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How might big business fight poverty?

Puja Balachander is an outgoing 2018-19 Oxford MBA, a member of the inaugural Impact Lab, awardee of the Skoll Venture Awards 2019, and social entrepreneur. On Friday, 11th July, she attended the Business Fights Poverty conference at the Saïd Business School. Here she shares her own personal experience.

Having spent my former life working in the public sector, I have to admit I’ve often been frustrated by the narrative in business circles around social impact. The message is often implicitly or explicitly that government and philanthropy have failed, and therefore business needs to step in to save the day by bringing the “rigour” to the impact sector that it desperately needs.

I walked into the Business Fights Poverty 2019 conference prepared to hear the same rhetoric again, and found it refreshing that rather than painting business as the cure all, the conference theme this year was around “Purposeful Collaboration.” It brought together players from major corporations and the third sector, and emphasized a systems approach to problem solving, where business wasn’t the solution, but it was part of the system of solutions necessary to address the complex global challenges we face.

Yet I couldn’t help but notice the irony of what I saw compared to the expectations I had encountered in government. I was always told that we needed to adopt more rigorous “private sector” methods to understand the ROI of the resources the government spent on social impact. But the conference showed me that the private sector is being far more lackadaisical about their impact efforts than government ever was.

The need to move from defining a corporate purpose, to creating structures, processes and culture that actually facilitate that purpose were repeated in nearly every session, yet the examples cited and celebrated at the conference seemed tokenistic and only superficially impactful. The keynote speaker for the day from Unilever gave a presentation that seemed to equate socially inclusive and progressive marketing with Unilever’s social impact. In a corporate intrapreneurship workshop, speakers from major companies told us about their social innovation initiatives to surface ideas and potential ventures from within their employees. And while I’m sure there might be positive social outcomes that come from these efforts, they sounded more like employee engagement than social innovation.

I’m not sure that celebrating these efforts is helping move companies towards more ambitious and rigorous social impact efforts. At the same time, I’m aware that being overly critical of companies’ incremental efforts could be counter-productive. Incremental progress is better than none at all, and who’s to say that companies won’t throw up their hands and figure that if they’ll be criticized, either way, they might as well go back to a pure profit-maximizing focus?

So rather than a critique, I left the Business Fights Poverty conference with questions. How do we encourage companies to be more ambitious and rigorous about their social impact efforts? Celebration and commendation like we did at the conference felt disingenuous, and like they wouldn’t catalyse the urgency and scale of transformation needed to address the challenges we face. Critique has the potential to scare companies off, or put them on the defensive, stopping them from engaging with the academics, public servants, and third-sector players that might be able to help them in their transformation. Is there a middle ground between these that might put companies under an optimal level of pressure, and provide the optimal support that will spur them forward in their impact journeys?

Puja Balachander, 2018-19 Oxford MBA

Our MIINT journey

The MBA Impact Investing Network & Training (MIINT) competition saw 31 MBA teams take part in 2019. With Yale receiving 1st place with a $50,000 investment prize, Oxford and Wharton were selected as runners up with $25,000 each, as investment for the companies they represented.  Our Oxford MBA team recall their journey through the tournament and the social enterprise they pitched for.

Image of Richard.

Meet Richard. Ugandan social entrepreneur taking on women’s empowerment. As a teacher, he noticed that many young women and girls were missing school due menstruation. In rural Uganda, menstruation is still stigmatised, often seen as something ‘unclean’. Alongside this, there is a lack of access to products to help manage menstruation with women turning to rags and even mud to cope. As a result, females are unable to fully participate in society. For example, they can miss up to 20% of school days, leaving them seriously disadvantaged when it comes to earning a livelihood.

In 2010, Richard founded Bana Pads to tackle this range of issues. Bana makes sanitary pads from agricultural banana waste. Throughout the value chain of sourcing, production and sales, Bana exclusively hires rural women to offer jobs to this underserved group.

These pads are then sold in rural areas to enable women to better manage menstruation and therefore participate more fully in society. Because menstruation is a culturally sensitive issue, Bana has come up with an innovative way of distributing their product. Bana’s sales channel is a group of women known as ‘Bana Champions’ who sell pads door to door in rural communities. This reduces the embarrassment of buying pads from (often male) shopkeepers. It also allows the champions to speak with the head of households (again often male) to raise awareness of the challenges of menstruation and the need for pads. Similar work happens in schools and churches. All in all, Bana reaches 20,000 customers per month, selling over 400,000 pads.

