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Freedom of my spirit

Sumit Joshi is a Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA for 2015-16. He is the founder of APAART Education, malady an organisation that aims to bridge the gap between academia and industry.

“There I was, wearing ill-fitting shoes, loose pajamas, a plain T-shirt, and a tired smile. That morning I had woken up to scales tilting further East. I had become chubbier in the last three years – something I wasn’t proud of. And now, while I waited with my friends outside Trinity College, it dawned on me that in these three years I had completely forgotten something crucial: I had forgotten how passionate I was about climbing. I took a deep breath as images of The Himalayas flitted across my mind. I really missed home.

Just when I was about to turn around and make my way back to my student accommodation at Rewley Abbey, I heard Melissa shout, ‘There he is!’ I saw a young man on a bicycle approaching us. He had climbing gear tightly fastened onto the back of the bike, and I thought I spotted a climbing rope too. Instinctively, I stopped.

Giles (as he later introduced himself) parked his bike by the pole. Within a few minutes of our introduction, we found ourselves discussing things we were really passionate about – sports, culture, food and more. We walked down from Trinity to Oxford Brookes, acquainting one another with our lives outside of work and academic study. The rapport was natural. No well-rehearsed networking pitch or futuristic thoughts on how the economic growth of developing nations would affect the world. We were out there, simply talking about what we loved. It felt good to be ‘normal normal’ again.

By the time we reached Brookes, I felt an adrenaline rush in my body. With my steps turning into a sprint I entered the building with Giles right by my side. When I spotted the towering 30 feet climbing wall, I knew I was going to make my Oxford debut that day.

With a silly smile plastered all over my face I looked around. People were adjusting their gear; some were trying to climb a higher grade; there were a couple with crampons and slips while others were cheering on the ones making a climb.

When I moved closer to the wall I could hear my heart pounding. I would love to call it ‘pure thrill’, however I must admit, I was a bit nervous! It had been three years. I was out of practice and this was a new place with new people. I had to quickly build my confidence and get going.

As I prepared for the climb, I could hear people clapping and cheering. I took my first shot at a medium grade. I was cautious, reconfirming my strength at every step, my skill in handling the ropes, and my ability to remember the manoeuvres as I negotiated my way up. I kept reminding myself of the techniques and I soon realised I was doing fine. When I climbed back down, Giles was beaming. He encouraged me to take on the next challenge – this time it was grade 5+. I climbed that without a moment’s thought. And then the next, and the next – higher and tougher each time. After my 4th climb I decided to call it a day. Giles seemed impressed with my performance. And many people came up to me congratulating me for the effort. It felt great, after a long time.

That day I must’ve met 20 sports enthusiasts. Each one of us belonged to a different country, spoke a different language, and had lived a different life before coming to Oxford. But right there, at that moment none of it seemed important. There were smiles for jobs well done, genuine encouragement for failures, and support that promised we’d outdo ourselves the next time. We were simply absorbing the thrill of a sport, a common thread that bound us together.

The following day at the School was different. The once tired routine had become spirited; there was a spring in my step. And guess what? The next day I went gliding!”


Looking inward: Business school’s most important class is not-for-credit

Skoll Scholar and MBA student Songqiao Yao is a researcher, prostate activist and entrepreneur working on global environmental sustainability issues such as food, diagnosis water, and climate change. 

It seems only yesterday when I walked into an ocean of over 300 new MBAs, all in formal dark suits, eager to meet each other. Six weeks in, everyone is buried shoulder deep in coursework readings, group projects, rowing outings, countless social events and multiple recruiter presentations every day. Said Business School and the wider Oxford seems to be an overwhelming intellectual machine and we all jumped onto the fastest ride, seeking to maximise our time and take in all the amazing opportunities.

As I look at my completely booked-out schedule with different colour blocks overlapping with each other, I realised that I have been lazy in another form of learning, the one about tending to your inner voice. Especially among a big group of over-achievers, it is too easy to fall into the trap of imposter syndrome, or feel like whatever we have achieved previously is not enough. We are all compensating by signing up for another personal development workshop, careers event, or master class. Business school provides a wonderful opportunity to hear and learn from all kinds of industries, people and organizations. It is easy to focus all our attentions externally, simply because there are so many amazing speakers, workshops, debates and opportunities to acquire one more skillset or toolkit for success. On the last day of Launch, the orientation program for new students, the biggest worries and fears for all the new class as a collective are Careers and FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).

