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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

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Vanilla, blockchain and the circular economy – one year on the Oxford MBA

Skoll Scholar and circular economy entrepreneur, Nikhil Dugal, highlights the best part of his year at Oxford on the MBA programme. 

The Oxford MBA is quite a unique experience in the world of business education. The extent to which our class discussions and interests differ from other business schools is apparent when I travel to London to meet friends enrolled in other MBAs.

Over the course of the past year, the MBA has helped me keep pace with many issues of recent development, including emerging technologies, climate change mitigation and the circular economy, all while keeping one foot firmly in the business world.

Sustainable Vanilla

Another opportunity to undertake learning was the entrepreneurship project (EP) in Trinity term. In addition to encouraging novel business ideas, Oxford Saïd also invites external collaborators to come pitch live projects to the MBAs for the EP. This offers individuals in Oxford the opportunity to work with MBAs on their project for a semester, while the students get the opportunity to work on a live project and contribute to real-world impact.

My team used the opportunity to work with an agro-ecologist from Oxford who is working on preventing deforestation in Indonesia by encouraging local farmers to grow Vanilla in the rainforests. Vanilla is the second-most expensive cash crop in the world. However, only 1% of the world’s supply comes from natural sources, while the majority comes from synthetic vanilla manufactured from petrochemicals. Natural vanilla grows as an orchid and can be planted in degraded rainforests to help restore the natural ecosystem in a polyculture system. Establishing a larger market for forest-grown organic Vanilla from Indonesia can help restore degraded rainforests and provide smallholder farmers a more lucrative alternative to engaging in unsustainable palm oil farming. We spent a semester working on their business models, financial projections and market entry strategy. Meanwhile, they have started a pilot in Kalimantan and planted 18000 saplings on 500 hectares of land leased from the government. Moving forward, their team will be using our research and projections to scale the project, raise funding and enter the market.

Nikhil debating at the Responsible Business Forum.

Nikhil debating at the Responsible Business Forum.

Circular Economy

Before joining Oxford Saïd, I was working on a circular business in India, making eco-friendly infrastructure for development sector organizations. The circular economy elective in Trinity term gave me the opportunity to interact with a diverse set of stakeholders working to establish the circular economy in the UK. This included entrepreneurs from companies such as Toast Ale and Elvis & Kresse, investors such as LWARB and Circularity Capital as well as practitioners from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This gave us a broader view of how the ecosystem works in the UK and provided opportunities to network with people working on the front-lines of the problem.

Blockchain for Impact

Over the course of  ‘Strategy and Innovation’, we were given the chance to apply concepts learned in class to an emerging field. I took the opportunity to research the use of blockchain technology for sustainable supply chain tracking. After learning more about this topic for my final coursework, I was given the opportunity to interact with two practitioners working on applying the technology on the ground and hear their perspective on it as well. Hugh Locke, the president and co-founder of the Smallholder Farmers Alliance in Haiti visited to speak at the Responsible Business Forum 2018. Their partnership with Timberland is using blockchain technology, built from the ground up with beneficiaries in mind, to help source sustainably grown cotton and revive the Haitian Cotton Industry. At the same forum, we were also visited by David Davies, the founder of AgUnity, which is using blockchain to increase the transparency of financial transactions in farmer cooperatives and increase farmer’s trust in the institution.  During Trinity Term, our Tech for Impact class hosted one of the founders of Alice, which is using blockchain technology to undertake social impact tracking to help create a new type of cryptocurrency based social impact bonds. At Saïd Business School, what I’ve appreciated about the learning style is the ability to balance both theory and practice.

Nikhil and his peers in traditional Oxford exam attire.

Nikhil and his study group on the MBA.

Systems Change

The issues social entrepreneurs work on are extremely complex and involve many stakeholders with diver interests. Tackling complex problems like climate change can seem overwhelming because of the complexity of the problem itself. Systems change constitutes studying how systems work, identifying stakeholders that are part of a system, understanding their preferences and identifying inflection points in the system where an intervention can lead to a significant impact. At the Skoll World Forum, I had the opportunity to also meet system entrepreneurs who are working in the field of systems change, in organizations such as Participatory Cities and Forum for the Future.

Moving forward, I will be spending the summer researching systems change and meeting practitioners to undertake landscaping research with the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship.

