From intention of reflection to community and opportunity, Skoll Scholar 2017-18, Aaron Bartnick, reflects on his year at Oxford.
One of my first and most powerful memories in Oxford was walking around Radcliffe Square during the first few weeks of classes. In many ways the heart and soul of Oxford, Radcliffe Square is home to some of the University’s oldest and most beautiful libraries, colleges, and chapels. Flanked by towers of Headington stone just catching the golden hour’s light, I found myself incredibly humbled, wondering how I could have ended up here. Some of the greatest writers in the Western tradition, from Hawthorne to Yeats to Wilde, have paid tribute to Oxford’s enchantments, and I will not seek to replicate their efforts here. Suffice to say, at the end of my brief year at Oxford I am happy to report that I am still in awe of this place every single day. But the focus of my awe has shifted significantly.
I came to Oxford with three objectives. I wanted to acquire specific skills in finance and accounting, meet new and interesting people from all over the world, and try to process my last few years of experiences to figure out where I wanted to head next.
The first was a surprising success. I far exceeded my very modest expectations in finance and carved out an unexpected niche for myself in seed stage venture capital. We need not dwell on accounting, though I would be remiss in not once again thanking the classmates who dragged me across the finish line when they had so much to do themselves.
The third was a surprising failure. In retrospect it seems comically naive to have thought a 12-month MBA would be a time for quiet thought and reflection, which is part of why I will be continuing my studies back home in the United States this fall.
But never in my most ambitious dreams could I have anticipated my success in the second. It is perhaps no surprise that Oxford attracts incredibly talented students from around the globe. But if I have come to appreciate one thing this year it is how the Saïd Business School, imperfections and all, was able to assemble such an amazing cohort of individuals and give them an opportunity to meet and learn from one another. Even in July, a full 10 months after starting our journey together, I still find myself learning new things about my peers’ accomplishments that put my own to shame. Yet talent alone is hardly a differentiator amongst top business schools. What makes this place and these people unique in my mind is that just about everyone I have met, whether they came here from a nonprofit in Peru, a trading floor in London, or a law firm in Australia, is interested in not just hard-nosed business, but business in the pursuit of something bigger than ourselves.
The 2018 MBAT championships featuring the 2017-18 cohort of Oxford MBA students on stage.
That shared ethos has manifested itself in a stunningly beautiful community, where people collaborate not just on assignments and revision but work together to launch new startups and impact investing funds, help Australia prepare for the future of work, and develop new accounting standards that reward those who build for the long term, not just the next quarter. There are of course talented and socially-minded people all over the world–a lot more of them than there were a generation ago, and more interconnected than ever. But I have lived and worked in more than a dozen countries on four continents, and I have never seen a community quite like this one.
Everyone from the Bible to Winston Churchill to Spider Man tells us that with great power comes great responsibility. By virtue of the opportunities we’ve had as Oxford students and will have as Oxford alumni, the question for us is no longer whether we will make our mark. We already have incredible power and privileges, and plenty more are on the way. The question is how we will go about making that mark, and whether we will live up to the daunting responsibilities that accompany that power: responsibilities to our fellow man, to our planet, and to future generations. Though the specter of complacency is one against which we must always be vigilant, I am fully confident that the people I have met this year will soon be at the vanguard of a new generation of responsible business leaders. It has been one of the great privileges of my life to share this year with them. For they are far more radiant than even the fabled Headington stone.
In celebration of the start of the Saïd Business School’s Circular Economy module this Trinity semester, students involved in the programme have interviewed key practitioners in the rapidly emerging field. This blog series aims to document key practitioner’s stories; perspectives on what skills are relevant to a successful career and what they see the future holds for the circular economy and its many players.
For this edition Edward Hornsby (MSc Environmental Change & Management, School of Geography & the Environment) sat down at the Portuguese Embassy in Brussels with the inspiring Paola Migliorini, Team Leader for Circular Economy at the European Commission, Directorate-General Environment.
