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How to manage difficult conversations

Florentina-Daniela Gheorghe, Skoll Scholar 2018-19, has spent the last year in Oxford studying her MBA. To end the year, she reflects on her own personal learnings and passes them onto you to take forward on your own journey.

I love to ask questions to deepen my understanding. I believe asking great questions is an awesome skill to have. This year, however, I discovered that I am an activist: I raise my voice in matters that contradict my values. And it happened a few times. I also had the wrong impression that many people think like me and I assumed that my MBA colleagues and I think alike. Instead, I learned there are endless perspectives that I need to acknowledge and that the ‘18-19 MBA cohort at Oxford Saïd are not as vocal as I expected.

Here are some stats: this year we were 315 people from 62 countries, average age 28, with 24% of us coming from finance, 17% coming from consulting and the rest 59% coming from 16+ other fields, with an average of 5 years of experience. Wouldn’t you expect these young people to make their voices heard?

In some sections, many were silent during lectures and didn’t ask clarifying questions. Some possible reasons: they didn’t want to disturb the lecturer’s flow, or they thought that their question might be “stupid” and might not bring value to the rest. Culture, personality and English proficiency also play a role. And then there were people who might have been experts in their field.

I experienced many times the impostor syndrome. However, it didn’t stop me from asking brief questions in class: it shows the lecturer where I am in my learning, it helps me clarify my thoughts and other people can benefit too. Even more, given my years of groundwork, I could potentially bring a new perspective on interpreting industry practices and academic research. I kept my computer open many times in class to make sure I get a gist of a concept like debt/equity ratio and use it correctly in my question, but that didn’t stop me from taking my understanding to the next level with a question. The worst thing that could happen was to leave the classroom without understanding the foundation of what was taught.

Question the default – Courage to ask Why

In a world in which “business as usual” – with profit as the single end goal – doesn’t seem to make sense anymore, we need courageous leadership who dares to question the default practices. I actively decided to practice this courage. Don’t be afraid to ask in impact investing class why we assume that tools of traditional finance can be transferred as they are into impact investing. Don’t be afraid to ask in economics and finance, why the perpetual growth assumption is not questioned.

Speak your mind

How many of us question the things we hear from lecturers and speakers? Being at Oxford, we had access to amazing speakers: in class, at the Oxford Union or at events around the campus. Amazingly reputed people come to Oxford, and that’s a great privilege. But Oxford also teaches you to speak your mind, not to get intimidated by the reputation of the speaker. We might have valuable insights. Politely acknowledge someone’s effort to share their story in front of a class of students and then speak up. Just remember to speak with humility!

Always remind people that every management decision affects people

It’s not about the merger post acquisition, it’s about two teams of dedicated people learning how to work together. Thinking about people can help you better understand the expected and unexpected consequences.

Speak with your heart but wrap your position in data: every time

I learned this the hard way. My friend, an editor with The Economic Times, showed me how to keep my emotions under control and use data instead to make the point. It does require a bit more (home) work. I tend to let myself taken away by emotions. When I hear something that contradicts my core believes, such as anti-refugee statements or opinions about “the poor’s ignorance”, my blood pressure goes up. Some perspectives out there really clash with my genuine belief that humanity is equality distributed in every one of us.

Be assertive  

When things go rough, remember to be assertive. One of the best take-aways I have from my year is the Even Fish Need Confidence (EFNC) framework that I learned during peer-support training: explanation, feelings, needs, consequences. Use this framework to communicate openly to someone who might use words that trigger negative emotional reactions in you: explain what happened (facts), express your feelings about what happened (vulnerably), state what you need (to make this relationship work), state the positive (and negative) consequences if your needs are (not) met. Communicating with this framework builds respect between people and reduces the risk that someone gets hurt. Difficult conversations are healthy and important. Constructive conflict, if orchestrated, can help everyone learn how to be a team player. It’s not an easy task to orchestrate conflict but it might be worth it. We are all on a discovery journey to become a better version of ourselves. Enjoy yours!

Daniela Gheorghe, 2018-19 Skoll Scholar.

One year at Oxford

Julie Greene is a 2018-19 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA, and co-founder of The Women’s Bakery in Rwanda. She recounts her time and whirlwind journey on the MBA programme this year.

This year was, frankly, much harder than I expected. I didn’t think that getting back into the swing of school would be such an adjustment, I had forgotten how short and dark the days are in northern hemisphere winters, and I didn’t anticipate the magnitude of changes I would need to navigate with my company and my own personal direction during the year.

