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A year in Oxford

From baby #2 to navigating the crowds of tourists, our Skoll Scholar, Kevin Duco Warner, shares his incredibly personal and candid story of his year on the Oxford MBA. 

Oxford.

This place is special.

The juxtaposition of a medieval university city with the youthful bustle of 20,000 students makes for a vibrant daily experience. Even the mundane gains a touch of class from the surrounding environment. I’ve never thought of pigeons as graceful but watching them soar over St. Mary’s imposing 13th century edifice, they are nothing short of majestic. Every day is full of life and it is hard not to feed off the energy. Whether you are a pigeon or a Skoll Scholar, it is clear: Oxford is transformative. I am incredibly fortunate to be here.

St. Mary's - Oxford

St Mary’s, Oxford

What’s more, I am permanently tied to this place. In January my wife gave birth to our second child, Owen, at the John Radcliffe Hospital. What stronger connection can you have to a city than to have a child there? Oxford is permanently a part of our family story now.

New life is magical, but boy is it work! Balancing parenthood with an accelerated MBA program is one of the more challenging things that I’ve done. Sometimes it was difficult to be my best self when engaging with the city, especially with its visitors.

The ancient streets get clogged with tourists. They block the sidewalks, completely oblivious to the fact that I have a new-born strapped to my chest and am pushing a 3-year-old in a stroller. I’ve often been forced to push the stroller in the street to get past the masses of people. Initially, I reacted in anger, and I am quite sure that on one especially trying day, I managed to startle a busload of Dutch retirees and a group of French schoolchildren within the course of about two minutes. There was no harm intended, but I understand why they may have been intimidated: I’m a giant man, and I was sleep-deprived. I could have handled the situation better.

It is easy to roll your eyes when people stop the flow of traffic to take a picture of a coffee shop. You pass by it daily, it’s just another Pret a Manger, but for them it’s an amazing sight. And I get it. How many chain coffee shops are in 600-year-old buildings? Oxford is special.

The Pret a Manger shop inside a 600 year old tudor-style building in Oxford

The Pret a Manger!

Every day in Oxford is another opportunity to engage with the tourists. More recently I’ve tried to make this a positive experience. There is humour to be had in these interactions with the right mindset. Now I wear the biggest, dopiest smiles when I bomb their photos on my way to class. I’ve made it a mission. At this point in the year, I am fairly confident that there are people all over the world with pictures of me smiling in Oxford.

Even the busloads of tourists can be funny. I love the groups of old Japanese ladies on holiday. They make me feel like Godzilla, wading through a sea of 80 tiny ladies who barely reach my chest.

And that’s the magic of this place. It draws people from all around the globe. Where else can an American business student engage with Dutch retirees and French school children and old Japanese ladies? And that’s just on the streets around my house. When I go to class at Saïd Business School there are over 50 countries represented by my fellow students. Sure, I’ve learned an extreme amount about business this year, but I’ve also learned about the world by engaging with my peers.

It’s the things you learn outside of class that really stick with you. I can now find Mauritius on a map. I know the best way to deal with the roving packs of macaque monkeys that plague the streets of Delhi. I can understand English spoken with 320 unique accents, and can usually even identify their country of origin.

A few months ago, I accidently walked in on someone in a bathroom stall at school. I never saw who it was, but I knew immediately from the angry “sorry!” as he slammed the door back closed that it was a Canadian. I would not have been able to discern that a year ago.

Importantly, the MBA has taught me how to properly frame what seem like intangible skills and knowledge into marketable attributes. Kevin Warner, global communications expert. Kevin Warner, human relations professional. Kevin Warner, Godzilla.

These days, I mostly go by Papa.

Kevin and his new son

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A chapter finished, a community found

From intention of reflection to community and opportunity, Skoll Scholar 2017-18, Aaron Bartnick, reflects on his year at Oxford.

One of my first and most powerful memories in Oxford was walking around Radcliffe Square during the first few weeks of classes. In many ways the heart and soul of Oxford, Radcliffe Square is home to some of the University’s oldest and most beautiful libraries, colleges, and chapels. Flanked by towers of Headington stone just catching the golden hour’s light, I found myself incredibly humbled, wondering how I could have ended up here. Some of the greatest writers in the Western tradition, from Hawthorne to Yeats to Wilde, have paid tribute to Oxford’s enchantments, and I will not seek to replicate their efforts here. Suffice to say, at the end of my brief year at Oxford I am happy to report that I am still in awe of this place every single day. But the focus of my awe has shifted significantly.

