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From the United States to Oxford

Skoll Scholar, MBA and above all, Engineer, Ashley Thomas, shares her story, not of HOW she got to be at Oxford, but WHO.

As I sit in a 150-year-old book shop (very new by Oxford standards) listening to Duncan Green, Oxfam GB’s chief strategic advisor, discuss his book How Change Happens, I’m again struck by how lucky I am to have ended up here, at Oxford, and as Skoll Scholar. In thinking through how I have managed to arrive at this moment, my instinct is to create a neat narrative: In 2008, as a freshly minted mechanical engineer, I moved to Ethiopia to work as a product designer at iDE, a NGO building social enterprises and agriculture value chains in Africa and Asia.  Since then I have worked as an engineer and innovation project manager for some of the best (in my humble opinion) social enterprises: Evidence Action and MKOPA solar, and dabbled in some policy work managing the DFID resource centre on climate and environment. Building on my experience in the water sector, I then read for an MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management prior to my MBA as part of the 1+1 programme at Oxford, in theory preparing me to solve the worlds’ water problems through my own social enterprise.

However, after listening to Green’s view of the non-linearity of change, I am tempted to reframe my story not as a narrative but as the summation of ripples in a web of complex relationships and interactions. If you can forgive my ramblings in non-linear narrative, I want to tell the story of my path here framed through the relationships that don’t make it onto a CV, and instead focus on the cast of characters that sent the right ripples into the network that guided me to this fantastic place.

Katherine McIntyre: My grandmother is the embodiment of tenacity. She was a flight controller in the Canadian Air Force during World War II, a travel writer in the USSR during the 1980’s, current record holder for the oldest person to do a zip line, and in few days, at 93 years old, will be travelling from Toronto to Oxford to see my MSc graduation. She has traveled to more than 45 countries, published in over 30 newspapers and journals and has founded 3 companies.  I can only aspire to emulate her singular focus, fearless independence, and her lifelong curiosity.

Left: Ashley Thomas, Right: Kirstie McIntyre

Left: Ashley Thomas, Right: Katherine McIntyre

Left: a young Kirstie McIntyre, Right: Kirstie McIntyre holds the current record holder for the oldest person to do a zip line

Left: a young Katherine McIntyre, Right: Katherine McIntyre holds the current record holder for the oldest person to do a zip line

Paul’s enabling, entrepreneurial approach strongly resonated and has become central to my own philosophy.

Paul Polak: I met Paul when I was nineteen, naïvely aspiring to fight global poverty, but I only knew about top-down traditional development organisations. From attending his lectures, receiving his mentorship through the Intentional Development Design Summit (IDDS), and ultimately collaborating at iDE, Paul introduced me to a new way of thinking. Instead of a charity approach, Paul showed me an untapped market of 1 billion people seeking to lift themselves out of poverty. Paul’s enabling, entrepreneurial approach strongly resonated and has become central to my own philosophy.

 

Paul Polak

Paul Polak

Carlos Machan: Carlos is one of the most creative product designers I have ever met. Born in rural Guatemala, his engineering knowledge is all self-taught. I met Carols in 2007 while he was an instructor on the International Development Design Summit at MIT and continued to work with him in Guatemala, where he taught me how to weld, design, and build my first water pump, the very skills that landed me my first job at iDE.

Carlos Machan

Carlos Machan

It was here, in front of this bonfire, where I first heard about the Skoll Scholarship, and began dreaming of becoming a Skoll Scholar

iDE Workshop and Engineering Team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: In Addis, our engineering team founded a workshop/office/guest house that was the backbone of our product development. It was also the location of many bonfires, beers, and late night pontification. It was here, in front of this bonfire, where I first heard about the Skoll Scholarship, and began dreaming of becoming a Skoll Scholar. It took 8 years of indecision, dreaming, and three failed attempts at the application before it became a reality.

iDE Workshop and Engineering Team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

iDE Workshop and Engineering Team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

MKOPA Engineering Team: This crew is one of the brightest, most driven, and friendliest teams I have ever worked with. From Eric, standing at 6’2” and with a sense of humor to match, to Berita, easily a foot shorter in stature, but making no compromises in heart or brains, this group of people embodies the types of teams I hope to continue to work with. They also solidified my desire to get an MBA. While they were begrudging the fact I’d “no longer be an engineer”, working with them made me realise that if I hope to run a company like MKOPA and a team like this one, I have a lot of learning left to do.

ashleymtblog-mkopa

MKOPA Team

While this is absolutely not an exclusive list, these are some of the threads in fabric of the story of my path here. From the nascent daydreams over Ethiopian bonfires to making the decision to come to Oxford after working on a manufacturing line in Dongguan, China, studying an MBA at Oxford through the Skoll Scholarship is the realisation of the network of friends, colleagues, places, and events that have guided me to this fantastic place.

