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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.

My Journey Post-MBA

Florentina-Daniela Gheorghe, Skoll Scholar 2018-19, reflects on her own personal learnings moving out of Oxford in September 2019, a few months before COVID-19 struck the whole world.

“You will really understand the value of the MBA after 2-3 years,”

a friend and Oxford MBA alumnus told me last year.

I took the MBA as a reflection and learning year: to get to know myself better, improve my leadership skills, understand my strengths and my values in contrast, get to connect with people from all around the world. Learn not only about myself but about the state of the world: of business, of economics, of government. What a ride it was: from moments of exaltation, to moments of tension, to deadlines, to a variety of projects, to cultural alignment and conflict. A ride that I appreciate more and more with the passing of time.

I moved to Oxford for the MBA in September 2018 and moved out of Oxford in September 2019, a few months before COVID-19 struck the whole world.

I am very grateful for the opportunities that reached me in these hard times.

Here is what happened since September:

Visa troubles

I got my visa application rejected for South Africa from UK twice! When I finally received it, COVID-19 was spreading all over the world.

I had my ticket and luggage ready to fly the next day and went to the embassy to pick up my passport: I found an empty passport. I applied again; application was rejected again. I was devastated. I was so excited to spend some weeks in South Africa and do an internship with a cool payment startup for SMEs in Cape Town. I was introduced to the company’s founder by a fellow Skoll Scholar and friend from the Oxford network. Four months later, I received a visa which I never used: by now, it was February 2020.

The wine industry

I worked on a project I never imagined myself working on, in the English Sparkling Wine industry in Hampshire, UK.

With no place to stay in London and no visa for South Africa plans, in November I moved to a beautiful vineyard in the South Downs. What a splendid experience! Extremely grateful to a professor from Saïd Business School who recommended me for the project. For 3 winter months, I spend my days understanding the art of winemaking, the market and the sustainability challenges. I was dreaming to making our brand the first circular wine brand in the world! After walking my dog in the darkness of the vineyard post 4 pm every day, I spent many quiet evenings – a blessing after a busy MBA year. The most fascinating thing about wine making is that every single activity in the vineyard, every single touch of the vine can change the final taste of the wine.

My journey as an independent consultant was just beginning

Building on the relationship I developed during the class “Implementing new initiatives in business”, I continued working with an education technology startup in Oxford and helped the five people team think through its value proposition. So many wonderful ideas can arise when we put our customers’ needs at the center of our business decisions.

Social impact consulting for non-profits

While at the vineyard, far away from the city life, I found myself with extra time in the evenings. Towards the end of November, a colleague and friend at Oxford introduced me to a social impact consulting project for a London based consulting firm. Since then, together with other MBA colleagues, we mapped the fundraising markets in Romania, Egypt, Uruguay, scanned the world for emergency funds for children, and looked at global strategies for expanding the number of regular donors for different international non-profits.

Daniela pictured while doing a value proposition workshop for the wine producer team

My favorite project so far: access to finance in emerging markets

I got introduced to a skill development institute in East Africa by another colleague at Oxford. Since February, we together looked to map the so-called ‘missing middle financing gap’ for small businesses in Kenya and beyond and understand how we might ensure their access to the most needed capital. Then COVID-19 hit the developed world. Many African countries imposed their own form of lockdown. We are now looking at being part of the mobilization for recovery. 100+ million ‘new poor’: the African continent sees the dark consequences of broken supply chains and economic shut-down. It’s imperative we act. 

As a startup founder in an emerging market, I experienced first-hand the struggles for survival in under-developed support ecosystems for entrepreneurs. Talking to some mentors and system change experts, I knew I didn’t want to work in impact investing: there is enough money in the world. It’s the time for investors to step up during the pandemic. However, what the world needs more than ever is support for entrepreneurs to become investable, to survive and recover.

NEW! Climate tech startup

What else can I do from my small office desk in St Albans, UK? This time, my mentor in the Executive MBA cohort, introduced me to a circular economy startup run by one of her colleagues. I joined the team recently. We look to create a circular sourcing gateway for the textile and packaging industry. In my partnership role, I seek to bring people together and write fundraising applications in advance of our MVP launch in July this year. It’s so exciting to see how the world is progressing to circular strategies. Here is one of my favorite videos on the change towards a circular economy.

As I write this in June 2020, there is still a lot of uncertainty in the world post-pandemic. I am humbly trying to do my best to remotely support amazing initiatives. Though, my heart is in emerging markets, on the ground, in the streets, among people.

Daniela is a customer centricity consultant, ex social entrepreneur in ed-tech in India and a Skoll Scholar at Oxford Saïd Business School. Find her on Twitter @ella_gh

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Pandemics within a Pandemic

Tsechu Dolma is a current 2019-20 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. In this blog, Tsechu reflects on the last three months of the current situation. Sharing her lived experience growing up and how COVID-19 has exposed an already existing pandemic – systemic racial injustice.

