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
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.
Recent graduate of Oxford Saïd MBA 2015-16, Andres Baehr Oyarzun, spent his Summer Consulting Project in Mexico with 2015 The Venture finalist, Echale a tu Casa. Andres shares his story.
“Echale, echale!”, screamed a child behind us, while we watched Mexico City’s Lucha Libre. Chubby wrestlers kept slapping each other’s chests while we sat next to our supervisor. This was not your average MBA consulting project, I thought.
It was the first time we heard the word Echale outside of the context of ‘Echale a tu Casa‘, which can be translated as ‘Throw your Heart at your House”. Echale is Mexico’s first B Corp, a finalist in Chivas’ The Venture competition in 2015, and the recipient of the ‘Best of the World’ award by the Rockefeller Foundation. The organisation works to provide affordable housing through an innovative and effective model. We were in Mexico to help them prepare for releasing an investment prospectus – post- competition support that was financed by Chivas after Echale’s participation in The Venture. We hoped to learn more about an innovative social business model while using our skills to add value to the Echale team’s work.
And learn we did – the model works as follows: imagine you are a low-income homeowner in need of a new home or home improvement work. Due to lack of access to finance, you will usually be limited to making necessary changes to your home as your savings allow – on an ongoing/ ad hoc basis, rather than during a singular, planned project. In many cases this leads to substandard home conditions and overcrowding. With Echale’s model, families only have to finance and carry out 30% of their home construction and Echale helps them to complete the rest. By creating access to both a government subsidy and a credit service, Echale enables homeowners to complete a new home or improve an existing one, in a sustainable manner. The impact goes beyond housing. Families get access to financial advice and products, they are active participants in the building of their own homes and the environmental impact of home construction is reduced by the use of Echale’s eco-friendly construction materials.
We drove with Alejandra, Director of Promotion, into Jocotitlán, one of the rural communities where Echale operates. “I wasn’t too sure about social entrepreneurship” she said, “until I met Francesco (Echale’s CEO and a regional celebrity of sorts). After speaking with him, I knew I wanted to be part of the team, so I contacted him again, and again, until he just said ok, ok, come work with us”. 50 houses have already been constructed in Jocotitlán and the team is aiming to construct 500 more. This is just a small portion of the 30,000 completed homes, 150,000 home improvements and more than one million lives already positively affected by Echale.
Alejandra pointed at the steel beams that can often be seen poking out from the roofs of half-constructed houses. “You see those? They call them the ‘beams of hope”, she said. “Owners leave the beams in case one day they can afford a second floor”.
We visited Maria del Carmen, one of the homeowners who had recently moved to an ‘Echale’ house. She walked us around her old home. We looked at the blue cracked walls, dirty floors and pierced tin roof. The contrast with the tiled based and firm structure of the new house was remarkable. Maria represents one life improved, but a sea of homes is waiting to be built; in Mexico, an approximate 4.9 million families live in substandard housing.
After two weeks of bilingual Skype teleconferences, research, modeling and writing, we finally had to say good-bye to the Echale team. During our last meeting with Francesco we felt a combination of sadness, gratitude and excitement.
“Social impact is like a quantum gate”, said Francesco and raised his palm. “Once you touch it, you can’t go back. Once you have experienced it, you can’t go back”.
We packed up our bags and made our way back to Oxford. Back in Mexico, the luchadores would keep slapping their chests, the beams of hope would still stand high and the Echale team would still be there, throwing their hearts at it.
The Venture is looking for social businesses from around the world that are using business to help create a better future, if you are interested in applying or know of someone who should, head to their site to learn more www.chivas.com/the-venture.
For the fourth year, the Skoll Centre will host the IBL@Oxford Programme at the Saïd Business School in the bridging week between two academic years. With scholarships open to graduating Oxford MBA students, the Impact Business Leaders team reflect on the stories of previous fellows and how the programme launched their careers in social enterprise.
How can an MBA help you land a career in social enterprise? At Impact Business Leaders (IBL), we are asked this question a lot. We work with talented professionals who are often either considering an MBA or in an MBA programme. If your professional ambition is to work in a big corporation, it’s easy to see why an MBA makes sense. It’s a clear market signal that you are ready to take on management roles and MBA programmes are often direct talent pipelines to these companies.
But what about if you’re on a different path?
IBL has worked with 189 professionals over the last three years. Many have had MBAs and many have not. While we believe there is no substitute for professional experience in demonstrating your ability to excel in a social enterprise, our work with the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship to match Oxford Saïd MBAs with social enterprise careers has shown us how an MBA degree can position professionals for success in social enterprise. When combined with IBL’s practical, career focused programming and extensive network of social enterprise hiring managers, we believe that Oxford Saïd MBAs are highly competitive in the social enterprise job market.
