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SCHOLAR BLOG: FINDING A PLACE AS AN MBA

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

Patrick Beattie

Patrick Beattie

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

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

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

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

How Bitcoin Empowers Grassroots Organizations Fighting Ebola

Beam is a for-profit social enterprise that enables people to send money to Ghana via Bitcoin. Beam instantly transfers the money equivalent of the Bitcoins purchased to the recipients in Africa. In an effort to assist during the Ebola crisis, Beam developed the not-for-profit initiative Bitcoin Against Ebola. Bitcoin Against Ebola used the same transfer technology to allow anyone around the world to donate to organizations and individuals on the ground fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone.

imgres-1By serving grass roots organizations such as Build on Books, Beam helped empower local crisis workers within the communities afflicted by the disease. Below, Falk Benke, CTO of Beam, tells the story of Bitcoin Against Ebola and the work done on the ground by Build on Books.  

This post was sent to us by Theandra Sokolowski, MBA Class 2015. Prior to SBS, Theandra spent a year working at MEST, a technology incubator in Accra, Ghana. Beam is a social enterprise currently based in the MEST incubator.

 

The Power Of Grassroots Organizations

Since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, small grassroots organizations on the ground have proven to be an important force in the fight against the deadly disease, complementing the efforts of large international organizations and government bodies. Partnering with one such organization, Build on Books, Beam was able to support these efforts.

Build On Books was born in 2009 as an initiative to support Sierra Leoneans in their efforts to rebuild the country after its 11-year Civil War. It started out as a project focused on donating books from the UK to libraries in and around Waterloo in Sierra Leone. Soon, founder Lori Spragg of the UK and her team, along with Rosetta Kargbo, a former Sierra Leonean math teacher, realized that water, sanitation, education and food were all needed to help shattered communities break out of the vicious cycle of poverty. Build on Books began building boreholes as a way of providing clean water and community toilets to decrease the number of Typhoid and Cholera deaths. Since the Ebola outbreak in August, the organization’s focus shifted toward containing the dangerous disease.

Though grassroots organizations are small, they have a major advantage when it comes to the local connection. Often they’re able to better reach those that larger organizations fail to address, namely illiterate villagers who speak only tribal languages.

“When Ebola reached Waterloo, we already had the logistics and team on the ground to respond quickly,” says Lori. Organizations like Build on Books are able to thrive because they’re well connected and trusted in the community and have local knowledge. When Rosetta Kargbo – also known as the “Hero of Ebola” – and her team started delivering food to more than 300 quarantined people in and around Waterloo, they relied on the district to lend them a tractor so they could reach the more remote houses. As the team had earned the trust of the community, locals were willing to listen to their advice.

Ebola Prevention Workshops held by Build on Books have a high participation rate and often attract honored local authorities like councilors, youth leaders, women leaders and military officers. Lori explains: “During our work feeding the quarantined people it became very clear that the virus can easily be spread by a number of traditional practices such as washing the corpse at funerals, sweating an Ebola patient and performing circumcisions.” The team recognizes the significance of local healers and works hard to get them on board to effectively promote the necessary precautions.


Rosetta Kargbo and team 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 1: Rosetta Kargbo and her team delivering food.

Helping Ebola Orphans

Once a person is diagnosed with Ebola, all family members must go into quarantine for three weeks as a precaution against infecting others. While delivering food to quarantined homes, Rosetta and her team realized that in many such cases, orphaned children were left behind.

“We have tried and tried to get action for these children; without us, the orphans in quarantine would not be fed at all.“ According to Sierra Leone’s ministry of social welfare, it is estimated that 2600 Sierra Leonean children will become orphans due to Ebola.  Orphanages do not have the capacity to take in this number of children. While state officials continue to strategize, grassroots organizations like Build on Books are the ones responding to the immediate needs of the children.

Build on Books provides orphans with food and drink to help them put on weight and remain hydrated. The volunteers deliver cooked meals as well as food that can be eaten right away, like tinned fish, powdered milk, biscuits, gari, sugar, sweets, fruit juices, bread, drinking water and sanitary items like toothpaste, toothbrushes, laundry and bath soap. Rosetta and her team also measure the temperature of the children to recognize Ebola symptoms early. These actions can make the difference between death and survival if a child contracts Ebola. Lori knows that regular visits by helpers also provide much-needed comfort to the orphans and let them know that they are not forgotten: “Some children burst into tears when the volunteers arrive because they are so grateful that somebody has come.”

