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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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Reflections from my term at Stanford

Tanja Collavo is a Skoll Centre Early Career Research Fellow, DPhil student at Oxford specialising in networking organisations operating in the social entrepreneurship sector. In the fall of 2017, Tanja spent an academic term at Stanford University to participate in PhD workshops in sociology and philanthropy and to discuss her working papers with Stanford Faculty. Here she gives her candid revelations after spending some time outside the ‘Oxford bubble’.

In the social impact world, people often discuss the importance of empathy and of putting yourself in the shoes of those people you’re trying to help. The truth is, when you live and work in the same place for a long period, and spend time with a like-minded crowd, it is extremely difficult to think outside the box. I have spent the last four years at Oxford University as a DPhil (PhD) student and, without noticing, I became entrenched in the ‘Oxford way’ of doing things, especially of interpreting the world of academia.

Only when I left Oxford to spend a term as a visiting scholar at Stanford University, did I realize how I had started to take for granted many things that were actually Oxford-specific: from small things like calling the final PhD examination a “viva”, to bigger things like the interpretation of a doctoral degree as a solitary challenge. Three months in a ‘different place’ suddenly showed me that to truly feel empathy or understand other people, cultures and ways of thinking, we should give ourselves at least some months in a new reality, in particular the reality of those we want to connect with, or help.

Besides this very general reflection – which seems obvious but we often forget when giving advice to social entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and change-makers – I came away from California with several insights about practice in the context of academic research within the social impact world:

  1. The study of social impact (and of organizations oriented towards producing it) should be a multi-disciplinary endeavor. The Stanford Centre on Philanthropy and Civil Society (Stanford PACS) organizes a termly workshop that gathers PhD students and post-docs from different departments such as the business school, sociology, economics, political economy or history, and allows them to discuss philanthropy or civil society organizations through multiple perspectives. The combination of these perspectives has provided me a more thorough understanding of the third sector and of its key components such as foundations, associations, social enterprises and non-profit-distribution organizations. Furthermore, it has generated new insights on their historical evolution and on how some of the third-sector’s current features have been the product of a cultural and historical shaping rather than something written in stone. These new insights have improved my ability to read the sector I am looking at ― social entrepreneurship in the U.K ― and have showed me how some of my data actually speak about broader phenomena that might even be more relevant and interesting than those I am analyzing. They also showed me that without understanding the broader context and arguments, research cannot be explanatory or complete.

 

  1. Research advances more quickly and has more impact if it happens in teams rather than as an individual project. Working at Oxford, I got used to being alone in developing a research proposal, gathering data and figuring out how findings can be relevant for practitioners in the social impact space. At Stanford, I instead discovered that alongside their doctoral project, PhD students participate in several team projects, which are led by a member of faculty and to which researchers at different stages of their career contribute. The presence of a team increases the amount of data collected and analyzed and the chance of reaching conclusions that are well elaborated and developed. Indeed, working in a team where people have different backgrounds and levels of experience creates a constant feedback loop, as well as the feeling of being part of something that really matters, because it is far greater than a single individual and her interests or skills.

 

  1. Identifying a community of practice helps with getting feedback and with remaining excited about a project or topic. Because of my work in relative isolation, I often had doubts about what I was working on, how I was approaching it, or whether my research was something that could actually help individuals and organizations to improve their practices in delivering social impact. By having multiple opportunities to connect with peers that were interested in my same field or theories, I received important feedback, had the opportunity to bounce ideas and to test what was interesting and relevant for people who were not as invested in my research project as I was. Most importantly, sharing my insights and data and discovering that other people were excited about them, made me excited again about what I was doing and about its potential to have some academic and practical relevance.

 

  1. The frequent engagement of faculty with students and its genuine interest in learning about new projects and ideas fosters a productive research environment. I was really surprised by the ease with which I could interact with world-class faculty at Stanford. All the professors I contacted found at least thirty minutes to listen to my project, even if they had no obligation to, and some of them even invited me to join their workshops in order for me to meet other students, learn about their projects and get additional feedback on mine. Attending these workshops allowed me to appreciate the extent to which a close and frequent interaction between faculty and PhD students is extremely beneficial for both. Faculty remains on top of their game, gets new inspiration, and actively participates in the training of those who will become their future colleagues. Students feel supported, have a point of reference whenever they are in doubt, and learn quickly how to network in the academic environment.

