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My journey from Costa Rica to Oxford

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.

It might sound strange, but I truly enjoy the smell of coffee berries. Most coffee drinkers don’t even know what that is because coffee travels around the world as a bean and not the actual berry. The coffee berry is processed the same day it’s harvested, and in just a few days the coffee bean is ready for shipping. I know this because I grew up in a family dedicated to small scale coffee farming and livestock. By the way, I also enjoy the smell of horses and cacao fermentation.


Joaquín Víquez

Growing up around agriculture provided me with a sense of what it means to ‘live off the land’ so to speak, the hardships and of course, the rewards. It helped me develop a sense of empathy towards an industry that feeds the world. It also caused me to develop questions, I didn’t realize then, that was going to become an essential part of my career. For example, what happens to the coffee skin/peel after the bean is extracted? What do they do with such “waste”?

Joaquin with large biogas machinary in a trench in the ground

Naturally, this upbringing influenced me to undertake a degree in agriculture science, which I did in Costa Rica at EARTH University. During my time at school, I started specializing on biogas technology. Biogas converts, through a biochemical process, organic waste into fertilizer and methane, which can be used as energy. In other words, a farm just like the one I grew up on, could convert the cow dung into energy for cooking. 

Back then, if I had to describe my “dream job” stepping right out of college, it would’ve been a 95% match to my actual first job. I ended up leading a team who advised dairy farmers how to properly manage their in-farm waste (mainly cow dung). At that time, regulations were urging the largest dairy cooperative in Costa Rica to align its farmers to produce environmentally friendly. I continue to advocate the use of biogas among these dairy farms. Having learnt there wasn’t an actual product in the market for small scale biogas farmers, I decided to quit this job and start a social venture to make biogas an accessible technology among farmers.

Entrepreneurs always describe how difficult but worthwhile is to run your own business; I can’t but agree! The company (Viogaz) officially operated for six years. We became a renown biogas company with the greatest number of biogas projects in Costa Rica. During this time, we were recognised and awarded for the work we were doing, plus creating tangible impact in the region. Unfortunately, a combined set of unexpected events fell upon the company, which obliged me to shut down the project at the end of 2017.

Joaquin giving a talk to a small crowd standing on top of biogas machinary.

I learned that doing business while having an environmental priority is possible and highly gratifying. So, just as I decided to do an MSc to strengthen my technical knowledge, I started considering doing an MBA to strengthen my business knowledge. Coincidentally, I received a newsletter announcing the Skoll Scholarship to study at Saïd Business School on a renown MBA program with a strong focus on responsible and social business, at the University of Oxford. This scholarship sought to support entrepreneurs doing good through business. I thought to myself: “that’s what I have been doing for all my career” … I decided to apply.

Fast forward, 12 months later, I find myself at a 400-year-old pub in the heart of Oxford writing this blog. I couldn’t be more excited, thrilled, and inspired to be here. I am very much looking forward to the future. And although my future is not set in stone, I plan to continue to explore new business ideas in areas of waste-to-resource and climate change, as well open to also join an organization tackling these problems.

…And by the way, going back to my child questions, coffee peel/skin is still disposed of inadequately, causing tremendous environmental impact, meaning there is still lots of work to do.

How to manage difficult conversations

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

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

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

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

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

Question the default – Courage to ask Why

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

Speak your mind

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

Always remind people that every management decision affects people

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

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

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

Be assertive  

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

Daniela Gheorghe, 2018-19 Skoll Scholar.

How to manage business remotely

Whilst doing your Oxford MBA!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some background…

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

What to DO:

Have a lead in place

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

Pilot not going to the office for at least 2 weeks

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

Set aside dedicated time for a weekly video call.

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

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

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

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

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

What NOT to do:

Don’t intervene in operational matters.

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

Don’t get involved in office politics back home.

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

Don’t give negative feedback over a group phone.

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

Don’t plan to scale your work this year.