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Figure 2: Orphans near Waterloo receiving food and sanitary items from the Build on Books team.

Delivering Donations Where They Are Needed

Grassroots organizations are able to overcome many organizational challenges faced by larger institutions by sending funds directly where and when they’re needed.  However it can be a complicated process for small charities to meet their objectives while ensuring that fees for money transfers are always kept to a minimum.  Traditionally, the donations are accumulated in bank accounts in the US or UK until a significant amount has been collected. Then, the money is sent to the receiving country using bank wires or Money Transfer Organizations (MTOs) like Western Union and MoneyGram. Banks and MTOs charge a fixed fee (between $2 and $30) for each transfer and make profits on the exchange rate (3%-15% lower than the actual rate) they provide when converting the amount to the local currency. In addition, if donors make payments through processors like PayPal, Visa and MasterCard, a service fee will be also incurred. For these reasons, it’s not economical for charities to send small amounts abroad using these traditional methods, causing a delay in the funds reaching those on the ground.

 

Supporting Grassroots Organizations via Bitcoin

In light of the Ebola crisis, Bitcoin remittance company Beam, based in Accra, Ghana has started a non-profit project called Bitcoin Against Ebola in partnership with Splash Mobile Money to provide a fast and cost-efficient alternative for sending money directly to charities in Sierra Leone. The project charges only 2% of the donated amount to cover operational costs. Nikunj Handa, CEO of Beam, assures: “Any profits made through this project will be donated to the charities.” In order to keep the costs for sending money low, Beam uses Bitcoin technology on the sending side and mobile money on the receiving end.

To donate via Bitcoin Against Ebola, users simply choose one of the featured charities to support, and allocate the Bitcoin value they’d like to send. “Bitcoin is a pretty new but very powerful technology, since it allows us to accept money instantly from anywhere in the world,” says Handa. This is because Bitcoin transfers are instant and practically fee-less (0.0001 Bitcoins per transaction regardless of the sent amount, which is less than $0.10). However, since there is currently no way to exchange or spend Bitcoin in Sierra Leone, Beam converts the Bitcoin to Leones (the local currency) and distributes the funds to the charity within minutes, using mobile money.

Mobile money has become an important way of driving financial inclusion throughout Africa. The mobile money technology turns any feature phone or smartphone into a bank account. Users can send and receive money to other phones instantly and at low cost. In order to charge the mobile money wallet or withdraw cash from it, users go to a mobile money agent that can be found in every larger city of Sierra Leone.

Thanks to Bitcoin Against Ebola’s collaboration with Splash Mobile Money, the largest mobile money provider in Sierra Leone, charities can withdraw donations for free from any Splash mobile money agent nearby. Even donations as little as $1 reach the charity within minutes and can be used right away.

So where can donors get Bitcoin to make a donation through Beam? Nikunj Handa explains: “We are aware of the fact that some people might find it difficult to get Bitcoin. We encourage everyone considering a Bitcoin donation to have a look at our tutorial on Beam’s blog. We are also happy to guide interested donors through the process. Just reach out via hello@beamremit.com. We know it can be a bit of a hassle when you start out, but it takes a lot of the hassle away from the charities.”

In addition to Build on Books, the Bitcoin Against Ebola platform currently features LunchBoxGift and Sierra Leone Liberty Group. The Beam team is working hard on getting more grassroots organizations on board and may extend the service to Liberia and Guinea.

Handa is convinced that small charities and the people they are helping will largely benefit from the new way of donating empowered by Bitcoin. Lori of Build on Books agrees: “I didn’t even know Bitcoin existed until the guys from Beam contacted me. Now I am really excited because there could be all sorts of people who have Bitcoins that might donate.”

About the author:

Falk Benke is the CTO of Beam. He can be contacted at falk@beamremit.com.

EBOLA HACKATHON @THELAUNCHPAD

Can a plastic bottle, medications a knife, medical some string and a few bags tackle Ebola?

