Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.
Daniel Stokey, MBA Candidate 2016-17 at the Saïd Business School, gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum session “Civil Discourse in the Social Media Age”.
Panel moderator Manoush Zomorodi, Host and Managing Editor of WNYC Radio, began the session by asking the audience, roughly 100 people in Nelson Mandela Lecture Theatre, how many get their news from social media. I turn to see the vast majority of hands shoot up, well over 62%, the 2016 statistic about Americans used in the blurb introducing this session. Below are my takeaways from the lively discussion that followed, introducing the challenges we face in an increasingly polarized world where social media dominates the spread of information.
The Power of Social Media
Eli Pariser, Co-founder of Upworthy, put the issue in perspective, asserting that Facebook, as the world’s largest forum for media distribution, is in fact the biggest media company in our planet’s history. However, Facebook does not claim to be a media company, and is completely opaque to research. This is a problem, as the power and influence that Facebook wields has a profound impact on our society. Eli goes on to explain that Facebook is a system that optimizes for engagement, through algorithms that seek to maximize time spent. However, Facebook’s agnostic approach to how users spend time almost exclusively shows content that confirms what they already believe.
The other challenge with social media is the potential for spread of misinformation. Phil Howard, Professor of Sociology, Information, and International Affairs at the Oxford Internet Institute, shares results from their recent study showing that 50% of websites shared by users in Michigan prior to the US election was “junk news,” a 1-1 ratio of professional journalism to unverified sources. He also shared findings that Bots (automated internet traffic and social media accounts) played a significant role in the US election, making Trump seem more popular than in reality early on, and driving the proliferation of negative content about candidate Hillary Clinton in the weeks leading up to the election.
The Responsibility of Citizens
Matthew Segal, Founder and Editor in Chief at ATTN:, believes that trying to resist social media, like resisting automation, is futile. In addition, he argued strongly throughout the session that the responsibility to stop the spread of fake news ultimately lies with citizens. The burden is on all of us to investigate the credibility of our news sources, and not necessarily on a single entity like Facebook to stop the spread of fake news. Ultimately, he asserted that an undue amount of blame has been placed on Facebook for the Trump victory, and not enough on a genuine change in electorate views. While credible news sources need to adapt their product to social media platforms and do their best to inform the public, much of the burden lies with us to do our own fact checking.
Right vs. Left
A third unavoidable issue that arose during this session was the dichotomy of right vs. left. Eli Pariser shared results from a study conducted through web-browser plugins, which measured how often Americans visit fact checking sites versus sites deemed to be “fake news.” Findings showed that Americans on the right of the political spectrum spent more time consuming fake news. Those on the left are least exposed to fake news, and most likely to visit fact checking sites. This gap in news consumption practices poses a real challenge. However, there is an underlying assumption here that we, all of the people in this session know the facts, and that those on the left of the political spectrum have the truth on their side. The danger here is in minimizing or ridiculing those with differing political views. One disturbing trend in America today was raised by an audience question from Anne-Marie Slaughter, President and CEO of New America. More and more, she argues, we tend to demonize people on the other side of the political spectrum. Not only are they different or wrong, they are evil.
Half of the Conversation
As we sit in perhaps the most concentrated echo chamber on earth, at the University of Oxford among CEOs, celebrities, and academics, it feels somewhat disingenuous to discuss ways to “fix” this problem. A quick glance this morning at the front pages of ATTN: and Upworthy reveals exactly what I would expect – negative stories about Ivanka Trump, positive stories about Michelle Obama, the plight of refugees, and articles on gay rights and interracial harmony. Let me be clear, I am the target market for both media outlets, and agree with literally all of these sentiments. However, it doesn’t strike me as an objective panel discussing this issue. The “civil discourse” that played out on stage took place among three panelists and a moderator that clearly all lean heavily to the left of the political spectrum. Yet as we have learned in the past year, a large percentage of the US and UK population are not onboard with this narrative. What would a laid-off auto worker in a closed GM plant in Morraine, Ohio have to say on this topic?
Near the end of the session, Eli Pariser shared his belief that one of the most powerful ways to break down implicit bias is to spend time in another person’s world, and to genuinely try to understand their perspective. This is the best way to build empathy, yet unfortunately it is so often missing from our lives. This is true not just in the context of social media, but in our education systems, workplaces, and conferences.
Neil Yeoh completed his Oxford MBA in 2016 and now works at Echoing Green as a Portfolio Manager to their Climate Change Fellows. He is an advocate for climate change and was recently awarded the title of World Economic Forum Global Shaper at the NYC Hub.
