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Creating opportunities through the power of language

Macarena Hernandez de Obeso, is a current Skoll Scholar and is dedicated to economic opportunity and prosperity for deprived communities in Latin America.

She shares the story of starting her new social enterprise that aims to bring together a global community, all the while studying her Oxford MBA!

In September of 2016 I started the most incredible journey of my life so far, an MBA at Oxford. At the beginning, I was sure that I was here to strengthen my business knowledge to be able to combine a sustainable business model with a social mission. However, I wasn’t sure which path I was going to achieve it in the future. I had in mind three options:

1. come back to the social enterprise where I was working before

2. join an international organisation or enterprise focusing on the design of tools and impact metrics to enhance the work of social entrepreneurs

3. start my own venture

Surprisingly, in less than two months, one of these became a reality.

Meeting my Co-Founder

During the first week of my MBA, I met Ana Maria. Being both born in Latin America and having dedicated part of our life to social impact, we realised that we shared a powerful goal; to create opportunities for people in Latin America by embracing their talents and helping them to reach their full potential. She had the idea to fund a charitable project offering Spanish language practice for foreigners through conversations with native speakers within the project’s community. I loved the idea, but not the business model; I thought it should be a social enterprise that could fund itself by creating access to economic opportunities and a flexible way of income for all Spanish native speakers in Latin America.

Launching our social enterprise

In November of 2016, we founded Language Amigo. Today, we are connecting, through video calls, language ’Learners’ who want to practice conversational Spanish, with native speaking ‘Amigos’ from Latin America. For Amigos, Language Amigo is a flexible way of income and for Learners, Language Amigo is a flexible way to practice.

Through Language Amigo, we are not offering Spanish teachers. We are offering to language learners the opportunity to put into practice their foreign language knowledge and have real world conversations with real and friendly people, Amigos. I believe that the main objective to learn a language is to be able to connect with people from another country, culture, and background. Through Language Amigo, you can do that.

Language Amigo's first Learner-Amigo call

Language Amigo’s first Learner-Amigo call

Language Amigo's first Learner-Amigo call

Language Amigo’s first Learner-Amigo call

Challenges

I was very happy working on my new venture, but with every new path comes its challenges and scepticism. In February 2017, I was delivering a presentation about Language Amigo, to my communication skills’ group at the Oxford Language Centre. I explained that to generate income, Language Amigo keeps a percentage of the cost of the calls conducted between Amigos and Learners. The first question that I received after this presentation, from a Chilean student, was: “are you exploiting Latin American youngsters to create a business?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I wasn’t sure what feeling this question had caused me. Anger? Deception? Surprise? Indignation? I realised that it is not obvious to everyone that a collaborative economy business model, such as Language Amigo, is creating economic inclusion for people who did not have an economic opportunity before. I was conscious that industries threatened by collaborative economy models, such as hospitality and logistics, have been raising critique against successful platforms and putting pressure into regulatory institutions. Nonetheless, the fact that an Oxford student from Latin American believes that we were exploiting our Amigos, completely shocked me.

But, we continue to grow

I believe that Language Amigo is creating value not only for Amigos but also for Learners. We are developing the means to create social and economic transactions between them. We are aggregating and connecting supply with demand that otherwise would never connect. We are constantly looking for potential customers to grow the economic opportunities for Amigos. We are constantly updating the Amigos’ training and generating support resources to improve the experience for the Learners.

Why is the value of creating a network and the means to include people into the economy undervalued? What is harder: to produce and deliver the product or service, or to find the market and attract it to generate demand for the product or service?

Currently, we are looking for institutions such as language centres, schools, universities, and enterprises that already have Spanish students to become our partners. We would like to be able to offer Language Amigo to their students and to co-create the best tool for them, their students, and the Amigos. Together we will be able to demonstrate that it is possible to create fair opportunities through the power of language.

Language Amigo Co-founders: Ana Maria (Left) Macarena (Right)

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Inspiration and leadership in the classroom

Skoll Scholar and design enthusiast, Ahmed Abu Bakr, shares his experience of an average Oxford MBA classroom. But it wasn’t the subject matter that he found captivating, it was the leadership of its professor that truly inspired him.