It exerts immense pressure on the team

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

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

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

Best,

Mohsin Mustafa, 2018-19 Skoll Scholar.

An MBA for Social Entrepreneurship

It was 2017 and I was visiting an indigenous Aymara community of quinoa producers. After 3 years of hard work and with some funding from international organizations, these humble smallholder farmers received organic certification that would allow them to earn a fairer price on their quinoa. They put in all the necessary internal audits to prove that the quinoa was organic quality. That year should have been their second organic-certified harvest.

But all was not well.

I had already spoken with the certifier to learn that they missed the required $7,000 payment for certification, and I wanted to know why.

Image of Alexander Wankel

Quinoa prices had plummeted to their lowest levels in years and the grant project supporting the community had ended.

Worse yet, the cooperative had no connections with international clients willing to purchase organic quinoa at a premium price, so their valuable harvest sat in the warehouse for nearly a year.

The farmers couldn’t come up with the money and by the time a buyer came, it was already too late to pay for the next year’s certification. Years of efforts had been wasted, and the farmers were now stuck with poverty-level quinoa prices once again.

How could this tragic situation have been avoided? 

An MBA (or any type of higher education) is not a silver bullet for solving problems like these, but it can be a starting point. Business has the power to create wealth, but this wealth often doesn’t reach those who need it most desperately.

As an Oxford educated MBA student with the added privilege of graduating debt-free thanks to the Skoll Scholarship, how should I strive to use business as a force for good? How can I avoid the mistakes of other short-lived projects that have failed to deliver their goals? How can business school skills be of service to smallholder farmers, to ecosystems, to the Earth that we must share?

Image of Alexander Wankel

MBAs teach the core concepts upon which our economic system is built, by extension affecting everyone in society. In some ways, an MBA is geared towards profit maximization, both of MBA alumni and of the corporations they work for. After all, official Financial Times MBA rankings are based partially on the who has the highest salaries 3 years after graduation. With the field of impact investing on the rise, the win-win philosophy of “doing well by doing good” has caught on, affirming that achieving positive social or environmental impact can be profitable.

However, those of us who are committed to a social problem know that impact work often requires sacrifice. As a social entrepreneur the hours are long, the risks are many, and the most significant victories take years to achieve.

As societies face escalating existential threats due to climate change and rising inequality, the MBA programs of tomorrow may look drastically different from those of today. Some of my courses this year have helped me imagine this change and provided me with the language to express it. I’ve learned that there is a difference between avoiding harm and contributing to solutions, that if traditional financing tools don’t meet the needs of social enterprises we can invent new ones, that future business models should be restorative and regenerative by design, and that a major task of business today is to help find a just space for humanity within our planetary boundaries. I’ve also learned the traditional tools of finance, accounting, economics, and strategy which have helped leading business ideas scale and grow.

Although actors from many fields and disciplines must work towards solutions, the role of business is unique because economic activity is the root cause of the most critical environmental problems affecting our world. After all, cleaning up a mess is not as good as preventing it in the first place. This means cutting off or minimizing the flow of pollution and resource depletion from businesses, and some top firms such as IKEA and Unilever are now working to do so.

To prevent catastrophic 2-degree climate change, carbon emissions must sharply and drastically reverse from their long-term steep upward trend. There is no precedent for this and currently there are few signs that this is happening at a sufficient pace. Without cooperation from businesses, the task may be impossible. Social entrepreneurs must also work to build and prove the technologies and business models that will provide the building blocks of this change.

This year has reaffirmed my commitment to social enterprise, which to me means using the tools I have learned to create business models that benefit local communities and ecosystems.

In September I plan to return to Andean farmer communities after a year at Oxford to witness some of the same realities with a new perspective and a new set of resources. I plan to scale my company, Kai Pacha Foods, which I have now realized has a core purpose: to build healthy foods out of healthy ecosystems. By designing food and beverage products based on native crop systems in which each food plays complementary ecological and nutritional roles, we are crafting a business model capable of generating a profit while also improving the livelihoods farmers who conserve land, water, and biodiversity.

