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Mapping and Measurement: Expanding Systems Entrepreneurship

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.

Alex Fischer, DPhil Candidate at the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment and member of the Water Programme at the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment Water Programm.e He gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum session “Systems Entrepreneurship: A How-To Guide for a New Action Paradigm”.

What does it mean to take a systems approach to problem solving and entrepreneurship? This question emerged in multiple sessions at the Skoll World Forum where delegates and speakers traded ideas framing several perspectives and components of systems thinking and complexity.  A delegate-led lunch discussion focused on how to take innovations to system-wide scales, and specifically overcome barriers set by development funding structures and organisational capacity. A second delegate lunch discussion explored how to use system analysis and mapping tools to find leverage points in complex, dynamic systems, such as peacebuilding or the nexus of climate and food systems. The third session argued for a new action paradigm of system entrepreneurs or the coordinated collaboration of actors and funders to drive large-scale system changes such as malaria eradication or education reform.

Further arguing the need for a new approach of system entrepreneurs, Jeff Walker, the Chairman of New Profit, presented five elements for a practical guide to this new action paradigm.  The argument, summarised in an article published the same day in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, opens with the provocation to set up problem-orientated coalitions:

The message is clear: our focus should be more on solving problems through creative collaboration, and less on the establishment and perpetuation of new institutions. In addition, we need to develop and employ system entrepreneurs who are skilled in coordinating systematic approaches to addressing the complex, large-scale problems of our time.”

To achieve this Walker shared five elements in his approach to drive large-scale change:

  1. Identify the issues and think in systems and start by asking “what is the problem”.

“Having a great idea for solving a social problem is just the beginning. You also need to identify the collaborators who can help you translate your innovation into real solutions for the real world.”

  1. Invest in research and analysis to define the context and map the other actors.

Engage in research and analysis to hone your strategy. Figure out what’s really needed—and what works.”

  1. Continuous communication and awareness to convene partners

“The systems change model demands a high level of interaction and transparency between previously unaffiliated individuals and groups. If these links break down, or are never quite formed in the first place, it is unlikely that an effort will succeed.”

  1. Engage with policy to change policy

“If you seek to change a complex system, you will often need to change the laws, administrative rules, and official practices governing that system.”

  1. Measurement and continuous evaluation

“The most successful systems change campaigns create consistent and ongoing data assessments, and rely upon those findings to guide strategy and ensure accountability.”

One common agreement across the different sessions, reinforced by my own research on the role of disruptive information systems within water management institutions, was that success of this approach is contingent on robust data that describes entire systems, not only measuring sub-components, actors or specific interventions.

Dr. Raj Panjabi, CEO of Last Mile Health, posed the question how to set collective Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and related metrics that measure sector-wide successes, and how to incorporate that into the actor-specific evaluation structures. This left a wider challenge for participants to define what outcomes they would measure to provide at a system-level to incentivise collective action while still providing a platform for individual actors, and their funders.

Follow Alex: @alexmfischer

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Emerging Leaders shaping the future at the Skoll World Forum

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.

Irina Fedorenko, DPhil Candidate at the University of Oxord’s School of Geography and the Environment, gives her perspective on the  Skoll World Forum session “Fault Lines Story Studio: Emerging Leaders Initiative”.

Increasing impact by amplifying stories of entrepreneurs

The Skoll World Forum Emerging Leaders

The Skoll World Forum Emerging Leaders

The Emerging Leaders The MasterCard Foundation initiative that identifies and sends 10 young, passionate leaders to the Skoll World Forum every year. Today I had the honour of attending the lunch session where 6 leaders were presenting. I have never had a lunch break that inspiring.

Each leader delivered a short speech about how they found their missions and what their organisations are currently working on. I cannot even start to convey the impact of storytelling and the energy in the room, but at least I can give you some highlights:

Dorcas Amoh-Mensah is a MasterCard Scholar at the University of Edinburgh from Ghana. Her story started with an internship in London, and that received acts of kindness form distant relatives and some cash to help her by new clothes. This has transformed her and she decided to dedicate her life to kindness and sharing with other people. In Edinburgh she works alongside many other volunteers are sharing and sacrificing their time to teach underprivileged children. “Our mindsets create labels, that strip people off the ladder of humanity – this always happen. “Rats” during the Holocaust, or “cockroaches” in Rwandan genocide…We need to stop that!”, she said.  “Do not be afraid to share your privilege with other people, and do not be scared to empower people to become better than you are”, was the message from Dorcas.

