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The next generation of Impact Business Leaders

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.

DSC_0025Making 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.

IMG_5597Building 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.

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What one solar business means to three Kenyan women

Yeoh

After finishing his Oxford MBA, Energy, Environment & Resources OBN Chair, Neil Yeoh, took a trip to Kenya where he spent time with a for-profit social venture, M-KOPA Solar.

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?NYeoh_M-Kopa_Blog_Pic1To 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:

  1. Christine the shop-owner
  2. Eunice the side-hustler
  3. Jane the home-keeper

NYeoh_M-Kopa_Blog_Pic2

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

NYeoh_M-Kopa_Blog_ChristineChristine 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

NYeoh_M-Kopa_Blog_EuniceEunice 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.NYeoh_M-Kopa_Blog_Jane

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.

Closing remarks…

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.

 

Follow Neil: @neil_yeoh

Read Neil’s Skoll World Forum session blog: Post-Paris Global Sustainability: how do we get there

 

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Going outward: The best learnings from business school take place in the unknown

Songqiao Yao_Head Shot

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!

 

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Just Business

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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.

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Diversifying myself at Oxford

How does one judge whether this year has been a successful one or not? Have we been able to achieve things we wanted to from this year? Have we picked up the skills that we thought we would like to? Have we found the jobs that we wanted to?

These are big questions and they are not easy to answer. But one thing on which most of my class agrees is that this has been one of the best years of our lives. There are no two ways about it.

What is the one thing that we are going to take away from this year? For me, it would be the conversations – both within and outside the classroom. I believe that the person who does the listening in these conversations is the one who derives the most value from them. These conversations with people from across the globe and across industries have broadened my professional and personal perspectives. Furthermore, in our classes and study groups, the diverse approaches of my classmates towards problem solving, almost always so different from mine, has enabled me to learn from different ways of thinking and approaching challenges. One of the main ways I have grown this year is in my ability to have conversations about multiple business disciplines and industries. There are many who would cite this kind of growth as a highlight of their MBA – and I have certainly found this to be true in my own case.  I consider it a privilege to have lived this year in Oxford and to have grown in this way.

One thing which I have come to realise is the power of networks, rather than just networking. The people we have met this year and the relationships that we have fostered are going to stay with us. These are the people who are going to go and manage large corporations and build successful startups, and we will need each other at different points in our lives. In order to reap benefits from the network that we have built this year, it is very important to be conscious of how people perceive you. Do they have fond memories of you from a conversation, an event or a dinner? And when you drop a note 10 years down the line to one of them, these memories and how they thought of you back will stand out. I would like to believe that if, at the end of the year, many classmates perceive me as a friend – as someone they would love to hear from even 10 years down the line – then I have succeeded in my MBA.

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The year amidst dreaming spires

Nine months in the MBA programme at Saïd Business School have exposed me to a diverse set of experiences. I have worked on projects ranging from solutions to decongest the London Tube to helping launch an agri-tech startup. I have worked with public stakeholders, become aware of international government policies and worked on initiatives relating to industries that would have been unknown to me less than a year ago.

I came to Oxford with the intention to better understand how startups and private sector organisations can effectively be support systems (or in some cases, replacements) for broken or archaic public sector frameworks – and many of my assumptions have been challenged.

Hands-on academic modules like Global Rules of the Game, where we learned in detail about the passing of the insurance bill in India, have played a significant role in my learning process. In teams, we took on the roles of different stakeholders in the decision-making ecosystem and played out likely scenarios. We learned, in a practical and relatable way, how a group of private organisations played a significant role in pushing the approval of a regulatory change which was generally perceived as needed. In our professional journeys, we take many actions – which may or may not work out for the best. Learning to understand these actions and decisions in context, and how the same situations could be better approached or what actions could be repeated, are priceless lessons.

Through the year, my classmates and I have worked in multiple, diverse teams. Working to bridge cultural and professional distances, while challenging, has been an extremely rewarding experience, one from which we have walked away with friends, valuable lessons and a better understanding of our own personalities.

I have worked with classmates from the government and social sector and have had the chance to interact with practitioners from multiple industries and sectors during events like the Skoll World Forum. Through these experiences I learned how some organisations and individuals are pioneering in the space between the public and private sectors. Building relationships, understanding the target segment and thinking long term have become fundamental to seeing success in the field and ensuring sustainability in programmes.

A highlight of my programme occurred a few months ago, when I met an alumnus of the University of Oxford who has been building an organisation that is changing trust relationships in online interactions between individuals (think of an AirBnB host or Uber driver/customer – and what we really know about those in whom we place trust). Drawing on my many experiences in witnessing and experiencing broken trust architecture in unorganised sectors and developing countries, I have been helping them maneuver some new markets they are looking to enter.

While the MBA year is still a few months from culmination, the experiences – academic and practical – have helped me hone my skills and have reaffirmed my choice regarding the professional space in which I would like to remain.

Oxford is fondly called the city of dreaming spires, and rightly so. It has inspired me and opened the opportunity for us to forge special bonds, question the direction in which our actions take us, and aim higher, every day.