Aaron Bartnick is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. Prior the MBA he led several ventures in US politics, and most recently helped develop the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s first university-based start-up incubator.
Aaron Bartnick on a 2012 Obama campaign rally
What are we doing to make the world a bit better for others?
At first glance, it seems like a pretty uninspiring mission. In a world where everyone is out to “change the way we think about X,” “revolutionize Y,” and, above all, “make the world a better place,” who is going to get fired up about just making things a little bit better?
But it’s not our job to tell people what a good world looks like. And it’s not our responsibility to get them there. It is, however, the solemn responsibility of every public and private institution to give people the tools and opportunities they need to build that life for themselves.
That’s what originally attracted me to politics, and why I spent three years in Manassas, Virginia and Salem, Massachusetts when so many of my peers went to places like New York and San Francisco. In too many places at home and abroad, opportunity is concentrated in just a few places and available to an ever smaller number of people. And how far you go in life seems to depend more on where you’re born than what you can create out of circumstances beyond your control.
I’ve been lucky to work with and for a couple of incredible political leaders. But no individual is going to restore economic opportunity to the millions around the world who have seen it slip away in recent decades. We have to change the system.
Aaron Bartnick with former U.S. President, Barack Obama
Over the past two and a half years, I’ve been fortunate to work on some fascinating systems challenges. I’ve worked with governments around the United States to bring their processes into the digital age. I’ve observed entrepreneurial ecosystems in a dozen emerging markets across South America, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. And in Iraq, I got to spend six months working with an international coalition of government, VC, and entrepreneurial leaders to propose much-needed economic reforms while helping the American University of Iraq build what we hope will be the Kurdistan Region’s first university-based start-up incubator.
Aaron Bartnick giving a presentation at the American University of Iraq
But this is far from enough.
If we are serious about expanding economic opportunity across the globe, we must harness the leverage of both business and government to enact changes that will flow from the highest and most complex systems down to the smallest local businesses. That’s why I’ve chosen to augment my political experience with an MBA, and why I’ve chosen to do it here at Oxford. Oxford Saïd is serious about business. I’m taking finance classes that would have made a younger me run for the hills, and am putting together presentations that will be viewed by some of the world’s preeminent business leaders. But Oxford Saïd is more than just a business school; it’s a school that talks every day about business in the service of a higher social good. And you can see that calling reflected in just about every one of the 330 peers with whom I am lucky to share this year.
Finally arriving at the University of Oxford
The MBA is a chance for me to hone the quantitative skills I will need to be successful in my career. It is a chance to explore some of the systemic challenges I’ve observed, like the massive financing gap between microfinance and private equity, through extracurricular activities like the Oxford Seed Fund and the Map the System competition. And it is a chance to broaden my perspective by taking advantage of the incredible multidisciplinary opportunities that only a place like Oxford can provide.
All of this is made possible by the Skoll Scholarship. I am humbled by the opportunity to explore some of the world’s biggest challenges in one of the world’s preeminent academic settings. I am excited to gain a better understanding of how we can build a more inclusive economic system that expands opportunity and helps make the world even a little bit better for others. And I am ready to get started.
Macarena Hernandez de Obeso, is a current Skoll Scholar and is dedicated to economic opportunity and prosperity for deprived communities in Latin America.
She shares the story of starting her new social enterprise that aims to bring together a global community, all the while studying her Oxford MBA!
In September of 2016 I started the most incredible journey of my life so far, an MBA at Oxford. At the beginning, I was sure that I was here to strengthen my business knowledge to be able to combine a sustainable business model with a social mission. However, I wasn’t sure which path I was going to achieve it in the future. I had in mind three options:
1. come back to the social enterprise where I was working before
2. join an international organisation or enterprise focusing on the design of tools and impact metrics to enhance the work of social entrepreneurs
3. start my own venture
Surprisingly, in less than two months, one of these became a reality.
Meeting my Co-Founder
During the first week of my MBA, I met Ana Maria. Being both born in Latin America and having dedicated part of our life to social impact, we realised that we shared a powerful goal; to create opportunities for people in Latin America by embracing their talents and helping them to reach their full potential. She had the idea to fund a charitable project offering Spanish language practice for foreigners through conversations with native speakers within the project’s community. I loved the idea, but not the business model; I thought it should be a social enterprise that could fund itself by creating access to economic opportunities and a flexible way of income for all Spanish native speakers in Latin America.
