Aditya Chopra is a 2019-20 Oxford MBA candidate and participant on our co-curricular programme, Impact Lab. He reflects on one of the Impact Lab Masterclasses taught in Michaelmas term, movement building.
Its June 30, 2018. The temperature is over 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degree Celsius) but 40,000+ people have gathered in Washington D.C. to protest against the U.S. government’s new immigration policies. In fact, on that very day, millions of people from all walks of life and across age groups are participating in similar rallies across 750 locations in the country – from New York and Boston to Antler, a town of 27 people in North Dakota. They are all marching forward with the same message – Families Belong Together!
The issue of separation of families is pertinent and emotive, but do you think the issue itself is enough to bring millions of people to the streets? Is it enough for them to have a common vision? Is it enough for them to believe that their emotions can create a movement?
How exactly was this movement created? Then again, how exactly is any movement created? There is indeed a method to this madness and it was discussed in detail in the interactive Movement Building Impact Lab Masterclass. Impact Lab is a curated social-impact-focused program by the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. Here’s a snapshot of my takeaways from the masterclass.
What are movements for?
Movements are designed to achieve meaningful policy, social, cultural or environmental change for a social issue.
What are the types of movements?
Movements can be built in 3 ways – top down (using marketing campaigns), bottom up (by organizing people at the grassroots) or from within (by converting leaders within institutions). At the heart of these movements, what binds people is a common important issue which sparks a cord with their rationality and emotions.
How do you design a movement?
There are four
components to focus on while designing a movement:
Voice: Voice is the tone and style of communication, including creatives, which reflects the movement fully w.r.t vision, action, people and places.
Pathway: Pathway is an individual’s journey within the movement – from initial interaction in the campaign to deeper engagement going forward.
Campaigns: Campaigns offer opportunities to bring new members to the movement and to build loyalty within those already involved.
Infrastructure: Infrastructure consists of roles and responsibilities, digital and organizing resources, and support for individual and self-organizing engagement.
After figuring out the above, it’s important to have a strategy to bring all elements together, including timing of launch of the movement, key milestones to achieve along the way and super supporters who can help scale the movement.
The masterclass was
helpful in providing a structure and methodology to movement building which was
made real with case studies of real movements including Families Belong
Together and the Sunrise movement which demanded a Green New Deal in the U.S.
During the session,
all Impact Lab members spent most of their time in small groups discussing the
case studies, ideating on designing a new movement, putting together key steps
to follow and discussing the challenges which can come about, including their
As I reflect on the
session, I am reminded of Gandhi, who said –
may never know what results come of your actions, but if you do nothing, there
will be no results.”
Carlos Blanco is a 2019-20 Oxford MBA student and participant on our co-curricular programme, Impact Lab. He reflects on one of the Impact Lab Masterclasses taught in Michaelmas term, an ever growing and popular discussion by social entrepreneurs, systems change.
An organisation in Pakistan that enables smallholder rural, off-grid farming communities to meet their farming and household needs using livestock as currency. A network of entrepreneurs built up in the favelas of Brazil. An NGO skirting anti-abortion laws by providing access to safe procedures in international waters. A private company building a new business model that monetises fuel efficiency while introducing more sustainable fuel sources. What do all these examples have in common? According to Dr Paulo Savaget and Professor Steve Evans they represent different ways to achieve Systems Change.
Systems change is hot stuff right now. Across organisations trying to create sustainable impact the new holy grail is to affect large-scale systemic change. But what is a systemic problem? What is Systems Change? And how do we affect Systems Change? On Tuesday 12 November Paulo and Steve provided a masterclass on Systems Change through the Skoll Centre for Entrepreneurship that touched on each of these questions.
There are many ways to conceptualise systems change
Paulo started by highlighting the characteristics
of systemic problems. They can’t be solved by a single organisation, have no
single solution, are bound within a system that is greater than the sum of its
parts, are poorly specified, are self-reinforced and are interconnected.
Paulo then outlined early insights from the Skoll Centre’s System Change Observatory that identified seven ways Systems Change is conceptualised:
Disrupting the status quo
Influencing chains of cause-and-effect
Coordinating agents better
Scaling change in numbers or scope
Scaling institutional or cultural change
Scaling an organizational model
There are three pathways to action
According to Paulo and Steve there are three pathways to affect systems change.
Intervening in the configuration and features of a system
Paulo highlighted from his research (Sustainability Hacking: conceptual development and empirical exploration) on sustainability hacking to bring this pathway to life.
