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Finding calm amidst chaos

Rangan Srikhanta is a 2019-20 Skoll Scholar and MBA. In this blog, Rangan reflects on completing his final term at Oxford Saïd during the pandemic.

My last post was an opportunity for me to reflect on what brought me to Oxford and the transformative experience it was having in the space of just one term. This post has taken much longer to marinate than usual, but COVID-19 has provided many an opportunity to stop and reflect.

The Oxford Bubble

As the pandemic infiltrated our Oxford bubble, it become a transformative experience in understanding the human condition. From being dismayed at the frays in our social fabric perfectly encapsulated with panic buying of everyday items, to being inspired by thousands of frontline workers who have put their lives at risk when the long-term effects of exposure to the pandemic are still unknown. The Oxford bubble became a sanctuary for reflection, away from the many distractions that make us yearn for the next thing, without appreciating what we have now.

On a personal level, it was overwhelming to see the town clear out in a matter of weeks, many blossoming friendships that thrived on in-person chance meetings would be tested by a shift across multiple time zones, an artefact of participating in one of the most diverse MBA programmes in the world. Experiencing a deserted Oxford seemed somewhat post-apocalyptic and surreal, when considering that the city had unlikely been this quiet in a very long time.

Spring provided a welcome respite from months of cold, and bike rides an opportunity to take in the fresh air and find calm amidst chaos.

Crises as a Catalyst for Innovation

“The tragedy of life is often not in our failure, but rather in our complacency; not in our doing too much, but rather in our doing too little; not in our living above our ability, but rather in our living below our capacities.”

Benjamin E Mays

The pandemic has exposed our misplaced priorities and helped amplify society’s inequalities to breaking point. I see many similarities between the bushfires that often ravage Australia and the pandemic. The most prophetic is that tragedy always precedes re-birth and re-growth – that they are two sides of the same coin.

Whilst early indications suggest society has become more unjust and more unequal through the pandemic, another perspective is that the pandemic has brought to a head deep structural issues that need revisiting.

I am not sure if the worst is yet to come, but I am certain that these trying times are providing society the space to have those uncomfortable confrontations to build back better.

Author: Rangan Srikhanta, 2019-20 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA.

Hilary term: the Oxford MBA so far

Joaquín Víquez is a 2019-20 Oxford MBA and Skoll Scholar. He began his social impact career in his native country, Costa Rica, where his passion for environmental sustainability led him to many projects and ventures. Now Joaquin finds himself among 300+ other global MBA candidates in one of the world’s oldest institutions, the University of Oxford.

Like any great adventure, time does truly fly. It seems like yesterday my family and I were packing our “life” in a few bags to move to Oxford. It has now been almost 8 months since our big move; Michaelmas and Hilary term have come to an end, which means we are more than halfway to completing the MBA!

After having been away from school almost eight years, I must openly share that the first half of Michaelmas term was an emotional roller coaster. First, you find yourself working through the “jungle” of getting to know your fellow classmates. You think it’s easy but even now, ending Hilary, I’m yet to finish this task. Second, getting used to going to class and purposefully making the effort of acquiring knowledge and making sense of the dozen (if not hundreds) of frameworks to tackle pretty much any business (or non-business) problem you can think of, is exhausting – the expression “drinking water from a fire hose” does become quite literal.

Our first big assignment during the MBA as a team effort, was advising Kraft and Heinz (ketchup, Mac and Cheese, etc) to deal with its operational challenges. Being a social entrepreneur, you might agree with me, that this was a somewhat boring task (I mean there are bigger problems to tackle out there). So yes, at one point I was nearly convinced I had mistakenly chosen to do an MBA…

But, the advantage of being a [social] entrepreneur, is having perseverance which gave me enough juice to stick with it, in hope that things would get better. And like many fairy tales, it did! New courses came along, bringing much brighter, truly challenging and meaningful tasks; my adaptation phase was over, and days were literally getting brighter and better. With this I want to list a few highlights of the programme and the experience so far:

