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My journey from an impact business in India to a world-class MBA

Daniela Gheorghe is one of our 2018-19 Skoll Scholars on the Oxford MBA. Natively from Romania, Daniela has lived and worked in India for the last seven years where she has helped numerous families gain access to affordable health and education. Here she describes her journey to Oxford.

It was 2008. I was on a plane to Germany. I just received an Erasmus scholarship to study at a German university for six months. I spent 30 minutes writing my application for the scholarship three months before. That’s how much it took me to accomplish this on my own: my first time flying, my first time out of Romania. There, while looking at the clouds, I understood that I could achieve anything I intend to achieve. If I set my mind on the goal, I can do anything (and fly anywhere)!

Above the clouds, in that minute, I understood my potential for the first time! I was 22.

But what if all children understand and realize their potential early? Imagine what that world would look like.

For the last four years, I have been serving poor parents’ aspiration. Families with a household income of less than $300 per month spend 13% of this income on education. What is their return on investment? Their return on primary education investment is very low as children spend five years in schools without being able to calculate, read or express themselves in the language of their books.

When aspirations meet willingness to pay, demand is defined and so, a market.

In 2014, I co-founded vChalk. At vChalk, we sell fun English learning activities on a mobile app to schools and parents for students to transition from learning English as a second language to being confident and expressive using it. Four years have passed; bootstrapping,improving the model, winning national and international competitions (we raised about $35,000 from different awards). We supported more than 80 teachers and 2500 students to catch up on foundation skills for learning. We tested a pricing model of less than $10 per year/child. We crossed a sales revenue of$12,000 in 2017. However, the business model was not ready for large scale.

This is a classroom in a resource-limited school in Bangalore India. Parents aspire for their children to speak English, get a good job and a good salary. Teachers struggle to teach in English and ensure that foundation learning happens.

Before my time at vChalk, I worked in political marketing and the non-profit sector in Romania. When I came to India in 2011 for an internship through AIESEC I thought it was just for a few months.

Little did I know I would spend more than seven years in India.

Thisis the place I discovered social entrepreneurship. I knew it was for me.But seven years later, I still feel I don’tknow how to solve the world’s most challenging problems.

Daniela in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. Picture is taken during her work at Jaipur Rugs, a company presented asa case by C.K. Prahalad in his book: The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.
Daniela’s room in 2011, in a women’s hostel in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India while working at Jaipur Rugs. On the wall,spot the postcard depicting an aerial view of Oxford University. Jaipur Rugs connects more than 40,000 artisans with high quality markets in USA and Europe while creating timely handmade carpets.
Daniela in a village around Jorhat, Assam, India. Picture is taken during her work at ERC Eye Care, a social business offering affordable eye glasses and ophthalmological services to rural families in this “tribal” state of North-East India.
Daniela’s office in ERC Eye Care in Assam, India. Daniela supported the start-up to raise its first impact investment of $100,000.
Daniela on the field on a regular day in a waste management company in Telangana, India. As a Frontier Market Scout, Daniela worked to improve the operations of Waste Ventures, a for-profit impact business that transforms organic waste into soil conditioner and sells to farmers. More on Daniela’s journey in India, before she started her owned-tech company, here.

I am honored to be in Oxford. Honored and privileged. Just four months ago I couldn’t imagine that I would be here. It is so incredible how life turns around.

But why am I here?

Firstly, I’m here to take a step back. I’m here to try to understand what I can do better to positively impact more children. I’m here to learn about systems thinking and I understand that I can do so much more than being a start-up founder. I’m here to discover where I can place myself in my next role to see my work have long-term positive impact on low-income families.

On a personal level, I seek to be happy with my work every day. I want to be a doer and dedicate my hard work to something meaningful that empowers people. I need to grow myself as a person, to learn to pace my efforts, to become more diplomatic and wiser so that I learn from failures. This MBA will help me grow. It will hone my financial and business skills too.

Finally, Oxford adds weight to my voice. It gives me a chance to be heard in important decision-making forums for change at large scale. It gives me a chance to join some of the greatest minds out thereto tackle the world’s most difficult problems.

I am here to reach my full potential. To build connections, gain learning and gather insights that will last a life-time.

Find Daniela on  TwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

Visit Daniela’s personal project on emotional intelligence here.

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A letter to my younger self

Mohsin Ali Mustafa is our 2018-19 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. Mohsin is also a Weidenfeld-Hoffman Scholar, co-founder and managing director of Clinic5 – an affordable health delivery service in Pakistan. 