This past year has given me the opportunity to step back, reconsider the impact of my work, and inform my opinion by giving me a broad exposure to topics that are interrelated to my work. Although the year has gone by unbelievably fast, it has also reformed my perception of the world. There are an uncountable number of people of all ages and professions, who are working to help realize the world of the future. It’s a world that includes autonomous electric vehicles, distributed ledger technology and a global shift towards renewable energy.

The opportunity for me to be at the center of this transition has been made possible with a Skoll Scholarship and it will continue to shape my thinking as I transition out of Oxford, back into the world.

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A year in Oxford

From baby #2 to navigating the crowds of tourists, our Skoll Scholar, Kevin Duco Warner, shares his incredibly personal and candid story of his year on the Oxford MBA. 

Oxford.

This place is special.

The juxtaposition of a medieval university city with the youthful bustle of 20,000 students makes for a vibrant daily experience. Even the mundane gains a touch of class from the surrounding environment. I’ve never thought of pigeons as graceful but watching them soar over St. Mary’s imposing 13th century edifice, they are nothing short of majestic. Every day is full of life and it is hard not to feed off the energy. Whether you are a pigeon or a Skoll Scholar, it is clear: Oxford is transformative. I am incredibly fortunate to be here.

St. Mary's - Oxford

St Mary’s, Oxford

What’s more, I am permanently tied to this place. In January my wife gave birth to our second child, Owen, at the John Radcliffe Hospital. What stronger connection can you have to a city than to have a child there? Oxford is permanently a part of our family story now.

New life is magical, but boy is it work! Balancing parenthood with an accelerated MBA program is one of the more challenging things that I’ve done. Sometimes it was difficult to be my best self when engaging with the city, especially with its visitors.

The ancient streets get clogged with tourists. They block the sidewalks, completely oblivious to the fact that I have a new-born strapped to my chest and am pushing a 3-year-old in a stroller. I’ve often been forced to push the stroller in the street to get past the masses of people. Initially, I reacted in anger, and I am quite sure that on one especially trying day, I managed to startle a busload of Dutch retirees and a group of French schoolchildren within the course of about two minutes. There was no harm intended, but I understand why they may have been intimidated: I’m a giant man, and I was sleep-deprived. I could have handled the situation better.

It is easy to roll your eyes when people stop the flow of traffic to take a picture of a coffee shop. You pass by it daily, it’s just another Pret a Manger, but for them it’s an amazing sight. And I get it. How many chain coffee shops are in 600-year-old buildings? Oxford is special.

The Pret a Manger shop inside a 600 year old tudor-style building in Oxford

The Pret a Manger!

Every day in Oxford is another opportunity to engage with the tourists. More recently I’ve tried to make this a positive experience. There is humour to be had in these interactions with the right mindset. Now I wear the biggest, dopiest smiles when I bomb their photos on my way to class. I’ve made it a mission. At this point in the year, I am fairly confident that there are people all over the world with pictures of me smiling in Oxford.

Even the busloads of tourists can be funny. I love the groups of old Japanese ladies on holiday. They make me feel like Godzilla, wading through a sea of 80 tiny ladies who barely reach my chest.

And that’s the magic of this place. It draws people from all around the globe. Where else can an American business student engage with Dutch retirees and French school children and old Japanese ladies? And that’s just on the streets around my house. When I go to class at Saïd Business School there are over 50 countries represented by my fellow students. Sure, I’ve learned an extreme amount about business this year, but I’ve also learned about the world by engaging with my peers.

It’s the things you learn outside of class that really stick with you. I can now find Mauritius on a map. I know the best way to deal with the roving packs of macaque monkeys that plague the streets of Delhi. I can understand English spoken with 320 unique accents, and can usually even identify their country of origin.

A few months ago, I accidently walked in on someone in a bathroom stall at school. I never saw who it was, but I knew immediately from the angry “sorry!” as he slammed the door back closed that it was a Canadian. I would not have been able to discern that a year ago.

Importantly, the MBA has taught me how to properly frame what seem like intangible skills and knowledge into marketable attributes. Kevin Warner, global communications expert. Kevin Warner, human relations professional. Kevin Warner, Godzilla.

These days, I mostly go by Papa.

Kevin and his new son

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A chapter finished, a community found

From intention of reflection to community and opportunity, Skoll Scholar 2017-18, Aaron Bartnick, reflects on his year at Oxford.