If you were looking for major players in the circular economy in Europe you would probably be hard-pressed to find a more influential figure than Paola Migliorini, Team Leader of the Circular Economy Unit for the EU. Her work is focused on ensuring the European Commission’s 2015 “Closing the Loop” Circular Economy Action Plan continues to lead the way in developing innovative, zero-waste economic pathways. Much of her time therefore, is spent engaging with industry leaders, promoting landmark policy efforts – such as this January’s EU-wide “Strategy for Plastics” – and subsequently creating and implementing effective monitoring procedures for cutting edge policies.
Exciting and impressive stuff, and a position that no doubt many budding environmentalists might dream of occupying one day. However, nothing in Paola’s background necessarily suggested she’d end up leading one of Europe (if not the world’s) elite task forces concerned with developing the circular economy. “I have had a circular career” she jokes, “I started as a translator… I was always interested in translating messages… simplifying and communicating them.” Originally she wasn’t even that interested in the environment she confesses to us: “I wasn’t such an idealist. Living in the mountain, [the environment] it was a given.”
While, unsurprisingly, she is now “passionate about these issues” what set her off down this green path? Good news for those MBA students looking to make a difference in their future career; she says much of the allure in her work is down to her entrepreneurial past and general interest in business. Her personal history, particularly a combination of having a family and managing her own company, gave her the push to engage with environmental issues. It was “a fight I saw needed an explanation” – but in a manner that best allowed her to apply her business acumen.
So what specific skills does Paola feel have lent themselves to her success?
Well, she emphasizes, the circular economy can be for everyone. At the end of the day it encompasses everything we produce and consume and so there are many niches within which to apply different skills and excel. However, at its centre there is a “duality between environmental protection and the economy” and Paola is certain that her long standing interest in business, and especially her “work for 10 years in the private sector” played a major role in her journey.
Notably, much of her experience has been in fields outside the environment. As mentioned, she originally trained as a translator and her role in the commision was as a policy Généraliste. While, the company she founded and worked on for 8 years was focused on issues with big data and antibiotics treatments. This variety she feels may have worked to her advantage, providing her with an outside perspective and business focus giving her an edge in the EU Directorate-General for Environment. Everyone in her unit, Paola points out, has an interest in the environment, but not so many are as focused “on resources” as her. This “little twist” has been a key difference she feels.
She also enthuses about being a “big picture person”. While she is still interested in the gritty “technical details” of an issue, she is comfortable stepping back, taking on a management role and delegating. In the “policy arena” at least – sometimes those with “just the technical expertise, [they] don’t get the bigger picture”.
Building on this, she feels being able to communicate effectively is absolutely key. By highlighting big picture concepts, you can open other people’s eyes to new possibilities. Ultimately, when you can share ideas well you can inspire and promote the change which is central to making the circular economy grow. She highlights her recent work in Treviso, Italy as an example. This involved explaining to engineers from “fantastic frontrunner” companies – who were too engrossed in their own silos – how their solutions were scalable, and how important their contributions were to the larger system and its transformation.
Perhaps this ability to comprehend the big picture is at the heart of building a successful circular economy. To achieve a zero-waste world you have to be able to understand a vast system and see where waste can be reimagined into something new. This idea fits well with Paola’s second piece of advice that ”listening” and “asking” play equally important roles in good communication. When dealing with complex systems and looking for novel solutions you have to be able to listen, particularly to those with greater technological insight, to understand what is possible.
So as someone at the leading edge of a changing world, what does she see ahead for the circular economy?
Excitingly for budding entrepreneurs, one of the “central narratives of the circular economy is job creation” and the numbers she hears being thrown around are both large and “at a wide variety” of skill levels. This is optimal for those trying to attract support from policymakers, funders and even consumers. She says the world is crying out for “symbiotic” businesses who can take one company’s rubbish and turn it into another’s resources. The world and its businesses need to wake up to the realisation that “waste is the new resource” as it was in the “world of our grandparents”.
