In this series of Scholar Blogs, our four Skoll Scholars for 2014-15 tell us what shaped their journey toward doing an MBA, and give their first impressions of how it feels to be starting their MBA course at Saïd Business School.
José Miguel Alfaro Gomez
The first Skoll Scholar to blog for us in this vein is José Miguel Alfaro Gomez, an Attorney at Law in Costa Rica and Founder of s.e.e.d., a boutique law firm targeted to social businesses in Costa Rica.
“I started my MBA application process in 2012. At that stage, what I had in mind was the “traditional perspective” of an MBA, a program that would provide me with the sound business skills needed to further develop my venture in Costa Rica. Since the very beginning of the process, Saïd Business School appeared to be, without a doubt, the perfect combination of networking, events and curricula for a student interested in Social Entrepreneurship. Nevertheless, at the same time, I was somewhat concerned about the “horror stories” one hears about business schools and their wildly competitive environments.
By April 2013, I learnt that I was not only accepted onto the MBA programme, but had also been awarded a Skoll Scholarship. Unfortunately I was forced to request a one-year deferral due to a personal situation. Both the School and the Centre supported me 100% at this time. The deferral was granted and everything was set for September 2014. This was one of the first hints I got that I wasn’t joining a “traditional” business school.
A year later, I was invited to participate in both the annual Skoll Scholars Reunion and later on that same week, the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. From the moment I stepped into the Skoll Scholars Reunion, I felt it was the place to be. The “traditional perspective” totally changed and in two seconds Oxford became home. The idea of a “network” was replaced by one of a family of Skoll Scholars, all of them incredible people, spread across the world and tackling global problems with sustainable solutions. In the same way, during the Forum, it became clear to me that the events and exposure to key agents in the field of Social Entrepreneurship that Saïd Business School provides are of the highest quality possible.
A few months later, September ‘14 came and it was time to travel back to Oxford to start the MBA. I already felt that I was coming back home. However I expected that most of the momentum around Social Entrepreneurship would be concentrated within the Skoll Centre itself. Of course, I was wrong once more. The passion for tackling global problems with sustainable solutions clearly drives the entire School: more than half of the class joined the Social Impact OBN; at least 15% of the class has a background in Social Entrepreneurship; and, certainly all the class and faculty add extreme value to my learning process. All this takes place in a tremendously collaborative environment enhanced by the Skoll Centre as a resource available to all the Oxonian community. Suddenly the family increased by 240 classmates coming from 47 different countries.
I’m now a few months into the course, and I am sure that this year will be one of the best of my life, and that both the Skoll Centre and Saïd Business School will enable me to be part of a family that will make my learning experience at Oxford an endless journey.”
 Acronym for Oxford Business Network, a student-led group.
In addition to being a Skoll Scholar and MBA Student, cialisKjerstin Erickson is the Founder and Executive Director of FORGE, order an international NGO that provides education, skills training, and entrepreneurial resources to more than 70,000 refugees in war-torn Africa.
Ahh, the age-old entrepreneurial debate: how can an enterprise transition from startup to scale without losing its zeal, passion, and sense of purpose? And what role do founders play in helping or hurting these transitions?
While the panel was balanced between founding and non-founding social entrepreneurs, the overarching tone was decidedly pro-founder. Wendy Kopp pointed to research showing that founder-led company outperformed the rest of the market. Cheryl Dorsey reminded the crowd to “never discount the power of heros and legends.” And Andrea Coleman noted that the celebrity status of founders can be extremely helpful in attracting attention, resources, and talent.
Pamela Hartigan, Subramaniam Ramadorai, Cheryl Dorsey, Wendy Kopp and Andrea Coleman, The Founders' Challenge: To Scale and keep the Vision Alive
Of course, there are risks that organizations can become overly founder-centric or reliant. Subramaniam Ramadorai pointed out that “institutions are bigger than any one individual,” noting that it is critical that organizations be prepared for founder transitions at any point in time. Andrea Coleman discussed the need for founders to find their appropriate complementors and collaborators, noting that “founders are really good at something, but not at everything Wendy Kopp pointed out that “there are different kinds of founders,” and went on to discuss how she believes much of her success as a founder was due to a focus on finding and empowering great talent to innovate within the organization. In an interesting tangent, Wendy also discussed how her 25-year history as a public figure and fundraiser may actually be hindering her in building Teach for All. Because “after 25 years you owe a lot of people a lot of stuff,” she has to hope that “the organization doesn’t fall apart while I go out and give this speech.”