We found Richard while involved with the MBA Impact Investing Network and Training (MIINT) programme. MIINT simulates the impact investing process starting from writing an investment thesis, moving through to sourcing, due diligence, and drafting an investment memo. This culminates in pitching to an investment committee for up to $50,000 investment.

After shortlisting 10 companies, we decided to go with Bana for their compelling impact story. We were worried that they did not look like any of the previous winners of the MIINT competition (typically US based firms, with a range of investment already lined up) but decided to persevere.

After preparing an investment case, our first litmus test was the internal competition at Oxford’s Saïd Business School. Three judges with impact investing, venture capital, social entrepreneurship and consulting experience made up our panel.

Image of the team preparing to pitch at the internal MIINT competition.
The team prepares to pitch at the internal MIINT competition at Oxford’s Saïd Business School.

The judges’ feedback was tough. There were questions about how scalable the model was; the financial analysis and valuation; and even why Richard converted from an NGO to a social enterprise given the challenging investment thesis. All of this was summed up in one judges’ comment: that the business was ‘un-investable’ as presented. After leaving the room, we figured that was probably the end of our Bana Pads journey.

A few days later, we were pleasantly surprised to hear that the judges had selected us to represent the University of Oxford at the global finals in Wharton. The judges believed in the impact story of the organisation and the fact that they already had a viable model based on their track record. The excitement (and very audible celebration) was so euphoric that the barista at the Oxford Saïd common room came over to congratulate us on what must’ve been the news that someone was getting married.

And so, we got to work, taking on board all of the judges’ comments. We worked on the project through our examinations period and international classes in Johannesburg. Armed with a brand-new financial model, impact analysis, pitch deck and memo we assembled in Wharton.

In the morning we pitched in the Semi Finals. Only one team per thematic area would go through to the finals. Following lunch, we were thrilled to hear that not only did the judges chose us, but we also won the students award for best presentation. After the announcement we had a full 30 seconds to mentally prepare before pitching again. This time, in front of a panel of 10 judges including Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Acumen and Omidyar Network and 150 of our fellow competitors from over 30 business schools.

Image of the team pitching.
The team pitches Bana Pads for one last time at the finals

Photo courtesy of Wharton Social Impact Initiative

We gathered for the final ceremony at the end of the day. Hearts pounding, we listened to the closing speeches. And then the moment we had all been waiting for, “and the winners are…”. When we heard “University of Oxford” it took a full 5 seconds before what had happened sunk in. Cue the madness. We had just won $25,000 for Richard and membership into an incredible network of investors. Joy. Relief. Excitement. Disbelief. Sadness (that it was all over). You name it, we felt it.

This is what business school is all about. Taking on a challenge, building a team, working on something that you’re figuring out as you go along. And we managed to pull it off. Richard was so thrilled, he offered to pay us 10% of the winnings (which we had to refuse at least 5 times). It remains one of the highlights of our year at Oxford, we’ve built some amazing friendships on this team, have some unforgettable memories and (hopefully) helped Richard fulfil his dream for Bana Pads.

The next morning, still jet-lagged, a little dazed from what had just happened, we reminisced about the six-month journey that brought us here as we made our way home, taking one last photo before we left…

Image of the team winning.
One last crazy photo before leaving Wharton

We’d very much like to thank those who supported us in travelling to Wharton including MIINT, the Skoll Centre, the Saïd Business School, Green Templeton College and Kellogg College.

Nick, Alma, Alex, Aisha and Emma.

Scaling Health Solutions through Government Partnerships

Each year the Skoll Centre invites a small number of Oxford students to the annual Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. Each year they share their unique perspectives of the sessions and events that unfold during this magical time in Oxford.

Achieving universal health care through collaboration between funders, social entrepreneurs, and government

Frustrating. Slow. Fundamental. Scale. These were the words that came to mind to attendees when Erin Worsham of the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship asked them to describe working with government. The balance between the challenges of working with government, and the potential impact and scale that could be achieved through collaboration was immediately apparent.

In the next hour and a half, we heard candid conversations from two partnerships between social entrepreneurs and governments. One was between Last Mile Health and the Government of Liberia. The other was between Partners in Health and the Kingdom of Lesotho. Through these conversations, there were three themes that kept coming up:

  1. Collaborative target setting and evaluation between social enterprises and governments
  2. Demonstrating impact to inspire scale up
  3. Funding for comprehensive primary health care, rather than particular diseases

Collaborative target setting and evaluation

Thabelo Ramatlapeng of the Kingdom of Lesotho kicked off this theme when she mentioned one of the major challenges for governments was working with organizations who brought their own missions, and their own objectives, and were inflexible about setting these objectives collaboratively. In both partnerships, there was a concerted effort made to understand the government’s priorities and ambitions, and design the work and evaluation according to these, rather than organizational agendas.