In this vein she feels that, from a business standpoint, when looking to make an impact both financially and environmentally it might be good to start thinking local again. From an “EU perspective, the variety of the economic situation; the cultural situation; the climate situation is such that… common objectives have to be translated into different situations”. A “consensus of objectives” with unique paths might then be the future for the European economy, with the answers from industry becoming increasingly tailored and dispersed.
“But”, she says, there is always a question of “balance and uncertainties”. “Disruptiveness is a constant” in any healthy economy and the “circular economy is a disruptive model.” Importantly though it is not the only player in the game right now; “superconnection and digitalisation… can do a lot for dematerialisation” and recycling and 3D printing almost certainly will have an “impact on job creation” she says. But in which direction is unclear. From an EU perspective will it be a positive influence, liberating the workforce and enriching populations? Or another driver of inequality and discontent?
One thing’s for sure though, the problems we face are enormous and the “world cannot go on being so inconsiderate”. Constantly “building a new garage to hold more stuff” is no longer a viable answer to the world’s problems, Paola extolls. So, as we don’t “want to build a world of constraints” and restrict each and everyone’s fundamental freedoms, it is up to us to get imaginative and start bringing new solutions to the table. This reality lies at the heart of both Paola’s work for the EU and what we are hoping to do with the start of the new Circular Economy module: to foster imaginative new solutions for complex global issues involving waste and resource use. Perhaps then, one final succinct but powerful piece of advice from Paola may be useful for those taking part in this semester’s module and beyond: “Explain, listen … and make it happen”.
Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018
Nikhil Dugal, Skoll Scholar and 2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, reports on the Skoll World Forum workshop ‘Lean Impact: Scaling Innovations for Social Good’.
Ann Mei Chang is the author of the upcoming book, Lean Impact, on how modern approaches to innovation can drive massively greater social impact and scale.
She is the former Chief Innovation Officer and Executive Director of the U.S. Global Development Lab at USAID. Prior to her pivot to the public sector, Ann Mei had over twenty years of experience at leading Silicon Valley companies including Google, Apple, Intuit, and some startups.
At the Skoll World Forum, she led a workshop titled Lean Impact: Scaling Innovations for Social Good where participants were introduced to the lean methodology to help develop more scalable solutions for social innovation. Participants were asked to arrive with a social challenge or a solution where they’d like to see growth.
The workshop started with her posing an intriguing question. There has been slow but steady progress in multiple focus areas in the development sector such as sanitation and health, but shouldn’t we be shooting for progress at the same rate as disruptive technologies such as mobile phones? Their adoption has skyrocketed over the past two decades unlike any other technology deployed in the social sector.
Edison once stated, ‘genius is one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration’. A lot of time when we think about innovation, we focus on the one percent inspiration, but success is about making that idea practical and applying it to achieve true impact at scale in the world.
The lean startup movement has done a good job capturing the fundamental strategies for scaling up in the startup sector but the movement mostly addresses businesses in the private sector. Lean impact aims to help fill in the gaps for applying the lean methodology in the social sector.
Ann started the session with three principles to follow in order to achieve lean impact: Think big, start small and relentlessly seek impact.
Think Big: Think about the problems that you want to solve, instead of thinking about problems you can currently address based on your resources. For example, Astro Teller from Google X stated that we should be clear whether our aim is to make a 10% or a 10x improvement. Sometimes 10x could actually be easier because fewer people have tried it.
Start small: Key to innovation is about how fast you’re able to iterate your solution. That’s why you should start small. It’s easier to test something out with 10 people rather than 1000 people.
Relentlessly seek impact: You need to love your problem not your solution, and relentlessly seek impact in your interventions.
Further, she stated that social innovation lies at the intersection of three pillars: growth, value and impact.
The value in the social sector comes from two customers, your funders and your end users.
You need to understand what your end users need, and not move forward with assumptions. Are you delivering something people want or come back for? How do you make something people desire and demand?
A prime example for testing customer value is PATH water filters. They tried two versions when they were going to market, one was the simplest and cheapest version, and one was a nicer model that cost twice as much. Three times as many people bought the nicer version because they didn’t want something that looked like a trashcan sitting in their living room! You want to create real world conditions to see how people will respond in the real world because observed data is more valuable than self reported data.