A sustainability hack is an unconventional solution that deviates from embedded institutions, i.e. the rules of the game, to address a systemic problem. Sustainability hacks work around the ‘rules of the game’ to accomplish ‘good-enough’ results promptly. Paulo went on to present the five ways sustainability hacks intervene in the configuration and features of a system: emulating value flows; repairing missed value; exploiting a loophole; mirroring feedback loops; reformulating the logic.
Getting the best out of interdependencies
Steve outlined that this pathway requires systems thinkers to first search for connections within a system, particularly those connections that are not obvious or seem illogical. If you can’t find those connections, you then need to expand the boundaries of the system and make the problem bigger to find the variables in the system people ignore.
Looking beyond the organisational-level
The final pathway involves understanding the four failed value exchanges among multiple stakeholders (e.g. investors, employees, suppliers, customers, the environment or society) across a business network:
Systems thinkers and leaders need to reframe systemic problems and recognise their limits
Steve challenged the room to change how each one of us thinks about systemic problems. Instead of setting targets and objectives, he challenged us to influence the systems around us by reframing systemic problems with ambitious visions for the future.
Paulo then reminded us that systems thinkers need to recognise their limits and understand that in complexity, we can’t find a solution, only ‘manage messes’. Most importantly, systems thinkers and leaders need to be humble and recognise the extent of their ignorance to affect Systems Change.
Author bio: Carlos Blanco is an Oxford MBA 2019-20 student. For the past five years he has worked with the not-for-profit, government and private sector in Australia to drive systems change. He is increasingly interested in building broad coalitions of government, not-for-profit and private sector organisations to address humanities most pressing systemic problems.
Khanya Okumu is a 2019-20 Oxford MBA candidate and participant on our co-curricular Impact Lab programme. She reflects on one of the Impact Lab Masterclasses taught in the autumn term, an ever growing and popular discussion by social entrepreneurs, impact measurement.
For quite a while now, in the world of ‘impact’, there have been many opinions on whether impact can be measured. Even more contentious views exist on how it should be measured and if there is scope for these measurement metrics to be standardized. To address this specific topic, the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship hosted a masterclass on the ‘Theory of Change and Impact Accountability’ as part of its Impact Lab Masterclass speaker series.
In a room of 100 people, less than a quarter were confident to admit they know everything there is to know about impact measurement and have the requisite skills to implement impact measurement well. This created fertile soil for speakers Nick Andreou and Francesco Valente (MBA 2018-19 candidates) to plant some ideas on how impact measurement works and how it should be applied to different initiatives.
The ‘why’ for impact measurement is relatively clear, imagine being a business owner or manager who did not monitor income, expenses, employee productivity or customer satisfaction, you would have no idea whether the business should continue or if you should just close shop. In the same way then it makes sense for social impact projects, programmes and investments to monitor and measure whether they are adding value in the way intended.
It’s the ‘how’ for impact measurement where things start to get blurry, and this is where a theory of change becomes important.
The logical steps in a theory of change start off with a needs assessment which identifies specific inputs or activities. These activities when done well lead to a specific set of outputs and outcomes. The result, therefore, should be impact.
I resonated with the initial definition provided by Nick and Francesco on what impact measurement is, as I am an accountant by trade, they defined it as ‘data collection and analysis – the accounting of the impact world’.
In order to do any kind of impact measurement well, the metrics need to be focussed on programme design, delivery and effectiveness. The three approaches covered in the masterclass are outlined in the figure below:
What is clear is that because of the varying outcomes to be measured different measurement tools such as reports, proxies and triangulation can be used. The challenges in adding rigour to the tools are the increase in costs and additional time required. Many ‘impact-first’ programmes tend to rely on external funding, funding which is intended to implement not necessarily for monitoring and evaluation. This is an opportunity for a work-around in the way funding is currently allocated by funds, donors and project sponsors.
By the end of the session, one thing was clear to me: there is a better understanding overall of impact measurement within the impact sector. Furthermore, our impatience with how metrics and measures could be standardised will draw us closer to a world where the metrics and measures are used in a way that adds value to all stakeholders.
noted above was part of a curated series of masterclasses for the Skoll Centre
for Social Entrepreneurship’s Impact Lab 2019-20 cohort. This session was run by
Nick Andreou and Francesco Valente and co-created by MBA students Marvin
Tarawally and Aupah Makoond.
2018-19 Impact Lab student, Puja Balachander, spent the summer of 2019 assisting with the development of our Impact Lab programme. As a participant of the inaugural cohort and with a background in design, she helped the Centre to improve on what had been successful, ensuring that future MBA students would get the best out of Impact Lab. She shares with us her methods for improving impact-focused programming.
