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My journey from Costa Rica to Oxford

Joaquín Víquez is a 2019-20 Oxford MBA and Skoll Scholar. He began his social impact career in his native country, Costa Rica, where his passion for environmental sustainability led him to many projects and ventures. Now Joaquin finds himself among 300+ other global MBA candidates in one of the world’s oldest institutions, the University of Oxford.

It might sound strange, but I truly enjoy the smell of coffee berries. Most coffee drinkers don’t even know what that is because coffee travels around the world as a bean and not the actual berry. The coffee berry is processed the same day it’s harvested, and in just a few days the coffee bean is ready for shipping. I know this because I grew up in a family dedicated to small scale coffee farming and livestock. By the way, I also enjoy the smell of horses and cacao fermentation.


Joaquín Víquez

Growing up around agriculture provided me with a sense of what it means to ‘live off the land’ so to speak, the hardships and of course, the rewards. It helped me develop a sense of empathy towards an industry that feeds the world. It also caused me to develop questions, I didn’t realize then, that was going to become an essential part of my career. For example, what happens to the coffee skin/peel after the bean is extracted? What do they do with such “waste”?

Joaquin with large biogas machinary in a trench in the ground

Naturally, this upbringing influenced me to undertake a degree in agriculture science, which I did in Costa Rica at EARTH University. During my time at school, I started specializing on biogas technology. Biogas converts, through a biochemical process, organic waste into fertilizer and methane, which can be used as energy. In other words, a farm just like the one I grew up on, could convert the cow dung into energy for cooking. 

Back then, if I had to describe my “dream job” stepping right out of college, it would’ve been a 95% match to my actual first job. I ended up leading a team who advised dairy farmers how to properly manage their in-farm waste (mainly cow dung). At that time, regulations were urging the largest dairy cooperative in Costa Rica to align its farmers to produce environmentally friendly. I continue to advocate the use of biogas among these dairy farms. Having learnt there wasn’t an actual product in the market for small scale biogas farmers, I decided to quit this job and start a social venture to make biogas an accessible technology among farmers.

Entrepreneurs always describe how difficult but worthwhile is to run your own business; I can’t but agree! The company (Viogaz) officially operated for six years. We became a renown biogas company with the greatest number of biogas projects in Costa Rica. During this time, we were recognised and awarded for the work we were doing, plus creating tangible impact in the region. Unfortunately, a combined set of unexpected events fell upon the company, which obliged me to shut down the project at the end of 2017.

Joaquin giving a talk to a small crowd standing on top of biogas machinary.

I learned that doing business while having an environmental priority is possible and highly gratifying. So, just as I decided to do an MSc to strengthen my technical knowledge, I started considering doing an MBA to strengthen my business knowledge. Coincidentally, I received a newsletter announcing the Skoll Scholarship to study at Saïd Business School on a renown MBA program with a strong focus on responsible and social business, at the University of Oxford. This scholarship sought to support entrepreneurs doing good through business. I thought to myself: “that’s what I have been doing for all my career” … I decided to apply.

Fast forward, 12 months later, I find myself at a 400-year-old pub in the heart of Oxford writing this blog. I couldn’t be more excited, thrilled, and inspired to be here. I am very much looking forward to the future. And although my future is not set in stone, I plan to continue to explore new business ideas in areas of waste-to-resource and climate change, as well open to also join an organization tackling these problems.

…And by the way, going back to my child questions, coffee peel/skin is still disposed of inadequately, causing tremendous environmental impact, meaning there is still lots of work to do.

An MBA for Social Entrepreneurship

It was 2017 and I was visiting an indigenous Aymara community of quinoa producers. After 3 years of hard work and with some funding from international organizations, these humble smallholder farmers received organic certification that would allow them to earn a fairer price on their quinoa. They put in all the necessary internal audits to prove that the quinoa was organic quality. That year should have been their second organic-certified harvest.

But all was not well.

I had already spoken with the certifier to learn that they missed the required $7,000 payment for certification, and I wanted to know why.

Image of Alexander Wankel

Quinoa prices had plummeted to their lowest levels in years and the grant project supporting the community had ended.

Worse yet, the cooperative had no connections with international clients willing to purchase organic quinoa at a premium price, so their valuable harvest sat in the warehouse for nearly a year.