I write this blog post as a letter to my younger self. We don’t have a time machine (yet) but what we do have is an ability to communicate ideas through our written word and I see my life as part of a larger continuum, so this blog is an effort to speak to that young man or woman who is brimming with enthusiasm to go out and “change the world.”

“Dear Mohsin,

Congratulations on graduating from medical school, I am proud to see the passion to serve in you is thriving to the point where you want to work as medic on the front lines of the war in Pakistan. I know right now you want to do a Che Guevara and change the world. I remember you mentioned that you wish to end the war that’s raging in your country by working as a Disaster Response Medic. I’d like to share a few things I learnt over the course of the last few years that might help you along the way. I am cautious as I write this since the words of age can strike as pessimism to the youth so take from this what makes sense to you.

First – patience, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Climate change did not start last year, the war that rages all over the world is not a product of inequities of the past few days. The big problems that you want to tackle are insidious and hence their solutions would also require time, patience and effort. This is a marathon and not a sprint pace yourself or you will burn yourself out. Keep your eyes on the prize, this will be your life’s work – take the long-term approach. Do not let small losses here or there dissuade you from the end goal.

Second, find a mentor; life at 24 seems impossible to navigate at times, a mentor who works in the space or inspires you with their professional and personal attributes can transform your worldview. I know I got direction from my mentor or else I might have ended up completely misdirected. A mentor encourages you and anchors you in life with their wisdom.

Third – balance, this world needs young people like you, but remember you’re not the only one in this. I know right now you can’t see it with everyone that you know taking the path that’s safe and comfortable but let me assure you there are thousands of troops fighting the same battle as you. It is important that in your struggle to change the world you don’t forget yourself. Remember the relationships that make who you are, spend time with them; remember the passion for trekking in the mountains, do it occasionally; remember your love for sushi, have it once in a while. Don’t blindside yourself in the effort to change the world and in the process forget what made you, you.

The last and the most important one, love. Don’t forget to love, you were driven on this path out of the love for a patient, a patient you lost on your watch in the ER, I know you shed tears that night and vowed to fix the systemic problems that caused it, don’t forget that passion. Protect that flame in your heart. Winds will blow to put it out, sometimes under the guise of practicality, other times in the guise of rewards.

Remember, your heart will harden to cope with all the sorrows you will experience, and it would seem like a wise thing to let it harden as that hurts less. That’s a cop out young man – don’t be weak and give in to that urge. A good way to judge this is by observing how you treat everyone closest to you. If you notice you’re becoming harsher with the people in your life, you’re doing something wrong. This one is the hardest to maintain and let me be honest with you, it’s still a constant struggle in my life despite the few years I have over you.

That’s enough for today, I know you’re a young man with a short attention span so I kept it short but trust the path you have taken, who knows this path might even lead you to the leading center of learning in the world where you would be sharing your experience with colleagues from all over the world. When that happens remember to treat that privilege with humility and purpose.

I have a hunch life will be a rewarding adventure on your chosen path and you will go places you did not even imagine you would.

Salute comrade,

Mohsin”

I am immensely grateful to the Skoll Centre and the Weidenfeld-Hoffman Trust for enabling my education at the Saïd Business School. I am cognizant of the privilege and will do my utmost to deliver on the promise.  I pledge to return to my organization Clinic5 at the end of this academic year to scale our work in healthcare in partnership with schools in Pakistan.

Mohsin Mustafa with young children from his clinic in a Pakistani classroom

Mohsin Mustafa (pictured right) with young girls attending his clinic in a Pakistani classroom.

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On blackberries and change

Skoll Scholar, Sandra Fisher-Martins, poetically portrays her life in Oxford since arriving here with her husband and son 1-year ago to join the MBA programme at Oxford’s Saïd Business School.  

If I followed the fence of the train station and turned left onto the Botley Road, I could walk to the Business School in less than 10 minutes. I rarely did. Almost every morning I took a right onto a dirt path overgrown with brambles and crossed a short bridge over a swampy ditch to walk along the 50-metre stretch of canal to the railroad underpass, brimming with urban wildlife.

In September there were still some blackberries on the tallest bushes and the odd fish in the water. In October the spiders were out. Come November, the riverside grasses had died, and the paths widened. December brought snow, silence, eerie light. In January and February robins, squirrels, and the occasional fox were still there, braving the cold. March gave us more snow and the first blooms. By April the iridescent bugs and the flowers were back. In mid-May, the river was blanketed with fluff from the poplar trees, and the pikes and roaches congregated in the shade of the train tracks. At the end of June, the brambles’ pale pink flowers crowned bright green berries, promising another Autumn feast.