All photos above were provided by Ashley Thomas.

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Back on the other side of the classroom

Alex Shapland-Howes is a 2016-17 Skoll Scholar and is leading the way for social mobility within the UK’s deprived communities.  After his early career as a teacher, he discovers what it’s like to be on the other side of the classroom again at Saïd Business School!

It’s been almost ten years since I was last a full-time student. Having worked in education ever since, it felt a bit odd to go back to the other side of the classroom in our first week.

We are working towards a day where a child’s background doesn’t limit their future options

I’ve spent the last five years leading the expansion of the education charity – Future First. We are working towards a day where a child’s background doesn’t limit their future options. In the UK, we have one of the lowest levels of social mobility in the developed world. The correlation between parents’ earnings and those of their children remains stubbornly close.

Alex being interviewed on UK channel, ITV News.

Alex being interviewed on UK channel, ITV News.

The problem is incredibly complex, but one key challenge is that young people from less advantaged backgrounds are less likely to have positive role models in the world of work. Half don’t know anyone with a job they’d like to do themselves and a quarter goes as far as to say that ‘people like them’ don’t succeed in life.

By helping state secondary schools reconnect with their alumni, Future First is changing those statistics.

Having grown up in the same place and had some of the same teachers, former students can have a transformative effect on the lives of today’s young people – volunteering to deliver careers talks, act as a mentor, or support the teaching of a lesson related to their job.

Over the last five years, we’ve expanded the organisation to work with more than 10% of all secondary schools across the country. Even more excitingly, we’re starting to see the growth of alumni networks beyond our own work.

Our aim is to lead the creation of a genuinely national culture of alumni engagement. Every young person deserves a role model they can relate to, regardless of their background.

I started to look for opportunities for professional development…I wanted to learn what the textbook says about leading teams, developing long-term strategies and running efficient organisations.

Whilst we’ve had great success in growing the organisation and its impact, I started to look for opportunities for professional development about 18 months ago. Perhaps inevitably, we didn’t get everything right, but having moved straight from being a secondary school teacher myself to leading an organisation like Future First, I wanted to learn what the textbook says about leading teams, developing long-term strategies and running efficient organisations.

I came across the Skoll Scholarship by luck, but as soon as I saw it I knew I wanted to apply. I feel incredibly privileged to have the chance to spend a year learning from the world-class experts, reflecting on my own leadership journey and working with amazing people from all over the world. (And they really have been amazing and from all over the world!). There’s not a chance I’d have had been able to do this without the support of the Skoll Centre.

It’s clear from the first few weeks that it’s going to be hard work, but I feel unbelievably lucky to have this opportunity and I can’t wait to carry on making the most of it.

For more information about the Skoll Scholarship, visit skollscholarship.org.

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From Guadalajara to Oxford

Macarena Hernandez de Obeso is passionate about the economic opportunity for Mexico’s deprived communities. She is also our 2016-17 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA student. Her journey from Guadalajara started with a simple Skype call. Macarena shares the story.

Two years ago I had the luck to have a conversation by Skype with Pamela Hartigan. At that moment I had no idea this call will change my life to the point that today I’m writing this blog from Saïd Business School, at the University of Oxford, 5,605 miles away from the place I was born and raised, Guadalajara, Mexico.

Macerena

Macerena joined Prospera in 2011, the first social enterprise in Guadalajara, Mexico.

 

One would think that it is almost impossible to build a social enterprise in a conservative region, in a country that has not been growing strongly for the past 30 years. But, in spite of all this I have not allowed the circumstances to define what I can or cannot achieve. To the point that in 2014, Prospera, the social enterprise I was leading, was recognised as one of the top 10 favourite social enterprises in Mexico, according to Forbes, and the best social enterprise in Mexico according to the Suzie Bank UBS.

Prospera became my passion. But, passion alone gets you nowhere.

