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.
Kevin Duco Warner is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. Focused on the social impact of food, he has worked to develop market-driven solutions to climate change through the advancement of the local food movement. Kevin shares the story of how he came to pursue a business degree.
I didn’t know that I was an entrepreneur. Heck, I couldn’t even spell the word entrepreneur consistently until about 4 months ago (it’s got that special French characteristic of having more vowels than seems reasonable). Fortunately for me, it turns out you can embody the ideals of an entrepreneur without actually realizing it.
What I have always been is curious. My thirst for knowledge has only been matched by my desire to make the world a better place. This ideal of being simultaneously thoughtful and impactful has led me down a somewhat circuitous path to Oxford, but I have found that following passion leads to unparalleled opportunities.
I have worked at my family’s food hub, Fair Shares, for the last 8 years. We contract with local farmers to source seasonal food and distribute it for 48 weeks each year to consumers in Saint Louis, Missouri. Fair Shares operates as a for-profit company utilizing the buying power of our large, local customer base as a grassroots tool for social and environmental change.
Before Fair Shares started, area farmers faced limited opportunities in getting their products to market, and consumers encountered multiple obstacles in accessing sustainably-grown food. The Saint Louis growing region allows for production for much of the year, but in the mid-2000s farmers’ markets ran for only 5 months per year, and offered producers meager financial rewards. Fair Shares created a model that aggregates the food from over 60 farmers into shares marketed directly to consumers. Combining the bounty of many producers allows us to offer greater diversity to our customers while supporting small farmers who have committed to low-carbon growing practices.
The beauty of working for Fair Shares is that it has given me the flexibility to follow my curiosity focused through the lens of a love for food.
About 4 years ago I started an organic corn tortilla company after teaching myself how to nixtamalize local field corn at home (I won’t get into it here, but the history of nixtamalization as the Aztec’s solution to pellagra is fascinating – worth a read on wikipedia!). I was not happy with the inconsistent results of pressing each tortilla by hand, but that was the only realistic option for a home cook. I realized that I needed a commercial grade tortilla machine if I was ever going to get consistent results. I started La Tortilla Buena because it was the only way to rationalize to my wife that importing a $2000 tortilla machine from Mexico was a good idea. Despite any real business acumen, my tortillas were quickly stocked by a number of small groceries, restaurants, and even a school lunch program. I attribute this success to the passion I had for the process of making the product.
Living in a very urban area spurred an interest in edible landscaping and urban homesteading. What started with a raspberry bush and some basic herbs progressed to harvesting homegrown saffron and espaliering two pear trees on a privacy fence. This knowledge, gained through doing, brought on opportunities to consult on urban agriculture projects and to teach cooking classes with local chefs. I even got to teach an heirloom apple grafting class with a local apple farmer.
So why uproot my life to move to Oxford? Why get an MBA?
I wanted to see my career, focused on impact through food, transition from local and regional, to national and global in scale, but I couldn’t find a clear path. I knew I needed more formal education, but struggled in finding a field that felt like the right fit.
My intention was to stay in the business world, but I was focused on policy and public administration degrees because they carried an underlying focus on social good. Most business programs lacked an ethos that resonated with me; that is, until I found the Skoll Centre at Oxford Saïd.
No other institution is driving the social impact space in a setting as powerful as Oxford. It is evident that the mission of the Skoll Centre is directly influencing Oxford Saïd’s approach to business education.
The process of being awarded the Skoll Scholarship was a whirlwind. It changed the trajectory of my life. In a matter of a few months I went from toting vegetables around an uninsulated warehouse in Saint Louis to walking the hallowed streets of Oxford in formal academic dress robes. To say that being at Oxford is a humbling experience is an understatement.
Schrödinger locked his cat in a box at his home on Northmoor Road, a 5 minute walk from my house. Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings in the house next door to Schrödinger. Radiohead played their first concert at the pub at the end of my street. It is absurd how many titans of western thought operated within a mile of my house in Oxford.