I have never felt the passage of time more distinctly. As the seasons changed and the riverside path went from dusty to muddy, from frozen to flooded, I noticed and cherished the sunny spells as much as the drizzly days.

Image of the Oxford Canal Pathway with snow on the ground

I came to Oxford looking for change, uncertain of the direction it ought to take or where it could lead. The encounters, experiences, conversations, and opportunities awarded by the MBA created the fertile conditions for it to occur. In fact, they made it unavoidable. It would be impossible to be in this environment, with these people, and not be permeable to ideas, ways of being, aspirations.

In Michaelmas, Herminia Ibarra’s lectures had me wondering whether the identity I had built over the years still suited my goals — and what could replace it. In Hillary, I could feel my priorities shifting and a pull towards areas that had never been on my radar, like innovative finance and climate change. At the beginning of Trinity, darkness threatened to take over. In Oxford we learn to take things apart and question them from all angles — a valid approach if applied in moderation; however, indiscriminate use can undermine the modicum of optimism necessary to keep ‘daring greatly’. By the end of the term, hope had been restored, as I started exploring a partnership that will take Claro’s mission global, as well as working with a colleague on an impact fund that picks companies based on their ESG performance.

I am grateful for the transformative opportunity to have spent this year at Oxford Saïd and to everyone who challenged and supported me — colleagues, lecturers, and particularly the Skoll community. Sustained by their thoughtfulness, I was able to engage with the ups and the downs, learning and changing every day. As I prepare to continue my journey, enriched with dozens of new friends and fired up by fresh, better questions, I hope that I will remember and cherish the sunny spells as much as the drizzly days.

Close up on blackberry blossom

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Vanilla, blockchain and the circular economy – one year on the Oxford MBA

Skoll Scholar and circular economy entrepreneur, Nikhil Dugal, highlights the best part of his year at Oxford on the MBA programme. 

The Oxford MBA is quite a unique experience in the world of business education. The extent to which our class discussions and interests differ from other business schools is apparent when I travel to London to meet friends enrolled in other MBAs.

Over the course of the past year, the MBA has helped me keep pace with many issues of recent development, including emerging technologies, climate change mitigation and the circular economy, all while keeping one foot firmly in the business world.

Sustainable Vanilla

Another opportunity to undertake learning was the entrepreneurship project (EP) in Trinity term. In addition to encouraging novel business ideas, Oxford Saïd also invites external collaborators to come pitch live projects to the MBAs for the EP. This offers individuals in Oxford the opportunity to work with MBAs on their project for a semester, while the students get the opportunity to work on a live project and contribute to real-world impact.

My team used the opportunity to work with an agro-ecologist from Oxford who is working on preventing deforestation in Indonesia by encouraging local farmers to grow Vanilla in the rainforests. Vanilla is the second-most expensive cash crop in the world. However, only 1% of the world’s supply comes from natural sources, while the majority comes from synthetic vanilla manufactured from petrochemicals. Natural vanilla grows as an orchid and can be planted in degraded rainforests to help restore the natural ecosystem in a polyculture system. Establishing a larger market for forest-grown organic Vanilla from Indonesia can help restore degraded rainforests and provide smallholder farmers a more lucrative alternative to engaging in unsustainable palm oil farming. We spent a semester working on their business models, financial projections and market entry strategy. Meanwhile, they have started a pilot in Kalimantan and planted 18000 saplings on 500 hectares of land leased from the government. Moving forward, their team will be using our research and projections to scale the project, raise funding and enter the market.

Nikhil debating at the Responsible Business Forum.

Nikhil debating at the Responsible Business Forum.

Circular Economy

Before joining Oxford Saïd, I was working on a circular business in India, making eco-friendly infrastructure for development sector organizations. The circular economy elective in Trinity term gave me the opportunity to interact with a diverse set of stakeholders working to establish the circular economy in the UK. This included entrepreneurs from companies such as Toast Ale and Elvis & Kresse, investors such as LWARB and Circularity Capital as well as practitioners from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This gave us a broader view of how the ecosystem works in the UK and provided opportunities to network with people working on the front-lines of the problem.