On a recent trip to India, we reconnected with several Oxford alumni who we worked with during our annual IBL@Oxford programme. Their stories demonstrate what’s possible when MBA students combine their experience at the Saïd Business School with involvement in the IBL programme.
Making Connection, Finding Pathways
Amol Mishra MBA’14 was interested in sustainability but he did not know what to do with it. During his time with the Skoll Centre, he was introduced to Dhruv Lakra, founder of the social enterprise Mirakle Couriers and Skoll Scholar Oxford MBA’08. Lakra described how his MBA experience was the beginning of his journey as a social entrepreneur. With this one conversation, Amol’s interest in sustainability took shape as a viable career opportunity in social enterprise. This led him to enroll in the IBL@Oxford programme at the end of his MBA to pursue a full-time role in social enterprise. Through the IBL programme, Amol landed a job at CottonConnect – a social enterprise developing sustainable supply chain solutions for retail brands – as a Commercial Development Manager.
Inspiration and Incubation
Nidhi Thachankary MBA’15 had always been interested in the education space, but viewed it as an after-work activity. The Skoll Centre changed that by motivating her to develop a start-up social enterprise that would provide workforce training and development for the hospitality industry in India. When Nidhi joined IBL@Oxford, the programme pushed her to develop her model even further and also re-position her experience in a way that would catch the attention of education NGOs like Pratham – the largest education NGO in India. With this angle, Nidhi landed a full-time role at Pratham to lead its first initiative to incubate workforce development ventures within the hospitality industry.
Building Skills, Gaining Experience
Sudhanshu Malani MBA’14 had a formative experience as a Teach for India Fellow, but lacked the hard finance experience he needed to build the career in impact investing he wanted. Through the Skoll Centre, Sudhanshu landed internships with Acumen and ClearlySo, two leading international impact investors. IBL@Oxford helped Sudhanshu communicate his experience to potential employers. With IBL’s support, Sudhanshu landed an investment associate role at Villgro – an early-stage impact investor in India.
These are just three inspiring examples of the dozens of students who combine their Oxford Saïd MBA with the IBL@Oxford programme to build a career in social enterprise. At this year’s IBL@Oxford for Global Social Enterprise programme, IBL will bring Oxford Saïd MBAs and other talented professionals committed to transitioning into social enterprise together for a practitioner-led workshop on social enterprise careers followed by executive mentoring and job matching services. For Oxford Saïd MBAs this practical, career-focused programme is an excellent complement to all that Saïd Business School and the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship has to offer.
If you are interested, applications for IBL@Oxford are open until the 1st September 2016. Full Scholarships are available for current Oxford Saïd MBA students.
Co-Founded by Skoll Scholar, Jesse Moore and London Business School graduate, Nick Hughes in 2009 with Oxford Saïd alumnus, Chad Larson joining in 2010, M-KOPA has gone from strength to strength; winning awards and rising to be one of the leading solar-power providers in East Africa.
Ever since deciding to reconcile my interest in business with my passion for social impact I have asked myself the question: can for-profit businesses really do social good?To help answer this question, I travelled east from Nairobi to Machakos, Kenya with M-KOPA Solar – the leading ‘pay-as-you-go’ energy provider to off grid homes. Along with Suraj Patel, MBA/MPH at UC Berkeley, Deenah Kawira, M-KOPA Solar Business Manager, and Felix Kyalo, M-KOPA Solar Field Sales Manager (pictured above from left to right), I got the opportunity to meet and hear the stories of three remarkable Kenyan women:
Christine the shop-owner
Eunice the side-hustler
Jane the home-keeper
But firstly, what are customers buying from M-KOPA? M-KOPA customers make a deposit of $30 followed by 365 daily payments of $0.50, paid using their mobile money. The solar home system comes with three lights, mobile phone-charging and a solar powered radio. Customers who complete their payment plans on time can acquire additional lights, solar TVs, energy-efficient cooking stoves, internet-enabled smartphones and water storage tanks.
Christine the shop-owner
Christine is a proud roadside shop-owner selling fruit and vegetables, among other products. She is a born businesswoman with a personality that could overflow a room. After hearing about M-KOPA over the radio, she waited eagerly and waved down an M-KOPA vehicle passing the area in order to buy one.
Before buying M-KOPA, Christine used two kerosene lamps to light up her store – a significant business expense. When her phone, used to order stock and make sales, ran out of battery, she would lock up shop for three hours to walk to her neighbour’s, hoping they were home to help charge her phone. The kerosene lamps, which have now gathered dust in the corner of her store, have been replaced by M-KOPA. Her torch helps her to walk home safely at night, her radio blasting during the day attracts customers and her phone charger means she never has to leave her shop, giving her time to sell more. As a true businesswoman, she now charges customers’ phones for $0.10 per charge, helping people in the area and helping her pay off the device.