I came to Oxford with three objectives. I wanted to acquire specific skills in finance and accounting, meet new and interesting people from all over the world, and try to process my last few years of experiences to figure out where I wanted to head next.

The first was a surprising success. I far exceeded my very modest expectations in finance and carved out an unexpected niche for myself in seed stage venture capital. We need not dwell on accounting, though I would be remiss in not once again thanking the classmates who dragged me across the finish line when they had so much to do themselves.

The third was a surprising failure. In retrospect it seems comically naive to have thought a 12-month MBA would be a time for quiet thought and reflection, which is part of why I will be continuing my studies back home in the United States this fall.

But never in my most ambitious dreams could I have anticipated my success in the second. It is perhaps no surprise that Oxford attracts incredibly talented students from around the globe. But if I have come to appreciate one thing this year it is how the Saïd Business School, imperfections and all, was able to assemble such an amazing cohort of individuals and give them an opportunity to meet and learn from one another. Even in July, a full 10 months after starting our journey together, I still find myself learning new things about my peers’ accomplishments that put my own to shame. Yet talent alone is hardly a differentiator amongst top business schools. What makes this place and these people unique in my mind is that just about everyone I have met, whether they came here from a nonprofit in Peru, a trading floor in London, or a law firm in Australia, is interested in not just hard-nosed business, but business in the pursuit of something bigger than ourselves.

Oxford MBA students on stage at the MBATs in 2018.

The 2018 MBAT championships featuring the 2017-18 cohort of Oxford MBA students on stage.

That shared ethos has manifested itself in a stunningly beautiful community, where people collaborate not just on assignments and revision but work together to launch new startups and impact investing funds, help Australia prepare for the future of work, and develop new accounting standards that reward those who build for the long term, not just the next quarter. There are of course talented and socially-minded people all over the world–a lot more of them than there were a generation ago, and more interconnected than ever. But I have lived and worked in more than a dozen countries on four continents, and I have never seen a community quite like this one.

Everyone from the Bible to Winston Churchill to Spider Man tells us that with great power comes great responsibility. By virtue of the opportunities we’ve had as Oxford students and will have as Oxford alumni, the question for us is no longer whether we will make our mark. We already have incredible power and privileges, and plenty more are on the way. The question is how we will go about making that mark, and whether we will live up to the daunting responsibilities that accompany that power: responsibilities to our fellow man, to our planet, and to future generations. Though the specter of complacency is one against which we must always be vigilant, I am fully confident that the people I have met this year will soon be at the vanguard of a new generation of responsible business leaders. It has been one of the great privileges of my life to share this year with them. For they are far more radiant than even the fabled Headington stone.

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Lean Impact: How to scale social innovation for good

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Nikhil Dugal, Skoll Scholar and 2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, reports on the Skoll World Forum workshop ‘Lean Impact: Scaling Innovations for Social Good’.

Ann Mei Chang is the author of the upcoming book, Lean Impact, on how modern approaches to innovation can drive massively greater social impact and scale.

She is the former Chief Innovation Officer and Executive Director of the U.S. Global Development Lab at USAID. Prior to her pivot to the public sector, Ann Mei had over twenty years of experience at leading Silicon Valley companies including Google, Apple, Intuit, and some startups.

At the Skoll World Forum, she led a workshop titled Lean Impact: Scaling Innovations for Social Good where participants were introduced to the lean methodology to help develop more scalable solutions for social innovation. Participants were asked to arrive with a social challenge or a solution where they’d like to see growth.

Session for Lean Impact - Workshop cabaret tables at the Skoll World Forum

The workshop started with her posing an intriguing question. There has been slow but steady progress in multiple focus areas in the development sector such as sanitation and health, but shouldn’t we be shooting for progress at the same rate as disruptive technologies such as mobile phones? Their adoption has skyrocketed over the past two decades unlike any other technology deployed in the social sector.

Edison once stated, ‘genius is one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration’. A lot of time when we think about innovation, we focus on the one percent inspiration, but success is about making that idea practical and applying it to achieve true impact at scale in the world.

The lean startup movement has done a good job capturing the fundamental strategies for scaling up in the startup sector but the movement mostly addresses businesses in the private sector. Lean impact aims to help fill in the gaps for applying the lean methodology in the social sector.

Ann started the session with three principles to follow in order to achieve lean impact: Think big, start small and relentlessly seek impact.

  • Think Big: Think about the problems that you want to solve, instead of thinking about problems you can currently address based on your resources. For example, Astro Teller from Google X stated that we should be clear whether our aim is to make a 10% or a 10x improvement. Sometimes 10x could actually be easier because fewer people have tried it.
  • Start small: Key to innovation is about how fast you’re able to iterate your solution. That’s why you should start small. It’s easier to test something out with 10 people rather than 1000 people.
  • Relentlessly seek impact: You need to love your problem not your solution, and relentlessly seek impact in your interventions.