One of my first and most powerful memories in Oxford was walking around Radcliffe Square during the first few weeks of classes. In many ways the heart and soul of Oxford, Radcliffe Square is home to some of the University’s oldest and most beautiful libraries, colleges, and chapels. Flanked by towers of Headington stone just catching the golden hour’s light, I found myself incredibly humbled, wondering how I could have ended up here. Some of the greatest writers in the Western tradition, from Hawthorne to Yeats to Wilde, have paid tribute to Oxford’s enchantments, and I will not seek to replicate their efforts here. Suffice to say, at the end of my brief year at Oxford I am happy to report that I am still in awe of this place every single day. But the focus of my awe has shifted significantly.

I came to Oxford with three objectives. I wanted to acquire specific skills in finance and accounting, meet new and interesting people from all over the world, and try to process my last few years of experiences to figure out where I wanted to head next.

The first was a surprising success. I far exceeded my very modest expectations in finance and carved out an unexpected niche for myself in seed stage venture capital. We need not dwell on accounting, though I would be remiss in not once again thanking the classmates who dragged me across the finish line when they had so much to do themselves.

The third was a surprising failure. In retrospect it seems comically naive to have thought a 12-month MBA would be a time for quiet thought and reflection, which is part of why I will be continuing my studies back home in the United States this fall.

But never in my most ambitious dreams could I have anticipated my success in the second. It is perhaps no surprise that Oxford attracts incredibly talented students from around the globe. But if I have come to appreciate one thing this year it is how the Saïd Business School, imperfections and all, was able to assemble such an amazing cohort of individuals and give them an opportunity to meet and learn from one another. Even in July, a full 10 months after starting our journey together, I still find myself learning new things about my peers’ accomplishments that put my own to shame. Yet talent alone is hardly a differentiator amongst top business schools. What makes this place and these people unique in my mind is that just about everyone I have met, whether they came here from a nonprofit in Peru, a trading floor in London, or a law firm in Australia, is interested in not just hard-nosed business, but business in the pursuit of something bigger than ourselves.

Oxford MBA students on stage at the MBATs in 2018.

The 2018 MBAT championships featuring the 2017-18 cohort of Oxford MBA students on stage.

That shared ethos has manifested itself in a stunningly beautiful community, where people collaborate not just on assignments and revision but work together to launch new startups and impact investing funds, help Australia prepare for the future of work, and develop new accounting standards that reward those who build for the long term, not just the next quarter. There are of course talented and socially-minded people all over the world–a lot more of them than there were a generation ago, and more interconnected than ever. But I have lived and worked in more than a dozen countries on four continents, and I have never seen a community quite like this one.

Everyone from the Bible to Winston Churchill to Spider Man tells us that with great power comes great responsibility. By virtue of the opportunities we’ve had as Oxford students and will have as Oxford alumni, the question for us is no longer whether we will make our mark. We already have incredible power and privileges, and plenty more are on the way. The question is how we will go about making that mark, and whether we will live up to the daunting responsibilities that accompany that power: responsibilities to our fellow man, to our planet, and to future generations. Though the specter of complacency is one against which we must always be vigilant, I am fully confident that the people I have met this year will soon be at the vanguard of a new generation of responsible business leaders. It has been one of the great privileges of my life to share this year with them. For they are far more radiant than even the fabled Headington stone.

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The Role of Universities in Creating Social Innovation

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Natalie Wong, 2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, reports on the Skoll World Forum’s Oxford Union Debate.

Yesterday, the Oxford Union Debating Chamber opened its doors to Skoll World Forum delegates, Oxford students, and the public to host the first ever debate during the Skoll World Forum. With spontaneous outbursts of stomping, snapping, applause and hooting, by-passers may have wondered what was going on inside the Chamber. The lively audience had come to watch six global leaders from the public, private, and academic sectors engage in a debate on the following Proposition: “This House believes that universities lack the necessary ‘proximity’ to be effective agents of social innovation in the 21st Century.”

Over the past week, I learned from creative entrepreneurs dedicated to innovating for the benefit of the users they served. Alloysius Attah, Founder of Farmerline, shared in the Farmer-Centered Design session that by staying proximate to his farmer-users, the venture expanded their information delivery mechanism from text to voice in local languages. Coupled with my own experience of venture investing in East Africa, I was in support of the proposition at the start of the debate—how can aspiring changemakers possibly conjure up effective social innovations while being literally and/or figuratively thousands of miles away from the problems they aim to solve?

Meagan Fallone, CEO of Barefoot College, delivers her speech for the proposition.