My unconformity and the pursuit of challenge and intellectual growth led me to join the team of Gabriela Enrigue to build Prospera, the first social enterprise in Guadalajara. At that moment, I did not know anything about entrepreneurship or social enterprises. But a hunch and a desire to learn made me spend all my time building Prospera from the beginning. At Prospera, our mission is to serve single moms in poor communities who start small businesses from home. Our vision is to disrupt the entrenched male-dominated social structures that have been in place for the past 500 years in Mexico. We have trained more than 7,500 women and increased their incomes eight times. Prospera became my passion. But, passion alone gets you nowhere.

Generating opportunities for women is a profound reason that deserves my time and work. But if I fail to better combine the social mission with a sustainable business model, I will be designing solutions that nobody will pay for and the impact will never scale. I came to this awareness after I led a Prospera project as part of a Fund developed by Alsea Foundation and Starbucks Mexico. This project changed the way I see the world.

Startbuck Project - Prospera

Alsea Foundation and Starbucks Mexico Project at Prospera [Photo source: Prospera]

The project’s goal was to add a productivity component to Alsea Foundation. It was the first project of this kind done in Latin America and we expected it to be scaled to six more countries. We trained 33 poor, single moms from one marginalised slum around Mexico City. They were recipients of philanthropic aid and the purpose of the project I designed was aimed at transforming them into small vendors at Starbucks. The women produced 3,300 customized notebooks that were then sold in 80 Starbucks. These women improved their income by 700%. Despite that the notebooks were sold to Starbucks consumers in less than a month, Starbucks only made this one purchase. Why? Neither the notebooks sales nor the productivity of these women were related the Starbucks core business model and the Foundation could not drive the corporate goals.

I decided to start looking for MBA programmes that would help me design business to solve the most challenging social problems that we face today.

As a result of this project I have been studying start-up business methodologies and working on the development of Prospera’s business model. I want to generate benefit for both the community and enterprises. If an enterprise increases income while solving social problems, they are willing to pay for this solution. That’s why two years ago I decided to start looking for MBA programmes that would help me design business to solve the most challenging social problems that we face today.

Talking with Pamela Hartigan not only helped me to understand how the Skoll Centre supports social entrepreneurs inside Saïd Business School, but she also made me believe that one day I could become an Oxford MBA student. The day has come I am grateful and ready for the challenge.

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From Bangladesh to Oxford

Not only is Ahmed Abu Bakr a Skoll Scholar and MBA student at Saïd Business School, he is also the former Head of Product & Experience at Jeeon LLC in Bangladesh. He tells his story of what brought him to Oxford.

“You are now a student at the University of Oxford.” -Induction day, Dean Peter Tufano, Said Business School, University of Oxford

Sitting in a room of 328 fresh MBA students, captivated by words of inspiration and felicitations – that was the first time that it TRULY hit me.

I was at one of the finest institutions of learning, surrounded by the best and brightest in the world – a place where world leaders were made. I was finally at Oxford.

I knew that giving back was a responsibility, not a choice.

My journey to Oxford really started straight out of college in 2012. My aspiration was to start my own venture. I also knew very early on, that I wanted my career to benefit the neglected and the marginalised. In the context of Bangladesh, I had enjoyed a privileged life and somewhere in my heart, I knew that giving back was a responsibility, not a choice.

I considered the MBA back then, rather naively in retrospect, as a possible degree that would help me understand business and prepare me to launch my own. And my sights were set on the very best of schools. Why? Back then it was about the prestige. But of course, an MBA without work experience was not going to be of much use. And hence I joined mPower Social Enterprises a tech consultancy working with the likes of USAID, Oxfam, Save the Children and so forth, to amplify their impact through technology.

My reasons for joining mPower were really two fold. Firstly, it was about working in a young company to understand the challenges of a startup. Secondly, and arguably more importantly, it was about working directly with two Harvard graduates (and founders) and having them as mentors that would shape me professionally and guide me into getting into one of the top schools in the world.

But six months into mPower, I was part of the founding team of a project that would eventually spin off into a company in its own right Jeeon. Jeeon connects rural patients with qualified doctors in the city, right from the village bazaars. We do this by equipping intermediaries (rural drug shop owners in village bazaars) with the training and technology necessary to collect comprehensive medical data about rural patients using our custom android app. This data is seen by our doctors in our city office, and after a thorough conversation between patient and doctor, facilitated by the intermediary, patients receive reliable medical advice, prescriptions and recommendations.