My intention when I began a career in good food was never very concrete. I realize now that there was a centralized theme in the work: namely, changing the way people eat. But it required a whole lot of ‘doing’ before I could fully quantify it. It was not until I applied to Oxford that I really went through the process of self-assessment required to solidify my personal mission. I am confident that my time spent studying for an MBA as a Skoll Scholar will give me the tools to further succeed in my endeavors regardless of whether or not I can spell entrepreneur.
Nikhil Dugal is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. He’s a social entrepreneur working in the field of environmental sustainability, specifically towards establishing a circular economy. Here, Nikhil shares his story and inspiration up to becoming an Oxford Scholar.
My journey leading up to Saïd Business School has always been guided by one principle, to put the impact of the work I’m doing first, before anything else.
My journey started in 2014 when I had been working at a development economics research center in India for about two years. As a researcher, I became increasingly frustrated from working on multi-year, multi-million dollar projects that repeatedly unpacked major social challenges, without actually pairing them to actionable policy insights that could create change. It became clear that I enjoyed a more hands-on approach, and wanted take part in changing the problems I was working on. I set out to find opportunities to use what I’d learned to become part of building solutions myself.
While in college at New York University, I had taken a class on social entrepreneurship that first introduced me to the idea of establishing a business-for-good. I was immediately intrigued by the concept of a business designed to address a social or environmental problem, versus the traditional mode of CSR, which engages in philanthropy out of a percentage of profits made from the unsustainable systems themselves. This new breed of social –business instead leverages market-forces to implement change, without the constraint of relying on funding for their entire life-cycle.
It wasn’t long after first getting excited about social enterprise that I met a friend who had been inspired by the idea of repurposing shipping containers into infrastructure – and his inspiration really got me thinking. Having worked in the development sector, I understood there was an unmet need for organizations working on rented land, running operations in remote areas. I was also interested in working in the waste management space. I proposed that we focus on his expertise in manufacturing, and use my previous experience to start a company that provides custom container infrastructure to organizations in rural and urban India.
Containers retired from use at a yard in Uttar Pradesh
Over the past two years, we’ve built a company that repurposes once unusable materials into beautiful classrooms, workspaces and more, anywhere in India. We provide an end-to-end service to any organization looking to build temporary infrastructure. Our facilities help up-cycle shipping containers that are over 20 years old and retired from use.
We’ve built a list of vendors who provide construction inputs made from waste, such as wall paneling made from Tetra-pak waste cartons or sustainably sourced wood, insulation made from PET bottles, and roofing sheets made from recycled plastic and aluminum. These are offered as a package to our clients, for each of whom we design a custom facility as per their requirement. We also offer off-grid solutions including solar-panels and dry-toilets.
The interior of this facility is made from Tetra-pak Board
At Aadhan Infrastructure, we’ve helped recycle over 25 tons of steel, and built a diverse range of infrastructure including skill training classrooms for government programs, training facilities for rural healthcare workers, and even furniture showrooms for private companies. Over 400 children from disadvantaged communities have accessed skill training in rural Uttar Pradesh due to our classroom. We’ve also won grant funding, business competitions and were featured on national television.
Carrying out an inspection before dispatch
Why the Oxford MBA?
Despite our small and growing success in India, I feel there is so much more I need to learn in order to grow the company’s impact across India. We have faced innumerable challenges including an inability to scale up our work with the government, an inability to raise equity funding, the lack of an established market and low trust in the new building technology. I was able to receive significant peer support from organizations such as Unltd. Delhi; however, I realized I needed to build my skillset in order to successfully be able to run the business and change our model in order to scale up the impact of our work.
Coming from a background in economics and math, I wanted to study business in a place that was focused on supporting social entrepreneurs, and actively involved in the changing narrative on the nature of business. Due to this reason, I had a very specific list of MBA programs. Each one was a one-year program, focused on entrepreneurship, with a significant focus on social enterprise. Saïd Business School was at the top of this list, especially due to the countless resources they offer to social entrepreneurs and the presence of the Skoll Centre.
I had been looking at the scholarship for over a year, and once I knew I met the criteria, I reached out to a previous scholar from India, who was incredibly kind and helpful. It immediately gave me a sense of the community here and motivated me further to apply. One year later, I’m sitting in Oxford, and have been blessed to receive a Skoll Scholarship.
