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Just Business

Maria Springer_Head Shot

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.

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Diversity Inspires

I was given the opportunity to reflect on my thoughts back when I was entering the MBA programme, through a class project that a group of friends were completing for their digital media class. They asked members of our class to complete four statements, to get a snapshot of how our cohort is feeling as we draw to the end of the MBA program. These were:

  • A year ago I wanted to…
  • But back then I felt…
  • My favourite moment on the MBA has been…
  • Diversity inspires…

My responses at the time were limited to a couple of words – however, with more time, I have reflected more deeply on how my courses and interactions here at Oxford have enhanced my experience.

A year ago I wanted to find ways to apply my public sector experience in order to continue to improve the lives of Women and Girls, but through working on innovative solutions in a private sector role. I wanted to work on issues affecting Women and Girls in developed nations as well in sub-Saharan Africa. I expected that the theories and frameworks explored in my courses would help me to build my skills in order to make this transition. I planned to look at consulting in teams who worked closely with the public sector, NGOs and civil society around issues related to equality. The courses that have helped me feel most prepared for this step post-graduation are Strategy, Strategy & Innovation and Corporate Turnaround & Business Transformation. The content allowed me to deepen my knowledge around how incumbent markets can be disrupted by nascent innovations. I was able to explore how the market responds to ‘new entrants’ and ‘substitutes’ through the application of Porter’s 5 forces framework. The latter course provided strategies on how to bring around transformation in hostile environments and ensue that stakeholders and employees buy into the new vision that is proposed.

Back then I felt unprepared. I felt that I knew a lot about my field and was able to progress at a grassroots level however I knew very little about finance and how the numbers which describe the country’s economic state fit together. How that has changed! I have not become a finance guru in the past year by any means. However, I have developed a sound body of knowledge through courses such as Corporate Valuation, Mergers and Acquisitions and Real Estate. These courses have prepared me not to feel lost in conversations about finance and the economy, but have informed me, to the point that I feel I can ask relevant questions. I recently sat next to a man on a commute to Paris who had helped set up a hedge fund in South Africa. We talked finance for the entire journey from hedging, commodities, and the impact of China slowing down, to the big short and financial crises on the continent. By the end, I was surprised at my ability to articulate myself and to understand his role. This was a conversation that I would have been completely lost in a year ago.

My favourite moment has been meeting all the babies and families. Family is a big part of the Nigerian community I belong to. While a student in undergrad I remember feeling disconnected from the real world due to the lack of families and children in my immediate community. Then, I was able to find solace through my church community, which was filled with people of all ages – from children and babies to great-great grandmothers. During the MBA it has been refreshing not to feel disconnected in this way. It is important to find ways to be connected to the things that are important to you, and I recommend establishing routines early on in the journey. Through my interactions with the peer supporter network at Oxford Saïd, of which I am a part, I have been able to maintain balance. Kurt April’s MBA Launch session on ‘Self-Care and Leading Through your Personal Narrative’, the themes of which were also picked up on in my Leadership Fundamentals course, further developed my ability to focus on my personal development. The idea of delivering pitches and presentations which allow me to embody authentic leadership that is based on my personal story was core to helping me stay connected to my values.

Our diversity inspires a level of fortitude to try new things. I have learned so much from my fellow classmates, professors and the wider Oxford community. They have given me the courage on days where I was not sure where to turn. They have pushed me on the days that I wanted to give up. They have encouraged me on the days that I felt confused. They have celebrated and captured great moments even when my phone battery died. They have opened their hearts to me by sharing their world, their hopes, their struggles and their dreams.

These are my thoughts – please take a look at the reflections of some of my fellow classmates in the “Diversity InSpires” Video.

 

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What’s next?

One fantastic year is coming to an end!

It seems like just yesterday when I was thinking about my career progression and how an MBA might help me to achieve my goals. Here I am today reflecting on how I will leverage this high quality education.

Throughout the year, through my interactions with fellow classmates, I realised that many of us came to Oxford to fix something – something that was not the way we wanted it to be. Take my story for instance, an education entrepreneur, while I had managed to make my business profitable in the first year; deep within me remained a desire to unlock further opportunities to make my company grow and bring about positive change. How could I make this possible? My quest has led me to Oxford Saïd.

