Scale is beautiful

Maria Springer is a Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA student for 2015-16. Here, she tells us about her inspirations, and why her business aims will be drafted on a grand scale.

I started cultivating my entrepreneurial tendencies when I was seven: selling homemade fudge, used toys, my old clothes, and persimmons from the tree in our backyard. I cared about making my own money so that I didn’t have to ask anyone else for it. Now I care about much more.

I’ve spent the majority of my adult life doing work to address inequality of opportunity. I came to Oxford because I want to strengthen my skills and my network. And I already adore my classmates; they are nationals of over 55 countries, including Kazakhstan, Trinidad & Tobago, France, Pakistan, Ecuador, New Zealand and Zimbabwe.

This year, I want to start building another enterprise that can attract capital, become commercially viable, and deliver an inherently social product or service in markets globally. One of my inspirations is a man who is fanatic about systems and processes, and how they impact the world. During his 2012 Caltech Commencement Address in Los Angeles (my hometown), Elon Musk talked about what he did once PayPal was acquired.

“I thought well, what are some of the other problems that are likely to most affect the future of humanity? Not from the perspective, ‘what’s the best way to make money,’ which is okay, but, it was really ‘what do I think is going to most affect the future of humanity.’”

It is evident that systems change requires fierce ambition. For this reason I have become obsessive about scale; some obsessions are healthy, right? During my second week at Saïd, twenty of my peers and I gathered for a fireside chat for aspiring female entrepreneurs. A question was posed – what would you do if you could not fail? The following week I met with a classmate I met that night. We made a list of all the topics that we’re most passionate about – education, racial and gender equality, criminal justice, poverty, food, homelessness, and energy. We agreed to (1) spend the next term researching how business could impact each of these areas and (2) not limit our vision and ambition.

If we have the privilege of being able to do build a global business, we should. Of course I sometimes feel ridiculous thinking I could build something as important or meaningful as Elon Musk. But why not try?

Recently, I was at a formal Sunday brunch at St. Bennet’s College and sat next to a professor of philosophy and religion. He asked about my future plans and when I explained my desire to start a global business, he responded in a cautionary tone, “Remember that small is beautiful.”  Of course it is, and things always start out small. But I am choosing a different path. At Saïd Business School, my peers see me for who I want to be. Everyone around me is reinventing themselves and with so many entrepreneurial classmates, no idea is too big. Or are people still being polite? I hope it’s the former.

I wouldn’t be the only graduate of Saïd Business School to go on to start a business that could potentially affect the future of humanity. I’m lucky that many of my peers and Saïd alumni have paved the way for me. At the end of the day, I don’t care if my next venture fails, or if I look ludicrous, or god forbid, crazy. I am forever grateful for this confidence because if I could spend the rest of my life solving the world’s most critical problems, while also earning a decent income that could support a family, I would be even more fulfilled and excited by life than I already am.


The Path from Innovation to Impact in Global Health

Nora Petty

Current Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA student Nora Petty gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘The Path from Innovation to Impact in Global Health’.

Our approach to scaling-up healthcare pilots has been similar to how many people approach having their first child. As one participant at the delegate-run discussion ‘The Path from Innovation to Impact in Global Health’ pointed out, we tend to think “Great, we are pregnant now,” but not consider how we are going to raise the eventual child. Within global public health, this haphazard approach ends up inhibiting scale-up of successful pilots.

The Path from Innovation to Impact in Global Health, Priya Agrawal

Dr. Priya Agrawal, the Executive Director of Merck for Mothers, said that she had learned from working at Merck that pharmaceutical companies begin designing the entire value chain, from advocacy to commercialisation, for a new product while it’s still in the lab. This forward-look approach enables pharmaceutical companies to dramatically shorten the time period from innovation to implementation. Nonprofits and social enterprises could benefit from adopting a similar methodology.

Delegates agreed that nonprofits and social enterprises need to start planning how they are going to scale their business model from inception, and pilot projects should be developed with this ultimate end-goal in mind. One of the potential dark sides to donor funding is that it can lead organisations to develop unsustainable business models because they are not held accountable for costs at the start. For social enterprises, it is essential that their business models reflect their customers’ needs and the true business realities. For nonprofits, sustainability is often linked to the successful handover of pilot-level projects to Ministries of Health. This handover requires involvement of government counterparts from day zero, and their deep involvement, and buy-in of the ultimate model.

To be responsible parents for our innovations, we need to make better plans from the start to enable successful scaling of healthcare innovations.


Bringing in Big Money: Innovative Financing Meets Inclusive Business

Jose Miguel Alfaro

Jose Miguel Alfaro

Current Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA student Jose Miguel Alfaro gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘Bringing in Big Money: Innovative Financing Meets Inclusive Business’.

big money

Bringing in Big Money: Innovative Financing Meets Inclusive Business, L-R: Robert Annibale, Elizabeth Littlefield, Cahrlotte Oades and Peter Tufano.