Michelle Chimuka, runs the Sani Foundation in Zambia. She is concerned that in her country they don’t even have statistics on intellectual disability. Promoting inclusion for people with intellectual disability is her personal mission, as grew up with a brother who has a down syndrome. She founded the Sani Foundation to help people like him to have a life, to provide the support to young adults and help them finding jobs. “These people should be considered as active and participating citizens. They have better attendance and retention than average workers”, Michelle says. Her biggest challenge is that many people don’t even know about intellectual disability in Zambia. “Educate your self, make a friend!”, is Michelle’s message.

Olivia Muiru, works for B Lab East Africa. She wanted to work in finance, but then realised when executives are making decisions, they look only at the bottom line, and not on how it impacts on all the stakeholders. She then started a quest for finding an organisation that would consider all the stakeholders and she found her answers in micro-finance initiatives. These would provided loans for very poor people, who would be considered un-bankable. After getting these loans, Olivia’s research concluded, most of these people felt included, they felt that they had a voice were proud of being able to contribute to the economy. B Lab uses the power for businesses that do good for the world. “Please join our tribe!”, Olivia invited the audience. She noted though, that the concept of social entrepreneurship is still very Western for Africa, and it is a challenge that the awareness is very low. But we could be sure that Olivia will change this perception very soon!

Andrew Ozanian, works for the International Bridges to Justice. He said that torture is forbidden in most countries, yet it is the most used form of police investigation in the world today. He believes that the rule of law is a foundation, the bedrock of a stable society. His organisation supports local lawyers to defend the rights of people in their local communities. And they have  the lawyers in 40 countries! The Justice Hope project that Andrew runs system scaling is more important than organisation scale. For the first time, Human Rights defenders can be a part of a living breathing network, that brings them closer to the 4th industrial revolution – the big data revolution. And this excitement keeps Andrew going!

Zeeshan Sumrani, is a leader from India and he runs Educate Girls organisation. His life changed forever when he was 16 after he spent a day volunteering in a girls’ orphanage. He saw that the school was focused on getting the girls educated and then married off as soon as they could. He then found out that his own mom got married just after high school, and have him birth when she was 18, and never came back to school. Zeeshan then applied to an MBA course together with my mom in 2008, and she graduated a year earlier then him. “I didn’t want to work for adding shareholder values, but I wanted to work on increasing happiness. Give education and life skills to girls who can negotiate with their family to tell that they want to continue their education.”, he said. His organisation now has over eight thousands volunteers who work on even empowerment.

Fhazhil Wamalwa, works in Kenya for Disa Energy Management, Ltd. “The energy inequality is a big issues, in some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa only 2% of people have access to energy”, he says. Lack of access to energy impacts on education, health and quality of life. Fhazhil was born and raised in a remote village in Kenya, that still has no energy. Had to run to school 7 km one way, and was not being able to complete his school assignments. He then won a scholarship to attend a university, which came with a leadership programme, and that led him on the path of energy leadership. “We cannot wait for the government to create a central electricity for people. We can distribute solar lamps to every person now”, said Fhazhil.

After such an inspiring session, it was clear that those people are not emerging leaders, they have already emerged and going to lead us to the better world.

Irina is a DPhil Cadidate at the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment. She is also the Co-Founder of a social enterprise, BubblenutWash, which makes evironmentally friendly soap detergent using soapnuts. Follow them at @bubblenutwash

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From Uganda to Oxford

John Walugembe; Skoll Scholar 2016-17, social entrepreneur, and the Founder of Better Livelihoods in Uganda. John shares his candid story of how he came to Oxford to study his MBA.

