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Rethinking Social Impact Competitions

Written by Julian Cottee (Social Innovation and Sustainability Expert) and Chris Blues (Programme Manager for Social Ventures).

Competitions, accelerators and prizes are now well-established fixtures in the social entrepreneurship world.

The Chivas Venture, The Earthshot Prize, Nesta Challenges, The Audacious Project, European Social Innovation Competition, Food System Vision Prize and Tata Social Enterprise Challenge to name only a few.

The ‘Gardeners’

Outside of award schemes that recognise retrospective excellence and best practice (like the UK Social Enterprise Awards for example), competitions come in a number of flavours. On the one hand there are the ‘gardeners’, who delve through the undergrowth looking for the green shoots of promising innovation to nurture. These are prizes like our own Skoll Venture Awards, which aims to spot potential and deploy small but targeted doses of no-strings capital to encourage growth. Other variants of the gardener paradigm are more involved, seeking to actively engage in and boost the evolution of new businesses.

In addition to publicity and funding, accelerator programmes offer a range of other services including learning and development opportunities, networking and access to investment, sometimes taking a stake in the business in return. 

The ‘Architects’

Elsewhere in the innovation support ecosystem are the ‘architects’ – challenge prizes that carefully identify problems that they or their funders are particularly keen on solving, and design tailored competitions to promote innovation in the sector. This is an idea with a long history. Famously, the British government in 1714 offered an award equivalent to several million pounds in today’s money for anyone who could come up with an innovation to precisely determine a ship’s longitude at sea. Today the X Prize Foundation offers similar amounts, and more, to those who can offer advances in diagnosis for medical conditions, or remove CO2 from the atmosphere. 

Both the gardeners and the architects of the social entrepreneurship world have in common the ambition of supporting innovation that our societies need, but for which there is not yet (or might never be) the market demand to unlock capital from traditional investors. They support young ventures with innovative ideas and high social impact potential, but with business plans that are still unproven. In between this high-risk grant capital and the world of traditional growth finance, is the world of social investment, which plays off the calculus of return on investment against the chance of societal benefit.

Systemic Challenges

But how well is our landscape of capital and other support for social ventures really enabling the potential of the best social entrepreneurs to ideate, prototype, launch and grow new businesses that provide answers to the world’s systemic challenges at the scale we need? Even since the inception of the Skoll Venture Awards in 2012, the number and breadth of organisations (corporates, governments, nonprofits, and academic institutions) building awards that catalyse social ventures has grown exponentially. The ecosystem might seem crowded, but are we filling all the right niches, and are we providing support at all of the crucial pinch points along the social entrepreneur’s journey to allow beautiful, wise and impact-led ventures to grow, and to fill the landscape? 

Social innovation needs gardeners and architects, and like any ecosystem, thrives on diversity and plurality. But by combining the best of these two approaches we might see something else too. Taking the big picture approach of the architect alongside the gardener’s ability to see possibility and provide it with what it needs to grow, we can map the system that enables and shapes social ventures to thrive, and ask how it could be improved. How are competitions feeding into the wider social innovation and investment ecosystem? Are we collectively selecting for and nurturing the most important attributes of truly impactful ventures? Are we duplicating efforts? How might social ventures move from one competition or accelerator to another most beneficially? How might we partner for increased impact? 

Competitions play a key role in celebrating and supporting individuals and teams who have chosen to follow their imagination and to demonstrate leadership and courage through building a venture. To serve them better we can step back and consider how we can work together towards just, equitable and sustainable systems.

My Journey Post-MBA

Florentina-Daniela Gheorghe, Skoll Scholar 2018-19, reflects on her own personal learnings moving out of Oxford in September 2019, a few months before COVID-19 struck the whole world.

“You will really understand the value of the MBA after 2-3 years,”

a friend and Oxford MBA alumnus told me last year.