My homecoming has been beleaguered with grief, anger, heartbreak, angst, exhaustion, and hope.

Ten weeks ago, as in-person classes suspended, borders shut down, and toilet paper ran out, I scurried out of Oxford and sought my mother’s warm embrace in Queens, New York. Little did I know then that I was stepping into one of the hardest-hit communities in the world, and the COVID-19 pandemic was exacerbating already existing pandemics.

This pandemic has exposed stark disparities in my beloved city as minorities are more likely to lose their job and die due to systemic racial inequality. Many states are reopening, and we are still seeing low-income areas and communities of color being hit the hardest in transmission rates. Death has been imminent, and disease prevalent in my neighborhood; we are the city’s working-class borough of immigrants. We all ended up here because we were escaping civil war, religious persecution, Jim Crow South, among others, and building our ethnic enclaves for security and economic mobility. Everything has felt so out of our control in the last three months.

My community and inner cities across the country are burning today, protesting the use of excessive force with perceived impunity on people of color by police officers nationwide; George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, these are just recent names added to a list of countless horrifying racist killings. I have been participating in the peaceful Black Lives Matter protests, and I have never once felt in danger or seen violence in these demonstrations. However, being a brown girl growing up in post-9/11 New York on refugee status, I have always been afraid of law enforcement. Every morning, starting in sixth grade, my classmates and I would line up for an hour waiting to pass through the metal detectors to get to classes. We had a police officer for every thirty students. What does this do to black and brown children’s psyche when you have armed police in your cafeteria, classrooms, and playground? We had very little margin of error. More of my classmates ended up in the prison system than in four-year colleges.

Crowd of people peacefully protesting, holding cardboard banners stating 'No Justice, No Peace'

Colonization, white supremacy has been around for centuries. Today, I am emboldened by demonstrations around the world. We need to sustain this movement with staying power to reimagine systemic and structural racial justice work radically. Currently, most of the funding does not go into black and brown communities. Every $1 a white-led organization raises, a black-led organization will raise only $0.24.

I leave you with this quote from Howard Thurman, Black-American educator, and civil rights activist,

All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born; It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung, the one more thing to try when all else has failed, the upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor. This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint, and men have lost their reason, the source of confidence when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash. The birth of a child — life’s most dramatic answer to death — this is the growing edge incarnate. Look well to the growing edge!”.

As our MBA program is coming to an end from a distance, and we step into our business and management leadership positions, I encourage my classmates to look well to the growing edge and be better allies. I will be using my Skoll Scholarship to fight racial injustice in the American inner-cities. We all have to do this work collectively. We need to prioritize supporting leaders with lived experience, leadership, and communities of Black people.

Author: Tsechu Dolma, 2019-20 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA.

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A Tale of Two Viruses

Dr. Diana Esther Wangari is a current 2019-20 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA. She is the co-founder of last mile health venture, Checkups Medical Centre in Kenya where she dedicates her work to treating those who need it most. Read more about Diana’s experience as a health professional during two viruses.

It started when I was in the queue at immigration. This was at Brussels Airport. The elegant lady looked at me, almost apologetically, then whispered to her partner. He turned and looked, decidedly less friendly, pulled her towards him and they moved forward.

They didn’t have to tell me what they were thinking. I was the only African in this queue, and it was at the height of the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa: they had no way of knowing what country I had come from.

And by then, global news headlines had already proclaimed the ultimate horror: a man infected with Ebola had travelled all the way to the USA, without his deadly infection being detected.

Worse still, he had interacted with various members of his friends and family – over and above his fellow passengers on the flights to the US, and the airline crew – before the truth had emerged that he had Ebola. Total panic had ensued in America, and demands were made for all flights to the US from West Africa (if not all of Africa) to be suspended immediately.

I knew they were looking at me and thinking just one thing…Ebola.

It was a time of global hysteria over this terrifying disease, and thus not really the best time for an African to be flying to Europe or North America.

So why was I there? At that airport? In that immigration queue?

I had travelled from Nairobi, Kenya to Brussels, Belgium.

My final destination was the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) Antwerp, the very institution where Ebola had been discovered by Dr. Peter Piot back in 1976.

You could argue that this feeling of being dehumanised – of being seen essentially as a potential carrier of a deadly and highly contagious virus – was all in my head. But I was to have an even more disturbing encounter in the train on my way from Brussels to Antwerp.

On the train where I was seated next to the window, a child came and sat next to me only for the mother to promptly grab her hand and swiftly move with her to a distant couch. The gentleman seated opposite, noticing my facial reaction, leaned in and started speaking in French.