How is it possible to bring in big money to the impact investing sector? Robert Annibale did an incredible job moderating the deluxe panel of experts that were OPIC’s Elizabeth Littlefield, Coca-Cola’s Charlotte Oades and Dean Peter Tufano to analyse the articulation of different players in the very promising landscape of finance for social innovation. Government, corporate philanthropy, international aid, multilateral organisations, NGOs and social enterprises come together in a field that becomes more complex and integrated everyday. Unprecedented levels of complexity demand a clearer understanding of each player’s role. Experts differ on how much social innovation can be reached through business models with impact and how much should be financed through traditional aid schemes. However, what seems to be a consensus is that each player mentioned above has a role in the new dynamics. After having heard the figures that Dean Tufano presented on the amounts of capital ready to be deployed in the sector and the amazing programmes that Coca Cola are promoting including a by-all-means sustainable supply chain, it is clear that the true challenge is bringing the right intermediation: providing the skills and resources needed on a project-base seeking the best fit between capital deployed and investment conditions. As Elizabeth pointed out, “We all see the need of the plumbing and architecture”.

The audience actively engaged in a conversation with the experts. Investors present in the room enlisted five different challenges for further articulation in the sector: (i) transaction costs must be lowered; (ii) in spite of considerable number of financial instruments created in the market, few have track record of proven success; (iii) volatility in the market causes instability of aid; (iv) there is a clear disjoint between incentives of managers and long term goals and (v) entrepreneurs and investors don’t speak the same language in terms of needs and expectations.

Let’s forget the labels and divisions. By the end of the session, experts agreed that relevant players must orchestrate and articulate a mature and stable growth of the impact investing field by (i) creating sector funds that would increase the capital available and (ii) standardising financial instruments, players’ roles and corporate practices with track record of proven success which, as Elizabeth highlighted “doesn’t always guarantee success but it is a precondition”.





In this series of Scholar Blogs, sildenafil 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. 

Patrick Beattie

Patrick Beattie

Patrick Beattie has focused his career on using novel technology to address unmet needs in Global Health and Global Development. He comes to Oxford after six years at Diagnostics For All (DFA), a nonprofit medical diagnostics development company. Patrick served as a US Peace Corps volunteer in The Gambia and Guinea from 2004 to 2007, teaching mathematics and chemistry in rural settings and holds a Bachelor of Science in Engineering in Chemical Engineering from Princeton University.

For the past few months, there has been a question that I’ve been asked over and over. “So…why Oxford?” Before arriving at Oxford, this question really translated into, “So…why an MBA?” As someone who has spent all of his working life in the volunteer or non-profit areas, my decision to pursue an MBA might have seemed a bit strange. To be fair, my previous organization, Diagnostics For All, was not an average non-profit. As a medical diagnostics company that felt a non-profit structure was the best approach for the pursuit of our mission, we also prided ourselves on having a significant “for-profit” mentality. (After spending six years growing the organization and dealing with the benefits and difficulties of that decision, I find that key choice as a fascinating puzzle for each new social enterprise, thought that is a topic for another blog post). Before coming to Oxford, that question of “Why an MBA?” often seemed to mean, “Are you really going to fit in with typical MBA students?”

These questions were not surprising, as they were questions I had asked myself repeatedly before applying. They were also reasons I chose to apply specifically to Oxford. My experience in the social impact space made the benefit of a fundamental business education clear to me. I needed a place that could teach fundamentals and challenge previously held beliefs, but also encourage my passion for social entrepreneurship, not diminish it. Saïd Business School and the Skoll Centre have proven to be just the right balance. During the first weeks of the course, I have been surprised to find how many of my classmates share my interest in leveraging business knowledge for social impact. Even more surprising has been how many of my classmates have stated, “I have no interest in working in social enterprise…but I’d love to understand more about it.” If that is the typical attitude of an Oxford MBA student, then there’s no doubt that I’m in the right place.

With all the questions before arriving (not to mentioned the millions I was asking myself), I was ready to arrive, stop the questioning, and jump in. Imagine my surprise when instead of stopping, the exact same question was being asked: “So…why Oxford?” The twist, of course, was that it was being asked by others who had made the same choice, and behind the question was an understanding that we had all chosen Oxford because it brought something that other schools didn’t. For me, it was the chance to work with the Skoll Centre and being able to tailor a fundamental business education to my interests. For others, it was the connections to the broader university or the potential to use the summer consulting projects to springboard into a new career. What was clear is that everyone felt Oxford uniquely offered them the chance to do something over this year that nowhere else did, which I think is going to make for a very interesting year ahead.

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SCHOLAR BLOG: Seeking out the Special and the Valuable

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. 


Nikhil Nair

Nikhil Nair comes to oxford with over 6 years of experience in the solar industry. He spent  three years working at the social enterprise SELCO Solar, and he holds a degree in Business Management from Christ University, India.