This opportunity has enabled me to pursue my goals and continue to engage in my mission. There are truly few organizations in the world that provide such significant support to social entrepreneurs, with only the intention of encouraging them to lead an impactful career. There is no chance that I would have had access to such a great program without the help of the Scholarship and I look forward to using every opportunity I get over the next year to learn as much as possible.
Over the next year I plan to use all the resources we are offered here, including programs such as Map the System, Skoll Academy and Skoll Venture Awards to refine the mission of my organization and explore levers for change to help us scale our impact. I’ve had the opportunity to attend a few sessions at the Skoll Academy already, and am extremely impressed with the program the Centre has been able to put together as an alternative to the Consulting Development Program and the Finance Lab offered to the rest of the MBA class.
I’ve also had the amazing opportunity to meet my peers, each of whom is as accomplished as the next. They are the greatest resource we have here, and they come from all over the globe, with about a third from the development sector. Although they’re from a diverse background, what they have in common is a sense of collaboration and community, and I feel certain I’ll learn more from them than I can begin to describe here and now.
Sandra Fisher-Martins is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. She is also a plain-language activist and entrepreneur. Sandra shares the candid truth about leaving her 10 year old organisation to pursue an Oxford MBA.
“Can you read this letter for me?”, asked Mr. Domingos, the office center caretaker.
We stood by his desk and he watched while I sifted through it. I explained that the letter was in fact a surgery voucher from the Ministry of Health paying for a surgery in a private hospital of his choice. His smile was a mix of relief and disbelief.
“I had thrown it in the bin. Then I remembered you telling me about your job the other day…”
Mr. Domingos had his first job at the age of five and taught himself to read as an adult. He enjoyed the sports newspaper, but struggled with official letters, forms and pretty much everything else. His life story was unique, but his experience of depending on others to access crucial information was not uncommon. Nearly 4 in 5 Portuguese are ‘functionally illiterate’, which means that their reading skills are insufficient to meet the demands of daily life.
I founded Português Claro (‘Plain Portuguese’) in 2007 because I was appalled by the gap between the average literacy skills of our citizens and the complexity of the documents we had to read to get on with our lives. From electricity bills to insurance contracts, from bank statements to government websites, everything was riddled with jargon and legalese. How could anyone make informed choices? How could anyone know and act on their rights?
Sandra and the Claro team at work
Sandra delivered a talk at Productized 2016
The low literacy problem is an important and complex battle to wage, requiring massive investments in education. I was too frustrated to wait. Seeing an opportunity to meet the needs of today’s Portuguese adults, I set out to persuade businesses and government agencies to simplify the way they communicated with the public.
Having little business experience, during my first years at Claro I used to dispel the flashes of self-doubt with fantasies of getting the Skoll Scholarship and picking up, in one swift year, everything I would need to run a successful social venture.
I never applied. I was too busy running the business and learning by trial-and-error to be a plain-language expert, a salesperson, an accountant, a project manager, a recruiter, a team leader, and a CEO. Stopping for a year was impossible.
And then, after nearly a decade of challenges and growth, Claro hit a sudden wall. A change in government had led to a sharp decline in private and public investment and our sales were plummeting. Faced with the possibility of having to close the company, I started questioning the sustainability of the change we had created over time. Without Claro to provide plain-language services, would these organizations revert back to their old ways?
As my doubts grew, it became clear that I’d allowed myself to be sucked into the day-to-day of running a social enterprise when the real challenge was in creating sustainable systemic change. It was time to stop and have a rethink.
I went back to the Skoll Scholarship and the Centre had added more programming focused on system change. So I decided to apply. This time I wasn’t looking for tools to run a business. I was looking for a space for reflection within a world-class network of systems thinkers, social entrepreneurs and researchers.
It is now Week 4 in Michaelmas (in plain language, that’s the beginning of November) and although the MBA has barely started so much has happened. This is a high-frequency learning environment, with daily opportunities to engage in mind-expanding conversations. Today I met with Patrick to learn about his experience running an impact investment fund in Peru. Last night I explored with Emily the systemic consequences of an ill-conceived agricultural investment in Ghana. Through this exposure to diverse experiences and approaches, my initial questions have evolved and unexpected themes — like ‘identity’ — have surfaced. Clearly, this journey has just begun. I am eager to see where it takes me.