I took the MBA as a reflection and learning year: to get to know myself better, improve my leadership skills, understand my strengths and my values in contrast, get to connect with people from all around the world. Learn not only about myself but about the state of the world: of business, of economics, of government. What a ride it was: from moments of exaltation, to moments of tension, to deadlines, to a variety of projects, to cultural alignment and conflict. A ride that I appreciate more and more with the passing of time.

I moved to Oxford for the MBA in September 2018 and moved out of Oxford in September 2019, a few months before COVID-19 struck the whole world.

I am very grateful for the opportunities that reached me in these hard times.

Here is what happened since September:

Visa troubles

I got my visa application rejected for South Africa from UK twice! When I finally received it, COVID-19 was spreading all over the world.

I had my ticket and luggage ready to fly the next day and went to the embassy to pick up my passport: I found an empty passport. I applied again; application was rejected again. I was devastated. I was so excited to spend some weeks in South Africa and do an internship with a cool payment startup for SMEs in Cape Town. I was introduced to the company’s founder by a fellow Skoll Scholar and friend from the Oxford network. Four months later, I received a visa which I never used: by now, it was February 2020.

The wine industry

I worked on a project I never imagined myself working on, in the English Sparkling Wine industry in Hampshire, UK.

With no place to stay in London and no visa for South Africa plans, in November I moved to a beautiful vineyard in the South Downs. What a splendid experience! Extremely grateful to a professor from Saïd Business School who recommended me for the project. For 3 winter months, I spend my days understanding the art of winemaking, the market and the sustainability challenges. I was dreaming to making our brand the first circular wine brand in the world! After walking my dog in the darkness of the vineyard post 4 pm every day, I spent many quiet evenings – a blessing after a busy MBA year. The most fascinating thing about wine making is that every single activity in the vineyard, every single touch of the vine can change the final taste of the wine.

My journey as an independent consultant was just beginning

Building on the relationship I developed during the class “Implementing new initiatives in business”, I continued working with an education technology startup in Oxford and helped the five people team think through its value proposition. So many wonderful ideas can arise when we put our customers’ needs at the center of our business decisions.

Social impact consulting for non-profits

While at the vineyard, far away from the city life, I found myself with extra time in the evenings. Towards the end of November, a colleague and friend at Oxford introduced me to a social impact consulting project for a London based consulting firm. Since then, together with other MBA colleagues, we mapped the fundraising markets in Romania, Egypt, Uruguay, scanned the world for emergency funds for children, and looked at global strategies for expanding the number of regular donors for different international non-profits.

Daniela pictured while doing a value proposition workshop for the wine producer team

My favorite project so far: access to finance in emerging markets

I got introduced to a skill development institute in East Africa by another colleague at Oxford. Since February, we together looked to map the so-called ‘missing middle financing gap’ for small businesses in Kenya and beyond and understand how we might ensure their access to the most needed capital. Then COVID-19 hit the developed world. Many African countries imposed their own form of lockdown. We are now looking at being part of the mobilization for recovery. 100+ million ‘new poor’: the African continent sees the dark consequences of broken supply chains and economic shut-down. It’s imperative we act. 

As a startup founder in an emerging market, I experienced first-hand the struggles for survival in under-developed support ecosystems for entrepreneurs. Talking to some mentors and system change experts, I knew I didn’t want to work in impact investing: there is enough money in the world. It’s the time for investors to step up during the pandemic. However, what the world needs more than ever is support for entrepreneurs to become investable, to survive and recover.

NEW! Climate tech startup

What else can I do from my small office desk in St Albans, UK? This time, my mentor in the Executive MBA cohort, introduced me to a circular economy startup run by one of her colleagues. I joined the team recently. We look to create a circular sourcing gateway for the textile and packaging industry. In my partnership role, I seek to bring people together and write fundraising applications in advance of our MVP launch in July this year. It’s so exciting to see how the world is progressing to circular strategies. Here is one of my favorite videos on the change towards a circular economy.

As I write this in June 2020, there is still a lot of uncertainty in the world post-pandemic. I am humbly trying to do my best to remotely support amazing initiatives. Though, my heart is in emerging markets, on the ground, in the streets, among people.