The part of the discussion that stood out the most for me was Wendy Kopp’s description of her primary role at Teach for America, which she describes as “25 years of pushing a boulder up a hill to try to get people to understand our theory of change.” For Wendy, keeping TFA focused on their theory of change and empowered to make decisions which reflect it has provided a sense of strategic clarity that guided them through many tough years. As a social entrepreneur myself, I resonate deeply with the vision of a founder forging a stake into the ground then using it as the beacon for untold challenges ahead. I left the session feeling even more inspired by the humility and strength of will it takes founders to successfully scale an organization while keeping its values intact.
(translation: ‘Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking’.)
These are the words that were crafted by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado and chosen by Yves Moury, one of the seven Skoll Award winners in 2014, to express the universal journey of the social entrepreneur. They are words that really befit all the Skoll Award winners and perhaps even the social entrepreneurship movement. To step into the unknown, not having a path – but with a vision and the courage to pursue it.
The Skoll Award ceremony celebrates the inspiring paths that several social entrepreneurs and their organizations have forged towards creating a better world. Each one of these awardees is a shining light of leadership and courage and the bravery needed to take such steps. The Skoll Award is an affirmation of their work and a way to help them step even further. As Sally Osberg, President and CEO of the Skoll Foundation states, “These are not lifetime achievement awards, these are bets on the people who will create better futures for millions.”
The 2014 recipients of the Skoll Awards for Social Entrepreneurship
So who are the Skoll Foundation making their $1.25 million (each) bet on this year?
B Lab – An organisation fuelling a global movement to redefine “success” in business, so that all companies compete not only to be the best in the world, but the best for the world.
Fundación Capital – a pioneer in inclusive finance innovation to help the poor save; grow and invest their assets; insure their families against risk; and chart a permanent path out of poverty.
Global Witness – an organisation that investigates and exposes the shadow networks that underlie deals that fuel conflict, corruption, and environmental destruction.
Medic Mobile – builds mobile applications for community health workers, caregivers, and patients to increase life-saving health care coverage.
Slum Dwellers International (SDI) – an organisation that facilitates the collective action of slum dwellers to take control of their futures; improve their living conditions; and gain recognition as equal partners with governments and international organizations in the creation of inclusive cities.
Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) – an organisation that has turned the traditional charity model on its head by developing commercially-viable models to bring water and sanitation to nearly two million people in urban slums in six countries.
Jeff Skoll, 2014 Skoll Global Treasure awardee Malala Yousafzai, and Sally Osberg
It would seem that here we have seven very different paths. Several very different bets. But to hear each of the awardees speak as they received their award, there was an inspiration, passion and commitment to purpose that resonated through each of their words. These sentiments were echoed through the keynote presentation of Skoll Global Treasure awardee Malala Yousafzai, as she shared her own vision for a world in which all young women had access to education and a life without oppression – a vision that was received with an extended standing ovation.
The whole ceremony left me with a sense of being both inspired and the feeling of the preciousness of life that connects us all. That feeling filled the room and, rather than the typical mad rush to exit at events, a large percentage of people just seemed to stay in the theatre chatting away – laughing, connecting. The Skoll World Forum really isn’t a conference – it is more like a homecoming.
I guess, like most of the recipients, the delegates at the ceremony each walk their own ‘camino’. Carving a way forward step-by-step. Some have walked far from home to far-flung lands across the world to help people in need. Some have walked over the coals of tribulations and some have stumbled along the way. Yet we are here, with our scars, our stories and our dreams – celebrating that journey. That is the social entrepreneurship calling. Corny as it might be – it is what we believe and who we are. It is here that we come home to honor our very special brothers and sisters with a Skoll Award and then tomorrow we pack our bags, we fling ourselves out into the world again and return to our paths, for another year.
Skoll Scholar Mark Hlady gives us his perpective on this key session from Day 2 of the Skoll World Forum
Big Business, tadalafil Bigger Impact was delivered in an overflowing lecture theatre. Surrounded by an esteemed group of entrepreneurs and financers, sitting on stairs because all the seats were taken, I left excited and thoughtful. Excited because the people on the panel Kavita Prakash (Syngenta), Mark Davis (L’Oreal/Body Shop), and Tony Siesfeld (Monitor Institute) seemed to “get it”. Thoughtful, because a long-time social entrepreneur called out the contradiction between doing social good with one hand while doing social harm with the other.