Blockchain for Impact

Over the course of  ‘Strategy and Innovation’, we were given the chance to apply concepts learned in class to an emerging field. I took the opportunity to research the use of blockchain technology for sustainable supply chain tracking. After learning more about this topic for my final coursework, I was given the opportunity to interact with two practitioners working on applying the technology on the ground and hear their perspective on it as well. Hugh Locke, the president and co-founder of the Smallholder Farmers Alliance in Haiti visited to speak at the Responsible Business Forum 2018. Their partnership with Timberland is using blockchain technology, built from the ground up with beneficiaries in mind, to help source sustainably grown cotton and revive the Haitian Cotton Industry. At the same forum, we were also visited by David Davies, the founder of AgUnity, which is using blockchain to increase the transparency of financial transactions in farmer cooperatives and increase farmer’s trust in the institution.  During Trinity Term, our Tech for Impact class hosted one of the founders of Alice, which is using blockchain technology to undertake social impact tracking to help create a new type of cryptocurrency based social impact bonds. At Saïd Business School, what I’ve appreciated about the learning style is the ability to balance both theory and practice.

Nikhil and his peers in traditional Oxford exam attire.

Nikhil and his study group on the MBA.

Systems Change

The issues social entrepreneurs work on are extremely complex and involve many stakeholders with diver interests. Tackling complex problems like climate change can seem overwhelming because of the complexity of the problem itself. Systems change constitutes studying how systems work, identifying stakeholders that are part of a system, understanding their preferences and identifying inflection points in the system where an intervention can lead to a significant impact. At the Skoll World Forum, I had the opportunity to also meet system entrepreneurs who are working in the field of systems change, in organizations such as Participatory Cities and Forum for the Future.

Moving forward, I will be spending the summer researching systems change and meeting practitioners to undertake landscaping research with the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship.

This past year has given me the opportunity to step back, reconsider the impact of my work, and inform my opinion by giving me a broad exposure to topics that are interrelated to my work. Although the year has gone by unbelievably fast, it has also reformed my perception of the world. There are an uncountable number of people of all ages and professions, who are working to help realize the world of the future. It’s a world that includes autonomous electric vehicles, distributed ledger technology and a global shift towards renewable energy.

The opportunity for me to be at the center of this transition has been made possible with a Skoll Scholarship and it will continue to shape my thinking as I transition out of Oxford, back into the world.

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A year in Oxford

From baby #2 to navigating the crowds of tourists, our Skoll Scholar, Kevin Duco Warner, shares his incredibly personal and candid story of his year on the Oxford MBA. 

Oxford.

This place is special.

The juxtaposition of a medieval university city with the youthful bustle of 20,000 students makes for a vibrant daily experience. Even the mundane gains a touch of class from the surrounding environment. I’ve never thought of pigeons as graceful but watching them soar over St. Mary’s imposing 13th century edifice, they are nothing short of majestic. Every day is full of life and it is hard not to feed off the energy. Whether you are a pigeon or a Skoll Scholar, it is clear: Oxford is transformative. I am incredibly fortunate to be here.

St. Mary's - Oxford

St Mary’s, Oxford

What’s more, I am permanently tied to this place. In January my wife gave birth to our second child, Owen, at the John Radcliffe Hospital. What stronger connection can you have to a city than to have a child there? Oxford is permanently a part of our family story now.

New life is magical, but boy is it work! Balancing parenthood with an accelerated MBA program is one of the more challenging things that I’ve done. Sometimes it was difficult to be my best self when engaging with the city, especially with its visitors.

The ancient streets get clogged with tourists. They block the sidewalks, completely oblivious to the fact that I have a new-born strapped to my chest and am pushing a 3-year-old in a stroller. I’ve often been forced to push the stroller in the street to get past the masses of people. Initially, I reacted in anger, and I am quite sure that on one especially trying day, I managed to startle a busload of Dutch retirees and a group of French schoolchildren within the course of about two minutes. There was no harm intended, but I understand why they may have been intimidated: I’m a giant man, and I was sleep-deprived. I could have handled the situation better.

It is easy to roll your eyes when people stop the flow of traffic to take a picture of a coffee shop. You pass by it daily, it’s just another Pret a Manger, but for them it’s an amazing sight. And I get it. How many chain coffee shops are in 600-year-old buildings? Oxford is special.

The Pret a Manger shop inside a 600 year old tudor-style building in Oxford

The Pret a Manger!

Every day in Oxford is another opportunity to engage with the tourists. More recently I’ve tried to make this a positive experience. There is humour to be had in these interactions with the right mindset. Now I wear the biggest, dopiest smiles when I bomb their photos on my way to class. I’ve made it a mission. At this point in the year, I am fairly confident that there are people all over the world with pictures of me smiling in Oxford.

Even the busloads of tourists can be funny. I love the groups of old Japanese ladies on holiday. They make me feel like Godzilla, wading through a sea of 80 tiny ladies who barely reach my chest.