Naming and facing this fear and insecurity is hard, and takes courage. While the wonderful courses at SBS teach us useful tactics to equip ourselves, the personal reflective practice requires a disciplined personal practice. The space for authentic, whole self, grounded in our personal values and presence, is what Otto Scharmer calls the “blindspot of leadership”. This inner space is where all of us need to start from and come back to, when we are faced with too many external options or extreme challenges. Dominic Barton, when giving the final keynote speech for MBA launch, mentioned that truly transformative leadership is rooted in character. Behaviours and tactics, which are more commonly associated with good leadership practices, are built on the foundation of character. In other words, who we are is more important than what we do and how we do it.

I truly agree with many of our professors that we live at a great moment in human history, with unprecedented challenges and enormous opportunities. As we have learned in our Global Opportunities and Threat class, the risky, uncertain and unpredictable future is already here. What we do now will directly affect our future, and who we are as individuals directly affects society as a whole. Taking advantage of the vast Oxford network, I find myself in a seminar on systems-thinking in the Geography department. Businesses traditionally have solved many “tame”, or structured, targeted problems. However, the future presents more “wicked problems” or even “super-wicked” problems. These complex issues are intractable, and we have incomplete knowledge both of the solutions and of the unexpected consequences. We all know too well from the international development space that those that try to solve the problem may even be contributing to exacerbating the problem. As Saïd Business School seeks to tackle world-scale problems as a world-class business school embedded in a world-class university, I feel the urgency to bring attention to our inner space.

Aligning our values with what we do can have tremendous benefits for our work and life. Kurt April during his one-day workshop focusing on values showed us that our stress level actually goes down and our body goes into restorative mode, when we are engaged in work that we truly care about. However, getting to that space takes many attempts, constant examination, and realignment with our everyday engagement in the world with our inner values. This cannot be achieved by a two-day personal branding workshop, or a one-day leadership development course, but will be ongoing theme in the days ahead of us.

Although I sometimes find myself frustrated at the external-focused mentality that could be infectious at business school, and feeling impatient at traditional ways of teaching and learning in basic business courses, I do realize that what is happening at Oxford Saïd is representative of the bigger society. However, like seeds that may blossom in the future, I am loving finding out and actively participate in shaping business school to be a more conscious, nurturing space that allows all of us to get in touch with our whole, authentic selves. The lovely garden as a perfect space for meditation, the inspiration of those who work at the Skoll centre, the reflective exercises during Launch, leadership fundamentals, the student-organized mindfulness training and yoga classes, and the many beautiful vulnerable moments of seemingly polished and well-spoken MBA cohorts continue to inspire me and keep me working hard in my personal goals, to pay attention to our blindspots: Our inner selves.


Gathering strength and skills from a year in the ‘Oxford bubble’

Pip Wheaton is a Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA for 2015-16, viagra 60mg and is also the founder of enke:Make Your Mark, sales  a youth development organisation that inspires and supports young South Africans who are taking action on the most urgent social issues.

A couple of weeks ago, I left the bubble of Oxford to spend the weekend in South Africa. It was the annual strategy retreat for the organisation I started six-and-a-bit years ago, enke: Make Your Mark. It was also the crescendo of the national student movement that was protesting against the proposed fee increase for universities. I arrived on the Friday morning, coincidentally just in time to be able to show solidarity and join the protest at the Union Buildings in Pretoria where President Jacob Zuma was deliberating the demands.

We arrived on the dusty, smoky scene just as police fired stun grenades into what looked like a peaceful group, with helicopters circling overhead and barbed wire being rolled out along the road. Despite the palpable sense that violence was only a misstep away, the mood was optimistic. The results left most of us torn: they showed the power of youth-led, non-political, peaceful protests (the president agreed to a 0% fee increase for 2016), but they were also a cop-out by government, because neither the underlying issues nor the long-term challenges inherent in the education system were addressed.

