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.
Back in the first term of the MBA, treatment I wrote a blog on tending to our inner self. With all the possibilities and opportunities at business school, it is easy to get lost in an ocean of activities and forget why we are here in the first place. Now looking back from the middle of the final summer term, what a year it has been! Interestingly, the most memorable moments and major learnings took place when I was so immersed in an activity or with a community that I almost forgot about myself. In addition, when I took a plunge into the unknown and let go of the need for certainty, new doors and ideas opened up.
Many of us come to business school with a preconceived notion of what we would like to do. We could have had a business idea, wanted to break into a certain industry or plan to work on a blueprint or roadmap for an emerging market. However, I have learned that the ability to let go of the prescribed plan brings better opportunities. We often think if we would try a little harder, work a little longer and talk to a few more people, we would be on the right track, but sometimes they could be the wrong things to pursue in the first place. If it is a new product or new business, it is often about industry trends, market behaviour, and the company’s complementary assets. Being able to have the acumen to sense and read the external environment takes years of experiences to accumulate. Understanding the ecosystem and gaining knowledge from existing players actually, becomes a crucial shortcut to save time and investment.
What about the plan and what we wanted since the beginning of the year? Accepting that we live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world means that we need to be adaptive to change and ready to change plans. Often it is more important to fully understand a problem than to be fixed on a solution. Our Entrepreneurship Project started out to build a tomato processing factory in Sierra Leone, but after months of learning from other factory’s experiences and similar examples in Nigeria and Ghana, we realise that it takes more than a factory to solve the problems we want to solve. To reduce food waste and strengthen food security, building a modern logistics system and improve the small-holder farmers’ cooperatives will do more for the farmers than merely a processing factory.
The Skoll Centre recognises the “solution trap” that entrepreneurs often fall into and offers the “apprenticing with a problem” grant that allows MBAs to be fully immersed in a problem larger than themselves and have the humility to learn from others before coming up with a solution. This will help our EP project grow and be better embedded within the local ecosystem. There are so many players already in the field addressing similar problems, it’s best to be complementary and collaborative and learn from the precious existing local knowledge.
Business is all about people and relationships with different stakeholders. Going beyond oneself means to make genuine connections, being able to listen, understand and empathise from a deeper perspective. One of my favorite classes this year is Leadership Perspectives from Humanities. In the last class, the professor discussed notions of leadership from moral philosophers such as Max Weber, Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber. Contrasting from Weber’s notion that leadership is all about the individual leader’s ability to bring a group of people to achieve certain goals; Arendt believes that it is the people that enable the leader to manifest a collective desire for change. Buber further elaborated and explained that it is building the “I-you” relationships rather than “I-it” relationships that make us great leaders. “I-you” moments mean caring for the other people, deep listening and making a lasting connection rather than the transactional nature of an “I-it” relationship. Opportunities to make “I-you” connections at business school are abundant, but one needs to actively go beyond the self and the autopilot mode of performing daily routines that our mind puts us in. To get a lot of things crossed off our to-do list, we need to keep going ahead without paying too much attention to the others.
The best part of the MBA experience, as all my classmates would agree, is the people. We cannot take it for granted that the MBA is one of the rare experiences in our lives that we get to learn from 340 classmates from different countries and backgrounds, from former military commanders from Australia; social entrepreneurs from South Africa; to technology gurus from France and finance experts from Japan. The numerous small group projects exposed us to different ways of thinking and working across industries and cultures. One of the best memories of my MBA year is participating in the Impact Investing Competition with four other classmates from Kazakhstan, Switzerland, US and Canada. I believe the reason that we were able to out-compete all the other European schools is because of the diversity of both expertise and nationalities on our team.
At the beginning of the year, I mentioned a childhood goal of visiting the Antarctic to my other Skoll Scholar friends. I never thought it would become a reality, and now I am working with other organisations on climate change education, expedition and women’s leadership, some projects that I never dreamt to be able to work on. Taking that initial plunge, going beyond myself into the unknown enabled new possibilities to present themselves.
