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Uniting theory and practice in the social entrepreneurship ecosystem

Author: Andrea Warriner

My Oxford is the Oxford of Saïd Business School, and within that, it is the busy hub of social entrepreneurship that is the Skoll Centre. Our programme delivery team and the entrepreneurial individuals we champion and work with are heavily biased towards execution and have a tendency to hurtle towards action. A full hour planning meeting for a new programme would be a long one for us. A day spent conducting research before moving into designing a new initiative is rare.

Thankfully, our Centre exists in the heart of a different Oxford – an Oxford which stretches between our Park End Street, down to Magdalen Bridge, and up to Summertown, and is home to those who prize evidence above all else. This Oxford is made up of people who might find the idea of launching headfirst into implementing a new solution without understanding the problem as well as they possibly can quite ludicrous.

So, last week, the week of the Skoll World Forum, when a good proportion of the global social entrepreneurship ecosystem poured into our ancient city, we conducted an experiment. Early on a Thursday morning, we deliberately gathered 30 ‘practitioners’ and 30 researchers interested in social impact, to consider how we bridge the gap between research and action to create better social and environmental outcomes, and to hear from those who are doing this already.

Our own Julian Cottee provoked us by outlining why the Skoll Centre thinks these unlikely bedfellows need to cosy up. He put forward that researchers can help us to better understand social and environmental problems, as well as the efficacy of existing solutions. He noted that research can support the innovation that needs to happen in the gap between the problem and existing solutions, and can assess the impact of social innovation, aiding better decision-making and allocation of resources going forward. Researchers also may have the perspective to guide which initiatives should be replicated across geographies and disciplines. Finally, they can consider the structural frameworks and power dynamics which underpin this social entrepreneurship ecosystem, and make the criticisms that those of us who are too close to the action are ill-positioned to make.

Over breakfast, we heard rapid fire pitches from those who are already in long-term research/practice relationships – like Muhammad Meki, an Oxford development economist who is designing a randomised control trial to assess the effectiveness of microfinance for micro-entrepreneurs in Nairobi, Kenya. The project is part of Mars Inc’s Mutuality in Business project, based here at Oxford Saïd.

What’s next?

The energy in the room was tangible, and the Skoll Centre will follow up to understand if the group found this first experiment useful, and what connections formed. We are also available to entrepreneurs/practitioners who want to tap into the Oxford research community in order to accelerate the impact of their work.  We’ll have a thought leadership series on the role of academic research in the social entrepreneurship ecosystem coming out later this year, and look forward to receiving contributions to that from those who helped shape this early conversation.

Finally, we are excited to live out our belief in the importance of research as an informant and shaper of social innovation, with the expansion of The Global Challenge to institutions across the world in 2017. The Challenge is a Skoll Centre founded competition that requires students to display a deep understanding of a chosen problem and its existing solutions, rather than jumping to developing a business plan. We’ve been amazed at the ‘ecosystem maps’ that are resulting from this Challenge, and invite the public to join us to see the outputs at The Global Challenge final, here in Oxford on 1 May.

As Daniela Papi-Thornton, founder of The Global Challenge and author of Tackling Heropreneurship, has succinctly put it – action without knowledge is foolishness, and knowledge without action is selfishness. It is the aim of our Research for Action initiative to help develop a cadre of wise and selfless partnerships in the pursuit of powerful impact.

Sign up to the Skoll Centre’s thought leadership newsletter, which highlights the best social/environmental impact research coming out of the University of Oxford.

If you’re interested in being added to a Google Group mailing list for individuals who want to forge partnerships between practice and research, drop us an email.

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The Global Challenge: A Rigorous Approach to Solving Global Issues

Anisha Gururaj is studying an MRes in the Medical Sciences Division, at the University of Oxford. In June 2016, she and her teammate, Ashley Pople, DPhil in Economics at University of Oxford, won our inaugural Oxford Global Challenge competition. Their topic? Maternal Depression. Anisha describes her account of the competition, how she found her topic and the benefits of undertaking the Challenge.