What did I learn in this one year? I think two words best describe my experience at Oxford Saïd: ‘Authentic Engagement’. From witnessing debates at the Oxford Union to speaking at TEDx, to rowing competitions, to showcasing Oxford Saïd in MBAT, to negotiating in class simulations, to representing Oxford at international conferences – every moment, every interaction, and every experience has contributed to what I will become. I firmly believe that the outcome of these engagements will flow in a ‘sustained-release’, dispensing relevant learning steadily over my entire lifetime.

Am I going back to India? Let’s see! Am I taking up a job? Perhaps not! New company? Who knows!

This time of year is the MBA graduate rush hour, when it is easy to get overwhelmed and turn deaf to one’s inner voice. In the midst of this chaos, I have decided to stop and think – to take a brief pause and gauge all possibilities before I commence my journey – a safety mechanism of sorts. I hope that this way I won’t get inundated by the varied choices I have at the moment, or get discouraged under the weight of my own expectations.

I tell myself – this is my time. I have chosen to listen to my intuition once again.

Prodigy Finance: From Capital to Community

Min Ji Kim is an MBA student at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford and the project manager for this year’s Oxford Social Innovation Case Competition, an event that sees teams of students  tackle a real-life business problem faced by 3 different social entrepreneurs, then present their case to a panel of judges where a £300 cash prize is awarded to the 3 winning teams. Previously solely supported by the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, this year has seen the generous sponsorship of Prodigy Finance; the MBA tuition fee loan company supporting international students to access high-quality business education.

Although I am now familiar with Prodigy Finance – an official sponsor of this year’s Oxford Social Innovation Case Competition (OSICC) – I have to admit that I used to think that it was a conventional financial institution with a conventional student loan product. I was therefore initially sceptical as to how the company was compatible with the objectives and identity of the OSICC.SICC logo (2)

There was a personal colour to my scepticism. Before I enrolled in the MBA programme here at the University of Oxford, I was an official in the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the UN agency with the mandate to research global employment trends and promote decent employment for all. In the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis, the organisation found itself very much connected to the consequences of that fall-out and compelled to advocate for millions of ordinary people and families around the world whose livelihoods and, sometimes, survival were suddenly threatened as a result of the irresponsible conduct of the financial sector. At the ILO, I was personally responsible for tracking the devastating consequences of the crisis on youth employment figures and youth flight and brain-drain from crisis-affected countries. It is not surprising that in this milieu, and in the growing popular disillusionment with capitalism beyond it, it was increasingly accepted as fact that capital and community well-being were diametrically opposed.Prodigy Finance1

However, incredibly, Prodigy Finance demonstrates that this does not have to be the case. Founded on the conviction that a person’s country of birth or socio-economic background or lack of a credit history in one fixed country should not hinder her from accessing the world’s top business schools for lack of financing, Prodigy has found an ingenious way to mobilise the often dispersed but high-impact power of the community to invest in not just financial capital but the more important human capital. Even before online crowdfunding was “a thing” Prodigy had developed an online platform through which international students could receive relatively low-interest loans that are fully funded by the alumni of their MBA programme. More than 70% of Prodigy loan recipients are students from developing countries, and more than 80% of the company’s clients could not have accessed the financing necessary to accept the offers they received from top academic institutions had it not been for Prodigy. Prodigy’s business model is predicated on the idea that investing in such talented individuals, giving them the opportunity to have the life-changing and character-stretching experience of a top graduate programme, would lead to the sustainable development of these individuals’ home countries and communities.

It turns out that I am surrounded by ample evidence that Prodigy’s business model is sound. A significant number of my colleagues and classmates are financing their MBA education with the inter-generational community support represented by the Prodigy loan, and they are among the most inspiring, entrepreneurial, and values-conscious people I know – in other words, the kind of people the most likely to create exactly what competitions like the OSICC exist to curate and promote. There is no doubt in my mind that after completing their studies at Oxford they will have tremendous impact, whether they return to their home countries and apply what they learned through the MBA there or get employed in the UK and invest in the sustainable development of their nations from here.

What is equally clear is that, despite not being a loan recipient, I am also impacted through the experiences, insights, and vision of my classmates that Prodigy serves and have become all the richer for it.

Most importantly, I have been pleasantly humbled to consider the possibility that capital in its truest form is neither opposed nor isolated from community but is always embedded in it.

Author: Min Ji Kim (MBA 2015-16)