Macarena Hernandez de Obeso, is a current Skoll Scholar and is dedicated to economic opportunity and prosperity for deprived communities in Latin America.
She shares the story of starting her new social enterprise that aims to bring together a global community, all the while studying her Oxford MBA!
In September of 2016 I started the most incredible journey of my life so far, an MBA at Oxford. At the beginning, I was sure that I was here to strengthen my business knowledge to be able to combine a sustainable business model with a social mission. However, I wasn’t sure which path I was going to achieve it in the future. I had in mind three options:
1. come back to the social enterprise where I was working before
2. join an international organisation or enterprise focusing on the design of tools and impact metrics to enhance the work of social entrepreneurs
3. start my own venture
Surprisingly, in less than two months, one of these became a reality.
Meeting my Co-Founder
During the first week of my MBA, I met Ana Maria. Being both born in Latin America and having dedicated part of our life to social impact, we realised that we shared a powerful goal; to create opportunities for people in Latin America by embracing their talents and helping them to reach their full potential. She had the idea to fund a charitable project offering Spanish language practice for foreigners through conversations with native speakers within the project’s community. I loved the idea, but not the business model; I thought it should be a social enterprise that could fund itself by creating access to economic opportunities and a flexible way of income for all Spanish native speakers in Latin America.
Launching our social enterprise
In November of 2016, we founded Language Amigo. Today, we are connecting, through video calls, language ’Learners’ who want to practice conversational Spanish, with native speaking ‘Amigos’ from Latin America. For Amigos, Language Amigo is a flexible way of income and for Learners, Language Amigo is a flexible way to practice.
Through Language Amigo, we are not offering Spanish teachers. We are offering to language learners the opportunity to put into practice their foreign language knowledge and have real world conversations with real and friendly people, Amigos. I believe that the main objective to learn a language is to be able to connect with people from another country, culture, and background. Through Language Amigo, you can do that.
Language Amigo’s first Learner-Amigo call
Language Amigo’s first Learner-Amigo call
I was very happy working on my new venture, but with every new path comes its challenges and scepticism. In February 2017, I was delivering a presentation about Language Amigo, to my communication skills’ group at the Oxford Language Centre. I explained that to generate income, Language Amigo keeps a percentage of the cost of the calls conducted between Amigos and Learners. The first question that I received after this presentation, from a Chilean student, was: “are you exploiting Latin American youngsters to create a business?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I wasn’t sure what feeling this question had caused me. Anger? Deception? Surprise? Indignation? I realised that it is not obvious to everyone that a collaborative economy business model, such as Language Amigo, is creating economic inclusion for people who did not have an economic opportunity before. I was conscious that industries threatened by collaborative economy models, such as hospitality and logistics, have been raising critique against successful platforms and putting pressure into regulatory institutions. Nonetheless, the fact that an Oxford student from Latin American believes that we were exploiting our Amigos, completely shocked me.
But, we continue to grow
I believe that Language Amigo is creating value not only for Amigos but also for Learners. We are developing the means to create social and economic transactions between them. We are aggregating and connecting supply with demand that otherwise would never connect. We are constantly looking for potential customers to grow the economic opportunities for Amigos. We are constantly updating the Amigos’ training and generating support resources to improve the experience for the Learners.
Why is the value of creating a network and the means to include people into the economy undervalued? What is harder: to produce and deliver the product or service, or to find the market and attract it to generate demand for the product or service?
Currently, we are looking for institutions such as language centres, schools, universities, and enterprises that already have Spanish students to become our partners. We would like to be able to offer Language Amigo to their students and to co-create the best tool for them, their students, and the Amigos. Together we will be able to demonstrate that it is possible to create fair opportunities through the power of language.
Language Amigo Co-founders: Ana Maria (Left) Macarena (Right)
The Skoll Centre’s Apprenticing with a Problem awards support individuals to engage in experiential learning and deep immersion around the challenges that they seek to tackle.
Oxford MBA alumna, Melissa McCoy, is a 2016-17 awardee whose apprenticeship took her to South Africa to learn about the real challenges faced in the healthcare system, from those who experience it first-hand.
