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From Guadalajara to Oxford

Macarena Hernandez de Obeso is passionate about the economic opportunity for Mexico’s deprived communities. She is also our 2016-17 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA student. Her journey from Guadalajara started with a simple Skype call. Macarena shares the story.

Two years ago I had the luck to have a conversation by Skype with Pamela Hartigan. At that moment I had no idea this call will change my life to the point that today I’m writing this blog from Saïd Business School, at the University of Oxford, 5,605 miles away from the place I was born and raised, Guadalajara, Mexico.

Macerena

Macerena joined Prospera in 2011, the first social enterprise in Guadalajara, Mexico.

 

One would think that it is almost impossible to build a social enterprise in a conservative region, in a country that has not been growing strongly for the past 30 years. But, in spite of all this I have not allowed the circumstances to define what I can or cannot achieve. To the point that in 2014, Prospera, the social enterprise I was leading, was recognised as one of the top 10 favourite social enterprises in Mexico, according to Forbes, and the best social enterprise in Mexico according to the Suzie Bank UBS.

Prospera became my passion. But, passion alone gets you nowhere.

My unconformity and the pursuit of challenge and intellectual growth led me to join the team of Gabriela Enrigue to build Prospera, the first social enterprise in Guadalajara. At that moment, I did not know anything about entrepreneurship or social enterprises. But a hunch and a desire to learn made me spend all my time building Prospera from the beginning. At Prospera, our mission is to serve single moms in poor communities who start small businesses from home. Our vision is to disrupt the entrenched male-dominated social structures that have been in place for the past 500 years in Mexico. We have trained more than 7,500 women and increased their incomes eight times. Prospera became my passion. But, passion alone gets you nowhere.

Generating opportunities for women is a profound reason that deserves my time and work. But if I fail to better combine the social mission with a sustainable business model, I will be designing solutions that nobody will pay for and the impact will never scale. I came to this awareness after I led a Prospera project as part of a Fund developed by Alsea Foundation and Starbucks Mexico. This project changed the way I see the world.

Startbuck Project - Prospera

Alsea Foundation and Starbucks Mexico Project at Prospera [Photo source: Prospera]

The project’s goal was to add a productivity component to Alsea Foundation. It was the first project of this kind done in Latin America and we expected it to be scaled to six more countries. We trained 33 poor, single moms from one marginalised slum around Mexico City. They were recipients of philanthropic aid and the purpose of the project I designed was aimed at transforming them into small vendors at Starbucks. The women produced 3,300 customized notebooks that were then sold in 80 Starbucks. These women improved their income by 700%. Despite that the notebooks were sold to Starbucks consumers in less than a month, Starbucks only made this one purchase. Why? Neither the notebooks sales nor the productivity of these women were related the Starbucks core business model and the Foundation could not drive the corporate goals.

I decided to start looking for MBA programmes that would help me design business to solve the most challenging social problems that we face today.

As a result of this project I have been studying start-up business methodologies and working on the development of Prospera’s business model. I want to generate benefit for both the community and enterprises. If an enterprise increases income while solving social problems, they are willing to pay for this solution. That’s why two years ago I decided to start looking for MBA programmes that would help me design business to solve the most challenging social problems that we face today.

Talking with Pamela Hartigan not only helped me to understand how the Skoll Centre supports social entrepreneurs inside Saïd Business School, but she also made me believe that one day I could become an Oxford MBA student. The day has come I am grateful and ready for the challenge.

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From Bangladesh to Oxford

Not only is Ahmed Abu Bakr a Skoll Scholar and MBA student at Saïd Business School, he is also the former Head of Product & Experience at Jeeon LLC in Bangladesh. He tells his story of what brought him to Oxford.

“You are now a student at the University of Oxford.” -Induction day, Dean Peter Tufano, Said Business School, University of Oxford

Sitting in a room of 328 fresh MBA students, captivated by words of inspiration and felicitations – that was the first time that it TRULY hit me.

I was at one of the finest institutions of learning, surrounded by the best and brightest in the world – a place where world leaders were made. I was finally at Oxford.

I knew that giving back was a responsibility, not a choice.

My journey to Oxford really started straight out of college in 2012. My aspiration was to start my own venture. I also knew very early on, that I wanted my career to benefit the neglected and the marginalised. In the context of Bangladesh, I had enjoyed a privileged life and somewhere in my heart, I knew that giving back was a responsibility, not a choice.