“It is very painful to remember my daughter”, Maria said. “She was only five years old”. “I had a lot of hope in her”. “I wonder, what I could have done better”. “I was certainly lucky that Dr. Matovu was willing to attend to her. It was unfortunate however that it was too late!” This story by Maria – a distressed mother of two living in the Bwaise slum of Kampala, Uganda – is not very different from those of many others in Uganda and other developing countries. According to a recent report by Water Aid, only 30% of Ugandans have access to improved sanitation. The situation is even worse in urban poor communities, especially slums, where children collect water from contaminated gutters or ground water. The result of this is that at least two one million and five hundred children die annually, from diarrheal related illnesses.  The contamination primarily results from lack of proper disposal for excreta.

How does an organisation set up to support poor communities, survive off the very people it is supposed to assist. Indeed, it was and still is a dilemma!

When I founded the Better livelihoods Uganda, four years ago, I recognised that there was a need for a fundamental shift in the way water and sanitation issues are handled. Were communities, expecting so much from their governments that they failed to do for themselves, what was in their means to do? Were some Non-Governmental Organisations fostering a syndrome of dependency and raising the expectations of communities for handouts, to the extent that they exacerbated these problems? Which market approaches could be employed to ensure that communities contributed more to addressing these sanitation challenges. From the onset, I thought it prudent to make the organisation lean and limit its dependency on external financing. As you can imagine, this was no mean goal. How does an organisation set up to support poor communities, survive off the very people it is supposed to assist. Indeed, it was and still is a dilemma! However, we resolved that unlike the traditional NGO, we would seek to play a more facilitating role among the key stakeholders in the sanitation ecosystem.

We piloted our work in the Rwenzori region in western Uganda, particularly in the Municipalities of Fort-Portal, Kawenge, Kyegegwa and Kyenjojo. Using the diamond approach (a model first piloted by Waste Advisors in the Netherlands) we have been able to accelerate access to clean water and sanitation facilitating a well-functioning system of local stakeholders that facilitate the delivery of sustainable sanitation services. The bulk of our work has involved supporting entrepreneurs and other sanitation stakeholders to build more hygienic pit-latrines. As of last year, over 1400 direct jobs have been created in the region, the amount of fecal sludge collected had increased tenfold to 4,000,000 kilograms, the costs of accessing sanitation services have reduced from $30 to $5 and over 4,000 people have directly accessed sanitation services.

I thought it prudent that I acquire the skills to build and grow an organisation with a great vision, such as ours.

It would be great if I told you that after this, everything worked just fine and we have simply encountered success, upon success. Unfortunately, as someone whose academic background was not in business management, I thought it prudent that I acquire the skills to build and grow an organisation with a great vision, such as ours. An MBA looked an attractive option. The more I thought about it, the more counterintuitive it seemed. If I desire to engineer, social change, why not pursue a qualification in development? In the end, it only seemed logical that if our approach seeks to use market based approaches to tackle the sanitation challenge, there is no better preparation than an MBA from a business school with a focus on social entrepreneurship. In the end, the Oxford MBA looked the best fit for me.

Did I look at other business schools? Certainly! So, why the Oxford MBA? Well, the Oxford MBA was unique in a number of respects: First, the Oxford MBA is a rigorous one year programme. This was particularly attractive for me, as it would ensure that I get back to Uganda, in the shortest possible time to continue with my work.  Second, the Saïd Business School through the Skoll Centre, places a lot of emphasis on social entrepreneurship. For me, this was the ultimate attraction. Additionally, the possibility of social entrepreneurs, like myself, benefitting from the generous Skoll Scholarship, set the Oxford MBA apart.

Going forward, Better Livelihoods like other nonprofit organisations must look for new models of generating revenue streams while fulfilling its expanding mission. One possible strategy could be to set-up a social purpose business as an innovation for both the financial and operational sustainability of the organisation. The mission of this social venture could be to offer clean water, sanitation, health and hygiene solutions throughout Uganda, on a commercial basis.

In conclusion, I look forward to this year and taking advantage of all the opportunities that Oxford has to offer!

John was recently featured on the BBC World Service, Business Daily Show, where he sat on a panel discussion on Africa’s Social Entrepreneurs. Listen to the iPlayer recording.