Bill Drayton, the CEO and Chair of Ashoka, kicked the debate off with a challenging assertion, one that was reinforced and developed by Meagan Fallone, the CEO of Barefoot College, and Nicola Steuer, the Managing Director of the School for Social Entrepreneurs. Mr. Drayton proposed that universities as a system is structurally—and perhaps dangerously—broken. Their culture, organizational arrangements, and systems reinforce one another, driving them away from the capacity to contribute to innovation. Ms. Fallone added that the universities’ system prize literacy above experiential learning, which hinders the responsive thought process necessary to be a truly social innovation organization. Using the example of Bright Simon, who germinated mPedigree to leverage mobile and web technologies in securing products against faking, counterfeiting, and diversion first in Ghana and now globally, the debaters suggested developing real solutions demands that we deal with the messiness of human beings and assume real risks. Yet, in a system where the perceived success and legitimacy of universities are reflected by rankings tied to the financial earnings of its graduates, their individual academic success, and other indicators, there is little room to promote risk-taking associated with innovation. This is particularly limiting in an age where the rate of change in innovations and global issues is increasing exponentially. Finally, Ms. Steuer concluded that universities systematically exclude far too many individuals with direct social inequities experience and are unable to connect to the people facing the greatest injustices in society. Indeed, as Ms. Fallone noted, the largest movement of real social innovation of the past came from individuals who lost themselves to be in close proximity to those they served.

Ben Nelson, Founder and CEO of Minerva Project, closes the arguement against the proposition.

In rebuttal, the opposing team, composed of Agnes Binagwaho, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity, Keith Magee, Senior Researcher Fellow of Culture and Justice at UCL, and Ben Nelson, Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Minerva Project, wove an argument that illustrated how universities have adapted to the changing landscape through innovation, and the vital roles universities have played and will continue to play despite their shortcomings. Using her own university as an example, Ms. Binagwaho argued that more universities are embracing pedagogies that engage students where they live, solving problems through the necessary proximity. Mr. Magee asserted that universities have blended creativity, compassion, and culture to remain as relevant agents of social change and innovation. Mr. Nelson solidified that assertion by highlighting that proximity is necessary but not sufficient—it enables students and individuals to contextualize the systematic knowledge that must be learned through institutions of higher education. Furthermore, he suggested that the proposition only required universities to be effective catalysts of change. The audience would be mistaken to confuse Oxford University, where the debate was held, as a prototypical university. In the United States, at least, the majority of students live at home, attending colleges or universities in their communities and remain proximate to the these communities’issues.

In the end, the audience decided the opposition team presented a more convincing argument, and voted against the proposition. Personally, I remain unconvinced and believe that universities indeed lack the proximity needed to be effective agents of social innovation. However, I stand with the opposition team in acknowledging the crucial roles universities play in convening and inspiring students and experts alike, holding their ideas to the highest academic integrity, and teaching skills such as systemic thinking that supplement the insufficient beneficial condition of proximity in solving world-scale problems. As Ms. Fallone quoted, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”[1] Universities must commit to equipping their students to be lifelong learners and critical thinkers to understand the kaleidoscope of a rapidly evolving context or risk becoming irrelevant as social innovation flourishes elsewhere.

Watch the recording of the debate

[1] Alvin Toffle

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Lean Impact: How to scale social innovation for good

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Nikhil Dugal, Skoll Scholar and 2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, reports on the Skoll World Forum workshop ‘Lean Impact: Scaling Innovations for Social Good’.

Ann Mei Chang is the author of the upcoming book, Lean Impact, on how modern approaches to innovation can drive massively greater social impact and scale.

She is the former Chief Innovation Officer and Executive Director of the U.S. Global Development Lab at USAID. Prior to her pivot to the public sector, Ann Mei had over twenty years of experience at leading Silicon Valley companies including Google, Apple, Intuit, and some startups.

At the Skoll World Forum, she led a workshop titled Lean Impact: Scaling Innovations for Social Good where participants were introduced to the lean methodology to help develop more scalable solutions for social innovation. Participants were asked to arrive with a social challenge or a solution where they’d like to see growth.

Session for Lean Impact - Workshop cabaret tables at the Skoll World Forum

The workshop started with her posing an intriguing question. There has been slow but steady progress in multiple focus areas in the development sector such as sanitation and health, but shouldn’t we be shooting for progress at the same rate as disruptive technologies such as mobile phones? Their adoption has skyrocketed over the past two decades unlike any other technology deployed in the social sector.

Edison once stated, ‘genius is one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration’. A lot of time when we think about innovation, we focus on the one percent inspiration, but success is about making that idea practical and applying it to achieve true impact at scale in the world.