Daniela is a customer centricity consultant, ex social entrepreneur in ed-tech in India and a Skoll Scholar at Oxford Saïd Business School. Find her on Twitter @ella_gh

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Diversity, Equality and Inclusion in Impact Investment

Tara Sabre Collier, Social Entrepreneur in Residence at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Skoll Scholar alumna joins Chris Blues, Programme Manager for Social Ventures at the Skoll Centre, in examining inequalities within the Impact Investment industry.

Inequality is one of the greatest challenges of our time, hampering growth, spurring strife and instability and impeding human development.

Income inequality has been worsening across countries since the turn of the century and is likely to be tremendously exacerbated by COVID-19. The impact investment sector has been a powerful force for progress towards many SDGs but needs to take a critical look at how, as a sector, it is advancing or exacerbating SDG 10. In most of the world, income and wealth inequality are inextricably tied to race, ethnicity, gender, national/origin migration status but most impact investors have not fully interrogated their roles in fostering equity and inclusion across their organizations and portfolios.

There is no aggregate global diversity and inclusion data for the impact investment industry.

Data from the UK, one of the world’s leading countries for impact investment, show a clear discrepancy in the ecosystem, with people of colour occupying less than 7% and women outnumbered 2:1 in board directorships. While the UK does not necessarily represent the entire impact investment industry, it is an important global hub. Moreover, there are a number of global commonalities in terms of wealth distribution, private capital markets and philanthropy that indicate other Western impact investment markets will similarly fall short. The impact investment industry hybridises investment, philanthropy, and social enterprise traits; talent, staffing and leadership trends will reflect this DNA. A few global highlights from these sectors (across UK and USA) reveal less than admirable diversity and inclusion track record.

Venture Capital

The United States is the world’s leading VC market. White men are 30% of the country’s population yet nearly 80% of VCs and 80-90% of leadership in venture-backed companies. This demographic disparity, is replicated in the European VC ecosystem. Furthermore, research shows that venture capitalists are far more likely to partner with people who share their gender or race, leading to far less funding for women entrepreneurs and founders of colour.

Philanthropy

Women are about 56% of US philanthropic foundations CEOs, but people of colour only occupy 11% of said roles, despite a significant philanthropic emphasis on serving communities of colour in the US. There’s now evidence that this disparity is reflected in philanthropic funding for social entrepreneurs of colour, with a recent Bridgespan study showing Black-led social enterprises have 76% smaller net assets than white-led counterparts, mostly attributed to bias.

Social sector

Just 3% of UK charity CEOs were of non-white backgrounds, despite the fact that a large share of the UK sector’s work likewise addresses communities of colour. On the international front, an older study indicated less than 10% of the largest international NGOs had African board members, despite Africa being the largest market for INGO grant funding and programs.  Likewise, despite women comprising 70% of INGO staff, women are still vastly under-represented (i.e. approximately 30%) as CEOs and leaders of these organizations.

These select examples demonstrate a pattern of diversity paucity which contravenes the vision of impact investing.

Two painted multicoloured hands, holding hands

If the impact investing industry replicates these disparities, there is a risk of reinforcing income inequality, instead of combatting it.

The representation gap also points to a possible market failure whereby impact capital is likely not being efficiently distributed to many promising ventures with potential to solve societal challenges because of a disconnect between primarily Western white male funders and under-represented social enterprise founders, especially in the Global South. Furthermore, the lack of representation in impact investment teams and portfolios would likely detract from the sector’s financial performance, given the proven linkages between gender/racial diversity and financial performance. There’s no dearth of evidence for the commercial benefits of representation but nevertheless a handful are mentioned below:

While the corporate sector continues to rise to the occasion on diversity and inclusion efforts, the impact investment industry is yet to get on board with really advancing the inclusion agenda beyond gender. In the face of what we are learning from the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no time like now to decidedly develop diversity and inclusion initiatives that will improve financial/social returns. If impact investors are truly serious about the SDGs, including SDG 10, we must fight the hazards of inequality, starting with our own industry.