Lisha McCormick of Last Mile Health drove this home when she mentioned that in her experience, the Government of Liberia wasn’t concerned with RCTs, and evaluation; they had very practical questions- how do we implement, and how do we pay for it?

Demonstrating impact to inspire scale up

Another recurring theme was social enterprises demonstrating impact to government in smaller use cases, and government building on this momentum to scale up what is proven to work. Partners in Health by building seven comprehensive primary care clinics in the most isolated and difficult to reach areas of Lesotho, and Last Mile Health by implementing a community health worker model in three counties of Liberia. Each have now scaled rapidly in close collaboration with government, with comprehensive primary healthcare now reaching 40% of the population of Lesotho, and community health workers operating in 15 counties of Liberia.

This to me, seems like the ultimate theory of change around working with government. Innovators prove that work can be done differently and more effectively, and the value of government is in recognizing and scaling this innovation so that it has massive impact. The innovation would not have been recognized, however, if the respective teams hadn’t engaged government in setting the objectives and defining success at the very earliest stages.  

Delivering comprehensive primary healthcare

There was a third stakeholder in the conversation between panelists that wasn’t a speaker, but whose presence was felt- the funders. A major challenge emphasized by Abera Leta of Partners in Health was that funding for health is often in verticals, designated to treat HIV vs. malaria vs. a vaccination, rather than funding that can be used for comprehensive care that treats communicable and noncommunicable diseases, and makes true universal healthcare access a reality.

Again, the importance of following the government’s lead was emphasized. In countries like Rwanda that insist on autonomy in how they use donor money to fund healthcare, comprehensive primary healthcare can be prioritized. Just like with social enterprises, when funding reinforces and enables the government agenda around comprehensive primary healthcare, rather than trying to force its own, the potential of this collaborative relationship is realized. Every speaker, from the government and the social enterprises, was unanimous in calling for funding that could be used to build the primary healthcare systems that countries need.

As we think about these themes, it’s important to keep the individuals at the center, who are the reason that  all three players- governments, social entrepreneurs, and funders- do this work. S. Olasford Wiah of the Government of Liberia brought us back to these individuals when he shared what inspires him to work in community health. He shared the story of one of his former patients. A woman who had a healthy pregnancy, but experienced complications during the delivery. Her community came together to try and bring her to a health center, walking and carrying her for hours in a hammock, but by the time they reached the center, she had passed away.

This is the injustice experienced by the 50% of the world that doesn’t have access to essential health services. And addressing this injustice is what motivates us and demands that we collaborate to achieve a world with universal access to health care.


About the Author

Puja Balachander

Puja Balachander is a social impact designer following the lead of vulnerable communities to help solve their most intractable problems. Throughout her career so far, she has worked on designing sustainable, equilibrium-shifting solutions with end-users. Puja believes in working with end-users in their language and in their community, therefore she practices and teaches design in French, Hindi, and Tamil, and has worked all over the US, India, and Madagascar. Currently undertaking her MBA degree at Saïd Business School, she is also co-founding Devie, a social enterprise that aims to improve access to quality early childhood development.

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My journey from an impact business in India to a world-class MBA

Daniela Gheorghe is one of our 2018-19 Skoll Scholars on the Oxford MBA. Natively from Romania, Daniela has lived and worked in India for the last seven years where she has helped numerous families gain access to affordable health and education. Here she describes her journey to Oxford.

It was 2008. I was on a plane to Germany. I just received an Erasmus scholarship to study at a German university for six months. I spent 30 minutes writing my application for the scholarship three months before. That’s how much it took me to accomplish this on my own: my first time flying, my first time out of Romania. There, while looking at the clouds, I understood that I could achieve anything I intend to achieve. If I set my mind on the goal, I can do anything (and fly anywhere)!

Above the clouds, in that minute, I understood my potential for the first time! I was 22.

But what if all children understand and realize their potential early? Imagine what that world would look like.

For the last four years, I have been serving poor parents’ aspiration. Families with a household income of less than $300 per month spend 13% of this income on education. What is their return on investment? Their return on primary education investment is very low as children spend five years in schools without being able to calculate, read or express themselves in the language of their books.

When aspirations meet willingness to pay, demand is defined and so, a market.