I felt the panel “got it” because a consistent theme throughout the discussion was about moving social, environmental, and governance factors from a project basis, driven by a specialist groups (e.g., CSR groups), to a main business focus. Robert Annibale from Citi joked, we can’t commit 1% of our resources to “corporate social responsibility” – what does that mean we’re practicing the rest of the time? Corporate Irresponsibility?” Kavita from Syngenta had a more serious tone – she explained with conviction that small hold farmers in Africa represent a significant potential customer base, but they are largely inaccessible at this point. Kavita further explained that clearly Syngenta wants to help lift these farmers out of poverty because it mean they can purchase more seeds (a primary revenue source of Syngenta). The problem she explained was “How”. Similarly, L’Oreal has created a plan to fully integrate best sustainable sourcing practices it its innovation – and the question is “How”.
Robert Annibale, Mark Davis, Kavita Prakash-Mani, Tony Siesfeld
Overall – to see these executives from leading companies thinking hard about how to solve societal issues make me optimistic, though one audience question made me step back.
When a social entrepreneur implied a multinational food processor’s social initiatives were futile because the company’s main business was selling unhealthy products the audience’s shock was audible. Does a company need to be fully dedicated to a philosophy of positive change to do Good? Some members absolutely thought so. Other members thought the comment was quick to judge what was good and bad, and the source of each. Back to the issue in the comment, food processing. On one hand, it is easy to understand how unhealthy products may create more social harm (obesity, cardiac disease, and other health complications) than the social good they provide (immediate gratification), but does this mean these companies should stop their main business? Exploring the idea further it doesn’t seem to hold.
We must ask, is it really the company that is creating the social problem or is it the peoples’ consumption patterns? If it is consumption patterns, then are the patterns motivated by corporate marketing or is corporate marketing simply enabling people to realize an underlying motivation? This question then leads us back to, what should corporates do to improve social well-being? The consensus in the room was that large companies should integrate SEG factors throughout the business, but should they also stop business lines that some perceive as harmful. If so, who should decide what is harmful?
These questions are appropriately large for the history of Oxford and the impact of the delegates at the Skoll World Forum. Now, regardless of the answer, it is clear that big business has a big impact and I am excited to be part of the conversation to figure out how that impact can be more positive.
Sabre Collier is a Skoll Scholar and one of our Shell Foundation Fellows. She shares with us reflections from Johannesburg, see where she is working with GroFin. GroFin finances small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Africa.
I had the interesting experience recently of taking a preliminary GIIRS/ B Corp assessment. For those not familiar:
GIIRS is a ratings agency and analytics platform for impact investors and B Corp certification is to sustainable business what LEED certification is to green building or Fair Trade certification is to coffee.
B Corps are certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.Today, there is a growing community of more than 600 Certified B Corps from 15 countries and 60 industries working together toward 1 unifying goal: to redefine success in business (Read more).
The experience was interesting because it reveals some of the complexity and trade-offs that will increasingly be faced as impact investing and social business become more and more sophisticated and industrialized.
In general, I support the idea of the B Corp and GIIRS Rating as they are vital to sector development and positively changing the nature of business and finance. Also, the assessment was very comprehensive and useful for business improvement. I would highly encourage fellow entrepreneurs to use it even if just to gain better perspective on one’s business model. The assessment must have had 100 items from governance to transparency to worker rights to LEED certification to employee training to staff diversity to environmental responsibility to infinitely more.
However, the rigor of such an assessment, particularly for small and growing businesses in low-income communities and countries, may be a bit unrealistic. How do we ensure higher standards without precluding more economically disadvantaged segments who can’t afford to invest in LEED certified buildings or paid worker training, etc? How many organizations from this segment have limited growth just because they lack awareness, capacity or tools for impact tracking and measurement and how do we change this? Note that we have to to take this in consideration when it comes to both organizations and individuals or the social impact space will not fulfill its potential to empower the most vulnerable.
In their favor, GIIRS and B Corp do actually take these challenges into consideration and thus, assessments have stratifications with different criteria.
The very existence of these rating systems underscore the increasing sophistication of social impact measurement. Back in the day, when primarily non-profits and NGOs were delivering social impact programming, social impact measurement had only a few tools and smaller sets of indicators. As the private sector has increasingly embraced shared value and the third sector has sought more commercial approaches to impact, rigor has increased. We all know what gets measured gets done. In the private sector, performance indicators can be narrowed down at the most granular level to make decisions about a store, a program or an employee.