The farmers couldn’t come up with the money and by the time a buyer came, it was already too late to pay for the next year’s certification. Years of efforts had been wasted, and the farmers were now stuck with poverty-level quinoa prices once again.

How could this tragic situation have been avoided? 

An MBA (or any type of higher education) is not a silver bullet for solving problems like these, but it can be a starting point. Business has the power to create wealth, but this wealth often doesn’t reach those who need it most desperately.

As an Oxford educated MBA student with the added privilege of graduating debt-free thanks to the Skoll Scholarship, how should I strive to use business as a force for good? How can I avoid the mistakes of other short-lived projects that have failed to deliver their goals? How can business school skills be of service to smallholder farmers, to ecosystems, to the Earth that we must share?

Image of Alexander Wankel

MBAs teach the core concepts upon which our economic system is built, by extension affecting everyone in society. In some ways, an MBA is geared towards profit maximization, both of MBA alumni and of the corporations they work for. After all, official Financial Times MBA rankings are based partially on the who has the highest salaries 3 years after graduation. With the field of impact investing on the rise, the win-win philosophy of “doing well by doing good” has caught on, affirming that achieving positive social or environmental impact can be profitable.

However, those of us who are committed to a social problem know that impact work often requires sacrifice. As a social entrepreneur the hours are long, the risks are many, and the most significant victories take years to achieve.

As societies face escalating existential threats due to climate change and rising inequality, the MBA programs of tomorrow may look drastically different from those of today. Some of my courses this year have helped me imagine this change and provided me with the language to express it. I’ve learned that there is a difference between avoiding harm and contributing to solutions, that if traditional financing tools don’t meet the needs of social enterprises we can invent new ones, that future business models should be restorative and regenerative by design, and that a major task of business today is to help find a just space for humanity within our planetary boundaries. I’ve also learned the traditional tools of finance, accounting, economics, and strategy which have helped leading business ideas scale and grow.

Although actors from many fields and disciplines must work towards solutions, the role of business is unique because economic activity is the root cause of the most critical environmental problems affecting our world. After all, cleaning up a mess is not as good as preventing it in the first place. This means cutting off or minimizing the flow of pollution and resource depletion from businesses, and some top firms such as IKEA and Unilever are now working to do so.

To prevent catastrophic 2-degree climate change, carbon emissions must sharply and drastically reverse from their long-term steep upward trend. There is no precedent for this and currently there are few signs that this is happening at a sufficient pace. Without cooperation from businesses, the task may be impossible. Social entrepreneurs must also work to build and prove the technologies and business models that will provide the building blocks of this change.

This year has reaffirmed my commitment to social enterprise, which to me means using the tools I have learned to create business models that benefit local communities and ecosystems.

In September I plan to return to Andean farmer communities after a year at Oxford to witness some of the same realities with a new perspective and a new set of resources. I plan to scale my company, Kai Pacha Foods, which I have now realized has a core purpose: to build healthy foods out of healthy ecosystems. By designing food and beverage products based on native crop systems in which each food plays complementary ecological and nutritional roles, we are crafting a business model capable of generating a profit while also improving the livelihoods farmers who conserve land, water, and biodiversity.

Image of Quinoa

After a year packed with so much learning, I have much work ahead to put these concepts and tools into practice. Likewise, the business world and business education have a lot of work ahead to play a more positive role in building an economy that can be sustained on a planet with finite resources.

At Saïd Business School, I have learned about innovation in impact and responsible business alongside the more traditional concepts of an MBA upon which our current economic system is built. From these pieces, the task now falls to us to assemble solutions that are equal to the scale of the problems afflicting our planet.

Image of field of Quinoa

Alexander Wankel, 2018-19 Skoll Scholar.

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What’s new in the war on food waste?

An interview with Winnow’s Marc Zornes. 

Image source: World Economic Forum/REUTERS/Ben Nelms

Jeremy Sigmon is currently pursuing his MSc in water science, policy, and management with the School of Geography and the Environment.  He joined Oxford with 15 years of experience in the U.S. green building industry which is when he had his first of many inspiring sustainability conversations with global food waste expert and entrepreneur Marc Zornes, co-founder of Winnow, one of the top 100 fastest growing companies in Europe.

