large scale.

This is a classroom in a resource-limited school in Bangalore India. Parents aspire for their children to speak English, get a good job and a good salary. Teachers struggle to teach in English and ensure that foundation learning happens.

Before my time at vChalk, I worked in political marketing and the non-profit sector in Romania. When I came to India in 2011 for an internship through AIESEC I thought it was just for a few months.

Little did I know I would spend more than seven years in India.

This is the place I discovered social entrepreneurship. I knew it was for me. But seven years later, I still feel I don’t know how to solve the world’s most challenging problems.

Daniela in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. Picture is taken during her work at Jaipur Rugs, a company presented asa case by C.K. Prahalad in his book: The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.
Daniela’s room in 2011, in a women’s hostel in Jaipur, Rajas than, India while working at Jaipur Rugs. On the wall, spot the postcard depicting an aerial view of Oxford University. Jaipur Rugs connects more than 40,000 artisans with high quality markets in USA and Europe while creating timely handmade carpets.
Daniela in a village around Jorhat, Assam, India. Picture is taken during her work at ERC Eye Care, a social business offering affordable eye glasses and ophthalmological services to rural families in this “tribal” state of North-East India.
Daniela’s office in ERC Eye Care in Assam, India. Daniela supported the start-up to raise its first impact investment of $100,000.
Daniela on the field on a regular day in a waste management company in Telangana, India. As a Frontier Market Scout, Daniela worked to improve the operations of Waste Ventures, a for-profit impact business that transforms organic waste into soil conditioner and sells to farmers. More on Daniela’s journey in India, before she started her owned-tech company, here.

I am honored to be in Oxford. Honored and privileged. Just four months ago I couldn’t imagine that I would be here. It is so incredible how life turns around.

But why am I here?

Firstly, I’m here to take a step back. I’m here to try to understand what I can do better to positively impact more children. I’m here to learn about systems thinking and I understand that I can do so much more than being a start-up founder. I’m here to discover where I can place myself in my next role to see my work have long-term positive impact on low-income families.

On a personal level, I seek to be happy with my work every day. I want to be a doer and dedicate my hard work to something meaningful that empowers people. I need to grow myself as a person, to learn to pace my efforts, to become more diplomatic and wiser so that I learn from failures. This MBA will help me grow. It will hone my financial and business skills too.

Finally, Oxford adds weight to my voice. It gives me a chance to be heard in important decision-making forums for change at large scale. It gives me a chance to join some of the greatest minds out there to tackle the world’s most difficult problems.

I am here to reach my full potential. To build connections, gain learning and gather insights that will last a life-time.

Find Daniela on  TwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

Visit Daniela’s personal project on emotional intelligence here.

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A letter to my younger self

Mohsin Ali Mustafa is our 2018-19 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. Mohsin is also a Weidenfeld-Hoffman Scholar, co-founder and managing director of Clinic5 – an affordable health delivery service in Pakistan. 

I write this blog post as a letter to my younger self. We don’t have a time machine (yet) but what we do have is an ability to communicate ideas through our written word and I see my life as part of a larger continuum, so this blog is an effort to speak to that young man or woman who is brimming with enthusiasm to go out and “change the world.”

“Dear Mohsin,

Congratulations on graduating from medical school, I am proud to see the passion to serve in you is thriving to the point where you want to work as medic on the front lines of the war in Pakistan. I know right now you want to do a Che Guevara and change the world. I remember you mentioned that you wish to end the war that’s raging in your country by working as a Disaster Response Medic. I’d like to share a few things I learnt over the course of the last few years that might help you along the way. I am cautious as I write this since the words of age can strike as pessimism to the youth so take from this what makes sense to you.

First – patience, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Climate change did not start last year, the war that rages all over the world is not a product of inequities of the past few days. The big problems that you want to tackle are insidious and hence their solutions would also require time, patience and effort. This is a marathon and not a sprint pace yourself or you will burn yourself out. Keep your eyes on the prize, this will be your life’s work – take the long-term approach. Do not let small losses here or there dissuade you from the end goal.

Second, find a mentor; life at 24 seems impossible to navigate at times, a mentor who works in the space or inspires you with their professional and personal attributes can transform your worldview. I know I got direction from my mentor or else I might have ended up completely misdirected. A mentor encourages you and anchors you in life with their wisdom.

Third – balance, this world needs young people like you, but remember you’re not the only one in this. I know right now you can’t see it with everyone that you know taking the path that’s safe and comfortable but let me assure you there are thousands of troops fighting the same battle as you. It is important that in your struggle to change the world you don’t forget yourself. Remember the relationships that make who you are, spend time with them; remember the passion for trekking in the mountains, do it occasionally; remember your love for sushi, have it once in a while. Don’t blindside yourself in the effort to change the world and in the process forget what made you, you.

The last and the most important one, love. Don’t forget to love, you were driven on this path out of the love for a patient, a patient you lost on your watch in the ER, I know you shed tears that night and vowed to fix the systemic problems that caused it, don’t forget that passion. Protect that flame in your heart. Winds will blow to put it out, sometimes under the guise of practicality, other times in the guise of rewards.

Remember, your heart will harden to cope with all the sorrows you will experience, and it would seem like a wise thing to let it harden as that hurts less. That’s a cop out young man – don’t be weak and give in to that urge. A good way to judge this is by observing how you treat everyone closest to you. If you notice you’re becoming harsher with the people in your life, you’re doing something wrong. This one is the hardest to maintain and let me be honest with you, it’s still a constant struggle in my life despite the few years I have over you.

That’s enough for today, I know you’re a young man with a short attention span so I kept it short but trust the path you have taken, who knows this path might even lead you to the leading center of learning in the world where you would be sharing your experience with colleagues from all over the world. When that happens remember to treat that privilege with humility and purpose.

I have a hunch life will be a rewarding adventure on your chosen path and you will go places you did not even imagine you would.

Salute comrade,

Mohsin”

I am immensely grateful to the Skoll Centre and the Weidenfeld-Hoffman Trust for enabling my education at the Saïd Business School. I am cognizant of the privilege and will do my utmost to deliver on the promise.  I pledge to return to my organization Clinic5 at the end of this academic year to scale our work in healthcare in partnership with schools in Pakistan.

Mohsin Mustafa with young children from his clinic in a Pakistani classroom

Mohsin Mustafa (pictured right) with young girls attending his clinic in a Pakistani classroom.