About two years ago, I started trying to solve South African public healthcare challenges before setting foot in the country. For my Oxford MSc Computer Science thesis project, I built a low bandwidth-optimised online telehealth platform and a machine-learning based triage tool for South African patients to solve issues of doctor scarcity and misdistribution. While this sounds logical, I jumped into creating a solution before truly understanding the problem space.
The Skoll Centre’s Global Challenge competition, which resulted in an Apprenticing with a Problem grant, was a huge blessing. It gave me the resources and thought space to understand South African healthcare challenges from several angles and ensure I was tackling the problems in the right way.
The resulting research that my team and I completed focused on visiting 15 healthcare facilities, spanning several characteristic types:
Primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of healthcare
Gauteng, Western Cape, North West, and Mpumalanga provinces
Remote rural, rural, and urban geographies.
The research also focused on speaking with four types of stakeholders (doctors, nurses, facility managers, ICT professionals) that represent the various healthcare system perspectives.
While our findings around the problem space were extremely valuable (and are fully detailed in our report), we also took away some surprising insights:
Willingness to embrace change: Contrary to our initial beliefs, people in the public healthcare system in South Africa do not enjoy the status quo. They are cognisant of the challenges and inefficiencies in the system. They also believe that while there is a lot that rests on the powers that be, there is a lot that they can do themselves to bring about change. Our visits were viewed with optimism and most facilities were hopeful and confident that our suggestions would be beneficial for them. A system that is not cynical and is open to feedback is bound to see progress in due course of time. The positive attitude of practitioners and the administration alike towards embracing technological improvements was a huge motivational factor for us.
Bottom-up, Organic Tech Solutions: While many facilities lacked digital infrastructure to allow for referrals and sharing information, healthcare facilities & professionals devised their own ways to facilitate these processes. Doctors had created WhatsApp groups to discuss difficult patient cases. Nurses had equally formed networks among themselves and would send SMS messages to each other to communicate bed occupancy and information about referred patients.
Learning from field interviews is hard: We came into the research with several pre-conceived ideas around the core problems and the appropriate solutions to solve them. We wanted to validate if our hypotheses were correct without biasing interviewees in the process. In Rob Fitzpatrick’s book, The Mom Test (which we referenced often), he summarises the challenges of this process well: ‘Trying to learn from field conversations is like excavating a delicate archaeological site. While each blow with your shovel gets you closer to the truth, you’re liable to smash it into a million little pieces if you use too blunt an instrument. I see a lot of teams using a bulldozer and crate of dynamite for their excavation. They use heavy-handed questions like “do you think it’s a good idea” and shatter their prize. At the other end of the spectrum, some founders are using a toothbrush to unearth a city, flinching away from digging deep and finding out whether anything of value is actually buried down there.’ We botched at least a dozen conversations with stakeholder, by either introducing our concept of interest too early or never bringing it up and getting their true thoughts. This was a skill we gradually improved upon with every interaction.
Overall, the exploration was invaluable and one-of-a-kind. It set the stage for how our company, ConnectMed, planned to work with the South African public healthcare system, as well as how we now think about engaging the Kenyan system.
Melissa recently completed her MSc Computer Science and MBA at University of Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship and is now working on a Africa-focused digital health venture, ConnectMed, in South Africa and Kenya. She previously worked in the Americas and Africa as an engineer, entrepreneur, and consultant.
Skoll Centre Early Career Research Fellow Tanja Collavo hosted a workshop at Marmalade 2017 on the strengths and weaknesses of the social entrepreneurship sector in England… and where next.
The State of Social Entrepreneurship in England – Strengths, Issues, and Solutions.
What is the state of social entrepreneurship in England? In the course of my DPhil research at Saïd Business School I interviewed key people at social entrepreneurship organisations, revealing a snapshot of strengths, weaknesses, worries and ambitions for the future development of the sector. At this workshop I presented some of my findings and asked participants to give their thoughts and elaborate actionable proposals around the issues most important to them.
The debate was lively! The overall agreement was that the sector is growing, vibrant, diverse, exciting, and constantly changing thanks to the very low barriers to entry. Its core strengths are its ability to break silos across sectors and organisations, and its democratic nature, encouraging bottom-up solutions to social problems and the retention of the wealth produced at the local level. Additionally, the perception is that the quality of products and services delivered by social enterprises is constantly improving and that this is a great business card to increase their market penetration both in the business-to-business and business-to-consumer markets. In this sense, many workshop participants welcomed the shift of the sector towards business and believe that more and more social enterprises should aim to become business-savvy and competitive.
