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.
Amy Orben is a social media psychologist, interdisciplinary thinker and 2016-17 Leading for Impact Fellow. As a DPhil (PhD) Student in Experimental Psychology, she currently researches how social media is changing human sociality and friendship formation. The Leading for Impact programme was an opportunity for her to step out of the ‘comfort zone’, and into the ‘stretch zone’. She shares her story of the experience.
Nine months ago, knowledge and action were two separate concepts in my mind. For years, the pursuit of knowledge motivated me during countless hours in libraries; propelled me to memorise facts for exams and start a DPhil; inspired me to keep up with recent research developments and slowly foster my own opinions.
In an attempt not to look foolish, students often avoid committing to action altogether
An intense focus on knowledge is not uncommon for university life outside of business schools. The rigorous pursuit of knowledge fuels many discoveries. It is, however, often linked with an educational emphasis on being ‘right’ that endows students with a fear of action. This promotes views that having your own opinion ousted as ‘wrong’ or ‘unknowledgeable’ is worse than voicing no opinion at all. In an attempt not to look foolish, students therefore often avoid committing to action altogether.
However, avoiding foolishness is just one part of the equation. As the theologian Al-Ghazali once said, “Knowledge without action is wastefulness and action without knowledge is foolishness”. We need to balance knowledge and action.
Certain parts of higher education promote this balance. For example, medicine, nursing, engineering and law students study to put their knowledge into practice after graduation. Recently, research councils have been demanding that universities ensure their research has more real-life ‘impact’. Yet, there are still aspects of university study and research that encourage students and academics to refrain from action or opinion, to ensure they are not seen as unknowledgeable. This is harmful because most of our pressing global problems are too complex to fully comprehend; yet these problems require creative minds and urgent innovative action. Combating students’ fear of action in situations where they possess ample knowledge should therefore be ingrained into education as fundamentally as learning, essay writing and memorisation.
I challenged my preconceptions in a safe, diverse and open environment
I started to think about my own knowledge-action balance during the Skoll Centre’s Leading for Impact programme, a programme admitting ten Oxford graduate students and ten MBAs interested in social impact and entrepreneurship. During this time-intensive leadership development programme, I challenged my preconceptions in a safe, diverse and open environment. I realised that I had been previously putting too much emphasis on knowledge while neglecting action, however, I did not know how to tackle this imbalance.
Again the Skoll Centre provided me with the opportunities I was searching for. Recently, three Leading for Impact Scholars – Shea, Vira and I – volunteered at the Oxford-based charity Aspire. The Skoll Centre facilitated a three-day project where we completed research to support one of Aspire’s new business proposals. In the next year, Aspire wants to set up a social enterprise recruitment service linking people who have experienced hardship (ranging from addiction to homelessness) with employers looking for motivated employees. With current UK funding for community support and charities decreasing drastically, Aspire plans to develop this idea into a commercially viable business with a deep-rooted social motivation. We used our research skills to compile comprehensive documents about various aspects of their business plan, which can now be used to pitch the proposal to Social Finance initiatives.
Looking back, the Skoll Centre’s Leading for Impact programme did not only teach me the importance of a knowledge-action balance, but also gave me valuable opportunities to both ‘learn’ and ‘do’. For me, Leading for Impact was not just a few weeks of leadership training and volunteering: it was the start of my journey to balance knowledge and action in my life.
Not only is Ahmed Abu Bakr a Skoll Scholar and MBA student at Saïd Business School, he is also the former Head of Product & Experience at Jeeon LLC in Bangladesh. He tells his story of what brought him to Oxford.
“You are now a student at the University of Oxford.” -Induction day, Dean Peter Tufano, Said Business School, University of Oxford
Sitting in a room of 328 fresh MBA students, captivated by words of inspiration and felicitations – that was the first time that it TRULY hit me.
I was at one of the finest institutions of learning, surrounded by the best and brightest in the world – a place where world leaders were made. I was finally at Oxford.
I knew that giving back was a responsibility, not a choice.
My journey to Oxford really started straight out of college in 2012. My aspiration was to start my own venture. I also knew very early on, that I wanted my career to benefit the neglected and the marginalised. In the context of Bangladesh, I had enjoyed a privileged life and somewhere in my heart, I knew that giving back was a responsibility, not a choice.
I considered the MBA back then, rather naively in retrospect, as a possible degree that would help me understand business and prepare me to launch my own. And my sights were set on the very best of schools. Why? Back then it was about the prestige. But of course, an MBA without work experience was not going to be of much use. And hence I joined mPower Social Enterprises a tech consultancy working with the likes of USAID, Oxfam, Save the Children and so forth, to amplify their impact through technology.
My reasons for joining mPower were really two fold. Firstly, it was about working in a young company to understand the challenges of a startup. Secondly, and arguably more importantly, it was about working directly with two Harvard graduates (and founders) and having them as mentors that would shape me professionally and guide me into getting into one of the top schools in the world.
But six months into mPower, I was part of the founding team of a project that would eventually spin off into a company in its own right – Jeeon. Jeeon connects rural patients with qualified doctors in the city, right from the village bazaars. We do this by equipping intermediaries (rural drug shop owners in village bazaars) with the training and technology necessary to collect comprehensive medical data about rural patients using our custom android app. This data is seen by our doctors in our city office, and after a thorough conversation between patient and doctor, facilitated by the intermediary, patients receive reliable medical advice, prescriptions and recommendations.