Now that I am back, I am determined to bring some of the positive insights and practices that I experienced at Stanford back to my own community in Oxford. If I learnt something in these months at Stanford it is that we should all strive, whenever we have the opportunity, to leave our nest, get ready to learn and confront ourselves with different realities. Especially if the goal is to create real and lasting social impact, we cannot afford to be entrenched in a single community.

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My Journey from Saint Louis

Kevin Duco Warner is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. Focused on the social impact of food, he has worked to develop market-driven solutions to climate change through the advancement of the local food movement. Kevin shares the story of how he came to pursue a business degree.

I didn’t know that I was an entrepreneur. Heck, I couldn’t even spell the word entrepreneur consistently until about 4 months ago (it’s got that special French characteristic of having more vowels than seems reasonable). Fortunately for me, it turns out you can embody the ideals of an entrepreneur without actually realizing it.

What I have always been is curious. My thirst for knowledge has only been matched by my desire to make the world a better place. This ideal of being simultaneously thoughtful and impactful has led me down a somewhat circuitous path to Oxford, but I have found that following passion leads to unparalleled opportunities.

I have worked at my family’s food hub, Fair Shares, for the last 8 years. We contract with local farmers to source seasonal food and distribute it for 48 weeks each year to consumers in Saint Louis, Missouri. Fair Shares operates as a for-profit company utilizing the buying power of our large, local customer base as a grassroots tool for social and environmental change.

Collage of images of Kevin posing with vegetables and other foods

Before Fair Shares started, area farmers faced limited opportunities in getting their products to market, and consumers encountered multiple obstacles in accessing sustainably-grown food. The Saint Louis growing region allows for production for much of the year, but in the mid-2000s farmers’ markets ran for only 5 months per year, and offered producers meager financial rewards. Fair Shares created a model that aggregates the food from over 60 farmers into shares marketed directly to consumers. Combining the bounty of many producers allows us to offer greater diversity to our customers while supporting small farmers who have committed to low-carbon growing practices.

The beauty of working for Fair Shares is that it has given me the flexibility to follow my curiosity focused through the lens of a love for food.

About 4 years ago I started an organic corn tortilla company after teaching myself how to nixtamalize local field corn at home (I won’t get into it here, but the history of nixtamalization as the Aztec’s solution to pellagra is fascinating – worth a read on wikipedia!). I was not happy with the inconsistent results of pressing each tortilla by hand, but that was the only realistic option for a home cook. I realized that I needed a commercial grade tortilla machine if I was ever going to get consistent results. I started La Tortilla Buena because it was the only way to rationalize to my wife that importing a $2000 tortilla machine from Mexico was a good idea. Despite any real business acumen, my tortillas were quickly stocked by a number of small groceries, restaurants, and even a school lunch program. I attribute this success to the passion I had for the process of making the product.

Living in a very urban area spurred an interest in edible landscaping and urban homesteading. What started with a raspberry bush and some basic herbs progressed to harvesting homegrown saffron and espaliering two pear trees on a privacy fence. This knowledge, gained through doing, brought on opportunities to consult on urban agriculture projects and to teach cooking classes with local chefs. I even got to teach an heirloom apple grafting class with a local apple farmer.

Image of Kevin's home grown pear trees against a fence

Image of homemade food on a plate

So why uproot my life to move to Oxford? Why get an MBA?

I wanted to see my career, focused on impact through food, transition from local and regional, to national and global in scale, but I couldn’t find a clear path. I knew I needed more formal education, but struggled in finding a field that felt like the right fit.

My intention was to stay in the business world, but I was focused on policy and public administration degrees because they carried an underlying focus on social good. Most business programs lacked an ethos that resonated with me; that is, until I found the Skoll Centre at Oxford Saïd.

