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From Rwanda to Oxford

I awoke to the sound of beating. My young female neighbor was screaming, and the dull thud of weight hitting a body was audible.

I had been living in rural Rwanda for about a year, serving as an Education Volunteer with the US Peace Corps, straight out of my undergraduate studies with an unlikely degree in Geology. The Peace Corps had fit with my desire to engage directly with people and communities, and to learn from a completely different context than what I had grown up in. I was assigned to Rwanda in 2010, and after a three-month training in curriculum design, culture, and Kinyarwanda, a Peace Corps pick-up truck dropped me off in a small, very rural community in the east, where I was to teach secondary school English for two years.

In the first year, I had already learned several important things: 1) I did not enjoy being a secondary school teacher. (Sixty youth cooped up in one room was not my cup o’ tea.) 2) I really enjoyed working with my female students in out-of-class programs, like girls’ sports clubs and a girl’s leadership club. 3) I was increasingly bothered by the daily inequalities I saw my female students, female neighbors, and myself facing.

Shaking with fear and anger, I headed towards my neighbors’ house, not knowing what I was walking into. Not knowing if my interference would make things better or worse. But knowing that I couldn’t stay still and wait any longer.

This moment stands out to me as a tipping point in my journey to social impact. It was far from the first time I had witnessed or experienced injustice against women, but it was a catalyzing moment that sharpened my focus on it. The fact was, momentum had been building up in me over time, first as greater recognition of the inequality, then frustration, and finally anger. When I resolved to get up and do something that night, I cemented in myself a resolve to act in the face of fear and risk for what I know to be right.

I began to spend more of my time thinking about the globally prevalent misbelief that females are somehow less, and all the related consequences of this, from violence to lower educational access to limited employment opportunities. Throughout the remainder of my time in the Peace Corps I explored and questioned why this was the case. After Peace Corps, I continued to explore similar challenges in a different context. I spent a year as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Denver, CO working with pregnant and parenting teen moms at a public high-school, trying to bridge the gaps in their access to healthcare, housing, food security, and wellness services.

Julie working as an AmeriCorps volunteer

Though the contexts were quite different, the basic challenges remained incredibly similar. It became increasingly clear to me that independent and narrow solutions were inadequate to create real change for such complex problems. It wasn’t enough to provide girls with education or women with income; these would not be sustained without a systematic change where they also had access to childcare, healthcare, wellness services, and a community that believed in and supported their growth. The root causes had to be addressed, as well as the surface level symptoms.

In 2014, I had the opportunity to dive headfirst into co-building a social business that was aimed at creating social and economic empowerment for women through training and employment, as well as community benefits through the products themselves. The idea, in theory, is simple: build bakeries, train and employ women, produce and sell nutritious and affordable breads, and source and sell locally so that the local ecosystem benefits from the entire process. In practice, of course, it is far more complicated.

Julie at The Women’s Bakery

Without any business background but a passion for what we wanted to achieve, I threw myself into the challenge of building a business that would work for women, their families, and their communities. And, which we hoped would challenge some of the societal norms and structures that kept women from achieving their potential.

Julie with the first The Women’s Bakery group in Rwanda

My experiences in the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps were great foundations, but the past four years have still constantly challenged my assumptions and ideas about how to create lasting impact. I have been pushed to think far beyond the initial bounds of the problem scope, apply multi-pronged approaches, partner with others in the space, and always come back to the women and stakeholders we are working with to understand how and where we need to shift our approach. We have experienced encouraging successes and frustrating failures, and at times questioned if we are even remotely on the right track.

About a year ago, I decided that I needed to learn more in order to better lead and make strategic business decisions to further grow our company. I wanted the skills and foundational business knowledge afforded by an MBA, but I was reluctant to dive into one or two years of talk about corporations, finance, the bottom line, and whatever else I imagined an MBA to be. Oxford Saïd stood out to me immediately because of the Skoll Centre and the focus on social impact and social entrepreneurship. I want to spend this year learning business fundamentals, yes, but more importantly I want to spend this year being exposed to an incredible community of social impact leaders and implementers. Already, I have met incredible people within the program and through the Skoll Centre who are continuing to challenge and deepen my understanding of social impact and systems change. I am blown away by the passion and commitment around me, and I can’t wait to learn and grow more throughout the year.

