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My journey from Sydney to Oxford

Rangan Srikhanta is a 2019-20 Skoll Scholar and MBA. He is dedicated to equal and fair education for all as a catalyst for future progression and access to opportunities for the world’s most marginalised communities. Rangan shares the story of how this came to be his passion and how he ended up at the University of Oxford doing his MBA.

My journey to Oxford isn’t a typical one, but then again – as I soon found out, no one’s is!

Born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, my family and I fled a civil war that would change the lives of millions of people. Arriving in Australia, it took me many years to realise that social disadvantage transcends nations and disproportionately affects minorities.

Many government policies when combined with externalities, in whatever their form, first manifest as minor differences in education and health in early childhood, but snowball into much wider social divides later in life (lower life expectancy, lower employment opportunities and so on). Layer in the rapidly changing landscape, thanks to technology – a fast forming digital divide, would also become synonymous with an opportunity divide.

As fate would have it, in 2005, I found an opportunity to do something to contribute to improving access to educational opportunities for thousands of children by closing the digital divide. One laptop per Child (OLPC), was a partnership among businesses, NGOs, and governments to produce the world’s least expensive laptop and to distribute that device to children all around the world. I was intrigued by OLPC’s vision of bringing those sectors together to solve social problems. I was equally impressed by the low-cost laptop that OLPC proposed to create.

Rangan Srikhanta is Ceo of One Education, an offshoot of the One Laptop Per Child scheme.

The device, which came to be called the XO, would cost just $100 a piece to manufacture, had free and open software, ultra-low power usage, a sunlight-readable screen and be field repairable.

Inspired on so many levels, I chose action over theory, opting to make numerous late-night phone calls to MIT to figure out what we could do to bring the project to Australia. Armed with what would be my greatest asset, my child like naivety on how these projects came in to being, I set upon a journey that would not only improve educational opportunities for thousands of primary school children but also change my entire trajectory in life.

Whilst our early days were focused on advocacy, it wasn’t until after our volunteer group formalised into One Laptop per Child Australia that I realised that the OLPC initiative needed a re-think to some of its core principles.

After delivering computers to many remote communities, it was clear that flying in, dropping off computers for free and then leaving was not sustainable and would undermine our ability to improve access and usage.

A major challenge facing remote schools in Australia is the tenure of teachers. On average teachers last 8 months. Any model that required face-to-face training was not scalable, would only serve to build a dependency relationship on our organisation, and do little to build local capacity to overcome teacher turnover.

In fact, we found there were many dependencies on suppliers (by design) that resulted in schools being forced to come back for repairs, support etc. This was a market failure that increased the cost of technology and reduced access to those that needed it most.

After evolving our programme over 10 years, raising just under $30 million to train over 2,000 teachers and deliver over 70,000 computers, it became clear that I needed time and space to reflect on my journey into the future.

Truth be told, after the management rollercoaster I’d been through over the past decade, I wasn’t convinced I needed an MBA. But to classify Oxford’s MBA with its deep connection to the Skoll Centre as ‘just another MBA’ is a career limiting move for anyone who wants to lead an organisation deep into the 21st Century. It forms the reason why I wanted to come here – this MBA, is a place to consider how externalities need to be core business for all executives.

One thing I didn’t anticipate was how the power of such a resilient institution like Oxford could be a catalyst for my own change. In my short time on campus, not only have I been able to reflect on why I came here, but have also started to reflect on where I will be going.

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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.

5 Guidelines for MBA Programmes to Support Impact-MBAs

2018-19 Impact Lab student, Puja Balachander, spent the summer of 2019 assisting with the development of our Impact Lab programme. As a participant of the inaugural cohort and with a background in design, she helped the Centre to improve on what had been successful, ensuring that future MBA students would get the best out of Impact Lab. She shares with us her methods for improving impact-focused programming. 

Before I came to the MBA, I was a service designer and user researcher in public sector innovation labs at the White House, World Bank, and later the City of Austin, working on making public services more user centered and user friendly. I came to the MBA at Oxford to complement my design skills with the business and operations skills I needed to take my prototypes to scale. 

When I got to the Saïd Business School, I joined the small but mighty group of “social impact” MBAs looking to take our work to the next level with business skills. Over my year as a student, and now as an intern at the Skoll Centre working on impact talent development, I’ve learned a few lessons that I think apply to any business programme hoping to support their social impact students: 

1. Understand your “impact-MBA” personas, and design programming accordingly

There are a lot of us that get lumped together as social-impact focused MBAs.

This includes;

  • the impact-curious who are looking to enter the field
  • those who are committed to impact but looking to move into a new sector
  • and those who want to accelerate their careers in their sectors

The same support doesn’t work for everyone. 

A lot of MBA programming around impact assumes that we need to be convinced that social challenges are worth caring about and working on. That is effective for the impact-curious, and converts some who are on the edge, but it doesn’t cater to the impact veterans who are already convinced.