Launching our social enterprise
In November of 2016, we founded Language Amigo. Today, we are connecting, through video calls, language ’Learners’ who want to practice conversational Spanish, with native speaking ‘Amigos’ from Latin America. For Amigos, Language Amigo is a flexible way of income and for Learners, Language Amigo is a flexible way to practice.
Through Language Amigo, we are not offering Spanish teachers. We are offering to language learners the opportunity to put into practice their foreign language knowledge and have real world conversations with real and friendly people, Amigos. I believe that the main objective to learn a language is to be able to connect with people from another country, culture, and background. Through Language Amigo, you can do that.
Language Amigo’s first Learner-Amigo call
Language Amigo’s first Learner-Amigo call
I was very happy working on my new venture, but with every new path comes its challenges and scepticism. In February 2017, I was delivering a presentation about Language Amigo, to my communication skills’ group at the Oxford Language Centre. I explained that to generate income, Language Amigo keeps a percentage of the cost of the calls conducted between Amigos and Learners. The first question that I received after this presentation, from a Chilean student, was: “are you exploiting Latin American youngsters to create a business?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I wasn’t sure what feeling this question had caused me. Anger? Deception? Surprise? Indignation? I realised that it is not obvious to everyone that a collaborative economy business model, such as Language Amigo, is creating economic inclusion for people who did not have an economic opportunity before. I was conscious that industries threatened by collaborative economy models, such as hospitality and logistics, have been raising critique against successful platforms and putting pressure into regulatory institutions. Nonetheless, the fact that an Oxford student from Latin American believes that we were exploiting our Amigos, completely shocked me.
But, we continue to grow
I believe that Language Amigo is creating value not only for Amigos but also for Learners. We are developing the means to create social and economic transactions between them. We are aggregating and connecting supply with demand that otherwise would never connect. We are constantly looking for potential customers to grow the economic opportunities for Amigos. We are constantly updating the Amigos’ training and generating support resources to improve the experience for the Learners.
Why is the value of creating a network and the means to include people into the economy undervalued? What is harder: to produce and deliver the product or service, or to find the market and attract it to generate demand for the product or service?
Currently, we are looking for institutions such as language centres, schools, universities, and enterprises that already have Spanish students to become our partners. We would like to be able to offer Language Amigo to their students and to co-create the best tool for them, their students, and the Amigos. Together we will be able to demonstrate that it is possible to create fair opportunities through the power of language.
Language Amigo Co-founders: Ana Maria (Left) Macarena (Right)
Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.
Oxford MBA Candidate 2016-17 at the Saïd Business School, Devin Rebello, gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum session “Designing Sustainable, Inclusive Cities of the Future”.
The story of a broken city began as a fault line of inequity and exclusion ripped apart the urban centre of Medellin, Colombia. Faced with rapid urbanisation and population growth, the city was sent into extreme economic upheaval spurred by lack of jobs, failing infrastructure, and inadequate city services. The most disenfranchised and vulnerable populations fled into the mountains where they were soon preyed upon by drug cartels and caught in cycle of violence and extreme poverty that made Medellin the most dangerous city in the world. As Liz Agbor-Tabi, Associate Director of 100 Resilient Cities, tells it, Medellin was a city with a master plan. Local leaders had gone through the exercise and set a vision. Unfortunately, they had planned for the city they had, not for the city they would need. This story, though extreme, is all too familiar to those working to design sustainable, inclusive cities of the future.
As I sat in the room and listened to the tragic impact of failing systems and the hope for a better way forward, I was struck by the conflict between formal and informal communities and the role of government in creating their own problems. The outstanding, passionate panellists drove a resounding point home: there are social structures, laws, and physical spaces within growing cities that inherently expel people to the fringes. The more a city treats the marginalised like a problem, the larger the problem becomes. A city cannot ignore the pain and suffering of those existing in informal spaces, such as slums, nor can it take a wrecking ball to these informal communities and expect them to go away. The marginalised will not disappear by being ignored or physically threatened; instead, like in the example of Medellin, they will find ways to try to survive that can be devastating to formal structures.
The big question is, how do you change this? How can cities get out ahead and build something that will grow with a surging population? The overall sentiment in the room was that we need to break through silos and take a systems approach to building more inclusive cities. This starts by bring those living in informal spaces to the table and including them in the planning process. It starts when we demand governments change arbitrary laws that lock the marginalised into poverty by disallowing them from being entrepreneurial. It starts when we recognise that natural disasters disproportionately devastate the marginalised and fight to change systems that currently make them ineligible for aide. It starts when we design cities that focus on creating easy access to education, health care, and transportation for everyone. And it continues when we constantly remember that design is not neutral – it can help or it can hurt.