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From the United States to Oxford

Skoll Scholar, MBA and above all, Engineer, Ashley Thomas, shares her story, not of HOW she got to be at Oxford, but WHO.

As I sit in a 150-year-old book shop (very new by Oxford standards) listening to Duncan Green, Oxfam GB’s chief strategic advisor, discuss his book How Change Happens, I’m again struck by how lucky I am to have ended up here, at Oxford, and as Skoll Scholar. In thinking through how I have managed to arrive at this moment, my instinct is to create a neat narrative: In 2008, as a freshly minted mechanical engineer, I moved to Ethiopia to work as a product designer at iDE, a NGO building social enterprises and agriculture value chains in Africa and Asia.  Since then I have worked as an engineer and innovation project manager for some of the best (in my humble opinion) social enterprises: Evidence Action and MKOPA solar, and dabbled in some policy work managing the DFID resource centre on climate and environment. Building on my experience in the water sector, I then read for an MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management prior to my MBA as part of the 1+1 programme at Oxford, in theory preparing me to solve the worlds’ water problems through my own social enterprise.

However, after listening to Green’s view of the non-linearity of change, I am tempted to reframe my story not as a narrative but as the summation of ripples in a web of complex relationships and interactions. If you can forgive my ramblings in non-linear narrative, I want to tell the story of my path here framed through the relationships that don’t make it onto a CV, and instead focus on the cast of characters that sent the right ripples into the network that guided me to this fantastic place.

Katherine McIntyre: My grandmother is the embodiment of tenacity. She was a flight controller in the Canadian Air Force during World War II, a travel writer in the USSR during the 1980’s, current record holder for the oldest person to do a zip line, and in few days, at 93 years old, will be travelling from Toronto to Oxford to see my MSc graduation. She has traveled to more than 45 countries, published in over 30 newspapers and journals and has founded 3 companies.  I can only aspire to emulate her singular focus, fearless independence, and her lifelong curiosity.

Left: Ashley Thomas, Right: Kirstie McIntyre

Left: Ashley Thomas, Right: Katherine McIntyre

Left: a young Kirstie McIntyre, Right: Kirstie McIntyre holds the current record holder for the oldest person to do a zip line

Left: a young Katherine McIntyre, Right: Katherine McIntyre holds the current record holder for the oldest person to do a zip line

Paul’s enabling, entrepreneurial approach strongly resonated and has become central to my own philosophy.

Paul Polak: I met Paul when I was nineteen, naïvely aspiring to fight global poverty, but I only knew about top-down traditional development organisations. From attending his lectures, receiving his mentorship through the Intentional Development Design Summit (IDDS), and ultimately collaborating at iDE, Paul introduced me to a new way of thinking. Instead of a charity approach, Paul showed me an untapped market of 1 billion people seeking to lift themselves out of poverty. Paul’s enabling, entrepreneurial approach strongly resonated and has become central to my own philosophy.

 

Paul Polak

Paul Polak

Carlos Machan: Carlos is one of the most creative product designers I have ever met. Born in rural Guatemala, his engineering knowledge is all self-taught. I met Carols in 2007 while he was an instructor on the International Development Design Summit at MIT and continued to work with him in Guatemala, where he taught me how to weld, design, and build my first water pump, the very skills that landed me my first job at iDE.

Carlos Machan

Carlos Machan

It was here, in front of this bonfire, where I first heard about the Skoll Scholarship, and began dreaming of becoming a Skoll Scholar

iDE Workshop and Engineering Team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: In Addis, our engineering team founded a workshop/office/guest house that was the backbone of our product development. It was also the location of many bonfires, beers, and late night pontification. It was here, in front of this bonfire, where I first heard about the Skoll Scholarship, and began dreaming of becoming a Skoll Scholar. It took 8 years of indecision, dreaming, and three failed attempts at the application before it became a reality.

iDE Workshop and Engineering Team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

iDE Workshop and Engineering Team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