Authors:
Chris Blues, Programme Manager for Social Ventures, Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship

Tara Sabre-Collier, Social Entrepreneur in Residence, Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship

How to Build a Purpose-Driven Venture

Mike Quinn is a 2007-08 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA alumnus, he is also the co-founder and former CEO of Zoona, one of Africa’s earliest fintech companies. With over 10 years of experience running a successful social business, Mike shares his hard-learned tips and experiences on how to get a purpose-driven venture started, built and scaled. This is the second article in the series, how to ‘build’.

In my last blog, I outline a three part strategy to starting a purpose driven venture:

  1. Start by falling in love with a big problem
  2. Pick the right co-founder(s)
  3. Rapid prototype to discover product market fit

If you get that far, you are well on your way and should be able to raise investment. The art of fundraising is a topic on its own that has been extensively covered, including this excellent piece by Y-Combinator’s co-founder Paul Graham. In this article, I’m going to assume you have some capital and now it’s time to build. Specifically, there are three critical foundations you will need to put in place in advance of scaling your venture (which will be the third part of this series).

Build a Model

I used to falsely believe that innovating means everything needs to be new and unique. A more mature approach is to first research what other models are out there that you can learn from. As John Mullins and Randy Komisar wisely advise in Getting to Plan B, start by finding successful analog models that you can emulate, and figure out how to copy and adapt them to your market. When launching Zoona, we studied M-Pesa’s agent and money transfer model in Kenya and figured out how to adapt it to Zambia where it didn’t exist. It’s a lot easier to build off of someone else’s successful innovation than to start from scratch.

Conversely, it is also useful to identify antilog models that are past their prime and explicitly define what you want to do the opposite of. In Zoona’s case, this was deploying entrepreneur owned and managed kiosks instead of branches as the banks and the post office were doing.

You will also need to figure out your growth levers, how you make money, and establish metrics and feedback mechanisms to track if your model is working. The faster you can learn and adapt, the greater the probability of success.

Build a Team

Your ability to build a motivated, aligned and high-performing team will make or break your venture. This is one of the most important jobs of an entrepreneur and ironically one of the easiest to screw up. When there is so much work to do, it is extremely tempting to hire the first person who walks in the door and leave her alone to sink or swim. I have learned that it’s much more effective to be purposeful and systematic every step of the way. Here is a checklist I use when building a team:

  • Do you really know what roles you need, and have you defined them as clearly as you can?
  • What roles can you outsource or make part-time to avoid taking on too much fixed cost?
  • Have you defined what values, abilities, and skills (in that order of importance) are required for each role?
  • Do you have a clearly defined Employee Value Proposition to attract the right people? (i.e. Why would anyone want to work for you?)
  • Do you know where to find potential candidates? (The good ones most likely already have jobs). Have you looked within your organization?
  • Do you have a non-biased process to assess candidates?
  • Have you thoroughly checked their references to identify red flags and validate their track records?
  • Can you “try before you buy” by starting new hires off as consultants?
  • Have you defined clear 30/60/90/180/365 day objectives and key results that will determine if the new hire is performing?
  • Do you have a process to give and receive regular and honest feedback?
  • Do you have a simple and effective performance management system?
  • Do you have a process to identify exit the wrong people?

The last point on identifying and exiting the wrong people is as important as hiring the right ones. A mentor once told me that the best recruitment firms in the world will only get it right 75% of the time, but the best companies in the world are those that efficiently deal with the other 25%. If you want to build a great team, learn how to compassionately offboard people who stand in the way of that goal.

Build a Culture

With the right people in the right roles, amazing things are possible. But for anything to be achieved, those people also need to exhibit the right behaviors, which is where your culture comes in. As with all my advice, the starting point is to be purposeful about designing what culture you want and then taking steps to shape that. If you don’t do this purposefully, a culture will emerge anyway, and it may not be one that is productive or that you want.

  • Have you defined your purpose, values and principles?
  • Do you live your purpose, values and principles?
  • Do you reflect and learn from failure?
  • Do you celebrate your successes and acknowledge achievements?
  • Do you care about your people and their well-being?