What is most inspiring is that this can be done. Looking back to Medellin as our example, it is an amazing story of a phoenix rising. Liz Agbor-Tabi told us that from the ashes of violence and extreme poverty, the city was able to turn things around by bringing marginalised citizens into the planning process along with NGOs, businesses, and civil society. Medellin built infrastructure to physically connect those living in the mountains to the main city allowing easy and safe passage between locations, which led to more employment and more spending that would boost the overall economy. They also put a deliberate emphasis on creating community spaces to rebuild the connectivity and trust between and among citizen. Medellin is now a rising hub of social entrepreneurship that has an intentional focus on poverty alleviation and inclusion.
This last thought is an interesting one – with the government taking the first steps to build an inclusive foundation to alleviate violence and poverty, local businesses are emerging that are determined to take care of the community. But does it really have to get that bad for businesses to take responsibility for the communities in which they work? Do we really have to rely exclusively on NGOs and social entrepreneurs to be the ones to take action to prevent another city from falling?
I think back to the opening plenary of the Forum when Hamdi Ulukaya, Founder and CEO of Chobani spoke about employing refugees within his factories well before the current refugee crisis hit. In the process of employing those in need of a job, he built critical foundations that enabled his employees to become thriving citizens. Hamdi learned that transportation was a challenge, so he provided buses. He learned that language was a barrier, so he provided translators. He learned that factory skills were lacking, so he provided training. And in doing all of this, he removed large numbers of refugees from the fringes and helped them integrate into the formal economy. This, in turn, supports the job markets and overall health of the cities in which his factories operate. We applaud Hamdi for his work because it is truly remarkable. But we cannot simply view Hamdi as a caring heart amongst stone-cold corporates. His actions made economic sense to his business and, even with the additional expenses of transportation, training, translators, and paying his staff twice as much as what his competitors were paying, he is still making a profit. Chobani is the example that we need to point to and demand that all businesses responsibly participate in the health and safety of their communities. This is critical to the design of sustainable, inclusive cities of the future. We cannot speak about an inclusive planning process for the future of our cities and give big businesses a pass from sitting at the table side by side with those most in need of employment.
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 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.
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.
Co-Founded by Skoll Scholar, Jesse Moore and London Business School graduate, Nick Hughes in 2009 with Oxford Saïd alumnus, Chad Larson joining in 2010, M-KOPA has gone from strength to strength; winning awards and rising to be one of the leading solar-power providers in East Africa.
Ever since deciding to reconcile my interest in business with my passion for social impact I have asked myself the question: can for-profit businesses really do social good?To help answer this question, I travelled east from Nairobi to Machakos, Kenya with M-KOPA Solar – the leading ‘pay-as-you-go’ energy provider to off grid homes. Along with Suraj Patel, MBA/MPH at UC Berkeley, Deenah Kawira, M-KOPA Solar Business Manager, and Felix Kyalo, M-KOPA Solar Field Sales Manager (pictured above from left to right), I got the opportunity to meet and hear the stories of three remarkable Kenyan women:
Christine the shop-owner
Eunice the side-hustler
Jane the home-keeper
But firstly, what are customers buying from M-KOPA? M-KOPA customers make a deposit of $30 followed by 365 daily payments of $0.50, paid using their mobile money. The solar home system comes with three lights, mobile phone-charging and a solar powered radio. Customers who complete their payment plans on time can acquire additional lights, solar TVs, energy-efficient cooking stoves, internet-enabled smartphones and water storage tanks.
Christine the shop-owner
Christine is a proud roadside shop-owner selling fruit and vegetables, among other products. She is a born businesswoman with a personality that could overflow a room. After hearing about M-KOPA over the radio, she waited eagerly and waved down an M-KOPA vehicle passing the area in order to buy one.
Before buying M-KOPA, Christine used two kerosene lamps to light up her store – a significant business expense. When her phone, used to order stock and make sales, ran out of battery, she would lock up shop for three hours to walk to her neighbour’s, hoping they were home to help charge her phone. The kerosene lamps, which have now gathered dust in the corner of her store, have been replaced by M-KOPA. Her torch helps her to walk home safely at night, her radio blasting during the day attracts customers and her phone charger means she never has to leave her shop, giving her time to sell more. As a true businesswoman, she now charges customers’ phones for $0.10 per charge, helping people in the area and helping her pay off the device.
After six months with her M-KOPA Solar device, Christine has saved and made enough money to renovate and expand her store, as well as support her two children and their families. Although this was largely a result of Christine’s individual business savvy, M-KOPA provided her with the platform to grow her business and improve her livelihood.