MKOPA Engineering Team: This crew is one of the brightest, most driven, and friendliest teams I have ever worked with. From Eric, standing at 6’2” and with a sense of humor to match, to Berita, easily a foot shorter in stature, but making no compromises in heart or brains, this group of people embodies the types of teams I hope to continue to work with. They also solidified my desire to get an MBA. While they were begrudging the fact I’d “no longer be an engineer”, working with them made me realise that if I hope to run a company like MKOPA and a team like this one, I have a lot of learning left to do.

ashleymtblog-mkopa

MKOPA Team

While this is absolutely not an exclusive list, these are some of the threads in fabric of the story of my path here. From the nascent daydreams over Ethiopian bonfires to making the decision to come to Oxford after working on a manufacturing line in Dongguan, China, studying an MBA at Oxford through the Skoll Scholarship is the realisation of the network of friends, colleagues, places, and events that have guided me to this fantastic place.

All photos above were provided by Ashley Thomas.

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The Story of Emerge 2016

The Skoll Centre held its eighth annual Emerge Conference from 12-13 November – a highlight in our annual social impact calendar.  Almost 500 attendees were present, including 65 speakers, and over 20 sessions were held ranging from workshops, to conversations, to speaker hosted lunches, and even an Oxford style debate. Emerge 2016 highlighted critical social and environmental issues, as well as cutting edge solutions. Its aim was simple – to inspire delegates and develop their understanding of global challenges.

With all the joy, inspiration, and excitement of Emerge 2016, there was an element of sadness to this year’s conference.  We were missing Emerge’s inspirational founder and late Director of the Skoll Centre, Pamela Hartigan, who passed away this summer. She designed much of the programme for 2016, and it was her wish that Emerge continue to highlight key trends within the social impact space.

go positively, she believed in you, and people like you. Her spirit lives on in this room and beyond

It was clear by the number of mentions, by both speakers and delegates, and tributes dotted around the conference, that Pamela touched the lives of so many. The opening plenary speaker, co-author, and friend to Pamela, John Elkington, made reference to the current social-climate, “in these tough times what would Pamela say? She would urge us to continue, to get on with it and make it work”. He closed his opening speech “go positively, she believed in you, and people like you. Her spirit lives on in this room and beyond”.

From left to right: Daniela Papi-Thornton, Ola Suliman, Baljeet Sandhu, Alexander Betts Photo by www.fisherstudios.co.uk

From left to right: Daniela Papi-Thornton, Ola Suliman, Baljeet Sandhu, Alexander Betts. Photo by www.fisherstudios.co.uk

And indeed her spirit did live on throughout the weekend’s sessions.  Some highlights of the programme included a session on Using Social Impact Media to Alleviate Conflict, which focused on how social impact media can be used to promote peacebuilding in conflict areas around the world; Using the Impact Gaps Canvas, which explored how this model can be used to understand the challenges and the solutions that have sprung up to address it; and One Year On: Revisiting the Refugee Crisis¸ which examined how the issue of forced migration has developed since Emerge 2015. This panel, in particular, was rich with content and well-received, bringing the perspective of migrants, grassroots activists and policy influencers to the table.

The opposition argued that there are issues which are simply too large and complex for private and social sector organisations to tackle alone

Left to right: Hangwi Muambadzi, Liam Black, Colleen Ebbitt, Kieron Boyle, Dr Shelly Batra, Allegra Day, Julian Coyne Photo by www.fisherstudios.co.uk

Left to right: Hangwi Muambadzi, Liam Black, Colleen Ebbitt, Kieron Boyle, Dr Shelly Batra, Allegra Day, Julian Coyne
Photo by www.fisherstudios.co.uk

This year’s Emerge Debate was held at the Blavatnik School of Government and was aptly titled: “This house believes government involvement constrains social innovation”. Dr Shelly Batra of Operation ASHA brought a touch of wit and charm in her speech for the proposition, jokingly questioning: “apathy, wastefulness and sloth, were these words created keeping govts in mind?” succinctly making her point that “social innovations have been strangled by governments in India”. However, Liam Black of Wavelength, dealt a knock out speech, noting that it’s “fashionable to kick government” and that we seem to take government policies for granted, even those laws that have made our lives safer. The opposition also argued that there are issues (like climate change) which are simply too large and complex for private and social sector organisations to tackle alone, and that policy is a necessity to tackling these effectively. Kieron Boyle, a first-time debater, closed with a strong argument, putting forward that “we need to help government be more socially innovative”. After an audience vote, the motion was rejected – in the eyes of our Emerge delegates; government involvement does not constrain social innovation.

