My journey from Nepal to Oxford

Tsechu Dolma is a current 2019-20 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. She is the founder of the Mountain Resiliency Project to help build resilient refugee communities through women’s agribusinesses. She reflects on her lived experience and how it led her to an impact career and an MBA at Oxford.

There are 25.4 million refugees in the world; children make up half of them; 3.5 million school-age refugee children do not go to school, and only one percent of refugees enroll in higher education. I was born into these statistics.  I grew up in a Tibetan refugee camp and spent the first half of my life as a stateless person. Fleeing the civil war in Nepal, my family sought political asylum in the United States.

After becoming a new American, receiving my education there, then going back, I realized that my refugee community back home was stuck in a culture of waiting that international agencies had perpetuated and we had enhanced upon. Our community has been plagued with development barriers such as heavy youth outmigration, low student retention, poor water access and ethnic marginalization. But we were not working on solving our problems; instead, we waited for outsiders to bring in poorly designed, implemented and costly projects that would only last for a year or two. Inside the past decade, climate change and globalization has made living in the high-Himalayas increasingly more difficult and we cannot afford to wait. I made a risky leap so that we can reverse this development trend, and instead take a grassroots approach to foster local ownership, inclusion and capacity.

(Photo Credit: Mountain Resiliency Project) The majority of the villages Mountain Resiliency Project (MRP) works with do not have road access. They are some of the most remote settlements in the Himalayan range. Foot and pack animals travel is the lifeline of our communities. In this photo, Tsechu Dolma is traveling to one of MRP’s sites in Manang, Nepal, where the nearest road is a four-day hike away, plus a another 20 hours bus ride from Kathmandu, crossing a pass 16,814ft above sea level.

My entrepreneurial spirit brought me back to the refugee camps I left behind to start a social enterprise. I founded Mountain Resiliency Project six years ago while I was an undergraduate student. We have a proven track record of improving food security, women’s economic empowerment and leveling patchy development for 15,000 displaced farmers in Nepal. Our average families have increased their annual incomes by 200 percent. Most importantly, 80 percent of our family’s earned income is spent on their children’s continued education and the remaining is reinvested in their trade.  I realize the value of hard work and grit in achieving our true potential. Our work has received international awards and recognition for making strides. Today, we have 15 full-time staff leading our work in Nepal. I am rethinking the underpinnings of development in my community that has continued to perpetrate marginalization and dispossession. My vision is to scale Mountain Resiliency’s work worldwide. We want to grow out of South Asia to become the first-ever global network of refugee communities producing and selling goods to the mainstream market. Being a Skoll Scholar has supported my growth as a social entrepreneur and broadened my scope of advocating for and strengthening displaced communities.

Tsechu Dolma in camping tent, with background of mountain scene

The Skoll Scholarship aligns with my lifelong values of growing into an effective leader with the grit, vision and communication skills to be a steward to my community and environment. For me, it is the tool to address inequities, development gaps and improve livelihoods. From my work at Mountain Resiliency, I have firsthand experience of how effective social enterprises that are deeply rooted in empathy and relationship building can transform lives. Social entrepreneurship is the best amalgamation of my passion and skills for how I want to influence the world. My experience with displaced communities has taught me that when the system is broken and continues to perpetrate disenfranchisement to the most vulnerable, the solutions must come from the unconventional. On my journey through different landscapes, I seek connections with the human and natural world to find my place and understand economic development. The literature on human, nature and policy has allowed me to use ideas from development discourse, like ‘participation’ and ‘sustainability’ in a way that is both effective and critical. Displaced communities worldwide have little to no political leverage and only extractive industries and projects are in their region; resulting in inconsistent, patchy development. I intend to change this.


My journey from Bangladesh to Oxford

Anjali Sarker is a current 2019-20 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. She is passionate about empowering women’s rights through economic opportunity. She reflects on her impact journey so far and what led her to Oxford.  

