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The year amidst dreaming spires

Nine months in the MBA programme at Saïd Business School have exposed me to a diverse set of experiences. I have worked on projects ranging from solutions to decongest the London Tube to helping launch an agri-tech startup. I have worked with public stakeholders, search become aware of international government policies and worked on initiatives relating to industries that would have been unknown to me less than a year ago.

I came to Oxford with the intention to better understand how startups and private sector organisations can effectively be support systems (or in some cases, prostate replacements) for broken or archaic public sector frameworks – and many of my assumptions have been challenged.

Hands-on academic modules like Global Rules of the Game, where we learned in detail about the passing of the insurance bill in India, have played a significant role in my learning process. In teams, we took on the roles of different stakeholders in the decision-making ecosystem and played out likely scenarios. We learned, in a practical and relatable way, how a group of private organisations played a significant role in pushing the approval of a regulatory change which was generally perceived as needed. In our professional journeys, we take many actions – which may or may not work out for the best. Learning to understand these actions and decisions in context, and how the same situations could be better approached or what actions could be repeated, are priceless lessons.

Through the year, my classmates and I have worked in multiple, diverse teams. Working to bridge cultural and professional distances, while challenging, has been an extremely rewarding experience, one from which we have walked away with friends, valuable lessons and a better understanding of our own personalities.

I have worked with classmates from the government and social sector and have had the chance to interact with practitioners from multiple industries and sectors during events like the Skoll World Forum. Through these experiences I learned how some organisations and individuals are pioneering in the space between the public and private sectors. Building relationships, understanding the target segment and thinking long term have become fundamental to seeing success in the field and ensuring sustainability in programmes.

A highlight of my programme occurred a few months ago, when I met an alumnus of the University of Oxford who has been building an organisation that is changing trust relationships in online interactions between individuals (think of an AirBnB host or Uber driver/customer – and what we really know about those in whom we place trust). Drawing on my many experiences in witnessing and experiencing broken trust architecture in unorganised sectors and developing countries, I have been helping them maneuver some new markets they are looking to enter.

While the MBA year is still a few months from culmination, the experiences – academic and practical – have helped me hone my skills and have reaffirmed my choice regarding the professional space in which I would like to remain.

Oxford is fondly called the city of dreaming spires, and rightly so. It has inspired me and opened the opportunity for us to forge special bonds, question the direction in which our actions take us, and aim higher, every day.

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Diversity Inspires

I was given the opportunity to reflect on my thoughts back when I was entering the MBA programme, recipe through a class project that a group of friends were completing for their digital media class. They asked members of our class to complete four statements, prostate to get a snapshot of how our cohort is feeling as we draw to the end of the MBA program. These were:

  • A year ago I wanted to…
  • But back then I felt…
  • My favourite moment on the MBA has been…
  • Diversity inspires…

My responses at the time were limited to a couple of words – however, with more time, I have reflected more deeply on how my courses and interactions here at Oxford have enhanced my experience.

A year ago I wanted to find ways to apply my public sector experience in order to continue to improve the lives of Women and Girls, but through working on innovative solutions in a private sector role. I wanted to work on issues affecting Women and Girls in developed nations as well in sub-Saharan Africa. I expected that the theories and frameworks explored in my courses would help me to build my skills in order to make this transition. I planned to look at consulting in teams who worked closely with the public sector, NGOs and civil society around issues related to equality. The courses that have helped me feel most prepared for this step post-graduation are Strategy, Strategy & Innovation and Corporate Turnaround & Business Transformation. The content allowed me to deepen my knowledge around how incumbent markets can be disrupted by nascent innovations. I was able to explore how the market responds to ‘new entrants’ and ‘substitutes’ through the application of Porter’s 5 forces framework. The latter course provided strategies on how to bring around transformation in hostile environments and ensue that stakeholders and employees buy into the new vision that is proposed.

Back then I felt unprepared. I felt that I knew a lot about my field and was able to progress at a grassroots level however I knew very little about finance and how the numbers which describe the country’s economic state fit together. How that has changed! I have not become a finance guru in the past year by any means. However, I have developed a sound body of knowledge through courses such as Corporate Valuation, Mergers and Acquisitions and Real Estate. These courses have prepared me not to feel lost in conversations about finance and the economy, but have informed me, to the point that I feel I can ask relevant questions. I recently sat next to a man on a commute to Paris who had helped set up a hedge fund in South Africa. We talked finance for the entire journey from hedging, commodities, and the impact of China slowing down, to the big short and financial crises on the continent. By the end, I was surprised at my ability to articulate myself and to understand his role. This was a conversation that I would have been completely lost in a year ago.

