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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.

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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

PWC TIMM
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.

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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.”

 

A report from the Skoll Social Innovation Case Competition

 A report from Deepti Pulavarthi and Samantha Bastian, current MBA students at Saïd Business  School and this year’s Case Competition Co-Chairs.

“The students of the current MBA class organized the second Skoll Social Innovation Case Competition on May 2, 2015. With participants from across Oxford we saw some exciting and innovative solutions to problems faced by social entrepreneurs. We had ten teams compete; each team consisted of three participants from various University departments ranging from business, finance, engineering, sociology, interdisciplinary bioscience and public policy.

Agratam India case winners

Agratam India case winners with Agratam Founder, Akshay Verma

This year we had two organizations, Agratam India and Gram Vikas, as cases for student teams to provide solutions to business problems. Both cases were written by student organizers and focused on real challenges being faced by the organizations with questions revolving around scaling impact delivery, financing scale-up plans and measuring social impact.

Gram Vikas is an established not-for-profit in India tackling various tribal and rural development issues for the past 35 years such as education, land-use, housing and more recently water and sanitation. Agratam India, on the other hand, is a relatively new organization attempting to increase rural incomes through for-profit fish farming.

The teams were sent the cases 36 hours before their presentation and were given an opportunity to meet for a Q & A session with Yashveer Singh, Head of Strategy and Collaborations at Gram Vikas and Akshay Verma, Founder and Director of Agratam India.

An esteemed panel of experts from the social enterprise, impact investing and consulting field judged the final presentations of the solutions. The panel included Pamela Hartigan, David Hill, Fred Hersch, Natalia Pshenichnaya, Daniela Papi-Thorton, and Candice Motran.

The winners for the Gram Vikas case was a team of MBA students – Owen Scott, Chris Rex and Jessica Lau for their recommendation on bringing focus to water and sanitation work to attract CSR funding while managing a portfolio of other funders for supplementary rural and tribal development work. For the Agratam India case the winning team was Dan Copleston, Charlotte Lau and Bhavna Mittal from business and public policy. They recommended a phased approach for scale-up with innovative financing and incentives solutions.”