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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.

 

Schools – The Next Domain for Technological Disruption?

Skoll Scholar 2016-17, Alex Shapland-Howes, is passionate about education. He spend several years teaching Maths and Politics in London schools before he led the major growth of UK education charity, Future First. In this blog, Alex explores the future of our education system and the classroom experience.

It is sometimes said that school classrooms look the same today as a hundred years ago.

Students often still sit in rows of desks, writing about Shakespeare on reams of paper. They practise algebra in books and teachers mark them. Blackboards are now white, but teaching is still mostly led from the front of the room.

Yet this description masks huge cultural and pedagogical changes over the last century. Corporal punishment has gone. Girls and boys are now (usually) educated together and both take subjects historically restricted to the other gender. Children with special needs are included and catered for. And whilst teachers do often stand at the front, they employ a whole range of different techniques such as student- and peer-led learning. Our classrooms are also more diverse than ever before.

Almost all would agree these are huge, positive changes. They are. But whilst this represents seismic progress over the 20th century, the change in the last 10-15 years has, perhaps surprisingly, been slower.

Schools in the UK have improved overall. Results are getting better, albeit too slowly (especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds). Much more is known about how to turn schools around. There’s been a revolution in the use of data to help students make progress. The Academies programme was born and grew.  But in the classroom itself, progress has been evolutionary not revolutionary.

This steady classroom development has taken place in the context of one of the biggest technological revolutions the world has ever seen. Smartphones. Tablets. Broadband. Netflix. Crowdfunding. Kindles. Those George Clooney coffee machines. None existed when I was a school boy.

But we’ve yet to see these types of technology truly transform the classroom. Teachers now do more on computers than ever before. Students do too. Computer Science is being rolled out as a subject in schools across the country. In Higher Education, we’ve started to see the adoption of MOOCs.

Yet we’re only now at the advent of the technology that truly can transform our schools. Perhaps the greatest opportunity lies in ‘personalising’ learning.

One of the biggest challenges for teachers is supporting those students finding a topic difficult, whilst stretching the others who pick it up quickly. With so-called ‘adaptive learning’ technologies, students are able to benefit from additional (computer-led) tutoring that is personalised to them according to how they’re progressing. The most revolutionary aspect of the new technologies is that not only will the technology be able to adjust according to whether a student answers a question right or wrong, but it will be able to spot where they’re going wrong and try to fix their misconceptions.

Imagine every student being given individual support, personalised to the exact stage they are at, all the time. That’s the opportunity.

As with most technological disruption, alongside opportunity comes risk. Firstly, this technology must not be seen as a chance to replace teachers, downgrade their importance, or hire fewer of them. These technologies are an opportunity to help teachers maximise their impact on students. One day computers may become so advanced that a conversation is required about whether a robot really can replace everything a teacher does. Even with this new technology, we are absolutely nowhere near that point.

Attention must also be drawn to who is providing this technology and who therefore owns the data. As leading EdTech thinker Nick Kind has observed, Google, Facebook, Amazon et al are already positioning themselves as leaders in this field too. Each relies heavily on data. So does adaptive learning. As Kind argues, schools and their pupils will miss out on great innovation unless we make sure this data is open to start-ups as well as titans.

The technology is close and getting better year by year. The need is clear. Yet teachers are tired of new initiatives.

Early adopters in the profession will bring others on board when they see what is possible, but it is imperative that the companies leading this charge engage properly with the profession. The best innovations will be co-led by teachers, technologists and experts in learning science. The companies that act on that early will win this race.

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Inspiration and leadership in the classroom

Skoll Scholar and design enthusiast, Ahmed Abu Bakr, shares his experience of an average Oxford MBA classroom. But it wasn’t the subject matter that he found captivating, it was the leadership of its professor that truly inspired him.

In my first week of the MBA programme, I was introduced to the idea that we can all be classified into one of four categories: activists, theorists, reflectors, and pragmatists. Now of course, that was a clear oversimplification – we’re obviously not one or the other, but a mix of each in varying quantities. Nonetheless, the exercise forced me to explicitly recognise my inclination towards reflection.

And so, as my year at Oxford comes to an untimely close, I find myself taking stock of my time spent here. So what am I taking away with me? Well, a great many things: new skills, new friends, great memories, and an expanded perspective. But most importantly, I’m taking back inspiration. And today, I want to share one such story of inspiration from my time here.

I met him in the first week of our first term, on a Friday afternoon. Half of us were feeling the post-lunch drowsiness seeping in, while the other half really just wanted to get started with the weekend. There was nothing particularly remarkable about him at first glance. The most I could have said about him back then was that he seemed decent- kind, soft spoken, and as we eventually learned, modest to a fault. And he was teaching us statistics.

But over the course of eight weeks, I found in him a real life John Keating (ref: Dead Poet’s Society– be sure to watch it if you haven’t already!). Never have I had the privilege of seeing someone so very passionately and creatively impart knowledge – and let’s face it, statistics isn’t the most exciting subject out there-  and win the heart of each and every student in the room. His name is Siddharth Arora, and his love and passion for the statistics was unmistakeable from his very first class. But what was truly remarkable was how he took on the full onus of helping us discover beauty in his subject.

Far too often have I seen teachers crush the spirit of learning in their students. Growing up, I have personally witnessed teachers ruin mathematics, physics, language, and a myriad of other disciplines for many of my fellow classmates. I have seen teachers teach through their authority, arrogantly, complacently, trying to stuff knowledge into the minds of students, and leaving no room for wisdom. Too often have I seen teachers forget that they must earn the attention that we chose to pay.

But Siddharth understood that. He cared enough to truly engage us. He showed us the presence of statistics in breath taking videos of the flight patterns of starlings, in the disturbing reality of climate change, and in the quotes of Rumi. He cared enough to go out of his way to make things like regression and conditional probabilities interesting, relevant and engaging for us all. He cared enough to voluntarily stay back on weekends and help us when we were struggling and he cared enough to provide us with snacks as we waited our turn to discuss our issues with him. And because he cared, we cared back.

It was particularly evident on the last day of his class. Incidentally, this was also the last class of term for all of us- a much needed study break was just waiting to begin. The clock struck five and he let us know that we were free to leave, but that he still had about 20 more minutes of content to cover. The weekend had begun, the term had ended, and everyone chose to stay back to finish a statistics class.

You see, over those eight weeks, Siddharth did so much more than simply teach us. He inspired us, shared his passion, gave us pearls of wisdom for life in general, and was there for us when we had needed him. He showed us genuine care, and got us to care back, and in doing so he demonstrated tremendous leadership within the classroom. And through it all, he personified humility and grace.

Section C, MBA class of 2017 with Siddharth Arora (more than 45 minutes after the end of class)

Section C, MBA class of 2017 with Siddharth Arora (more than 45 minutes after the end of class)

For me personally, he inspired a vision of the sort of person and the sort of leader I would like to be. Someone who doesn’t let authority, position, and credentials eat away at the intent to try harder, to be better, and to give more. Someone who empathises, and someone who cares. Someone who wins hearts through deliberate and protracted effort. And is humble and genuine throughout it all.