Sandra Fisher-Martins is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. She is also a plain-language activist and entrepreneur. Sandra shares the candid truth about leaving her 10 year old organisation to pursue an Oxford MBA.
“Can you read this letter for me?”, asked Mr. Domingos, the office center caretaker.
We stood by his desk and he watched while I sifted through it. I explained that the letter was in fact a surgery voucher from the Ministry of Health paying for a surgery in a private hospital of his choice. His smile was a mix of relief and disbelief.
“I had thrown it in the bin. Then I remembered you telling me about your job the other day…”
Mr. Domingos had his first job at the age of five and taught himself to read as an adult. He enjoyed the sports newspaper, but struggled with official letters, forms and pretty much everything else. His life story was unique, but his experience of depending on others to access crucial information was not uncommon. Nearly 4 in 5 Portuguese are ‘functionally illiterate’, which means that their reading skills are insufficient to meet the demands of daily life.
I founded Português Claro (‘Plain Portuguese’) in 2007 because I was appalled by the gap between the average literacy skills of our citizens and the complexity of the documents we had to read to get on with our lives. From electricity bills to insurance contracts, from bank statements to government websites, everything was riddled with jargon and legalese. How could anyone make informed choices? How could anyone know and act on their rights?
Sandra and the Claro team at work
Sandra delivered a talk at Productized 2016
The low literacy problem is an important and complex battle to wage, requiring massive investments in education. I was too frustrated to wait. Seeing an opportunity to meet the needs of today’s Portuguese adults, I set out to persuade businesses and government agencies to simplify the way they communicated with the public.
Having little business experience, during my first years at Claro I used to dispel the flashes of self-doubt with fantasies of getting the Skoll Scholarship and picking up, in one swift year, everything I would need to run a successful social venture.
I never applied. I was too busy running the business and learning by trial-and-error to be a plain-language expert, a salesperson, an accountant, a project manager, a recruiter, a team leader, and a CEO. Stopping for a year was impossible.
And then, after nearly a decade of challenges and growth, Claro hit a sudden wall. A change in government had led to a sharp decline in private and public investment and our sales were plummeting. Faced with the possibility of having to close the company, I started questioning the sustainability of the change we had created over time. Without Claro to provide plain-language services, would these organizations revert back to their old ways?
As my doubts grew, it became clear that I’d allowed myself to be sucked into the day-to-day of running a social enterprise when the real challenge was in creating sustainable systemic change. It was time to stop and have a rethink.
I went back to the Skoll Scholarship and the Centre had added more programming focused on system change. So I decided to apply. This time I wasn’t looking for tools to run a business. I was looking for a space for reflection within a world-class network of systems thinkers, social entrepreneurs and researchers.
It is now Week 4 in Michaelmas (in plain language, that’s the beginning of November) and although the MBA has barely started so much has happened. This is a high-frequency learning environment, with daily opportunities to engage in mind-expanding conversations. Today I met with Patrick to learn about his experience running an impact investment fund in Peru. Last night I explored with Emily the systemic consequences of an ill-conceived agricultural investment in Ghana. Through this exposure to diverse experiences and approaches, my initial questions have evolved and unexpected themes — like ‘identity’ — have surfaced. Clearly, this journey has just begun. I am eager to see where it takes me.
Aaron Bartnick is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. Prior the MBA he led several ventures in US politics, and most recently helped develop the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s first university-based start-up incubator.
Aaron Bartnick on a 2012 Obama campaign rally
What are we doing to make the world a bit better for others?
At first glance, it seems like a pretty uninspiring mission. In a world where everyone is out to “change the way we think about X,” “revolutionize Y,” and, above all, “make the world a better place,” who is going to get fired up about just making things a little bit better?
But it’s not our job to tell people what a good world looks like. And it’s not our responsibility to get them there. It is, however, the solemn responsibility of every public and private institution to give people the tools and opportunities they need to build that life for themselves.
That’s what originally attracted me to politics, and why I spent three years in Manassas, Virginia and Salem, Massachusetts when so many of my peers went to places like New York and San Francisco. In too many places at home and abroad, opportunity is concentrated in just a few places and available to an ever smaller number of people. And how far you go in life seems to depend more on where you’re born than what you can create out of circumstances beyond your control.
I’ve been lucky to work with and for a couple of incredible political leaders. But no individual is going to restore economic opportunity to the millions around the world who have seen it slip away in recent decades. We have to change the system.