No other institution is driving the social impact space in a setting as powerful as Oxford. It is evident that the mission of the Skoll Centre is directly influencing Oxford Saïd’s approach to business education.

The process of being awarded the Skoll Scholarship was a whirlwind. It changed the trajectory of my life. In a matter of a few months I went from toting vegetables around an uninsulated warehouse in Saint Louis to walking the hallowed streets of Oxford in formal academic dress robes. To say that being at Oxford is a humbling experience is an understatement.

Schrödinger locked his cat in a box at his home on Northmoor Road, a 5 minute walk from my house. Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings in the house next door to Schrödinger. Radiohead played their first concert at the pub at the end of my street. It is absurd how many titans of western thought operated within a mile of my house in Oxford.

Kevin standing by the road sign for Northmoor Road in Oxford in full Oxford attire

My intention when I began a career in good food was never very concrete. I realize now that there was a centralized theme in the work: namely, changing the way people eat. But it required a whole lot of ‘doing’ before I could fully quantify it. It was not until I applied to Oxford that I really went through the process of self-assessment required to solidify my personal mission. I am confident that my time spent studying for an MBA as a Skoll Scholar will give me the tools to further succeed in my endeavors regardless of whether or not I can spell entrepreneur.

Follow Kevin on Twitter: @nosleepforduco

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From Lisbon to Oxford

Sandra Fisher-Martins is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. She is also a plain-language activist and entrepreneur. Sandra shares the candid truth about leaving her 10 year old organisation to pursue an Oxford MBA.

“Can you read this letter for me?”, asked Mr. Domingos, the office center caretaker.

We stood by his desk and he watched while I sifted through it. I explained that the letter was in fact a surgery voucher from the Ministry of Health paying for a surgery in a private hospital of his choice. His smile was a mix of relief and disbelief.

“I had thrown it in the bin. Then I remembered you telling me about your job the other day…”

Mr. Domingos had his first job at the age of five and taught himself to read as an adult. He enjoyed the sports newspaper, but struggled with official letters, forms and pretty much everything else. His life story was unique, but his experience of depending on others to access crucial information was not uncommon. Nearly 4 in 5 Portuguese are ‘functionally illiterate’, which means that their reading skills are insufficient to meet the demands of daily life.

I founded Português Claro (‘Plain Portuguese’) in 2007 because I was appalled by the gap between the average literacy skills of our citizens and the complexity of the documents we had to read to get on with our lives. From electricity bills to insurance contracts, from bank statements to government websites, everything was riddled with jargon and legalese. How could anyone make informed choices? How could anyone know and act on their rights?

Sandra and the Claro team at work

Sandra and the Claro team at work

Sandra delivered a talk at Productized 2016

Sandra delivered a talk at Productized 2016

The low literacy problem is an important and complex battle to wage, requiring massive investments in education. I was too frustrated to wait. Seeing an opportunity to meet the needs of today’s Portuguese adults, I set out to persuade businesses and government agencies to simplify the way they communicated with the public.

Having little business experience, during my first years at Claro I used to dispel the flashes of self-doubt with fantasies of getting the Skoll Scholarship and picking up, in one swift year, everything I would need to run a successful social venture.

I never applied. I was too busy running the business and learning by trial-and-error to be a plain-language expert, a salesperson, an accountant, a project manager, a recruiter, a team leader, and a CEO. Stopping for a year was impossible.

And then, after nearly a decade of challenges and growth, Claro hit a sudden wall. A change in government had led to a sharp decline in private and public investment and our sales were plummeting. Faced with the possibility of having to close the company, I started questioning the sustainability of the change we had created over time. Without Claro to provide plain-language services, would these organizations revert back to their old ways?

As my doubts grew, it became clear that I’d allowed myself to be sucked into the day-to-day of running a social enterprise when the real challenge was in creating sustainable systemic change. It was time to stop and have a rethink.

I went back to the Skoll Scholarship and the Centre had added more programming focused on system change. So I decided to apply. This time I wasn’t looking for tools to run a business. I was looking for a space for reflection within a world-class network of systems thinkers, social entrepreneurs and researchers.