The golden rule for building an effective culture is “do what I do, not what I say.” As a leader, everyone will watch how you behave for signals on how they should behave. As Ben Horowitz rightly titled his latest book about creating culture, “What You Do Is Who You Are.” With any purpose-driven venture, time and energy spent designing and improving your model, team and culture will be time well-spent. It will pay off in multiples when you enter the next phase: scaling.

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My journey from Nepal to Oxford

Tsechu Dolma is a current 2019-20 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. She is the founder of the Mountain Resiliency Project to help build resilient refugee communities through women’s agribusinesses. She reflects on her lived experience and how it led her to an impact career and an MBA at Oxford.

There are 25.4 million refugees in the world; children make up half of them; 3.5 million school-age refugee children do not go to school, and only one percent of refugees enroll in higher education. I was born into these statistics.  I grew up in a Tibetan refugee camp and spent the first half of my life as a stateless person. Fleeing the civil war in Nepal, my family sought political asylum in the United States.

After becoming a new American, receiving my education there, then going back, I realized that my refugee community back home was stuck in a culture of waiting that international agencies had perpetuated and we had enhanced upon. Our community has been plagued with development barriers such as heavy youth outmigration, low student retention, poor water access and ethnic marginalization. But we were not working on solving our problems; instead, we waited for outsiders to bring in poorly designed, implemented and costly projects that would only last for a year or two. Inside the past decade, climate change and globalization has made living in the high-Himalayas increasingly more difficult and we cannot afford to wait. I made a risky leap so that we can reverse this development trend, and instead take a grassroots approach to foster local ownership, inclusion and capacity.

(Photo Credit: Mountain Resiliency Project) The majority of the villages Mountain Resiliency Project (MRP) works with do not have road access. They are some of the most remote settlements in the Himalayan range. Foot and pack animals travel is the lifeline of our communities. In this photo, Tsechu Dolma is traveling to one of MRP’s sites in Manang, Nepal, where the nearest road is a four-day hike away, plus a another 20 hours bus ride from Kathmandu, crossing a pass 16,814ft above sea level.

My entrepreneurial spirit brought me back to the refugee camps I left behind to start a social enterprise. I founded Mountain Resiliency Project six years ago while I was an undergraduate student. We have a proven track record of improving food security, women’s economic empowerment and leveling patchy development for 15,000 displaced farmers in Nepal. Our average families have increased their annual incomes by 200 percent. Most importantly, 80 percent of our family’s earned income is spent on their children’s continued education and the remaining is reinvested in their trade.  I realize the value of hard work and grit in achieving our true potential. Our work has received international awards and recognition for making strides. Today, we have 15 full-time staff leading our work in Nepal. I am rethinking the underpinnings of development in my community that has continued to perpetrate marginalization and dispossession. My vision is to scale Mountain Resiliency’s work worldwide. We want to grow out of South Asia to become the first-ever global network of refugee communities producing and selling goods to the mainstream market. Being a Skoll Scholar has supported my growth as a social entrepreneur and broadened my scope of advocating for and strengthening displaced communities.

Tsechu Dolma in camping tent, with background of mountain scene

The Skoll Scholarship aligns with my lifelong values of growing into an effective leader with the grit, vision and communication skills to be a steward to my community and environment. For me, it is the tool to address inequities, development gaps and improve livelihoods. From my work at Mountain Resiliency, I have firsthand experience of how effective social enterprises that are deeply rooted in empathy and relationship building can transform lives. Social entrepreneurship is the best amalgamation of my passion and skills for how I want to influence the world. My experience with displaced communities has taught me that when the system is broken and continues to perpetrate disenfranchisement to the most vulnerable, the solutions must come from the unconventional. On my journey through different landscapes, I seek connections with the human and natural world to find my place and understand economic development. The literature on human, nature and policy has allowed me to use ideas from development discourse, like ‘participation’ and ‘sustainability’ in a way that is both effective and critical. Displaced communities worldwide have little to no political leverage and only extractive industries and projects are in their region; resulting in inconsistent, patchy development. I intend to change this.