I considered the MBA back then, rather naively in retrospect, as a possible degree that would help me understand business and prepare me to launch my own. And my sights were set on the very best of schools. Why? Back then it was about the prestige. But of course, an MBA without work experience was not going to be of much use. And hence I joined mPower Social Enterprises a tech consultancy working with the likes of USAID, Oxfam, Save the Children and so forth, to amplify their impact through technology.

My reasons for joining mPower were really two fold. Firstly, it was about working in a young company to understand the challenges of a startup. Secondly, and arguably more importantly, it was about working directly with two Harvard graduates (and founders) and having them as mentors that would shape me professionally and guide me into getting into one of the top schools in the world.

But six months into mPower, I was part of the founding team of a project that would eventually spin off into a company in its own right Jeeon. Jeeon connects rural patients with qualified doctors in the city, right from the village bazaars. We do this by equipping intermediaries (rural drug shop owners in village bazaars) with the training and technology necessary to collect comprehensive medical data about rural patients using our custom android app. This data is seen by our doctors in our city office, and after a thorough conversation between patient and doctor, facilitated by the intermediary, patients receive reliable medical advice, prescriptions and recommendations.

Ahmed is the former Head of Product & Experience at Jeeon LLC

Ahmed is the former Head of Product & Experience at Jeeon LLC

It has taken us three years to fine tune the model so that it is operationally self-sustaining. We started with a team of five. There were days when it was just me running to different people at mPower (mPower incubated Jeeon for two years) to get things done. I played a myriad of roles- from product design to tech management, to business modelling, to team building, to operations, and strategy. It has been a tremendous experience, where I learned and accomplished more than I had ever dreamed off!

Today we have raised over a million dollars in investment, have a 20 person team (excluding doctors and rural intermediaries), and are expecting to serve over 50,000 patients in 2017. The vision however, is much grander. We intend to be the first point of contact for all rural patients, for all matters relating to healthcare and wellbeing – much like Google for the web, we intend to be the trusted navigator for all healthcare services in rural Bangladesh.

…after much deliberation, I also realised that the needs of Jeeon were changing significantly…I was definitely not equipped with the skills, network, or visionary perspective that would be necessary to lead the system level transformation we aim for…

Amidst all of this, taking a year off for the MBA really was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever had to make. I was already responsible for something that would deeply affect millions of people in Bangladesh in the coming years. I was part of a stellar team of committed people focused on transforming healthcare on a nationwide scale. Jeeon was about to finally take flight, and the thought of stepping away was excruciating. But after much deliberation, I also realised that the needs of Jeeon were changing significantly. I had played my role well in prototyping and experimenting our way to a business viable service model. I had guided strategy and played a key supportive role in building the team and culture of the company. But I was definitely not equipped with the skills, network, or visionary perspective that would be necessary to lead the system level transformation we aim for at Jeeon.

And hence I decided to pursue the MBA at Oxford Saïd – for its explicit focus on social entrepreneurship, and in no small part for the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship – but primarily because at Oxford, I expect to develop the transformative thinking that I will need in the coming years. It is the end of one chapter in my life, and the beginning of another.

And I am here.

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P2P Lending in the Balkans

Authors: Misa Zivic, Dushan Neshovski,  Shinez Chalabi

Good ideas tend to cross borders quite easily. This is especially the case with technology. We can easily observe the convergence of new technologies across borders in almost any part of the world. And the reason is simple – the convergence of technologies is empowered by technology itself. Furthermore, technological breakthroughs increase productivity while lowering costs and this quality makes them easily adoptable by new geographies. One such technological breakthrough is FinTech – which is simply to say technologically empowered financial services. Just to give you an idea, technology today can do most of what banks or other financial service institutions do. A basic example is balancing your check book online instead of waiting in line in a bank.

The Power of FinTech

The idea of technology powered financial services has the main quality of a technological breakthrough – it increases productivity while lowering costs. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. FinTech is literally revolutionizing finance – from new scoring models, to giving opportunity to regular people to take part in what only Investment Banks were allowed to partake. As such it has been spreading geographically on exponential basis. Every day a new FinTech product becomes available that changes the way we interact with finance. Everyone, from the general public to investors are hooked on this new industry. However, if you look the map of Europe, there is one region that has had zero activity in the FinTech space. This is the Western Balkans, or more precisely, Ex-Yugoslavia countries. Two members of our team being born and living in the Western Balkans their entire lives found it curious why this phenomenon, that is positively influencing the rest of the world, has overlooked this geography. With the help of the Skoll Centre of Social Entrepreneurship and the Said Business School, the team spent six months in Serbia, conducting in-depth analysis of the Serbian financial market and its readiness to accept FinTech innovations, specifically P2P lending.