Transitioning back into school was not hard so much in the academic sense (although trust me, the workload was challenging!) as it was in the day to day motivational sense. I was so used to fast paced, hands on start-up life. Where every day brought new problems to solve, visible successes or new challenges, and constant connection with the women our company was working with. By comparison, sitting in class lectures day after day felt impersonal and theoretical. I could certainly connect classroom ideas to potential application in The Women’s Bakery, but I missed the action, the constant feedback, and the personal connection to my work.

Image of Julie Greene

As the days grew shorter, and the business finance exam loomed larger, I sometimes questioned what I was even doing here. Why had I taken time away from my passion, to sit in lectures all day and learn about corporate finance? What does a small-scale social entrepreneur need to know about corporate finance anyways? (It turns out, a lot.) At the same time, having stepped away from the day to day of my company, I had to face another reality: I was drained. I took the incredibly difficult decision in January to leave my company, which was something I had not considered before coming to the MBA.

With all of these changes, the first half of the year felt like a pretty long road for me. I often felt like I should be joining a case competition, or should be more social and end more of my nights at the ever popular bar Hank’s. But, with the support of a lot a great colleagues, classmates, and mentors I gave myself what I really needed – permission. Permission to take time and process, permission to be more introverted than extroverted in a program of over 300 incredible people, and permission to grieve and deeply reflect on one ending before throwing myself into any of the million new possibilities in front of me.

Image of the team at London Bridge

And eventually, the days did get longer again. The sun started to shine a bit more frequently, and stressing about corporate finance turned into choosing thought provoking electives. The spring filled up as I planned and led a student trek to Rwanda to explore the social enterprise and impact ecosystem, and worked with a team to develop a business plan for an impact focused craft brewery in Rwanda. I even found myself at Hank’s a few times. Before I knew it, the year was winding down.

As I was nearing the end of the final term, researching and writing thousands of words for what felt like endless papers, something clicked. I was reading an article and it struck me – what I had just read, full of terminology and references to all kinds of financing options, would have been nearly gibberish to me a year prior. Yes, I would have had a general sense of what was going on, but I wouldn’t have grasped any of the specifics. And then I had the same experience listening to a podcast. And then listening in to a conversation next to me in a café. Like an image coming into focus, the year came together for me. Despite all the challenges and grey days and distance from the work I am passionate about, I had in fact amassed a lot of knowledge. I had gained a new understanding of the world around me, from sustainable supply chains to impact investing, from trust in technology to raising capital. Of course, you go to school expecting to learn. But there is still something truly amazing about the moments when things click.

Image of Julie Greene beside a Castle Mount

I walked into this year thinking I knew where I was headed when I walked out. The specific destination has changed for me it is now completely unknown. But I am walking out confident that I have grown and learned, that I have been challenged, and that I have an incredible community that will support me as I find my next direction.

Julie Greene, 2018-19 Skoll Scholar.

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My journey from an impact business in India to a world-class MBA

Daniela Gheorghe is one of our 2018-19 Skoll Scholars on the Oxford MBA. Natively from Romania, Daniela has lived and worked in India for the last seven years where she has helped numerous families gain access to affordable health and education. Here she describes her journey to Oxford.

It was 2008. I was on a plane to Germany. I just received an Erasmus scholarship to study at a German university for six months. I spent 30 minutes writing my application for the scholarship three months before. That’s how much it took me to accomplish this on my own: my first time flying, my first time out of Romania. There, while looking at the clouds, I understood that I could achieve anything I intend to achieve. If I set my mind on the goal, I can do anything (and fly anywhere)!

Above the clouds, in that minute, I understood my potential for the first time! I was 22.

But what if all children understand and realize their potential early? Imagine what that world would look like.

For the last four years, I have been serving poor parents’ aspiration. Families with a household income of less than $300 per month spend 13% of this income on education. What is their return on investment? Their return on primary education investment is very low as children spend five years in schools without being able to calculate, read or express themselves in the language of their books.

When aspirations meet willingness to pay, demand is defined and so, a market.

In 2014, I co-founded vChalk. At vChalk, we sell fun English learning activities on a mobile app to schools and parents for students to transition from learning English as a second language to being confident and expressive using it. Four years have passed; bootstrapping, improving the model, winning national and international competitions (we raised about $35,000 from different awards). We supported more than 80 teachers and 2500 students to catch up on foundation skills for learning. We tested a pricing model of less than $10 per year/child. We crossed a sales revenue of$12,000 in 2017. However, the business model was not ready for large scale.