In my first week of the MBA programme, I was introduced to the idea that we can all be classified into one of four categories: activists, theorists, reflectors, and pragmatists. Now of course, that was a clear oversimplification – we’re obviously not one or the other, but a mix of each in varying quantities. Nonetheless, the exercise forced me to explicitly recognise my inclination towards reflection.

And so, as my year at Oxford comes to an untimely close, I find myself taking stock of my time spent here. So what am I taking away with me? Well, a great many things: new skills, new friends, great memories, and an expanded perspective. But most importantly, I’m taking back inspiration. And today, I want to share one such story of inspiration from my time here.

I met him in the first week of our first term, on a Friday afternoon. Half of us were feeling the post-lunch drowsiness seeping in, while the other half really just wanted to get started with the weekend. There was nothing particularly remarkable about him at first glance. The most I could have said about him back then was that he seemed decent- kind, soft spoken, and as we eventually learned, modest to a fault. And he was teaching us statistics.

But over the course of eight weeks, I found in him a real life John Keating (ref: Dead Poet’s Society– be sure to watch it if you haven’t already!). Never have I had the privilege of seeing someone so very passionately and creatively impart knowledge – and let’s face it, statistics isn’t the most exciting subject out there-  and win the heart of each and every student in the room. His name is Siddharth Arora, and his love and passion for the statistics was unmistakeable from his very first class. But what was truly remarkable was how he took on the full onus of helping us discover beauty in his subject.

Far too often have I seen teachers crush the spirit of learning in their students. Growing up, I have personally witnessed teachers ruin mathematics, physics, language, and a myriad of other disciplines for many of my fellow classmates. I have seen teachers teach through their authority, arrogantly, complacently, trying to stuff knowledge into the minds of students, and leaving no room for wisdom. Too often have I seen teachers forget that they must earn the attention that we chose to pay.

But Siddharth understood that. He cared enough to truly engage us. He showed us the presence of statistics in breath taking videos of the flight patterns of starlings, in the disturbing reality of climate change, and in the quotes of Rumi. He cared enough to go out of his way to make things like regression and conditional probabilities interesting, relevant and engaging for us all. He cared enough to voluntarily stay back on weekends and help us when we were struggling and he cared enough to provide us with snacks as we waited our turn to discuss our issues with him. And because he cared, we cared back.

It was particularly evident on the last day of his class. Incidentally, this was also the last class of term for all of us- a much needed study break was just waiting to begin. The clock struck five and he let us know that we were free to leave, but that he still had about 20 more minutes of content to cover. The weekend had begun, the term had ended, and everyone chose to stay back to finish a statistics class.

You see, over those eight weeks, Siddharth did so much more than simply teach us. He inspired us, shared his passion, gave us pearls of wisdom for life in general, and was there for us when we had needed him. He showed us genuine care, and got us to care back, and in doing so he demonstrated tremendous leadership within the classroom. And through it all, he personified humility and grace.

Section C, MBA class of 2017 with Siddharth Arora (more than 45 minutes after the end of class)

Section C, MBA class of 2017 with Siddharth Arora (more than 45 minutes after the end of class)

For me personally, he inspired a vision of the sort of person and the sort of leader I would like to be. Someone who doesn’t let authority, position, and credentials eat away at the intent to try harder, to be better, and to give more. Someone who empathises, and someone who cares. Someone who wins hearts through deliberate and protracted effort. And is humble and genuine throughout it all.

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Finding Common Ground Between the Financing Fault Lines

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.

 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA Candidate 2016-17, Ashley Thomas, draws on this year’s Skoll World Forum theme in relation to social impact business models.

There is a fault line between models of international development financing. On one side, there is the traditional donor and philanthropic capital that utilises grant money to support projects. On the other side is the social enterprise space that seeks to create sustainable impact through revenue generation.  There has been a lot of excitement in utilising grant funding for social enterprises to build and tweak their business model, but to date there has been little appetite for true hybrid models of ongoing subsidies for social enterprises.

This is a conversation that I had in numerous sessions and coffees throughout Skoll World Forum. It was also one of the key themes from the session hosted by Mercy Corps and USAID on sharing the learnings from their investments in the Innovation Investment Alliance. There is a common ground emerging; these conversations are hinting at the start of innovative new business models that allow for hybrid grant and revenue streams.