By Julie Greene, Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA candidate 2018-19

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Skoll Centre launches Impact Lab programme

The Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship this year launches the “Impact Lab”, a one year co-curricular programme designed to enable Oxford MBA students to take a leading role in tackling the complex and pressing social and environmental challenges of our world.

The programme cultivates the knowledge, tools and personal leadership qualities needed to drive ambitious and systemic change across sectoral and organisational boundaries. Weekly workshop sessions and in-depth bootcamps with leading practitioners and thought leaders cover topics such as systems thinking, human centred design, impact measurement and impact investing. In tandem with this, through action learning and access to executive coaches, Impact Lab participants are supported in deepening their self-awareness, developing character, and understanding their own impact leadership journeys. The programme concludes with an opportunity for Lab members to create and deliver a personal talk on their own journey, how they have changed and the impact they wish to have on the world.

Building on our successful pilot “Skoll Academy” in 2017, the Impact Lab launched on October 6 this year with an inaugural cohort of 38 fantastic MBA students selected through an application process. Lab participants include students from a range of backgrounds, including:

  • Julie Greene, a social entrepreneur who ran bakeries across East Africa providing vocational training, employment and wellness services to women;
  • Sergio Navarro, a former VP at Goldman Sachs, doctor and founder of a health-tech company using augmented reality to deliver rehabilitation therapy;
  • Kudzai Chigiji director of a Pan-African advisory and infrastructure development company, currently operating in education and healthcare across East, West and Southern Africa;
  • Mridhula Sridharan, an investment strategist who has advised high net worth individuals, corporates and foundations across India and enabled investments to be directed into development initiatives.

The ethos of the Lab cultivates peer-led and peer-to-peer activities, and students are actively engaged in shaping the evolution of the Lab across the Oxford year.

In light of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the ambitious targets in the Paris Climate Agreement and the multiple social and environmental challenges facing our world, now more than ever, we need leaders who can understand these interconnected and complex issues, design and execute effective interventions, and lead teams, organisations and movements.

For more information or if you would like to collaborate, feel free to contact us. Many of the Impact Lab presenters are also running public sessions as part of the Skoll Centre Speaker Series. More information can be found on the Saïd Business School events listing.

By Shruthi Vijaykumar, Skoll Centre Associate

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My Journey from Saint Louis

Kevin Duco Warner is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. Focused on the social impact of food, he has worked to develop market-driven solutions to climate change through the advancement of the local food movement. Kevin shares the story of how he came to pursue a business degree.

I didn’t know that I was an entrepreneur. Heck, I couldn’t even spell the word entrepreneur consistently until about 4 months ago (it’s got that special French characteristic of having more vowels than seems reasonable). Fortunately for me, it turns out you can embody the ideals of an entrepreneur without actually realizing it.

What I have always been is curious. My thirst for knowledge has only been matched by my desire to make the world a better place. This ideal of being simultaneously thoughtful and impactful has led me down a somewhat circuitous path to Oxford, but I have found that following passion leads to unparalleled opportunities.

I have worked at my family’s food hub, Fair Shares, for the last 8 years. We contract with local farmers to source seasonal food and distribute it for 48 weeks each year to consumers in Saint Louis, Missouri. Fair Shares operates as a for-profit company utilizing the buying power of our large, local customer base as a grassroots tool for social and environmental change.

Collage of images of Kevin posing with vegetables and other foods

Before Fair Shares started, area farmers faced limited opportunities in getting their products to market, and consumers encountered multiple obstacles in accessing sustainably-grown food. The Saint Louis growing region allows for production for much of the year, but in the mid-2000s farmers’ markets ran for only 5 months per year, and offered producers meager financial rewards. Fair Shares created a model that aggregates the food from over 60 farmers into shares marketed directly to consumers. Combining the bounty of many producers allows us to offer greater diversity to our customers while supporting small farmers who have committed to low-carbon growing practices.

