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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But why am I here?

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

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

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

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

Find Daniela on  TwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

Visit Daniela’s personal project on emotional intelligence here.

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A letter to my younger self

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

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

“Dear Mohsin,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salute comrade,

Mohsin”

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

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

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

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My journey from Peru

One sunny day in 2016, I was 4,000 meters above sea level crammed into a minivan riding across the southern mountains of Peru on the way to make my first big quinoa purchase. A wooden truck was waiting for me on the chaotic streets of Juliaca. An all-women’s farmer association hours away in the mountains was anxious to sell me their bright orange native quinoa, which I was then going to transport to a processing facility to be washed. Everything had been carefully planned, but as I have learned many times during my 6 years working in the Andes it is best to assume that something may inevitably go wrong.

Sure enough, on the road ahead I saw hundreds of Quechua farmers striking and creating a roadblock. Fortunately, the driver and the other 16 passengers, all strangers, were even more anxious to get to Juliaca than I was. We rode the mini-van across fields, jumped out to dig and move rocks, were chased by protesters, jumped back into the van, and dramatically escaped. It was not even 9am. I had a very long day ahead.

 

 

Working in the Andes can be challenging, but I am always inspired by region’s vast untapped potential in biodiversity and sustainable foods. That is why I founded Kai Pacha Foods, a social enterprise selling plant-based milks made with native quinoa and other Andean superfoods. With soaring demand for alternatives to dairy, our Quinoa Milk provides a better source of protein than other leading beverages such as almond or coconut milk. Ethical sourcing practices create a positive impact in Andean communities, generating larger incomes for smallholder farmers and conserving mountain ecosystems.

Many people are familiar with Quinoa’s amazing qualities as a food. Less well known are quinoa’s super-powers as a plant. Quinoa and other Andean grains such as tarwi and kañiwa were developed by ancient civilizations to thrive in extreme environments up to 5,000 meters above sea level in spite of climate insecurity, fragile soils, and very little water. The thousands of local quinoa varieties that exist are adapted to incredibly diverse climate conditions and are a source of high-quality proteins. This makes them an amazing potential resource for food security as humanity faces climate change. Sadly, smallholder farmers in the Andes suffer poverty and neglect in spite of their important roles as stewards of biodiversity and clean water.

I learned about these and other issues during the first 4 years I spent living in the rural areas and working to support rural households through microfinance and fair trade artisanry. Having grown up as a Peruvian American in the United States, I was thrilled to learn more about local realities of the Andes. At Awamaki and Faire collection, I enjoyed my jobs managing projects and coordinating logistics to bring artisan goods to U.S. retailers.

However, I became fascinated by the prospect of working with Andean foods when I talked to quinoa farmers and learned their version of the quinoa globalization story. The quinoa boom had dramatically raised incomes and helped rural families rise out of poverty. Far from being unable to access quinoa, smallholder farmers were eating it several times per week with money to spare for vegetables. Many other Peruvians, who had always discriminated against quinoa as a low-class “food of the indians,” were becoming educated about the benefits of quinoa for the first time. Then, in 2015 the farmer price of quinoa plummeted leaving rural populations struggling once again to make a decent living.

Quinoa Milk occurred to me as an innovative solution, but bringing the product from concept to reality was a tremendous challenge that involved linking farmers, production facilities, laboratories, and high-end natural foods stores in Lima. After more than two years, our product is in 10 retail venues in Lima and we are working to scale our production facility. However, my time in Lima’s natural foods space has made me aware of the challenges of scaling a social enterprise in such a small national market with limited resources.

I decided to apply for an MBA at Oxford because I realized the need for greater skills, knowledge, networks, and access to capital in order to scale locally based projects like mine that support the sustainable use of biodiversity. I hope to have a larger impact as a leader capable of executing system changing solutions to the urgent problems that our food system currently faces. The program has already opened my mind to many new possibilities and connections that I can use to grow my company. Oxford is a fabulous new adventure, but the realities I experienced in Peru are never far from my thoughts. In the meantime, I could not be happier to be part of a community of diverse leaders who inspire and challenge me to refine my vision of change.

 

By Alexander Wankel, Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA candidate 2018-19

 

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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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On blackberries and change

Skoll Scholar, Sandra Fisher-Martins, poetically portrays her life in Oxford since arriving here with her husband and son 1-year ago to join the MBA programme at Oxford’s Saïd Business School.  

If I followed the fence of the train station and turned left onto the Botley Road, I could walk to the Business School in less than 10 minutes. I rarely did. Almost every morning I took a right onto a dirt path overgrown with brambles and crossed a short bridge over a swampy ditch to walk along the 50-metre stretch of canal to the railroad underpass, brimming with urban wildlife.

In September there were still some blackberries on the tallest bushes and the odd fish in the water. In October the spiders were out. Come November, the riverside grasses had died, and the paths widened. December brought snow, silence, eerie light. In January and February robins, squirrels, and the occasional fox were still there, braving the cold. March gave us more snow and the first blooms. By April the iridescent bugs and the flowers were back. In mid-May, the river was blanketed with fluff from the poplar trees, and the pikes and roaches congregated in the shade of the train tracks. At the end of June, the brambles’ pale pink flowers crowned bright green berries, promising another Autumn feast.

I have never felt the passage of time more distinctly. As the seasons changed and the riverside path went from dusty to muddy, from frozen to flooded, I noticed and cherished the sunny spells as much as the drizzly days.

Image of the Oxford Canal Pathway with snow on the ground

I came to Oxford looking for change, uncertain of the direction it ought to take or where it could lead. The encounters, experiences, conversations, and opportunities awarded by the MBA created the fertile conditions for it to occur. In fact, they made it unavoidable. It would be impossible to be in this environment, with these people, and not be permeable to ideas, ways of being, aspirations.

In Michaelmas, Herminia Ibarra’s lectures had me wondering whether the identity I had built over the years still suited my goals — and what could replace it. In Hillary, I could feel my priorities shifting and a pull towards areas that had never been on my radar, like innovative finance and climate change. At the beginning of Trinity, darkness threatened to take over. In Oxford we learn to take things apart and question them from all angles — a valid approach if applied in moderation; however, indiscriminate use can undermine the modicum of optimism necessary to keep ‘daring greatly’. By the end of the term, hope had been restored, as I started exploring a partnership that will take Claro’s mission global, as well as working with a colleague on an impact fund that picks companies based on their ESG performance.

I am grateful for the transformative opportunity to have spent this year at Oxford Saïd and to everyone who challenged and supported me — colleagues, lecturers, and particularly the Skoll community. Sustained by their thoughtfulness, I was able to engage with the ups and the downs, learning and changing every day. As I prepare to continue my journey, enriched with dozens of new friends and fired up by fresh, better questions, I hope that I will remember and cherish the sunny spells as much as the drizzly days.

Close up on blackberry blossom