It was a hot summer afternoon in 2014. A group of middle-aged women were sitting under a tree, giving me and my colleague a very skeptical look as we were trying to explain how mobile payments could possibly make their lives easier. They did not seem to be convinced at all, for good reasons; at least for reasons that were valid to them.

“We, women, don’t understand those things… too complicated for us.”

“My husband handles all financial matters. Those are men’s responsibilities.”

“My marriage will be in trouble if I use mobile money. My in-laws will assume that I’m secretly sending money to my parents.”

Anjali Sarker headshot outside Saïd Business School

I wondered if it was at all possible to challenge the age-old traditions and gender norms that made women believe that managing money is men’s business, and they should ‘stay out of it’. As a deep believer in gender equality, and being a woman myself, I wanted to challenge the status quo.

At that point, the mobile money revolution in Bangladesh was just building momentum. However, as with all new opportunities, it was mostly men who were able to utilise mobile money. In particular, rural and poor women lagged behind. By 2017, the number of mobile money account holders in Bangladesh shot to over 24 million, the highest in the world. Shockingly, at the same time, the gender gap in financial inclusion increased 20 percentage points within only 3 years, leaving 38 million women unbanked. BRAC, one of the largest NGOs in the world where I worked at the time, had been active in the microfinance industry since the early 1970s, providing rural women access to small loans. We saw mobile money as an opportunity to expand the coverage of financial services to every corner of the country. However, the challenge was how to take it to the poorest women who need it the most.

The next few years became a roller coaster ride for my team, pulling off a massive nationwide project, funded by the Gates Foundation, to get digital financial services to the fingertips of one million women (literally). Leading the project taught me more than I could have ever imagined – taking me to the remotest corners of the country and exposing my eyes to the harshest forms of poverty. On one hand, it was incredibly inspiring to see how our clients’ eyes lit up when they made their first digital transactions and sent money to their loved ones. On the other hand, I felt numb when I heard many stories of husbands’ abusing their wives for being “too independent”. I realised that beyond providing necessary services and ‘doing good’, development interventions should also take responsibility for the consequences, both intended and unintended, that come later.

“A more effective way of changing the status quo is to build a better system that makes the existing system obsolete.”

Anjali Sarker, 2019-20 Skoll Scholar

The project left my mind full of complex questions, which motivated me to take a two-year study leave. Before coming to Oxford for my MBA, I did an MSc at the London School of Economics, where I studied Inequalities and explored how emerging technologies impact the existing inequalities. Many people raise their eyebrows when I said that I was going to do an MBA, after studying “inequalities”! Aren’t these the two extremes of the world today where the richest 1% are exploiting the whole planet and the activists are protesting on streets to bring them down? Well, I believe the realities are much more complex and nuanced than that. One can choose to fight the system and in extreme cases of injustice, that might as well be the only option. However, in most situations, a more effective way of changing the status quo is to build a better system that makes the existing system obsolete. This hope for change is what inspired me and brought me to Oxford.

While looking into business schools, Oxford’s Saïd Business School clearly stood out because of the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship, the Skoll Scholarship, and the incredible privilege to be immersed within the wider Oxford University community. In fact, my motivation for an MBA was understanding the world of business and investing the knowledge, skills and connections gained in social good, specially to create systems that work for women. Unfortunately, women are still the biggest minority in the world. More often than not, their needs and realities do not get the attention they deserve. To make things worse, if they are poor, illiterate or live in rural areas, they become almost invisible to the systems and decision-makers. My hope is that spending this year in Oxford, and all the incredible opportunities that come with an MBA from Oxford Saïd, will enable me to better serve millions of invisible women in Bangladesh.

How to Start a Purpose-Driven Venture

Mike Quinn is a 2007-08 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA alumnus, he is also the co-founder and former CEO of Zoona, one of Africa’s earliest fintech companies. With over 10 years of experience running a successful social business, Mike shares his hard-learned tips and experiences on how get a purpose-driven venture started, built and scaled. This is the first article in the series, how to ‘start’.