The Problem:

Social enterprises are addressing market failures. They bring products or services to underserved markets, often at low margins, and often at high costs. However, market failures exist for a reason; many companies are realising that even at scale, high volume low margin products are not able to generate the revenues that are necessary to be sustainable. However, social enterprises often sell themselves on this vision- that with initial capital to pilot and build systems, they will be financially sustainable at scale.

The Solution:

Philanthropic capital- which does not require financial returns, can help bridge this fault line, and maximise the potential impact of social enterprises. This does not mean we should revert to the large scale unsustainable development models of the 1990’s, but use philanthropic capital as way of targeting the market failure and allowing social enterprises to maintain their focus on their mission and outcomes. This hybrid model is being utilised in the FundiFix hand pump repair service designed by Dr. Rob Hope out of the University of Oxford. The model uses monthly user subscription payments to pool capital to finance prompt hand pump repairs. However, the willingness to pay only accounts for 2/3 of the cost of the service, and the remaining cost is subsidised through grant funding. This is also used in much larger social enterprises.  Ella Gudwin from Vision Spring spoke about how their model has shifted from seeking to maintain cost recovery- and retailing glasses at increasingly higher prices, to minimising the “philanthropy per pair” and serving their target customer.  They were able to do this under a scaling innovation grant from USAID and Mercy Corps, demonstrating that donors are also recognising the need for the pivot into these hybrid models.

It is increasingly clear that there is not one single model for social enterprise, and a single-minded focus on achieving commercial sustainability may limit the impact. Innovative hybrid models that use the social enterprise ethos of cost effectiveness in combination with smart grant funding that can subsidise the product can address the market failures preventing social enterprises achieving impact at scale. There is immense opportunity to achieve scale and impact through creating this common ground.

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More in Common

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.

Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA Candidate 2016-17, Alex Shapland-Howes, gives his perspective on the  Skoll World Forum session “Mobalizing a Movement: More in Common”.

How many articles have you read over the last year about the rise of populist politicians? How Brexit and Trump were caused by a great divide within our societies? How xenophobia so easily becomes the go-to response?

Almost all the articles end with something like “…and we must start acting now to fix this”.

But perhaps the thing that’s been most alarming is the lack of ideas as to how we should go about tackling these issues. Lamenting their existence is an important start – few of us had appreciated the scale of the problem until recently – yet of course without deliberate, concrete actions, it’s hard to see the situation changing.

This week at Skoll World Forum, I heard from an amazing group of people who are founding a new organisation to stimulate the changes they want to see. Led by Gemma Mortensen, Tim Dixon and Brendan Cox, More in Common will focus on five key areas:

  1. Public opinion research

It’s easy to make assumptions about the views of individuals or groups across society, but to make deliberative change successfully, we need to listen very carefully to each other. We often hear, for example, that there’s a divide between liberal cosmopolitans and what could be termed ‘angry nationalists’ in our societies. More In Common’s detailed research has found that whilst that divide very much does exist, roughly half the population have mixed views and don’t fall into either camp.

  1. Communications strategy for key influencers

Getting the messages right is critical to winning this battle. Brendan Cox told the audience that what we often call populism is actually just bigotry and hatred. A huge amount of work is needed to get the balance right between appeasing the dangerous views of some and genuinely listening, acting on the valid concerns of others.

  1. Convening and building broader coalitions

This work is inherently political but to succeed, it has to bring people with it across the normal divides. Organisations that normally wouldn’t take a political stance might do so if everybody was part of it. If More In Common can show that the most hate-filled views aren’t part of the same continuum – that they’re another, far more malevolent force – then they will try to get businesses, civil society, the media and more to stand up against it.

  1. Partnerships

Partnerships will also play a key role. We heard the example of how the Jo Cox Foundation has organised The Great Get Together in partnership with everyone from Oxfam and the Women’s Institute to the Premier League and The Sun. Across the UK, 10 million people are expected to get gather with neighbours on 17-18 June to “be part of a national celebration of what we have in common”. Amazing!

  1. Digital activation

We all know the power of social media. We heard less about this but there are plans to mobilise a ‘base’ of supporters to lead a movement from the bottom up too.

More In Common is new. There was little push back from anyone in the room at Skoll World Forum, few in the room who disagreed and this is arguably the biggest challenge of our lifetimes.

But the group running it are incredible. I was sold.