The beauty of working for Fair Shares is that it has given me the flexibility to follow my curiosity focused through the lens of a love for food.

About 4 years ago I started an organic corn tortilla company after teaching myself how to nixtamalize local field corn at home (I won’t get into it here, but the history of nixtamalization as the Aztec’s solution to pellagra is fascinating – worth a read on wikipedia!). I was not happy with the inconsistent results of pressing each tortilla by hand, but that was the only realistic option for a home cook. I realized that I needed a commercial grade tortilla machine if I was ever going to get consistent results. I started La Tortilla Buena because it was the only way to rationalize to my wife that importing a $2000 tortilla machine from Mexico was a good idea. Despite any real business acumen, my tortillas were quickly stocked by a number of small groceries, restaurants, and even a school lunch program. I attribute this success to the passion I had for the process of making the product.

Living in a very urban area spurred an interest in edible landscaping and urban homesteading. What started with a raspberry bush and some basic herbs progressed to harvesting homegrown saffron and espaliering two pear trees on a privacy fence. This knowledge, gained through doing, brought on opportunities to consult on urban agriculture projects and to teach cooking classes with local chefs. I even got to teach an heirloom apple grafting class with a local apple farmer.

Image of Kevin's home grown pear trees against a fence

Image of homemade food on a plate

So why uproot my life to move to Oxford? Why get an MBA?

I wanted to see my career, focused on impact through food, transition from local and regional, to national and global in scale, but I couldn’t find a clear path. I knew I needed more formal education, but struggled in finding a field that felt like the right fit.

My intention was to stay in the business world, but I was focused on policy and public administration degrees because they carried an underlying focus on social good. Most business programs lacked an ethos that resonated with me; that is, until I found the Skoll Centre at Oxford Saïd.

No other institution is driving the social impact space in a setting as powerful as Oxford. It is evident that the mission of the Skoll Centre is directly influencing Oxford Saïd’s approach to business education.

The process of being awarded the Skoll Scholarship was a whirlwind. It changed the trajectory of my life. In a matter of a few months I went from toting vegetables around an uninsulated warehouse in Saint Louis to walking the hallowed streets of Oxford in formal academic dress robes. To say that being at Oxford is a humbling experience is an understatement.

Schrödinger locked his cat in a box at his home on Northmoor Road, a 5 minute walk from my house. Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings in the house next door to Schrödinger. Radiohead played their first concert at the pub at the end of my street. It is absurd how many titans of western thought operated within a mile of my house in Oxford.

Kevin standing by the road sign for Northmoor Road in Oxford in full Oxford attire

My intention when I began a career in good food was never very concrete. I realize now that there was a centralized theme in the work: namely, changing the way people eat. But it required a whole lot of ‘doing’ before I could fully quantify it. It was not until I applied to Oxford that I really went through the process of self-assessment required to solidify my personal mission. I am confident that my time spent studying for an MBA as a Skoll Scholar will give me the tools to further succeed in my endeavors regardless of whether or not I can spell entrepreneur.

Follow Kevin on Twitter: @nosleepforduco

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My Journey from New Delhi to Oxford

Nikhil Dugal is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. He’s a social entrepreneur working in the field of environmental sustainability, specifically towards establishing a circular economy. Here, Nikhil shares his story and inspiration up to becoming an Oxford Scholar.

Portrait of Nikhil

My journey leading up to Saïd Business School has always been guided by one principle, to put the impact of the work I’m doing first, before anything else.

My journey started in 2014 when I had been working at a development economics research center in India for about two years. As a researcher, I became increasingly frustrated from working on multi-year, multi-million dollar projects that repeatedly unpacked major social challenges, without actually pairing them to actionable policy insights that could create change. It became clear that I enjoyed a more hands-on approach, and wanted take part in changing the problems I was working on. I set out to find opportunities to use what I’d learned to become part of building solutions myself.