P2P Lending (blog image)Our Research

The research focused on the P2P Lending industry as a global phenomenon, the history and the current state of the financial industry in the Balkans, the ways P2P Lending can be introduced in the region, the barriers that have kept it out, and the benefits that these countries can have from it. During the six months the team did hands on research, engaged with some key stakeholders in the Serbian finance sector (such as banking professionals, government officials, high net-worth individuals, etc.), and took part in the LendIt Conference in London, the largest P2P conference in the world where it had chance to meet industry experts from all around the world. The key findings will be outlined bellow, accompanied with an infographic for the more visual readers.

Global P2P Lending Findings

P2P lending is a global phenomenon that has experienced enormous growth over the past five years. It can be established as one of several operating models all of which have a more cost efficient structure than traditional banking. The regulation for P2P lending varies across different countries. Finally, P2P lending offers many benefits including: no inherited systematic risk, access to finance, and it Is a new asset class.

Analysis of the financial sector in the Balkans

The financial sector in the Balkans remains to be hugely underdeveloped and it lags behind the financial sectors in developed countries. Commercial banking is the only developed sector in the financial industry in the Balkans. The key challenges to the development of the financial industry in the Balkans are:

  • Low level of saving
  • Conservative lending by commercial banks
  • High borrowing costs and low deposit returns
  • The legislation in the financial sector in the Balkans is set up to protect the banking industry

P2P Lending in Serbia

Given the local landscape and the key factors to P2P lending two operational models can be set up in Serbia

  • Partnership with a bank
  • Fee based model

The revenue model for P2P Lending in Serbia should not be much different than that in the US or the UK. The borrowers market can be split in consumer and business, while the consumer market consists of all the household loans issued by commercial banks, in addition to all the loans not issued due to conservative banking. The business market should focus on working capital financing – invoice trading. The research has shown that the following are the essential areas of activity that must be performed well if P2P lending is to be introduced in Serbia:

  • Credit risk modelling
  • The matter of trust
  • Education
  • Strategic partners

Overall, our view of the market is a positive one and our assessment is that there is space for the FinTech industry. We expect that some form of alternative finance will emerge in the Western Balkans in the near future, and in expectation of this we will continue our work on bringing P2P lending in the region.

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SCHOLAR BLOG: Seeking out the Special and the Valuable

In this series of Scholar Blogs, our four Skoll Scholars for 2014-15 tell us what shaped their journey toward doing an MBA, and give their first impressions of how it feels to be starting their MBA course at Saïd Business School. 

nikhil-nair

Nikhil Nair

Nikhil Nair comes to oxford with over 6 years of experience in the solar industry. He spent  three years working at the social enterprise SELCO Solar, and he holds a degree in Business Management from Christ University, India.

Thomas Lawrence asked the class: “Do you think everyone is special?”

Almost all of us put up our hands and said yes. Then he made a simple but powerful statement: “Although everyone may be special, not everyone is valuable”.

In the past few weeks since my arrival in this city, I have established that there are several truly special people at Oxford. Let me share an incidence of meeting one such person.

One evening, the MBA class gathered for wine at the Oxford Museum of Natural History, where I struck up a conversation with Joel and Caryn. Joel was telling me that he planned to try his hand at rowing. Caryn also said she intended to row, not just for her college, but also for the University team. Since rowing is big at Oxford, making it to the University team is extremely competitive. So I stopped and said to Caryn, “Rowing for the University can be extremely competitive I hear. Have you rowed before, and do you have any experience in competitive rowing?” That’s when she said that she has been part of the US Olympic rowing team for the last three times, at London, Bejing and Athens! My jaw dropped. I was bursting with questions:  what was it like to be at the Olympics? How does it feel to represent the country? Did you win? And why in this world would you need an MBA?

Unfortunately I was unable to pick up my dropped-jaw and ask her these questions at the time, but I hope to do so in the course of the year. I at least found an answer to one of the questions through her Wikipedia page: yes she won – a gold at London and Beijing, and a silver at Athens. Caryn to me is a special person. And although my other classmates may not be Olympians, I have realized if you listen, each of them are special through their stories and life experiences.

But do I only want such special people and special experiences? Thomas’ theory in class is helping me differentiate between being special and being valuable. To make the most of this year, I will also need to engage with people and events that are not just special, but extremely valuable to my personal and professional life.