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My journey from Bangladesh to Oxford

Anjali Sarker is a current 2019-20 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. She is passionate about empowering women’s rights through economic opportunity. She reflects on her impact journey so far and what led her to Oxford.  

It was a hot summer afternoon in 2014. A group of middle-aged women were sitting under a tree, giving me and my colleague a very skeptical look as we were trying to explain how mobile payments could possibly make their lives easier. They did not seem to be convinced at all, for good reasons; at least for reasons that were valid to them.

“We, women, don’t understand those things… too complicated for us.”

“My husband handles all financial matters. Those are men’s responsibilities.”

“My marriage will be in trouble if I use mobile money. My in-laws will assume that I’m secretly sending money to my parents.”

Anjali Sarker headshot outside Saïd Business School

I wondered if it was at all possible to challenge the age-old traditions and gender norms that made women believe that managing money is men’s business, and they should ‘stay out of it’. As a deep believer in gender equality, and being a woman myself, I wanted to challenge the status quo.

At that point, the mobile money revolution in Bangladesh was just building momentum. However, as with all new opportunities, it was mostly men who were able to utilise mobile money. In particular, rural and poor women lagged behind. By 2017, the number of mobile money account holders in Bangladesh shot to over 24 million, the highest in the world. Shockingly, at the same time, the gender gap in financial inclusion increased 20 percentage points within only 3 years, leaving 38 million women unbanked. BRAC, one of the largest NGOs in the world where I worked at the time, had been active in the microfinance industry since the early 1970s, providing rural women access to small loans. We saw mobile money as an opportunity to expand the coverage of financial services to every corner of the country. However, the challenge was how to take it to the poorest women who need it the most.

The next few years became a roller coaster ride for my team, pulling off a massive nationwide project, funded by the Gates Foundation, to get digital financial services to the fingertips of one million women (literally). Leading the project taught me more than I could have ever imagined – taking me to the remotest corners of the country and exposing my eyes to the harshest forms of poverty. On one hand, it was incredibly inspiring to see how our clients’ eyes lit up when they made their first digital transactions and sent money to their loved ones. On the other hand, I felt numb when I heard many stories of husbands’ abusing their wives for being “too independent”. I realised that beyond providing necessary services and ‘doing good’, development interventions should also take responsibility for the consequences, both intended and unintended, that come later.

“A more effective way of changing the status quo is to build a better system that makes the existing system obsolete.”

Anjali Sarker, 2019-20 Skoll Scholar

The project left my mind full of complex questions, which motivated me to take a two-year study leave. Before coming to Oxford for my MBA, I did an MSc at the London School of Economics, where I studied Inequalities and explored how emerging technologies impact the existing inequalities. Many people raise their eyebrows when I said that I was going to do an MBA, after studying “inequalities”! Aren’t these the two extremes of the world today where the richest 1% are exploiting the whole planet and the activists are protesting on streets to bring them down? Well, I believe the realities are much more complex and nuanced than that. One can choose to fight the system and in extreme cases of injustice, that might as well be the only option. However, in most situations, a more effective way of changing the status quo is to build a better system that makes the existing system obsolete. This hope for change is what inspired me and brought me to Oxford.

While looking into business schools, Oxford’s Saïd Business School clearly stood out because of the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship, the Skoll Scholarship, and the incredible privilege to be immersed within the wider Oxford University community. In fact, my motivation for an MBA was understanding the world of business and investing the knowledge, skills and connections gained in social good, specially to create systems that work for women. Unfortunately, women are still the biggest minority in the world. More often than not, their needs and realities do not get the attention they deserve. To make things worse, if they are poor, illiterate or live in rural areas, they become almost invisible to the systems and decision-makers. My hope is that spending this year in Oxford, and all the incredible opportunities that come with an MBA from Oxford Saïd, will enable me to better serve millions of invisible women in Bangladesh.