In 2014, I co-founded vChalk. At vChalk, we sell fun English learning activities on a mobile app to schools and parents for students to transition from learning English as a second language to being confident and expressive using it. Four years have passed; bootstrapping, improving the model, winning national and international competitions (we raised about $35,000 from different awards). We supported more than 80 teachers and 2500 students to catch up on foundation skills for learning. We tested a pricing model of less than $10 per year/child. We crossed a sales revenue of$12,000 in 2017. However, the business model was not ready for large scale.

This is a classroom in a resource-limited school in Bangalore India. Parents aspire for their children to speak English, get a good job and a good salary. Teachers struggle to teach in English and ensure that foundation learning happens.

Before my time at vChalk, I worked in political marketing and the non-profit sector in Romania. When I came to India in 2011 for an internship through AIESEC I thought it was just for a few months.

Little did I know I would spend more than seven years in India.

This is the place I discovered social entrepreneurship. I knew it was for me. But seven years later, I still feel I don’t know how to solve the world’s most challenging problems.

Daniela in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. Picture is taken during her work at Jaipur Rugs, a company presented asa case by C.K. Prahalad in his book: The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.
Daniela’s room in 2011, in a women’s hostel in Jaipur, Rajas than, India while working at Jaipur Rugs. On the wall, spot the postcard depicting an aerial view of Oxford University. Jaipur Rugs connects more than 40,000 artisans with high quality markets in USA and Europe while creating timely handmade carpets.
Daniela in a village around Jorhat, Assam, India. Picture is taken during her work at ERC Eye Care, a social business offering affordable eye glasses and ophthalmological services to rural families in this “tribal” state of North-East India.
Daniela’s office in ERC Eye Care in Assam, India. Daniela supported the start-up to raise its first impact investment of $100,000.
Daniela on the field on a regular day in a waste management company in Telangana, India. As a Frontier Market Scout, Daniela worked to improve the operations of Waste Ventures, a for-profit impact business that transforms organic waste into soil conditioner and sells to farmers. More on Daniela’s journey in India, before she started her owned-tech company, here.

I am honored to be in Oxford. Honored and privileged. Just four months ago I couldn’t imagine that I would be here. It is so incredible how life turns around.

But why am I here?

Firstly, I’m here to take a step back. I’m here to try to understand what I can do better to positively impact more children. I’m here to learn about systems thinking and I understand that I can do so much more than being a start-up founder. I’m here to discover where I can place myself in my next role to see my work have long-term positive impact on low-income families.

On a personal level, I seek to be happy with my work every day. I want to be a doer and dedicate my hard work to something meaningful that empowers people. I need to grow myself as a person, to learn to pace my efforts, to become more diplomatic and wiser so that I learn from failures. This MBA will help me grow. It will hone my financial and business skills too.

Finally, Oxford adds weight to my voice. It gives me a chance to be heard in important decision-making forums for change at large scale. It gives me a chance to join some of the greatest minds out there to tackle the world’s most difficult problems.

I am here to reach my full potential. To build connections, gain learning and gather insights that will last a life-time.

Find Daniela on  TwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

Visit Daniela’s personal project on emotional intelligence here.

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A letter to my younger self

Mohsin Ali Mustafa is our 2018-19 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. Mohsin is also a Weidenfeld-Hoffman Scholar, co-founder and managing director of Clinic5 – an affordable health delivery service in Pakistan. 

I write this blog post as a letter to my younger self. We don’t have a time machine (yet) but what we do have is an ability to communicate ideas through our written word and I see my life as part of a larger continuum, so this blog is an effort to speak to that young man or woman who is brimming with enthusiasm to go out and “change the world.”

“Dear Mohsin,

Congratulations on graduating from medical school, I am proud to see the passion to serve in you is thriving to the point where you want to work as medic on the front lines of the war in Pakistan. I know right now you want to do a Che Guevara and change the world. I remember you mentioned that you wish to end the war that’s raging in your country by working as a Disaster Response Medic. I’d like to share a few things I learnt over the course of the last few years that might help you along the way. I am cautious as I write this since the words of age can strike as pessimism to the youth so take from this what makes sense to you.

First – patience, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Climate change did not start last year, the war that rages all over the world is not a product of inequities of the past few days. The big problems that you want to tackle are insidious and hence their solutions would also require time, patience and effort. This is a marathon and not a sprint pace yourself or you will burn yourself out. Keep your eyes on the prize, this will be your life’s work – take the long-term approach. Do not let small losses here or there dissuade you from the end goal.

