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: Katherine McIntyre
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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:
Values based business
An awesome team
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
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.
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
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.
Recent graduate of Oxford Saïd MBA 2015-16, Andres Baehr Oyarzun, spent his Summer Consulting Project in Mexico with 2015 The Venture finalist, Echale a tu Casa. Andres shares his story.
“Echale, echale!”, screamed a child behind us, while we watched Mexico City’s Lucha Libre. Chubby wrestlers kept slapping each other’s chests while we sat next to our supervisor. This was not your average MBA consulting project, I thought.
It was the first time we heard the word Echale outside of the context of ‘Echale a tu Casa‘, which can be translated as ‘Throw your Heart at your House”. Echale is Mexico’s first B Corp, a finalist in Chivas’ The Venture competition in 2015, and the recipient of the ‘Best of the World’ award by the Rockefeller Foundation. The organisation works to provide affordable housing through an innovative and effective model. We were in Mexico to help them prepare for releasing an investment prospectus – post- competition support that was financed by Chivas after Echale’s participation in The Venture. We hoped to learn more about an innovative social business model while using our skills to add value to the Echale team’s work.
And learn we did – the model works as follows: imagine you are a low-income homeowner in need of a new home or home improvement work. Due to lack of access to finance, you will usually be limited to making necessary changes to your home as your savings allow – on an ongoing/ ad hoc basis, rather than during a singular, planned project. In many cases this leads to substandard home conditions and overcrowding. With Echale’s model, families only have to finance and carry out 30% of their home construction and Echale helps them to complete the rest. By creating access to both a government subsidy and a credit service, Echale enables homeowners to complete a new home or improve an existing one, in a sustainable manner. The impact goes beyond housing. Families get access to financial advice and products, they are active participants in the building of their own homes and the environmental impact of home construction is reduced by the use of Echale’s eco-friendly construction materials.
We drove with Alejandra, Director of Promotion, into Jocotitlán, one of the rural communities where Echale operates. “I wasn’t too sure about social entrepreneurship” she said, “until I met Francesco (Echale’s CEO and a regional celebrity of sorts). After speaking with him, I knew I wanted to be part of the team, so I contacted him again, and again, until he just said ok, ok, come work with us”. 50 houses have already been constructed in Jocotitlán and the team is aiming to construct 500 more. This is just a small portion of the 30,000 completed homes, 150,000 home improvements and more than one million lives already positively affected by Echale.
Alejandra pointed at the steel beams that can often be seen poking out from the roofs of half-constructed houses. “You see those? They call them the ‘beams of hope”, she said. “Owners leave the beams in case one day they can afford a second floor”.
We visited Maria del Carmen, one of the homeowners who had recently moved to an ‘Echale’ house. She walked us around her old home. We looked at the blue cracked walls, dirty floors and pierced tin roof. The contrast with the tiled based and firm structure of the new house was remarkable. Maria represents one life improved, but a sea of homes is waiting to be built; in Mexico, an approximate 4.9 million families live in substandard housing.
After two weeks of bilingual Skype teleconferences, research, modeling and writing, we finally had to say good-bye to the Echale team. During our last meeting with Francesco we felt a combination of sadness, gratitude and excitement.
“Social impact is like a quantum gate”, said Francesco and raised his palm. “Once you touch it, you can’t go back. Once you have experienced it, you can’t go back”.
We packed up our bags and made our way back to Oxford. Back in Mexico, the luchadores would keep slapping their chests, the beams of hope would still stand high and the Echale team would still be there, throwing their hearts at it.
The Venture is looking for social businesses from around the world that are using business to help create a better future, if you are interested in applying or know of someone who should, head to their site to learn more www.chivas.com/the-venture.
Deborah Owhin is an MBA Skoll Scholar of 2015-16, sale she has dedicated over 10 years towards achieving gender equality. After attending UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 57) in 2013, healing she realised the urgent need for men and women to learn and work together to prevent gender inequality. Deborah therefore started ‘Made Equal’ – a non-profit social initiative that engages, symptoms educates and empowers men and women to eradicate gender inequality. She describes here her experience of life and study at Oxford Saïd so far.
Having left formal education over 5 years ago the idea of becoming a full-time student again was exciting but also slightly daunting. How was I going to ensure that I could balance my ‘perfectionist’ traits with interacting with over 340 course mates, faculty, staff, career options, adoption of the SDG’s, my personal commitments to women and working across sub-Saharan Africa, keeping in touch with family and friends, and traveling.
Being a student again has pushed me outside of my comfort zone and has increased my ‘work streams’ by almost double. I thought I was busy prior to my matriculation at Oxford, however the masses of opportunities available to you as an Oxford student are unimaginable. From Oxford Union debates on ‘Does Feminism Need Rebranding’ and panels, to distinguished speaker lecture series such as the ‘Devaki Jain Lecture with Graça Machel’, to formal dinners where I got to introduce my friends from home to my new Oxford friends, conferences such as PowerShift hosted by Professor Linda Scott, workshops run by the Skoll Centre on negotiation skills, to seminars by Josh Levy on ‘Dads at work’ the list is endless.