  • The climate OBN invited me to share my personal story and journey of starting and running Viogaz (my former renewable energy from waste social startup). Preparing the slides and sharing the story was simply brilliant (as they would say here).
Fig1. Presentation at the Oxford Foundry about Viogaz
  • This year’s Global Threats and Opportunities Oxford (GOTO) was on Climate Action within Food and Agriculture – it couldn’t have been more specific to my background and passion. I persuaded my team to focus on the future of food security driven by the unsustainable management of phosphorus and its impact on climate change– I agree, it was a bit technical but really enjoyed working on it! Plus, our group was randomly selected and is now featured in a series of documentaries which is pretty cool. Oh! I was able to start an Entrepreneurship project with an amazing team, with an idea that came out of the GOTO project!
Fig2. GOTO Team featured on small documentaries
  • Oxford is just like they say – there is so much going on and “FOMO” (Fear of missing out) is pretty real. Balancing your time is difficult, especially with a family expecting you to be home for dinner. But! I was able to fit in a few things which added so much joy to the whole experience: formal dinners, Oxford half marathon, running club, thanksgiving dinner with friends, drinks after exams, climate change school, etc!
  • As a young boy, I also experienced the great value of living overseas for some time (I spent a couple of years in the US as a kid). Having the opportunity to do the same for my children and witnessing the transformational experience it has been for them, is definitely a highlight of my time in Oxford.

Now to be honest, I started working on this blog at the end of February. Back then I had written how my next challenge was around deciding the future; should my family and I move back home or stay in UK/Europe for a while? What kind of job should I apply for? Should I go for summer courses or plan to do an internship? I am now finishing this blog a month later back in Costa Rica. One week after our MBA had been moved online until further notice and the day before the UK announced full lockdown, my family and I once again, packed our bags and left the UK.  

So much has been said about this pandemic. All I can say for now, is that the decisions we make and the actions we take, can be seen as a form of test of how we handle adversities. For most of us, we will get a chance to see our true selves.

Stay safe! 

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My journey from Nepal to Oxford

Tsechu Dolma is a current 2019-20 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. She is the founder of the Mountain Resiliency Project to help build resilient refugee communities through women’s agribusinesses. She reflects on her lived experience and how it led her to an impact career and an MBA at Oxford.

There are 25.4 million refugees in the world; children make up half of them; 3.5 million school-age refugee children do not go to school, and only one percent of refugees enroll in higher education. I was born into these statistics.  I grew up in a Tibetan refugee camp and spent the first half of my life as a stateless person. Fleeing the civil war in Nepal, my family sought political asylum in the United States.

After becoming a new American, receiving my education there, then going back, I realized that my refugee community back home was stuck in a culture of waiting that international agencies had perpetuated and we had enhanced upon. Our community has been plagued with development barriers such as heavy youth outmigration, low student retention, poor water access and ethnic marginalization. But we were not working on solving our problems; instead, we waited for outsiders to bring in poorly designed, implemented and costly projects that would only last for a year or two. Inside the past decade, climate change and globalization has made living in the high-Himalayas increasingly more difficult and we cannot afford to wait. I made a risky leap so that we can reverse this development trend, and instead take a grassroots approach to foster local ownership, inclusion and capacity.

(Photo Credit: Mountain Resiliency Project) The majority of the villages Mountain Resiliency Project (MRP) works with do not have road access. They are some of the most remote settlements in the Himalayan range. Foot and pack animals travel is the lifeline of our communities. In this photo, Tsechu Dolma is traveling to one of MRP’s sites in Manang, Nepal, where the nearest road is a four-day hike away, plus a another 20 hours bus ride from Kathmandu, crossing a pass 16,814ft above sea level.

My entrepreneurial spirit brought me back to the refugee camps I left behind to start a social enterprise. I founded Mountain Resiliency Project six years ago while I was an undergraduate student. We have a proven track record of improving food security, women’s economic empowerment and leveling patchy development for 15,000 displaced farmers in Nepal. Our average families have increased their annual incomes by 200 percent. Most importantly, 80 percent of our family’s earned income is spent on their children’s continued education and the remaining is reinvested in their trade.  I realize the value of hard work and grit in achieving our true potential. Our work has received international awards and recognition for making strides. Today, we have 15 full-time staff leading our work in Nepal. I am rethinking the underpinnings of development in my community that has continued to perpetrate marginalization and dispossession. My vision is to scale Mountain Resiliency’s work worldwide. We want to grow out of South Asia to become the first-ever global network of refugee communities producing and selling goods to the mainstream market. Being a Skoll Scholar has supported my growth as a social entrepreneur and broadened my scope of advocating for and strengthening displaced communities.

