Oxford, Saïd, Skoll Centre and What’s Coming

Last but not least, buy Skoll Scholar, rx Michael Thornton, price shares his thoughts.


IBITDA, amortization, price discrimination, stocks, bonds, capital…  As an engineer and non-profit manager, all this is wonderfully new to me.  The Saïd Business School at Oxford University has all this plus Shakespeare, Sartre, genomics, international intrigue, mathematical physics, speakers from around the world and more and more.  The depth of academic firepower, cutting edge thinking and variety of geniuses, experts and eccentrics of all types leave you with the impression that the world of smarts is sloped and smartness rolls downhill to Oxford (civil engineers see everything in terms of gradients and flows…).  It’s truly a humbling and unbelievable honor to be able to study here.  And equally and energizing one.  As Sabre outlined earlier, every day we are presented with a hundred opportunities to connect with amazing individuals, partake in events that expose us to fields new to us or expand our understanding of those we know.  We are engaged now in an exercise of choice: how do we spend our time here?  Where do we focus our efforts and what doors do we fight to open and which do we close?

I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life – at a very early age I remember selling “magical bouncing pine cones” with a friend to others in the neighborhood.  Just as fervently, I’ve always been an environmentally focused person – I remember at four cursing out the developers who leveled the woods I used to play in behind my childhood home to put in a sub-division.  In my undergraduate schooling and subsequent career I married these two as much as I could delving into renewable energy and green building.  At Sherwood Design Engineers, we built a truly 21st century engineering company, founded on the pillars of solid engineering, collaborative design and ecologically sound solutions. We did this through a series of day-to-day choices to not just serve our client’s engineering needs, but to educate them and work closely with them to push as much environmental thinking into each project as we could.   To extend our mission further, we formed a non-profit, Sherwood Institute, through which we spread the gospel of sustainable infrastructure.  While Sherwood Design Engineers wasn’t specifically created to solve the world’s environmental problems, these certainly became true social enterprises; businesses that made a substantial difference (as well as a profit in SDE’s case).

At Saïd, I’ve now been formally exposed to and will have the chance to study social entrepreneurism: businesses created to solve specific societal problems from the word go.  In some particularly exciting examples like Bridges Ventures, market gaps, like insufficient low cost elder care housing or social issues like prisoner rehabilitation are specifically targeted and businesses are either found or created to fill them.  These purpose-built, for profit businesses are what I’m starting to see as a second type of social venture – a step more deliberate than the co-missioning of an existing venture.

The next type I’m curious about is the large businesses that weren’t built for sustainability but might be turned the way Sherwood turned full force into sustainable design, making it a core tenet.  I couldn’t be more excited to work through the Skoll Centre and the host of professors, peers and contacts who have worked in that capacity at various companies to learn more about this type.

The final type of for-profit social company I see as the Holy Grail that doesn’t yet exist: a fortune global 50 leviathan built specifically to solve a major global issue – and make a profit doing so.  Imagine the Exxon of carbon-sequestering energy. With the amount of motivated, brilliant, truly excited people I’ve met here in the last few weeks from every sector, from finance to operations to field warriors, who have flocked around the Skoll flame so far, I now feel that the coming of this type of company is a when, not if, and I couldn’t be happier for it!

Opportunities of the Week

A new week brings new opportunities here at the Centre.  See if any of the ones listed below catch your eye!


2013 Unreasonable Institute

Convinced you have the entrepreneurial mettle to improve the lives of millions of people around the world? Accelerate your venture with mentorship from 50 seasoned entrepreneurs and investors, nurse ranging from a Time Magazine Hero of the Planet, pills to the head of Google X, to an entrepreneur who’s lifted over 20 million farmers out of poverty. In the process, form relationships with 30 impact funds, like Acumen Fund, Good Capital, and First Light Ventures and pitch to hundreds of prospective partners and funders. Do it all while living under the same roof in Boulder, Colorado for 6 weeks with 25 entrepreneurs dedicated to defining progress in our time! Apply by October 25th, 2012 to attend the 2013 Unreasonable Institute!


African Innovation Prize Seeking Volunteers

Are you motivated by social change, international development and a new approach to sustainable business?  If so, check out the volunteer positions available with the African Innovation Prize.  The deadline to apply is 27 October.


Opportunities of the Week

As you may know, term has started and things are getting more exciting everyday here at the Centre.  Part of that excitment has been fueled by opportunities like the ones below.  Feel free to peruse them and see if any are of interest to you!


Dr Larry Brilliant is coming to Oxford

Dr Larry Brilliant, President of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, will be speaking  on ‘Pandemics – Can we eliminate major worldwide epidemics?’ on 22 October at 17:30.  To register or for more information click here.


Social Finance is Hiring

Social Finance is looking for a new International Development Associate to support its Development Impact Bond work.  Click here for the job description.