But participants also agreed that there are still many key issues holding back the growth and success of the social entrepreneurship sector:
No one talks about failures
There is very little learning inside the sector because media, intermediaries, social entrepreneurs and enterprises talk a lot about successes but hardly ever about failures.
The passion paradox
Most ventures start because of founder’s personal experience with or passion for the problem they are trying to tackle. This has obvious positives but also can lead to a “do something now” mindset promoting easy solutions and immediate action more than the elaboration of long-term strategies. Further consequences can be the lack of professional sectoral knowledge and lower inclination towards collaboration due to high levels of personal ownership and commitment, also associated with stress and burnout.
Difficulty accessing supply chains
A third issue present in the sector is the low presence of social entrepreneurial organisations in supply chains, both in the business and in the public sectors. In fact, in most cases, social ventures are too small to bid for contracts and too young to have a proven track record that would facilitate their winning supply or service contracts.
Too dependent on government and poor finance
Participants described the sector as still too reliant on government and as lacking appropriate financial support matching its funding requirements and specificities. Financial support was described as particularly scarce at regional and local level, with core sector and financial intermediaries being based in London and mostly focusing on organisations and areas geographically close to them.
Lack of collaboration amongst support organisations
Finally, the group agreed on one of the main findings of my research projects: the lack of collaboration among sector intermediaries. This leads to a duplication of efforts and to a degree of confusion among social entrepreneurs and enterprises about where to look for support and how to reconcile the different messages they hear from the different intermediaries they are affiliated with.
Out of this list of issues, the workshop participants picked two areas that they thought were especially relevant in order for the sector to keep on thriving: the access of social enterprises supply chains in private and public sectors, and the low collaboration among sector intermediaries.
Social entrepreneurship in supply chains
The group tackling the issue “access to supply chains” found several core causes for this issue. Some causes can be attributed to failings of social enterprises themselves:
a lack of transparency and metrics that would lower the perceived risk of social ventures;
a low understanding of tender processes;
and the inability of social enterprises to scale and integrate or collaborate in order to bid for big projects and commissions.
Other challenges are created by the surrounding ecosystem:
procurement practices and contracts that do not favour the involvement of social enterprises and small organisations in supply chains of corporations and public bodies;
the existing regulatory environment;
and the still low recognition of the value and specifies of social enterprises outside of the sector.
Proposed solutions to improve the situation relied on the involvement of social entrepreneurs and enterprises and/or in that of sector intermediaries. Social entrepreneurs and enterprises should, with the help of intermediaries, lobby both the government for changes in legislation regarding tendering processes, and private companies to convince them about the possibility to collaborate with social enterprises to enhance the sustainability and credibility/effectiveness of their CSR practices. Furthermore, on their own, social entrepreneurs and enterprises should collaborate to win contracts and present stronger evidence about their performance and competitiveness, which would reduce the perceived risk for procuring organisations. Finally, sector intermediaries and research bodies should: analyse where the Social Value Act has worked; prove the benefits of values-based supply chains; and ensure social ventures involvement in supplier network platforms like Ariba.
Increasing collaboration amongst intermediaries
The second group of participants decided instead to work on the problem of low collaboration among social entrepreneurship sector intermediaries. The origins of this situation can be found in the presence in the sector of multiple umbrella bodies and intermediaries that publicly state that they are cooperating and collaborating with one another but in reality are very territorial and not interested in what other intermediaries do because “they occupy a separate niche in the sector”. In addition, many intermediaries have very specific views and beliefs about the definition of social entrepreneurship, about what the sector should look like, or about its role in society. This makes it difficult for them to really collaborate beyond sporadic cooperation for specific projects and events.