In October 2019, I had the privilege of being a Social Entrepreneur in Residence at Oxford’s Saïd Business School. I delivered three talks and coached dozens of entrepreneurial MBA students who were seeking practical advice on how to start, build and scale a purpose-driven venture. This blog summarizes my first talk, ‘How to Start,’ with the others to follow.

Start by falling in love with a big problem

When starting a new venture, there’s a lot of pressure to come up with that one novel idea that nobody has ever thought of before. It can be discouraging at the idea formation stage to hear comments like, ‘Oh that’s not very unique!’ or ‘There’s another company already doing that!’ This pressure can lead to you spending a lot of your time trying to come up with a unique solution before choosing and understanding the problem you want to solve.

This is a backward approach for a few reasons. First, it’s almost impossible to come up with an idea that someone else hasn’t thought of or tried already. Second, if another company is already doing it, that means there is a real-life analog to learn from. And third, trying to come up with a solution before fully understanding the problem is the fastest way to start-up death.

A better approach is to spend time up front falling in love with a big problem. Pick a problem that you are passionate enough to spend the next decade of your life solving. Make sure it is big enough that no one solution will solve it completely. And be confident that if the problem no longer existed, the world would be a better place and you would be proud to have contributed to the solution.

Falling in love with a big problem is what will keep you motivated through all the investor rejections, people challenges and product failures that will surely come.

Pick the right co-founder(s)

There is a saying that ‘Founder’ is the loneliest number for good reason. There is so much to do when starting a new venture that having a team of 2-4 co-founders can make a huge difference in both the venture’s success and everyone’s well-being. However, finding the right co-founder(s) can be fraught with challenges, especially for first-time entrepreneurs.

Before you look to find others to work with, you should start by finding yourself:

What is your purpose?

What are your core values?

What is your personality type?

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Which tasks do you jump out of bed for, and which drain your energy and cause you to reach for the snooze button?

I like to capture these on a ‘Me on a Page’ document that I review monthly to keep me grounded.

Next, understand that the ideal co-founder(s) enables you to be the best version of yourself (and vice versa). Find people who share your passion for the problem, resonate with your values and are equally committed for the long haul. Make sure they have complementary strengths and weaknesses and are people you enjoy being around.

This is a high bar to meet, and so it should be. Over my ten years at Zoona, I spent as much, if not more, time with my three co-founders as I did with my wife. We experienced exhilarating highs and gut-wrenching failures together. We had to work in a pressure-filled environment that was never stable, even when things were going well. Working in a start-up will either bring co-founders together or destroy relationships, so it’s critical to be purposeful about the people you will share this special bond with.

It takes time to know if you have the right co-founder(s), so in the interim there are some practical steps you can take. For example, ‘try before you buy’ by agreeing up front to test for fit and working relationships before formalizing anything. Build in staged check-ins and exit off ramps where people need to either commit or leave. When splitting equity, introduce share vesting so that a departing co-founder returns their unvested shares back to the company.  Have honest conversations and learn how to give each other feedback. This all takes courage and maturity but is absolutely necessary if you want to build a successful venture.

Rapid prototype to discover product-market fit

With the right problem and co-founder(s), you will have solid foundations in place to shift your focus to discovering product-market fit. Your goal is to develop a minimum viable product (MVP) that solves a major pain point for your targeted customers. You also need to validate that they are willing to pay for your product above what it costs you to deliver it. If you’re lucky, they will start telling other people who are like them to try your product, and you will achieve lift off.

A lot of things have to come together for this to happen, and it’s typically a race against time and running out of cash. If you spend all your time building a perfect product in your office, you are destined for failure.

Rather, take a rapid prototyping approach. Start with a small and consistent customer segment. Get to know who they are, their pain points, and the root causes of their pain points. Learn from them about how they already overcome these pain points on their own. Then, design hypotheses for how you could help reduce or eliminate their pain. Test hacked solutions that require the least amount of time and money to develop and seek quantitative and qualitative feedback. Make adjustments on the go and keep iterating as fast as possible until you have a working MVP and delighted customers.