‘There is the natural tendency that all of us are vulnerable to, to deny unpleasant realities and to look for any excuse to push them away and resolve to think about them another day long in the future’ – Al Gore on climate change.
This statement is true in my life. At the age of 16 as an Australian-born Asian I travelled to Xi’an China in search of my ethnic and cultural identity. Instead I found the thick dark smog that covers and chokes a lot of east China today. At the time I selfishly assured myself that Australia far away from air pollution was home, but in time realised that the world air pollution impacts our shared home. I denied the problem for many years but eventually acted knowing the type of ancestor I wanted to be – one who fought the good fight in tackling air pollution and, more prominently, climate change for our future generations.
So when I got the opportunity to attend the UN General Assembly’s action event on climate change and the Sustainable Development agenda on Thursday, 23r March 2017, I was eager to hear about the progress towards realising the 2016 UNFCCC Paris Climate Treaty, and how I could play a better part. Overall progress has been made, but not enough to ensure a less than 2oC rise in average global temperature to avoid the most serious impacts of global warming – where island nations are submerged, extreme weather becomes more frequent, and plants and animals risk extinction.
Here are three takeaways from the event we need to save our world from climate change:
Neil Yeoh attended the UN General Assembly Climate Change event on 23rd March 2017.
More money and smart investments
Solutions exist – but we need more money to invest into renewables. It’s no secret that renewable energies like solar and wind are now cost-competitive with conventional energy production, reaching prices as low as 3 cents per kWh in some markets. Global renewable investments grew almost 700 percent from 2004 to 2015 reaching a record USD 348 billion. It’s a start, but this is still less than half of the funds required to double the share of renewable energy (currently only ~18%) in total global energy consumption by 2030.
To get on track with the money we have, it’s critical that we make smart investments. The UNFCCC, which has USD 10 billion is working to structure current and future deals to scale the impact of renewables. According to Ambassador Howard Bamsey, Executive Director of the Green Climate Fund and custodian of the UNFCCC funds, mixing debt and equity helps to achieve healthy leverage rates, stretching existing money while also funding solutions that can scale impact beyond the money available.
More adaptation and localised solutions
We need adaptation solutions as much as mitigation solutions to climate change. Many scalable solutions are focused on restraining the production of greenhouse gases, but it’s important to also support solutions that help people and environments adapt to an imminent future where the damage is already done. Start-up Coral Vita embraces this approach, aiming to grow climate-resilient coral to sustain ocean ecosystems with rising temperatures and water acidification.
The most effective solutions will be designed to meet local country needs. When I spent time in rural Kenya with M-KOPA Solar, off-grid solar devices were combined with innovative financing to bypass the lack of infrastructure to achieve local electrification. In Finland, the Bank of Aland is issuing a green credit card to tackle climate change in the Baltic Sea, where customers opt in to measuring and offsetting carbon emissions from their financial transactions.
Helping yourself whilst helping others
Countries must abandon isolated mindsets when it comes to battling climate change. Mr Xie Ji, Director General of NDRC’s Department of Climate Change took off his “climate negotiator hat” and reasoned that China needs to look outwards to provide capacity and technical support to neighbouring countries to help them build renewable capacity.
I agree with this philosophy as we cannot expect to reach climate targets at the rate we need without supporting one another through collaboration and shared technologies. To picture this – it’s like the oxygen masks on aircraft safety videos. The instruction to install your mask and masks of your children is applicable in addressing climate change since we are all effectively travelling on the same plane, or in our case, world. We’re all in it together, so if it begins to nosedive we might as have helped each other out in case we make it out alive!
So what can we do?
As custodians of the world today we need to lead by example with our wallets (buying into renewables and green solutions); our minds (enterprising new and scaling existing solutions); and our hearts (working on efforts as a community). Maybe then we’ll have a world our future generations can enjoy, as much as we do today.
John Walugembe; Skoll Scholar 2016-17, social entrepreneur, and the Founder of Better Livelihoods in Uganda. John shares his candid story of how he came to Oxford to study his MBA.
“It is very painful to remember my daughter”, Maria said. “She was only five years old”. “I had a lot of hope in her”. “I wonder, what I could have done better”. “I was certainly lucky that Dr. Matovu was willing to attend to her. It was unfortunate however that it was too late!” This story by Maria – a distressed mother of two living in the Bwaise slum of Kampala, Uganda – is not very different from those of many others in Uganda and other developing countries. According to a recent report by Water Aid, only 30% of Ugandans have access to improved sanitation. The situation is even worse in urban poor communities, especially slums, where children collect water from contaminated gutters or ground water. The result of this is that at least two one million and five hundred children die annually, from diarrheal related illnesses. The contamination primarily results from lack of proper disposal for excreta.
