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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

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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.