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From the United States to Oxford

Skoll Scholar, MBA and above all, Engineer, Ashley Thomas, shares her story, not of HOW she got to be at Oxford, but WHO.

As I sit in a 150-year-old book shop (very new by Oxford standards) listening to Duncan Green, Oxfam GB’s chief strategic advisor, discuss his book How Change Happens, I’m again struck by how lucky I am to have ended up here, at Oxford, and as Skoll Scholar. In thinking through how I have managed to arrive at this moment, my instinct is to create a neat narrative: In 2008, as a freshly minted mechanical engineer, I moved to Ethiopia to work as a product designer at iDE, a NGO building social enterprises and agriculture value chains in Africa and Asia.  Since then I have worked as an engineer and innovation project manager for some of the best (in my humble opinion) social enterprises: Evidence Action and MKOPA solar, and dabbled in some policy work managing the DFID resource centre on climate and environment. Building on my experience in the water sector, I then read for an MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management prior to my MBA as part of the 1+1 programme at Oxford, in theory preparing me to solve the worlds’ water problems through my own social enterprise.

However, after listening to Green’s view of the non-linearity of change, I am tempted to reframe my story not as a narrative but as the summation of ripples in a web of complex relationships and interactions. If you can forgive my ramblings in non-linear narrative, I want to tell the story of my path here framed through the relationships that don’t make it onto a CV, and instead focus on the cast of characters that sent the right ripples into the network that guided me to this fantastic place.

Katherine McIntyre: My grandmother is the embodiment of tenacity. She was a flight controller in the Canadian Air Force during World War II, a travel writer in the USSR during the 1980’s, current record holder for the oldest person to do a zip line, and in few days, at 93 years old, will be travelling from Toronto to Oxford to see my MSc graduation. She has traveled to more than 45 countries, published in over 30 newspapers and journals and has founded 3 companies.  I can only aspire to emulate her singular focus, fearless independence, and her lifelong curiosity.

Left: Ashley Thomas, Right: Kirstie McIntyre

Left: Ashley Thomas, Right: Katherine McIntyre

Left: a young Kirstie McIntyre, Right: Kirstie McIntyre holds the current record holder for the oldest person to do a zip line

Left: a young Katherine McIntyre, Right: Katherine McIntyre holds the current record holder for the oldest person to do a zip line

Paul’s enabling, entrepreneurial approach strongly resonated and has become central to my own philosophy.

Paul Polak: I met Paul when I was nineteen, naïvely aspiring to fight global poverty, but I only knew about top-down traditional development organisations. From attending his lectures, receiving his mentorship through the Intentional Development Design Summit (IDDS), and ultimately collaborating at iDE, Paul introduced me to a new way of thinking. Instead of a charity approach, Paul showed me an untapped market of 1 billion people seeking to lift themselves out of poverty. Paul’s enabling, entrepreneurial approach strongly resonated and has become central to my own philosophy.

 

Paul Polak

Paul Polak

Carlos Machan: Carlos is one of the most creative product designers I have ever met. Born in rural Guatemala, his engineering knowledge is all self-taught. I met Carols in 2007 while he was an instructor on the International Development Design Summit at MIT and continued to work with him in Guatemala, where he taught me how to weld, design, and build my first water pump, the very skills that landed me my first job at iDE.

Carlos Machan

Carlos Machan

It was here, in front of this bonfire, where I first heard about the Skoll Scholarship, and began dreaming of becoming a Skoll Scholar

iDE Workshop and Engineering Team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: In Addis, our engineering team founded a workshop/office/guest house that was the backbone of our product development. It was also the location of many bonfires, beers, and late night pontification. It was here, in front of this bonfire, where I first heard about the Skoll Scholarship, and began dreaming of becoming a Skoll Scholar. It took 8 years of indecision, dreaming, and three failed attempts at the application before it became a reality.

iDE Workshop and Engineering Team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

iDE Workshop and Engineering Team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