That’s why one of the key, but more difficult choices we’ve had to make at the Skoll Centre this year, is to focus the Impact Lab on those who have deep impact experience. This might feel exclusive, but in fact, it ensures that different impact MBAs with different needs and expectations get what they want and need out of the programming. The more we realize there isn’t a single, one-size fits all “impact-MBA”, and design programming that serves more niche needs, the more meaningful students’ engagement will be. 

2. Look beyond impact investing and impact consulting

Just as there are different impact MBA personas with different levels of interest and experience, there are personas that bring different skills, experiences and interests within impact. There are former policy makers hoping to bring back a business perspective, software engineers looking to lend their skills to a social tech firm, marketers wanting to help rebuild trust in business… the list goes on. Yet, the MBA impact career pathways can tend to mirror those of the broader MBA, and overemphasize finance and consulting. 

It’s important that all MBAs, especially the broadly impact curious who might be convinced to pursue a career in impact, see that they have a place and role in the impact ecosystem. Impact investing and consulting are each fulfilling and prestigious careers, but they certainly aren’t for everyone, and don’t begin to cover the breadth of options and needs in the impact space. 

Keeping this in mind, this year the Skoll Centre is collaborating more closely with the careers team at Oxford Saïd to help MBA students navigate through the many different pathways and careers in impact. We’re particularly focused on engaging our incredible network of impact MBA alumni working in every sector from government to NGOs, tech companies, and marketing agencies to banks and consulting firms to share their learnings and advice with the incoming MBA class of 2019-20. 

3. Don’t let us lose sight of the humans

There’s the danger that when students are taught frameworks and tools for impact, they come out bordering on technocratic. It’s hard not to drink the kool-aid and believe that an impact consulting framework, or a human-centered design sprint could help us fully understand and solve the problem. Or that using rigorous financial and impact analysis will certainly help us identify the social innovations that will scale. And when we’re sitting in our future jobs sending fancy PowerPoints or building elaborate models, it has the risk of reinforcing what’s happening really is this simple! The optimism of the MBA is great, but it’s important to keep us connected to the humans at the core of all the challenges we want to address. 

This is where the Skoll Centre is looking to deepen its ties to our community. Oxford has a tradition of walling itself off, and we’re working on breaking this down and connect with the community. A great example was through Map the System. When my teammate and I analysed the system that caused inequality in early childhood in Oxfordshire, we found through our research with a local community organization, the Oxford Hub, that promising solutions never made it to implementation because impact reporting frameworks didn’t match the phase of solutions. It’s easy in a classroom to be convinced that impact measurement is important (and it is!), but the nuance comes from interactions with the real world. Creating those opportunities leads to understanding (and employability!).

4. Help us be as rigorous about our personal impact as we would be about an organization’s

As a school focused on responsible business, Oxford Saïd’s theory of change is to pump out business leaders who can create change from within even the most “traditional” companies. But these leaders can’t live up to this vision unless they’re critical about their organization’s and their own activities and intentions.

The same theory applies within impact as MBAs join impact organizations like the United Nations, development banks, and corporate sustainability teams. These traditional players are the natural and prestigious next steps befitting an MBA, and it’s certainly possible to make significant change through these positions, but it’s important that we’re as rigorous about our impact and intentions going into these (or any other) organizations, as we are about our actions as a responsible leader working for an investment bank or consulting firm. 

That’s why in Impact Lab over the next year, we’re putting a finer point on developing a critical perspective on different themes within impact. With every activity, our objective is to help leaders to challenge their assumptions and ask themselves and others the critical questions necessary to ensure they are having the impact they promise. Importantly, we’re extending this perspective to being self-critical, so that students examine the biases and privilege they’re bringing into this work, and how they can overcome and utilize them to help create a fairer, more sustainable and prosperous world.  

5. Mainstream impact

Finally, the most important thing that a business school can do to create a fairer, more sustainable and prosperous world, is not only to support students that are interested in impact, but also to mainstream impact within the broader business curriculum. Oxford Saïd did a great job of this within the core accounting course this year. Each week, our professor had a group of students research, critically reflect and present on different themes within extra-financial accounting and reporting. The school also organized a mandatory union debate that examined the merits and limitations of mandated sustainability reporting. It was exciting that ESG factors and sustainability were thoroughly mainstreamed within our curriculum, and eye-opening (at least to me) to see how most corporates are thinking about sustainability and impact. Students were able to leave the accounting course, not only understanding the basics of accounting, but understanding the current state of extra-financial reporting, and how we might build on this progress in our careers. 

It would be great to see similar mainstreaming in other core courses like analytics, corporate finance, and technology and operations. The school already offers elective courses and co-curricular activities like the Skoll Centre’s Impact Lab for those who are interested in impact, but it’s all too possible for students who don’t come in with this interest, to avoid any content and reflection around impact at all during their MBA degree.

If we want to support every student to become responsible leaders and to pursue purposeful careers, a critical, human-focused, impact education is key for every MBA student.

Head shot image of Puja Balachander
Puja Balachander, Oxford MBA 2018-19 student.

Puja Balachander is an Oxford MBA 2018-19 student. She is also the co-founder of Devie, a trusted digital service platform that guides parents on their journey from pregnancy to parenthood, equipping them to become their child’s best first teacher.

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.