On the opening morning of the Skoll World Forum, a panel luminaries from the world of social innovation assembled under the banner of “Fierce Compassion” to discuss how the hundreds of global changemakers gathered here at the University of Oxford’s Said School of Business might leverage their influence to more rapidly scale solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.
As a current Oxford MBA student and the founder of a non-profit that helps young social innovators to grow as leaders and advance their work across the United States, it is amazing to see the best of Oxford’s academic community converging with so many iconic world leaders and social innovation practitioners.
There can be no doubt that connections made here over the next few days will propel the field for years to come.
If there is such a thing as currency in the world of social entrepreneurship, one imagines that the names and faces of this morning’s panelists (as well as more than a few audience members) would be among those featured on its bank notes.
Representing some of the most influential organizations in this field were Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation; Alexis Bonnell, Chief Applied Innovation & Acceleration, USAID Global Development Lab; Marcela Manubens, Global Vice President Social Impact, Unilever; and legendary Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter.
To the extent that each panelist was candidly self-critical of their respective organizations and explicit about the need to address chronic shortcomings sector at large, they were greatly aided by fellow panelist Astrid Scholz, a former economist turned tech entrepreneur from Portland, OR who serves as Chief Everything Officer of Sphaera, a cloud-based solutions sharing platform that is working to disrupt the status quo organizations so impressively convened here at Oxford.
Astrid characterized the philanthropic-aid industry as being characterized by rent-seeking behavior and noted that no other industry exhibiting these features has ever avoided disruption, which she sees as imminent – thanks in no small part to the work of organizations like her own.
“Can a broken industry fix itself?”
That was the question aptly put to the panel by audience member and Oxford MBA alumna Aunnie Patton, now with the University of Cape Town’s Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Alexis Bonnell of USAID said that major funders can adapt to changing realities, and that the biggest trend in social innovation funding was that it was becoming less elitist, beginning to look at beneficiaries as customers, and leveraging technology to democratize and improve the allocation and assessment of aid initiatives.
Professor Michael Porter, who at Harvard leads the Social Progress Index, a framework for benchmarking success of efforts to catalyze greater human wellbeing, urged that improving accuracy of measurement was essential to establishing a better understanding of what actually constitutes effective social innovation.
“Right now,” he said, “we have a very inchoate field, and no standard classifications.”
Achieving consensus on how to benchmark the many initiatives in this field, Porter urged, would enable comparison, facilitate learning, and pave the way for increased effectiveness.
While acknowledging the importance of improved measurement, President Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation, itself a funder of the Social Progress Index, garnered applause from the audience for stressing the outsized importance of how cultural narratives can both catalyze and inhibit social change.
“We have exalted the individual entrepreneur and have disadvantaged the importance and primacy of institutions,” he said, noting that a major focus of the Ford Foundation was supporting initiatives that help to overcome cultural drivers of inequality.
For all the talk of institutional reform vs. disruption, the question of the non-profit sector’s relevance was a matter of equal concern.
Overcoming the glare of stage lights, panel moderator Michael Green, Director of the Social Progress Initiative, called on audience member Bill Ackman of the Pershing Square Foundation, who exercised his famous instincts as activist investor by calling out the proverbial “Elephant in the Room.”
“Non-profit solutions to problems are inherently problematic,” he said, noting that for-profit entrepreneurs like Elon Musk have demonstrated that business, as opposed to philanthropy, is best suited to addressing social and environmental needs.
But what about when the market fails to address the needs of society?
That, said Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, is why forward-thinking philanthropy remains essential, especially so in an era of accelerated change and persistent inequality.
Evidently, there is an as-yet unresolved tension between the sort of experimental, corrective, and exploratory ideas that philanthropy tends to support and the investment opportunities that make sense to traditional investors.
This was well-illustrated by a successful private equity man turned clean energy investor I met here yesterday who told me that certain young folks at the conference reminded him of the show Portlandia, which jokingly chronicles the sort of zany, neo-utopian businesses that reliably flourish in famously creative Portland, OR.
Fortunately, the many dreamers at this conference have not come here to retire. Rather, they have traveled great distances to explore possibilities and exchange ideas with world leaders, visionary upstarts, and established institutions that have the power to accelerate large-scale change.
At the Skoll Forum, we find ourselves at the intersection of global capital and social impact, amidst a watershed of imaginative new possibilities that – if matched with resources – will change our world for the better.
From Oxfordshire: here’s to a week of rigorous self-reflection, dialogue, and world-changing connections.
In this series of Scholar Blogs, our four Skoll Scholars for 2014-15 tell us what shaped their journey toward doing an MBA, and give their first impressions of how it feels to be starting their MBA course at Saïd Business School.
José Miguel Alfaro Gomez
The first Skoll Scholar to blog for us in this vein is José Miguel Alfaro Gomez, an Attorney at Law in Costa Rica and Founder of s.e.e.d., a boutique law firm targeted to social businesses in Costa Rica.