Ahmed is the former Head of Product & Experience at Jeeon LLC
It has taken us three years to fine tune the model so that it is operationally self-sustaining. We started with a team of five. There were days when it was just me running to different people at mPower (mPower incubated Jeeon for two years) to get things done. I played a myriad of roles- from product design to tech management, to business modelling, to team building, to operations, and strategy. It has been a tremendous experience, where I learned and accomplished more than I had ever dreamed off!
Today we have raised over a million dollars in investment, have a 20 person team (excluding doctors and rural intermediaries), and are expecting to serve over 50,000 patients in 2017. The vision however, is much grander. We intend to be the first point of contact for all rural patients, for all matters relating to healthcare and wellbeing – much like Google for the web, we intend to be the trusted navigator for all healthcare services in rural Bangladesh.
…after much deliberation, I also realised that the needs of Jeeon were changing significantly…I was definitely not equipped with the skills, network, or visionary perspective that would be necessary to lead the system level transformation we aim for…
Amidst all of this, taking a year off for the MBA really was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever had to make. I was already responsible for something that would deeply affect millions of people in Bangladesh in the coming years. I was part of a stellar team of committed people focused on transforming healthcare on a nationwide scale. Jeeon was about to finally take flight, and the thought of stepping away was excruciating. But after much deliberation, I also realised that the needs of Jeeon were changing significantly. I had played my role well in prototyping and experimenting our way to a business viable service model. I had guided strategy and played a key supportive role in building the team and culture of the company. But I was definitely not equipped with the skills, network, or visionary perspective that would be necessary to lead the system level transformation we aim for at Jeeon.
And hence I decided to pursue the MBA at Oxford Saïd – for its explicit focus on social entrepreneurship, and in no small part for the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship – but primarily because at Oxford, I expect to develop the transformative thinking that I will need in the coming years. It is the end of one chapter in my life, and the beginning of another.
Recent graduate of Oxford Saïd MBA 2015-16, Andres Baehr Oyarzun, spent his Summer Consulting Project in Mexico with 2015 The Venture finalist, Echale a tu Casa. Andres shares his story.
“Echale, echale!”, screamed a child behind us, while we watched Mexico City’s Lucha Libre. Chubby wrestlers kept slapping each other’s chests while we sat next to our supervisor. This was not your average MBA consulting project, I thought.
It was the first time we heard the word Echale outside of the context of ‘Echale a tu Casa‘, which can be translated as ‘Throw your Heart at your House”. Echale is Mexico’s first B Corp, a finalist in Chivas’ The Venture competition in 2015, and the recipient of the ‘Best of the World’ award by the Rockefeller Foundation. The organisation works to provide affordable housing through an innovative and effective model. We were in Mexico to help them prepare for releasing an investment prospectus – post- competition support that was financed by Chivas after Echale’s participation in The Venture. We hoped to learn more about an innovative social business model while using our skills to add value to the Echale team’s work.
And learn we did – the model works as follows: imagine you are a low-income homeowner in need of a new home or home improvement work. Due to lack of access to finance, you will usually be limited to making necessary changes to your home as your savings allow – on an ongoing/ ad hoc basis, rather than during a singular, planned project. In many cases this leads to substandard home conditions and overcrowding. With Echale’s model, families only have to finance and carry out 30% of their home construction and Echale helps them to complete the rest. By creating access to both a government subsidy and a credit service, Echale enables homeowners to complete a new home or improve an existing one, in a sustainable manner. The impact goes beyond housing. Families get access to financial advice and products, they are active participants in the building of their own homes and the environmental impact of home construction is reduced by the use of Echale’s eco-friendly construction materials.
We drove with Alejandra, Director of Promotion, into Jocotitlán, one of the rural communities where Echale operates. “I wasn’t too sure about social entrepreneurship” she said, “until I met Francesco (Echale’s CEO and a regional celebrity of sorts). After speaking with him, I knew I wanted to be part of the team, so I contacted him again, and again, until he just said ok, ok, come work with us”. 50 houses have already been constructed in Jocotitlán and the team is aiming to construct 500 more. This is just a small portion of the 30,000 completed homes, 150,000 home improvements and more than one million lives already positively affected by Echale.
Alejandra pointed at the steel beams that can often be seen poking out from the roofs of half-constructed houses. “You see those? They call them the ‘beams of hope”, she said. “Owners leave the beams in case one day they can afford a second floor”.
We visited Maria del Carmen, one of the homeowners who had recently moved to an ‘Echale’ house. She walked us around her old home. We looked at the blue cracked walls, dirty floors and pierced tin roof. The contrast with the tiled based and firm structure of the new house was remarkable. Maria represents one life improved, but a sea of homes is waiting to be built; in Mexico, an approximate 4.9 million families live in substandard housing.
After two weeks of bilingual Skype teleconferences, research, modeling and writing, we finally had to say good-bye to the Echale team. During our last meeting with Francesco we felt a combination of sadness, gratitude and excitement.
“Social impact is like a quantum gate”, said Francesco and raised his palm. “Once you touch it, you can’t go back. Once you have experienced it, you can’t go back”.
We packed up our bags and made our way back to Oxford. Back in Mexico, the luchadores would keep slapping their chests, the beams of hope would still stand high and the Echale team would still be there, throwing their hearts at it.
The Venture is looking for social businesses from around the world that are using business to help create a better future, if you are interested in applying or know of someone who should, head to their site to learn more www.chivas.com/the-venture.