By: Cosimma Gretton

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Repurposing materials for other uses is not new concept. In India they even have a word for it. ‘Jugaad’ is Hindu for ‘frugal innovation’ – the art of repurposing existing materials for new solutions. In developing solutions for the current Ebola outbreak the concept of Jugaad is especially important: innovating using what already exists increases the speed with which any solution can be implemented.

With this in mind, price last weekend 40 scientists, doctors, entrepreneurs and people with MBAs gathered together at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School to tackle Ebola.

The event was a ‘hackathon,’ hosted by the Renegade Times at the Oxford Launchpad home of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. Hackathons are a common event in technology circles – programmers spend a weekend non-stop coding to solve specific problems and present their solution to a large audience at the end. Now hackathons are entering healthcare and the methodology and solutions have expanded beyond technology.

Friday night started with talks from medical and infectious disease experts, and conference calls from health workers in West Africa. Small groups formed ideas quickly, brainstorming potential problems and coming up with a range of ideas for solutions. We then chose our teams around the ideas we most supported and got started.

My team focused on Sierra Leone as one of our members had direct experience on which we could draw. Infection control and the lack of protective equipment were identified as a significant problem. The strain on health clinics currently means communities are at high risk of having to care for the sick at home. Increasing the supply of PPE (personal protective equipment) to local communities was not going to be possible in a weekend. How could we help people protect themselves using just the materials they had around them?

One of our team mentioned the case of a girl who had cared for her family at home, protecting herself using plastic bags as gloves. We also found the CDC’s (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) 60-page document on managing Ebola in the African healthcare setting, in which they recommend using plastic bags if no gloves are available.

We aimed to keep our design as simple as possible, using as few materials as we could: a clear plastic bottle, string, a knife, a rice bag and some plastic bags. We based our design on the CDC’s advice on donning and removing PPE, and my local NHS Trust’s protocol for infection control for viral hemorrhagic fevers.

I had been through Ebola infection control training at my hospital and understood enough of the basic principles to design a rough prototype. As with all health solutions, the final model will have to go through much more rigorous design and screening processes.

At the final presentation one of my team modelled the prototype. The hands and feet were covered in plastic bags (two bags for hands), with larger plastic bags for the suit. We designed the shirt of the suit by cutting holes in the top and sides of a bin bag, then cutting straight up the back, leaving 3cm intact just before the hole for the head. This means you can pull the bag forward, ripping the small piece of plastic remaining at the top and remove it safely like a surgical gown. The mask was made from a rice bag, a local material that is waterproof but also breathable. We closed the base of the mask with a cloth, and used half of a large water bottle as a visor.

There have been others working on similar concepts, but because of the danger of providing advice that if followed poorly could lead to infection, no one has yet developed it fully. The first challenge is to validate the design from an infection control perspective. The second and much greater challenge is to design the information sheet: this requires strong graphic design and communication skills and extensive user testing with local communities. This week I’m connecting with various aid organisations to determine the current opinion on homemade PPE, and looking for a designer to bring on board.

INNOVATION PRIZE FOR AFRICA

 

Scaling African Innovation

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With the recent success of Demo Africa and the upcoming Innovation Prize for Africa [IPA], malady there’s a palpable wave of momentum for innovation and its implications for the continent. And there should be.  Our generation has seen Africa leapfrog towards greater financial inclusion, malady thanks to mobile money.  We’ve seen $100 3-d printers coming out of Cameroon and urine-powered generators coming out of Nigeria.  In short, ailment we’ve seen tremendous African ventures that were remarkable not just for their technology, but their capacity to impact millions of lives.

After all, isn’t that what its all about?

In Africa, is it enough for innovation to be novel or should it also be disruptive? More importantly, should it also be scalable? And what is the definition of scalable, anyway?

I was fortunate to enjoy a brief chat with IPA’s Program Director, Ms. Pauline Mujawamariya, in which we discussed the distinction between technological upgrades and scalable innovations, the kind that can change a continent’s trajectory.

In the West, entrepreneurs make millions everyday from technological services or products that optimize customer experiences for non-essential goods and service (Twitter, Instagram, Uber).  But estimated annual per capita income in sub-Saharan Africa is still only $1615 USD, which means the most lucrative businesses must go for volume.   It means the big money is in solving big problems for the majority, i.e. the mass market, otherwise known as middle and low-income customers.  Because technology reduces marginal costs so dramatically, it’s becoming cheaper and quicker than ever to reach the base of the pyramid.  And technology is reducing the risks associated with serving the BOP, making it easier for businesses to scale quicker.

