Looking inward: Business school’s most important class is not-for-credit

Skoll Scholar and MBA student Songqiao Yao is a researcher, prostate activist and entrepreneur working on global environmental sustainability issues such as food, diagnosis water, and climate change. 

It seems only yesterday when I walked into an ocean of over 300 new MBAs, all in formal dark suits, eager to meet each other. Six weeks in, everyone is buried shoulder deep in coursework readings, group projects, rowing outings, countless social events and multiple recruiter presentations every day. Said Business School and the wider Oxford seems to be an overwhelming intellectual machine and we all jumped onto the fastest ride, seeking to maximise our time and take in all the amazing opportunities.

As I look at my completely booked-out schedule with different colour blocks overlapping with each other, I realised that I have been lazy in another form of learning, the one about tending to your inner voice. Especially among a big group of over-achievers, it is too easy to fall into the trap of imposter syndrome, or feel like whatever we have achieved previously is not enough. We are all compensating by signing up for another personal development workshop, careers event, or master class. Business school provides a wonderful opportunity to hear and learn from all kinds of industries, people and organizations. It is easy to focus all our attentions externally, simply because there are so many amazing speakers, workshops, debates and opportunities to acquire one more skillset or toolkit for success. On the last day of Launch, the orientation program for new students, the biggest worries and fears for all the new class as a collective are Careers and FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).

Naming and facing this fear and insecurity is hard, and takes courage. While the wonderful courses at SBS teach us useful tactics to equip ourselves, the personal reflective practice requires a disciplined personal practice. The space for authentic, whole self, grounded in our personal values and presence, is what Otto Scharmer calls the “blindspot of leadership”. This inner space is where all of us need to start from and come back to, when we are faced with too many external options or extreme challenges. Dominic Barton, when giving the final keynote speech for MBA launch, mentioned that truly transformative leadership is rooted in character. Behaviours and tactics, which are more commonly associated with good leadership practices, are built on the foundation of character. In other words, who we are is more important than what we do and how we do it.

I truly agree with many of our professors that we live at a great moment in human history, with unprecedented challenges and enormous opportunities. As we have learned in our Global Opportunities and Threat class, the risky, uncertain and unpredictable future is already here. What we do now will directly affect our future, and who we are as individuals directly affects society as a whole. Taking advantage of the vast Oxford network, I find myself in a seminar on systems-thinking in the Geography department. Businesses traditionally have solved many “tame”, or structured, targeted problems. However, the future presents more “wicked problems” or even “super-wicked” problems. These complex issues are intractable, and we have incomplete knowledge both of the solutions and of the unexpected consequences. We all know too well from the international development space that those that try to solve the problem may even be contributing to exacerbating the problem. As Saïd Business School seeks to tackle world-scale problems as a world-class business school embedded in a world-class university, I feel the urgency to bring attention to our inner space.

Aligning our values with what we do can have tremendous benefits for our work and life. Kurt April during his one-day workshop focusing on values showed us that our stress level actually goes down and our body goes into restorative mode, when we are engaged in work that we truly care about. However, getting to that space takes many attempts, constant examination, and realignment with our everyday engagement in the world with our inner values. This cannot be achieved by a two-day personal branding workshop, or a one-day leadership development course, but will be ongoing theme in the days ahead of us.

Although I sometimes find myself frustrated at the external-focused mentality that could be infectious at business school, and feeling impatient at traditional ways of teaching and learning in basic business courses, I do realize that what is happening at Oxford Saïd is representative of the bigger society. However, like seeds that may blossom in the future, I am loving finding out and actively participate in shaping business school to be a more conscious, nurturing space that allows all of us to get in touch with our whole, authentic selves. The lovely garden as a perfect space for meditation, the inspiration of those who work at the Skoll centre, the reflective exercises during Launch, leadership fundamentals, the student-organized mindfulness training and yoga classes, and the many beautiful vulnerable moments of seemingly polished and well-spoken MBA cohorts continue to inspire me and keep me working hard in my personal goals, to pay attention to our blindspots: Our inner selves.


Gathering strength and skills from a year in the ‘Oxford bubble’

Pip Wheaton is a Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA for 2015-16, viagra 60mg and is also the founder of enke:Make Your Mark, sales  a youth development organisation that inspires and supports young South Africans who are taking action on the most urgent social issues.

A couple of weeks ago, I left the bubble of Oxford to spend the weekend in South Africa. It was the annual strategy retreat for the organisation I started six-and-a-bit years ago, enke: Make Your Mark. It was also the crescendo of the national student movement that was protesting against the proposed fee increase for universities. I arrived on the Friday morning, coincidentally just in time to be able to show solidarity and join the protest at the Union Buildings in Pretoria where President Jacob Zuma was deliberating the demands.