Image of Quinoa

After a year packed with so much learning, I have much work ahead to put these concepts and tools into practice. Likewise, the business world and business education have a lot of work ahead to play a more positive role in building an economy that can be sustained on a planet with finite resources.

At Saïd Business School, I have learned about innovation in impact and responsible business alongside the more traditional concepts of an MBA upon which our current economic system is built. From these pieces, the task now falls to us to assemble solutions that are equal to the scale of the problems afflicting our planet.

Image of field of Quinoa

Alexander Wankel, 2018-19 Skoll Scholar.

One year at Oxford

Julie Greene is a 2018-19 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA, and co-founder of The Women’s Bakery in Rwanda. She recounts her time and whirlwind journey on the MBA programme this year.

This year was, frankly, much harder than I expected. I didn’t think that getting back into the swing of school would be such an adjustment, I had forgotten how short and dark the days are in northern hemisphere winters, and I didn’t anticipate the magnitude of changes I would need to navigate with my company and my own personal direction during the year.

Transitioning back into school was not hard so much in the academic sense (although trust me, the workload was challenging!) as it was in the day to day motivational sense. I was so used to fast paced, hands on start-up life. Where every day brought new problems to solve, visible successes or new challenges, and constant connection with the women our company was working with. By comparison, sitting in class lectures day after day felt impersonal and theoretical. I could certainly connect classroom ideas to potential application in The Women’s Bakery, but I missed the action, the constant feedback, and the personal connection to my work.

Image of Julie Greene

As the days grew shorter, and the business finance exam loomed larger, I sometimes questioned what I was even doing here. Why had I taken time away from my passion, to sit in lectures all day and learn about corporate finance? What does a small-scale social entrepreneur need to know about corporate finance anyways? (It turns out, a lot.) At the same time, having stepped away from the day to day of my company, I had to face another reality: I was drained. I took the incredibly difficult decision in January to leave my company, which was something I had not considered before coming to the MBA.

With all of these changes, the first half of the year felt like a pretty long road for me. I often felt like I should be joining a case competition, or should be more social and end more of my nights at the ever popular bar Hank’s. But, with the support of a lot a great colleagues, classmates, and mentors I gave myself what I really needed – permission. Permission to take time and process, permission to be more introverted than extroverted in a program of over 300 incredible people, and permission to grieve and deeply reflect on one ending before throwing myself into any of the million new possibilities in front of me.

Image of the team at London Bridge

And eventually, the days did get longer again. The sun started to shine a bit more frequently, and stressing about corporate finance turned into choosing thought provoking electives. The spring filled up as I planned and led a student trek to Rwanda to explore the social enterprise and impact ecosystem, and worked with a team to develop a business plan for an impact focused craft brewery in Rwanda. I even found myself at Hank’s a few times. Before I knew it, the year was winding down.

As I was nearing the end of the final term, researching and writing thousands of words for what felt like endless papers, something clicked. I was reading an article and it struck me – what I had just read, full of terminology and references to all kinds of financing options, would have been nearly gibberish to me a year prior. Yes, I would have had a general sense of what was going on, but I wouldn’t have grasped any of the specifics. And then I had the same experience listening to a podcast. And then listening in to a conversation next to me in a café. Like an image coming into focus, the year came together for me. Despite all the challenges and grey days and distance from the work I am passionate about, I had in fact amassed a lot of knowledge. I had gained a new understanding of the world around me, from sustainable supply chains to impact investing, from trust in technology to raising capital. Of course, you go to school expecting to learn. But there is still something truly amazing about the moments when things click.

Image of Julie Greene beside a Castle Mount

I walked into this year thinking I knew where I was headed when I walked out. The specific destination has changed for me it is now completely unknown. But I am walking out confident that I have grown and learned, that I have been challenged, and that I have an incredible community that will support me as I find my next direction.