As the social impact space continues to grow with the emergence of new corporate and social ventures, impact data is also increasing. This creates a network effect which will possibly make disclosing a broader and broader array of social impacts a requirement for impact investors and social businesses. The small set of indicators reported within an annual report are useful but with GIIRS and B Corp, the indicators encapsulate the life of the business or organization.
This holds them accountable for the broader social mission they uphold, not just their programs, but their whole business model and operations. For example, if an organizational mission is advancing professional outcomes for disadvantaged groups, then their HR policies would theoretically show some inclusion of this target and some specific growth opportunities, such as training. If solar plant manufacturer’s mission is environmental sustainability, then this is shown in both the number of panels produced but also in their sourcing and transport systems. For a long time, social businesses and organizations could simply focus on the core indicators but it is more tactical to ensure mission is aligned with operations at every level. This will be critical as much more transparency and measurement become the norm.
In the long run, this will certainly be a good thing. It will force businesses and organizations that are already doing good to do better. However, it will bring additional costs and time requirements. For impact investors serving small and growing businesses, we will have to make special effort to help them through this process because their impact is immense and deserves to be better reflected. For impact investors and social businesses at large, align operations with impact to bring your “A Game”.
Next in our series of blogs from this year’s Skoll Scholars is a post from Austin Harris. Austin is the founder of Inkomoko, a Rwanda-based business accelerator for high-potential SMEs.
“I began my career working in finance, working first with a startup M&A and then a major bank. I appreciated the skills I gained, yet rarely felt a strong connection with the impact of my work. Throughout my career I have taken time to travel and volunteer in the developing world, witnessing hardships of many and the positive transformations that can be yielded by socially minded businesses.
In the beginning of 2010, I transitioned from traditional finance into microfinance, hoping to apply my work experience to financial services in areas of need. I worked in Bangladesh and then Rwanda, witnessing first-hand the transformational effect of lending and the notable growth in borrowers’ lives. In contrast to my former jobs, I felt proud of my contribution to a product that provided beneficial change.
Over my life, a variety of entrepreneurial projects have captivated and inspired me, continually building a desire to create a socially beneficial and sustainable business. In January 2012, I started Inkomoko, an accelerator firm in Rwanda that has been providing the necessary consulting, capacity building, and financing services for SMEs that are creating innovative products and services. The companies we are supporting are helping to expand and strengthen the Rwandan economy, and will serve as a model for others who are planning their own entrepreneurial ventures.
I am inspired most by providing growth to the developing world through the private sector in a way that can be both viable in business and impactful to the public. I believe supporting innovation through business will broaden industries as well as supply new career opportunities. I trust that original goods and services can benefit the people of a country as well as address many of the developing world’s pressing issues. My hope is to deliver the means for entrepreneurs to build constructive businesses. I also hope to be a conduit for investment in SMEs to help grow these businesses and broaden the areas they serve. This often overlooked sector is large in scale and has the ability to benefit all socioeconomic levels. With support and guidance, these SMEs can be a driving force in self-driven development.
A hurdle I strive to help overcome in the investment of SMEs is reducing the unknowns and strengthening the connection of the business to the outside world. By consulting for these companies, providing mentors who can report on company progress, and establishing a track record through our own financing, we develop a wealth of information and establish a history with SMEs. The intimate level of due diligence reduces the unknown factors in financing companies of this size and at this stage in development. It also opens up alternate forms of financing to reduce necessary collateral and provide affordable support with flexibility. Through our accelerator track, we can provide greater reassurance on the strength of the SME’s business and present a more comprehensive picture, giving investors greater understanding of viable SMEs and their prospects in the developing world.
My experience at Saïd will provide me greater understanding of financial services and business operations so I can expand the benefits of supporting and actively guiding SMEs. Saïd will deepen my knowledge and strengthen my ability to both improve my own business and advance other socially-minded businesses. In addition, the Skoll Foundation connects me to a wealth of knowledge and a supportive community. The Foundation will offer exposure to the successes and difficulties of others in similarly-minded tracks, and a learning opportunity that can be applied to my own venture. The combination of Saïd and Skoll will provide the support and guidance for me that I strive to extend to the businesses in Africa. “