This is a classroom in a resource-limited school in Bangalore India. Parents aspire for their children to speak English, get a good job and a good salary. Teachers struggle to teach in English and ensure that foundation learning happens.

Before my time at vChalk, I worked in political marketing and the non-profit sector in Romania. When I came to India in 2011 for an internship through AIESEC I thought it was just for a few months.

Little did I know I would spend more than seven years in India.

This is the place I discovered social entrepreneurship. I knew it was for me. But seven years later, I still feel I don’t know how to solve the world’s most challenging problems.

Daniela in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. Picture is taken during her work at Jaipur Rugs, a company presented asa case by C.K. Prahalad in his book: The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.
Daniela’s room in 2011, in a women’s hostel in Jaipur, Rajas than, India while working at Jaipur Rugs. On the wall, spot the postcard depicting an aerial view of Oxford University. Jaipur Rugs connects more than 40,000 artisans with high quality markets in USA and Europe while creating timely handmade carpets.
Daniela in a village around Jorhat, Assam, India. Picture is taken during her work at ERC Eye Care, a social business offering affordable eye glasses and ophthalmological services to rural families in this “tribal” state of North-East India.
Daniela’s office in ERC Eye Care in Assam, India. Daniela supported the start-up to raise its first impact investment of $100,000.
Daniela on the field on a regular day in a waste management company in Telangana, India. As a Frontier Market Scout, Daniela worked to improve the operations of Waste Ventures, a for-profit impact business that transforms organic waste into soil conditioner and sells to farmers. More on Daniela’s journey in India, before she started her owned-tech company, here.

I am honored to be in Oxford. Honored and privileged. Just four months ago I couldn’t imagine that I would be here. It is so incredible how life turns around.

But why am I here?

Firstly, I’m here to take a step back. I’m here to try to understand what I can do better to positively impact more children. I’m here to learn about systems thinking and I understand that I can do so much more than being a start-up founder. I’m here to discover where I can place myself in my next role to see my work have long-term positive impact on low-income families.

On a personal level, I seek to be happy with my work every day. I want to be a doer and dedicate my hard work to something meaningful that empowers people. I need to grow myself as a person, to learn to pace my efforts, to become more diplomatic and wiser so that I learn from failures. This MBA will help me grow. It will hone my financial and business skills too.

Finally, Oxford adds weight to my voice. It gives me a chance to be heard in important decision-making forums for change at large scale. It gives me a chance to join some of the greatest minds out there to tackle the world’s most difficult problems.

I am here to reach my full potential. To build connections, gain learning and gather insights that will last a life-time.

Find Daniela on  TwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

Visit Daniela’s personal project on emotional intelligence here.

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Skoll Centre launches Impact Lab programme

The Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship this year launches the “Impact Lab”, a one year co-curricular programme designed to enable Oxford MBA students to take a leading role in tackling the complex and pressing social and environmental challenges of our world.

The programme cultivates the knowledge, tools and personal leadership qualities needed to drive ambitious and systemic change across sectoral and organisational boundaries. Weekly workshop sessions and in-depth bootcamps with leading practitioners and thought leaders cover topics such as systems thinking, human centred design, impact measurement and impact investing. In tandem with this, through action learning and access to executive coaches, Impact Lab participants are supported in deepening their self-awareness, developing character, and understanding their own impact leadership journeys. The programme concludes with an opportunity for Lab members to create and deliver a personal talk on their own journey, how they have changed and the impact they wish to have on the world.

Building on our successful pilot “Skoll Academy” in 2017, the Impact Lab launched on October 6 this year with an inaugural cohort of 38 fantastic MBA students selected through an application process. Lab participants include students from a range of backgrounds, including:

  • Julie Greene, a social entrepreneur who ran bakeries across East Africa providing vocational training, employment and wellness services to women;
  • Sergio Navarro, a former VP at Goldman Sachs, doctor and founder of a health-tech company using augmented reality to deliver rehabilitation therapy;
  • Kudzai Chigiji director of a Pan-African advisory and infrastructure development company, currently operating in education and healthcare across East, West and Southern Africa;
  • Mridhula Sridharan, an investment strategist who has advised high net worth individuals, corporates and foundations across India and enabled investments to be directed into development initiatives.

The ethos of the Lab cultivates peer-led and peer-to-peer activities, and students are actively engaged in shaping the evolution of the Lab across the Oxford year.

In light of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the ambitious targets in the Paris Climate Agreement and the multiple social and environmental challenges facing our world, now more than ever, we need leaders who can understand these interconnected and complex issues, design and execute effective interventions, and lead teams, organisations and movements.