Tsechu Dolma in camping tent, with background of mountain scene

The Skoll Scholarship aligns with my lifelong values of growing into an effective leader with the grit, vision and communication skills to be a steward to my community and environment. For me, it is the tool to address inequities, development gaps and improve livelihoods. From my work at Mountain Resiliency, I have firsthand experience of how effective social enterprises that are deeply rooted in empathy and relationship building can transform lives. Social entrepreneurship is the best amalgamation of my passion and skills for how I want to influence the world. My experience with displaced communities has taught me that when the system is broken and continues to perpetrate disenfranchisement to the most vulnerable, the solutions must come from the unconventional. On my journey through different landscapes, I seek connections with the human and natural world to find my place and understand economic development. The literature on human, nature and policy has allowed me to use ideas from development discourse, like ‘participation’ and ‘sustainability’ in a way that is both effective and critical. Displaced communities worldwide have little to no political leverage and only extractive industries and projects are in their region; resulting in inconsistent, patchy development. I intend to change this.

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My journey from Bangladesh to Oxford

Anjali Sarker is a current 2019-20 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. She is passionate about empowering women’s rights through economic opportunity. She reflects on her impact journey so far and what led her to Oxford.  

It was a hot summer afternoon in 2014. A group of middle-aged women were sitting under a tree, giving me and my colleague a very skeptical look as we were trying to explain how mobile payments could possibly make their lives easier. They did not seem to be convinced at all, for good reasons; at least for reasons that were valid to them.

“We, women, don’t understand those things… too complicated for us.”

“My husband handles all financial matters. Those are men’s responsibilities.”

“My marriage will be in trouble if I use mobile money. My in-laws will assume that I’m secretly sending money to my parents.”

Anjali Sarker headshot outside Saïd Business School

I wondered if it was at all possible to challenge the age-old traditions and gender norms that made women believe that managing money is men’s business, and they should ‘stay out of it’. As a deep believer in gender equality, and being a woman myself, I wanted to challenge the status quo.

At that point, the mobile money revolution in Bangladesh was just building momentum. However, as with all new opportunities, it was mostly men who were able to utilise mobile money. In particular, rural and poor women lagged behind. By 2017, the number of mobile money account holders in Bangladesh shot to over 24 million, the highest in the world. Shockingly, at the same time, the gender gap in financial inclusion increased 20 percentage points within only 3 years, leaving 38 million women unbanked. BRAC, one of the largest NGOs in the world where I worked at the time, had been active in the microfinance industry since the early 1970s, providing rural women access to small loans. We saw mobile money as an opportunity to expand the coverage of financial services to every corner of the country. However, the challenge was how to take it to the poorest women who need it the most.

The next few years became a roller coaster ride for my team, pulling off a massive nationwide project, funded by the Gates Foundation, to get digital financial services to the fingertips of one million women (literally). Leading the project taught me more than I could have ever imagined – taking me to the remotest corners of the country and exposing my eyes to the harshest forms of poverty. On one hand, it was incredibly inspiring to see how our clients’ eyes lit up when they made their first digital transactions and sent money to their loved ones. On the other hand, I felt numb when I heard many stories of husbands’ abusing their wives for being “too independent”. I realised that beyond providing necessary services and ‘doing good’, development interventions should also take responsibility for the consequences, both intended and unintended, that come later.

“A more effective way of changing the status quo is to build a better system that makes the existing system obsolete.”

Anjali Sarker, 2019-20 Skoll Scholar

The project left my mind full of complex questions, which motivated me to take a two-year study leave. Before coming to Oxford for my MBA, I did an MSc at the London School of Economics, where I studied Inequalities and explored how emerging technologies impact the existing inequalities. Many people raise their eyebrows when I said that I was going to do an MBA, after studying “inequalities”! Aren’t these the two extremes of the world today where the richest 1% are exploiting the whole planet and the activists are protesting on streets to bring them down? Well, I believe the realities are much more complex and nuanced than that. One can choose to fight the system and in extreme cases of injustice, that might as well be the only option. However, in most situations, a more effective way of changing the status quo is to build a better system that makes the existing system obsolete. This hope for change is what inspired me and brought me to Oxford.