They are thinking, they seem to be listening and they have concrete plans for what to do next.

It felt like the start of the fight back.

Follow Alex: @alexshsh

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Building Bridges: Partnerships in Responsible Supply Chains

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.

Macarena Hernandez, Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA Candidate 2016-17 at the Saïd Business School, gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum session “Building Bridges: Partnerships in Responsible Supply Chains”.

The task to build bridges to trigger the development of responsible supply chains is not only a task for “bridges builders”, it is a common task. We need to forge common bridges together.

The session kicked off with a “pop-quiz” leading by the session’s moderator, Daniel Viederman, Managing Director at Humanity United. “How many cocoa farmers are around the world?” After guesses and approximations, the right answer was 5 million.

Could you imagine the investment that is needed to audit all of these cocoa farmers have the responsible practices? How many more products a single food industry company have? As Viederman mention, we are not talking about a lineal supply chain, we are talking about a supply web.

The complexity of this supply web has meant that no one takes the responsibility to ensure fair labour conditions within the web. The private sector thought that labour issues needed to be solved by the public sector. Governments have been establishing regulations that encourage big industry players to start solving these issues.

Despite this complexity, companies such as Target and Mars Inc. are taking responsibility and action. In 2015, Target started a partnership with GoodWeave in support of their mission to end child labour in the rug industry. Mars Inc. is partnering with Verité to design simple solution for their suppliers to meet their responsible sourcing standards.

Building Bridges - Partnerships in Responsible Supply Chains panel

Building Bridges – Partnerships in Responsible Supply Chains panel

These leading efforts are transforming the unfair labour practices across industries. However, these partnerships and projects are not easily scalable for the various products across different industries. As Marika McCauley Sine, Mars’ Human Rights Director, said, ‘the situation is complex; we need to make it easy. We need to be specific and clear. Make it as simple as possible.’

For me, this simple and scalable solution is called: trust. If enterprises trust in other stakeholders, especially suppliers and suppliers of suppliers, there would be no need for huge investments to develop detailed audits or localised projects throughout the supply chain.

Although, building trust is not easy. How can we trust in others? Transparency, openness, collaboration, accountability, and information flow is needed. Who is creating trust through stakeholders? Talking and listening during the forum, two potential solutions came into my mind. After the panel, I had the opportunity to talk with Charmian Love, Co-Chair and Co-founder of B Lab UK. I realised that the B-Corporation Certification is identifying responsible players around the world. Listening to the session “Data-Driven Models for Change”, I discovered that Provenance is developing digital tools to trace products’ journeys.

Both trust’s mechanisms, mentioned above, include characteristics such as collaboration, data sharing, and transparency. This openness creates and distributes value along all stakeholders. Which make me reflect: Are the main industry players and competitors ready to collaborate between them? Are the innovators ready to share best practices? Are businesses ready to share value, despite the fact that these actions will reduce barriers to entry, increase the number of competitors, and increase consumer power?

I hope they are! In the long term, collaboration will be the key for value creation. My favourite value at Prospera, the Mexican social enterprise where I was working before coming to Oxford, states: “El que comparte, prospera. Siempre.” Translated to English: “The one who shares, thrives. Always.”

Follow Macarena: @macarenahdeo

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We the People: Populism and progress

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.

Skoll Scholar and MBA Candidate 2016-17, John Kakungulu Walugembe, gives his perspective on the  Skoll World Forum session “We the People: Populism and progress“.

We the People: Populism and progess panel

We the People: Populism and progess panel

When President Donald J. Trump announced his intention to seek the Republican party nomination, under the slogan, “Make America Great Again”; many considered this to be one of the many publicity stunts, he had become famous for: The Daily News compared him to a clown, the Trentonian’s headline was: “I am rich”. On the contrary, the Boston Herald cautiously predicted that Trump’s running, would be impactful. Well, in the end, they were right. Contrary to mainstream predictions; he went on to clinch not only the Republican party nomination, but also the Presidency of the sole superpower – the United States of America. How could an individual with no political experience get himself elected using xenophobic and misogynistic tactics? My view is that we should have seen this coming. The rise of populist leaders like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France in the recent past is well documented. These leaders seek to discredit the establishment by labelling it “corrupt and dishonest” as compared to “regular, hard-working and honest” people. They also tend to appeal to nationalistic sentiments by attributing the challenges faced by “ordinary folks” to “immigrants from other countries” or what they consider to be unfair dealings, by other countries or institutions.