After six months with her M-KOPA Solar device, Christine has saved and made enough money to renovate and expand her store, as well as support her two children and their families. Although this was largely a result of Christine’s individual business savvy, M-KOPA provided her with the platform to grow her business and improve her livelihood.
Eunice the side-hustler
Eunice is a struggling single mother of three who is forced to run a series of side-businesses (aka “side-hustles” in Kenya) to make enough money for the basics of food, water, and shelter.
Living in the isolated eastern foothills of Machakos, where getting clean water means travelling 5km across mountainous terrain, Eunice does what she can from breaking quarry stones and making mud bricks for construction, to growing herbs and crops for sale.
Through a woman’s chama, an informal finance vehicle where individuals pull funds together, Eunice was able to buy an M-KOPA device.
For Eunice there was no electricity where she lives and providing lighting for her family was a costly luxury. When night comes her home would become “lifeless,” quiet and inactive waiting for the light of day.
M-KOPA’s home system gives her family the simple luxury of a common lit area where they eat, talk and laugh together. It also gives her children the confidence to go to the bathroom alone.
Despite the fact that Eunice does not have a stable income, she is committed to make her daily payments to keep the lights on in her home. Far from ideal, this highlights the challenge M-KOPA faces as a social business managing the tension between profits and impact.
Jane the home-keeper
Jane is a wife and mother of four children. Her family lives in an isolated North-Eastern village in Kangundo – an hour from Machakos along a rocky dirt road. Her husband works at a local quarry and she tends to their two cows and chickens to supplement their livelihoods.
For Jane, M-KOPA initially meant a device for affordable solar power. But after paying off the solar device, she found another opportunity through the company to purchase a 1000L water tank.
The closest watering hole for Jane is 1.5km across rocky terrain. Providing water for her family normally requires her to make the trip every 2-3 days – back-breaking work that she is becoming too old to manage.
Now with the water tank from M-KOPA, which she is paying for using the same daily rate of $0.50, Jane only needs to make the trips to the watering hole once every two weeks or over the weekends when her children can help. She can rest her back, knowing that she has enough water to wash clothes, drink, cook and feed her cattle. The water tank has also given her the opportunity to help her neighbours when they are short of water, which she does regularly. She credits M-KOPA’s payment system for allowing her to afford a water tank like this and giving her the security of a sufficient water supply.
This weekend in Machakos was a remarkable and an eye-opening experience for me. It became evident that M-KOPA is an example of a social business that undoubtedly operates at the nexus of profit-making and impact-generating. However, operating at this nexus also generates its own set of challenges – even for these three women. For instance, Christine has since had to fend off people looking to steal her M-KOPA device jealous of her success. Eunice has had to deal with the shame from family and friends of owning a device that she occasionally cannot pay off and Jane has had to trust that her family can maintain payments to pay-off the water tank over the long run, whilst taking care of a large family.
However, there is no doubt that this one solar business, established on an innovative for-profit business model, means a lot to these three women and has had a positive impact on their livelihoods overall. Now revisiting my initial question I have more confidence in knowing that despite the challenges that exist in social business, for-profit businesses can really do social good.
Back in the first term of the MBA, I wrote a blog on tending to our inner self. With all the possibilities and opportunities at business school, it is easy to get lost in an ocean of activities and forget why we are here in the first place. Now looking back from the middle of the final summer term, what a year it has been! Interestingly, the most memorable moments and major learnings took place when I was so immersed in an activity or with a community that I almost forgot about myself. In addition, when I took a plunge into the unknown and let go of the need for certainty, new doors and ideas opened up.
Many of us come to business school with a preconceived notion of what we would like to do. We could have had a business idea, wanted to break into a certain industry or plan to work on a blueprint or roadmap for an emerging market. However, I have learned that the ability to let go of the prescribed plan brings better opportunities. We often think if we would try a little harder, work a little longer and talk to a few more people, we would be on the right track, but sometimes they could be the wrong things to pursue in the first place. If it is a new product or new business, it is often about industry trends, market behaviour, and the company’s complementary assets. Being able to have the acumen to sense and read the external environment takes years of experiences to accumulate. Understanding the ecosystem and gaining knowledge from existing players actually, becomes a crucial shortcut to save time and investment.
What about the plan and what we wanted since the beginning of the year? Accepting that we live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world means that we need to be adaptive to change and ready to change plans. Often it is more important to fully understand a problem than to be fixed on a solution. Our Entrepreneurship Project started out to build a tomato processing factory in Sierra Leone, but after months of learning from other factory’s experiences and similar examples in Nigeria and Ghana, we realise that it takes more than a factory to solve the problems we want to solve. To reduce food waste and strengthen food security, building a modern logistics system and improve the small-holder farmers’ cooperatives will do more for the farmers than merely a processing factory.