Crisis Cafe - Performance by Oxford Imps Photo by www.fisherstudios.co.uk

Crisis Cafe – Performance by Oxford Imps
Photo by www.fisherstudios.co.uk

To wind down the first day, delegates and speakers alike headed to Crisis Café for dinner, networking, and Emerge Spotlight entertainment. This year’s Emerge Spotlight was super-charged! Post-supper energy from the Oxford Imps, an improv troop, had the crowd roaring with laughter at their spontaneous scenes. The Imps were followed by impromptu performances from Emerge delegates themselves, and Oxford MBA graduate, Denise Hearn, closed the night with an intimate set of rock and country covers.

The sun was finally shining on Sunday morning, and as in years past, the second day of Emerge opened with the Mustard Seed Pitch Competition. Eight social start-ups pitched to win investment from Tribe Impact Capital. There was stiff competition, but ultimately diabetes prevention start-up Our Path came out on top, and were offered a £5000 prize, which is convertible to equity by Tribe Impact Capital if they raise further funding. Our Emerge delegates gave  the audience choice award to BubbleNutWash, who produce and sell fairly traded, environmentally friendly soap nuts. Both companies will have the opportunity to meet mentors and investors from Mustard Seed’s network in a greenhouse day in London.

Pail Lindley, Founder of Ella's Kitchen Photo by www.fisherstudios.co.uk

Pail Lindley, Founder of Ella’s Kitchen
Photo by www.fisherstudios.co.uk

The Sunday keynote was delivered by entrepreneur Paul Lindley, founder of Ella’s Kitchen and Paddy’s Bathroom. Paul, proudly wearing his B-Corp UK t-shirt, talked about values and people in business. Ella’s Kitchen currently turns over €100M a year, and he put that success down to four key factors:

  1. Values based business
  2. Consumer focused
  3. An awesome team
  4. Actively finding ways to deepen consumer’s trust

Paul is an advocate for business as a force for good, and he believes profit making businesses can change the world. We should also mention that Paul should probably win the award for most endearing and creative PowerPoint; he engaged the audience through his entire 90 slide presentation, and had them laughing at video clips from his playful campaigns. His speech affirmed that we all, as individuals, have the power to make small changes each and every day in the way we choose to consume. #Bethechange!

The final keynote was delivered by founder of MyBnk, Lily Lapenna. MyBnk is a financial education initiative designed to equip young people with the knowledge they need to be in control of their money. Lily took us through her impact journey, and where she is headed next. Her charismatic approach had the audience shouting out their very own tagline after she disclosed her own as “Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, I don’t want to run away from you, I don’t want to move to Canada. I want to coach you!”

Lily Lapenna - Founder and Chair of MyBnk Photo by www.fisherstudios.co.uk

Lily Lapenna – Founder and Chair of MyBnk
Photo by www.fisherstudios.co.uk

Daniela Papi-Thornton (with newborn baby Skye Thornton strapped to her torso) closed the weekend with some parting words of wisdom and top tips for the audience:

  • Work for an organisation where there are people who will mentor you and where they take staff learning opportunities seriously.
  • Find problems to care about. You won’t find your calling by looking for “solutions” – first you need to find a problem you really care about, and as you begin to understand it, you will start to gain the perspective from which solutions can emerge.
  • Connect and network! Don’t just walk out of here asking for help from someone – instead offer your help TO someone. Connect them with someone you know who might help them get them on their impact journey, share resources, or give other support! (Check out our Collaboration Clothesline for connections)
  • Gain skills! Ask yourself “What can I learn from those around me, from my bosses, from our organisational systems?” Even if you don’t think your current job is high impact, there are certainly things you can learn!
  • Join us at Emerge next year!

And with that, it was all over; inspiration, challenge, and rejuvenation to last until Emerge 2017.

We’ll see you next time!

Feature image by www.fisherstudios.co.uk

To see more photos from Emerge 2016, head to our Flickr account!