While in college at New York University, I had taken a class on social entrepreneurship that first introduced me to the idea of establishing a business-for-good. I was immediately intrigued by the concept of a business designed to address a social or environmental problem, versus the traditional mode of CSR, which engages in philanthropy out of a percentage of profits made from the unsustainable systems themselves. This new breed of social –business instead leverages market-forces to implement change, without the constraint of relying on funding for their entire life-cycle.

It wasn’t long after first getting excited about social enterprise that I met a friend who had been inspired by the idea of repurposing shipping containers into infrastructure – and his inspiration really got me thinking. Having worked in the development sector, I understood there was an unmet need for organizations working on rented land, running operations in remote areas. I was also interested in working in the waste management space. I proposed that we focus on his expertise in manufacturing, and use my previous experience to start a company that provides custom container infrastructure to organizations in rural and urban India.

Image of colourful containers

Containers retired from use at a yard in Uttar Pradesh

Aadhan

Over the past two years, we’ve built a company that repurposes once unusable materials into beautiful classrooms, workspaces and more, anywhere in India. We provide an end-to-end service to any organization looking to build temporary infrastructure. Our facilities help up-cycle shipping containers that are over 20 years old and retired from use.

We’ve built a list of vendors who provide construction inputs made from waste, such as wall paneling made from Tetra-pak waste cartons or sustainably sourced wood, insulation made from PET bottles, and roofing sheets made from recycled plastic and aluminum. These are offered as a package to our clients, for each of whom we design a custom facility as per their requirement. We also offer off-grid solutions including solar-panels and dry-toilets.

Interior of a shipping container - built withTetra-pak Board

The interior of this facility is made from Tetra-pak Board

At Aadhan Infrastructure, we’ve helped recycle over 25 tons of steel, and built a diverse range of infrastructure including skill training classrooms for government programs, training facilities for rural healthcare workers, and even furniture showrooms for private companies. Over 400 children from disadvantaged communities have accessed skill training in rural Uttar Pradesh due to our classroom. We’ve also won grant funding, business competitions and were featured on national television.

Nikhil and his team standing on top of a shipping container they have converted into a space

Carrying out an inspection before dispatch

Why the Oxford MBA?

Despite our small and growing success in India, I feel there is so much more I need to learn in order to grow the company’s impact across India. We have faced innumerable challenges including an inability to scale up our work with the government, an inability to raise equity funding, the lack of an established market and low trust in the new building technology. I was able to receive significant peer support from organizations such as Unltd. Delhi; however, I realized I needed to build my skillset in order to successfully be able to run the business and change our model in order to scale up the impact of our work.

Coming from a background in economics and math, I wanted to study business in a place that was focused on supporting social entrepreneurs, and actively involved in the changing narrative on the nature of business. Due to this reason, I had a very specific list of MBA programs. Each one was a one-year program, focused on entrepreneurship, with a significant focus on social enterprise. Saïd Business School was at the top of this list, especially due to the countless resources they offer to social entrepreneurs and the presence of the Skoll Centre.

I had been looking at the scholarship for over a year, and once I knew I met the criteria, I reached out to a previous scholar from India, who was incredibly kind and helpful. It immediately gave me a sense of the community here and motivated me further to apply. One year later, I’m sitting in Oxford, and have been blessed to receive a Skoll Scholarship.

This opportunity has enabled me to pursue my goals and continue to engage in my mission. There are truly few organizations in the world that provide such significant support to social entrepreneurs, with only the intention of encouraging them to lead an impactful career. There is no chance that I would have had access to such a great program without the help of the Scholarship and I look forward to using every opportunity I get over the next year to learn as much as possible.