Have I totally contradicted myself? Not at all. I actually think going inward and setting the right intentions enables the right external opportunities to take place. Plunging into the unknown with mindfulness will make the adventure much more fun and full of learning!
How does one judge whether this year has been a successful one or not? Have we been able to achieve things we wanted to from this year? Have we picked up the skills that we thought we would like to? Have we found the jobs that we wanted to?
These are big questions and they are not easy to answer. But one thing on which most of my class agrees is that this has been one of the best years of our lives. There are no two ways about it.
What is the one thing that we are going to take away from this year? For me, and it would be the conversations – both within and outside the classroom. I believe that the person who does the listening in these conversations is the one who derives the most value from them. These conversations with people from across the globe and across industries have broadened my professional and personal perspectives. Furthermore, in our classes and study groups, the diverse approaches of my classmates towards problem solving, almost always so different from mine, has enabled me to learn from different ways of thinking and approaching challenges. One of the main ways I have grown this year is in my ability to have conversations about multiple business disciplines and industries. There are many who would cite this kind of growth as a highlight of their MBA – and I have certainly found this to be true in my own case. I consider it a privilege to have lived this year in Oxford and to have grown in this way.
One thing which I have come to realise is the power of networks, rather than just networking. The people we have met this year and the relationships that we have fostered are going to stay with us. These are the people who are going to go and manage large corporations and build successful startups, and we will need each other at different points in our lives. In order to reap benefits from the network that we have built this year, it is very important to be conscious of how people perceive you. Do they have fond memories of you from a conversation, an event or a dinner? And when you drop a note 10 years down the line to one of them, these memories and how they thought of you back will stand out. I would like to believe that if, at the end of the year, many classmates perceive me as a friend – as someone they would love to hear from even 10 years down the line – then I have succeeded in my MBA.
Nine months in the MBA programme at Saïd Business School have exposed me to a diverse set of experiences. I have worked on projects ranging from solutions to decongest the London Tube to helping launch an agri-tech startup. I have worked with public stakeholders, search become aware of international government policies and worked on initiatives relating to industries that would have been unknown to me less than a year ago.
I came to Oxford with the intention to better understand how startups and private sector organisations can effectively be support systems (or in some cases, prostate replacements) for broken or archaic public sector frameworks – and many of my assumptions have been challenged.
Hands-on academic modules like Global Rules of the Game, where we learned in detail about the passing of the insurance bill in India, have played a significant role in my learning process. In teams, we took on the roles of different stakeholders in the decision-making ecosystem and played out likely scenarios. We learned, in a practical and relatable way, how a group of private organisations played a significant role in pushing the approval of a regulatory change which was generally perceived as needed. In our professional journeys, we take many actions – which may or may not work out for the best. Learning to understand these actions and decisions in context, and how the same situations could be better approached or what actions could be repeated, are priceless lessons.
Through the year, my classmates and I have worked in multiple, diverse teams. Working to bridge cultural and professional distances, while challenging, has been an extremely rewarding experience, one from which we have walked away with friends, valuable lessons and a better understanding of our own personalities.
I have worked with classmates from the government and social sector and have had the chance to interact with practitioners from multiple industries and sectors during events like the Skoll World Forum. Through these experiences I learned how some organisations and individuals are pioneering in the space between the public and private sectors. Building relationships, understanding the target segment and thinking long term have become fundamental to seeing success in the field and ensuring sustainability in programmes.
A highlight of my programme occurred a few months ago, when I met an alumnus of the University of Oxford who has been building an organisation that is changing trust relationships in online interactions between individuals (think of an AirBnB host or Uber driver/customer – and what we really know about those in whom we place trust). Drawing on my many experiences in witnessing and experiencing broken trust architecture in unorganised sectors and developing countries, I have been helping them maneuver some new markets they are looking to enter.
While the MBA year is still a few months from culmination, the experiences – academic and practical – have helped me hone my skills and have reaffirmed my choice regarding the professional space in which I would like to remain.
Oxford is fondly called the city of dreaming spires, and rightly so. It has inspired me and opened the opportunity for us to forge special bonds, question the direction in which our actions take us, and aim higher, every day.