We arrived on the dusty, smoky scene just as police fired stun grenades into what looked like a peaceful group, with helicopters circling overhead and barbed wire being rolled out along the road. Despite the palpable sense that violence was only a misstep away, the mood was optimistic. The results left most of us torn: they showed the power of youth-led, non-political, peaceful protests (the president agreed to a 0% fee increase for 2016), but they were also a cop-out by government, because neither the underlying issues nor the long-term challenges inherent in the education system were addressed.

I got back to Oxford on the Tuesday morning (after three days locked in the enke offices working on strategy). I was exhausted. The need for change has rarely felt simultaneously so urgent and so possible as it did that weekend and all I wanted to do was stay on the frontline to do whatever I could. Returning to the Oxford felt like I was running away.

Oxford is a bubble. The academic requirements of the year are only limited by how much time you choose to put in; there is a never-ending stream of fascinating talks and events so you don’t need to go elswhere for entertainment; thousands of people have uprooted themselves from their normal lives to create a temporary new world together. It feels like real life is suspended here. Returning to this, after a weekend of slap-you-in-the-face reality in South Africa, it felt like I was evading responsibility.

But when I arrived back to school, I remembered why taking a year out to do an MBA is so precious. From when we started enke in 2009 through to the last months of handover six years later, I was so absorbed in the day-to-day of the work – in designing and delivering programs, in fundraising, in management, in strategy, in impact measurement – that I didn’t make space to develop myself. And I was definitely not delivering my best work as a result.

This opportunity is so much more than the raw skills we learn in class. It’s the time out to think. It’s the weird and wonderful extra activities. It’s the people we get to engage with. It’s a year to invest in yourself, whatever that looks like for you.

I chose to come to Saïd Business School for the focus on social impact. So did a lot of other people here. That means that the conversations we have in the hallways between classes or over beer and pizza after school are just as valuable as any case study analysis or financial modeling we do. In the week since coming back from South Africa I’ve had the opportunity to brainstorm a friend’s business idea for increasing accessibility to ultrasounds in Kenya; I’ve discussed free will (or the absence thereof) over too much wine; I’ve have my assumptions about global financial systems challenged. While none of those things have immediate, tangible impact, in a years time, when all of this is over, everyone in this class should be better placed to do the work we choose. So while I’m not going to shake the conflict I feel from being in this bubble and not actively creating change this year, I hope that I’ll be more effective when I next get my hands dirty.


View from the top

Skoll Scholar and MBA student Ritesh Singhania gives us his first thoughts and impressions from the top of his year here in Oxford.

“Remember Red, hope is a good thing may be the best of things and no good thing ever dies”

-Shawshank Redemption

At Oxford, every time I decide to step out of my house I am hopeful that I will hear a story that I have never heard before. I will meet someone who is studying a course, which I did not even know one could study, or I will learn about a culture I previously knew nothing about.

I am an extrovert, a people’s person who loves to meet people, know their cultures and stories, and try to see the world through their lenses. As I grow older, it’s sometimes difficult for me to leave my own perspective and experience and see the world through the perspective of my half Turkish- half Swiss friend, who I met at a Halloween party. It was my first Halloween ever, where I decided to dress up as Charlie Chaplin. It was a little difficult to sip on drinks and eat while taking care of the moustache.

There have been more than a few things that I have done for the first time at Oxford. Oxford University is an institution where we do things a little differently than others. Some of them are really fun, but some of them might not be so much fun. To be really honest, I am enjoying each of these traditions that are such an integral part of this 800 old university. Most of these things I have never done before and in all probability will not do after this year. This is my only year to experience each of these traditions and I am absolutely loving every bit of it.

My undergraduate college was in no ways similar to my current college. I do not remember wearing anything but casual wear to college dinners, whereas at Oxford we have to suit up each time for a formal dinner in college. It is an experience that I am living here everyday, and extending to my family through the pictures that I am able to share with them. God bless the founders of Whatsapp!!

“You might not see the changes in you immediately after your time at Oxford, but all the learnings would, gradually over the years, help you to succeed in your personal and professional endeavours” – so said one of our speakers during the MBA launch at the beginning of this academic year. I strongly believe that this will be one of the most important years in my life, so it might not be quite fair to see how far I have come and how much I’ve grown in a span of just one year. I just hope that I am able to learn fast, and apply the learnings gradually throughout my life, making some solid friends who I stay in touch with even after this wonderful year!


Scale is beautiful

Maria Springer is a Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA student for 2015-16. Here, she tells us about her inspirations, and why her business aims will be drafted on a grand scale.

I started cultivating my entrepreneurial tendencies when I was seven: selling homemade fudge, used toys, my old clothes, and persimmons from the tree in our backyard. I cared about making my own money so that I didn’t have to ask anyone else for it. Now I care about much more.