I got back to Oxford on the Tuesday morning (after three days locked in the enke offices working on strategy). I was exhausted. The need for change has rarely felt simultaneously so urgent and so possible as it did that weekend and all I wanted to do was stay on the frontline to do whatever I could. Returning to the Oxford felt like I was running away.

Oxford is a bubble. The academic requirements of the year are only limited by how much time you choose to put in; there is a never-ending stream of fascinating talks and events so you don’t need to go elswhere for entertainment; thousands of people have uprooted themselves from their normal lives to create a temporary new world together. It feels like real life is suspended here. Returning to this, after a weekend of slap-you-in-the-face reality in South Africa, it felt like I was evading responsibility.

But when I arrived back to school, I remembered why taking a year out to do an MBA is so precious. From when we started enke in 2009 through to the last months of handover six years later, I was so absorbed in the day-to-day of the work – in designing and delivering programs, in fundraising, in management, in strategy, in impact measurement – that I didn’t make space to develop myself. And I was definitely not delivering my best work as a result.

This opportunity is so much more than the raw skills we learn in class. It’s the time out to think. It’s the weird and wonderful extra activities. It’s the people we get to engage with. It’s a year to invest in yourself, whatever that looks like for you.

I chose to come to Saïd Business School for the focus on social impact. So did a lot of other people here. That means that the conversations we have in the hallways between classes or over beer and pizza after school are just as valuable as any case study analysis or financial modeling we do. In the week since coming back from South Africa I’ve had the opportunity to brainstorm a friend’s business idea for increasing accessibility to ultrasounds in Kenya; I’ve discussed free will (or the absence thereof) over too much wine; I’ve have my assumptions about global financial systems challenged. While none of those things have immediate, tangible impact, in a years time, when all of this is over, everyone in this class should be better placed to do the work we choose. So while I’m not going to shake the conflict I feel from being in this bubble and not actively creating change this year, I hope that I’ll be more effective when I next get my hands dirty.


View from the top

Skoll Scholar and MBA student Ritesh Singhania gives us his first thoughts and impressions from the top of his year here in Oxford.

“Remember Red, hope is a good thing may be the best of things and no good thing ever dies”

-Shawshank Redemption

At Oxford, every time I decide to step out of my house I am hopeful that I will hear a story that I have never heard before. I will meet someone who is studying a course, which I did not even know one could study, or I will learn about a culture I previously knew nothing about.

I am an extrovert, a people’s person who loves to meet people, know their cultures and stories, and try to see the world through their lenses. As I grow older, it’s sometimes difficult for me to leave my own perspective and experience and see the world through the perspective of my half Turkish- half Swiss friend, who I met at a Halloween party. It was my first Halloween ever, where I decided to dress up as Charlie Chaplin. It was a little difficult to sip on drinks and eat while taking care of the moustache.

There have been more than a few things that I have done for the first time at Oxford. Oxford University is an institution where we do things a little differently than others. Some of them are really fun, but some of them might not be so much fun. To be really honest, I am enjoying each of these traditions that are such an integral part of this 800 old university. Most of these things I have never done before and in all probability will not do after this year. This is my only year to experience each of these traditions and I am absolutely loving every bit of it.

My undergraduate college was in no ways similar to my current college. I do not remember wearing anything but casual wear to college dinners, whereas at Oxford we have to suit up each time for a formal dinner in college. It is an experience that I am living here everyday, and extending to my family through the pictures that I am able to share with them. God bless the founders of Whatsapp!!

“You might not see the changes in you immediately after your time at Oxford, but all the learnings would, gradually over the years, help you to succeed in your personal and professional endeavours” – so said one of our speakers during the MBA launch at the beginning of this academic year. I strongly believe that this will be one of the most important years in my life, so it might not be quite fair to see how far I have come and how much I’ve grown in a span of just one year. I just hope that I am able to learn fast, and apply the learnings gradually throughout my life, making some solid friends who I stay in touch with even after this wonderful year!


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.