Amy Orben is a social media psychologist, interdisciplinary thinker and 2016-17 Leading for Impact Fellow. As a DPhil (PhD) Student in Experimental Psychology, she currently researches how social media is changing human sociality and friendship formation. The Leading for Impact programme was an opportunity for her to step out of the ‘comfort zone’, and into the ‘stretch zone’. She shares her story of the experience.
Nine months ago, knowledge and action were two separate concepts in my mind. For years, the pursuit of knowledge motivated me during countless hours in libraries; propelled me to memorise facts for exams and start a DPhil; inspired me to keep up with recent research developments and slowly foster my own opinions.
In an attempt not to look foolish, students often avoid committing to action altogether
An intense focus on knowledge is not uncommon for university life outside of business schools. The rigorous pursuit of knowledge fuels many discoveries. It is, however, often linked with an educational emphasis on being ‘right’ that endows students with a fear of action. This promotes views that having your own opinion ousted as ‘wrong’ or ‘unknowledgeable’ is worse than voicing no opinion at all. In an attempt not to look foolish, students therefore often avoid committing to action altogether.
However, avoiding foolishness is just one part of the equation. As the theologian Al-Ghazali once said, “Knowledge without action is wastefulness and action without knowledge is foolishness”. We need to balance knowledge and action.
Certain parts of higher education promote this balance. For example, medicine, nursing, engineering and law students study to put their knowledge into practice after graduation. Recently, research councils have been demanding that universities ensure their research has more real-life ‘impact’. Yet, there are still aspects of university study and research that encourage students and academics to refrain from action or opinion, to ensure they are not seen as unknowledgeable. This is harmful because most of our pressing global problems are too complex to fully comprehend; yet these problems require creative minds and urgent innovative action. Combating students’ fear of action in situations where they possess ample knowledge should therefore be ingrained into education as fundamentally as learning, essay writing and memorisation.
I challenged my preconceptions in a safe, diverse and open environment
I started to think about my own knowledge-action balance during the Skoll Centre’s Leading for Impact programme, a programme admitting ten Oxford graduate students and ten MBAs interested in social impact and entrepreneurship. During this time-intensive leadership development programme, I challenged my preconceptions in a safe, diverse and open environment. I realised that I had been previously putting too much emphasis on knowledge while neglecting action, however, I did not know how to tackle this imbalance.
Again the Skoll Centre provided me with the opportunities I was searching for. Recently, three Leading for Impact Scholars – Shea, Vira and I – volunteered at the Oxford-based charity Aspire. The Skoll Centre facilitated a three-day project where we completed research to support one of Aspire’s new business proposals. In the next year, Aspire wants to set up a social enterprise recruitment service linking people who have experienced hardship (ranging from addiction to homelessness) with employers looking for motivated employees. With current UK funding for community support and charities decreasing drastically, Aspire plans to develop this idea into a commercially viable business with a deep-rooted social motivation. We used our research skills to compile comprehensive documents about various aspects of their business plan, which can now be used to pitch the proposal to Social Finance initiatives.
Looking back, the Skoll Centre’s Leading for Impact programme did not only teach me the importance of a knowledge-action balance, but also gave me valuable opportunities to both ‘learn’ and ‘do’. For me, Leading for Impact was not just a few weeks of leadership training and volunteering: it was the start of my journey to balance knowledge and action in my life.
The idea that business can play a role in alleviating poverty has long been a subject of real significance for academics and practitioners – in for-profit and non-profit sectors alike. Today, the debate on the role of ‘Business and Society’, ‘Responsible Business’, and a host of other related terms point not just to an emerging trend, but more significantly, to a new normativity in which corporations, NGOs, charities, and indeed a technologically empowered civil society are all co-constructors. This transition from emerging trend to normative value is represented in literatures and conversations that have moved beyond the question of if the private sector has a role to play in addressing poverty (and a host of other social and environmental challenges), to the question of how. This new normativity is neatly summarised in the mantra, ‘doing well by doing good’. In other words, there is a possible synergy between commercial and social value that can be harnessed to tackle serious social and environmental challenges.
In the context of answering the ‘how’ questions, earlier this year, in April, the Skoll Centre and Acumen co-hosted Beyond Dialogue with generous support from Mars Inc, PepsiCo, Levis Strauss Foundation, EY, and Johnson & Johnson. The event was designed to bring together corporations and social enterprises to discuss their warts-and-all experiences of cross-sector partnerships. Through a series of facilitated roundtable discussions, experienced cross-sector partnership managers shared their learning, reflections – whether positive or negative – and made suggestions for improvements and future collaborations. The details of the themes and lessons of Beyond Dialogue are outlined in this report that also includes six case studies of cross-sector partnerships between social enterprises and corporations.