Ahmed is the former Head of Product & Experience at Jeeon LLC

Ahmed is the former Head of Product & Experience at Jeeon LLC

It has taken us three years to fine tune the model so that it is operationally self-sustaining. We started with a team of five. There were days when it was just me running to different people at mPower (mPower incubated Jeeon for two years) to get things done. I played a myriad of roles- from product design to tech management, to business modelling, to team building, to operations, and strategy. It has been a tremendous experience, where I learned and accomplished more than I had ever dreamed off!

Today we have raised over a million dollars in investment, have a 20 person team (excluding doctors and rural intermediaries), and are expecting to serve over 50,000 patients in 2017. The vision however, is much grander. We intend to be the first point of contact for all rural patients, for all matters relating to healthcare and wellbeing – much like Google for the web, we intend to be the trusted navigator for all healthcare services in rural Bangladesh.

…after much deliberation, I also realised that the needs of Jeeon were changing significantly…I was definitely not equipped with the skills, network, or visionary perspective that would be necessary to lead the system level transformation we aim for…

Amidst all of this, taking a year off for the MBA really was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever had to make. I was already responsible for something that would deeply affect millions of people in Bangladesh in the coming years. I was part of a stellar team of committed people focused on transforming healthcare on a nationwide scale. Jeeon was about to finally take flight, and the thought of stepping away was excruciating. But after much deliberation, I also realised that the needs of Jeeon were changing significantly. I had played my role well in prototyping and experimenting our way to a business viable service model. I had guided strategy and played a key supportive role in building the team and culture of the company. But I was definitely not equipped with the skills, network, or visionary perspective that would be necessary to lead the system level transformation we aim for at Jeeon.

And hence I decided to pursue the MBA at Oxford Saïd – for its explicit focus on social entrepreneurship, and in no small part for the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship – but primarily because at Oxford, I expect to develop the transformative thinking that I will need in the coming years. It is the end of one chapter in my life, and the beginning of another.

And I am here.

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Going outward: The best learnings from business school take place in the unknown

Songqiao Yao_Head Shot

Back in the first term of the MBA, treatment I wrote a blog on tending to our inner self. With all the possibilities and opportunities at business school, it is easy to get lost in an ocean of activities and forget why we are here in the first place. Now looking back from the middle of the final summer term, what a year it has been! Interestingly, the most memorable moments and major learnings took place when I was so immersed in an activity or with a community that I almost forgot about myself. In addition, when I took a plunge into the unknown and let go of the need for certainty, new doors and ideas opened up.

Many of us come to business school with a preconceived notion of what we would like to do.  We could have had a business idea, wanted to break into a certain industry or plan to work on a blueprint or roadmap for an emerging market. However, I have learned that the ability to let go of the prescribed plan brings better opportunities. We often think if we would try a little harder, work a little longer and talk to a few more people, we would be on the right track, but sometimes they could be the wrong things to pursue in the first place. If it is a new product or new business, it is often about industry trends, market behaviour, and the company’s complementary assets. Being able to have the acumen to sense and read the external environment takes years of experiences to accumulate. Understanding the ecosystem and gaining knowledge from existing players actually, becomes a crucial shortcut to save time and investment.

What about the plan and what we wanted since the beginning of the year? Accepting that we live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world means that we need to be adaptive to change and ready to change plans. Often it is more important to fully understand a problem than to be fixed on a solution. Our Entrepreneurship Project started out to build a tomato processing factory in Sierra Leone, but after months of learning from other factory’s experiences and similar examples in Nigeria and Ghana, we realise that it takes more than a factory to solve the problems we want to solve. To reduce food waste and strengthen food security, building a modern logistics system and improve the small-holder farmers’ cooperatives will do more for the farmers than merely a processing factory.

The Skoll Centre recognises the “solution trap” that entrepreneurs often fall into and offers the “apprenticing with a problem” grant that allows MBAs to be fully immersed in a problem larger than themselves and have the humility to learn from others before coming up with a solution. This will help our EP project grow and be better embedded within the local ecosystem. There are so many players already in the field addressing similar problems, it’s best to be complementary and collaborative and learn from the precious existing local knowledge.