It is now Week 4 in Michaelmas (in plain language, that’s the beginning of November) and although the MBA has barely started so much has happened. This is a high-frequency learning environment, with daily opportunities to engage in mind-expanding conversations. Today I met with Patrick to learn about his experience running an impact investment fund in Peru. Last night I explored with Emily the systemic consequences of an ill-conceived agricultural investment in Ghana. Through this exposure to diverse experiences and approaches, my initial questions have evolved and unexpected themes — like ‘identity’ — have surfaced. Clearly, this journey has just begun.  I am eager to see where it takes me.

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My Journey from Politics to the Oxford MBA

Aaron Bartnick is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. Prior the MBA he led several ventures in US politics, and most recently helped develop the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s first university-based start-up incubator.

Aaron Bartnick on a 2012 Obama rally

Aaron Bartnick on a 2012 Obama campaign rally

What are we doing to make the world a bit better for others?

At first glance, it seems like a pretty uninspiring mission. In a world where everyone is out to “change the way we think about X,” “revolutionize Y,” and, above all, “make the world a better place,” who is going to get fired up about just making things a little bit better?

But it’s not our job to tell people what a good world looks like. And it’s not our responsibility to get them there. It is, however, the solemn responsibility of every public and private institution to give people the tools and opportunities they need to build that life for themselves.

That’s what originally attracted me to politics, and why I spent three years in Manassas, Virginia and Salem, Massachusetts when so many of my peers went to places like New York and San Francisco. In too many places at home and abroad, opportunity is concentrated in just a few places and available to an ever smaller number of people. And how far you go in life seems to depend more on where you’re born than what you can create out of circumstances beyond your control.

I’ve been lucky to work with and for a couple of incredible political leaders. But no individual is going to restore economic opportunity to the millions around the world who have seen it slip away in recent decades. We have to change the system.

Aaron Bartnick with former U.S President, Barack Obama

Aaron Bartnick with former U.S. President, Barack Obama

Over the past two and a half years, I’ve been fortunate to work on some fascinating systems challenges. I’ve worked with governments around the United States to bring their processes into the digital age. I’ve observed entrepreneurial ecosystems in a dozen emerging markets across South America, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. And in Iraq, I got to spend six months working with an international coalition of government, VC, and entrepreneurial leaders to propose much-needed economic reforms while helping the American University of Iraq build what we hope will be the Kurdistan Region’s first university-based start-up incubator.

Aaron Bartnick giving presentation at The American University of Iraq

Aaron Bartnick giving a presentation at the American University of Iraq

But this is far from enough.

If we are serious about expanding economic opportunity across the globe, we must harness the leverage of both business and government to enact changes that will flow from the highest and most complex systems down to the smallest local businesses. That’s why I’ve chosen to augment my political experience with an MBA, and why I’ve chosen to do it here at Oxford. Oxford Saïd is serious about business. I’m taking finance classes that would have made a younger me run for the hills, and am putting together presentations that will be viewed by some of the world’s preeminent business leaders. But Oxford Saïd is more than just a business school; it’s a school that talks every day about business in the service of a higher social good. And you can see that calling reflected in just about every one of the 330 peers with whom I am lucky to share this year.

Aaron arrives at the University of Oxford

Finally arriving at the University of Oxford

The MBA is a chance for me to hone the quantitative skills I will need to be successful in my career. It is a chance to explore some of the systemic challenges I’ve observed, like the massive financing gap between microfinance and private equity, through extracurricular activities like the Oxford Seed Fund and the Map the System competition. And it is a chance to broaden my perspective by taking advantage of the incredible multidisciplinary opportunities that only a place like Oxford can provide.

All of this is made possible by the Skoll Scholarship. I am humbled by the opportunity to explore some of the world’s biggest challenges in one of the world’s preeminent academic settings. I am excited to gain a better understanding of how we can build a more inclusive economic system that expands opportunity and helps make the world even a little bit better for others. And I am ready to get started.