My favourite moment has been meeting all the babies and families. Family is a big part of the Nigerian community I belong to. While a student in undergrad I remember feeling disconnected from the real world due to the lack of families and children in my immediate community. Then, I was able to find solace through my church community, which was filled with people of all ages – from children and babies to great-great grandmothers. During the MBA it has been refreshing not to feel disconnected in this way. It is important to find ways to be connected to the things that are important to you, and I recommend establishing routines early on in the journey. Through my interactions with the peer supporter network at Oxford Saïd, of which I am a part, I have been able to maintain balance. Kurt April’s MBA Launch session on ‘Self-Care and Leading Through your Personal Narrative’, the themes of which were also picked up on in my Leadership Fundamentals course, further developed my ability to focus on my personal development. The idea of delivering pitches and presentations which allow me to embody authentic leadership that is based on my personal story was core to helping me stay connected to my values.

Our diversity inspires a level of fortitude to try new things. I have learned so much from my fellow classmates, professors and the wider Oxford community. They have given me the courage on days where I was not sure where to turn. They have pushed me on the days that I wanted to give up. They have encouraged me on the days that I felt confused. They have celebrated and captured great moments even when my phone battery died. They have opened their hearts to me by sharing their world, their hopes, their struggles and their dreams.

These are my thoughts – please take a look at the reflections of some of my fellow classmates in the “Diversity InSpires” Video.

 

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What’s next?

One fantastic year is coming to an end!

It seems like just yesterday when I was thinking about my career progression and how an MBA might help me to achieve my goals. Here I am today reflecting on how I will leverage this high quality education.

Throughout the year, story through my interactions with fellow classmates, I realised that many of us came to Oxford to fix something – something that was not the way we wanted it to be. Take my story for instance, an education entrepreneur, while I had managed to make my business profitable in the first year; deep within me remained a desire to unlock further opportunities to make my company grow and bring about positive change. How could I make this possible? My quest has led me to Oxford Saïd.

What did I learn in this one year? I think two words best describe my experience at Oxford Saïd: ‘Authentic Engagement’. From witnessing debates at the Oxford Union to speaking at TEDx, to rowing competitions, to showcasing Oxford Saïd in MBAT, to negotiating in class simulations, to representing Oxford at international conferences – every moment, every interaction, and every experience has contributed to what I will become. I firmly believe that the outcome of these engagements will flow in a ‘sustained-release’, dispensing relevant learning steadily over my entire lifetime.

Am I going back to India? Let’s see! Am I taking up a job? Perhaps not! New company? Who knows!

This time of year is the MBA graduate rush hour, when it is easy to get overwhelmed and turn deaf to one’s inner voice. In the midst of this chaos, I have decided to stop and think – to take a brief pause and gauge all possibilities before I commence my journey – a safety mechanism of sorts. I hope that this way I won’t get inundated by the varied choices I have at the moment, or get discouraged under the weight of my own expectations.

I tell myself – this is my time. I have chosen to listen to my intuition once again.

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Journeys of Adversity Diversity, University Necessity!

Oxford’s Fierce Compassion – Series of Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2016.

MBA student and Skoll Scholar, Deborah Owhin gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘Leading Through Adversity’.

Adversity is defined as a difficult situation or condition: associated with misfortune or tragedy!

In this all-female panel, the discussion moved from the journeys of personal leadership challenges to family upbringing to what is ahead. The panellist spoke openly and candidly on their hopes and beliefs on women’s leadership roles in public life. In the imminent future panellist such as Mary Robinson is involved in the campaign to seeing the next Secretary-General of the United Nations while Halla Tomasdottir is currently in the Presidential race to be the next President of Iceland!

After the session I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes with each of the panel and asked them all 2 questions

Being a student I’m often intrigued by a range of academic studies and so I asked the panel if they had the chance to go back to school today, what subject would they study and why?

The second question was I posed was; in hindsight of the journey that you have experienced thus far in life, if you had the opportunity to meet and speak to your 12-year-old self what would you tell her to keep her going and achieve the potential….

Their responses are as followed….