With any new venture, there is never a guarantee of success and always a high probability of failure. But if you get these three foundations right – falling in love with a big problem, picking the right co-founder(s), and rapid prototyping to discover product-market fit, you will be off the starting blocks and living the entrepreneur lifestyle!

In honour of Juan Jose Ochoa

We are deeply saddened to share the news that one of our Skoll Scholars, Juan Jose Ochoa, passed away recently following a prolonged illness.

A dear classmate, friend, husband, father and inspiring social entrepreneur, Juanjo was among our first Skoll Scholars, completing his Oxford MBA in 2006. He dedicated his career to building a leading microfinance company and improving access to energy, water and communications across rural Argentina and Latin America.

Juanjo was a much-loved and respected part of the global Skoll Scholar community. His energy, passion and generosity left a lasting impression on all those who knew him.  Juanjo is best remembered below through the words of some of his fellow Scholar cohort and classmates.

Our love and prayers are with Juan’s family. He will be greatly missed

The Skoll Centre Team

It is hard to capture in a few lines what a special person Juan Jose was. One of the strongest memories I have from when we first met in 2005, is the kindness of his smile, something I will forever treasure. Throughout our year at Oxford Saïd, I saw in Juanjo a rare combination of compassion and pragmatism; a deep sense of empathy and the eloquence to communicate and act upon it. My thoughts are with Maria and their children. Te queremos mucho, Juanjo.

Susana Frazao Pinheiro

Juanjo shall never be just another fading memory of a social pioneer in a fast-changing world.  Alas, this is too simple a description for such a Master of compassion the likes of JuanJo.  He taught us to strive to transcend the limits of singular perspective and to trust in the grace of deep human connection.  His light is constant, is pure and is forever illuminating brightly inside each of us. Our steps are his steps. Hasta pronto hermano.

Keely Stevenson

Juanjo’s passion, and at the heart of his work over the past years, was to bring light to the very rural communities in Argentina. He also shared his light of purity of spirit, intention and actions with each of us for which we are ever grateful.

Richard Webb

Juanjo and I had many things in common, therefore, we became close friends and fellow mentors. He was a very generous human being with qualities that are hard to find: committed to his family, devoted towards improving people’s lives, an optimist and believer in human nature and a deeply spiritual soul whose words and amazing capacity to listen would brighten us all who were so lucky to have crossed paths with him.  While his life was short; his legacy was profound and will keep pushing many of us forward to continue fighting for the causes he so willingly championed.  Maria and the kids will surely safeguard such inspiring legacy as Juanjo built it with them. Un abrazo fuerte y hasta siempre, amigo!

Henry Gonzalez

A smile and heart so big that everyone who had the pleasure to meet Juanjo instantly connected with him. A dedication and love so deep that it effortlessly extended from his family to his friends to the communities he worked with. His unwavering trust and belief in all made everything seem possible. Juanjo is and will forever remain a beacon of inspiration.

Shanoo Saran

In 2005 we had the pleasure to meet an intelligent, humble and extraordinarily well-rounded human being: Juan Jose Ochoa, Juanjo. Juanjo not only stood out from the rest of the class as one of our Skoll Scholars but also as a loving husband, good father and a true gentlemen. A man with a profound faith in god and in the people, who always looked for the bright side of everyone he met. Juanjo has been a light for all who met him. Now the challenge for us is to honor his name by living from his example.

Felipe Blanco

We lost an amazing man. Juanjo was a wonderful soul who cared deeply for those around him. Truly heartbreaking.

Michael McFadden

There was no other like Juanjo. A determined social entrepreneur on a mission, a kind friend with a listening year, a sportsman with a kindred spirit, a loving father and husband! I will always remember him fondly.

Ruchika Singhal

What is the Future of African FinTech?

In 2008, I completed an MBA as a Skoll Scholar for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. It was an amazing experience where I gained an expansive network and learned a lot about venture capital, technology and innovation. However, the application of these themes to Africa was completely absent from the MBA curriculum, mainly because it was also absent in practice. When I declared my intent to move to Africa immediately after my programme to connect socially-oriented investors with high-impact entrepreneurs who were building scalable tech-enabled companies, it was a novel idea. But it was also an idea that few people took seriously as a commercial enterprise.