Meanwhile, funders are looking to minimize risk rather than enhancing learning. Funders need to look at starting small, taking more risk and placing lots to bets. Based on traction, funding can be scaled up over time.
Do you have an engine for growth that doesn’t just grow linearly but accelerates over time? Many organizations focus on scaling their work in the short term instead of the long term. In the social sector, we often see growth curves like the inverse hockey stick. An organization can scale quickly but then when they reach 100,000 or 1 million people, there are just not enough donor dollars to continue scaling up and stagnation occurs.
A typical grant program can cause organizations to scale up too fast instead of iterating, starting small and testing solutions before scaling them up. We need to also validate drivers that can accelerate growth in the long run.
It is also possible for an organization to scale up too fast, and focus on vanity metrics such as the number of people they reach or total funding mobilized. This leads to scale with unclear impact. Instead, innovation (outcome) metrics should be drivers for how your intervention works, such as adoption rates or percentage of users working or studying longer. How can we test early on to see if the intervention solves the problem we are addressing? There are several linkages between an intervention and the resulting impact that need to be confirmed before scaling up.
Organizations like ID insight are introducing cheaper and faster tools to evaluate impact, lightweight proxies that can tell if the intervention is working before investing in expensive evaluations like RCTs.
Ann went on to explain that there are four proto-typical business models in the social sector:
Market-driven: These rely on market forces for traction, and are the easiest to scale. For example, Off-grid Solar uses a pay-as-you-go business model using mobile money over time instead of customers facing a large upfront cost.
Cross-subsidy model: This involves cross-subsidizing an impact generating non-profit service with a for-profit or revenue generating activity. A leading example is Arvind eye care that has each wealthy patient pay for up to 3-4 people. Facilities are different but everyone gets the same quality healthcare.
Replication: Microfinance was pioneered by the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh by Mohammed Yunis. This model has now been replicated and spread around the world to reach over 200 million people.
Government spending: This is a often the most appropriate/likely path to scale for basic services such as health and education, where the government is usually the biggest provider and potential partner.
The session also included a workshop to help participants work on their ideas.
The first included defining a goal and a problem. To identify a goal we can start by asking, ‘How will the world be different in 10+ years if you succeed?’. A problem is what is preventing the goal from being reached today. These problems are due to some root causes. If we identify those, it can help frame the solutions to address them.
The second exercise was to generate lots of solutions to pick one for testing. Attendees were asked to be creative and think outside the box, keeping in mind that high risk leads to high reward. Participants must start with a blank slate in order to do so. Then, one idea must be selected from this list and the attendee must identify their assumptions behind it and how the solution will play out.
The third exercise was about asking who will pay for the product/service at scale and who will implement the solution at scale.
Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018
Kim Scriven, 2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, covers the Skoll World Forum session on ‘Proximate Philanthropy: Exploring Power and Privilege in the Funding Landscape’
The focus of this year’s forum is the Power of Proximity, and this was the starting point for a panel that cut to the heart of one of the central relationships in social entrepreneurship: that between those who seek to drive change in the world and those with the means to fund and support such action.
Kicking off the panel, moderator Pia Infante of the Whitman Institute brought the assembled audience back to the inspiring words of Bryan Stevenson in Tuesday’s opening plenary, arguing that ‘Proximate Philanthropy’ was essential for enabling the “bold, inconvenient and uncomfortable acts” that our moment requires. Achieving such bold action will entail that discomfort and inconvenience be shared by funders, not just felt by social entrepreneurs on the frontlines of social change.
But what exactly does proximity mean in the relationship between funders and social entrepreneurs? Jessamyn Shams-Lau, Executive Director of the Peery Foundation, highlighted efforts to foster interactions that strengthen a grantee’s ability to achieve their outcomes. These efforts are built around five core practices, starting from the internal culture of the funder, using this to actively research and pursue opportunities and provide unrestricted, multiyear funding, backed by tailored additional support. Underpinning this is the need for accountability and active communication between funder and grantee.