Before I came to the MBA, I was a service designer and user researcher in public sector innovation labs at the White House, World Bank, and later the City of Austin, working on making public services more user centered and user friendly. I came to the MBA at Oxford to complement my design skills with the business and operations skills I needed to take my prototypes to scale.
When I got to the Saïd Business School, I joined the small but mighty group of “social impact” MBAs looking to take our work to the next level with business skills. Over my year as a student, and now as an intern at the Skoll Centre working on impact talent development, I’ve learned a few lessons that I think apply to any business programme hoping to support their social impact students:
1. Understand your “impact-MBA” personas, and design programming accordingly
There are a lot of us
that get lumped together as social-impact focused MBAs.
the impact-curious who are looking to enter the field
those who are committed to impact but looking to move into a new sector
and those who want to accelerate their careers in their sectors
The same support doesn’t
work for everyone.
A lot of MBA
programming around impact assumes that we need to be convinced that social
challenges are worth caring about and working on. That is effective for the
impact-curious, and converts some who are on the edge, but it doesn’t cater to
the impact veterans who are already convinced.
That’s why one of the key, but more difficult choices we’ve had to make at the Skoll Centre this year, is to focus the Impact Lab on those who have deep impact experience. This might feel exclusive, but in fact, it ensures that different impact MBAs with different needs and expectations get what they want and need out of the programming. The more we realize there isn’t a single, one-size fits all “impact-MBA”, and design programming that serves more niche needs, the more meaningful students’ engagement will be.
2. Look beyond impact investing and impact consulting
Just as there are
different impact MBA personas with different levels of interest and experience,
there are personas that bring different skills, experiences and interests
within impact. There are former policy makers hoping to bring back a business
perspective, software engineers looking to lend their skills to a social tech
firm, marketers wanting to help rebuild trust in business… the list goes on.
Yet, the MBA impact career pathways can tend to mirror those of the broader
MBA, and overemphasize finance and consulting.
It’s important that
all MBAs, especially the broadly impact curious who might be convinced to
pursue a career in impact, see that they have a place and role in the impact
ecosystem. Impact investing and consulting are each fulfilling and prestigious
careers, but they certainly aren’t for everyone, and don’t begin to cover the
breadth of options and needs in the impact space.
Keeping this in mind, this year the Skoll Centre is collaborating more closely with the careers team at Oxford Saïd to help MBA students navigate through the many different pathways and careers in impact. We’re particularly focused on engaging our incredible network of impact MBA alumni working in every sector from government to NGOs, tech companies, and marketing agencies to banks and consulting firms to share their learnings and advice with the incoming MBA class of 2019-20.
3. Don’t let us lose sight of the humans
There’s the danger
that when students are taught frameworks and tools for impact, they come out
bordering on technocratic. It’s hard not to drink the kool-aid and believe that
an impact consulting framework, or a human-centered design sprint could help us
fully understand and solve the problem. Or that using rigorous financial and
impact analysis will certainly help us identify the social innovations that
will scale. And when we’re sitting in our future jobs sending fancy PowerPoints
or building elaborate models, it has the risk of reinforcing what’s happening
really is this simple! The optimism of the MBA is great, but it’s important to
keep us connected to the humans at the core of all the challenges we want to
This is where the Skoll Centre is looking to deepen its ties to our community. Oxford has a tradition of walling itself off, and we’re working on breaking this down and connect with the community. A great example was through Map the System. When my teammate and I analysed the system that caused inequality in early childhood in Oxfordshire, we found through our research with a local community organization, the Oxford Hub, that promising solutions never made it to implementation because impact reporting frameworks didn’t match the phase of solutions. It’s easy in a classroom to be convinced that impact measurement is important (and it is!), but the nuance comes from interactions with the real world. Creating those opportunities leads to understanding (and employability!).
4. Help us be as rigorous about our personal impact as we would be about an organization’s
As a school focused on responsible business, Oxford Saïd’s theory of change is to pump out business leaders who can create change from within even the most “traditional” companies. But these leaders can’t live up to this vision unless they’re critical about their organization’s and their own activities and intentions.
The same theory
applies within impact as MBAs join impact organizations like the United
Nations, development banks, and corporate sustainability teams. These
traditional players are the natural and prestigious next steps befitting an
MBA, and it’s certainly possible to make significant change through these
positions, but it’s important that we’re as rigorous about our impact and
intentions going into these (or any other) organizations, as we are about our
actions as a responsible leader working for an investment bank or consulting
That’s why in Impact Lab over the next year, we’re putting a finer point on developing a critical perspective on different themes within impact. With every activity, our objective is to help leaders to challenge their assumptions and ask themselves and others the critical questions necessary to ensure they are having the impact they promise. Importantly, we’re extending this perspective to being self-critical, so that students examine the biases and privilege they’re bringing into this work, and how they can overcome and utilize them to help create a fairer, more sustainable and prosperous world.
