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A Tale of Two Viruses

Dr. Diana Esther Wangari is a current 2019-20 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA. She is the co-founder of last mile health venture, Checkups Medical Centre in Kenya where she dedicates her work to treating those who need it most. Read more about Diana’s experience as a health professional during two viruses.

It started when I was in the queue at immigration. This was at Brussels Airport. The elegant lady looked at me, almost apologetically, then whispered to her partner. He turned and looked, decidedly less friendly, pulled her towards him and they moved forward.

They didn’t have to tell me what they were thinking. I was the only African in this queue, and it was at the height of the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa: they had no way of knowing what country I had come from.

And by then, global news headlines had already proclaimed the ultimate horror: a man infected with Ebola had travelled all the way to the USA, without his deadly infection being detected.

Worse still, he had interacted with various members of his friends and family – over and above his fellow passengers on the flights to the US, and the airline crew – before the truth had emerged that he had Ebola. Total panic had ensued in America, and demands were made for all flights to the US from West Africa (if not all of Africa) to be suspended immediately.

I knew they were looking at me and thinking just one thing…Ebola.

It was a time of global hysteria over this terrifying disease, and thus not really the best time for an African to be flying to Europe or North America.

So why was I there? At that airport? In that immigration queue?

I had travelled from Nairobi, Kenya to Brussels, Belgium.

My final destination was the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) Antwerp, the very institution where Ebola had been discovered by Dr. Peter Piot back in 1976.

You could argue that this feeling of being dehumanised – of being seen essentially as a potential carrier of a deadly and highly contagious virus – was all in my head. But I was to have an even more disturbing encounter in the train on my way from Brussels to Antwerp.

On the train where I was seated next to the window, a child came and sat next to me only for the mother to promptly grab her hand and swiftly move with her to a distant couch. The gentleman seated opposite, noticing my facial reaction, leaned in and started speaking in French.

Now while I do know some French, it certainly didn’t prepare me for the verbal onslaught of incomprehensible French that poured forth, and so I stared at the gentleman and said, “En anglais s’il vous plait.”

“Aha, so you are not from a Francophone country,” said the gentleman, “I was simply apologizing on behalf of the lady as it is ignorance and now, I see that you are not from West Africa.”

In the conversation that followed, I explained to the kind gentleman that I was actually from Kenya. And that despite there being no cases of Ebola in Kenya, the impact of the Ebola outbreak on sectors of our economy would be notable.

Our parliament had officially decreed that Kenya Airways, our national carrier, suspend all its flights to West Africa for fear that one of the many transit passengers from West Africa would bring the dreaded disease to Kenya.

The Kenya Airways management argued in vain that they were taking precautions against any such possibility; that there were even European airlines still flying to the West African nations affected; and that flights from West Africa to Dubai or China, via the Nairobi hub, were a key profit centre for Kenya Airways.

But the parliamentarians would have none of it. One MP even declared that the next flight from West Africa landing in Nairobi, would find him – along with his supporters – lying on the runway to prevent it from landing “if that is what it would take to secure the lives of innocent Kenyans, threatened by Ebola”.

But I digress. Bruno (for that was his name) told me of his dream to go on Safari in Kenya and was considering going to the Maasai Mara to witness the annual wildebeest migration, famously, “The eighth wonder of the world”.

I was smiling and laughing by the time I got off the train.  But that night – my first night at ITM – I cried. I just could not help it.

However, that nasty experience of being an African traveling in Europe at the time of Ebola was quickly forgotten as I settled into ITM, as every day I got to interact with scientists who were travelling regularly to Liberia at the very heart of the outbreak: the kind of courageous and dedicated biomedical researchers that the world has learned to think of as heroes, since the COVID-19 pandemic descended on us all.

airplane window showing the wing of the plane in blue skies

And speaking of COVID-19, six years after the incident at Brussels Airport, I found myself in another queue. This time at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi.

After completing the re-entry formalities, getting into the Uber, I noticed the undue speed with which the driver picked up my bags and flung them into the boot.

And then, once I was seated in the back of his car, ever so casually, he asked, “Where are you flying in from, my sister?”