In this case, the proposed solution was to start from existing successful platforms involving several intermediaries (such as the Social Economy Alliance) and create a “network of networks”. This would have shared ownership and governance, would avoid exclusive definitions, and would initiate collaborations among different organisations around specific projects, such as “improving the access to supply chains for organisations in the social economy”. Cooperation on specific projects could be a starting point to create trust and a mutual understanding. At the same time, this “network of networks” should map out all the different intermediaries present in the sector and develop an online list differentiating organisations according to their core competences and easily accessible for organisations interested in obtaining support from the ecosystem. The creation of such a database would simplify the research process for individuals and organisations in need of help and would create the opportunity for intermediaries to understand where their respective strengths are and, thus, for sharing best practices and outsourcing to each other non-core activities.
The meeting finished with some networking and the hope that these solutions could lead to some concrete initiatives in the sector as well as to other opportunities to meet and discuss also the other issues present in the sector and ways to solve them in a collaborative way. Is anyone there up for the challenge? From my side, the door is open to anyone willing to know more or to jointly organise something along these lines to help the social entrepreneurship sector as well as other parts of the social economy grow and thrive even more.
Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.
Irina Fedorenko, DPhil Candidate at the University of Oxord’s School of Geography and the Environment, gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum session “Fault Lines Story Studio: Emerging Leaders Initiative”.
Increasing impact by amplifying stories of entrepreneurs
The Skoll World Forum Emerging Leaders
The Emerging Leaders The MasterCard Foundation initiative that identifies and sends 10 young, passionate leaders to the Skoll World Forum every year. Today I had the honour of attending the lunch session where 6 leaders were presenting. I have never had a lunch break that inspiring.
Each leader delivered a short speech about how they found their missions and what their organisations are currently working on. I cannot even start to convey the impact of storytelling and the energy in the room, but at least I can give you some highlights:
Dorcas Amoh-Mensah is a MasterCard Scholar at the University of Edinburgh from Ghana. Her story started with an internship in London, and that received acts of kindness form distant relatives and some cash to help her by new clothes. This has transformed her and she decided to dedicate her life to kindness and sharing with other people. In Edinburgh she works alongside many other volunteers are sharing and sacrificing their time to teach underprivileged children. “Our mindsets create labels, that strip people off the ladder of humanity – this always happen. “Rats” during the Holocaust, or “cockroaches” in Rwandan genocide…We need to stop that!”, she said. “Do not be afraid to share your privilege with other people, and do not be scared to empower people to become better than you are”, was the message from Dorcas.
Michelle Chimuka, runs the Sani Foundation in Zambia. She is concerned that in her country they don’t even have statistics on intellectual disability. Promoting inclusion for people with intellectual disability is her personal mission, as grew up with a brother who has a down syndrome. She founded the Sani Foundation to help people like him to have a life, to provide the support to young adults and help them finding jobs. “These people should be considered as active and participating citizens. They have better attendance and retention than average workers”, Michelle says. Her biggest challenge is that many people don’t even know about intellectual disability in Zambia. “Educate your self, make a friend!”, is Michelle’s message.
Olivia Muiru, works for B Lab East Africa. She wanted to work in finance, but then realised when executives are making decisions, they look only at the bottom line, and not on how it impacts on all the stakeholders. She then started a quest for finding an organisation that would consider all the stakeholders and she found her answers in micro-finance initiatives. These would provided loans for very poor people, who would be considered un-bankable. After getting these loans, Olivia’s research concluded, most of these people felt included, they felt that they had a voice were proud of being able to contribute to the economy. B Lab uses the power for businesses that do good for the world. “Please join our tribe!”, Olivia invited the audience. She noted though, that the concept of social entrepreneurship is still very Western for Africa, and it is a challenge that the awareness is very low. But we could be sure that Olivia will change this perception very soon!
Andrew Ozanian, works for the International Bridges to Justice. He said that torture is forbidden in most countries, yet it is the most used form of police investigation in the world today. He believes that the rule of law is a foundation, the bedrock of a stable society. His organisation supports local lawyers to defend the rights of people in their local communities. And they have the lawyers in 40 countries! The Justice Hope project that Andrew runs system scaling is more important than organisation scale. For the first time, Human Rights defenders can be a part of a living breathing network, that brings them closer to the 4th industrial revolution – the big data revolution. And this excitement keeps Andrew going!