One is compelled to ask several pertinent questions? What explains this surge in populist sentiment across the West? Is this a new phenomenon or history has had precedents? Are there economic explanations for this phenomenon and if so, how should the world respond?  I do not think that there is a single explanation for this rise in “populism”. However, many researchers admit that there is a linkage between the rise of populism and economic inequality, in the west. There is no doubt that globalization, technological advancement and the rise in immigration have led to tangible benefits for humanity, as a whole. However, it appears, they have also led to the disenfranchisement of significant sections of society; who now feel, “ignored and left behind” Rising levels of national prosperity have been accompanied by a growing gap between the “haves and the have-nots”, due to unemployment, redundancy and low wages. The 2008 financial crisis, in particular, led to an explosion of anger among those who felt that the system had been “rigged” to favour Wall Street and the establishment. It is therefore not surprising that populist politicians have tended to exploit and benefit from the economic grievances of the unemployed and working class who have been hit hardest, by the forces of the “market”. Donald Trump has referred to this adverse economic situation, as the “American carnage” in which American factories were shattered, millions of American workers left jobless and “their wealth” redistributed. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the President and CEO of New America cautiously agreed with this position in today’s session, when she talked of the brokenness in America’s infrastructure, campaign financing system and policy framework that may need fixing, if the system is to work for all.

On the other hand, others have attributed this rise in populism to socio-cultural factors. According to this school of thought; the shift in the value system of western societies over the last forty years away from traditional to liberal/secular values, was bound to elicit a backlash. Older citizens in these countries look suspiciously at the left’s liberal agenda, including support for; human rights, immigration, gender equality and LGBT rights. The hosting of refugees, the openness to immigration and the granting of asylum to individuals from volatile and troubled parts of the world, elicited resentment and xenophobia, in this group. Demagogue politicians have therefore exploited these fears to capture power by democratic means; a view shared by Ernesto Zedillo, the Director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. For example, Nigel Farage and the Vote Leave campaign in the UK promised to cut net migration to under 50,000 and to reinvest the £350m which they claimed the UK sends to Brussels each week, in the National Health Service (NHS). No wonder, in a 2014 press conference, Nigel expressed his discomfort at hearing only foreign languages being spoken by other passengers, on a London train journey. Unfortunately, such racist remarks simply serve to solidify his support base.

It is interesting that populism is not an entirely new phenomenon. History is full of examples of populists who have appealed to popular discontent and gotten elected: From Lajos Kossuth in Hungary, Hitler in Germany, Benito Mussolini in Italy to the more recent examples in Latin America. Perhaps, Latin America, more than any another continent, has had the largest share of populist leaders such as; Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Alvaro Correa in Ecuador, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay and Morales in Bolivia. What lessons can we draw from these countries in tackling populism? I consider their context to be quite different, from the one in the West.

As I close, I wish to be optimistic; by proposing solutions:  First, it is important that there is a recognition, on both sides of this issue that certain things need to change. It is true globalization has been beneficial to humanity, as a whole. However, some sections of society, feel excluded. As such, there is need for better regulation of markets to ensure inclusion of the most vulnerable. National economic growth must translate into prosperity for everyone. Investments in social services and job creation for low skilled workers, is key. As Emma Mortensen, the co-founder of Crisis Action, mentioned in today’s session; we must create a society that works for everyone.  In my opinion, this is where social entrepreneurship can become a game changer. Second, it is important that we listen to each other. The rise of social media, has had the unintended effect of facilitating siloed debate. People choose with whom to interact, based on common interests; and tend to avoid those with whom they disagree. This deficiency can be addressed by facilitating conversations among groups that may be on opposing sides of issues. Finally, we must learn to listen to each other.  As Emily Kasriel, the Head of Editorial Partnerships and Special Projects at the BBC World Service Group advised in her closing remarks; we should look out for people with whom we do not necessarily agree, on issues and listen to them.

John is a Skoll Centre Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA programme, he is also the founder of Better-Livelihoods Uganda, a community-based organisation working in rural areas of Uganda to improve the livelihoods of poor and vulnerable people. 

Follow John: @JohnWalugembe