Julie Greene, 2018-19 Skoll Scholar.

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From Farms to Forests: Land Rights as an Impact Multiplier

Each year the Skoll Centre invites a small number of Oxford students to the annual Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. Each year they share their unique perspectives of the sessions and events that unfold during this magical time in Oxford.

In a social enterprise space dominated by philanthropic or investment dollars that are often chasing the latest innovation, it is easy to overlook a time-tested conservation strategy that costs close to zero – supporting indigenous land rights.

Panellist José de los Santos Sauna Limaco is a tribal leader and governor of the Kogui Arhuaco indigenous reserve in Colombia. He could hardly have appeared more different from your typical social entrepreneur, but his community and others like it are on the front lines of conserving some of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems.


José de los Santos Sauna Limaco

As other panellists pointed out, indigenous reserves often produce better results than national parks, drastically reducing deforestation while costing governments and the international community virtually nothing.

Kogui Arhuaco Indigenous Reserve in the Sierra Nevada of Colombia

As the spread of technology and consumerism accelerate and rainforests disappear, the traditional livelihoods of tribal communities may seem like a thing of the past. However, this largely depends on indigenous people’s land titles and tenancy laws, even if these laws do not fully reflect the cultural and spiritual importance of the land. Gaia Amazonas CEO Francisco von Hildebrand has worked for 30 years to protect an indigenous reserve the size of Greece in the rainforests of Colombia, ensuring that nations such as the Kogui Arhuaco will have a future. Hildebrand remembers that “Indigenous leaders didn’t understand how a piece of paper could mean ownership of the land if it belongs to birds, trees, and flowers.”

Protected Lands have grown in Colombia from 2009 – 2019

Chris Jochnick, CEO of Landesa, pointed out that most of the poorest people in the world are rural, depend on the land for their livelihoods, and don’t have secure rights to the land. For first world audiences, it can be hard to understand the full damage done to indigenous people whose land is routinely damaged or taken away by governments and business interests such as mining and oil. “Would you put a new roof on your house if it might be taken away? Once you give the land a title, it changes the incentive structure. It changes the whole cycle of development outcomes.” said Jochnick.

However, truly recognizing indigenous voices can sometimes mean questioning the paradigm of development itself. Ralph Regenvanu, who has served as a member of Parlament and Minister of Lands of the pacific island Republic of Vanuatu, helped restore the customary rights of indigenous people in his country. He has also been involved in efforts to decolonize development indicators in order to better reflect the quality of life in a non-cash traditional economy. Although international organizations can use their own metrics, Vanuatu demands that they also include 3 measures in their analysis: Free access to land and resources, traditional knowledge and practice, and vitality of communities. Vanuatu is also studying Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index.

Even as the world faces critical new threats to rainforests and indigenous lands, persistence and certain victories by indigenous organizers are still a reason for hope. Panellist Jennifer Corpuz described the struggle of her community of Kankana-ey Igorot people in the Philippines against a dam funded by the World Bank in the 1970s – 1980s. The project was successfully blocked by years of activism, but new Chinese investment has reignited the struggle to protect Karinga lands and homes. Jennifer said that this project is arrogant because “The land will outlive us. We are just borrowing it from future generations.”

Jennifer Corpuz

The clash of cultures was on full display when José de Los Santos was asked how he measures the wellbeing of his people. He replied that although he is aware that scientific tests demonstrate that his community has clean water and pure air, for his community these tests are not necessary because they have their own ways of knowing the territory that is their spiritual home. He said “The very water itself will speak to us. The earth will speak to us.” 

About the Author


Alexander Wankel

As founder of Kai Pacha Foods, Alex launched the first plant-base milk made with native quinoa and tarwi – two climate-smart miracle crops scalably produced by smallholder farmers in Peru using regenerative agriculture practices. As a current Skoll Scholar, Alex hopes to use his MBA to support a more biodiverse food system while supporting local land rights in Andean communities.