Vu Le of NonprofitAF.com was more prosaic: sometimes proximity is simple and physical – about donors being prepared to leave their comfortable offices and meet people working where the problems are. Parminder Vir argued forcefully that proximity is not simply about attitude or place, it is about the authenticity that comes from being born out of the world in which a funder focuses its action – with an appreciation of context, place, and history. As CEO of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, for Vir this means being based in Lagos, Nigeria, and working with an awareness of the ongoing impact of colonialism on the country, the continent, and its people.
And this cuts to the heart of the whole debate – in the room and beyond – that philanthropy and efforts to foster social change are inescapably embedded in systems of power and politics. In the case of funders, this inherently means that they have the greater power and agency in their relationships with grantees and recipients. These power imbalances are heightened when they reflect broader social inequalities and injustices – be they about race, sex or history.
At times the conversation focused on familiar ground in debates about how best to fund social action. Is the broad approach of the Tony Elumelu Foundation – generating tens of thousands of applications from as far and wide as possible – more equitable than a more targeted and active sourcing approach pursued by the Peery Foundation? Should funders seek short but tailored applications, or just accept a standard pitch?
The answers to such questions will always be context specific and there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to proximate philanthropy. More importantly, to get too focused on these details risks missing the broader point – that funders need not just to be aware of their position of power and privilege, but continually seek to recognise and address the implications.
And this brings us back to the discomfort and inconvenience that we will need to confront. Vu Le decried the fact that “the way we treat non-profits is the same as the way we treat poor people in society’ too often lacking the trust and empathy needed to build meaningful and sustainable relationships that can lead to impact. This is perhaps the crux of the proximity challenge in philanthropy, bridging inequalities in power and resource by taking the time and inconvenience to foster relationship built on mutual respect and understanding.
Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018
2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, Shruthi Vijayakumar, covers the Skoll World Forum session ‘Creative Tensions: Proximity and Power’.
We live in a world that is increasingly fractured and divided. The rise of populism has seen ‘othering’ and fear damage our social fabric and it has never been more important to have empathy for one another. It’s from understanding each other that we can begin to create a path forward together.
Early Tuesday morning 40 odd delegates had a powerful experience of just this, at a workshop titled ‘Creative Tensions’ led by the team at IDEO. In their own words, Creative Tensions is a format for collective conversation, expressed in movement, wherein participants reveal where they stand on an issue by where they stand in the room. The session left us appreciative of each other’s different perspectives, questioning some of our own views and just a little more empathetic and aware.
The facilitators posed a series of prompts, of seemingly opposing ideas, and we were asked to take a stance and share why we stood where we stood. Some of the prompts are as follows:
“Power is taken” <> “Power is given”
“We are the people we serve” <> “We are serving others”
“Money enables” <> “Money complicates”
“Failure is essential” <> “Failure is not an option”
With words and context open to our own interpretation, there was a wide variety of stances on each issue, and what began to unfold as we explained the positions we took was fascinating. Take the second prompt above. “We are the people we serve” vs “We are serving others”. One participant who stood on the far left shared that “We have to be the people we serve. By serving ‘others’ are we not creating more otherness?” From the other end of the room someone responded “We can’t be the people we serve. We have to acknowledge that there are some differences and distinctions between us. Some of us are more privileged.” Closer to the middle, but still on the left, a young student shared “We benefit from serving others, we feel good, so in effect we are serving ourselves”. And so the conversation continued.
One of the most beautiful things to witness was seeing people hear each other’s perspectives, question their own views, and physically move along the continuum to show how their perspective had changed. None of our positions were static and as the conversation progressed we shifted where we stood in the room – a sign of not just hearing, but far deeper listening and suspended judgement.
So what can we learn from this process?