5. Mainstream impact
Finally, the most
important thing that a business school can do to create a fairer, more
sustainable and prosperous world, is not only to support students that are interested
in impact, but also to mainstream impact within the broader business
curriculum. Oxford Saïd did a great job of this within the core accounting
course this year. Each week, our professor had a group of students research,
critically reflect and present on different themes within extra-financial
accounting and reporting. The school also organized a mandatory union debate
that examined the merits and limitations of mandated sustainability reporting.
It was exciting that ESG factors and sustainability were thoroughly
mainstreamed within our curriculum, and eye-opening (at least to me) to see how
most corporates are thinking about sustainability and impact. Students were
able to leave the accounting course, not only understanding the basics of
accounting, but understanding the current state of extra-financial reporting,
and how we might build on this progress in our careers.
It would be great to
see similar mainstreaming in other core courses like analytics, corporate
finance, and technology and operations. The school already offers elective
courses and co-curricular activities like the Skoll Centre’s Impact Lab for
those who are interested in impact, but it’s all too possible for students who
don’t come in with this interest, to avoid any content and reflection around
impact at all during their MBA degree.
If we want to support every student to become responsible leaders and to pursue purposeful careers, a critical, human-focused, impact education is key for every MBA student.
Puja Balachander is an Oxford MBA 2018-19 student. She is also the co-founder of Devie, a trusted digital service platform that guides parents on their journey from pregnancy to parenthood, equipping them to become their child’s best first teacher.
Puja Balachander is an outgoing 2018-19 Oxford MBA, a member of the inaugural Impact Lab, awardee of the Skoll Venture Awards 2019, and social entrepreneur. On Friday, 11th July, she attended the Business Fights Poverty conference at the Saïd Business School. Here she shares her own personal experience.
Having spent my former life working in the public sector, I have to admit I’ve often been frustrated by the narrative in business circles around social impact. The message is often implicitly or explicitly that government and philanthropy have failed, and therefore business needs to step in to save the day by bringing the “rigour” to the impact sector that it desperately needs.
I walked into the Business Fights Poverty 2019 conference prepared to hear the same rhetoric again, and found it refreshing that rather than painting business as the cure all, the conference theme this year was around “Purposeful Collaboration.” It brought together players from major corporations and the third sector, and emphasized a systems approach to problem solving, where business wasn’t the solution, but it was part of the system of solutions necessary to address the complex global challenges we face.
Yet I couldn’t help but notice the irony of what I saw compared to the expectations I had encountered in government. I was always told that we needed to adopt more rigorous “private sector” methods to understand the ROI of the resources the government spent on social impact. But the conference showed me that the private sector is being far more lackadaisical about their impact efforts than government ever was.
The need to move from defining a corporate purpose, to creating structures, processes and culture that actually facilitate that purpose were repeated in nearly every session, yet the examples cited and celebrated at the conference seemed tokenistic and only superficially impactful. The keynote speaker for the day from Unilever gave a presentation that seemed to equate socially inclusive and progressive marketing with Unilever’s social impact. In a corporate intrapreneurship workshop, speakers from major companies told us about their social innovation initiatives to surface ideas and potential ventures from within their employees. And while I’m sure there might be positive social outcomes that come from these efforts, they sounded more like employee engagement than social innovation.
I’m not sure that celebrating these efforts is helping move companies towards more ambitious and rigorous social impact efforts. At the same time, I’m aware that being overly critical of companies’ incremental efforts could be counter-productive. Incremental progress is better than none at all, and who’s to say that companies won’t throw up their hands and figure that if they’ll be criticized, either way, they might as well go back to a pure profit-maximizing focus?
So rather than a critique, I left the Business Fights Poverty conference with questions. How do we encourage companies to be more ambitious and rigorous about their social impact efforts? Celebration and commendation like we did at the conference felt disingenuous, and like they wouldn’t catalyse the urgency and scale of transformation needed to address the challenges we face. Critique has the potential to scare companies off, or put them on the defensive, stopping them from engaging with the academics, public servants, and third-sector players that might be able to help them in their transformation. Is there a middle ground between these that might put companies under an optimal level of pressure, and provide the optimal support that will spur them forward in their impact journeys?