For more information or if you would like to collaborate, feel free to contact us. Many of the Impact Lab presenters are also running public sessions as part of the Skoll Centre Speaker Series. More information can be found on the Saïd Business School events listing.

By Shruthi Vijaykumar, Skoll Centre Associate

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The Role of Universities in Creating Social Innovation

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Natalie Wong, 2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, reports on the Skoll World Forum’s Oxford Union Debate.

Yesterday, the Oxford Union Debating Chamber opened its doors to Skoll World Forum delegates, Oxford students, and the public to host the first ever debate during the Skoll World Forum. With spontaneous outbursts of stomping, snapping, applause and hooting, by-passers may have wondered what was going on inside the Chamber. The lively audience had come to watch six global leaders from the public, private, and academic sectors engage in a debate on the following Proposition: “This House believes that universities lack the necessary ‘proximity’ to be effective agents of social innovation in the 21st Century.”

Over the past week, I learned from creative entrepreneurs dedicated to innovating for the benefit of the users they served. Alloysius Attah, Founder of Farmerline, shared in the Farmer-Centered Design session that by staying proximate to his farmer-users, the venture expanded their information delivery mechanism from text to voice in local languages. Coupled with my own experience of venture investing in East Africa, I was in support of the proposition at the start of the debate—how can aspiring changemakers possibly conjure up effective social innovations while being literally and/or figuratively thousands of miles away from the problems they aim to solve?

Meagan Fallone, CEO of Barefoot College, delivers her speech for the proposition.

Bill Drayton, the CEO and Chair of Ashoka, kicked the debate off with a challenging assertion, one that was reinforced and developed by Meagan Fallone, the CEO of Barefoot College, and Nicola Steuer, the Managing Director of the School for Social Entrepreneurs. Mr. Drayton proposed that universities as a system is structurally—and perhaps dangerously—broken. Their culture, organizational arrangements, and systems reinforce one another, driving them away from the capacity to contribute to innovation. Ms. Fallone added that the universities’ system prize literacy above experiential learning, which hinders the responsive thought process necessary to be a truly social innovation organization. Using the example of Bright Simon, who germinated mPedigree to leverage mobile and web technologies in securing products against faking, counterfeiting, and diversion first in Ghana and now globally, the debaters suggested developing real solutions demands that we deal with the messiness of human beings and assume real risks. Yet, in a system where the perceived success and legitimacy of universities are reflected by rankings tied to the financial earnings of its graduates, their individual academic success, and other indicators, there is little room to promote risk-taking associated with innovation. This is particularly limiting in an age where the rate of change in innovations and global issues is increasing exponentially. Finally, Ms. Steuer concluded that universities systematically exclude far too many individuals with direct social inequities experience and are unable to connect to the people facing the greatest injustices in society. Indeed, as Ms. Fallone noted, the largest movement of real social innovation of the past came from individuals who lost themselves to be in close proximity to those they served.

Ben Nelson, Founder and CEO of Minerva Project, closes the arguement against the proposition.

In rebuttal, the opposing team, composed of Agnes Binagwaho, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity, Keith Magee, Senior Researcher Fellow of Culture and Justice at UCL, and Ben Nelson, Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Minerva Project, wove an argument that illustrated how universities have adapted to the changing landscape through innovation, and the vital roles universities have played and will continue to play despite their shortcomings. Using her own university as an example, Ms. Binagwaho argued that more universities are embracing pedagogies that engage students where they live, solving problems through the necessary proximity. Mr. Magee asserted that universities have blended creativity, compassion, and culture to remain as relevant agents of social change and innovation. Mr. Nelson solidified that assertion by highlighting that proximity is necessary but not sufficient—it enables students and individuals to contextualize the systematic knowledge that must be learned through institutions of higher education. Furthermore, he suggested that the proposition only required universities to be effective catalysts of change. The audience would be mistaken to confuse Oxford University, where the debate was held, as a prototypical university. In the United States, at least, the majority of students live at home, attending colleges or universities in their communities and remain proximate to the these communities’issues.

In the end, the audience decided the opposition team presented a more convincing argument, and voted against the proposition. Personally, I remain unconvinced and believe that universities indeed lack the proximity needed to be effective agents of social innovation. However, I stand with the opposition team in acknowledging the crucial roles universities play in convening and inspiring students and experts alike, holding their ideas to the highest academic integrity, and teaching skills such as systemic thinking that supplement the insufficient beneficial condition of proximity in solving world-scale problems. As Ms. Fallone quoted, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”[1] Universities must commit to equipping their students to be lifelong learners and critical thinkers to understand the kaleidoscope of a rapidly evolving context or risk becoming irrelevant as social innovation flourishes elsewhere.