I’ve spent the majority of my adult life doing work to address inequality of opportunity. I came to Oxford because I want to strengthen my skills and my network. And I already adore my classmates; they are nationals of over 55 countries, including Kazakhstan, Trinidad & Tobago, France, Pakistan, Ecuador, New Zealand and Zimbabwe.

This year, I want to start building another enterprise that can attract capital, become commercially viable, and deliver an inherently social product or service in markets globally. One of my inspirations is a man who is fanatic about systems and processes, and how they impact the world. During his 2012 Caltech Commencement Address in Los Angeles (my hometown), Elon Musk talked about what he did once PayPal was acquired.

“I thought well, what are some of the other problems that are likely to most affect the future of humanity? Not from the perspective, ‘what’s the best way to make money,’ which is okay, but, it was really ‘what do I think is going to most affect the future of humanity.’”

It is evident that systems change requires fierce ambition. For this reason I have become obsessive about scale; some obsessions are healthy, right? During my second week at Saïd, twenty of my peers and I gathered for a fireside chat for aspiring female entrepreneurs. A question was posed – what would you do if you could not fail? The following week I met with a classmate I met that night. We made a list of all the topics that we’re most passionate about – education, racial and gender equality, criminal justice, poverty, food, homelessness, and energy. We agreed to (1) spend the next term researching how business could impact each of these areas and (2) not limit our vision and ambition.

If we have the privilege of being able to do build a global business, we should. Of course I sometimes feel ridiculous thinking I could build something as important or meaningful as Elon Musk. But why not try?

Recently, I was at a formal Sunday brunch at St. Bennet’s College and sat next to a professor of philosophy and religion. He asked about my future plans and when I explained my desire to start a global business, he responded in a cautionary tone, “Remember that small is beautiful.”  Of course it is, and things always start out small. But I am choosing a different path. At Saïd Business School, my peers see me for who I want to be. Everyone around me is reinventing themselves and with so many entrepreneurial classmates, no idea is too big. Or are people still being polite? I hope it’s the former.

I wouldn’t be the only graduate of Saïd Business School to go on to start a business that could potentially affect the future of humanity. I’m lucky that many of my peers and Saïd alumni have paved the way for me. At the end of the day, I don’t care if my next venture fails, or if I look ludicrous, or god forbid, crazy. I am forever grateful for this confidence because if I could spend the rest of my life solving the world’s most critical problems, while also earning a decent income that could support a family, I would be even more fulfilled and excited by life than I already am.


Achieving critical mass for impact investing

In October, find Oxford MBA student Karen Ng attended the Critical Mass Conference in London. This key conference brings together prominent speakers from major organisations in the social entrepreneurship and impact investing fields to discuss major developments and trends. Karen NgHere, pilule Karen gives us her key impressions and takeaways from the event.

“In one month this year President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron and the Pope all talked about impact investing…Not only in rhetoric but also on the ground. Impact investing is making a difference to people’s lives,” said Antony Bugg-Levine in his opening speech at the Critical Mass Conference.

Critical Mass conference

Source: Pioneers Post

You can imagine my excitement about meeting Bugg-Levine for the first time. He is the current Chair of Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) and CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund, and is one of the individuals who coined the term “impact investing”. Along with 400 delegates from across the world, we spent two days in London to discuss the key actions required to achieve critical mass for impact investing. Some of my key takeaways:

Building trust and empathy

To achieve critical mass, it is crucial to build a community where all stakeholders, including social enterprises, businesses, governments and civil society can trust each other and work together. Kevin Lynch, the former President and CEO of Social Enterprise Alliance, admitted that “it’s really easy for the do-gooders on one side to look at big business and systems and say “you’re wrecking the world” and we here in the impact space are here to correct that”.

The importance of trust and empathy is also stressed by Bugg-Levine, who urged us to “step back and acknowledge regulations and bureaucracy in government for example, as well as the key barriers facing investors”. Michael Green, the Executive Director of Social Progress Imperative, also echoed the sentiment. Given it is hard for the government to go against popular opinion, “the civil society needs to create a conversation and reframe the agenda” on how we define progress of a society.

Communicating impact to a wider audience

PWC total impact measurement management

Source: PWC UK website

There are now numerous tools and frameworks to help us collect data and measure impact. However, it is still challenging for businesses to communicate their impact in a simple way to facilitate decision-making. The “big-four” firms have all developed their own tools to take on this challenge – such as PwC’s Total Impact Measurement and Management (TIMM) framework. TIMM places a value (positive or negative) on 20 impact areas under 4 quadrants: society, environment, tax and economics. The combined result is presented in a wheel to help businesses and investors to make decisions and track progress.