For example, in 1983, Muhammad Yunus  broached the heretical idea of bringing micro-credit to the poor.  It took over 20 years to perfect his model before the methodology was reaching scale and likewise considered creditworthy.

By then, 70% of SMEs in Africa still lacked access to capital and  in 2004, GroFin introduced it’s mezzanine debt solution.  With proprietary technology, we have likewise refined a replicable model across 12 operational offices.  This means steadily increasing volume while steadily improving returns.    And this increased scale has been key to unlocking investor support, bringing GroFin to over $400 MM AUM today.  Nevertheless, we are still far from plugging a global SME finance gap, which is still estimated to be approximately $3 trillion USD.

However, specialized  tech solutions and software, like RSA Archer,  Efront and B Analytics and even crowd funding platforms bring impact investors and the general public a bit closer to unlocking capital for the 2.3 billion unbanked people globally. They do this by increasing speed, reducing risk, improving data availability, pooling funds, etc.   VC4Africa’s own nanoCredit is a fantastic example, using big data and analytics to reduce cash- flow based loan processing time to nanoseconds, thus potentially helping banks and mobile companies to finally fill Africa’s missing middle. With over 100 million MSMEs potentially touched in Africa, it a perfect example of accelerating scale by using technology to address the needs of the base.

This is an exciting innovation but only a piece of a much larger puzzle.  

For Africa to reach its potential, our challenge is to scale access to health care, to renewable energy, to low-cost education in a continent where nearly half the population reportedly earns less than $1.25 a day.

For those up for the challenge, the Innovation Prize for Africa [IPA] is accepting applications until November 3oth.  The Innovation Prize funds up to $100,000 and provides mentoring and exposure for entrepreneurs pioneering technological breakthroughs  in manufacturing and service industry, health and well-being,agriculture and agribusiness, environment, energy and water and ICTs.

And for those that intend to build these scalable innovations in an ecologically sustainable manner, VC4Africa’s Green Pioneer Accelerator is also another great resource.  They will be accepting applications until December 1.

 

Afro-diasporic linkages & Entrepreneurship Education

Tracker & Alpha Phi Alpha’s ‘Men in the Making’ Program

Sabre Collier is a Skoll Scholar and a Shell Foundation Fellow. This is the third in her series of posts from Johannesburg, where she is working with GroFin. GroFin finances small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Africa.

Tara Sabre Collier

Tara Sabre Collier

Africa is championed as the globe’s next economic frontier, with capital flows reaching all-time highs.  Yet this glorious FDI boom has a major pitfall.  Poverty at the grassroots level has barely budged in the past decade, largely because Africa’s economic expansion has created insufficient jobs.   Today, the region has some of the world’s worst unemployment rates, which has dangerous implications for the next generation.

Reportedly, over 600 million jobs need to be created by 2020 just to keep employment levels the same in the developing world.   With half its population below 25, sub-Saharan faces a demographic dividend like no other.  The risks that youth unemployment portend for delinquency, crime, violence and even terrorism have already been flagged in academic and multilateral research.  We know we can’t depend on manufacturing or services sectors to employ all these youth and much must be done to transform the agricultural sector for adequate income generation.

In urban Africa, many of these youth have already decided to take life by the horns and become self-employed.  But it’s been proven that entrepreneurs of necessity rarely make major economic leaps forward.  It’s a problem that governments, NGOs and international development agencies all recognize and have been rushing to solve, in a flurry of advisory services, innovations, policy recommendations, incubators, etc.

South Africa has one of Africa’s most developed entrepreneurial ecosystems, as far as enterprise training, incubation and start-up capital, which is why it’s so frustrating that SA’s youth unemployment rate is actually still the 3rd highest in the world.  Better harmonization and new solutions must be developed to grow entrepreneurship and the private sector inclusively, in order to avert a crisis here.

The African diaspora is a huge untapped resource in this push for sustainable entrepreneurial and business development in Africa.

Why are Afro-diasporic linkages so compelling to promoting entrepreneurship and private sector growth in countries like South Africa?