Aaron Bartnick with former U.S. President, Barack Obama
Over the past two and a half years, I’ve been fortunate to work on some fascinating systems challenges. I’ve worked with governments around the United States to bring their processes into the digital age. I’ve observed entrepreneurial ecosystems in a dozen emerging markets across South America, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. And in Iraq, I got to spend six months working with an international coalition of government, VC, and entrepreneurial leaders to propose much-needed economic reforms while helping the American University of Iraq build what we hope will be the Kurdistan Region’s first university-based start-up incubator.
Aaron Bartnick giving a presentation at the American University of Iraq
But this is far from enough.
If we are serious about expanding economic opportunity across the globe, we must harness the leverage of both business and government to enact changes that will flow from the highest and most complex systems down to the smallest local businesses. That’s why I’ve chosen to augment my political experience with an MBA, and why I’ve chosen to do it here at Oxford. Oxford Saïd is serious about business. I’m taking finance classes that would have made a younger me run for the hills, and am putting together presentations that will be viewed by some of the world’s preeminent business leaders. But Oxford Saïd is more than just a business school; it’s a school that talks every day about business in the service of a higher social good. And you can see that calling reflected in just about every one of the 330 peers with whom I am lucky to share this year.
Finally arriving at the University of Oxford
The MBA is a chance for me to hone the quantitative skills I will need to be successful in my career. It is a chance to explore some of the systemic challenges I’ve observed, like the massive financing gap between microfinance and private equity, through extracurricular activities like the Oxford Seed Fund and the Map the System competition. And it is a chance to broaden my perspective by taking advantage of the incredible multidisciplinary opportunities that only a place like Oxford can provide.
All of this is made possible by the Skoll Scholarship. I am humbled by the opportunity to explore some of the world’s biggest challenges in one of the world’s preeminent academic settings. I am excited to gain a better understanding of how we can build a more inclusive economic system that expands opportunity and helps make the world even a little bit better for others. And I am ready to get started.
This was the question that drove me to apply for the 1+1 programme, studying Water Science, Policy and Management for my MSc and continuing to the MBA this year. While there are many facets to unpacking this question, I chose to focus on understanding the financial barriers faced by people living in poverty, particularly Kenya and India.
What have I learned over the past two years? It’s (unsurprisingly) complicated.
There are usually two broad areas of financial barriers to water access.
First are the capital costs of purchasing water infrastructure for the house (such as utility connections, tanks, filters, etc).
The second are the recurring fees to purchase water for that infrastructure. This could be per litre charges from water utilities but may also include purchase of water from vendors, local taps or water kiosks.
I wanted to understand the factors driving the amount of water a household would purchase every day, so focused my research on the recurring expenditure. Using detailed records of all household expenditures from 298 poor Kenyan households over a year (data sourced from FSD’s fantastic Financial Diaries Project), I tried to understand trends in water purchase behaviour, and try to distill broader understanding about water affordability.
This different pattern of purchasing behaviour has implications for how we think about water affordability. We have set affordability thresholds using Western norms – as a percentage of total household expenditure. In Kenya, water expenses are clustered over a few months – while overall water expenditure may be low, this clustered expenditure can represent a large proportion of household income during the dry reason, resulting in acute affordability issues.
Why is this important?
The Millennium Development Goals were instrumental in shaping international policy, particularly how water and sanitation was thought about, measured, and delivered. Water quality, reliability, and affordability were not measured and the majority of the data collected were on what hardware was used to access the water (such as a pump, bucket and rope, or piped water system). This misses all the harder to measure indicators critical in water service delivery, such as if the pump is actually working, if the water is safe to drink or if people can afford to pay for the water. These metrics are now being re-evaluated with the Sustainable Development Goals.
We currently have an opportunity to influence how the international community thinks about water access in developing countries, and ensure that those who were excluded from the MDGs can be included in SDG approaches.
2016-17 Skoll Scholar, Ashley Thomas, has spent her career designing clean water and energy technologies to improve the lives of marginalised communities.
She spent seven years working in East and Southern Africa designing, manufacturing and selling products for bottom-of-the-pyramid customers. During this time she has developed and sold over 200,000 products, providing clean water and energy to over 2 million people in 7 different countries.
Not only does Ashley hold an Oxford MBA, she holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from MIT, and has completed a MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management, also at the University of Oxford.
Macarena Hernandez de Obeso, is a current Skoll Scholar and is dedicated to economic opportunity and prosperity for deprived communities in Latin America.
She shares the story of starting her new social enterprise that aims to bring together a global community, all the while studying her Oxford MBA!
In September of 2016 I started the most incredible journey of my life so far, an MBA at Oxford. At the beginning, I was sure that I was here to strengthen my business knowledge to be able to combine a sustainable business model with a social mission. However, I wasn’t sure which path I was going to achieve it in the future. I had in mind three options:
1. come back to the social enterprise where I was working before
2. join an international organisation or enterprise focusing on the design of tools and impact metrics to enhance the work of social entrepreneurs
3. start my own venture
Surprisingly, in less than two months, one of these became a reality.