Aaron Bartnick is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. Prior the MBA he led several ventures in US politics, and most recently helped develop the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s first university-based start-up incubator.
Aaron Bartnick on a 2012 Obama campaign rally
What are we doing to make the world a bit better for others?
At first glance, it seems like a pretty uninspiring mission. In a world where everyone is out to “change the way we think about X,” “revolutionize Y,” and, above all, “make the world a better place,” who is going to get fired up about just making things a little bit better?
But it’s not our job to tell people what a good world looks like. And it’s not our responsibility to get them there. It is, however, the solemn responsibility of every public and private institution to give people the tools and opportunities they need to build that life for themselves.
That’s what originally attracted me to politics, and why I spent three years in Manassas, Virginia and Salem, Massachusetts when so many of my peers went to places like New York and San Francisco. In too many places at home and abroad, opportunity is concentrated in just a few places and available to an ever smaller number of people. And how far you go in life seems to depend more on where you’re born than what you can create out of circumstances beyond your control.
I’ve been lucky to work with and for a couple of incredible political leaders. But no individual is going to restore economic opportunity to the millions around the world who have seen it slip away in recent decades. We have to change the system.
Aaron Bartnick with former U.S. President, Barack Obama
Over the past two and a half years, I’ve been fortunate to work on some fascinating systems challenges. I’ve worked with governments around the United States to bring their processes into the digital age. I’ve observed entrepreneurial ecosystems in a dozen emerging markets across South America, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. And in Iraq, I got to spend six months working with an international coalition of government, VC, and entrepreneurial leaders to propose much-needed economic reforms while helping the American University of Iraq build what we hope will be the Kurdistan Region’s first university-based start-up incubator.
Aaron Bartnick giving a presentation at the American University of Iraq
But this is far from enough.
If we are serious about expanding economic opportunity across the globe, we must harness the leverage of both business and government to enact changes that will flow from the highest and most complex systems down to the smallest local businesses. That’s why I’ve chosen to augment my political experience with an MBA, and why I’ve chosen to do it here at Oxford. Oxford Saïd is serious about business. I’m taking finance classes that would have made a younger me run for the hills, and am putting together presentations that will be viewed by some of the world’s preeminent business leaders. But Oxford Saïd is more than just a business school; it’s a school that talks every day about business in the service of a higher social good. And you can see that calling reflected in just about every one of the 330 peers with whom I am lucky to share this year.
Finally arriving at the University of Oxford
The MBA is a chance for me to hone the quantitative skills I will need to be successful in my career. It is a chance to explore some of the systemic challenges I’ve observed, like the massive financing gap between microfinance and private equity, through extracurricular activities like the Oxford Seed Fund and the Map the System competition. And it is a chance to broaden my perspective by taking advantage of the incredible multidisciplinary opportunities that only a place like Oxford can provide.
All of this is made possible by the Skoll Scholarship. I am humbled by the opportunity to explore some of the world’s biggest challenges in one of the world’s preeminent academic settings. I am excited to gain a better understanding of how we can build a more inclusive economic system that expands opportunity and helps make the world even a little bit better for others. And I am ready to get started.
“If we do this right we will be the leapfrog story for rural energy.”
Whilst on her MBA trek to Nairobi and Kigali this year, Gillian Benjamin had the opportunity to meet up with Oxford alumni working in social impact organisations.
Chad Larson with M-KOPA solar light and solar TV systems.
I had the honor of meeting with Chad on the 2017 MBA Africa Trek, where 17 MBA students travelled to Kenya and Rwanda to meet the businesses and individuals driving Africa’s growth story.
Chad is one of three co-founders of M-KOPA, a Kenyan headquartered company with a mission “To upgrade lives by making high-quality solutions affordable to everyone.”
The company is best known for their household solar system – the entry level unit comprises an 8W solar panel, 3 LED lights, a LED torch, a radio and a phone charger. The main innovation comes in the payment system. Customers pay approximately £22 upfront and then pay a 40p daily instalment over a year to pay off the remainder of the unit, where after it is theirs.