Well, firstly, the African diaspora is huge! In the Americas alone, the Black population is nearly 200 million, with 40 million US African-Americans and nearly 100 million Afrodescendant Brazilians.  Also, the global African migrant population is 140 million, mostly in Europe and the Americas. In addition, Afrodescendants and the rest of the global African diaspora bring immense financial and human capital that can accelerate Africa’s trajectory.  For example, the value of remittances from African Diaspora migrants far exceeds all development aid from the entire Western world .  And this is just pure transfers, it does not even consider the regenerative potential from business linkages between Africa and the African diaspora. Moreover, the African diaspora brings high levels of tertiary education, technical skills and new commercial networks that can benefit Africa.  US African-Americans alone so economically powerful that, as a nation, their GDP would be the 16th highest in the world– imagine the potential for trade with Africa!

This is why I get so excited about organizations like Africare, Homestrings.com as well as DAIN Network that leverage Diaspora linkages to economically empower Africa.

And this is why I was enthused to discover this diasporic partnership in the form of Project Alpha, a new youth entrepreneurial training program, launched by Tracker and Alpha Phi Alpha!

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Instructors and participants of Project Alpha after a training session

Tracker’s Men in the Making partnership with Alpha Phi Alpha has leveraged African-American technical and business expertise to enrich the lives of young South African entrepreneurs, many of them entrepreneurs of necessity.  One of South Africa’s largest vehicle tracking device companies, Tracker started Men in the Making as a way to provide career guidance to high potential adolescent boys from disadvantaged backgrounds. Today, Tracker has close to 6,000 Men in the Making beneficiaries throughout the country.  As part of its Project Alpha initiative, Tracker partnered with Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity to establish a youth entrepreneurship program for at-risk South African males this year.

A bit of background about Alpha Phi Alpha: Founded in 1906, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. is a historically African-American collegiate association that unites African-Americans, the African Diaspora, and people of color around the world. It is embedded with the African-American community’s fight for civil rights through eminent leaders such as: W.E.B. DuBois, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Edward Brooke, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Andrew Young, William Gray, Paul Robeson.  And it recently launched its South African Chapter Rho Phi Lambda.

The Men in the Making entrepreneurship program was designed by Dr. Richard Hayes, a Professor of Entrepreneurship & Management at Hofstra University and also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.  He designed the program to help youth analyse the business model canvas and then tailored for youth as well as local context.  Project Alpha’s seminars meet at the University of Johannesburg, where Professor Hayes is also coordinating an international entrepreneurship exchange program.  At the end of the course, students compete and are judged on their business plans, which this year included solar cars, organic disinfectant, smartphone app for exercise and insulated school shoes!  For the next intake, Project Alpha will integrate a social enterprise component in which participants design business models around the needs of their own communities.

In comparing the legacies of segregation and the path for inclusive development in USA and South Africa, Dr. Hayes references “middle men minorities” as being driven to entrepreneurship.  He explains,

“For groups that were excluded from mainstream economy, the only solution was to build your own.  This gave rise to “protected enclaves”- kind of like markets with limited competition because they were cloistered due to segregation.  This may have been healthy at the time but it also contradicted cooperative economics in the broader scheme of the country.  Even now, if we are not allowed to be part of the mainstream economy, through having access to jobs, one of the best solutions is to build our own economy through entrepreneurship.”

Given the size of the Base of the Pyramid market in South Africa (an estimated 50% of the population is below the poverty line), there is a huge untapped market that Dr. Hayes students are uniquely prepared to understand and to serve as entrepreneurs.  The onus is simply adequately preparing their skills and business models, and facilitating the capital and linkages to make these models a reality.

On this Dr. Hayes emphasizes

”The intellectual potential is there- now it’s just what can we put in place to cultivate it. Young African minds are not given enough credit- these are kids from the township, out in the West Rand yet with support and role models and access to the right resource, they rise to the occasion.  If placed in the right positions and given the right opportunity, there’s no limit to what they can do.”

 

Finding Career Purpose in Social Enterprise

Jonathan Waldroup is the Operations and Finance Manager at Impact Business Leaders, abortion an organisation that provides career opportunities for professionals looking to develop business solutions that solve major global challenges.

jonathan-waldroup-ibl

Jonathan Waldroup of Impact Business Leaders

Six years ago this December I did the unthinkable: I dropped out of Oxford.