“I started my MBA application process in 2012. At that stage, what I had in mind was the “traditional perspective” of an MBA, a program that would provide me with the sound business skills needed to further develop my venture in Costa Rica. Since the very beginning of the process, Saïd Business School appeared to be, without a doubt, the perfect combination of networking, events and curricula for a student interested in Social Entrepreneurship. Nevertheless, at the same time, I was somewhat concerned about the “horror stories” one hears about business schools and their wildly competitive environments.
By April 2013, I learnt that I was not only accepted onto the MBA programme, but had also been awarded a Skoll Scholarship. Unfortunately I was forced to request a one-year deferral due to a personal situation. Both the School and the Centre supported me 100% at this time. The deferral was granted and everything was set for September 2014. This was one of the first hints I got that I wasn’t joining a “traditional” business school.
A year later, I was invited to participate in both the annual Skoll Scholars Reunion and later on that same week, the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. From the moment I stepped into the Skoll Scholars Reunion, I felt it was the place to be. The “traditional perspective” totally changed and in two seconds Oxford became home. The idea of a “network” was replaced by one of a family of Skoll Scholars, all of them incredible people, spread across the world and tackling global problems with sustainable solutions. In the same way, during the Forum, it became clear to me that the events and exposure to key agents in the field of Social Entrepreneurship that Saïd Business School provides are of the highest quality possible.
A few months later, September ‘14 came and it was time to travel back to Oxford to start the MBA. I already felt that I was coming back home. However I expected that most of the momentum around Social Entrepreneurship would be concentrated within the Skoll Centre itself. Of course, I was wrong once more. The passion for tackling global problems with sustainable solutions clearly drives the entire School: more than half of the class joined the Social Impact OBN; at least 15% of the class has a background in Social Entrepreneurship; and, certainly all the class and faculty add extreme value to my learning process. All this takes place in a tremendously collaborative environment enhanced by the Skoll Centre as a resource available to all the Oxonian community. Suddenly the family increased by 240 classmates coming from 47 different countries.
I’m now a few months into the course, and I am sure that this year will be one of the best of my life, and that both the Skoll Centre and Saïd Business School will enable me to be part of a family that will make my learning experience at Oxford an endless journey.”
 Acronym for Oxford Business Network, a student-led group.
As you may know, term has started and things are getting more exciting everyday here at the Centre. Part of that excitment has been fueled by opportunities like the ones below. Feel free to peruse them and see if any are of interest to you!
Dr Larry Brilliant is coming to Oxford
Dr Larry Brilliant, President of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, will be speaking on ‘Pandemics – Can we eliminate major worldwide epidemics?’ on 22 October at 17:30. To register or for more information click here.
Are you interested in working in Russia? The Alfa Fellowship Program is a professional development program placing American and British citizens in work assignments at leading organizations in Russia in the fields of business, economics, journalism, law, public policy and related areas. Financial and programmatic support are provided. Apply by 1 December.
Want to help WAMT generate its own income through social business? If so, apply to intern and help compile a costed Business Plan for the social business(es) WAMT wishes to pursue. For more information contact Andy Kelmanson, Chief Executive at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the end of my first week at Oxford, it’s clear that this is where I’m meant to be. A thousand- year history of world-class education, cutting-edge global research, magical historic landscapes and an expansive yet intimate community of scholars and leaders- that’s the backdrop for this MBA adventure. Even better, it includes the Skoll Centre, the world’s leading academic entity for the advancement of social entrepreneurship (and second home to some pretty amazing scholars, professors and practitioners).
After a mad rush to move and settle in, we were bombarded with a flurry of orientation sessions. Last week”s event was perhaps closest to my heart, “What to do when Markets Fail: Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation at SBS”. The title alone is compelling precisely because in so many cases, the increasing fusion of business and social impact has been catalyzed by market failures. The Washington Consensus and donor prescriptions for economic growth fail to trickle down in less developed countries and NGOs stepped/ step in to fill social needs that governments cannot. Recessions hit, labor markets suffer and unemployed professionals decide to become entrepreneurs (and social entrepreneurs, if idealists). Financial crises hit, donor funding dries out and NGOs and visionaries strategize ways to make their services financially self-sustaining. Returns diminish with scale and companies in developed markets struggle to find ways to grow, and sometimes discover the key is in emerging markets, in the bottom of the pyramid or simply in marketing their CSR. And so on.
Innovation, including social innovation, is often borne out of necessity and as Pamela Hartigan remarked at yesterday’s session, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. It’s not that social entrepreneurship is anything new, all businesses exercise a social impact just by creating jobs. It’s that now there’s a shifting economic and geopolitical landscape and greater impetus than ever for companies and organizations to create social/commercial synergies.
Yesterday’s event served to help us reflect on how to leverage the MBA experience for social entrepreneurship, and broader strategic synergies. Speakers, such as Michelle Giddens, from Bridges Ventures, or Mike Barry, from Marks & Spencers, highlighted a few strategies such as impact investing and sustainable procurement. Academics, such as Xiaolan Fu and Maja Andjelkovic, likewise shared potential intersections between Oxford research initiatives and major business opportunities. And various alums visited with insights about how to leverage coursework, extracurriculars and the Oxford network to achieve our dreams, raise capital and expand impact.