Second, find a mentor; life at 24 seems impossible to navigate at times, a mentor who works in the space or inspires you with their professional and personal attributes can transform your worldview. I know I got direction from my mentor or else I might have ended up completely misdirected. A mentor encourages you and anchors you in life with their wisdom.

Third – balance, this world needs young people like you, but remember you’re not the only one in this. I know right now you can’t see it with everyone that you know taking the path that’s safe and comfortable but let me assure you there are thousands of troops fighting the same battle as you. It is important that in your struggle to change the world you don’t forget yourself. Remember the relationships that make who you are, spend time with them; remember the passion for trekking in the mountains, do it occasionally; remember your love for sushi, have it once in a while. Don’t blindside yourself in the effort to change the world and in the process forget what made you, you.

The last and the most important one, love. Don’t forget to love, you were driven on this path out of the love for a patient, a patient you lost on your watch in the ER, I know you shed tears that night and vowed to fix the systemic problems that caused it, don’t forget that passion. Protect that flame in your heart. Winds will blow to put it out, sometimes under the guise of practicality, other times in the guise of rewards.

Remember, your heart will harden to cope with all the sorrows you will experience, and it would seem like a wise thing to let it harden as that hurts less. That’s a cop out young man – don’t be weak and give in to that urge. A good way to judge this is by observing how you treat everyone closest to you. If you notice you’re becoming harsher with the people in your life, you’re doing something wrong. This one is the hardest to maintain and let me be honest with you, it’s still a constant struggle in my life despite the few years I have over you.

That’s enough for today, I know you’re a young man with a short attention span so I kept it short but trust the path you have taken, who knows this path might even lead you to the leading center of learning in the world where you would be sharing your experience with colleagues from all over the world. When that happens remember to treat that privilege with humility and purpose.

I have a hunch life will be a rewarding adventure on your chosen path and you will go places you did not even imagine you would.

Salute comrade,

Mohsin”

I am immensely grateful to the Skoll Centre and the Weidenfeld-Hoffman Trust for enabling my education at the Saïd Business School. I am cognizant of the privilege and will do my utmost to deliver on the promise.  I pledge to return to my organization Clinic5 at the end of this academic year to scale our work in healthcare in partnership with schools in Pakistan.

Mohsin Mustafa with young children from his clinic in a Pakistani classroom

Mohsin Mustafa (pictured right) with young girls attending his clinic in a Pakistani classroom.

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Skoll Centre launches Impact Lab programme

The Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship this year launches the “Impact Lab”, a one year co-curricular programme designed to enable Oxford MBA students to take a leading role in tackling the complex and pressing social and environmental challenges of our world.

The programme cultivates the knowledge, tools and personal leadership qualities needed to drive ambitious and systemic change across sectoral and organisational boundaries. Weekly workshop sessions and in-depth bootcamps with leading practitioners and thought leaders cover topics such as systems thinking, human centred design, impact measurement and impact investing. In tandem with this, through action learning and access to executive coaches, Impact Lab participants are supported in deepening their self-awareness, developing character, and understanding their own impact leadership journeys. The programme concludes with an opportunity for Lab members to create and deliver a personal talk on their own journey, how they have changed and the impact they wish to have on the world.

Building on our successful pilot “Skoll Academy” in 2017, the Impact Lab launched on October 6 this year with an inaugural cohort of 38 fantastic MBA students selected through an application process. Lab participants include students from a range of backgrounds, including:

  • Julie Greene, a social entrepreneur who ran bakeries across East Africa providing vocational training, employment and wellness services to women;
  • Sergio Navarro, a former VP at Goldman Sachs, doctor and founder of a health-tech company using augmented reality to deliver rehabilitation therapy;
  • Kudzai Chigiji director of a Pan-African advisory and infrastructure development company, currently operating in education and healthcare across East, West and Southern Africa;
  • Mridhula Sridharan, an investment strategist who has advised high net worth individuals, corporates and foundations across India and enabled investments to be directed into development initiatives.

The ethos of the Lab cultivates peer-led and peer-to-peer activities, and students are actively engaged in shaping the evolution of the Lab across the Oxford year.

In light of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the ambitious targets in the Paris Climate Agreement and the multiple social and environmental challenges facing our world, now more than ever, we need leaders who can understand these interconnected and complex issues, design and execute effective interventions, and lead teams, organisations and movements.

For more information or if you would like to collaborate, feel free to contact us. Many of the Impact Lab presenters are also running public sessions as part of the Skoll Centre Speaker Series. More information can be found on the Saïd Business School events listing.

By Shruthi Vijaykumar, Skoll Centre Associate