Whether in our homes, at the market, in transport from farms, or at the restaurant, food is so often wasted.  In developed countries, most of the waste occurs in kitchens or is left on the plate, since the food supply chain has been generally optimized so that minimal food is wasted from farm to market.  In less developed countries, the inverse is true: food may spoil at ports, in transport, or at the market due to inefficient supply systems, but the food that is purchased by consumers is usually consumed.

With a fast-growing global population and increasing pressures on global resources exacerbated by climate change, some have begun looking at increasing the end-to-end efficiency of our food system, from farm to fork, as an essential way to ensure we can feed the world today and tomorrow (see also McKinsey’s Resource Revolution, which Zornes coauthored).  What’s more, Marc Zornes has also discovered that fixing the problem is good for the environment and profitable, too.  I sat down with him to learn more about it.

Jeremy Sigmon (JS): Food waste appears to be a much bigger issue than I had previously imagined, and you think a lot about it.  What keeps you up at night?

American-born, London-based, international food waste warrior, Marc Zornes, founder of Winnow.

Marc Zornes (MZ): Food waste is one of the biggest environmental issues we have today.  We now know this because our data on the scale of the problem are getting clearer.  30% of all food that is grown is never eaten.  This is a $1 trillion problem that will grow to $1.5 trillion by 2030.  What keeps me up is how we scale solutions to address this issue.  This is one of the clearest win-win opportunities in environment and business.  We save money by throwing away less food, it is better for the environment, and it’s morally the right thing to do.  Fortunately, there are a growing number of solutions out there that can be scaled to address this issue.

JS: How is circular economy thinking finding its way into the food industry?

MZ: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation just released a major report that explores this topic: ‘Cities and Circular Economy for Food’.  For starters, nature’s food system is circular.  The question is how to reorient the industrial food system we’ve built.  Fundamentally, this begins with redesigning systems that radically minimize waste.  We then need robust systems for nutrient recovery rather than disposal.  Landfills release lots of methane gas and – for safety reasons – are actually not designed for decomposition.  We’ve found nutrient-rich cabbage in a landfill still trying to decompose decades later.  We need a coherent, systems approach to ensure we neither waste food nor lose its nutrients.

JS: I understand you’re focused on commercial kitchens.  What’s your approach?

MZ: We focus in on commercial kitchens because they have a big economic opportunity in food waste prevention.  Kitchens throw away about 15% of the food they buy, and the majority of the waste happens before it even gets to a plate.  By providing analytics on the waste generated and supporting the production planning process of the kitchen, we ultimately help cut the value of food waste in half or more.  This leads to big cost savings for the kitchen – from 3% to 8% of what they spend on food.  Of course, this is also a very attractive investment.  We deliver a 200% to 1,000% ROI to our clients in the first year.

Winnow Vision, released in March, is the newest weapon in the war on food waste, and powered by artificial intelligence.

JS: I just read about a new Winnow technology that could be a game-changer.  Tell us more!

MZ: The original ambition of Winnow was to use artificial intelligence (AI) to measure and analyse food waste in kitchens.  In order for food waste monitoring and measurement to be seamlessly integrated into a very busy commercial kitchen, you really need a fully automated system. When I founded Winnow in 2013, this automation wasn’t possible, so we built a system that asked staff to identify the food wasted on a touchscreen tablet.  Winnow Vision, our latest product, is the realisation of that original ambition.  Winnow Vision is a camera-based system that looks into the bin and uses computer vision to identify all food being wasted.  It really is a game-changer for our business and a great, practical example of AI for good.

JS: What parting words of wisdom do you have for students of the circular economy and social enterprise?

MZ: There’s a massive opportunity in helping the world transition to a low-carbon, more circular economy.  My biggest advice: if you have something you believe in that needs building, build it.  We don’t have a lot of time and we need more solutions to scale.  It’s hard work for sure.  That said, it’s the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.

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My Journey from New Delhi to Oxford

Nikhil Dugal is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. He’s a social entrepreneur working in the field of environmental sustainability, specifically towards establishing a circular economy. Here, Nikhil shares his story and inspiration up to becoming an Oxford Scholar.