When I arrived in Lusaka, Zambia in January 2009, I found a cash economy where over 80% of adults were unbanked. People were constrained to using post office branches or trusting cash envelopes to minibus drivers to move money around to pay for school fees, health emergencies and business stock. Unknown to almost everyone in Zambia, a mobile based person-to-person money transfer service, called M-Pesa, was emerging in Kenya. Entrepreneur brothers Brad and Brett Magrath saw the opportunity to be first to market and set out on a journey to replicate M-Pesa’s success in Zambia.

I helped the Magraths secure a $200,000 seed investment from the Grassroots Business Fund, which none of us knew at the time was one of the first institutional fintech investments in an African start-up. After convincing my parents in Canada to mortgage their house to lend me $100,000 to invest, I joined them and became a co-founder and CEO of Zoona. We continued our pioneering trend by raising a $4 million Series A at the beginning of 2012 and $15 million Series B in 2016 to fuel our growth. In Zoona’s first ten years, we enabled millions of consumers to transact over $2.5 billion across 2,500 micro-franchise agent outlets in Zambia and Malawi.

Africa’s fintech landscape has transformed since those early days of starting Zoona. In 2018, African fintech investments reached $357 million with ecosystems emerging in Cape Town, Lagos and Nairobi. This growth has tracked Africa’s mobile money industry, which had 132 live mobile money deployments, serving 146 million active consumers and 1.4 million active agents in the same year. In Zambia, Zoona was disrupted by this competitive wave after two multinational telcos invested aggressively to roll out 47,000 agents. According to the UNCDF, over 45% of Zambia’s adult population actively uses digital financial services. Across the continent, the fintech landscape has segmented into payments, lending, savings and insurance. Applications have also broadened from financial services to agriculture (agtech), healthcare (healthtech), education (edtech) and even regulation (regtech).

While these statistics and trends are great, they also mask some significant unintended consequences. For example, easy access to unsecured digital credit has fueled an explosion in sports betting, with $2 billion gambled last year in Kenya with 500,000 young people defaulting on loans to fund their habit. In total, 2.2 million Kenyans have non-performing digital loans, with 49% of defaulters having outstanding balances of less than $10. 62% of borrowers also report having more than one digital loan. These are worrying statistics for the industry and warning signs of speed bumps ahead.

So what is the future of fintech in Africa? I will offer three predictions.

First, fintech itself is not a silver bullet. It is the application of it that matters. Fintech solutions that are embedded in the real economy and help increase people’s incomes and reduce their costs will have tremendous positive impact. Those that drain people’s limited resources and promise short term investor returns will have long lasting negative consequences.

Second, the current investor hype in African fintech will wane as the industry matures, but the good investors will stick it out. Too much of the money flowing in is chasing the hype, and not enough people have been burned by the very real challenges of scaling companies in Africa. But the investors who have been around the longest, like Zoona’s Series A investors Flourish Ventures (a spin off from Omidyar Network) and Quona Capital (a spin off from Accion), are well positioned to ride the wave.

Third, the potential of fintech to deliver both positive impact and financial returns is very real. The opportunities in Africa are enormous for thick-skinned entrepreneurs who are prepared to roll up their sleeves and execute well. As I learned my first time around, there is no guarantee of winning in the end but that is all the more reason to try again. It’s a great time to be a fintech entrepreneur in Africa. 

About the author

Mike Quinn, 2007-08 Oxford MBA alumnus and Skoll Scholar. Mike is the co-founder and former Group CEO of Zoona, one of Africa’s earliest fintech companies.  

During his 10-year stint at the company that started with the first transaction in 2009, Zoona processed $2.5 billion of transactions, generated $26 million in income for 3,000 micro-entrepreneurs and their employees across Zambia and Malawi, and raised $35 million in investment. For his leadership, Mike was awarded the Accion 2017 Edward W. Claugus Award for Leadership and Innovation in Financial Inclusion and with one of the Schwab Foundation’s 2018 Social Entrepreneurs of the Year.