The Alfa Fellowship Program

Are you interested in working in Russia?  The Alfa Fellowship Program is a professional development program placing American and British citizens in work assignments at leading organizations in Russia in the fields of business, economics, journalism, law, public policy and related areas.  Financial and programmatic support are provided.  Apply by 1 December.


Journeys for Change MBA Social Entrepreneurship Journey
Journeys for Change’s inaugural MBA competition will select and support the most exceptional MBA students to catapult their winter break – and MBA – experience by joining the journey of a lifetime.  Apply by 14 October.


Women and Manual Trades seeking Interns

Want to help WAMT generate its own income through social business?  If so, apply to intern and help compile a costed Business Plan for the social business(es) WAMT wishes to pursue.  For more information contact Andy Kelmanson, Chief Executive at

This is Where I’m Meant to Be

Part three of our series from this year’s Skoll Scholars showcases Sabre Collier‘s first impressions.


Wow.  All I can say is “wow”.

At the end of my first week at Oxford, it’s clear that this is where I’m meant to be.  A thousand- year history of world-class education, cutting-edge global research, magical historic landscapes and an expansive yet intimate community of scholars and leaders- that’s the backdrop for this MBA adventure.  Even better, it includes the Skoll Centre, the world’s leading academic entity for the advancement of social entrepreneurship (and second home to some pretty amazing scholars, professors and practitioners).

After a mad rush to move and settle in, we were bombarded with a flurry of orientation sessions.  Last week”s event was perhaps closest to my heart, “What to do when Markets Fail: Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation at SBS”.  The title alone is compelling precisely because in so many cases, the increasing fusion of business and social impact has been catalyzed by market failures.  The Washington Consensus and donor prescriptions for economic growth fail to trickle down in less developed countries and NGOs stepped/ step in to fill social needs that governments cannot.  Recessions hit, labor markets suffer and unemployed professionals decide to become entrepreneurs (and social entrepreneurs, if  idealists).  Financial crises hit, donor funding dries out and NGOs and visionaries strategize ways to make their services financially self-sustaining.  Returns diminish with scale and companies in developed markets struggle to find ways to grow, and sometimes discover the key is in emerging markets, in the bottom of the pyramid or simply in marketing their CSR.  And so on.

Innovation, including social innovation, is often borne out of necessity and as Pamela Hartigan remarked at yesterday’s session, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. It’s not that social entrepreneurship is anything new, all businesses exercise a social impact just by creating jobs.  It’s that now there’s a shifting economic and geopolitical landscape and  greater impetus than ever for companies and organizations to create social/commercial synergies.

Yesterday’s event served to help us reflect on how to leverage the MBA experience for social entrepreneurship, and broader strategic synergies.  Speakers, such as Michelle Giddens, from Bridges Ventures, or Mike Barry, from Marks & Spencers, highlighted a few strategies such as impact investing and sustainable procurement.  Academics, such as Xiaolan Fu and Maja Andjelkovic, likewise shared potential intersections between Oxford research initiatives and major business opportunities.  And various alums visited with insights about how to leverage coursework, extracurriculars and the Oxford network to achieve our dreams, raise capital and expand impact.

We are living in the midst of dramatic shifts and it’s a real gift to be gaining such vital knowledge and resources to leverage them, strategically and fruitfully.

Watch Dr. Nicholls on SkyNews

The Skoll Centre’s Alex Nicholls was recently on sabbatical at various social entrepreneurship organisations in Australia. While there, illness he had the chance to talk to SkyNews on the global nature of social entrepreneurship and its evolution over the last decade.  Hear what he has to say about measuring the impact of social entrepreneurship and the future of social finance markets.  Watch the video here.

Don’t be an entrepreneur, build systems


This past June, TedxOxbridge premiered at SBS.  It was a provacative day of big ideas on how we can rethink business for the 21st century. It featured entrepreneurs, academics, social innovators, designers and behavorial scientists – who were all asking “How can we imagine Business as Unusual?”

All videos from the day are now up on the TEDx site. Personal favorites include:

But perhaps the one video getting the most pick-up is by SBS’s very own Professor Marc Ventresca.  Marc, an economic and organizational sociologist, proposes a bold critique of the “entrepreneur”, suggesting that greater, large-scale value creation comes  from system-builders, not entrepreneurs. It’s an arguement for networks, collaboration and connectivity across institutions – rather than a focus on the “heroic individual”.

Harvard Business Review’s Grant McCracken recently picked up on Marc’s talk.  According to the HBR piece, Grant pushes back on the notion of entrepreneurs as systems-builders. He argues: “Real acts of innovation are something more than acts of combination.” In other words, the role of the entrepreneur is not to re-assemble, but to work “de novo in the production of real novelty.”

What do you think? Who and what is an entrepreneur?

Read the full debate (including live commentary between the authors) on HBR and leave your comments below.