And that’s the magic of this place. It draws people from all around the globe. Where else can an American business student engage with Dutch retirees and French school children and old Japanese ladies? And that’s just on the streets around my house. When I go to class at Saïd Business School there are over 50 countries represented by my fellow students. Sure, I’ve learned an extreme amount about business this year, but I’ve also learned about the world by engaging with my peers.

It’s the things you learn outside of class that really stick with you. I can now find Mauritius on a map. I know the best way to deal with the roving packs of macaque monkeys that plague the streets of Delhi. I can understand English spoken with 320 unique accents, and can usually even identify their country of origin.

A few months ago, I accidently walked in on someone in a bathroom stall at school. I never saw who it was, but I knew immediately from the angry “sorry!” as he slammed the door back closed that it was a Canadian. I would not have been able to discern that a year ago.

Importantly, the MBA has taught me how to properly frame what seem like intangible skills and knowledge into marketable attributes. Kevin Warner, global communications expert. Kevin Warner, human relations professional. Kevin Warner, Godzilla.

These days, I mostly go by Papa.

Kevin and his new son

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A chapter finished, a community found

From intention of reflection to community and opportunity, Skoll Scholar 2017-18, Aaron Bartnick, reflects on his year at Oxford.

One of my first and most powerful memories in Oxford was walking around Radcliffe Square during the first few weeks of classes. In many ways the heart and soul of Oxford, Radcliffe Square is home to some of the University’s oldest and most beautiful libraries, colleges, and chapels. Flanked by towers of Headington stone just catching the golden hour’s light, I found myself incredibly humbled, wondering how I could have ended up here. Some of the greatest writers in the Western tradition, from Hawthorne to Yeats to Wilde, have paid tribute to Oxford’s enchantments, and I will not seek to replicate their efforts here. Suffice to say, at the end of my brief year at Oxford I am happy to report that I am still in awe of this place every single day. But the focus of my awe has shifted significantly.

I came to Oxford with three objectives. I wanted to acquire specific skills in finance and accounting, meet new and interesting people from all over the world, and try to process my last few years of experiences to figure out where I wanted to head next.

The first was a surprising success. I far exceeded my very modest expectations in finance and carved out an unexpected niche for myself in seed stage venture capital. We need not dwell on accounting, though I would be remiss in not once again thanking the classmates who dragged me across the finish line when they had so much to do themselves.

The third was a surprising failure. In retrospect it seems comically naive to have thought a 12-month MBA would be a time for quiet thought and reflection, which is part of why I will be continuing my studies back home in the United States this fall.

But never in my most ambitious dreams could I have anticipated my success in the second. It is perhaps no surprise that Oxford attracts incredibly talented students from around the globe. But if I have come to appreciate one thing this year it is how the Saïd Business School, imperfections and all, was able to assemble such an amazing cohort of individuals and give them an opportunity to meet and learn from one another. Even in July, a full 10 months after starting our journey together, I still find myself learning new things about my peers’ accomplishments that put my own to shame. Yet talent alone is hardly a differentiator amongst top business schools. What makes this place and these people unique in my mind is that just about everyone I have met, whether they came here from a nonprofit in Peru, a trading floor in London, or a law firm in Australia, is interested in not just hard-nosed business, but business in the pursuit of something bigger than ourselves.

Oxford MBA students on stage at the MBATs in 2018.

The 2018 MBAT championships featuring the 2017-18 cohort of Oxford MBA students on stage.

That shared ethos has manifested itself in a stunningly beautiful community, where people collaborate not just on assignments and revision but work together to launch new startups and impact investing funds, help Australia prepare for the future of work, and develop new accounting standards that reward those who build for the long term, not just the next quarter. There are of course talented and socially-minded people all over the world–a lot more of them than there were a generation ago, and more interconnected than ever. But I have lived and worked in more than a dozen countries on four continents, and I have never seen a community quite like this one.

Everyone from the Bible to Winston Churchill to Spider Man tells us that with great power comes great responsibility. By virtue of the opportunities we’ve had as Oxford students and will have as Oxford alumni, the question for us is no longer whether we will make our mark. We already have incredible power and privileges, and plenty more are on the way. The question is how we will go about making that mark, and whether we will live up to the daunting responsibilities that accompany that power: responsibilities to our fellow man, to our planet, and to future generations. Though the specter of complacency is one against which we must always be vigilant, I am fully confident that the people I have met this year will soon be at the vanguard of a new generation of responsible business leaders. It has been one of the great privileges of my life to share this year with them. For they are far more radiant than even the fabled Headington stone.