Over the next year I plan to use all the resources we are offered here, including programs such as Map the System, Skoll Academy and Skoll Venture Awards to refine the mission of my organization and explore levers for change to help us scale our impact. I’ve had the opportunity to attend a few sessions at the Skoll Academy already, and am extremely impressed with the program the Centre has been able to put together as an alternative to the Consulting Development Program and the Finance Lab offered to the rest of the MBA class.

I’ve also had the amazing opportunity to meet my peers, each of whom is as accomplished as the next. They are the greatest resource we have here, and they come from all over the globe, with about a third from the development sector. Although they’re from a diverse background, what they have in common is a sense of collaboration and community, and I feel certain I’ll learn more from them than I can begin to describe here and now.

 

 

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From Lisbon to Oxford

Sandra Fisher-Martins is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. She is also a plain-language activist and entrepreneur. Sandra shares the candid truth about leaving her 10 year old organisation to pursue an Oxford MBA.

“Can you read this letter for me?”, asked Mr. Domingos, the office center caretaker.

We stood by his desk and he watched while I sifted through it. I explained that the letter was in fact a surgery voucher from the Ministry of Health paying for a surgery in a private hospital of his choice. His smile was a mix of relief and disbelief.

“I had thrown it in the bin. Then I remembered you telling me about your job the other day…”

Mr. Domingos had his first job at the age of five and taught himself to read as an adult. He enjoyed the sports newspaper, but struggled with official letters, forms and pretty much everything else. His life story was unique, but his experience of depending on others to access crucial information was not uncommon. Nearly 4 in 5 Portuguese are ‘functionally illiterate’, which means that their reading skills are insufficient to meet the demands of daily life.

I founded Português Claro (‘Plain Portuguese’) in 2007 because I was appalled by the gap between the average literacy skills of our citizens and the complexity of the documents we had to read to get on with our lives. From electricity bills to insurance contracts, from bank statements to government websites, everything was riddled with jargon and legalese. How could anyone make informed choices? How could anyone know and act on their rights?

Sandra and the Claro team at work

Sandra and the Claro team at work

Sandra delivered a talk at Productized 2016

Sandra delivered a talk at Productized 2016

The low literacy problem is an important and complex battle to wage, requiring massive investments in education. I was too frustrated to wait. Seeing an opportunity to meet the needs of today’s Portuguese adults, I set out to persuade businesses and government agencies to simplify the way they communicated with the public.

Having little business experience, during my first years at Claro I used to dispel the flashes of self-doubt with fantasies of getting the Skoll Scholarship and picking up, in one swift year, everything I would need to run a successful social venture.

I never applied. I was too busy running the business and learning by trial-and-error to be a plain-language expert, a salesperson, an accountant, a project manager, a recruiter, a team leader, and a CEO. Stopping for a year was impossible.

And then, after nearly a decade of challenges and growth, Claro hit a sudden wall. A change in government had led to a sharp decline in private and public investment and our sales were plummeting. Faced with the possibility of having to close the company, I started questioning the sustainability of the change we had created over time. Without Claro to provide plain-language services, would these organizations revert back to their old ways?

As my doubts grew, it became clear that I’d allowed myself to be sucked into the day-to-day of running a social enterprise when the real challenge was in creating sustainable systemic change. It was time to stop and have a rethink.

I went back to the Skoll Scholarship and the Centre had added more programming focused on system change. So I decided to apply. This time I wasn’t looking for tools to run a business. I was looking for a space for reflection within a world-class network of systems thinkers, social entrepreneurs and researchers.

It is now Week 4 in Michaelmas (in plain language, that’s the beginning of November) and although the MBA has barely started so much has happened. This is a high-frequency learning environment, with daily opportunities to engage in mind-expanding conversations. Today I met with Patrick to learn about his experience running an impact investment fund in Peru. Last night I explored with Emily the systemic consequences of an ill-conceived agricultural investment in Ghana. Through this exposure to diverse experiences and approaches, my initial questions have evolved and unexpected themes — like ‘identity’ — have surfaced. Clearly, this journey has just begun.  I am eager to see where it takes me.