Eunice the side-hustler
Eunice is a struggling single mother of three who is forced to run a series of side-businesses (aka “side-hustles” in Kenya) to make enough money for the basics of food, water, and shelter.
Living in the isolated eastern foothills of Machakos, where getting clean water means travelling 5km across mountainous terrain, Eunice does what she can from breaking quarry stones and making mud bricks for construction, to growing herbs and crops for sale.
Through a woman’s chama, an informal finance vehicle where individuals pull funds together, Eunice was able to buy an M-KOPA device.
For Eunice there was no electricity where she lives and providing lighting for her family was a costly luxury. When night comes her home would become “lifeless,” quiet and inactive waiting for the light of day.
M-KOPA’s home system gives her family the simple luxury of a common lit area where they eat, talk and laugh together. It also gives her children the confidence to go to the bathroom alone.
Despite the fact that Eunice does not have a stable income, she is committed to make her daily payments to keep the lights on in her home. Far from ideal, this highlights the challenge M-KOPA faces as a social business managing the tension between profits and impact.
Jane the home-keeper
Jane is a wife and mother of four children. Her family lives in an isolated North-Eastern village in Kangundo – an hour from Machakos along a rocky dirt road. Her husband works at a local quarry and she tends to their two cows and chickens to supplement their livelihoods.
For Jane, M-KOPA initially meant a device for affordable solar power. But after paying off the solar device, she found another opportunity through the company to purchase a 1000L water tank.
The closest watering hole for Jane is 1.5km across rocky terrain. Providing water for her family normally requires her to make the trip every 2-3 days – back-breaking work that she is becoming too old to manage.
Now with the water tank from M-KOPA, which she is paying for using the same daily rate of $0.50, Jane only needs to make the trips to the watering hole once every two weeks or over the weekends when her children can help. She can rest her back, knowing that she has enough water to wash clothes, drink, cook and feed her cattle. The water tank has also given her the opportunity to help her neighbours when they are short of water, which she does regularly. She credits M-KOPA’s payment system for allowing her to afford a water tank like this and giving her the security of a sufficient water supply.
This weekend in Machakos was a remarkable and an eye-opening experience for me. It became evident that M-KOPA is an example of a social business that undoubtedly operates at the nexus of profit-making and impact-generating. However, operating at this nexus also generates its own set of challenges – even for these three women. For instance, Christine has since had to fend off people looking to steal her M-KOPA device jealous of her success. Eunice has had to deal with the shame from family and friends of owning a device that she occasionally cannot pay off and Jane has had to trust that her family can maintain payments to pay-off the water tank over the long run, whilst taking care of a large family.
However, there is no doubt that this one solar business, established on an innovative for-profit business model, means a lot to these three women and has had a positive impact on their livelihoods overall. Now revisiting my initial question I have more confidence in knowing that despite the challenges that exist in social business, for-profit businesses can really do social good.
There is no denying the prevalence and prominence of the impact investing discourse these days. A hot topic? Absolutely. A brand new conversation? Not even close.
So, when you can hear from one of the early pioneers of the industry, it is always insightful.
This week we hosted Tammy Newmark and Michele Pena of EcoEnterprises Fund who joined us as part of the Skoll Centre Speakers Series. They have been investing growth capital in sustainable businesses in Latin America for over a decade – and have the battle wounds to prove it.
Not that it’s been all setbacks and scars — but because they simply are open and transparent about the challenges they (and other risk-taking impact investors) have faced over the past 10 years.
Set up in 2000, EcoEnterprises Fund provides long-term investment capital and business advisory services – one without the other would be ineffectual and downright bad business, they say. The Fund has invested in 23 companies from ecolodges to organics, sustainable forestry to aquaculture. Most of these investments have been wildly successful (20 companies still in operation, 11% p.a. return, and most importantly, measurable social and environmental impact) but of course, there have been challenges.
Which is no surprise, seeing that they are injecting risk capital into companies that are, well, risky. They bet on the companies that are first-movers and market makers, whose products and services have yet to gain market acceptance. As such, they are cultivating new demand and a vibrant marketplace that moves these eco-enterprises from the outskirt to the mainstream.
What’s next for EcoEnterprises Fund? Be on the look out for their book this fall called “Portfolio for the Planet”, which is an open playbook to their tools, indicators and investment cases. Also, they are currently raising $30 million for a new fund EcoE II, which will target 10-12 small and growing community-based businesses via mezzanine investment instruments.