Mary Robinson

  1. “I would find it necessary to focus on human rights development and climate justice. These are existential threat to all of us and I am truly focused on these issues. I would have liked to have become involved in work on this at an earlier age. So a degree would give me a broader perspective”
  1. “My 12-year-old self was VERY shy, I would say get a hold of yourself….I used to block…I would force myself 12 year old self to debate, to help me get over the shyness. I overcame my shyness at University where I still attempted to block but found ways to get out of the shell.”

Halla Tomasdottir

  1. “I would go back to study social entrepreneurship. The only way we can solve the many pressing issues we have in the world today is through building mission driven businesses. I believe in the power of that model. The idea of triple bottom line sits well with my values and I did not learn that during my time as an MBA student which was international.”
  1. “I have a 12-year-old daughter, and when I was 12 years old we had our first female President in Iceland. So talking to my 12-year-old self is very meaningful. I would say to her… be you… never let anyone ever tell you that you are not enough… that you are not okay exactly as you are… that you have been created in that perfect way to be you. Halla, lots of people will tell you that you should be that or this but always have the courage to listen to what is inside of you and trust that intuition. You may cheat on your intuition but your intuition will never cheat on you not even when you are 12.”

Reverend Mpho Tutu

  1. “When I was in school I really went through as scenic route through my academic career. So I started off studying fine arts then engineering and then theology. I have explored a number of fields. So if I go back to school now I would go for something that I have not studied yet like dance. To be able to integrate my creativity with my academics. It would be a modern type of dance or ballet.”
  1. “I would tell my 12-year-old self that she is going to be a phenomenal woman. That’s all.”

Pat Mitchell

  1. “I would love to study international relations because I have spent the majority of the last 20 year of my life travelling the world and promoting global sisterhood. I would have love to have started that earlier in my life and reflecting on it going deeper into the subject area would have been beneficial.”
  1. “To my 12-year-old self I would say; stay curious. Keep knocking on doors and asking questions. It is important to foster a spirit of curiosity as a child as so one is not limited in their view of the world.”

Alaa Murabit

  1. “My first thought is that I would NOT go back to school at 25 I feel like I am ALL schooled out! I have studied medicine and then got an Executive Masters in International Strategy and Diplomacy at LSE. But if I really had to go back to school I would study Life Ethics, and develop my life skills in this course where you get exposed to your civil rights, how to balance your books etcetera, but I am good at Karaoke!”
  1. “My 12-year-old self wanted so much better for me. I had the opportunity to open a time capsule that I did in grade 8 when I was 12 when I was 22 which was 3 years ago. My time capsule said that I would have a yellow VW Beetle, I would be married with a child and 3 cats and I would be the President of the Hospital. I watched the TV show E.R. a lot and always wanted the role of the chief of surgery but just didn’t know what it was called back then.

I would tell my 12-year-old self to listen to listen to my parents, not to listen to kids in school if they were mean and to stick to what she believes in and to take risk. There were so many things that I wanted to do at 12 but was told I could which I regret.

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – Nelson Mandela

The panellist all share a similar sentiment in that their family upbringing played a vital role in shaping them into the leaders they had each become as adult women working across the world to bring about positive change in the lives of women and girls. When she could not access the ready-made platforms that political leaders used to make decisions that affected her, Alaa saw the need to create her own for Libyan Women. Reverend Mpho Tutu’s environment shaped her and gave her the courage to stand for what she believes which lead other religious leaders to support her.

If you could speak to your 12-year-old self today what would you tell her or him?

I would say to you all take the time your relationships deserve because all you have is today do not waste time, be passion filled and willing to take risk.

There are millions of 12-year-olds out there waiting to hear your story have the courage and boldness to share the journey of who you are and how you have not only faced but overcome adversity.

Remember there are no leaders who have not faced times of adversity, what has shaped them is how they chose to overcome adversity.

Follow Deborah: @DeborahOwhin

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Ready, Set, Go! Launching the Sustainable Development Goals

Oxford’s Fierce Compassion – Series of Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2016.

MBA student and Skoll Scholar Sumit Joshi gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘Ready, abortion Set, view Go! Launching the Sustainable Development Goals’.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were launched in September 2015. The key theme of these goals is world transformation – a development that necessitates tighter integration of efforts among international institutions, national governments, and corporate, social, and philanthropic actors.