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Creating opportunities through the power of language

Macarena Hernandez de Obeso, is a current Skoll Scholar and is dedicated to economic opportunity and prosperity for deprived communities in Latin America.

She shares the story of starting her new social enterprise that aims to bring together a global community, all the while studying her Oxford MBA!

In September of 2016 I started the most incredible journey of my life so far, an MBA at Oxford. At the beginning, I was sure that I was here to strengthen my business knowledge to be able to combine a sustainable business model with a social mission. However, I wasn’t sure which path I was going to achieve it in the future. I had in mind three options:

1. come back to the social enterprise where I was working before

2. join an international organisation or enterprise focusing on the design of tools and impact metrics to enhance the work of social entrepreneurs

3. start my own venture

Surprisingly, in less than two months, one of these became a reality.

Meeting my Co-Founder

During the first week of my MBA, I met Ana Maria. Being both born in Latin America and having dedicated part of our life to social impact, we realised that we shared a powerful goal; to create opportunities for people in Latin America by embracing their talents and helping them to reach their full potential. She had the idea to fund a charitable project offering Spanish language practice for foreigners through conversations with native speakers within the project’s community. I loved the idea, but not the business model; I thought it should be a social enterprise that could fund itself by creating access to economic opportunities and a flexible way of income for all Spanish native speakers in Latin America.

Launching our social enterprise

In November of 2016, we founded Language Amigo. Today, we are connecting, through video calls, language ’Learners’ who want to practice conversational Spanish, with native speaking ‘Amigos’ from Latin America. For Amigos, Language Amigo is a flexible way of income and for Learners, Language Amigo is a flexible way to practice.

Through Language Amigo, we are not offering Spanish teachers. We are offering to language learners the opportunity to put into practice their foreign language knowledge and have real world conversations with real and friendly people, Amigos. I believe that the main objective to learn a language is to be able to connect with people from another country, culture, and background. Through Language Amigo, you can do that.

Language Amigo's first Learner-Amigo call

Language Amigo’s first Learner-Amigo call

Language Amigo's first Learner-Amigo call

Language Amigo’s first Learner-Amigo call

Challenges

I was very happy working on my new venture, but with every new path comes its challenges and scepticism. In February 2017, I was delivering a presentation about Language Amigo, to my communication skills’ group at the Oxford Language Centre. I explained that to generate income, Language Amigo keeps a percentage of the cost of the calls conducted between Amigos and Learners. The first question that I received after this presentation, from a Chilean student, was: “are you exploiting Latin American youngsters to create a business?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I wasn’t sure what feeling this question had caused me. Anger? Deception? Surprise? Indignation? I realised that it is not obvious to everyone that a collaborative economy business model, such as Language Amigo, is creating economic inclusion for people who did not have an economic opportunity before. I was conscious that industries threatened by collaborative economy models, such as hospitality and logistics, have been raising critique against successful platforms and putting pressure into regulatory institutions. Nonetheless, the fact that an Oxford student from Latin American believes that we were exploiting our Amigos, completely shocked me.

But, we continue to grow

I believe that Language Amigo is creating value not only for Amigos but also for Learners. We are developing the means to create social and economic transactions between them. We are aggregating and connecting supply with demand that otherwise would never connect. We are constantly looking for potential customers to grow the economic opportunities for Amigos. We are constantly updating the Amigos’ training and generating support resources to improve the experience for the Learners.

Why is the value of creating a network and the means to include people into the economy undervalued? What is harder: to produce and deliver the product or service, or to find the market and attract it to generate demand for the product or service?

Currently, we are looking for institutions such as language centres, schools, universities, and enterprises that already have Spanish students to become our partners. We would like to be able to offer Language Amigo to their students and to co-create the best tool for them, their students, and the Amigos. Together we will be able to demonstrate that it is possible to create fair opportunities through the power of language.

Language Amigo Co-founders: Ana Maria (Left) Macarena (Right)