In addition to improving the way we communicate impact, it is also important to increase access to such information. One successful example is, Diana Verde Nieto, who founded the website Positive Luxury based on the belief that consumers desire to be connected with brands with aligned mission and values. The website now works with over 200 brands to assess their social, environmental and philanthropic performances.

Embracing technology to deliver scalable social solutions
The last panel I joined was entitled “The real innovators: using science and technology for social progress” – a great way to end the conference by looking into the future. Technology is an increasingly powerful tool to improve access and reduce the cost of achieving social impact, as well as reducing the time to achieve scale.

Chaired by Paul Miller, a partner at Bethnal Green Ventures, the panel featured 5 impressive startups that leverage technology to achieve social impact, including

• Ecosia: a search engine that donates 80% of its revenue to plant trees
• Gravity Light: a light powered solely by gravity
• Desolenator: a solar powered desolenator for household use
• Do Nation: an online platform to help individuals commit to behaviour change
• Walacea: a crowdfunding platform for scientific research

And if you think you are too old or too technologically challenged to embrace technology, I have met the Founder of If Everyone Cares. She’s a self-proclaimed “Grandma in Tech” who is building a location based online directory for all social services in the UK!

Managing hype and stay grounded
In the words of Bugg-Levine, the world of impact investing has “the highest ratio of words spoken in comparison to deals done”. Amidst of all the positive progress made, he warned practitioners to be wary of the 5 dangers, including “futility, expediency, timidity, comfort and self righteousness”. Rodney Irwin, the managing director of World Business Council for Sustainable Development, advised fellow practitioners to “stay humble and keep it real based on metrics”.

Perhaps one of the best ways to stay grounded is to remind ourselves of the real motivation behind all these trends and actions – they are based on real needs and urgent issues. Vimlendu Jha, the founder of Swechha in India, called upon the audience to stay close to the ground: “All these discussions are driven by men, but the most deprived and affected are often women and youth” – a note for all of us.


Students get a taste of the social impact sector’s world of opportunity at LAUNCH

The Skoll Centre’s Rebecca Moore gives us a wrap-up from LAUNCH 2015: Social Impact Careers Conference hosted at the School on 6th May.

Launch 1

“For many of us, the idea of a ‘career path’ first came on the radar the same time that people started telling us about direction (we should get some) and purpose (we should have some). The problem is that some career paths are clearer than others and a route into or through a socially impactful career can be one of the hardest to navigate.

How do you find your niche? Who can you ask? Where the heck is the Careers Handbook on the issue? (Spoiler: there isn’t one). These types of questions were at the heart of LAUNCH 2015: Saïd Business School’s own social impact careers conference, jointly hosted by the Careers Centre and the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. On 6th May, over 150 students and professionals gathered with a swathe of sector specialists for an afternoon of knowledge sharing and straight-talking advice.

launch panel june sarpong

Right from the beginning of the conference, LAUNCH highlighted the wide array of career choices available in the social impact space. Denise Hearne, a current MBA student at SBS, noted that the real achievement of the day was its diversity of panellists and attendees. Denise commented,

Having 6 different streams with everything from social finance, diverse paths to impact, consulting, and social entrepreneurship gave a great broad-sweeping overview of the many paths to take within the sector.”

Not only were the topics and attendees diverse, but the speakers’ routes into their current careers were often meandering and inspirational. One particular highlight was the lively debate that took place at the ‘Diverse paths for global impact’ session, where a varied team of panellists discussed their individual roads to creating positive change in the world. Jean Pierre Mustier described his unconventional route into impact investing and emphasised the need for young people to try as many things out as possible. TV Broadcaster June Sarpong highlighted the use of celebrity wattage to shine light on important issues and described how her career has earned her an MBE for her work in broadcasting and charity. LAUNCH offered speakers a safe place to talk candidly about their initial career motivations, about the catalyst for change they had experienced and about how they made those changes to get where they are today.

launch social impact careers conference

The day was finished off brilliantly with an innovative ‘pitch-a-position’ style networking event. Anyone with a job or opportunity to offer took to the stage and pitched it for one minute – afterwards, anyone interested could approach them and ask questions over a much-needed beer. The drinks and canapés served at the finale of the event also offered attendees a welcome opportunity to network and mingle with the speakers they had been hearing from throughout the day. As MBA student Andrea Warriner put it,

I was amazed by the quality of the people I had the opportunity to interact with one-on-one, and the relevance of those people to my career aspirations.”

launch social impact careers conference

What stood out most about LAUNCH was its entrepreneurial spirit of open-mindedness and a recognition of the need for collaboration within the sector. There was also a positive appreciation that there is no single path, simply because there is no one destination called Most Socially Impactful. The choices are endless…and exciting. And LAUNCH 2015 was the perfect place to, well, launch yourself into those choices.”