Business is all about people and relationships with different stakeholders. Going beyond oneself means to make genuine connections, being able to listen, understand and empathise from a deeper perspective. One of my favorite classes this year is Leadership Perspectives from Humanities. In the last class, the professor discussed notions of leadership from moral philosophers such as Max Weber, Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber. Contrasting from Weber’s notion that leadership is all about the individual leader’s ability to bring a group of people to achieve certain goals; Arendt believes that it is the people that enable the leader to manifest a collective desire for change. Buber further elaborated and explained that it is building the “I-you” relationships rather than “I-it” relationships that make us great leaders. “I-you” moments mean caring for the other people, deep listening and making a lasting connection rather than the transactional nature of an “I-it” relationship. Opportunities to make “I-you” connections at business school are abundant, but one needs to actively go beyond the self and the autopilot mode of performing daily routines that our mind puts us in. To get a lot of things crossed off our to-do list, we need to keep going ahead without paying too much attention to the others.

The best part of the MBA experience, as all my classmates would agree, is the people. We cannot take it for granted that the MBA is one of the rare experiences in our lives that we get to learn from 340 classmates from different countries and backgrounds, from former military commanders from Australia; social entrepreneurs from South Africa; to technology gurus from France and finance experts from Japan. The numerous small group projects exposed us to different ways of thinking and working across industries and cultures. One of the best memories of my MBA year is participating in the Impact Investing Competition with four other classmates from Kazakhstan, Switzerland, US and Canada. I believe the reason that we were able to out-compete all the other European schools is because of the diversity of both expertise and nationalities on our team.

At the beginning of the year, I mentioned a childhood goal of visiting the Antarctic to my other Skoll Scholar friends. I never thought it would become a reality, and now I am working with other organisations on climate change education, expedition and women’s leadership, some projects that I never dreamt to be able to work on. Taking that initial plunge, going beyond myself into the unknown enabled new possibilities to present themselves.

Have I totally contradicted myself? Not at all. I actually think going inward and setting the right intentions enables the right external opportunities to take place. Plunging into the unknown with mindfulness will make the adventure much more fun and full of learning!

 

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Just Business

Maria Springer_Head Shot

Skoll Scholar, online Maria Springer, shop reflects on her classes during the Oxford MBA programme.

Economies can, patient and indeed should, work for everyone. While studying the MBA, I realised that all business is social business and that no business is all good or all bad. Every company has a choice. Companies can operate ethically and value social impact and environmental responsibility while maximising bottom-line profits. Of course, this choice is not a one-time decision. Companies must make and reaffirm this choice at the most senior levels of leadership on a continuous basis, not because they should, but rather because it’s good for business. With this understanding of social business, small, medium and large public companies can indeed be a force for good.

In Strategic Human Resources Management, I learned how wages, equity ownership, and benefits can motivate employees to deliver exceptional results. In Leadership, I learned how executives, investors, bankers and shareholders can deliver social impact without jeopardising financial performance. In Private Equity, I learned how companies can form a diverse Board of Directors to increase shareholder value. In Supply Chain Management, I learned how reliable suppliers, ethical manufacturing standards and robust environmental policies can make or break a company’s reputation and viability. And, in Strategic Brand Management, I learned how companies can defy unhealthy marketing standards to create engaged and loyal audiences.

I am walking away from the MBA a pragmatist, but also an optimist. I am clear that no business is all good or all bad; even Patagonia, Tesla, and Whole Foods get it wrong sometimes. I am also hopeful that companies are being forced to correct where they may have been wrong. Acting responsibly is becoming a business norm, required by clients and consumers alike. In response to the market, Wal-Mart, Shell and Monsanto have been forced to transform their operating practices and image in recent years.

Pragmatism and optimism feels more relevant than ever. After the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by United States police, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has gained unprecedented momentum as voices of outrage, fear, pain and frustration dominate the media cycle. Yet, I also see hope. Black-owned banks have witnessed an unprecedented number of depositors. Policy and social movements can be powerful solutions to widespread discrimination, but so can businesses that step up to address racism, inequality, and environmental injustice.

Throughout the year, as I walked into formals at colleges hundreds of years older than my country, I felt immense privilege. As a Skoll Scholarship recipient, I have been afforded immense privilege and as a white citizen of the United States, I was born with immense privilege. As I prepare for graduation, conscious of my privilege and the complex world we live in, I am encouraged that my classmates and I have been equipped with the tools required to start, run and grow businesses that will play a role in constructing just, equal and sustainable global systems.