In the on-going pursuit of tackling poverty, corporations and business managers will continue to find that when working in complex, unpredictable, and unfamiliar environments, the creation of new strategic partnerships can offer the best way forward. Social enterprises and entrepreneurs, on the other hand, will continue to find that relating to vast, billion-dollar companies with a myriad of internal stakeholders and managers can be just as challenging as the ‘wicked problem’ they are trying to solve. Ultimately, the challenges of cross-sector partnerships will only be improved over time, when mistakes are made and lessons are learned. This is why convenings such as Beyond Dialogue and the conversations that they spark are important contributions to answering the how questions of ‘doing well by doing good’. Please download the report and continue the dialogue.
Skoll Scholar and Oxford Saïd MBA student, Pip Wheaton, shares her insight into the Live Pitching Event which took place on Monday 13th June 2016. Images are courtesy of MBA Student, Ryan Chen-Wing.
The Saïd Business School’s mission refers to “tackling world-scale problems”. While there are days where the pressure of assignments and classes gets in the way, this year I have seen proof that this school lives its mission. Last night was one such moment of proof. At an event that combined the inaugural Oxford Global Challenge, and the fourth Skoll Venture Awards students and alumni from Oxford Saïd and the wider Oxford University student body came together to showcase the diverse ways they are addressing world-scale problems.
The Oxford Global Challenge came about as a response to the normal university business plan competition. An initiative of The Skoll Centre, it is based on the premise that tackling global challenges starts with understanding a problem and its wider context, rather than jumping straight into a business plan or an idea for a quick fix. It gives participants an opportunity to develop a deep understanding of a pressing social or environmental issue by mapping out the landscape of the current solutions and identifying missing opportunities for positive change. In this first year, there were 43 teams who applied, of whom nine were selected as finalists and four pitched at last night’s event. The issues ranged from telemedicine in South Africa, to refugee integration in Germany, and agriculture in Sierra Leone. The winning team were two students focused onmaternal mental health in India and South Africa.
Songqiao Yao, Ryan Chen-Wing and Kasper Baumann (2015 MBA Students) presenting their Oxford Global Challenge project on thr Tomato Value Chain in Sierra Leone.
The Skoll Venture Awards support ideas in the next phase of development: where solutions have been developed and tested, but are still in the early days of implementation. Alumni and students apply for a £20,000 grant to grow their existing, early stage ventures. Here the applications were just as varied as in the Global Challenge: a large-scale renewable energy project in Mongolia, an early-childhood development initiative in Kenya, and online tutoring in India, and more.
In what was one of the toughest projects I have worked on since coming to Oxford, I was part of the team of students who short-listed the 21 applicants and selected the two finalists who presented last night. Having spent the last six years being on the applicant side while running my own venture in South Africa, it was fascinating to learn about the selection side. Specifically, there were three main learning points
About how much process matters – the criteria and questions might seem arbitary from the outside but unless you get them right, it’s almost impossible to make fair decisions.
About how to minimise cognitive biases like ‘group think’ and ‘curse of knowledge’; and
About the challenges of comparing ventures at different stages, in different geographies, tackling different issues.
Through this experience, I found myself looking at organisations like Acumen and LGT Venture Philanthropy and appreciating why their due diligence processes last upwards of six months. I also found myself relieved to be able to hand over to a judging panel of industry experts rather than having to make the final decision myself.
Last night the two Skoll Venture Award finalists presented their organisations. The first, i-Drop Water, is one of the most exciting clean-water access businesses I have come across; and is piloting concurrently in Ghana, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa. The second, was Tulivu – a medical diagnostics service provider, currently offering low-cost ultrasounds to pregnant women in Kenya. While originally there was only going to be a single prize of £20,000; in what felt like a fitting result, the judging panel were able to award not one, but two grants. i-Drop Water was awarded £10,000 and Tulivu was awarded the first place prize of £20,000.
Skoll Venture Award Winners – 2015 MBA Students, Matt Rehrig and Adam Storck of Tuliva.
