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Knowledge to Action – Leading for Impact

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Amy Orben is a social media psychologist, interdisciplinary thinker and 2016-17 Leading for Impact Fellow. As a DPhil (PhD) Student in Experimental Psychology, she currently researches how social media is changing human sociality and friendship formation. The Leading for Impact programme was an opportunity for her to step out of the ‘comfort zone’, and into the ‘stretch zone’. She shares her story of the experience.

Nine months ago, knowledge and action were two separate concepts in my mind. For years, the pursuit of knowledge motivated me during countless hours in libraries; propelled me to memorise facts for exams and start a DPhil; inspired me to keep up with recent research developments and slowly foster my own opinions.

In an attempt not to look foolish, students often avoid committing to action altogether

An intense focus on knowledge is not uncommon for university life outside of business schools. The rigorous pursuit of knowledge fuels many discoveries. It is, however, often linked with an educational emphasis on being ‘right’ that endows students with a fear of action. This promotes views that having your own opinion ousted as ‘wrong’ or ‘unknowledgeable’ is worse than voicing no opinion at all. In an attempt not to look foolish, students therefore often avoid committing to action altogether.

However, avoiding foolishness is just one part of the equation. As the theologian Al-Ghazali once said, “Knowledge without action is wastefulness and action without knowledge is foolishness”. We need to balance knowledge and action.

Certain parts of higher education promote this balance. For example, medicine, nursing, engineering and law students study to put their knowledge into practice after graduation. Recently, research councils have been demanding that universities ensure their research has more real-life ‘impact’. Yet, there are still aspects of university study and research that encourage students and academics to refrain from action or opinion, to ensure they are not seen as unknowledgeable. This is harmful because most of our pressing global problems are too complex to fully comprehend; yet these problems require creative minds and urgent innovative action. Combating students’ fear of action in situations where they possess ample knowledge should therefore be ingrained into education as fundamentally as learning, essay writing and memorisation.

I challenged my preconceptions in a safe, diverse and open environment

I started to think about my own knowledge-action balance during the Skoll Centre’s Leading for Impact programme, a programme admitting ten Oxford graduate students and ten MBAs interested in social impact and entrepreneurship. During this time-intensive leadership development programme, I challenged my preconceptions in a safe, diverse and open environment. I realised that I had been previously putting too much emphasis on knowledge while neglecting action, however, I did not know how to tackle this imbalance.

Again the Skoll Centre provided me with the opportunities I was searching for. Recently, three Leading for Impact Scholars – Shea, Vira and I – volunteered at the Oxford-based charity Aspire. The Skoll Centre facilitated a three-day project where we completed research to support one of Aspire’s new business proposals. In the next year, Aspire wants to set up a social enterprise recruitment service linking people who have experienced hardship (ranging from addiction to homelessness) with employers looking for motivated employees. With current UK funding for community support and charities decreasing drastically, Aspire plans to develop this idea into a commercially viable business with a deep-rooted social motivation. We used our research skills to compile comprehensive documents about various aspects of their business plan, which can now be used to pitch the proposal to Social Finance initiatives.

Looking back, the Skoll Centre’s Leading for Impact programme did not only teach me the importance of a knowledge-action balance, but also gave me valuable opportunities to both ‘learn’ and ‘do’. For me, Leading for Impact was not just a few weeks of leadership training and volunteering: it was the start of my journey to balance knowledge and action in my life.

Find out more about the Leading for Impact Programme.

Sign up to the Taster Session on Tuesday, 15 November – lfitaster.eventbrite.com

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The next generation of Impact Business Leaders

For the fourth year, check the Skoll Centre will host the IBL@Oxford Programme at the Saïd Business School in the bridging week between two academic years. With scholarships open to graduating Oxford MBA students, the Impact Business Leaders team reflect on the stories of previous fellows and how the programme launched their careers in social enterprise.