Watch the recording of the debate

[1] Alvin Toffle

Shared Communities to Solve Wicked Problems

The goalpost for development has moved to three unique and wicked problems – climate change, better healthcare and education. Education specifically, of the kind that enables creative thinking and helps shape every child to be a responsible citizen of our shared world. These problems are wicked for the following reasons:

  1. They have slow-burn i.e. they manifest themselves over multiple political and capital spending cycles.
  2. They require social change or collective action which is hard to make happen.
  3. They need us to be active citizens which is a hard act for populations used to rousing themselves to the ballot box once in a few years before hitting ‘snooze’ again.

Wicked Problems Graphic see http://transitiondesignseminarcmu.net/classes-2/systems/#1482254259729-27721fa6-4857

Figure 1: Wicked Problems (Transition Design Seminar, Carnegie Mellon University, 2017)

Of all the problems, education is the most pressing concern, not only because a child educated well today, could help address the challenges posed by the other two tomorrow!

In an age buffeted by automation and the shift in community formation to online networks, we are being pressed to raise creative beings who can still retain empathy as societies transform. As a former teacher and student of child development, I know creativity and empathy begin at an early age; as young as 0-6 years of a child’s life. Experts know this too and that is why early child education and pre-kindergarten are creeping up on policy and philanthropy agendas.

As we have seen from decades of work in climate change, enabling impact is a question of having multiple actors take seat at a table and find a way to move the ball forward collectively. As the world’s governments have solved access to education they have been left trying to address quality and learning that enables good citizenship. We need better thinking, collectively, for early childhood education.

I started, Early Insights, in the hope that such thinking should be online and be open and accessible to the world. Since my first job working in technology for telecom 11 years ago where I worked on major programs with British Telecom, I have known how bringing together different players on one platform enables sharing insights rapidly and leads to leaps in thinking. As an entrepreneur after, I always felt I missed a step, realizing later, it was the perspective – what is shaping the world outside my world view and how do I fit in? And finally, my years as a primary school teacher and later a student of Child Development made me realize how rapidly the change in the world outside needs to be incorporated into learning whilst knowing the imperatives of how people learn.

Early Insights brings policy makers, investors, entrepreneurs and people from the field together with their shared perspective and narrative.

Early Insights homepage capture - Tarun Varma Jan 2018

Figure 2: The Early Insights homepage www.earlyinsights.org (TM pending)

Issue one of this contributory community features:

  • Insights on policy in early childhood from Naomi Eisensdadt. Noami, a policy advisor to the Scottish government, talks about the need to invest in high quality workforce and lead from solutions that we know, work. Rachel, the Founder & CEO of Koru Kids, is trying to enable families to share high quality child care in London. Her ideas around pedagogy of childcare compliment Naomi’s macro outlook with an understanding of the variance across the city of London.
  • As an investor representing Omidyar Network, Ashley highlights the trends that make the ECD sector more investible. Coming from the other end, Ankit, an entrepreneur in India talks about how he is putting together the nuts and bolts of his startup, Saarthi, for scale.
  • Both Kate at TalesToolkit and Stephanie at EdDESTY are entrepreneurs focused on socio emotional learning via models that work with children in person and have a scalable online training component that is enabling their businesses to expand. This juxtaposed with David’s deep reflections on quality and learning at scale from his time in the field shed light on the fundamental things to get right in a scenario of learning and interaction.
  • Finally, an author, former early childhood teacher and current Director of the Preschool of the Arts, Ann’s perspective on the art of learning, play and early childhood is a great cover for why early educators need to focus on giving the child control of the learning process and push them to engage with the medium of learning, even if it is technology.

My hope? That this community will break silos to establish a collective voice and have a common north star. When the flows of capital turn in favour of early childhood, we and the larger community will know how to deploy it for effective change. Our second issue comes out end February 2018. I’d love to know what you think.

Author Bio

headshot of Tarun VarmaTarun Varma was a 2016 1+1 MBA, MSc Child Development and Education where he was a Pershing Square Scholar. He developed a focus on better early childhood education through a career in technology, entrepreneurship and as a teacher. Tarun is currently an Initiatives Manager at the Lego Foundation where he serves on the ‘Learning through Play in Early Childhood’ team, managing their grants in early childhood centres.