Further, she stated that social innovation lies at the intersection of three pillars: growth, value and impact.

Ben diagram of Social Innovation. Value/Growth/Impact

1) Value

The value in the social sector comes from two customers, your funders and your end users.

You need to understand what your end users need, and not move forward with assumptions. Are you delivering something people want or come back for? How do you make something people desire and demand?

A prime example for testing customer value is PATH water filters. They tried two versions when they were going to market, one was the simplest and cheapest version, and one was a nicer model that cost twice as much. Three times as many people bought the nicer version because they didn’t want something that looked like a trashcan sitting in their living room! You want to create real world conditions to see how people will respond in the real world because observed data is more valuable than self reported data.

Meanwhile, funders are looking to minimize risk rather than enhancing learning. Funders need to look at starting small, taking more risk and placing lots to bets. Based on traction, funding can be scaled up over time.

2) Growth

Do you have an engine for growth that doesn’t just grow linearly but accelerates over time? Many organizations focus on scaling their work in the short term instead of the long term. In the social sector, we often see growth curves like the inverse hockey stick. An organization can scale quickly but then when they reach 100,000 or 1 million people, there are just not enough donor dollars to continue scaling up and stagnation occurs.

A typical grant program can cause organizations to scale up too fast instead of iterating, starting small and testing solutions before scaling them up. We need to also validate drivers that can accelerate growth in the long run.

3) Impact

It is also possible for an organization to scale up too fast, and focus on vanity metrics such as the number of people they reach or total funding mobilized. This leads to scale with unclear impact. Instead, innovation (outcome) metrics should be drivers for how your intervention works, such as adoption rates or percentage of users working or studying longer. How can we test early on to see if the intervention solves the problem we are addressing? There are several linkages between an intervention and the resulting impact that need to be confirmed before scaling up.

Organizations like ID insight are introducing cheaper and faster tools to evaluate impact, lightweight proxies that can tell if the intervention is working before investing in expensive evaluations like RCTs.

Decision vs. knowledge focused evaluation

Ann went on to explain that there are four proto-typical business models in the social sector:

  • Market-driven: These rely on market forces for traction, and are the easiest to scale. For example, Off-grid Solar uses a pay-as-you-go business model using mobile money over time instead of customers facing a large upfront cost.
  • Cross-subsidy model: This involves cross-subsidizing an impact generating non-profit service with a for-profit or revenue generating activity. A leading example is Arvind eye care that has each wealthy patient pay for up to 3-4 people. Facilities are different but everyone gets the same quality healthcare.
  • Replication: Microfinance was pioneered by the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh by Mohammed Yunis. This model has now been replicated and spread around the world to reach over 200 million people.
  • Government spending: This is a often the most appropriate/likely path to scale for basic services such as health and education, where the government is usually the biggest provider and potential partner.

Workshop Exercises

The session also included a workshop to help participants work on their ideas.

The first included defining a goal and a problem. To identify a goal we can start by asking, ‘How will the world be different in 10+ years if you succeed?’. A problem is what is preventing the goal from being reached today. These problems are due to some root causes. If we identify those, it can help frame the solutions to address them.

The second exercise was to generate lots of solutions to pick one for testing. Attendees were asked to be creative and think outside the box, keeping in mind that high risk leads to high reward. Participants must start with a blank slate in order to do so. Then, one idea must be selected from this list and the attendee must identify their assumptions behind it and how the solution will play out.

The third exercise was about asking who will pay for the product/service at scale and who will implement the solution at scale.

To learn more about Lean Impact and Ann’s upcoming book, visit leanstartup.co/social-good

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News that Serves

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Kevin Warner, Skoll Scholar and 2017-18 MBA, at Saïd Business School, covers the Skoll World Forum session ‘News That Serves’.

There are many unknowns in the future of news media.

Who will do the reporting? Who is going to pay for it? How will consumers engage?

What we do know: Media reporting will be decentralized. It will be lean. And it will be interactive.

Wednesday’s Skoll World Forum panel discussion, News that Serves, painted a bleak picture in the broad landscape of international media, highlighting the Orwellian monospeak scandal of Sinclair Media, the “fake news and hate speech fuelling a genocide in Burma”, and the startling statistic that only 13% of people have unfettered access to a fair and open news. With the decline of democracy, warned moderator Pam Mitchell, “the first thing that goes is a free media”.