How can an MBA help you land a career in social enterprise? At Impact Business Leaders (IBL), we are asked this question a lot. We work with talented professionals who are often either considering an MBA or in an MBA programme. If your professional ambition is to work in a big corporation, it’s easy to see why an MBA makes sense. It’s a clear market signal that you are ready to take on management roles and MBA programmes are often direct talent pipelines to these companies.

But what about if you’re on a different path?

IBL has worked with 189 professionals over the last three years. Many have had MBAs and many have not. While we believe there is no substitute for professional experience in demonstrating your ability to excel in a social enterprise, our work with the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship to match Oxford Saïd MBAs with social enterprise careers has shown us how an MBA degree can position professionals for success in social enterprise. When combined with IBL’s practical, career focused programming and extensive network of social enterprise hiring managers, we believe that Oxford Saïd MBAs are highly competitive in the social enterprise job market.

On a recent trip to India, we reconnected with several Oxford alumni who we worked with during our annual IBL@Oxford programme. Their stories demonstrate what’s possible when MBA students combine their experience at the Saïd Business School with involvement in the IBL programme.

DSC_0025Making Connection, Finding Pathways 

Amol Mishra MBA’14 was interested in sustainability but he did not know what to do with it. During his time with the Skoll Centre, he was introduced to Dhruv Lakra, founder of the social enterprise Mirakle Couriers and Skoll Scholar Oxford MBA’08. Lakra described how his MBA experience was the beginning of his journey as a social entrepreneur. With this one conversation, Amol’s interest in sustainability took shape as a viable career opportunity in social enterprise. This led him to enroll in the IBL@Oxford programme at the end of his MBA to pursue a full-time role in social enterprise. Through the IBL programme, Amol landed a job at CottonConnect – a social enterprise developing sustainable supply chain solutions for retail brands – as a Commercial Development Manager.

Inspiration and Incubation

Nidhi Thachankary MBA’15 had always been interested in the education space, but viewed it as an after-work activity. The Skoll Centre changed that by motivating her to develop a start-up social enterprise that would provide workforce training and development for the hospitality industry in India. When Nidhi joined IBL@Oxford, the programme pushed her to develop her model even further and also re-position her experience in a way that would catch the attention of education NGOs like Pratham – the largest education NGO in India. With this angle, Nidhi landed a full-time role at Pratham to lead its first initiative to incubate workforce development ventures within the hospitality industry.

IMG_5597Building Skills, Gaining Experience

Sudhanshu Malani MBA’14 had a formative experience as a Teach for India Fellow, but lacked the hard finance experience he needed to build the career in impact investing he wanted. Through the Skoll Centre, Sudhanshu landed internships with Acumen and ClearlySo, two leading international impact investors. IBL@Oxford helped Sudhanshu communicate his experience to potential employers. With IBL’s support, Sudhanshu landed an investment associate role at Villgro – an early-stage impact investor in India.

These are just three inspiring examples of the dozens of students who combine their Oxford Saïd MBA with the IBL@Oxford programme to build a career in social enterprise. At this year’s IBL@Oxford for Global Social Enterprise programme, IBL will bring Oxford Saïd MBAs and other talented professionals committed to transitioning into social enterprise together for a practitioner-led workshop on social enterprise careers followed by executive mentoring and job matching services. For Oxford Saïd MBAs this practical, career-focused programme is an excellent complement to all that Saïd Business School and the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship has to offer.

If you are interested, applications for IBL@Oxford are open until the 1st September 2016. Full Scholarships are available for current Oxford Saïd MBA students.

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Finding Career Purpose in Social Enterprise

Jonathan Waldroup is the Operations and Finance Manager at Impact Business Leaders, abortion an organisation that provides career opportunities for professionals looking to develop business solutions that solve major global challenges.

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Jonathan Waldroup of Impact Business Leaders

Six years ago this December I did the unthinkable: I dropped out of Oxford.

Now, as I prepare to return to Oxford under completely different circumstances, I couldn’t be more thankful for that decision. In the six years in between, I have struggled with the search for a fulfilling career, as have many in my generation. My search led me to Impact Business Leaders and a renewed optimism in the very topic I left behind when I dropped out of Oxford. This is a story of how I came to believe in the power of a practical, impactful economics, known by the name of social enterprise.