Now, as I prepare to return to Oxford under completely different circumstances, I couldn’t be more thankful for that decision. In the six years in between, I have struggled with the search for a fulfilling career, as have many in my generation. My search led me to Impact Business Leaders and a renewed optimism in the very topic I left behind when I dropped out of Oxford. This is a story of how I came to believe in the power of a practical, impactful economics, known by the name of social enterprise.

“Saving Economics from the Economists”

I arrived in Oxford in September 2008 to study for an MPhil in Economics, just as world markets found themselves plummeting into the abyss. Living and studying in Oxford was a dream come true, and my wife and I still remember our time there as one of the most formative experiences of our lives. But it became clear all too quickly that a career as an academic economist was not going to work for me.

Theoretically I understood how different the highly specialized, mathematical approach of academic economics was from the more logic-based undergraduate economics that I so thoroughly enjoyed. But as I attended class and observed the world around me, it seemed that the discipline was out of sync with reality. How could anyone speak with such certainty about models and theories when the realities they claimed to explain were crashing down all around? I simply could not square the claims of rigor and precision in the classroom with the messy facts outside.

Ronald Coase, a Nobel laureate in Economics, put to words a few years later exactly what I had felt:

“Economics as currently presented in textbooks and taught in the classroom does not have much to do with business management, and still less with entrepreneurship. The degree to which economics is isolated from the ordinary business of life is extraordinary and unfortunate….[It] ignor[es] the influences of society, history, culture, and politics on the working of the economy. It is time to reengage the severely impoverished field of economics with the economy.”

The Oxford Econ Department was not to blame for this problem – it was an issue that slowly accreted across institutions as economics morphed from a study of everyday life and business into a specialized tool of policy (as Coase also points out in his article). There are many legitimate and helpful uses of academic economics, but I needed something more tangibly impactful.

After the Crisis

Returning to the US, I worked in the corporate world for a few years while I struggled to find some direction. After much deliberation, I decided to pursue the same types of international issues I had originally hoped to address with economics, but now from a more holistic perspective. I took up a degree in international affairs in Washington, DC.

It was during this time that I discovered the field of social enterprise, and spent a summer working with Village Capital in Nairobi, setting up an accelerator program for social enterprises. Here was a group of innovators that drew on the key insights of economics in a practical way, driving impactful results every day through the simple concepts of supply and demand.

Social entrepreneurs, and the impact investors who provide capital to them, realize that social impact is often more sustainable when driven by the market. Businesses can be firmly built on the demand from those at the Base of the Pyramid (BoP)—who live on a few dollars a day or less—generating solid financial results while simultaneously creating positive social impact. The companies I saw working with VilCap were enough to convince me of the value of social enterprise, and I left Kenya with a renewed appreciation for a more practical and empathetic economics.

Finding Direction

Having finished my degree in DC, I was committed to pursuing a career in social enterprise and had the good fortune to get involved with Impact Business Leaders (IBL) in its early days. At IBL, we recognize that there are many people like myself, who have become disenchanted with the prevailing economic notion that business exists purely for profit, and equally with the notion that social impact can only be achieved through handouts.

But moving between the traditional corporate world (or government, academe, NGOs, etc.) and the social enterprise/impact investing world can be surprisingly difficult. Social enterprise is still a nascent sector driven largely by personal connections, and still heavily segmented geographically. IBL helps bridge the gap, connecting professionals with job opportunities around the world, and preparing those professionals for the opportunity with practical training from our group of experienced instructors, all of whom are practitioners in the field.

So when I return to Oxford in October for the upcoming IBL@Oxford program, in partnership with Oxford’s Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, I will be completing a circle that began in Oxford six years ago. I left Oxford disenchanted about economics; I return to Oxford hopeful about how economics can be practically applied to make a difference in the world, through the host of innovative entrepreneurs around the world who care about more than profit.

If you find yourself questioning why you do what you do, perhaps it is time you consider a program like IBL@Oxford. Applications are still available online through September 15, and we would be glad to speak with you more if you have any questions.

– Jonathan Waldroup is the Operations and Finance Manager at Impact Business Leaders and can be reached at jwaldroup[at]impactbusinessleaders[dot]com.