Thomas Lawrence asked the class: “Do you think everyone is special?”

Almost all of us put up our hands and said yes. Then he made a simple but powerful statement: “Although everyone may be special, not everyone is valuable”.

In the past few weeks since my arrival in this city, I have established that there are several truly special people at Oxford. Let me share an incidence of meeting one such person.

One evening, the MBA class gathered for wine at the Oxford Museum of Natural History, where I struck up a conversation with Joel and Caryn. Joel was telling me that he planned to try his hand at rowing. Caryn also said she intended to row, not just for her college, but also for the University team. Since rowing is big at Oxford, making it to the University team is extremely competitive. So I stopped and said to Caryn, “Rowing for the University can be extremely competitive I hear. Have you rowed before, and do you have any experience in competitive rowing?” That’s when she said that she has been part of the US Olympic rowing team for the last three times, at London, Bejing and Athens! My jaw dropped. I was bursting with questions:  what was it like to be at the Olympics? How does it feel to represent the country? Did you win? And why in this world would you need an MBA?

Unfortunately I was unable to pick up my dropped-jaw and ask her these questions at the time, but I hope to do so in the course of the year. I at least found an answer to one of the questions through her Wikipedia page: yes she won – a gold at London and Beijing, and a silver at Athens. Caryn to me is a special person. And although my other classmates may not be Olympians, I have realized if you listen, each of them are special through their stories and life experiences.

But do I only want such special people and special experiences? Thomas’ theory in class is helping me differentiate between being special and being valuable. To make the most of this year, I will also need to engage with people and events that are not just special, but extremely valuable to my personal and professional life.

How do I find out what is valuable to me? If I had Aladdin’s magic lamp, I would ask the genie to create for me a list of all the valuable people and events that I could ever experience. But when I think again, perhaps it’s better that this genie doesn’t exist, as the experience of engaging and deciding whether things are special or valuable or both, is the true joy of this one year at Oxford.

Interesting events are happening all the time, such as: a talk by Eric Schmidt from Google, an event by the Smith school on GDP & Businesses, Harry Potter enthusiasts playing Quidditch (yes, this is an actual sport at Oxford), or the former Prime Minister of Pakistan Mr. Gillani speaking about leadership in his country.

While juggling between readings for Strategy class, OBN meetings and late-night BOP parties, I continue to look for events/people that are special and valuable. So that when people ask me about my experience at SBS, I will be able to use the same phrase I have heard from several alumni: “It was the best year of my life!”




Scholar Blog: approaching the MBA from a non-profit perspective


In this series of Scholar Blogs, online our four Skoll Scholars for 2014-15 tell us what shaped their journey toward doing an MBA, link and give their first impressions of how it feels to be starting their MBA course at Saïd Business School. 

Nora Petty has spent the past seven years committed to ending deaths caused by malaria. In order to reach underserved populations, viagra order she designed and led innovative public-private partnerships to reduce prices and increase availability of malaria diagnostic tests and medicines in private sector outlets. Through these programmes, millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa have been able to afford high-quality, life-saving treatments.

If someone had told me seven years ago that I would be attending business school, I would have responded with laughter.  I was passionate about global public heath, which was not something I associated with business. However, after a few years working to improve access to malaria diagnostics and treatment in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa I began to realize that the private sector actually plays a key role in this area. I discovered that some of the greatest hurdles in public health are directly connected to core business principles: marketing, distribution, and financial sustainability.

It became clear to me that I would benefit greatly from an MBA, but I was still unsure if I would fit into the ecosystem of a business school. I had heard stories from friends who found it difficult to find their way during the transition from the non-profit culture to the business administration classroom.

As I walked to the door on the first day of The Oxford Launch Programme, my mind was buzzing. Would I be the “business school hippy?” Would I be able to find the appropriate subjects, activities, and mentors relevant to my socially minded aspirations?

Now, after only one month in Oxford at Said Business School, my fears have been dispelled. I quickly discovered that neither my experiences nor my aspirations were unusual here. In fact, many of my classmates have worked in the social impact space, started their own businesses, and lived in developing countries. Those from other disciplines and sectors bring so much knowledge to the table.

I was additionally dazzled by  the array of events hosted at the business school related to social impact, entrepreneurship and healthcare in Africa. The OneStart competition  was particularly exciting.  I was introduced to an Oxford graduate who has developed a new point-of-care test for anemia. As a student in Oxford I experience unlimited access to more informal avenues of interacting with inspiring and likeminded individuals. Meet-ups with fellow classmates interested in global health are a regular activity. The breadth of opportunity to attend panel discussions with inspiring female leaders; lunchtime chats with social entrepreneurs, and conferences throughout the year.

It is clear now that the challenge going forward for me is not whether I should be here, but how I should define my time in a forum with so much opportunity at my fingertips.