How do I find out what is valuable to me? If I had Aladdin’s magic lamp, I would ask the genie to create for me a list of all the valuable people and events that I could ever experience. But when I think again, perhaps it’s better that this genie doesn’t exist, as the experience of engaging and deciding whether things are special or valuable or both, is the true joy of this one year at Oxford.

Interesting events are happening all the time, such as: a talk by Eric Schmidt from Google, an event by the Smith school on GDP & Businesses, Harry Potter enthusiasts playing Quidditch (yes, this is an actual sport at Oxford), or the former Prime Minister of Pakistan Mr. Gillani speaking about leadership in his country.

While juggling between readings for Strategy class, OBN meetings and late-night BOP parties, I continue to look for events/people that are special and valuable. So that when people ask me about my experience at SBS, I will be able to use the same phrase I have heard from several alumni: “It was the best year of my life!”

 

 

Advancing Good Governance Seminar: Fancy Alliteration or Food for Action?

The Skoll Centre recently partnered with Linklaters, no rx Camfed, purchase and the Blavatnik School for Government to host the 1st annual seminar on Advancing Good Governance in International Development.  The theme this year was “accountability to the client.”

The spotlight focused on how organisations operating in the social sector can enhance responsiveness and accountability to its clients. But what does “client” really mean?  Are we talking beneficiaries, stakeholders, funders, partnering organisations? How do we make sure we are “accountable” to each of them, and all of them collectively, but which “them” do we put first?  This seminar was designed to explore and unpack precisely these complexities, and sparked some lively discussions.

Whether you are a social entrepreneur or policy maker, I think we all agree the field of international development, let alone achieving good governance within it, is complex.  However, there is hope. The seminar not only got folks talking, but went beyond providing food for thought and unveiled an effort to take action.  It put academics and practitioners in the same room and started to identify gaps and possible solutions/practices that need to be explored further.  These areas are being evaluated as we speak and a call for papers to address gaps in the existing literature is forthcoming (with a £20K stipend slated to go to the winner).

Of course a simple call for papers won’t solve the complexity of governance, but it is a start.  And it will serve as an impetus for the conversation until the second annual seminar next year.

Speaker Series: Tim Helweg-Larsen of EnergyBank

It’s interesting to me that when people sit down to talk about a socially entrepreneurial solution, pill there is always some initial discussion about what exactly social entrepreneurship means.  Sure, it can be nebulous and complex, and the clarifying discussion is important.

But for me (who believes social entrepreneurship boils down to purpose, market orientation and system disruptiveness), I’d rather just dive straight in with the entrepreneurs getting things done.

After our most recent Skoll Centre Speaker Series, I think it’s fair to say Tim Helweg-Larsen would agree.  Tim, the founder of EnergyBank, shared his personal priorities of combating climate change through renewable energy.  It was great to see how Tim has put those priorities to work as the driving force behind EnergyBank.

EnergyBank envisions a Europe-wide market in energy-bonds, backed by renewable assets and owned by the people and businesses that use them.  In short, customers are turned into investors/owners and capital is unlocked for renewable energy sources.

 

Why this make sense

1)      When customers become investors/owners they future proof the costs of their energy.  Production costs charged by traditional systems are avoided.  This makes a big difference when you think about monthly average energy consumption and rising costs!  Plus any extra energy produced by customer-owned renewables can be sold for profit.

2)      Do you know how much an off-shore wind farm costs?  Trust Tim, it’s a lot.  EnergyBank’s system could raise enough capital to help build such renewable infrastructure.  (It’s great for the average Joe who wants to fight climate change, but doesn’t have 1 billion pounds lying around.)

3)      It’s good for the environment (more renewables mean less fossil fuels), customers/owners, and business.

 

Why not?

With so much common sense embedded in EnergyBank, it seems simple. It makes me think, “why haven’t we just done this already?”  But I think we all know (including Tim) it’s going to be very challenging to change the existing energy system.  All the “wrong” things are incentivized. Plus it’s complex, multi-faceted and been functioning “happily” for several decades.  Think about the “people factor” and it becomes even trickier.  For every one of someone who thinks like me, I’m sure there are 100 of those who say, “why should we do this?”  Pile on the fact most energy users probably don’t even think about the system to begin with, and you’ve got an idea of how much work needs to be done.

Nevertheless, it was great to hear Tim’s commitment, priorities and progress thus.  With a strong purpose, market orientation and serious potential for disrupting the system, I’m sure EnergyBank will have us all saying “why didn’t we do this sooner”.