Portrait of Nikhil

My journey leading up to Saïd Business School has always been guided by one principle, to put the impact of the work I’m doing first, before anything else.

My journey started in 2014 when I had been working at a development economics research center in India for about two years. As a researcher, I became increasingly frustrated from working on multi-year, multi-million dollar projects that repeatedly unpacked major social challenges, without actually pairing them to actionable policy insights that could create change. It became clear that I enjoyed a more hands-on approach, and wanted take part in changing the problems I was working on. I set out to find opportunities to use what I’d learned to become part of building solutions myself.

While in college at New York University, I had taken a class on social entrepreneurship that first introduced me to the idea of establishing a business-for-good. I was immediately intrigued by the concept of a business designed to address a social or environmental problem, versus the traditional mode of CSR, which engages in philanthropy out of a percentage of profits made from the unsustainable systems themselves. This new breed of social –business instead leverages market-forces to implement change, without the constraint of relying on funding for their entire life-cycle.

It wasn’t long after first getting excited about social enterprise that I met a friend who had been inspired by the idea of repurposing shipping containers into infrastructure – and his inspiration really got me thinking. Having worked in the development sector, I understood there was an unmet need for organizations working on rented land, running operations in remote areas. I was also interested in working in the waste management space. I proposed that we focus on his expertise in manufacturing, and use my previous experience to start a company that provides custom container infrastructure to organizations in rural and urban India.

Image of colourful containers

Containers retired from use at a yard in Uttar Pradesh

Aadhan

Over the past two years, we’ve built a company that repurposes once unusable materials into beautiful classrooms, workspaces and more, anywhere in India. We provide an end-to-end service to any organization looking to build temporary infrastructure. Our facilities help up-cycle shipping containers that are over 20 years old and retired from use.

We’ve built a list of vendors who provide construction inputs made from waste, such as wall paneling made from Tetra-pak waste cartons or sustainably sourced wood, insulation made from PET bottles, and roofing sheets made from recycled plastic and aluminum. These are offered as a package to our clients, for each of whom we design a custom facility as per their requirement. We also offer off-grid solutions including solar-panels and dry-toilets.

Interior of a shipping container - built withTetra-pak Board

The interior of this facility is made from Tetra-pak Board

At Aadhan Infrastructure, we’ve helped recycle over 25 tons of steel, and built a diverse range of infrastructure including skill training classrooms for government programs, training facilities for rural healthcare workers, and even furniture showrooms for private companies. Over 400 children from disadvantaged communities have accessed skill training in rural Uttar Pradesh due to our classroom. We’ve also won grant funding, business competitions and were featured on national television.

Nikhil and his team standing on top of a shipping container they have converted into a space

Carrying out an inspection before dispatch

Why the Oxford MBA?

Despite our small and growing success in India, I feel there is so much more I need to learn in order to grow the company’s impact across India. We have faced innumerable challenges including an inability to scale up our work with the government, an inability to raise equity funding, the lack of an established market and low trust in the new building technology. I was able to receive significant peer support from organizations such as Unltd. Delhi; however, I realized I needed to build my skillset in order to successfully be able to run the business and change our model in order to scale up the impact of our work.

Coming from a background in economics and math, I wanted to study business in a place that was focused on supporting social entrepreneurs, and actively involved in the changing narrative on the nature of business. Due to this reason, I had a very specific list of MBA programs. Each one was a one-year program, focused on entrepreneurship, with a significant focus on social enterprise. Saïd Business School was at the top of this list, especially due to the countless resources they offer to social entrepreneurs and the presence of the Skoll Centre.

I had been looking at the scholarship for over a year, and once I knew I met the criteria, I reached out to a previous scholar from India, who was incredibly kind and helpful. It immediately gave me a sense of the community here and motivated me further to apply. One year later, I’m sitting in Oxford, and have been blessed to receive a Skoll Scholarship.

This opportunity has enabled me to pursue my goals and continue to engage in my mission. There are truly few organizations in the world that provide such significant support to social entrepreneurs, with only the intention of encouraging them to lead an impactful career. There is no chance that I would have had access to such a great program without the help of the Scholarship and I look forward to using every opportunity I get over the next year to learn as much as possible.