There are few opportunities where the incentives to be most effective and also do the right thing are aligned. The Global Challenge is one of these initiatives, because it provides the chance—the imperative, really—to delve into the contextual landscape of a problem and the existing solutions as we know them.

I was missing a more holistic understanding, a bigger picture of how solutions to global problems fit into global societal structures.

As it happens, this is the reason I came to Oxford. As an undergrad engineering student, I loved the idea of designing technological solutions to solving problems in global health. But after working on a few projects and actually engaging in fieldwork for low-cost diagnostic devices, I felt that I was missing a more holistic understanding, a bigger picture of how solutions to global problems fit into global societal structures.

The Global Challenge emphasises that an important part of the design research phase for any solution needs to be deep engagement with structural context, often best understood and communicated through visualisations. Why is this important?

First, it enables a very deliberate and specific problem definition process. My teammate Ashley and I spent quite a bit of time upfront exploring larger themes we wanted to focus on, like global health, gender discrimination, and building awareness around mental health, to get a feel for what the broader health landscape looks like. Focusing on the intersections between fields is particularly promising because global issues don’t usually fall within the lines of academic divisions and asking interdisciplinary questions is often not done well. Through intentional scoping, we identified our topic as maternal mental health in specific cultural contexts, India and South Africa, because it was truly a confluence of so many of the fields mentioned above and which was rendered invisible by very specific social factors in both of these countries.

ensuring that we examined the entire landscape reduced the risk of “falling in love” with a particular idea.

Second, the format of the Challenge forces us to question our own underlying assumptions, which is why earlier stage ideas are more conducive to this kind of exploration. As an engineer, I brought a particular bias into my research, just as Ashley did as an economist. For example, I was particularly intrigued by mobile solutions for diagnosing depression, but ensuring that we examined the entire landscape reduced the risk of “falling in love” with a particular idea.

Finally, the Challenge provides a platform to be more innovative about how we research. Academic journals and the results of randomized controlled trials are important. But the most rewarding part of this whole experience for both of us was interviewing a large range of experts around the world, from academics to leaders of nonprofits, to clinicians in both countries, to pregnant mothers right here in Oxford. This allowed us to tap into experiential information that we could not have uncovered otherwise.

Of course, the research and design of visual ecosystem maps is just the beginning—they provide a comprehensive framework with which to engage with solving the problem. But too often we jump into solution-building before taking the time to “apprentice with the problem,” resulting in costly assumptions. Our world of limited resources and increasing need deserves better.

To see Anisha and Ashley’s research along with other finalists’ work, head to The Global Challenge website.

Applications to The Global Challenge 2017 open on 20 October 2016.

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Winners Announced: The Global Challenge 2016

The Global Challenge offers participants a chance to learn more about an issue they care about, by researching what is fuelling the challenge and holding the status quo in place, what is already being done to try to solve the issue, as well as the gaps in the landscape of solutions. Entrants are then asked to compile the findings into an ecosystem map as well as a report and bibliography outlining their research. Winners are awarded cash prizes and tickets to the Skoll World Forum, with top teams also given the opportunity to apply for Apprenticing with a Problem funding. This funding provides students with the opportunity to go out into the world and ‘apprentice’ with issues the care about, through research projects, internships, or secondments, giving them opportunities to learn more about how they might use their careers to create positive change.

Saïd Business School offered the first Global Challenge this year, with leadership from the Skoll Centre and a partnership with Malaysia’s Sunway University, inviting students from two ends of the globe to partake in the inaugural challenge. After an initial problem assessment round with nearly 50 applicants, The Global Challenge received 23 final applications from individuals and teams across both Universities, and then nine teams were selected as semi-finalists to present to an esteemed panel of global judges.

The judging panel included Dr François Bonnici, Director at the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Jane Leu, CEO and Founder of Smarter Good,  Jessamyn Shams-Lau, Executive Director at the Peery Foundation, Alexander Goodenough, Investment Director at Big Society Capital and Daniela Papi-Thornton of the Skoll Centre. The judges narrowed the cohort down to three finalists who presented to a public audience on 13th June.