How does an organisation set up to support poor communities, survive off the very people it is supposed to assist. Indeed, it was and still is a dilemma!
When I founded the Better livelihoods Uganda, four years ago, I recognised that there was a need for a fundamental shift in the way water and sanitation issues are handled. Were communities, expecting so much from their governments that they failed to do for themselves, what was in their means to do? Were some Non-Governmental Organisations fostering a syndrome of dependency and raising the expectations of communities for handouts, to the extent that they exacerbated these problems? Which market approaches could be employed to ensure that communities contributed more to addressing these sanitation challenges. From the onset, I thought it prudent to make the organisation lean and limit its dependency on external financing. As you can imagine, this was no mean goal. How does an organisation set up to support poor communities, survive off the very people it is supposed to assist. Indeed, it was and still is a dilemma! However, we resolved that unlike the traditional NGO, we would seek to play a more facilitating role among the key stakeholders in the sanitation ecosystem.
We piloted our work in the Rwenzori region in western Uganda, particularly in the Municipalities of Fort-Portal, Kawenge, Kyegegwa and Kyenjojo. Using the diamond approach (a model first piloted by Waste Advisors in the Netherlands) we have been able to accelerate access to clean water and sanitation facilitating a well-functioning system of local stakeholders that facilitate the delivery of sustainable sanitation services. The bulk of our work has involved supporting entrepreneurs and other sanitation stakeholders to build more hygienic pit-latrines. As of last year, over 1400 direct jobs have been created in the region, the amount of fecal sludge collected had increased tenfold to 4,000,000 kilograms, the costs of accessing sanitation services have reduced from $30 to $5 and over 4,000 people have directly accessed sanitation services.
I thought it prudent that I acquire the skills to build and grow an organisation with a great vision, such as ours.
It would be great if I told you that after this, everything worked just fine and we have simply encountered success, upon success. Unfortunately, as someone whose academic background was not in business management, I thought it prudent that I acquire the skills to build and grow an organisation with a great vision, such as ours. An MBA looked an attractive option. The more I thought about it, the more counterintuitive it seemed. If I desire to engineer, social change, why not pursue a qualification in development? In the end, it only seemed logical that if our approach seeks to use market based approaches to tackle the sanitation challenge, there is no better preparation than an MBA from a business school with a focus on social entrepreneurship. In the end, the Oxford MBA looked the best fit for me.
Did I look at other business schools? Certainly! So, why the Oxford MBA? Well, the Oxford MBA was unique in a number of respects: First, the Oxford MBA is a rigorous one year programme. This was particularly attractive for me, as it would ensure that I get back to Uganda, in the shortest possible time to continue with my work. Second, the Saïd Business School through the Skoll Centre, places a lot of emphasis on social entrepreneurship. For me, this was the ultimate attraction. Additionally, the possibility of social entrepreneurs, like myself, benefitting from the generous Skoll Scholarship, set the Oxford MBA apart.
Going forward, Better Livelihoods like other nonprofit organisations must look for new models of generating revenue streams while fulfilling its expanding mission. One possible strategy could be to set-up a social purpose business as an innovation for both the financial and operational sustainability of the organisation. The mission of this social venture could be to offer clean water, sanitation, health and hygiene solutions throughout Uganda, on a commercial basis.
In conclusion, I look forward to this year and taking advantage of all the opportunities that Oxford has to offer!
John was recently featured on the BBC World Service, Business Daily Show, where he sat on a panel discussion on Africa’s Social Entrepreneurs. Listen to the iPlayer recording.
Skoll Scholar, MBA and above all, Engineer, Ashley Thomas, shares her story, not of HOW she got to be at Oxford, but WHO.
As I sit in a 150-year-old book shop (very new by Oxford standards) listening to Duncan Green, Oxfam GB’s chief strategic advisor, discuss his book How Change Happens, I’m again struck by how lucky I am to have ended up here, at Oxford, and as Skoll Scholar. In thinking through how I have managed to arrive at this moment, my instinct is to create a neat narrative: In 2008, as a freshly minted mechanical engineer, I moved to Ethiopia to work as a product designer at iDE, a NGO building social enterprises and agriculture value chains in Africa and Asia. Since then I have worked as an engineer and innovation project manager for some of the best (in my humble opinion) social enterprises: Evidence Action and MKOPA solar, and dabbled in some policy work managing the DFID resource centre on climate and environment. Building on my experience in the water sector, I then read for an MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management prior to my MBA as part of the 1+1 programme at Oxford, in theory preparing me to solve the worlds’ water problems through my own social enterprise.