While looking into business schools, Oxford’s Saïd Business School clearly stood out because of the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship, the Skoll Scholarship, and the incredible privilege to be immersed within the wider Oxford University community. In fact, my motivation for an MBA was understanding the world of business and investing the knowledge, skills and connections gained in social good, specially to create systems that work for women. Unfortunately, women are still the biggest minority in the world. More often than not, their needs and realities do not get the attention they deserve. To make things worse, if they are poor, illiterate or live in rural areas, they become almost invisible to the systems and decision-makers. My hope is that spending this year in Oxford, and all the incredible opportunities that come with an MBA from Oxford Saïd, will enable me to better serve millions of invisible women in Bangladesh.

How to manage difficult conversations

Florentina-Daniela Gheorghe, Skoll Scholar 2018-19, has spent the last year in Oxford studying her MBA. To end the year, she reflects on her own personal learnings and passes them onto you to take forward on your own journey.

I love to ask questions to deepen my understanding. I believe asking great questions is an awesome skill to have. This year, however, I discovered that I am an activist: I raise my voice in matters that contradict my values. And it happened a few times. I also had the wrong impression that many people think like me and I assumed that my MBA colleagues and I think alike. Instead, I learned there are endless perspectives that I need to acknowledge and that the ‘18-19 MBA cohort at Oxford Saïd are not as vocal as I expected.

Here are some stats: this year we were 315 people from 62 countries, average age 28, with 24% of us coming from finance, 17% coming from consulting and the rest 59% coming from 16+ other fields, with an average of 5 years of experience. Wouldn’t you expect these young people to make their voices heard?

In some sections, many were silent during lectures and didn’t ask clarifying questions. Some possible reasons: they didn’t want to disturb the lecturer’s flow, or they thought that their question might be “stupid” and might not bring value to the rest. Culture, personality and English proficiency also play a role. And then there were people who might have been experts in their field.

I experienced many times the impostor syndrome. However, it didn’t stop me from asking brief questions in class: it shows the lecturer where I am in my learning, it helps me clarify my thoughts and other people can benefit too. Even more, given my years of groundwork, I could potentially bring a new perspective on interpreting industry practices and academic research. I kept my computer open many times in class to make sure I get a gist of a concept like debt/equity ratio and use it correctly in my question, but that didn’t stop me from taking my understanding to the next level with a question. The worst thing that could happen was to leave the classroom without understanding the foundation of what was taught.

Question the default – Courage to ask Why

In a world in which “business as usual” – with profit as the single end goal – doesn’t seem to make sense anymore, we need courageous leadership who dares to question the default practices. I actively decided to practice this courage. Don’t be afraid to ask in impact investing class why we assume that tools of traditional finance can be transferred as they are into impact investing. Don’t be afraid to ask in economics and finance, why the perpetual growth assumption is not questioned.

Speak your mind

How many of us question the things we hear from lecturers and speakers? Being at Oxford, we had access to amazing speakers: in class, at the Oxford Union or at events around the campus. Amazingly reputed people come to Oxford, and that’s a great privilege. But Oxford also teaches you to speak your mind, not to get intimidated by the reputation of the speaker. We might have valuable insights. Politely acknowledge someone’s effort to share their story in front of a class of students and then speak up. Just remember to speak with humility!

Always remind people that every management decision affects people

It’s not about the merger post acquisition, it’s about two teams of dedicated people learning how to work together. Thinking about people can help you better understand the expected and unexpected consequences.

Speak with your heart but wrap your position in data: every time

I learned this the hard way. My friend, an editor with The Economic Times, showed me how to keep my emotions under control and use data instead to make the point. It does require a bit more (home) work. I tend to let myself taken away by emotions. When I hear something that contradicts my core believes, such as anti-refugee statements or opinions about “the poor’s ignorance”, my blood pressure goes up. Some perspectives out there really clash with my genuine belief that humanity is equality distributed in every one of us.

Be assertive  

When things go rough, remember to be assertive. One of the best take-aways I have from my year is the Even Fish Need Confidence (EFNC) framework that I learned during peer-support training: explanation, feelings, needs, consequences. Use this framework to communicate openly to someone who might use words that trigger negative emotional reactions in you: explain what happened (facts), express your feelings about what happened (vulnerably), state what you need (to make this relationship work), state the positive (and negative) consequences if your needs are (not) met. Communicating with this framework builds respect between people and reduces the risk that someone gets hurt. Difficult conversations are healthy and important. Constructive conflict, if orchestrated, can help everyone learn how to be a team player. It’s not an easy task to orchestrate conflict but it might be worth it. We are all on a discovery journey to become a better version of ourselves. Enjoy yours!