Now while I do know some French, it certainly didn’t prepare me for the verbal onslaught of incomprehensible French that poured forth, and so I stared at the gentleman and said, “En anglais s’il vous plait.”

“Aha, so you are not from a Francophone country,” said the gentleman, “I was simply apologizing on behalf of the lady as it is ignorance and now, I see that you are not from West Africa.”

In the conversation that followed, I explained to the kind gentleman that I was actually from Kenya. And that despite there being no cases of Ebola in Kenya, the impact of the Ebola outbreak on sectors of our economy would be notable.

Our parliament had officially decreed that Kenya Airways, our national carrier, suspend all its flights to West Africa for fear that one of the many transit passengers from West Africa would bring the dreaded disease to Kenya.

The Kenya Airways management argued in vain that they were taking precautions against any such possibility; that there were even European airlines still flying to the West African nations affected; and that flights from West Africa to Dubai or China, via the Nairobi hub, were a key profit centre for Kenya Airways.

But the parliamentarians would have none of it. One MP even declared that the next flight from West Africa landing in Nairobi, would find him – along with his supporters – lying on the runway to prevent it from landing “if that is what it would take to secure the lives of innocent Kenyans, threatened by Ebola”.

But I digress. Bruno (for that was his name) told me of his dream to go on Safari in Kenya and was considering going to the Maasai Mara to witness the annual wildebeest migration, famously, “The eighth wonder of the world”.

I was smiling and laughing by the time I got off the train.  But that night – my first night at ITM – I cried. I just could not help it.

However, that nasty experience of being an African traveling in Europe at the time of Ebola was quickly forgotten as I settled into ITM, as every day I got to interact with scientists who were travelling regularly to Liberia at the very heart of the outbreak: the kind of courageous and dedicated biomedical researchers that the world has learned to think of as heroes, since the COVID-19 pandemic descended on us all.

airplane window showing the wing of the plane in blue skies

And speaking of COVID-19, six years after the incident at Brussels Airport, I found myself in another queue. This time at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi.

After completing the re-entry formalities, getting into the Uber, I noticed the undue speed with which the driver picked up my bags and flung them into the boot.

And then, once I was seated in the back of his car, ever so casually, he asked, “Where are you flying in from, my sister?”

“London,” I answered.

And I could hear the “Oh” and then a moment of silence, before he continued in a rather accusing tone of voice, “Kenya just confirmed its first case of “corona” yesterday. It was a lady coming from London as well.”

I got the impression that he felt I should have volunteered that piece of information about having flown in from London before I got into his cab; given him the opportunity to decline to drive me home.

An uneasy silence followed.

“Are you worried?” I asked despite the fact that I was in the back seat with ample space between. He quickly shook his head but did not say anything.

We drove in silence. But it was unnerving to see the occasional glances he threw back – taking his eyes away from the road for a second or two – as if he was checking for some indication that he was at risk: that a fine mist of coronavirus might be floating towards him, brought back from a contaminated London, to infect innocent people in Nairobi.

On arrival, I volunteered to take out my own bags. The driver seemed relieved.

Thanks to that great Kenyan innovation, the ubiquitous Mpesa mobile phone money transfer system, I was able to pay him without having to hand over to him, what he would no doubt have considered to be “corona”-infected cash.

There was a time when I would have been very tempted to scream at him that I refused to be treated like a leper in my own country.

But I had seen much more of the world over the past six years. I understood fear. I just paid him and thanked him. I even gave him a tip.

And that night, I did not cry.

For you see, I had learnt over the course of time, life is not black and white. I was now an MBA student at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and I had the sinking feeling that our MBA experience, just like the rest of the world, was not going to be the same. It has been two months and I was right.

Perhaps the hardest part was being torn between answering the call to aid my country as a health professional and continuing down the path I had already embarked on at Oxford. And some days, I do find myself volunteering in the hospital because the little we can do, we must do.

And as we continue with our classes online and I think back to the classmates, the faculty, the friends and the family I made, I know it has not been easy.

I will tell you what Bruno told me as we left the train that autumn evening at Antwerpen-Central, “Take care of yourself my dear. Don’t forget to smile. It shall pass”.

This too shall pass.

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! 

How to Scale a Purpose-Driven Venture

Mike Quinn is a 2007-08 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA alumnus, he is also the co-founder and former CEO of Zoona, one of Africa’s earliest fintech companies. With over 10 years of experience running a successful social business, Mike shares his hard-learned tips and experiences on how to get a purpose-driven venture started, built and scaled. This is the third, and final article in the series, how to ‘scale’.