We are living in the midst of dramatic shifts and it’s a real gift to be gaining such vital knowledge and resources to leverage them, strategically and fruitfully.
It is a universal human quest to search for a grand unifying theory. The physicists are almost there with the recent discovery of the Higgs-Boson or the God particle. Prof Fritjof Capra in his famous book “The Tao of Physics” takes it still further and asserts based on his deep personal experience that both physics and metaphysics ineluctably lead to the same conclusions. Similarly, in almost every field of knowledge scholars and practitioners alike constantly strive to reach that one point on the evolutionary continuum where everything merges into oneness. Some call it Nirvana.
There is however one notable exception, the field of Business Management. Here the dichotomies are very stark. Very ironic for a field that is essentially a melting pot of various disciplines. There is a constant tension between social, environmental and financial goals. The frameworks to integrate these differing objectives are still at a very nascent stage. The corrective endeavours have just begun.
Why is it so particularly important to find the common ground? Why bother? The existing MBA community collectively controls resources worth hundreds of billions of dollars and the future MBAs will eventually control even greater amounts. They exercise an enormous influence over governments worldwide. The decisions they take affect millions of people across the globe. The financial crisis of 2008 has shown how their actions have the power to even derail world economies and as they say with great powers come great responsibilities.
The question is does a common ground really exist? My initial conversations with my SBS classmates give me a sense that everyone is more or less grappling with this question. Often these discussions bring up issues of values, priorities, passions, complexity and more. There are obviously no easy solutions but perhaps the answer, to the challenge of finding the common ground, lies buried deep in the gardens of Saїd Business School. This is perhaps the best kept secret of this wonderful institution.
The land where the Saїd Business School stands was once, the seat of higher learning for monks belonging to the Cistercian Order, called the Rewely Abbey or the Royal Monastery. Its inmates were famously known as the White Monks.
How does this relate to the world of business management? That is an enigma which we must collectively resolve over the course of this year. The answers may surprise, enrich and profoundly influence the very core of one’s being!!!
With the new academic year kicking off, the debates and discussions are well underway. Skoll Scholar Daniela Papi (@danielapapi) takes a moment to reflect on one of the more heated conversations we’re having: why the polarization between “entrepreneurship” and “social entrepreneurship”?
I’m starting my first week of classes at the University of Oxford in their MBA program, and I realize that I am not in the minority for having chosen this program because of its connection to the Skoll Center and its focus on “social entrepreneurship.” Many of the people I have met state that some aspect of “better” business is what brought them here…. well, that and the fact that you get to study in an institution with 800+ years of history and where some of the world’s most brilliant minds have gathered. It’s a fascinating place!
During our first week of orientation we had an optional day and a half session on social innovation that opened with Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Center, speaking about how she thinks the word “social” needs to be removed from “entrepreneurship”. I couldn’t agree more, especially given the reception these concepts have received from some of my MBA classmates.
The polarization of “entrepreneurship” and “social entrepreneurship” implies mutual exclusivity. If you are a “social” entrepreneur, do you somehow get to claim moral superiority over your every day entrepreneur? Many of the most mission driven organizations I have seen have never heard of nor benefited from the term “social enterprise”, so why do we make this distinction? Is this naming trend causing us to forget that ALL business has the responsibility to not only increase profits for shareholders, but also respect and support the world around it?
I view “social” enterprises as businesses working towards social changes as their mission above maximizing income. We don’t call Colgate a social enterprise, but if a group said they were starting a business with the explicit mission of getting toothpaste out to people all over the developing world to reduce tooth decay, we might consider them so. If a group with a stated social mission took on the same business as Colgate, would just the motivating factor be enough to note the difference? Or, would there be no difference at all? And towards that end, should programs like mine be working to remove the polarizing “social” from the entrepreneurship to attract more MBA’s who don’t associate at all with the social side of this curriculum. Perhaps through their drive for successful businesses they will be ones who have the largest ability to make changes in the world?
Relying on free market approaches to global development does leave me with some additional concerns many stemming from a lack of a systematic way to define what “social” impact is. If we believe that people will vote with their money for the things they believe in, then we might take the mindset that as long as you had a socially driven society, the market would drive social improvements. The dilemma here is that the social/environmental implications of certain purchases are not readily available to influence consumer decision making. More worrying is that much of this complete impact understanding is also not readily understood or sought out by business leaders themselves. If we don’t know our social impact and can’t measure it, how can we improve it?
It turns out the same dilemmas causing failures in the NGO world are at work in business. An inability or lack of effort to measure impact and tie positive impacts to future decision-making, both for donors and consumers, is creating inefficient markets where funding is going to areas which, with full informational clarity would be less desirable options.
How do we mesh all of the good intentions on one side with all of the business drive on another and make all parties realize that we can and are working towards the same goals? I’m so excited to see where this year takes me and all those of us on this course and how this unique MBA program will impact the work we all take on throughout our lives. Let’s hope that in the future the “social” doesn’t need to be listed as a distinction as a better understanding of the complete spectrum of impacts of our work will be available to all business leaders and consumers and we will all prioritize a better world in designing our businesses.