Daniela Gheorghe, 2018-19 Skoll Scholar.

How to manage business remotely

Whilst doing your Oxford MBA!

You run a growing social business and things are going well. But you soon realise that with a little extra business knowledge and global connections, your business could be so much more impactful.

So, you decide to take some time to study your MBA.

But what happens to the business? You think, ‘surely there will be plenty of time to run my business remotely, it’s the 21st Century for goodness sake, it’ll be like I’m practically in the office with all this technology at my fingertips’!

Well, sadly, most of the time this is where our Oxford MBAs can quickly get overwhelmed. In their hopes to do both, get an Oxford degree and run a successful business from 5,000 miles away, only one will prevail in the end.

So, what can we learn from those who have come before?

Mohsin Mustafa, Oxford MBA, Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Scholar, and Skoll Scholar 2018-19, offers some handy advice for any prospective MBA looking to keep their business ticking over whilst they take a year out to study. 

Some background…

I run a healthcare business in Pakistan. We have pediatrics Clinics and we run those clinics in partnership with schools where we provide preventative care services. My enterprise Clinic5 is three years old and we have a team of 15 people. One of the biggest concerns I had when I was leaving for the Oxford MBA was what would happen to the business in my absence. So, I would like to share with you my experience and what worked. For advice on this aspect I would really like to credit Sidhya Senani, MBA 2017-18 who faced a similar dilemma as I did whose advice was crucial in helping me plan my transition this past year.

What to DO:

Have a lead in place

Having one person to contact while you’re away makes it much easier for you to administratively manage affairs in your enterprise. Also having one second in command makes it easier for your other stakeholders (suppliers, clients, rest of the team) to know whom to contact in case they want an issue to be solved.

Pilot not going to the office for at least 2 weeks

This pilot helps everyone in the team see how things happen in your absence. If you’re the cofounder, its quite possible that you were always available, both in person and with your time, now that you would be gone for a year, the gap would be felt so it’s always better to first give a feeler to the team and troubleshoot the issues that come up. Trust me this will come!

Set aside dedicated time for a weekly video call.

This is very important. Face time with the team every week makes them see you still care about the work. It’s quite likely that the ownership you feel towards the business is much higher than anyone else. Feed the team with that energy every week. Additionally, during these calls, keep negative feedback to a minimum. Primarily serve as the motivational speaker or the cushion for their stressors. Let them speak. At your end reiterate the achievements during the year and how much longer the team must go before you join them and what’s waiting in store for the team after you join. Sharing the vision goes a long way.

You will get a few calls from your primary point of contact every now and then. Prioritize that call. Important for your primary point of contact (your lead) to feel that you have their back.

Also, if other team members call, try and route them through your primary lead. If there’s a call, document it immediately through an email so that everyone in the team is aware of what was discussed. This practice reduces the chance of misunderstandings. This year will be a real challenge of your business leadership skills.

Set aside cash flows so that your business operation does not suffer.

It’s possible you might get cancelled clients, it’s possible that your business development plans for this year do not work out. The cushioning of cash flows for your business should be greater than what you keep. You need not share the exact level of cushioning with your team. It’s more as a safety net for rainy days.

What NOT to do:

Don’t intervene in operational matters.

Let the team on the ground deal with them and TRUST their decision even if you think you would’ve done things differently let it be. Unless and until you think a certain decision is an existential threat, resist the temptation to intervene. This is essential to empowering your team.

Don’t get involved in office politics back home.

Some will happen inevitably. When that happens try not to take sides

Don’t give negative feedback over a group phone.

Call if you must do it, do It one on one

Don’t plan to scale your work this year.

It exerts immense pressure on the team

A year later, I could safely say, things went by quite smoothly for Clinic5. I would give this credit to my brilliant team: Dr. Taha Sabri, Dr. Selina Hasan, Muhammad Irfan and Syed Kareem. Additionally, my father kept an oversight on financial matters which took a lot of stress off me, so thank you Abbu!

This time away might have been a blessing in disguise since people took up more leadership responsibilities within my organization and now when I go back, I can really focus on scaling.

If you’re taking part in the Oxford MBA this coming year, brace yourself for an intense and exciting year.

Best,

Mohsin Mustafa, 2018-19 Skoll Scholar.