Meeting my Co-Founder
During the first week of my MBA, I met Ana Maria. Being both born in Latin America and having dedicated part of our life to social impact, we realised that we shared a powerful goal; to create opportunities for people in Latin America by embracing their talents and helping them to reach their full potential. She had the idea to fund a charitable project offering Spanish language practice for foreigners through conversations with native speakers within the project’s community. I loved the idea, but not the business model; I thought it should be a social enterprise that could fund itself by creating access to economic opportunities and a flexible way of income for all Spanish native speakers in Latin America.
Launching our social enterprise
In November of 2016, we founded Language Amigo. Today, we are connecting, through video calls, language ’Learners’ who want to practice conversational Spanish, with native speaking ‘Amigos’ from Latin America. For Amigos, Language Amigo is a flexible way of income and for Learners, Language Amigo is a flexible way to practice.
Through Language Amigo, we are not offering Spanish teachers. We are offering to language learners the opportunity to put into practice their foreign language knowledge and have real world conversations with real and friendly people, Amigos. I believe that the main objective to learn a language is to be able to connect with people from another country, culture, and background. Through Language Amigo, you can do that.
Language Amigo’s first Learner-Amigo call
Language Amigo’s first Learner-Amigo call
I was very happy working on my new venture, but with every new path comes its challenges and scepticism. In February 2017, I was delivering a presentation about Language Amigo, to my communication skills’ group at the Oxford Language Centre. I explained that to generate income, Language Amigo keeps a percentage of the cost of the calls conducted between Amigos and Learners. The first question that I received after this presentation, from a Chilean student, was: “are you exploiting Latin American youngsters to create a business?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I wasn’t sure what feeling this question had caused me. Anger? Deception? Surprise? Indignation? I realised that it is not obvious to everyone that a collaborative economy business model, such as Language Amigo, is creating economic inclusion for people who did not have an economic opportunity before. I was conscious that industries threatened by collaborative economy models, such as hospitality and logistics, have been raising critique against successful platforms and putting pressure into regulatory institutions. Nonetheless, the fact that an Oxford student from Latin American believes that we were exploiting our Amigos, completely shocked me.
But, we continue to grow
I believe that Language Amigo is creating value not only for Amigos but also for Learners. We are developing the means to create social and economic transactions between them. We are aggregating and connecting supply with demand that otherwise would never connect. We are constantly looking for potential customers to grow the economic opportunities for Amigos. We are constantly updating the Amigos’ training and generating support resources to improve the experience for the Learners.
Why is the value of creating a network and the means to include people into the economy undervalued? What is harder: to produce and deliver the product or service, or to find the market and attract it to generate demand for the product or service?
Currently, we are looking for institutions such as language centres, schools, universities, and enterprises that already have Spanish students to become our partners. We would like to be able to offer Language Amigo to their students and to co-create the best tool for them, their students, and the Amigos. Together we will be able to demonstrate that it is possible to create fair opportunities through the power of language.
Language Amigo Co-founders: Ana Maria (Left) Macarena (Right)
Skoll Scholar and design enthusiast, Ahmed Abu Bakr, shares his experience of an average Oxford MBA classroom. But it wasn’t the subject matter that he found captivating, it was the leadership of its professor that truly inspired him.
In my first week of the MBA programme, I was introduced to the idea that we can all be classified into one of four categories: activists, theorists, reflectors, and pragmatists. Now of course, that was a clear oversimplification – we’re obviously not one or the other, but a mix of each in varying quantities. Nonetheless, the exercise forced me to explicitly recognise my inclination towards reflection.
And so, as my year at Oxford comes to an untimely close, I find myself taking stock of my time spent here. So what am I taking away with me? Well, a great many things: new skills, new friends, great memories, and an expanded perspective. But most importantly, I’m taking back inspiration. And today, I want to share one such story of inspiration from my time here.
I met him in the first week of our first term, on a Friday afternoon. Half of us were feeling the post-lunch drowsiness seeping in, while the other half really just wanted to get started with the weekend. There was nothing particularly remarkable about him at first glance. The most I could have said about him back then was that he seemed decent- kind, soft spoken, and as we eventually learned, modest to a fault. And he was teaching us statistics.
But over the course of eight weeks, I found in him a real life John Keating (ref: Dead Poet’s Society– be sure to watch it if you haven’t already!). Never have I had the privilege of seeing someone so very passionately and creatively impart knowledge – and let’s face it, statistics isn’t the most exciting subject out there- and win the heart of each and every student in the room. His name is Siddharth Arora, and his love and passion for the statistics was unmistakeable from his very first class. But what was truly remarkable was how he took on the full onus of helping us discover beauty in his subject.