However, after listening to Green’s view of the non-linearity of change, I am tempted to reframe my story not as a narrative but as the summation of ripples in a web of complex relationships and interactions. If you can forgive my ramblings in non-linear narrative, I want to tell the story of my path here framed through the relationships that don’t make it onto a CV, and instead focus on the cast of characters that sent the right ripples into the network that guided me to this fantastic place.
Katherine McIntyre: My grandmother is the embodiment of tenacity. She was a flight controller in the Canadian Air Force during World War II, a travel writer in the USSR during the 1980’s, current record holder for the oldest person to do a zip line, and in few days, at 93 years old, will be travelling from Toronto to Oxford to see my MSc graduation. She has traveled to more than 45 countries, published in over 30 newspapers and journals and has founded 3 companies. I can only aspire to emulate her singular focus, fearless independence, and her lifelong curiosity.
Left: Ashley Thomas, Right: Katherine McIntyre
Left: a young Katherine McIntyre, Right: Katherine McIntyre holds the current record holder for the oldest person to do a zip line
Paul’s enabling, entrepreneurial approach strongly resonated and has become central to my own philosophy.
Paul Polak: I met Paul when I was nineteen, naïvely aspiring to fight global poverty, but I only knew about top-down traditional development organisations. From attending his lectures, receiving his mentorship through the Intentional Development Design Summit (IDDS), and ultimately collaborating at iDE, Paul introduced me to a new way of thinking. Instead of a charity approach, Paul showed me an untapped market of 1 billion people seeking to lift themselves out of poverty. Paul’s enabling, entrepreneurial approach strongly resonated and has become central to my own philosophy.
Carlos Machan: Carlos is one of the most creative product designers I have ever met. Born in rural Guatemala, his engineering knowledge is all self-taught. I met Carols in 2007 while he was an instructor on the International Development Design Summit at MIT and continued to work with him in Guatemala, where he taught me how to weld, design, and build my first water pump, the very skills that landed me my first job at iDE.
It was here, in front of this bonfire, where I first heard about the Skoll Scholarship, and began dreaming of becoming a Skoll Scholar
iDE Workshop and Engineering Team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: In Addis, our engineering team founded a workshop/office/guest house that was the backbone of our product development. It was also the location of many bonfires, beers, and late night pontification. It was here, in front of this bonfire, where I first heard about the Skoll Scholarship, and began dreaming of becoming a Skoll Scholar. It took 8 years of indecision, dreaming, and three failed attempts at the application before it became a reality.
iDE Workshop and Engineering Team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
MKOPA Engineering Team: This crew is one of the brightest, most driven, and friendliest teams I have ever worked with. From Eric, standing at 6’2” and with a sense of humor to match, to Berita, easily a foot shorter in stature, but making no compromises in heart or brains, this group of people embodies the types of teams I hope to continue to work with. They also solidified my desire to get an MBA. While they were begrudging the fact I’d “no longer be an engineer”, working with them made me realise that if I hope to run a company like MKOPA and a team like this one, I have a lot of learning left to do.
While this is absolutely not an exclusive list, these are some of the threads in fabric of the story of my path here. From the nascent daydreams over Ethiopian bonfires to making the decision to come to Oxford after working on a manufacturing line in Dongguan, China, studying an MBA at Oxford through the Skoll Scholarship is the realisation of the network of friends, colleagues, places, and events that have guided me to this fantastic place.
Alex Shapland-Howes is a 2016-17 Skoll Scholar and is leading the way for social mobility within the UK’s deprived communities. After his early career as a teacher, he discovers what it’s like to be on the other side of the classroom again at Saïd Business School!
It’s been almost ten years since I was last a full-time student. Having worked in education ever since, it felt a bit odd to go back to the other side of the classroom in our first week.
We are working towards a day where a child’s background doesn’t limit their future options
I’ve spent the last five years leading the expansion of the education charity – Future First. We are working towards a day where a child’s background doesn’t limit their future options. In the UK, we have one of the lowest levels of social mobility in the developed world. The correlation between parents’ earnings and those of their children remains stubbornly close.
Alex being interviewed on UK channel, ITV News.
The problem is incredibly complex, but one key challenge is that young people from less advantaged backgrounds are less likely to have positive role models in the world of work. Half don’t know anyone with a job they’d like to do themselves and a quarter goes as far as to say that ‘people like them’ don’t succeed in life.
By helping state secondary schools reconnect with their alumni, Future First is changing those statistics.
Having grown up in the same place and had some of the same teachers, former students can have a transformative effect on the lives of today’s young people – volunteering to deliver careers talks, act as a mentor, or support the teaching of a lesson related to their job.