I started this three-part series with some tips on how to start a purpose-driven venture:

  1. Start by falling in love with a big problem
  2. Pick the right co-founder(s)
  3. Rapid prototype to discover product-market fit

I then shifted focus to the next stage of a company lifecycle, how to build:

  1. Build a model
  2. Build a team
  3. Build a culture

Now it’s time to learn how to scale. This is the stage that every entrepreneur and investor wants to get to as fast as possible, but it’s also fraught with challenges when you do.

Know When to Scale

Perhaps the hardest part of scaling any venture is picking the right time to put your foot on the accelerator. If you wait too long, you miss the opportunity and your investors, team, and maybe even you will lose energy and focus. But if you try to scale too early, you risk stretching your organization too far and experiencing burn out.

I have done it wrong both ways. As CEO of Zoona, I took too long to double down on our exponentially growing money transfer product in the early years, but then was too aggressive with market expansion in the later years before we had our core team, operations, and technology ready to go.

The trick, I have learned, is to really pay attention and listen to both the market and your team. If the market is pulling your product and growth is coming organically with strong customer retention metrics, that is the first and most important signal. If you then look across all of your business functions and feel you are executing at a 70% performance level or above, then you are good to go. Don’t wait to achieve perfection (you never will), but be wary of flicking on the growth switch if you have any major shortcomings in your foundations. And if you find these shortcomings, fix them fast!

Pick a Strategy and Execute Well

If it’s the right time to go for scale, the next question is how? Having the right scaling strategy is really important, and it’s generally easier and more effective to scale from your core (i.e. don’t try to scale something that is new to what is already working).

But I would argue that picking a single strategy and really nailing the execution is paramount. You will never know for certain if your strategy is right until you try, and the worst thing you can do is waste time and energy pulling in multiple directions. Have a robust strategy debate with your team and board to find focus and alignment, but then make sure everyone follows Jeff Bezos’ advice: “Disagree and commit.”

Once your strategy is set, it’s all about execution. Cadence is critical: Set quarterly Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) and cull any non-essential tasks that aren’t directly linked to achieving them, set up weekly dashboards to track leading indicators and key learnings, and establish performance management systems for your team. Also, make sure your best people are focused on your most important OKRs and help them by removing distractions and obstacles in their way.

Stay Close to Your Customers

In the scaling process, one challenge I faced as a leader at Zoona was drifting further away from our customers. When you are small, you are in front of customers all the time and this is critical to understanding and connecting with them. But later on, you may have two to three layers between you and your customers, and those layers may also want to execute without you being in their way.

The danger is that you spend more time in meetings watching powerpoint presentations than interacting with the customers who pay everyone’s salaries. You lose perspective and retain outdated assumptions. Your own energy may even wane, as your original source of purpose and inspiration may start to seem inaccessible.

I experienced this several times at Zoona. My favourite remedy was to break my routine and take a customer immersion trip. I cleared my calendar for five weeks and spent all my time in the field working for our agents and serving customers. Not only did I discover several product and operational bugs that were easily fixable, I gained a broader understanding of who our customers were and what Zoona meant to them. This, in turn, influenced my thinking on future strategy and enabled me to take new ideas back to my team to lead the company forward. It also set a new behaviour standard, and soon other leaders across our company were spending more time out in the field with customers, which led to many positive outcomes.

Don’t Run Out of Cash!

Lastly, scaling can be very expensive. You have already gone through an incredible struggle to get to this point and may have even raised a big investment round and have cash to spend. But you can burn through all of that cash surprisingly quickly and end up in a very difficult situation if you aren’t careful.

To navigate this challenge, it’s critical that you have the right people on your team and a culture that values your hard-earned money. Keep your fixed costs as low as possible and spend your money on acquiring and retaining customers. Establish processes and controls to create budget scarcity so that cash is not wasted on things that aren’t working, and empower your CFO to declare war against waste.

Also, watch out for copycat competitors with deep pockets and potential disruptions to your business model. It’s when you are scaling that competition suddenly takes notice and copies what you are doing. Don’t panic (you are probably better than you think) but don’t stand still (you won’t be better for long if you do).

And finally, don’t wait until you are out of cash to raise your next round of investment. You should start nine months ahead of when you need the money and always have a plan B in case you can’t get it. The best plan B is to get to cash flow positive so that your venture is sustainable and you have more options on where to take it next.

Good luck scaling your purpose-driven venture!

If you enjoyed this blog series and would like to learn more, I have written a book called Failing to Win on my ten year journey of being a purpose-driven fintech entrepreneur in Africa. I have launched a crowdfunding campaign for you to pre-order your copy to help me cover the upfront costs of getting the book ready for publication. Please click this link now, and help me spread the word!

Green book cover with bold back text 'Failing to Win, the remarkable true story of building on of Africa's first fintech start-ups'