The issue often lies in how we define terms. Each of us has our own interpretation of many of these concepts such as power, service, and failure. In sharing what these words mean to us and how we interpret these issues, much shared understanding can be created. Take the prompt “Failure is essential” vs “Failure is not an option”. Whilst one person saw failure as the only path to success and to be embraced in tackling wicked problems such as climate change, another person stood on the other end of the room saying “failure in addressing climate change is not an option, we have to get there”. Through dialogue we discovered that despite positions appearing different on the surface due to our interpretations of these terms, we shared a much deeper and common vision. Be it around a board room, a team meeting, engaging with customers, beneficiaries or funders, it can be powerful to take a moment to understand where someone comes from and to see how the language we use might mean something different to them.
Secondly, our ability to see possibility depends on the quality of our listening. If we can suspend our judgements, and be truly curious about what another has to say, only then will our own perception be enhanced and our views evolve, as was seen with people moving positions as the conversation unfolded. Deep listening is essential for us to see new paths and possibilities to achieve our desired future. This requires each of to be present, open minded and truly value and listen to one another.
Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018
Aaron Bartnick, Skoll Scholar and 2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, reports on the Skoll World Forum session ‘Democracy in Crisis? Populism, Polarization, and Civic Engagement’.
The 2018 Skoll World Forum is a celebration of proximity. But could this proximity–proximity of people, of ideas, of cultures–actually be the root cause of so many of our problems?
That was the provocative opening to one of the Forum’s most anticipated panels: “Democracy in Crisis? Populism, Polarization, and Civic Engagement,” moderated by New America President and CEO Ann-Marie Slaughter and featuring Obama Foundation CEO David Simas, former South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool, and Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran.
Despite living in the most complex era in human history, we often divide our worlds into black and white. For Forum attendees, that tends to mean that things like pluralism and proximity are good, and populism and nativism are bad. But there are more than a few shades of grey to each of these phenomena. Popular movements can both take down despots in Tunisia and install them in Hungary. And pluralism can make us both richer and more uncomfortable than ever before. “We love the mobility of capital and goods,” Rasool explains, “but we don’t know what to do with the mobility of people.”
Populists have found their answer. Shut down the borders, villianize the immigrants and elites, and make [insert country here] great again. It is a compelling story, argues Temelkuran. It has a good guy (a nostalgia-tinged version of our triumphant past), a bad guy (the elites that have always kept us down and the new people who have aligned with them), and a clear path for the good to triumph over the bad.
What is the democrats’ answer? “Populists have a compelling story,” challenges Temelkuran, “and we are trying to beat it with a PowerPoint.”
That, perhaps, is why we are asking if democracy is in crisis. It is not because democratic governments are in retreat. Forty years ago, there were nearly three times as many authoritarian regimes as democratic ones. Today, it is nearly five-to-one in favor of democracies. Democratic institutions remain intact. Representative governments and independent judiciaries are not being disbanded in waves around the globe, though they have come under alarming threat in several countries that were once considered on the road to democracy, most notably Temelkuran’s own Turkey.
But what is in crisis is the democratic story. Individuals, not institutions, make decisions. And individuals, Simas reminds us, make decisions based on stories. In the United States, voters who twice supported Barack Obama and then flipped to Donald Trump were responding to a story, Simas argues, which was built by the Obama Democrats and then adopted by the Trump populists. Both ran as outsiders seeking to subvert an unjust system and restore power to the people. Neither’s motivation was viewed as particularly partisan. And the aspirational desire for “hope and change” that defined Obama’s first presidential campaign morphed, after eight years of mixed satisfaction, into a call for confrontation in the form of “drain the swamp.”
What, then, is democracy’s new story? If it is a cost-benefit analysis clearly showing that the benefits of free trade and borders outweighs their associated pains, Rasool thinks we are sunk. “The middle ground can’t be boring,” he argues, “when we’re fighting for our survival.”
Instead, it is up to those who wring their hands at the current challenges to democracy to rise up with an affirmative case for its defense. If democracy is the ultimate expression of individual freedom, then let us say so. If pluralism makes us more competitive and successful, then let us say so. And if we genuinely believe that there is a place for everyone in this new interconnected and competitive world, then let us prove it.
Populists have their story. It is time for the would-be defenders of democracy to tell theirs.