The Skoll Centre recognises the “solution trap” that entrepreneurs often fall into and offers the “apprenticing with a problem” grant that allows MBAs to be fully immersed in a problem larger than themselves and have the humility to learn from others before coming up with a solution. This will help our EP project grow and be better embedded within the local ecosystem. There are so many players already in the field addressing similar problems, it’s best to be complementary and collaborative and learn from the precious existing local knowledge.
Business is all about people and relationships with different stakeholders. Going beyond oneself means to make genuine connections, being able to listen, understand and empathise from a deeper perspective. One of my favorite classes this year is Leadership Perspectives from Humanities. In the last class, the professor discussed notions of leadership from moral philosophers such as Max Weber, Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber. Contrasting from Weber’s notion that leadership is all about the individual leader’s ability to bring a group of people to achieve certain goals; Arendt believes that it is the people that enable the leader to manifest a collective desire for change. Buber further elaborated and explained that it is building the “I-you” relationships rather than “I-it” relationships that make us great leaders. “I-you” moments mean caring for the other people, deep listening and making a lasting connection rather than the transactional nature of an “I-it” relationship. Opportunities to make “I-you” connections at business school are abundant, but one needs to actively go beyond the self and the autopilot mode of performing daily routines that our mind puts us in. To get a lot of things crossed off our to-do list, we need to keep going ahead without paying too much attention to the others.
The best part of the MBA experience, as all my classmates would agree, is the people. We cannot take it for granted that the MBA is one of the rare experiences in our lives that we get to learn from 340 classmates from different countries and backgrounds, from former military commanders from Australia; social entrepreneurs from South Africa; to technology gurus from France and finance experts from Japan. The numerous small group projects exposed us to different ways of thinking and working across industries and cultures. One of the best memories of my MBA year is participating in the Impact Investing Competition with four other classmates from Kazakhstan, Switzerland, US and Canada. I believe the reason that we were able to out-compete all the other European schools is because of the diversity of both expertise and nationalities on our team.
At the beginning of the year, I mentioned a childhood goal of visiting the Antarctic to my other Skoll Scholar friends. I never thought it would become a reality, and now I am working with other organisations on climate change education, expedition and women’s leadership, some projects that I never dreamt to be able to work on. Taking that initial plunge, going beyond myself into the unknown enabled new possibilities to present themselves.
Have I totally contradicted myself? Not at all. I actually think going inward and setting the right intentions enables the right external opportunities to take place. Plunging into the unknown with mindfulness will make the adventure much more fun and full of learning!
Skoll Scholar, Maria Springer, reflects on her classes during the Oxford MBA programme.
Economies can, and indeed should, work for everyone. While studying the MBA, I realised that all business is social business and that no business is all good or all bad. Every company has a choice. Companies can operate ethically and value social impact and environmental responsibility while maximising bottom-line profits. Of course, this choice is not a one-time decision. Companies must make and reaffirm this choice at the most senior levels of leadership on a continuous basis, not because they should, but rather because it’s good for business. With this understanding of social business, small, medium and large public companies can indeed be a force for good.
In Strategic Human Resources Management, I learned how wages, equity ownership, and benefits can motivate employees to deliver exceptional results. In Leadership, I learned how executives, investors, bankers and shareholders can deliver social impact without jeopardising financial performance. In Private Equity, I learned how companies can form a diverse Board of Directors to increase shareholder value. In Supply Chain Management, I learned how reliable suppliers, ethical manufacturing standards and robust environmental policies can make or break a company’s reputation and viability. And, in Strategic Brand Management, I learned how companies can defy unhealthy marketing standards to create engaged and loyal audiences.
I am walking away from the MBA a pragmatist, but also an optimist. I am clear that no business is all good or all bad; even Patagonia, Tesla, and Whole Foods get it wrong sometimes. I am also hopeful that companies are being forced to correct where they may have been wrong. Acting responsibly is becoming a business norm, required by clients and consumers alike. In response to the market, Wal-Mart, Shell and Monsanto have been forced to transform their operating practices and image in recent years.
Pragmatism and optimism feels more relevant than ever. After the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by United States police, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has gained unprecedented momentum as voices of outrage, fear, pain and frustration dominate the media cycle. Yet, I also see hope. Black-owned banks have witnessed an unprecedented number of depositors. Policy and social movements can be powerful solutions to widespread discrimination, but so can businesses that step up to address racism, inequality, and environmental injustice.
Throughout the year, as I walked into formals at colleges hundreds of years older than my country, I felt immense privilege. As a Skoll Scholarship recipient, I have been afforded immense privilege and as a white citizen of the United States, I was born with immense privilege. As I prepare for graduation, conscious of my privilege and the complex world we live in, I am encouraged that my classmates and I have been equipped with the tools required to start, run and grow businesses that will play a role in constructing just, equal and sustainable global systems.