Far too often have I seen teachers crush the spirit of learning in their students. Growing up, I have personally witnessed teachers ruin mathematics, physics, language, and a myriad of other disciplines for many of my fellow classmates. I have seen teachers teach through their authority, arrogantly, complacently, trying to stuff knowledge into the minds of students, and leaving no room for wisdom. Too often have I seen teachers forget that they must earn the attention that we chose to pay.
But Siddharth understood that. He cared enough to truly engage us. He showed us the presence of statistics in breath taking videos of the flight patterns of starlings, in the disturbing reality of climate change, and in the quotes of Rumi. He cared enough to go out of his way to make things like regression and conditional probabilities interesting, relevant and engaging for us all. He cared enough to voluntarily stay back on weekends and help us when we were struggling and he cared enough to provide us with snacks as we waited our turn to discuss our issues with him. And because he cared, we cared back.
It was particularly evident on the last day of his class. Incidentally, this was also the last class of term for all of us- a much needed study break was just waiting to begin. The clock struck five and he let us know that we were free to leave, but that he still had about 20 more minutes of content to cover. The weekend had begun, the term had ended, and everyone chose to stay back to finish a statistics class.
You see, over those eight weeks, Siddharth did so much more than simply teach us. He inspired us, shared his passion, gave us pearls of wisdom for life in general, and was there for us when we had needed him. He showed us genuine care, and got us to care back, and in doing so he demonstrated tremendous leadership within the classroom. And through it all, he personified humility and grace.
Section C, MBA class of 2017 with Siddharth Arora (more than 45 minutes after the end of class)
For me personally, he inspired a vision of the sort of person and the sort of leader I would like to be. Someone who doesn’t let authority, position, and credentials eat away at the intent to try harder, to be better, and to give more. Someone who empathises, and someone who cares. Someone who wins hearts through deliberate and protracted effort. And is humble and genuine throughout it all.
Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.
Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA Candidate 2016-17, Ashley Thomas, draws on this year’s Skoll World Forum theme in relation to social impact business models.
There is a fault line between models of international development financing. On one side, there is the traditional donor and philanthropic capital that utilises grant money to support projects. On the other side is the social enterprise space that seeks to create sustainable impact through revenue generation. There has been a lot of excitement in utilising grant funding for social enterprises to build and tweak their business model, but to date there has been little appetite for true hybrid models of ongoing subsidies for social enterprises.
This is a conversation that I had in numerous sessions and coffees throughout Skoll World Forum. It was also one of the key themes from the session hosted by Mercy Corps and USAID on sharing the learnings from their investments in the Innovation Investment Alliance. There is a common ground emerging; these conversations are hinting at the start of innovative new business models that allow for hybrid grant and revenue streams.
Social enterprises are addressing market failures. They bring products or services to underserved markets, often at low margins, and often at high costs. However, market failures exist for a reason; many companies are realising that even at scale, high volume low margin products are not able to generate the revenues that are necessary to be sustainable. However, social enterprises often sell themselves on this vision- that with initial capital to pilot and build systems, they will be financially sustainable at scale.
Philanthropic capital- which does not require financial returns, can help bridge this fault line, and maximise the potential impact of social enterprises. This does not mean we should revert to the large scale unsustainable development models of the 1990’s, but use philanthropic capital as way of targeting the market failure and allowing social enterprises to maintain their focus on their mission and outcomes. This hybrid model is being utilised in the FundiFix hand pump repair service designed by Dr. Rob Hope out of the University of Oxford. The model uses monthly user subscription payments to pool capital to finance prompt hand pump repairs. However, the willingness to pay only accounts for 2/3 of the cost of the service, and the remaining cost is subsidised through grant funding. This is also used in much larger social enterprises. Ella Gudwin from Vision Spring spoke about how their model has shifted from seeking to maintain cost recovery- and retailing glasses at increasingly higher prices, to minimising the “philanthropy per pair” and serving their target customer. They were able to do this under a scaling innovation grant from USAID and Mercy Corps, demonstrating that donors are also recognising the need for the pivot into these hybrid models.
It is increasingly clear that there is not one single model for social enterprise, and a single-minded focus on achieving commercial sustainability may limit the impact. Innovative hybrid models that use the social enterprise ethos of cost effectiveness in combination with smart grant funding that can subsidise the product can address the market failures preventing social enterprises achieving impact at scale. There is immense opportunity to achieve scale and impact through creating this common ground.