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.
This post was written by SBS MBA Nikhil Neelakantan, who has just returned to Oxford after 3 days at SOCAP/Europe.
Courtesy of twentytwentystudios
Last night’s six-member panel brought SOCAP/Europe to an appropriate end.
The panel consisted of social entrepreneurs, volunteers and the founding members of SOCAP/Europe, Kevin Jones and Frank van Beuningen. This was typical of the conference: people from all backgrounds brought together by an interest and passion for impact investing.
This resulted in conversations that frequently needed translation (No, structured banking does not deal with the architecture of banks!) but it also meant that people were exposed to different points of view.
This also meant that there was space for a deep-dive into the details of impact investing as well as an opportunity to learn about innovative organizations using SMS technology in developing countries.
Another feature of the conference were the participant-driven Open Space sessions. I was able to attend two of these sessions, which were “held” in an Unconference format. The first described the work of the World Bank in creating the Development Marketplace. The World Bank Institute created the Development Marketplace over 12 years ago to provide grants to innovative social ventures. Now it is looking to help these social entrepreneurs get commercial investments.
The second Open Space session that I attended was built around the question of providing financing to SME’s trying to build businesses in rural India. We had participants who were eager to start asking questions of those who had already built these links in India. The consensus was that there was lots of opportunity but that one had to proceed by developing partnerships with Indians who were already working in this space (this includes government agencies such as IDBI).
The conference also brought some reflection on the future of SOCAP/Europe. Where is it going next? It seems logical that it will stay physically in Amsterdam (The Dutch have $7bn invested by retail investors in social enterprises through organizations like Triodos Bank and Oikocredit. They are surely the world’s epicenter in social investment).
However will the format remain the same? Will more policy makers and government entities get involved? Despite the lingering questions, we left the conference buoyed by the fact that we were setting the foundation for a larger group of people who were willing to venture forward into the brave new world of impact investing.
This post was written from SBS MBA Nikhil Neelakantan, dosage live from SOCAP/Europe in Amsterdam.
What does a recipe for a layered cake have to do with impact investing?
I would have said “nothing”. That is, healing until I attended the session titled “Layer Cake Deals”. This panel featured speakers from organizations like Triodos Bank (old hands at impact investing) and ABN Amro (a relative newcomer to the field).
According to the panel, medical “layer cakes” are created by putting funders with different priorities in the mixing bowl. That means funders providing grants, subsidies and soft debt can work with risk-taking venture impact investors to create bigger, faster and more scalable solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems.
Triodos Investment Management has developed a fund that adopts this structure to fund agricultural entrepreneurs in the developing world. Governments and social investors form the first layer of the cake, providing external guarantees against default. Social investors seeking lower returns form the second layer, providing subordinated debt. Triodos Bank provides the final layer with a commercial credit line (which it is comfortable doing, partly because of its confidence in the other layers).
However there is a darker side to layer cake deals. The senior debtors are those who often receive the lowest returns. This can partly be explained by the fact that donor agencies and other social investors are willing to fund high-risk ventures in order to bring in more mainstream funding, therefore providing a “multiplier effect”. Thus, how to balance the different “ingredients” of the layered cake is a discussion certain come up at impact-investing conferences and offices of funders across the world.
SOCAP has made realize once again that Saïd Business School is extremely well represented in the impact investing space.
I have met practitioners, speakers and leaders of social enterprises who are alumni of the Business School. Some of my “networking time” was spent swapping stories with other SBS’ers about everything from rowing to exams (Am I glad that we don’t have to come back for exams in August that cover material taught over one year!)
My classmates – including budding entrepreneurs building social enterprises in Chad and India – are also representing SBS at SOCAP. I am impressed by the reach of this strong and cohesive group of former and current students – and I am looking forward to being part of this contingent in the years to come.
We discussed everything from social impact bonds to how to build a sustainable future to getting back to the fundamentals of ‘social’. After the panel we were treated to an insider’s tour of the House of Lords by Lord Mawson and Baroness Steadman-Scott.
It was a wonderful afternoon packed with ‘social’ of all forms. Thank you again to Tim Jones for making it possible!