Sumit

At the onset of panel discussion on SDGs in the Skoll World Forum 2016, Ray Suarez, Journalist and Author and the moderator of the discussion raised the question about the master agenda of SGDs. Elizabeth Cousens, Deputy CEO, UN Foundation and one of the panelists clarified that SDGs embrace a comprehensive approach to sustainable development issues and carry on the momentum generated by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  While MDGs expired in 2015, there was “unfinished business”, she proclaimed. There has been a lot of debate around the adequate number of SDGs, and so a balance between focus and breadth of these goals is critical. The 17 SDGs span a wide array of issues such as eradicating poverty, improving health and education, and ensuring equality, but these objectives require a balance among environment, economics, and society and also their nexus.

Panelist Michael Green, Executive Director, Social Progress Imperative stressed upon the fundamental difference between MDGs and SDGs. While MDGs were targeted at improving the social and living conditions of people in poor or developing countries, SGDs are more ambitious. Although SGDs relied upon the traction that MDGs had achieved, they reap the benefit of the period of economic growth. Furthermore, SDGs are globally more collaborative than MDGs in that MDGs were largely determined by OECD countries and other donor agencies while SDGs are holistic and also measurable.

The other panelists Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, Secretary General, CIVICUS and Jane Griffiths, Company Group Chairman Janssen EMEA, Janssen-Cilag Ltd. corroborated Green’s view that SGDs have broader audience. Sriskandarajah criticised MDGs for being too technocratic and having narrow scope of development. He further emphasised, “one of the most important things that will be critical to the success of SDGs is to popularise the goals and make sure that everyone everywhere does recognise that this is a framework that belongs to them.” According to Griffiths, MDGs did not engage the entire population of the world. SDGs are more inclusive and just and also engage the private sector and general citizens far more than MDGs did.

The year 2015 provided policy makers and citizens with a great opportunity of formulating the next global development agenda. MNCs and private players will have a major role to play to make these goals more inclusive. The new goals are based on sustainability. Therefore, the key consideration for the policy makers is not to update the MDGs but rather draft new sustainable agenda. The commonality of interest for all countries and people is critical to setting up a package of comprehensive goals rather than individual and immeasurable ones. What needs to be verified in 2030 is whether SDGs are able to serve as an accountability framework from the government that encourages participation of private sector and civil society.

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Let’s be boring. Using Digital Innovations Unlock Partnerships to Scale Impact

Oxford’s Fierce Compassion – Series of Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2016.

1+1 MBA student and Skoll Scholar, pills Ashley Thomas gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar sessions focused on design and innovation.

As I assume is the norm for Skoll World Forum, I found myself struggling to decide between two parallel sessions. In my case they were, “Can Digital Innovation Unlock Partnerships to Scale Impact” and “Design for Action: Innovation Interventions.” The metaphor was not lost on me- in one room we have the designers talking about how to use design thinking to create solutions for complex problems and in the other room we have implementers using innovative systems to scale operations.

As a mechanical engineer, I entered international development with the perspective of design- looking for solutions to be engineered and silver-bullet products to be made. It took the experience of working on the ground, trying to scale those products to realize the clear need for context, and for an integrated systems approach, where a product is a single player in the overall design. This systems approach cannot happen if we have the implementers and the designers in different room.

While hopping between sessions, I heard the same conversation in both rooms. We need to have a systems approach to designing innovations and using those innovations to scale. How do we do that? We need to be boring and we need to be intentional.

We need to be boring. There’s a long history of social enterprises focusing on the cool app or in-vogue cause, but impact comes from unlocking how to do the boring things well. It is about creating systems, about driving institutions, and building supply chains. How it is about excellence in routine, and striving for ensuring operational effectiveness. It is through tackling the nitty-gritty details that once can design those systems for scale.

We need to be intentional.  Tim Brown said that “Design is being intentional about how you want to shape the world.” It is this long-term vision about shaping your piece of the world that’s critical. Tim’s vision doesn’t focus on the innovation, but the ecosystem around that innovation that allows practitioners like Andrew Youn from One Acre Fund to bring their projects to scale.

To truly unlock the partnerships that enable digital innovation to scale, we need to ensure we are thinking at an ecosystem level. WE need to get the designers and the practitioners in the same room, and have the system-level discussions together, intentionally, rather than in parallel. Much of this is not sexy- there is no shiny prototype, no cool digital platform. However, it is through achieving excellence in the mundane and tackling problems at a systems level that we can achieve impact at scale.

Follow Ashley: @aethomas