These two initiatives, the Oxford Global Challenge and the Skoll Venture Awards, are exciting not only because of the inspiring ideas that were pitched last night, but more because of the shift in thinking they demonstrate. Too often we fetishise the big exciting ideas, before testing whether or not their premises and assumptions hold. These initiatives show that the school and the Skoll Centre are serious about giving students an opportunity to “apprentice with the problem” they care about, rather than jumping straight to the solution-stage. I am excited to see how each of the ideas showcased develop in the coming years.
Min Ji Kim is an MBA student at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford and the project manager for this year’s Oxford Social Innovation Case Competition, an event that sees teams of students tackle a real-life business problem faced by 3 different social entrepreneurs, then present their case to a panel of judges where a £300 cash prize is awarded to the 3 winning teams. Previously solely supported by the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, this year has seen the generous sponsorship of Prodigy Finance; the MBA tuition fee loan company supporting international students to access high-quality business education.
Although I am now familiar with Prodigy Finance – an official sponsor of this year’s Oxford Social Innovation Case Competition (OSICC) – I have to admit that I used to think that it was a conventional financial institution with a conventional student loan product. I was therefore initially sceptical as to how the company was compatible with the objectives and identity of the OSICC.
There was a personal colour to my scepticism. Before I enrolled in the MBA programme here at the University of Oxford, I was an official in the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the UN agency with the mandate to research global employment trends and promote decent employment for all. In the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis, the organisation found itself very much connected to the consequences of that fall-out and compelled to advocate for millions of ordinary people and families around the world whose livelihoods and, sometimes, survival were suddenly threatened as a result of the irresponsible conduct of the financial sector. At the ILO, I was personally responsible for tracking the devastating consequences of the crisis on youth employment figures and youth flight and brain-drain from crisis-affected countries. It is not surprising that in this milieu, and in the growing popular disillusionment with capitalism beyond it, it was increasingly accepted as fact that capital and community well-being were diametrically opposed.
However, incredibly, Prodigy Finance demonstrates that this does not have to be the case. Founded on the conviction that a person’s country of birth or socio-economic background or lack of a credit history in one fixed country should not hinder her from accessing the world’s top business schools for lack of financing, Prodigy has found an ingenious way to mobilise the often dispersed but high-impact power of the community to invest in not just financial capital but the more important human capital. Even before online crowdfunding was “a thing” Prodigy had developed an online platform through which international students could receive relatively low-interest loans that are fully funded by the alumni of their MBA programme. More than 70% of Prodigy loan recipients are students from developing countries, and more than 80% of the company’s clients could not have accessed the financing necessary to accept the offers they received from top academic institutions had it not been for Prodigy. Prodigy’s business model is predicated on the idea that investing in such talented individuals, giving them the opportunity to have the life-changing and character-stretching experience of a top graduate programme, would lead to the sustainable development of these individuals’ home countries and communities.
It turns out that I am surrounded by ample evidence that Prodigy’s business model is sound. A significant number of my colleagues and classmates are financing their MBA education with the inter-generational community support represented by the Prodigy loan, and they are among the most inspiring, entrepreneurial, and values-conscious people I know – in other words, the kind of people the most likely to create exactly what competitions like the OSICC exist to curate and promote. There is no doubt in my mind that after completing their studies at Oxford they will have tremendous impact, whether they return to their home countries and apply what they learned through the MBA there or get employed in the UK and invest in the sustainable development of their nations from here.
What is equally clear is that, despite not being a loan recipient, I am also impacted through the experiences, insights, and vision of my classmates that Prodigy serves and have become all the richer for it.
Most importantly, I have been pleasantly humbled to consider the possibility that capital in its truest form is neither opposed nor isolated from community but is always embedded in it.
Skoll Skollar, Sabre Collier, shares her thoughts on Emerge 2012.
Recently I had the privilege of attending the Emerge Conference one of the top venues for students and young professionals to converge with global innovators, leaders and funders in the field of social entrepreneurship.
I’ve dedicated most of my adult life trying to promote economic empowerment in lower-income communities and regions so clearly, there’s no place I’d rather spend a weekend. The conference was well organized and overflowing with energy and ideas. It was spectacular interacting with and learning from bright colleagues, cutting-edge social entrepreneurs and international investors and philanthropists. And there were many beautiful ventures and programs aimed at serving disenfranchised communities, empowering the Base of the Pyramid and bringing essential services to Africa and other developing regions.
In light of this, how many people from the Bottom of the Pyramid or local disenfranchised communities were there, able to rub shoulders with directors from the Skoll Foundation, Shell Foundation or the BBC? How many attendees from Africa were there, to articulate how the investments from presenters Aureos and Triodos and GBF were playing out on the ground, in their everyday life?