Zeeshan Sumrani, is a leader from India and he runs Educate Girls organisation. His life changed forever when he was 16 after he spent a day volunteering in a girls’ orphanage. He saw that the school was focused on getting the girls educated and then married off as soon as they could. He then found out that his own mom got married just after high school, and have him birth when she was 18, and never came back to school. Zeeshan then applied to an MBA course together with my mom in 2008, and she graduated a year earlier then him. “I didn’t want to work for adding shareholder values, but I wanted to work on increasing happiness. Give education and life skills to girls who can negotiate with their family to tell that they want to continue their education.”, he said. His organisation now has over eight thousands volunteers who work on even empowerment.
Fhazhil Wamalwa, works in Kenya for Disa Energy Management, Ltd. “The energy inequality is a big issues, in some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa only 2% of people have access to energy”, he says. Lack of access to energy impacts on education, health and quality of life. Fhazhil was born and raised in a remote village in Kenya, that still has no energy. Had to run to school 7 km one way, and was not being able to complete his school assignments. He then won a scholarship to attend a university, which came with a leadership programme, and that led him on the path of energy leadership. “We cannot wait for the government to create a central electricity for people. We can distribute solar lamps to every person now”, said Fhazhil.
After such an inspiring session, it was clear that those people are not emerging leaders, they have already emerged and going to lead us to the better world.
Irina is a DPhil Cadidate at the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment. She is also the Co-Founder of a social enterprise, BubblenutWash, which makes evironmentally friendly soap detergent using soapnuts. Follow them at @bubblenutwash
Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017 MBA candidate 2017, Ahmed Abu Bakr gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum session ‘A Work Landscape in Flux for Young People’
We all know that the world is changing at an unprecedented rate, but I regularly feel that we forget, often far too easily, that these changes aren’t entirely new. Marina Gorbis, executive director at the Institute for the future, reminds us that the technological disruptions we are witnessing today, aren’t really as rapid as we make them out to be.
The internet, the proliferation of mobile technology and sensors, and the big data revolution are a result of over thirty years of consistent investment and prioritisation in the space of communication technologies. She refers to the outcome of these technologies as greater “digital coordination”; and through this, she provides a broader definition for technology. If the internet and big data allow for coordination, then institutions and organised systems (for business, government, and otherwise) are also technologies in their own right- technologies for the coordination and allocation of resources.
‘A Work Landscape in Flux for Young People’ panel.
And it is important to keep in mind that organised systems that are being disrupted today- financial markets, healthcare systems, the transportation sector, etc.- were actually major innovations in their own time that disrupted the status quo back in their day.
There is no doubt that the nature of work is being radically transformed by what Marina calls “digital coordination” technologies. But is it really a source of disruption for the nature of work?
The remaining panellists attested that young people in Egypt and Africa were choosing to delve into entrepreneurship and the growing start up culture because of two primary reasons. Firstly, there is an undoubted frustration within the youth populations where they are dissatisfied with the available economic opportunities. Fhazhil Wamalwa, managing director at Disa Energy Management, recalled how he was led to believe that a good education would result in a decent job, and how his inability to get on after his master’s degrees was a painful but necessary disillusionment.
The second factor is a deliberate and concerted effort by many to promote entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial activities as a response to the failure of the existing systems. Dina El Mofty(Injaz Egypt), and Marwa Moaz (Bamyan Media) both talked about their sustained efforts within Egypt to inspire and develop an entrepreneurial mind set.
With this context, it becomes evident that the changing nature of work, the rise of gig jobs, and the proliferation of self-employment and entrepreneurship is a response to the failure of the existing econo-political system where digital technology is less of a cause and more of an enabler.
One thing remains uncontested- the old institutions have to be reformed, and in some cases completely revised. For me personally, the key question is around the evolution of these new systems. The topic of the day seems to be around growing wealth inequality. But wealth inequality is a result of inequalities in the distribution of power- social and politcal. What’s even more troubling is the feedback effect on power from the accumulation of wealth. The 21st century has seen tremendous concentration of wealth because of a tremendous concentration in power. What can we learn from history to design new social and political institutions that distribute power rather than concentrate it?
Ahmed Abu Bakr is an MBA 2016-17, Skoll Scholar at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, and Co-founder ofJeeon
John Walugembe; Skoll Scholar 2016-17, social entrepreneur, and the Founder of Better Livelihoods in Uganda. John shares his candid story of how he came to Oxford to study his MBA.