“London,” I answered.

And I could hear the “Oh” and then a moment of silence, before he continued in a rather accusing tone of voice, “Kenya just confirmed its first case of “corona” yesterday. It was a lady coming from London as well.”

I got the impression that he felt I should have volunteered that piece of information about having flown in from London before I got into his cab; given him the opportunity to decline to drive me home.

An uneasy silence followed.

“Are you worried?” I asked despite the fact that I was in the back seat with ample space between. He quickly shook his head but did not say anything.

We drove in silence. But it was unnerving to see the occasional glances he threw back – taking his eyes away from the road for a second or two – as if he was checking for some indication that he was at risk: that a fine mist of coronavirus might be floating towards him, brought back from a contaminated London, to infect innocent people in Nairobi.

On arrival, I volunteered to take out my own bags. The driver seemed relieved.

Thanks to that great Kenyan innovation, the ubiquitous Mpesa mobile phone money transfer system, I was able to pay him without having to hand over to him, what he would no doubt have considered to be “corona”-infected cash.

There was a time when I would have been very tempted to scream at him that I refused to be treated like a leper in my own country.

But I had seen much more of the world over the past six years. I understood fear. I just paid him and thanked him. I even gave him a tip.

And that night, I did not cry.

For you see, I had learnt over the course of time, life is not black and white. I was now an MBA student at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and I had the sinking feeling that our MBA experience, just like the rest of the world, was not going to be the same. It has been two months and I was right.

Perhaps the hardest part was being torn between answering the call to aid my country as a health professional and continuing down the path I had already embarked on at Oxford. And some days, I do find myself volunteering in the hospital because the little we can do, we must do.

And as we continue with our classes online and I think back to the classmates, the faculty, the friends and the family I made, I know it has not been easy.

I will tell you what Bruno told me as we left the train that autumn evening at Antwerpen-Central, “Take care of yourself my dear. Don’t forget to smile. It shall pass”.

This too shall pass.

Hilary term: the Oxford MBA so far

Joaquín Víquez is a 2019-20 Oxford MBA and Skoll Scholar. He began his social impact career in his native country, Costa Rica, where his passion for environmental sustainability led him to many projects and ventures. Now Joaquin finds himself among 300+ other global MBA candidates in one of the world’s oldest institutions, the University of Oxford.

Like any great adventure, time does truly fly. It seems like yesterday my family and I were packing our “life” in a few bags to move to Oxford. It has now been almost 8 months since our big move; Michaelmas and Hilary term have come to an end, which means we are more than halfway to completing the MBA!

After having been away from school almost eight years, I must openly share that the first half of Michaelmas term was an emotional roller coaster. First, you find yourself working through the “jungle” of getting to know your fellow classmates. You think it’s easy but even now, ending Hilary, I’m yet to finish this task. Second, getting used to going to class and purposefully making the effort of acquiring knowledge and making sense of the dozen (if not hundreds) of frameworks to tackle pretty much any business (or non-business) problem you can think of, is exhausting – the expression “drinking water from a fire hose” does become quite literal.

Our first big assignment during the MBA as a team effort, was advising Kraft and Heinz (ketchup, Mac and Cheese, etc) to deal with its operational challenges. Being a social entrepreneur, you might agree with me, that this was a somewhat boring task (I mean there are bigger problems to tackle out there). So yes, at one point I was nearly convinced I had mistakenly chosen to do an MBA…

But, the advantage of being a [social] entrepreneur, is having perseverance which gave me enough juice to stick with it, in hope that things would get better. And like many fairy tales, it did! New courses came along, bringing much brighter, truly challenging and meaningful tasks; my adaptation phase was over, and days were literally getting brighter and better. With this I want to list a few highlights of the programme and the experience so far:

  • The climate OBN invited me to share my personal story and journey of starting and running Viogaz (my former renewable energy from waste social startup). Preparing the slides and sharing the story was simply brilliant (as they would say here).
Fig1. Presentation at the Oxford Foundry about Viogaz
  • This year’s Global Threats and Opportunities Oxford (GOTO) was on Climate Action within Food and Agriculture – it couldn’t have been more specific to my background and passion. I persuaded my team to focus on the future of food security driven by the unsustainable management of phosphorus and its impact on climate change– I agree, it was a bit technical but really enjoyed working on it! Plus, our group was randomly selected and is now featured in a series of documentaries which is pretty cool. Oh! I was able to start an Entrepreneurship project with an amazing team, with an idea that came out of the GOTO project!
Fig2. GOTO Team featured on small documentaries
  • Oxford is just like they say – there is so much going on and “FOMO” (Fear of missing out) is pretty real. Balancing your time is difficult, especially with a family expecting you to be home for dinner. But! I was able to fit in a few things which added so much joy to the whole experience: formal dinners, Oxford half marathon, running club, thanksgiving dinner with friends, drinks after exams, climate change school, etc!
  • As a young boy, I also experienced the great value of living overseas for some time (I spent a couple of years in the US as a kid). Having the opportunity to do the same for my children and witnessing the transformational experience it has been for them, is definitely a highlight of my time in Oxford.

Now to be honest, I started working on this blog at the end of February. Back then I had written how my next challenge was around deciding the future; should my family and I move back home or stay in UK/Europe for a while? What kind of job should I apply for? Should I go for summer courses or plan to do an internship? I am now finishing this blog a month later back in Costa Rica. One week after our MBA had been moved online until further notice and the day before the UK announced full lockdown, my family and I once again, packed our bags and left the UK.  

So much has been said about this pandemic. All I can say for now, is that the decisions we make and the actions we take, can be seen as a form of test of how we handle adversities. For most of us, we will get a chance to see our true selves.

Stay safe! 

How to Build a Purpose-Driven Venture

Mike Quinn is a 2007-08 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA alumnus, he is also the co-founder and former CEO of Zoona, one of Africa’s earliest fintech companies. With over 10 years of experience running a successful social business, Mike shares his hard-learned tips and experiences on how to get a purpose-driven venture started, built and scaled. This is the second article in the series, how to ‘build’.

In my last blog, I outline a three part strategy to starting a purpose driven venture:

  1. Start by falling in love with a big problem
  2. Pick the right co-founder(s)
  3. Rapid prototype to discover product market fit

If you get that far, you are well on your way and should be able to raise investment. The art of fundraising is a topic on its own that has been extensively covered, including this excellent piece by Y-Combinator’s co-founder Paul Graham. In this article, I’m going to assume you have some capital and now it’s time to build. Specifically, there are three critical foundations you will need to put in place in advance of scaling your venture (which will be the third part of this series).

Build a Model

I used to falsely believe that innovating means everything needs to be new and unique. A more mature approach is to first research what other models are out there that you can learn from. As John Mullins and Randy Komisar wisely advise in Getting to Plan B, start by finding successful analog models that you can emulate, and figure out how to copy and adapt them to your market. When launching Zoona, we studied M-Pesa’s agent and money transfer model in Kenya and figured out how to adapt it to Zambia where it didn’t exist. It’s a lot easier to build off of someone else’s successful innovation than to start from scratch.

Conversely, it is also useful to identify antilog models that are past their prime and explicitly define what you want to do the opposite of. In Zoona’s case, this was deploying entrepreneur owned and managed kiosks instead of branches as the banks and the post office were doing.

You will also need to figure out your growth levers, how you make money, and establish metrics and feedback mechanisms to track if your model is working. The faster you can learn and adapt, the greater the probability of success.

Build a Team

Your ability to build a motivated, aligned and high-performing team will make or break your venture. This is one of the most important jobs of an entrepreneur and ironically one of the easiest to screw up. When there is so much work to do, it is extremely tempting to hire the first person who walks in the door and leave her alone to sink or swim. I have learned that it’s much more effective to be purposeful and systematic every step of the way. Here is a checklist I use when building a team:

  • Do you really know what roles you need, and have you defined them as clearly as you can?
  • What roles can you outsource or make part-time to avoid taking on too much fixed cost?
  • Have you defined what values, abilities, and skills (in that order of importance) are required for each role?
  • Do you have a clearly defined Employee Value Proposition to attract the right people? (i.e. Why would anyone want to work for you?)
  • Do you know where to find potential candidates? (The good ones most likely already have jobs). Have you looked within your organization?
  • Do you have a non-biased process to assess candidates?
  • Have you thoroughly checked their references to identify red flags and validate their track records?
  • Can you “try before you buy” by starting new hires off as consultants?
  • Have you defined clear 30/60/90/180/365 day objectives and key results that will determine if the new hire is performing?
  • Do you have a process to give and receive regular and honest feedback?
  • Do you have a simple and effective performance management system?
  • Do you have a process to identify exit the wrong people?

The last point on identifying and exiting the wrong people is as important as hiring the right ones. A mentor once told me that the best recruitment firms in the world will only get it right 75% of the time, but the best companies in the world are those that efficiently deal with the other 25%. If you want to build a great team, learn how to compassionately offboard people who stand in the way of that goal.

Build a Culture

With the right people in the right roles, amazing things are possible. But for anything to be achieved, those people also need to exhibit the right behaviors, which is where your culture comes in. As with all my advice, the starting point is to be purposeful about designing what culture you want and then taking steps to shape that. If you don’t do this purposefully, a culture will emerge anyway, and it may not be one that is productive or that you want.

  • Have you defined your purpose, values and principles?
  • Do you live your purpose, values and principles?
  • Do you reflect and learn from failure?
  • Do you celebrate your successes and acknowledge achievements?
  • Do you care about your people and their well-being?

The golden rule for building an effective culture is “do what I do, not what I say.” As a leader, everyone will watch how you behave for signals on how they should behave. As Ben Horowitz rightly titled his latest book about creating culture, “What You Do Is Who You Are.” With any purpose-driven venture, time and energy spent designing and improving your model, team and culture will be time well-spent. It will pay off in multiples when you enter the next phase: scaling.

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My journey from Sydney to Oxford

Rangan Srikhanta is a 2019-20 Skoll Scholar and MBA. He is dedicated to equal and fair education for all as a catalyst for future progression and access to opportunities for the world’s most marginalised communities. Rangan shares the story of how this came to be his passion and how he ended up at the University of Oxford doing his MBA.

My journey to Oxford isn’t a typical one, but then again – as I soon found out, no one’s is!

Born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, my family and I fled a civil war that would change the lives of millions of people. Arriving in Australia, it took me many years to realise that social disadvantage transcends nations and disproportionately affects minorities.

Many government policies when combined with externalities, in whatever their form, first manifest as minor differences in education and health in early childhood, but snowball into much wider social divides later in life (lower life expectancy, lower employment opportunities and so on). Layer in the rapidly changing landscape, thanks to technology – a fast forming digital divide, would also become synonymous with an opportunity divide.

As fate would have it, in 2005, I found an opportunity to do something to contribute to improving access to educational opportunities for thousands of children by closing the digital divide. One laptop per Child (OLPC), was a partnership among businesses, NGOs, and governments to produce the world’s least expensive laptop and to distribute that device to children all around the world. I was intrigued by OLPC’s vision of bringing those sectors together to solve social problems. I was equally impressed by the low-cost laptop that OLPC proposed to create.

Rangan Srikhanta is Ceo of One Education, an offshoot of the One Laptop Per Child scheme.

The device, which came to be called the XO, would cost just $100 a piece to manufacture, had free and open software, ultra-low power usage, a sunlight-readable screen and be field repairable.

Inspired on so many levels, I chose action over theory, opting to make numerous late-night phone calls to MIT to figure out what we could do to bring the project to Australia. Armed with what would be my greatest asset, my child like naivety on how these projects came in to being, I set upon a journey that would not only improve educational opportunities for thousands of primary school children but also change my entire trajectory in life.

Whilst our early days were focused on advocacy, it wasn’t until after our volunteer group formalised into One Laptop per Child Australia that I realised that the OLPC initiative needed a re-think to some of its core principles.

After delivering computers to many remote communities, it was clear that flying in, dropping off computers for free and then leaving was not sustainable and would undermine our ability to improve access and usage.