The MBA Impact Investing Network & Training (MIINT) competition saw 31 MBA teams take part in 2019. With Yale receiving 1st place with a $50,000 investment prize, Oxford and Wharton were selected as runners up with $25,000 each, as investment for the companies they represented. Our Oxford MBA team recall their journey through the tournament and the social enterprise they pitched for.
Meet Richard. Ugandan social entrepreneur taking on women’s empowerment. As a teacher, he noticed that many young women and girls were missing school due menstruation. In rural Uganda, menstruation is still stigmatised, often seen as something ‘unclean’. Alongside this, there is a lack of access to products to help manage menstruation with women turning to rags and even mud to cope. As a result, females are unable to fully participate in society. For example, they can miss up to 20% of school days, leaving them seriously disadvantaged when it comes to earning a livelihood.
In 2010, Richard founded Bana Pads to tackle this range of issues. Bana makes sanitary pads from agricultural banana waste. Throughout the value chain of sourcing, production and sales, Bana exclusively hires rural women to offer jobs to this underserved group.
These pads are then sold in rural areas to enable women to better manage menstruation and therefore participate more fully in society. Because menstruation is a culturally sensitive issue, Bana has come up with an innovative way of distributing their product. Bana’s sales channel is a group of women known as ‘Bana Champions’ who sell pads door to door in rural communities. This reduces the embarrassment of buying pads from (often male) shopkeepers. It also allows the champions to speak with the head of households (again often male) to raise awareness of the challenges of menstruation and the need for pads. Similar work happens in schools and churches. All in all, Bana reaches 20,000 customers per month, selling over 400,000 pads.
We found Richard while involved with the MBA Impact Investing Network and Training (MIINT) programme. MIINT simulates the impact investing process starting from writing an investment thesis, moving through to sourcing, due diligence, and drafting an investment memo. This culminates in pitching to an investment committee for up to $50,000 investment.
After shortlisting 10 companies, we decided to go with Bana for their compelling impact story. We were worried that they did not look like any of the previous winners of the MIINT competition (typically US based firms, with a range of investment already lined up) but decided to persevere.
After preparing an investment case, our first litmus test was the internal competition at Oxford’s Saïd Business School. Three judges with impact investing, venture capital, social entrepreneurship and consulting experience made up our panel.
The judges’ feedback was tough.
There were questions about how scalable the model was; the financial analysis
and valuation; and even why Richard converted from an NGO to a social enterprise
given the challenging investment thesis. All of this was summed up in one
judges’ comment: that the business was ‘un-investable’ as presented. After
leaving the room, we figured that was probably the end of our Bana Pads
A few days later, we were pleasantly
surprised to hear that the judges had selected us to represent the University
of Oxford at the global finals in Wharton. The judges believed in the impact
story of the organisation and the fact that they already had a viable model
based on their track record. The excitement (and very audible celebration) was
so euphoric that the barista at the Oxford Saïd common room came over to
congratulate us on what must’ve been the news that someone was getting married.
And so, we got to work, taking on
board all of the judges’ comments. We worked on the project through our
examinations period and international classes in Johannesburg. Armed with a
brand-new financial model, impact analysis, pitch deck and memo we assembled in
In the morning we pitched in the Semi Finals. Only one team per thematic area would go through to the finals. Following lunch, we were thrilled to hear that not only did the judges chose us, but we also won the students award for best presentation. After the announcement we had a full 30 seconds to mentally prepare before pitching again. This time, in front of a panel of 10 judges including Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Acumen and Omidyar Network and 150 of our fellow competitors from over 30 business schools.
Wharton Social Impact Initiative
We gathered for the final ceremony at the end of the day. Hearts pounding, we listened to the closing speeches. And then the moment we had all been waiting for, “and the winners are…”. When we heard “University of Oxford” it took a full 5 seconds before what had happened sunk in. Cue the madness. We had just won $25,000 for Richard and membership into an incredible network of investors. Joy. Relief. Excitement. Disbelief. Sadness (that it was all over). You name it, we felt it.
This is what business school is all about. Taking on a challenge, building a team, working on something that you’re figuring out as you go along. And we managed to pull it off. Richard was so thrilled, he offered to pay us 10% of the winnings (which we had to refuse at least 5 times). It remains one of the highlights of our year at Oxford, we’ve built some amazing friendships on this team, have some unforgettable memories and (hopefully) helped Richard fulfil his dream for Bana Pads.
The next morning, still jet-lagged, a little dazed from what had just happened, we reminisced about the six-month journey that brought us here as we made our way home, taking one last photo before we left…
We’d very much like to thank
those who supported us in travelling to Wharton including MIINT, the Skoll
Centre, the Saïd Business School, Green Templeton College and Kellogg College.