“It is very painful to remember my daughter”, Maria said. “She was only five years old”. “I had a lot of hope in her”. “I wonder, what I could have done better”. “I was certainly lucky that Dr. Matovu was willing to attend to her. It was unfortunate however that it was too late!” This story by Maria – a distressed mother of two living in the Bwaise slum of Kampala, Uganda – is not very different from those of many others in Uganda and other developing countries. According to a recent report by Water Aid, only 30% of Ugandans have access to improved sanitation. The situation is even worse in urban poor communities, especially slums, where children collect water from contaminated gutters or ground water. The result of this is that at least two one million and five hundred children die annually, from diarrheal related illnesses. The contamination primarily results from lack of proper disposal for excreta.
How does an organisation set up to support poor communities, survive off the very people it is supposed to assist. Indeed, it was and still is a dilemma!
When I founded the Better livelihoods Uganda, four years ago, I recognised that there was a need for a fundamental shift in the way water and sanitation issues are handled. Were communities, expecting so much from their governments that they failed to do for themselves, what was in their means to do? Were some Non-Governmental Organisations fostering a syndrome of dependency and raising the expectations of communities for handouts, to the extent that they exacerbated these problems? Which market approaches could be employed to ensure that communities contributed more to addressing these sanitation challenges. From the onset, I thought it prudent to make the organisation lean and limit its dependency on external financing. As you can imagine, this was no mean goal. How does an organisation set up to support poor communities, survive off the very people it is supposed to assist. Indeed, it was and still is a dilemma! However, we resolved that unlike the traditional NGO, we would seek to play a more facilitating role among the key stakeholders in the sanitation ecosystem.
We piloted our work in the Rwenzori region in western Uganda, particularly in the Municipalities of Fort-Portal, Kawenge, Kyegegwa and Kyenjojo. Using the diamond approach (a model first piloted by Waste Advisors in the Netherlands) we have been able to accelerate access to clean water and sanitation facilitating a well-functioning system of local stakeholders that facilitate the delivery of sustainable sanitation services. The bulk of our work has involved supporting entrepreneurs and other sanitation stakeholders to build more hygienic pit-latrines. As of last year, over 1400 direct jobs have been created in the region, the amount of fecal sludge collected had increased tenfold to 4,000,000 kilograms, the costs of accessing sanitation services have reduced from $30 to $5 and over 4,000 people have directly accessed sanitation services.
I thought it prudent that I acquire the skills to build and grow an organisation with a great vision, such as ours.
It would be great if I told you that after this, everything worked just fine and we have simply encountered success, upon success. Unfortunately, as someone whose academic background was not in business management, I thought it prudent that I acquire the skills to build and grow an organisation with a great vision, such as ours. An MBA looked an attractive option. The more I thought about it, the more counterintuitive it seemed. If I desire to engineer, social change, why not pursue a qualification in development? In the end, it only seemed logical that if our approach seeks to use market based approaches to tackle the sanitation challenge, there is no better preparation than an MBA from a business school with a focus on social entrepreneurship. In the end, the Oxford MBA looked the best fit for me.
Did I look at other business schools? Certainly! So, why the Oxford MBA? Well, the Oxford MBA was unique in a number of respects: First, the Oxford MBA is a rigorous one year programme. This was particularly attractive for me, as it would ensure that I get back to Uganda, in the shortest possible time to continue with my work. Second, the Saïd Business School through the Skoll Centre, places a lot of emphasis on social entrepreneurship. For me, this was the ultimate attraction. Additionally, the possibility of social entrepreneurs, like myself, benefitting from the generous Skoll Scholarship, set the Oxford MBA apart.
Going forward, Better Livelihoods like other nonprofit organisations must look for new models of generating revenue streams while fulfilling its expanding mission. One possible strategy could be to set-up a social purpose business as an innovation for both the financial and operational sustainability of the organisation. The mission of this social venture could be to offer clean water, sanitation, health and hygiene solutions throughout Uganda, on a commercial basis.
In conclusion, I look forward to this year and taking advantage of all the opportunities that Oxford has to offer!
John was recently featured on the BBC World Service, Business Daily Show, where he sat on a panel discussion on Africa’s Social Entrepreneurs. Listen to the iPlayer recording.