While decidedly grim, the visiting panel presented promising solutions for an industry that has struggled to evolve in the digital age.

Mainstream media was slow to adopt social media, but the new medium has increasingly afforded unprecedented news access to underserved peoples and given reporting opportunities to populations without the pedigree of elite western journalism schools.

Where some international news conglomerates have lost their reputation for integrity, independent media organizations have flourished through a focus on authenticity. According to Cristi Hegranes, Founder and Executive Director of Global Press Institute, the purpose of “journalism at its core, is to serve the truth”, and the diversification of global reporting is bringing authenticity back to the news.

For NPR executive editor, Edith Chapin, “public media doesn’t have enough resources to squander”. Efficiency will be achieved through better coordination of regional member stations to reduce redundancy of reporting and avoid the “six-year-olds at the soccer game” style of every reporter chasing the same story.

Laura Flanders’ experience as an independent journalist is that, “media at the margins exists today” and is uniquely situated to serve the public interest. Minority networks are working efficiently and independently through proximity to their customers. This proximity allows for news coverage that engages with community and delivers independent media that consumers trust.

While there is cause for concern in this era of fake news and the decline of mainstream investigative journalism, the panel showed an undoubted optimism for what the future holds for news media. It is clear that through innovation and evolution, news will continue to find ways to best serve the public good.

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Democracy in Crisis?

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Aaron Bartnick, Skoll Scholar and 2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, reports on the Skoll World Forum session ‘Democracy in Crisis? Populism, Polarization, and Civic Engagement’.

The 2018 Skoll World Forum is a celebration of proximity. But could this proximity–proximity of people, of ideas, of cultures–actually be the root cause of so many of our problems?

That was the provocative opening to one of the Forum’s most anticipated panels: “Democracy in Crisis? Populism, Polarization, and Civic Engagement,” moderated by New America President and CEO Ann-Marie Slaughter and featuring Obama Foundation CEO David Simas, former South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool, and Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran.

Despite living in the most complex era in human history, we often divide our worlds into black and white. For Forum attendees, that tends to mean that things like pluralism and proximity are good, and populism and nativism are bad. But there are more than a few shades of grey to each of these phenomena. Popular movements can both take down despots in Tunisia and install them in Hungary. And pluralism can make us both richer and more uncomfortable than ever before. “We love the mobility of capital and goods,” Rasool explains, “but we don’t know what to do with the mobility of people.”

Populists have found their answer. Shut down the borders, villianize the immigrants and elites, and make [insert country here] great again. It is a compelling story, argues Temelkuran. It has a good guy (a nostalgia-tinged version of our triumphant past), a bad guy (the elites that have always kept us down and the new people who have aligned with them), and a clear path for the good to triumph over the bad.

What is the democrats’ answer? “Populists have a compelling story,” challenges Temelkuran, “and we are trying to beat it with a PowerPoint.”

That, perhaps, is why we are asking if democracy is in crisis. It is not because democratic governments are in retreat. Forty years ago, there were nearly three times as many authoritarian regimes as democratic ones. Today, it is nearly five-to-one in favor of democracies. Democratic institutions remain intact. Representative governments and independent judiciaries are not being disbanded in waves around the globe, though they have come under alarming threat in several countries that were once considered on the road to democracy, most notably Temelkuran’s own Turkey.

But what is in crisis is the democratic story. Individuals, not institutions, make decisions. And individuals, Simas reminds us, make decisions based on stories. In the United States, voters who twice supported Barack Obama and then flipped to Donald Trump were responding to a story, Simas argues, which was built by the Obama Democrats and then adopted by the Trump populists. Both ran as outsiders seeking to subvert an unjust system and restore power to the people. Neither’s motivation was viewed as particularly partisan. And the aspirational desire for “hope and change” that defined Obama’s first presidential campaign morphed, after eight years of mixed satisfaction, into a call for confrontation in the form of “drain the swamp.”

What, then, is democracy’s new story? If it is a cost-benefit analysis clearly showing that the benefits of free trade and borders outweighs their associated pains, Rasool thinks we are sunk. “The middle ground can’t be boring,” he argues, “when we’re fighting for our survival.”

Instead, it is up to those who wring their hands at the current challenges to democracy to rise up with an affirmative case for its defense. If democracy is the ultimate expression of individual freedom, then let us say so. If pluralism makes us more competitive and successful, then let us say so. And if we genuinely believe that there is a place for everyone in this new interconnected and competitive world, then let us prove it.

Populists have their story. It is time for the would-be defenders of democracy to tell theirs.