The winners were announced that evening, and included an additional prize for Best Presentation decided by live audience vote. Papi-Thornton commented after the event: ‘We designed the Global Challenge and the Apprenticing with a Problem funding to support students to learn about and get involved in the global issues they care about. At the Skoll Centre we don’t think the only path to impact is by starting new ventures. We will feel successful in our work at the Centre if the students we work with go on to effect change as intrapreneurs, policy makers, thought leaders, or by plugging into any gap in the landscape of solutions for the issues they care about’.

[The Global Challenge] is such an important piece of preparation for students to become the change-makers the world needs!’ Shams-Lau also commented.

One purpose of this contest is to change the discourse around traditional business plan competitions. The Global Challenge team plans to open this contest up to partner universities around the world next year in the hope of influencing other universities to create funding and support for students to ‘apprentice with problems’. Papi-Thornton added, ‘By creating an award that encourages and celebrates an understanding of the existing landscape of solutions to a given challenge and helps students build upon the work of others before asking them to ‘solve’ problems they don’t yet understand, we hope to help more students build successful social impact careers.’

The Winners

First Prize
Maternal Depression
Anisha Gururaj, MSc in Global Governance, University of Oxford, 2016 and MSc in Evidence-based Social Intervention, University of Oxford, 2017; Ashley Pople, MSc in Economics for Development, University of Oxford, 2017

Second Prize
Fresh Produce Value Chain in Sierra Leone
Songqiao Yao, Kaspar Baumann, Ryan Chen-Wing – all MBA, Oxford Saïd, 2015-16; Julian Cottee, Researcher at Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

Third Prize (and the Best Presentation Award)
An Analysis of Gaps and Opportunities in Germany’s Refugee Integration System
Noura Ismail, Avinash Nanda, Karen Ng, Amrinder Singh – all MBA, Oxford Saïd, 2015-16

Culture Prize
Cultural Trauma and Resilience in the Pacific: Ho’owaiwai
Laura Taylor, MBA, Oxford Saïd, 2015-16

Honourary Mention
Urban Air Pollution in Kuala Lumpur
Seng Zhen Lee, BSc in Accounting and Finance, Sunway University Business School

All semi-finalist ecosystem maps and reports can now be found on The Global Challenge website.

Apprenticing with a Problem


Funding was awarded to six individuals and teams

Kaspar Baumann, Ryan Chen-Wing, Julian Cottee, Songqiao Yao
This team will travel to Sierra Leon and learn more about the barriers to success and opportunities for scale in fresh and canned produce distribution.

Noura Ismail, Avinash Nanda , Karen Ng, Amrinder Singh
The team will volunteer/research in Germany and learn more about the solutions landscape and gaps in the work addressing the refugee crisis.

Laura Taylor
Taylor will travel to New Zealand and intern with successful organisations working with Maori cultural preservation and economic empowerment, and then take that learning back to Hawaii to share with local organisations there.

Zweli Gwebityala, Melissa McCoy,  Allan-Roy Sekeitto
The funding will enable the team to spend the next 3+ months in South Africa testing assumptions about technical solutions to doctor scarcity, to learn more about the public healthcare system, and to map and understand the reasons other global telemedicine initiatives have succeeded or failed.

Alexandra Littaye
The funding will support Littaye’s follow up trip to Mexico to do further research on the state of milpa farmers and the potential for commercializing blue corn products and to spend a few months working with a successful agricultural product export company, likely in Ghana, to understand how their business works, the difficulties and barriers they have faced, and what lessons can be applied to a potential business model in Mexico.

Adrienne Yandell
Yandell will return to Jordan and spend 3+ months volunteering with a skills-training organization in the region, to understand their model, and see if/how it can be expanded.

Further reports will be created by the teams and individuals, so be sure to watch this space!