Over the last five years, we’ve expanded the organisation to work with more than 10% of all secondary schools across the country. Even more excitingly, we’re starting to see the growth of alumni networks beyond our own work.
Our aim is to lead the creation of a genuinely national culture of alumni engagement. Every young person deserves a role model they can relate to, regardless of their background.
I started to look for opportunities for professional development…I wanted to learn what the textbook says about leading teams, developing long-term strategies and running efficient organisations.
Whilst we’ve had great success in growing the organisation and its impact, I started to look for opportunities for professional development about 18 months ago. Perhaps inevitably, we didn’t get everything right, but having moved straight from being a secondary school teacher myself to leading an organisation like Future First, I wanted to learn what the textbook says about leading teams, developing long-term strategies and running efficient organisations.
I came across the Skoll Scholarship by luck, but as soon as I saw it I knew I wanted to apply. I feel incredibly privileged to have the chance to spend a year learning from the world-class experts, reflecting on my own leadership journey and working with amazing people from all over the world. (And they really have been amazing and from all over the world!). There’s not a chance I’d have had been able to do this without the support of the Skoll Centre.
It’s clear from the first few weeks that it’s going to be hard work, but I feel unbelievably lucky to have this opportunity and I can’t wait to carry on making the most of it.
Macarena Hernandez de Obeso is passionate about the economic opportunity for Mexico’s deprived communities. She is also our 2016-17 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA student. Her journey from Guadalajara started with a simple Skype call. Macarena shares the story.
Two years ago I had the luck to have a conversation by Skype with Pamela Hartigan. At that moment I had no idea this call will change my life to the point that today I’m writing this blog from Saïd Business School, at the University of Oxford, 5,605 miles away from the place I was born and raised, Guadalajara, Mexico.
Macerena joined Prospera in 2011, the first social enterprise in Guadalajara, Mexico.
One would think that it is almost impossible to build a social enterprise in a conservative region, in a country that has not been growing strongly for the past 30 years. But, in spite of all this I have not allowed the circumstances to define what I can or cannot achieve. To the point that in 2014, Prospera, the social enterprise I was leading, was recognised as one of the top 10 favourite social enterprises in Mexico, according to Forbes, and the best social enterprise in Mexico according to the Suzie Bank UBS.
Prospera became my passion. But, passion alone gets you nowhere.
My unconformity and the pursuit of challenge and intellectual growth led me to join the team of Gabriela Enrigue to build Prospera, the first social enterprise in Guadalajara. At that moment, I did not know anything about entrepreneurship or social enterprises. But a hunch and a desire to learn made me spend all my time building Prospera from the beginning. At Prospera, our mission is to serve single moms in poor communities who start small businesses from home. Our vision is to disrupt the entrenched male-dominated social structures that have been in place for the past 500 years in Mexico. We have trained more than 7,500 women and increased their incomes eight times. Prospera became my passion. But, passion alone gets you nowhere.
Generating opportunities for women is a profound reason that deserves my time and work. But if I fail to better combine the social mission with a sustainable business model, I will be designing solutions that nobody will pay for and the impact will never scale. I came to this awareness after I led a Prospera project as part of a Fund developed by Alsea Foundation and Starbucks Mexico. This project changed the way I see the world.
Alsea Foundation and Starbucks Mexico Project at Prospera [Photo source: Prospera]
The project’s goal was to add a productivity component to Alsea Foundation. It was the first project of this kind done in Latin America and we expected it to be scaled to six more countries. We trained 33 poor, single moms from one marginalised slum around Mexico City. They were recipients of philanthropic aid and the purpose of the project I designed was aimed at transforming them into small vendors at Starbucks. The women produced 3,300 customized notebooks that were then sold in 80 Starbucks. These women improved their income by 700%. Despite that the notebooks were sold to Starbucks consumers in less than a month, Starbucks only made this one purchase. Why? Neither the notebooks sales nor the productivity of these women were related the Starbucks core business model and the Foundation could not drive the corporate goals.
I decided to start looking for MBA programmes that would help me design business to solve the most challenging social problems that we face today.
As a result of this project I have been studying start-up business methodologies and working on the development of Prospera’s business model. I want to generate benefit for both the community and enterprises. If an enterprise increases income while solving social problems, they are willing to pay for this solution. That’s why two years ago I decided to start looking for MBA programmes that would help me design business to solve the most challenging social problems that we face today.
Talking with Pamela Hartigan not only helped me to understand how the Skoll Centre supports social entrepreneurs inside Saïd Business School, but she also made me believe that one day I could become an Oxford MBA student. The day has come I am grateful and ready for the challenge.