“Saving Economics from the Economists”

I arrived in Oxford in September 2008 to study for an MPhil in Economics, just as world markets found themselves plummeting into the abyss. Living and studying in Oxford was a dream come true, and my wife and I still remember our time there as one of the most formative experiences of our lives. But it became clear all too quickly that a career as an academic economist was not going to work for me.

Theoretically I understood how different the highly specialized, mathematical approach of academic economics was from the more logic-based undergraduate economics that I so thoroughly enjoyed. But as I attended class and observed the world around me, it seemed that the discipline was out of sync with reality. How could anyone speak with such certainty about models and theories when the realities they claimed to explain were crashing down all around? I simply could not square the claims of rigor and precision in the classroom with the messy facts outside.

Ronald Coase, a Nobel laureate in Economics, put to words a few years later exactly what I had felt:

“Economics as currently presented in textbooks and taught in the classroom does not have much to do with business management, and still less with entrepreneurship. The degree to which economics is isolated from the ordinary business of life is extraordinary and unfortunate….[It] ignor[es] the influences of society, history, culture, and politics on the working of the economy. It is time to reengage the severely impoverished field of economics with the economy.”

The Oxford Econ Department was not to blame for this problem – it was an issue that slowly accreted across institutions as economics morphed from a study of everyday life and business into a specialized tool of policy (as Coase also points out in his article). There are many legitimate and helpful uses of academic economics, but I needed something more tangibly impactful.

After the Crisis

Returning to the US, I worked in the corporate world for a few years while I struggled to find some direction. After much deliberation, I decided to pursue the same types of international issues I had originally hoped to address with economics, but now from a more holistic perspective. I took up a degree in international affairs in Washington, DC.

It was during this time that I discovered the field of social enterprise, and spent a summer working with Village Capital in Nairobi, setting up an accelerator program for social enterprises. Here was a group of innovators that drew on the key insights of economics in a practical way, driving impactful results every day through the simple concepts of supply and demand.

Social entrepreneurs, and the impact investors who provide capital to them, realize that social impact is often more sustainable when driven by the market. Businesses can be firmly built on the demand from those at the Base of the Pyramid (BoP)—who live on a few dollars a day or less—generating solid financial results while simultaneously creating positive social impact. The companies I saw working with VilCap were enough to convince me of the value of social enterprise, and I left Kenya with a renewed appreciation for a more practical and empathetic economics.

Finding Direction

Having finished my degree in DC, I was committed to pursuing a career in social enterprise and had the good fortune to get involved with Impact Business Leaders (IBL) in its early days. At IBL, we recognize that there are many people like myself, who have become disenchanted with the prevailing economic notion that business exists purely for profit, and equally with the notion that social impact can only be achieved through handouts.

But moving between the traditional corporate world (or government, academe, NGOs, etc.) and the social enterprise/impact investing world can be surprisingly difficult. Social enterprise is still a nascent sector driven largely by personal connections, and still heavily segmented geographically. IBL helps bridge the gap, connecting professionals with job opportunities around the world, and preparing those professionals for the opportunity with practical training from our group of experienced instructors, all of whom are practitioners in the field.

So when I return to Oxford in October for the upcoming IBL@Oxford program, in partnership with Oxford’s Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, I will be completing a circle that began in Oxford six years ago. I left Oxford disenchanted about economics; I return to Oxford hopeful about how economics can be practically applied to make a difference in the world, through the host of innovative entrepreneurs around the world who care about more than profit.

If you find yourself questioning why you do what you do, perhaps it is time you consider a program like IBL@Oxford. Applications are still available online through September 15, and we would be glad to speak with you more if you have any questions.

– Jonathan Waldroup is the Operations and Finance Manager at Impact Business Leaders and can be reached at jwaldroup[at]impactbusinessleaders[dot]com.