The thing that I had not anticipated or put much thought into would be the quality of my lecturers inside and outside of the classroom. I was assigned an academic advisor at Oxford Saïd and one at my College both of which are perfect for my interest, background and growth areas. Coming from a small liberal arts university, Spelman College, I was accustomed to a small network of students which meant faculty and staff knew students by name. I never expected to find that at Oxford and due to the nature and demands of my course it added to my disbelief. However my interactions with faculty has been inspiring to share my past and work areas with them and to hear about their passions for different fields, research areas, and their own families which has truly helped to keep this whole ‘MBA’ experience real.
I have had the opportunity to meet with a number of faculty members some who are my current lecturers and some who are not. Each one has taken the time and made themselves available in the common areas or during office hours and have not only advised me on careers but on interpersonal relationships, their own personal bicycle mishaps, the importance of ‘pause’ and reflection, while encouraging me always to share my non private sector experiences and realities with my classmates.
So many ideas often need sounding boards; in my first month Professor Marc Ventresca advised me to try new things, things that I would not do or had not done before coming to Oxford. What great advice that is so simple…do something you have never done before. This was affirmed by a number of other faculty and staff who I engaged in conversations about electives. So I signed up to take a French course, something that I have always wanted to learn and granted I many not become fluent in the next year but it is a step in the right direction.
Starting this journey has been a whirlwind with great days and tougher days, but the new friendships and networks make it worth waking up and getting to class for 8.30am every day.
If given the chance would I still choose and MBA? Would I still choose Oxford? Would I still choose this year, a resounding YES. Why? Because I feel more excited about this journey months into the program than when I began this new world which poses endless possibilities for which I am truly humbled.
Sumit Joshi is a Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA for 2015-16. He is the founder of APAART Education, malady an organisation that aims to bridge the gap between academia and industry.
“There I was, wearing ill-fitting shoes, loose pajamas, a plain T-shirt, and a tired smile. That morning I had woken up to scales tilting further East. I had become chubbier in the last three years – something I wasn’t proud of. And now, while I waited with my friends outside Trinity College, it dawned on me that in these three years I had completely forgotten something crucial: I had forgotten how passionate I was about climbing. I took a deep breath as images of The Himalayas flitted across my mind. I really missed home.
Just when I was about to turn around and make my way back to my student accommodation at Rewley Abbey, I heard Melissa shout, ‘There he is!’ I saw a young man on a bicycle approaching us. He had climbing gear tightly fastened onto the back of the bike, and I thought I spotted a climbing rope too. Instinctively, I stopped.
Giles (as he later introduced himself) parked his bike by the pole. Within a few minutes of our introduction, we found ourselves discussing things we were really passionate about – sports, culture, food and more. We walked down from Trinity to Oxford Brookes, acquainting one another with our lives outside of work and academic study. The rapport was natural. No well-rehearsed networking pitch or futuristic thoughts on how the economic growth of developing nations would affect the world. We were out there, simply talking about what we loved. It felt good to be ‘normal normal’ again.
By the time we reached Brookes, I felt an adrenaline rush in my body. With my steps turning into a sprint I entered the building with Giles right by my side. When I spotted the towering 30 feet climbing wall, I knew I was going to make my Oxford debut that day.
With a silly smile plastered all over my face I looked around. People were adjusting their gear; some were trying to climb a higher grade; there were a couple with crampons and slips while others were cheering on the ones making a climb.
When I moved closer to the wall I could hear my heart pounding. I would love to call it ‘pure thrill’, however I must admit, I was a bit nervous! It had been three years. I was out of practice and this was a new place with new people. I had to quickly build my confidence and get going.
As I prepared for the climb, I could hear people clapping and cheering. I took my first shot at a medium grade. I was cautious, reconfirming my strength at every step, my skill in handling the ropes, and my ability to remember the manoeuvres as I negotiated my way up. I kept reminding myself of the techniques and I soon realised I was doing fine. When I climbed back down, Giles was beaming. He encouraged me to take on the next challenge – this time it was grade 5+. I climbed that without a moment’s thought. And then the next, and the next – higher and tougher each time. After my 4th climb I decided to call it a day. Giles seemed impressed with my performance. And many people came up to me congratulating me for the effort. It felt great, after a long time.
That day I must’ve met 20 sports enthusiasts. Each one of us belonged to a different country, spoke a different language, and had lived a different life before coming to Oxford. But right there, at that moment none of it seemed important. There were smiles for jobs well done, genuine encouragement for failures, and support that promised we’d outdo ourselves the next time. We were simply absorbing the thrill of a sport, a common thread that bound us together.
The following day at the School was different. The once tired routine had become spirited; there was a spring in my step. And guess what? The next day I went gliding!”