The lean startup movement has done a good job capturing the fundamental strategies for scaling up in the startup sector but the movement mostly addresses businesses in the private sector. Lean impact aims to help fill in the gaps for applying the lean methodology in the social sector.

Ann started the session with three principles to follow in order to achieve lean impact: Think big, start small and relentlessly seek impact.

  • Think Big: Think about the problems that you want to solve, instead of thinking about problems you can currently address based on your resources. For example, Astro Teller from Google X stated that we should be clear whether our aim is to make a 10% or a 10x improvement. Sometimes 10x could actually be easier because fewer people have tried it.
  • Start small: Key to innovation is about how fast you’re able to iterate your solution. That’s why you should start small. It’s easier to test something out with 10 people rather than 1000 people.
  • Relentlessly seek impact: You need to love your problem not your solution, and relentlessly seek impact in your interventions.

Further, she stated that social innovation lies at the intersection of three pillars: growth, value and impact.

Ben diagram of Social Innovation. Value/Growth/Impact

1) Value

The value in the social sector comes from two customers, your funders and your end users.

You need to understand what your end users need, and not move forward with assumptions. Are you delivering something people want or come back for? How do you make something people desire and demand?

A prime example for testing customer value is PATH water filters. They tried two versions when they were going to market, one was the simplest and cheapest version, and one was a nicer model that cost twice as much. Three times as many people bought the nicer version because they didn’t want something that looked like a trashcan sitting in their living room! You want to create real world conditions to see how people will respond in the real world because observed data is more valuable than self reported data.

Meanwhile, funders are looking to minimize risk rather than enhancing learning. Funders need to look at starting small, taking more risk and placing lots to bets. Based on traction, funding can be scaled up over time.

2) Growth

Do you have an engine for growth that doesn’t just grow linearly but accelerates over time? Many organizations focus on scaling their work in the short term instead of the long term. In the social sector, we often see growth curves like the inverse hockey stick. An organization can scale quickly but then when they reach 100,000 or 1 million people, there are just not enough donor dollars to continue scaling up and stagnation occurs.

A typical grant program can cause organizations to scale up too fast instead of iterating, starting small and testing solutions before scaling them up. We need to also validate drivers that can accelerate growth in the long run.

3) Impact

It is also possible for an organization to scale up too fast, and focus on vanity metrics such as the number of people they reach or total funding mobilized. This leads to scale with unclear impact. Instead, innovation (outcome) metrics should be drivers for how your intervention works, such as adoption rates or percentage of users working or studying longer. How can we test early on to see if the intervention solves the problem we are addressing? There are several linkages between an intervention and the resulting impact that need to be confirmed before scaling up.

Organizations like ID insight are introducing cheaper and faster tools to evaluate impact, lightweight proxies that can tell if the intervention is working before investing in expensive evaluations like RCTs.

Decision vs. knowledge focused evaluation

Ann went on to explain that there are four proto-typical business models in the social sector:

  • Market-driven: These rely on market forces for traction, and are the easiest to scale. For example, Off-grid Solar uses a pay-as-you-go business model using mobile money over time instead of customers facing a large upfront cost.
  • Cross-subsidy model: This involves cross-subsidizing an impact generating non-profit service with a for-profit or revenue generating activity. A leading example is Arvind eye care that has each wealthy patient pay for up to 3-4 people. Facilities are different but everyone gets the same quality healthcare.
  • Replication: Microfinance was pioneered by the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh by Mohammed Yunis. This model has now been replicated and spread around the world to reach over 200 million people.
  • Government spending: This is a often the most appropriate/likely path to scale for basic services such as health and education, where the government is usually the biggest provider and potential partner.

Workshop Exercises

The session also included a workshop to help participants work on their ideas.

The first included defining a goal and a problem. To identify a goal we can start by asking, ‘How will the world be different in 10+ years if you succeed?’. A problem is what is preventing the goal from being reached today. These problems are due to some root causes. If we identify those, it can help frame the solutions to address them.

The second exercise was to generate lots of solutions to pick one for testing. Attendees were asked to be creative and think outside the box, keeping in mind that high risk leads to high reward. Participants must start with a blank slate in order to do so. Then, one idea must be selected from this list and the attendee must identify their assumptions behind it and how the solution will play out.

The third exercise was about asking who will pay for the product/service at scale and who will implement the solution at scale.

To learn more about Lean Impact and Ann’s upcoming book, visit leanstartup.co/social-good