Over the next year I plan to use all the resources we are offered here, including programs such as Map the System, Skoll Academy and Skoll Venture Awards to refine the mission of my organization and explore levers for change to help us scale our impact. I’ve had the opportunity to attend a few sessions at the Skoll Academy already, and am extremely impressed with the program the Centre has been able to put together as an alternative to the Consulting Development Program and the Finance Lab offered to the rest of the MBA class.

I’ve also had the amazing opportunity to meet my peers, each of whom is as accomplished as the next. They are the greatest resource we have here, and they come from all over the globe, with about a third from the development sector. Although they’re from a diverse background, what they have in common is a sense of collaboration and community, and I feel certain I’ll learn more from them than I can begin to describe here and now.

 

 

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From Lisbon to Oxford

Sandra Fisher-Martins is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. She is also a plain-language activist and entrepreneur. Sandra shares the candid truth about leaving her 10 year old organisation to pursue an Oxford MBA.

“Can you read this letter for me?”, asked Mr. Domingos, the office center caretaker.

We stood by his desk and he watched while I sifted through it. I explained that the letter was in fact a surgery voucher from the Ministry of Health paying for a surgery in a private hospital of his choice. His smile was a mix of relief and disbelief.

“I had thrown it in the bin. Then I remembered you telling me about your job the other day…”

Mr. Domingos had his first job at the age of five and taught himself to read as an adult. He enjoyed the sports newspaper, but struggled with official letters, forms and pretty much everything else. His life story was unique, but his experience of depending on others to access crucial information was not uncommon. Nearly 4 in 5 Portuguese are ‘functionally illiterate’, which means that their reading skills are insufficient to meet the demands of daily life.

I founded Português Claro (‘Plain Portuguese’) in 2007 because I was appalled by the gap between the average literacy skills of our citizens and the complexity of the documents we had to read to get on with our lives. From electricity bills to insurance contracts, from bank statements to government websites, everything was riddled with jargon and legalese. How could anyone make informed choices? How could anyone know and act on their rights?

Sandra and the Claro team at work

Sandra and the Claro team at work

Sandra delivered a talk at Productized 2016

Sandra delivered a talk at Productized 2016

The low literacy problem is an important and complex battle to wage, requiring massive investments in education. I was too frustrated to wait. Seeing an opportunity to meet the needs of today’s Portuguese adults, I set out to persuade businesses and government agencies to simplify the way they communicated with the public.

Having little business experience, during my first years at Claro I used to dispel the flashes of self-doubt with fantasies of getting the Skoll Scholarship and picking up, in one swift year, everything I would need to run a successful social venture.

I never applied. I was too busy running the business and learning by trial-and-error to be a plain-language expert, a salesperson, an accountant, a project manager, a recruiter, a team leader, and a CEO. Stopping for a year was impossible.

And then, after nearly a decade of challenges and growth, Claro hit a sudden wall. A change in government had led to a sharp decline in private and public investment and our sales were plummeting. Faced with the possibility of having to close the company, I started questioning the sustainability of the change we had created over time. Without Claro to provide plain-language services, would these organizations revert back to their old ways?

As my doubts grew, it became clear that I’d allowed myself to be sucked into the day-to-day of running a social enterprise when the real challenge was in creating sustainable systemic change. It was time to stop and have a rethink.

I went back to the Skoll Scholarship and the Centre had added more programming focused on system change. So I decided to apply. This time I wasn’t looking for tools to run a business. I was looking for a space for reflection within a world-class network of systems thinkers, social entrepreneurs and researchers.

It is now Week 4 in Michaelmas (in plain language, that’s the beginning of November) and although the MBA has barely started so much has happened. This is a high-frequency learning environment, with daily opportunities to engage in mind-expanding conversations. Today I met with Patrick to learn about his experience running an impact investment fund in Peru. Last night I explored with Emily the systemic consequences of an ill-conceived agricultural investment in Ghana. Through this exposure to diverse experiences and approaches, my initial questions have evolved and unexpected themes — like ‘identity’ — have surfaced. Clearly, this journey has just begun.  I am eager to see where it takes me.

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Creating opportunities through the power of language

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

Language Amigo's first Learner-Amigo call

Language Amigo’s first Learner-Amigo call

Challenges

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)