Once paid off, customers can then extend their payment plan and buy a range of other items including a solar-powered TV, a water-harvesting tank, a bicycle, a cook stove, a starter-pack for chicken farming or a smartphone.
M-KOPA currently employs 1,000 full time staff and 1,500 sales agents in East Africa.
Chad was part of the ’06 – ’07 cohort.
Why did you decide to pursue an MBA?
I had been in investment banking for ten years and I wanted a change in career, and to shake things up and broaden my horizons – which it did – because I met my two business partners in the process!
The MBA also introduced me to social entrepreneurship as it was not something that had been on my radar before. I was exposed to all the inspiring stories about what different people were trying. This really broadened my mind about what could be done. Then a couple of years after this exposure we built up the courage to start up M-KOPA.
Were there any classes in particular that really shifted your thinking?
The marketing class with David Arnold really made me think differently about distribution and how you think of a marketing problem in terms of bottlenecks and gatekeepers. I had never thought of Marketing like that before. The Strategy and Social Finance classes were also great.
How did the MBA help you develop your founding team?
Jesse Moore (also 06-07) and I met Nick Hughes during the MBA when he came to give a talk about the mobile-phone based money transfer system he was developing in Kenya. Jesse kept in touch with Nick and worked with him on the summer project in 2007, and Nick and I reconnected through Jesse in 2009, and launched the pilot tests of what eventually became M-KOPA in 2010. I think we were lucky on the skills each of us brought –we had the right mix of engineering skills combined with those in finance and operations.
We also had the right mix of optimism and skepticism. Early on, I tended to be the data and numbers-based skeptic of the three founders, with Nick as the big thinker of where technology is going next, with Jesse more of the “lets get it done” person driving execution. This tension between different mindsets creates a lot of value, because we approach a problem from different angles. So it was a winning combination of both skills and temperament. You also balance each other highs and lows, which is critical, as it’s sometimes really hard.
The MBA Africa Trek ‘16 – ’17 visiting the M-KOPA office in Nairobi.
How did Oxford help get you started?
Jesse was a Skoll Scholar and had connections to impact investors. Also the Skoll Centre and the Scholarship gave us a set of introductions to the type of people and organisations who might fund a business like this. Those early connections were pretty critical to our initial fundraising.
Advice for anyone thinking of pursuing and MBA?
For me it was an amazing break from ten years of thinking about bonds and fixed income derivatives. It’s an opportunity to shock your mind out of it – even though you are still studying business you are exposed to so many different things.
It’s good to get out of the specific and back into the general. It also grounds the practical work you have been doing in a bit of theory.
It was also great because you have different people bringing all this experience from all these different areas into the classroom.
What is life and business like in Kenya?
It’s a great place because there are still real problems to be solved here. You can start businesses that solve real basic problems where in the developed world you are really just solving rich peoples’ problems. Here the country is still being built, you see the country growing up around you, and we are a small part of that.
Kenya is also a great place to be headquartered to serve the countries around it. You can hire great engineers, programmers, finance people – there are so many super smart and energetic Kenyans coming out of university here. The people we are employing are just as bright as the guys coming out of Ivy League schools. That’s my favourite part I think – just the interaction with the staff.
What are you most excited about M-KOPA’s future?
If we do this right we will be the leapfrog story for rural energy – the story of leapfrogging from old technology to the new. We want to be at the centre of this story. But the idea needs to move into practice with strong financial discipline and a good ground-game – and we have a decent head start with half-a-million customers.
The solar power system in a foothold into the home. For us the initial system is really the beginning of a finance relationship with M-KOPA. We are focusing our energies on building a ladder of energy-efficient household products, from basic to more advanced, to help low-income customers improve their lives.
Celebrating Oxford Saïd Impact Careers
If you’re an Oxford Saïd alumnus working for an impact organisation, helping to scale a start-up, running your own social enterprise, or going down another impact path, let us know!
To celebrate the impact careers of our alumni, we are offering one individual a ticket to the 2018 Skoll World Forum. Other high impact Oxford Saïd alumni will be brought back to Oxford to give them a chance to share their story with students and the wider University community at an award ceremony in the spring.