A major challenge facing remote schools in Australia is the tenure of teachers. On average teachers last 8 months. Any model that required face-to-face training was not scalable, would only serve to build a dependency relationship on our organisation, and do little to build local capacity to overcome teacher turnover.

In fact, we found there were many dependencies on suppliers (by design) that resulted in schools being forced to come back for repairs, support etc. This was a market failure that increased the cost of technology and reduced access to those that needed it most.

After evolving our programme over 10 years, raising just under $30 million to train over 2,000 teachers and deliver over 70,000 computers, it became clear that I needed time and space to reflect on my journey into the future.

Truth be told, after the management rollercoaster I’d been through over the past decade, I wasn’t convinced I needed an MBA. But to classify Oxford’s MBA with its deep connection to the Skoll Centre as ‘just another MBA’ is a career limiting move for anyone who wants to lead an organisation deep into the 21st Century. It forms the reason why I wanted to come here – this MBA, is a place to consider how externalities need to be core business for all executives.

One thing I didn’t anticipate was how the power of such a resilient institution like Oxford could be a catalyst for my own change. In my short time on campus, not only have I been able to reflect on why I came here, but have also started to reflect on where I will be going.

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The windy road from Kenya to Oxford University

Dr. Diana Esther Wangari is a current 2019-20 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA. She is the co-founder of last mile health venture, Checkups Medical Centre in Kenya where she dedicates her work to treating those who need it most. Read more about what led her to Oxford.

How does a young Kenyan doctor, who through her earlier years dreamt of being a neurosurgeon, end up at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford?

The answer to this – oddly enough – is a question. And this question is, “Do you want your life to count for something – or not?”

Here’s my story.

In my fourth year of medical school, I stood in the middle of a pediatric ward, having failed to resuscitate a young boy of four years and I knew he did not have to die.

John died from a case of complicated pneumonia. We could treat pneumonia. He could have been treated from his own village; he didn’t have to travel over 300 kilometers to seek care. That time taken led to complications. He did not need to be in my ward.

On that day in the middle of the pediatric ward, I asked myself one question, “Who am I? What am I doing here?”

I was in the biggest referral hospital, but majority of our patients, consisted of those who didn’t need to be there. They had preventable and very treatable conditions that could have been handled in a facility in their towns or villages. And by the time they got to us, the case had often complicated.

But childhood dreams are not easily abandoned.

And thus, it was not until my fourth year in medical school that I was able to accept a stark fact of the health sector in a developing country like Kenya – that no matter how hard I worked, treating the patients that came to me, would not be enough. My clinical practice would not be enough.  And, specifically, if I specialized in neurosurgery, I would cut myself off from the millions of Kenyans who would never in their lives encounter a neurosurgeon.

The kind of people whom I met every day as a fourth-year medical student – people whose courage in the face of adversity and extreme neglect sometimes moved me to tears – would no longer feature in my working day.

I suppose I should also be grateful that I was not only a medical student. Beginning from my second year, I had become, out of necessity, a fulltime journalist duly accredited by the Media Council of Kenya, having worked with Radio Netherlands and Reuters Foundation.

But between what I was learning from my colleagues in the newsroom and the unforgettable exposure to what ordinary Kenyans go through in their efforts to get treatment at a public hospital, a strange change came over me.

I began to feel that I would have to regard myself as a failure in life, if, as and when, my time was up, I had not made a tangible contribution to improving the quality of healthcare available to ordinary Kenyans.

Naïve as it will sound; I want my life to count for something. Naïve as it will sound; I believe I can have an impact, which will touch on not tens of thousands, but millions of lives. And naïve as it will sound; I believe that this is an ambition that is within my reach.

Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

I knew that Oxford University has historically been the abode of giants; and that it is a place where I too, can hope to stand on the shoulders of giants, and expand my vision of what I can do for my country and my continent.

So “Who am I? What am I doing here?”

I am the future of the Kenyan healthcare establishment. I feel like that who have come before me, have done their best but there is a lot more that still needs to be done.

So “Who am I? And what I am doing at the Oxford University’s Saïd Business School?”