Mike’s entrepreneurial journey in Africa started as a volunteer in Ghana and Zambia with Engineers Without Borders Canada after graduating with a mechanical engineering degree from the University of British Columbia. He has completed an LSE Master’s in Development Management, an Oxford MBA, and a Harvard Leadership for Systems Change executive education certificate. He grew up in Calgary, Canada and now calls Cape Town, home.


My journey from Costa Rica to Oxford

Joaquín Víquez is a 2019-20 Oxford MBA and Skoll Scholar. He began his social impact career in his native country, Costa Rica, where his passion for environmental sustainability led him to many projects and ventures. Now Joaquin finds himself among 300+ other global MBA candidates in one of the world’s oldest institutions, the University of Oxford.

It might sound strange, but I truly enjoy the smell of coffee berries. Most coffee drinkers don’t even know what that is because coffee travels around the world as a bean and not the actual berry. The coffee berry is processed the same day it’s harvested, and in just a few days the coffee bean is ready for shipping. I know this because I grew up in a family dedicated to small scale coffee farming and livestock. By the way, I also enjoy the smell of horses and cacao fermentation.

Joaquín Víquez

Growing up around agriculture provided me with a sense of what it means to ‘live off the land’ so to speak, the hardships and of course, the rewards. It helped me develop a sense of empathy towards an industry that feeds the world. It also caused me to develop questions, I didn’t realize then, that was going to become an essential part of my career. For example, what happens to the coffee skin/peel after the bean is extracted? What do they do with such “waste”?

Joaquin with large biogas machinary in a trench in the ground

Naturally, this upbringing influenced me to undertake a degree in agriculture science, which I did in Costa Rica at EARTH University. During my time at school, I started specializing on biogas technology. Biogas converts, through a biochemical process, organic waste into fertilizer and methane, which can be used as energy. In other words, a farm just like the one I grew up on, could convert the cow dung into energy for cooking. 

Back then, if I had to describe my “dream job” stepping right out of college, it would’ve been a 95% match to my actual first job. I ended up leading a team who advised dairy farmers how to properly manage their in-farm waste (mainly cow dung). At that time, regulations were urging the largest dairy cooperative in Costa Rica to align its farmers to produce environmentally friendly. I continue to advocate the use of biogas among these dairy farms. Having learnt there wasn’t an actual product in the market for small scale biogas farmers, I decided to quit this job and start a social venture to make biogas an accessible technology among farmers.

Entrepreneurs always describe how difficult but worthwhile is to run your own business; I can’t but agree! The company (Viogaz) officially operated for six years. We became a renown biogas company with the greatest number of biogas projects in Costa Rica. During this time, we were recognised and awarded for the work we were doing, plus creating tangible impact in the region. Unfortunately, a combined set of unexpected events fell upon the company, which obliged me to shut down the project at the end of 2017.

Joaquin giving a talk to a small crowd standing on top of biogas machinary.

I learned that doing business while having an environmental priority is possible and highly gratifying. So, just as I decided to do an MSc to strengthen my technical knowledge, I started considering doing an MBA to strengthen my business knowledge. Coincidentally, I received a newsletter announcing the Skoll Scholarship to study at Saïd Business School on a renown MBA program with a strong focus on responsible and social business, at the University of Oxford. This scholarship sought to support entrepreneurs doing good through business. I thought to myself: “that’s what I have been doing for all my career” … I decided to apply.

Fast forward, 12 months later, I find myself at a 400-year-old pub in the heart of Oxford writing this blog. I couldn’t be more excited, thrilled, and inspired to be here. I am very much looking forward to the future. And although my future is not set in stone, I plan to continue to explore new business ideas in areas of waste-to-resource and climate change, as well open to also join an organization tackling these problems.

…And by the way, going back to my child questions, coffee peel/skin is still disposed of inadequately, causing tremendous environmental impact, meaning there is still lots of work to do.