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From Bangladesh to Oxford

Not only is Ahmed Abu Bakr a Skoll Scholar and MBA student at Saïd Business School, he is also the former Head of Product & Experience at Jeeon LLC in Bangladesh. He tells his story of what brought him to Oxford.

“You are now a student at the University of Oxford.” -Induction day, Dean Peter Tufano, Said Business School, University of Oxford

Sitting in a room of 328 fresh MBA students, captivated by words of inspiration and felicitations – that was the first time that it TRULY hit me.

I was at one of the finest institutions of learning, surrounded by the best and brightest in the world – a place where world leaders were made. I was finally at Oxford.

I knew that giving back was a responsibility, not a choice.

My journey to Oxford really started straight out of college in 2012. My aspiration was to start my own venture. I also knew very early on, that I wanted my career to benefit the neglected and the marginalised. In the context of Bangladesh, I had enjoyed a privileged life and somewhere in my heart, I knew that giving back was a responsibility, not a choice.

I considered the MBA back then, rather naively in retrospect, as a possible degree that would help me understand business and prepare me to launch my own. And my sights were set on the very best of schools. Why? Back then it was about the prestige. But of course, an MBA without work experience was not going to be of much use. And hence I joined mPower Social Enterprises a tech consultancy working with the likes of USAID, Oxfam, Save the Children and so forth, to amplify their impact through technology.

My reasons for joining mPower were really two fold. Firstly, it was about working in a young company to understand the challenges of a startup. Secondly, and arguably more importantly, it was about working directly with two Harvard graduates (and founders) and having them as mentors that would shape me professionally and guide me into getting into one of the top schools in the world.

But six months into mPower, I was part of the founding team of a project that would eventually spin off into a company in its own right Jeeon. Jeeon connects rural patients with qualified doctors in the city, right from the village bazaars. We do this by equipping intermediaries (rural drug shop owners in village bazaars) with the training and technology necessary to collect comprehensive medical data about rural patients using our custom android app. This data is seen by our doctors in our city office, and after a thorough conversation between patient and doctor, facilitated by the intermediary, patients receive reliable medical advice, prescriptions and recommendations.

Ahmed is the former Head of Product & Experience at Jeeon LLC

Ahmed is the former Head of Product & Experience at Jeeon LLC

It has taken us three years to fine tune the model so that it is operationally self-sustaining. We started with a team of five. There were days when it was just me running to different people at mPower (mPower incubated Jeeon for two years) to get things done. I played a myriad of roles- from product design to tech management, to business modelling, to team building, to operations, and strategy. It has been a tremendous experience, where I learned and accomplished more than I had ever dreamed off!

Today we have raised over a million dollars in investment, have a 20 person team (excluding doctors and rural intermediaries), and are expecting to serve over 50,000 patients in 2017. The vision however, is much grander. We intend to be the first point of contact for all rural patients, for all matters relating to healthcare and wellbeing – much like Google for the web, we intend to be the trusted navigator for all healthcare services in rural Bangladesh.

…after much deliberation, I also realised that the needs of Jeeon were changing significantly…I was definitely not equipped with the skills, network, or visionary perspective that would be necessary to lead the system level transformation we aim for…

Amidst all of this, taking a year off for the MBA really was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever had to make. I was already responsible for something that would deeply affect millions of people in Bangladesh in the coming years. I was part of a stellar team of committed people focused on transforming healthcare on a nationwide scale. Jeeon was about to finally take flight, and the thought of stepping away was excruciating. But after much deliberation, I also realised that the needs of Jeeon were changing significantly. I had played my role well in prototyping and experimenting our way to a business viable service model. I had guided strategy and played a key supportive role in building the team and culture of the company. But I was definitely not equipped with the skills, network, or visionary perspective that would be necessary to lead the system level transformation we aim for at Jeeon.

And hence I decided to pursue the MBA at Oxford Saïd – for its explicit focus on social entrepreneurship, and in no small part for the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship – but primarily because at Oxford, I expect to develop the transformative thinking that I will need in the coming years. It is the end of one chapter in my life, and the beginning of another.

And I am here.

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