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My Journey from Saint Louis

Kevin Duco Warner is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. Focused on the social impact of food, he has worked to develop market-driven solutions to climate change through the advancement of the local food movement. Kevin shares the story of how he came to pursue a business degree.

I didn’t know that I was an entrepreneur. Heck, I couldn’t even spell the word entrepreneur consistently until about 4 months ago (it’s got that special French characteristic of having more vowels than seems reasonable). Fortunately for me, it turns out you can embody the ideals of an entrepreneur without actually realizing it.

What I have always been is curious. My thirst for knowledge has only been matched by my desire to make the world a better place. This ideal of being simultaneously thoughtful and impactful has led me down a somewhat circuitous path to Oxford, but I have found that following passion leads to unparalleled opportunities.

I have worked at my family’s food hub, Fair Shares, for the last 8 years. We contract with local farmers to source seasonal food and distribute it for 48 weeks each year to consumers in Saint Louis, Missouri. Fair Shares operates as a for-profit company utilizing the buying power of our large, local customer base as a grassroots tool for social and environmental change.

Collage of images of Kevin posing with vegetables and other foods

Before Fair Shares started, area farmers faced limited opportunities in getting their products to market, and consumers encountered multiple obstacles in accessing sustainably-grown food. The Saint Louis growing region allows for production for much of the year, but in the mid-2000s farmers’ markets ran for only 5 months per year, and offered producers meager financial rewards. Fair Shares created a model that aggregates the food from over 60 farmers into shares marketed directly to consumers. Combining the bounty of many producers allows us to offer greater diversity to our customers while supporting small farmers who have committed to low-carbon growing practices.

The beauty of working for Fair Shares is that it has given me the flexibility to follow my curiosity focused through the lens of a love for food.

About 4 years ago I started an organic corn tortilla company after teaching myself how to nixtamalize local field corn at home (I won’t get into it here, but the history of nixtamalization as the Aztec’s solution to pellagra is fascinating – worth a read on wikipedia!). I was not happy with the inconsistent results of pressing each tortilla by hand, but that was the only realistic option for a home cook. I realized that I needed a commercial grade tortilla machine if I was ever going to get consistent results. I started La Tortilla Buena because it was the only way to rationalize to my wife that importing a $2000 tortilla machine from Mexico was a good idea. Despite any real business acumen, my tortillas were quickly stocked by a number of small groceries, restaurants, and even a school lunch program. I attribute this success to the passion I had for the process of making the product.

Living in a very urban area spurred an interest in edible landscaping and urban homesteading. What started with a raspberry bush and some basic herbs progressed to harvesting homegrown saffron and espaliering two pear trees on a privacy fence. This knowledge, gained through doing, brought on opportunities to consult on urban agriculture projects and to teach cooking classes with local chefs. I even got to teach an heirloom apple grafting class with a local apple farmer.

Image of Kevin's home grown pear trees against a fence

Image of homemade food on a plate

So why uproot my life to move to Oxford? Why get an MBA?

I wanted to see my career, focused on impact through food, transition from local and regional, to national and global in scale, but I couldn’t find a clear path. I knew I needed more formal education, but struggled in finding a field that felt like the right fit.

My intention was to stay in the business world, but I was focused on policy and public administration degrees because they carried an underlying focus on social good. Most business programs lacked an ethos that resonated with me; that is, until I found the Skoll Centre at Oxford Saïd.

No other institution is driving the social impact space in a setting as powerful as Oxford. It is evident that the mission of the Skoll Centre is directly influencing Oxford Saïd’s approach to business education.

The process of being awarded the Skoll Scholarship was a whirlwind. It changed the trajectory of my life. In a matter of a few months I went from toting vegetables around an uninsulated warehouse in Saint Louis to walking the hallowed streets of Oxford in formal academic dress robes. To say that being at Oxford is a humbling experience is an understatement.

Schrödinger locked his cat in a box at his home on Northmoor Road, a 5 minute walk from my house. Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings in the house next door to Schrödinger. Radiohead played their first concert at the pub at the end of my street. It is absurd how many titans of western thought operated within a mile of my house in Oxford.

Kevin standing by the road sign for Northmoor Road in Oxford in full Oxford attire

My intention when I began a career in good food was never very concrete. I realize now that there was a centralized theme in the work: namely, changing the way people eat. But it required a whole lot of ‘doing’ before I could fully quantify it. It was not until I applied to Oxford that I really went through the process of self-assessment required to solidify my personal mission. I am confident that my time spent studying for an MBA as a Skoll Scholar will give me the tools to further succeed in my endeavors regardless of whether or not I can spell entrepreneur.

Follow Kevin on Twitter: @nosleepforduco