I am Dr. Diana Wangari, a doctor, a journalist and a healthcare entrepreneur. As co-founder of Checkups Medical Centre, a health tech startup that operates a network of rapid outpatient clinics to drive last mile distribution of drugs and healthcare services.  This is not just a Kenyan issue; we operate in four African countries and plan to scale across Africa through partnerships and investments.

From what I have seen this far of the Skoll Network, the Saïd Business School and Oxford University Community, I am in the right place.

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My journey from Nepal to Oxford

Tsechu Dolma is a current 2019-20 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. She is the founder of the Mountain Resiliency Project to help build resilient refugee communities through women’s agribusinesses. She reflects on her lived experience and how it led her to an impact career and an MBA at Oxford.

There are 25.4 million refugees in the world; children make up half of them; 3.5 million school-age refugee children do not go to school, and only one percent of refugees enroll in higher education. I was born into these statistics.  I grew up in a Tibetan refugee camp and spent the first half of my life as a stateless person. Fleeing the civil war in Nepal, my family sought political asylum in the United States.

After becoming a new American, receiving my education there, then going back, I realized that my refugee community back home was stuck in a culture of waiting that international agencies had perpetuated and we had enhanced upon. Our community has been plagued with development barriers such as heavy youth outmigration, low student retention, poor water access and ethnic marginalization. But we were not working on solving our problems; instead, we waited for outsiders to bring in poorly designed, implemented and costly projects that would only last for a year or two. Inside the past decade, climate change and globalization has made living in the high-Himalayas increasingly more difficult and we cannot afford to wait. I made a risky leap so that we can reverse this development trend, and instead take a grassroots approach to foster local ownership, inclusion and capacity.

(Photo Credit: Mountain Resiliency Project) The majority of the villages Mountain Resiliency Project (MRP) works with do not have road access. They are some of the most remote settlements in the Himalayan range. Foot and pack animals travel is the lifeline of our communities. In this photo, Tsechu Dolma is traveling to one of MRP’s sites in Manang, Nepal, where the nearest road is a four-day hike away, plus a another 20 hours bus ride from Kathmandu, crossing a pass 16,814ft above sea level.

My entrepreneurial spirit brought me back to the refugee camps I left behind to start a social enterprise. I founded Mountain Resiliency Project six years ago while I was an undergraduate student. We have a proven track record of improving food security, women’s economic empowerment and leveling patchy development for 15,000 displaced farmers in Nepal. Our average families have increased their annual incomes by 200 percent. Most importantly, 80 percent of our family’s earned income is spent on their children’s continued education and the remaining is reinvested in their trade.  I realize the value of hard work and grit in achieving our true potential. Our work has received international awards and recognition for making strides. Today, we have 15 full-time staff leading our work in Nepal. I am rethinking the underpinnings of development in my community that has continued to perpetrate marginalization and dispossession. My vision is to scale Mountain Resiliency’s work worldwide. We want to grow out of South Asia to become the first-ever global network of refugee communities producing and selling goods to the mainstream market. Being a Skoll Scholar has supported my growth as a social entrepreneur and broadened my scope of advocating for and strengthening displaced communities.

Tsechu Dolma in camping tent, with background of mountain scene

The Skoll Scholarship aligns with my lifelong values of growing into an effective leader with the grit, vision and communication skills to be a steward to my community and environment. For me, it is the tool to address inequities, development gaps and improve livelihoods. From my work at Mountain Resiliency, I have firsthand experience of how effective social enterprises that are deeply rooted in empathy and relationship building can transform lives. Social entrepreneurship is the best amalgamation of my passion and skills for how I want to influence the world. My experience with displaced communities has taught me that when the system is broken and continues to perpetrate disenfranchisement to the most vulnerable, the solutions must come from the unconventional. On my journey through different landscapes, I seek connections with the human and natural world to find my place and understand economic development. The literature on human, nature and policy has allowed me to use ideas from development discourse, like ‘participation’ and ‘sustainability’ in a way that is both effective and critical. Displaced communities worldwide have little to no political leverage and only extractive industries and projects are in their region; resulting in inconsistent, patchy development. I intend to change this.