They were noticeably under-represented and this phenomenon, its attributors and consequences, were well summarized by Huggett in his Guardian article on social entrepreneurship blind spots.
“We favour our own. We shine the light on meritocratic entrepreneurs with linear logic. Meritocrats in government and philanthropy give support, contracts and capital to those they trust. Trustees are usually well-spoken and well-heeled. Awards ceremonies can show a hierarchy, with the great and the good at the top, the entrepreneur in the middle, and the ‘beneficiaries’ at the bottom.”
Given that Emerge is such a hub for social investors and philanthropic organizations with an interest in their problems, how can we include more of the people facing problems?
In the interest of sound business strategy, how can we amplify the voices and engage the participation of those consuming our products/services?
Opening the circle makes social enterprises more competent and competitive because there are so many lessons and epiphanies uniquely embedded in the economic, social, cultural and structural context of a community or country. From a marketing perspective, greater customer understanding and engagement is a fundamental way to drive sales. Linguistic competency is just the first step- market entry takes understanding government, social interactions, cultural traditions, innumerable factors. Even McDonalds and Starbucks invest millions to hire and train locals, translate their menus, adjust their pricing and most of all, adapt their product based on tons of local market data. Starbucks in the Middle East had amazing date frappucinos during fall- a nod to the Muslim tradition of breaking Ramadan fast with dates. (plug: I will likely explore this theme further within the context of designing products for emerging markets and the base of the pyramid). Both companies heavily invested in understanding and engaging because they needed their customers. Yet this marketing insight is often lost within the social sector, especially when customers are turned into “beneficiaries”.
As we switch to more financially self-sufficient social entrepreneurship models, it becomes clearer that we need our customer/beneficiaries just as they need us.
So lets think critically about how, as a new generation, we can make this field even more inclusive.
Emerge was a first step in this direction, firstly by helping bring the world-renowned Skoll World Forum to a broader, younger audience. Emerge also broadened access by including a few social entrepreneurs from the Oxford area as well as highlighting the opportunity for Oxford MBAs to provide volunteer consulting to local social enterprises.
Perhaps for next year, we could consider partnerships with universities in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia to do livestreaming so that their students in developing countries could also pose questions to speakers and virtually participate…… Or perhaps we could help partner universities host their own Emerge Conferences and have a few grants for exchange opportunities.
We could also create partnerships with a few community organizations and have them submit their major pressing social and organizational problems as business cases. Emerge participants could tackle the business cases within break-out sessions, and discuss the strategies with community reps on webcam during the conference, while getting feedback from social investors present.
Or, acknowledging that many low-income social entrepreneurs and leaders may lack the access, vocabulary and grooming to optimize opportunities with funders and philanthropists, perhaps we can consider a mentorship component.
There are many things we can do, and given the Skoll Centre‘s vision and commitment, I’m sure this post will be followed with further brainstorming, refining and subsequent actions.
But the overarching point is still about shifting our vision to create more inclusion and endogenous vision within social entrepreneurship.
Truly activating the power of the social entrepreneurship will likely require a more circular partnership, where the people with the problems are protagonists, not just beneficiaries.
I’m not asserting that semi-literate villagers in developing countries or marginalized youth in high-risk communities are the only ones capable of creating the best BOP products or social impact programs. I’m just asserting that privileged highly-educated and relatively high-income Western students and professionals are not only ones who can change the world.
In fact, the best way for us to change the world is by opening the circle, collectively learning, acting and growing together.
The spotlight focused on how organisations operating in the social sector can enhance responsiveness and accountability to its clients. But what does “client” really mean? Are we talking beneficiaries, stakeholders, funders, partnering organisations? How do we make sure we are “accountable” to each of them, and all of them collectively, but which “them” do we put first? This seminar was designed to explore and unpack precisely these complexities, and sparked some lively discussions.
Whether you are a social entrepreneur or policy maker, I think we all agree the field of international development, let alone achieving good governance within it, is complex. However, there is hope. The seminar not only got folks talking, but went beyond providing food for thought and unveiled an effort to take action. It put academics and practitioners in the same room and started to identify gaps and possible solutions/practices that need to be explored further. These areas are being evaluated as we speak and a call for papers to address gaps in the existing literature is forthcoming (with a £20K stipend slated to go to the winner).
Of course a simple call for papers won’t solve the complexity of governance, but it is a start. And it will serve as an impetus for the conversation until the second annual seminar next year.