MKOPA Engineering Team: This crew is one of the brightest, most driven, and friendliest teams I have ever worked with. From Eric, standing at 6’2” and with a sense of humor to match, to Berita, easily a foot shorter in stature, but making no compromises in heart or brains, this group of people embodies the types of teams I hope to continue to work with. They also solidified my desire to get an MBA. While they were begrudging the fact I’d “no longer be an engineer”, working with them made me realise that if I hope to run a company like MKOPA and a team like this one, I have a lot of learning left to do.

ashleymtblog-mkopa

MKOPA Team

While this is absolutely not an exclusive list, these are some of the threads in fabric of the story of my path here. From the nascent daydreams over Ethiopian bonfires to making the decision to come to Oxford after working on a manufacturing line in Dongguan, China, studying an MBA at Oxford through the Skoll Scholarship is the realisation of the network of friends, colleagues, places, and events that have guided me to this fantastic place.

All photos above were provided by Ashley Thomas.

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From Bangladesh to Oxford

Not only is Ahmed Abu Bakr a Skoll Scholar and MBA student at Saïd Business School, he is also the former Head of Product & Experience at Jeeon LLC in Bangladesh. He tells his story of what brought him to Oxford.

“You are now a student at the University of Oxford.” -Induction day, Dean Peter Tufano, Said Business School, University of Oxford

Sitting in a room of 328 fresh MBA students, captivated by words of inspiration and felicitations – that was the first time that it TRULY hit me.

I was at one of the finest institutions of learning, surrounded by the best and brightest in the world – a place where world leaders were made. I was finally at Oxford.

I knew that giving back was a responsibility, not a choice.

My journey to Oxford really started straight out of college in 2012. My aspiration was to start my own venture. I also knew very early on, that I wanted my career to benefit the neglected and the marginalised. In the context of Bangladesh, I had enjoyed a privileged life and somewhere in my heart, I knew that giving back was a responsibility, not a choice.

I considered the MBA back then, rather naively in retrospect, as a possible degree that would help me understand business and prepare me to launch my own. And my sights were set on the very best of schools. Why? Back then it was about the prestige. But of course, an MBA without work experience was not going to be of much use. And hence I joined mPower Social Enterprises a tech consultancy working with the likes of USAID, Oxfam, Save the Children and so forth, to amplify their impact through technology.

My reasons for joining mPower were really two fold. Firstly, it was about working in a young company to understand the challenges of a startup. Secondly, and arguably more importantly, it was about working directly with two Harvard graduates (and founders) and having them as mentors that would shape me professionally and guide me into getting into one of the top schools in the world.

But six months into mPower, I was part of the founding team of a project that would eventually spin off into a company in its own right Jeeon. Jeeon connects rural patients with qualified doctors in the city, right from the village bazaars. We do this by equipping intermediaries (rural drug shop owners in village bazaars) with the training and technology necessary to collect comprehensive medical data about rural patients using our custom android app. This data is seen by our doctors in our city office, and after a thorough conversation between patient and doctor, facilitated by the intermediary, patients receive reliable medical advice, prescriptions and recommendations.

Ahmed is the former Head of Product & Experience at Jeeon LLC

Ahmed is the former Head of Product & Experience at Jeeon LLC

It has taken us three years to fine tune the model so that it is operationally self-sustaining. We started with a team of five. There were days when it was just me running to different people at mPower (mPower incubated Jeeon for two years) to get things done. I played a myriad of roles- from product design to tech management, to business modelling, to team building, to operations, and strategy. It has been a tremendous experience, where I learned and accomplished more than I had ever dreamed off!

Today we have raised over a million dollars in investment, have a 20 person team (excluding doctors and rural intermediaries), and are expecting to serve over 50,000 patients in 2017. The vision however, is much grander. We intend to be the first point of contact for all rural patients, for all matters relating to healthcare and wellbeing – much like Google for the web, we intend to be the trusted navigator for all healthcare services in rural Bangladesh.

…after much deliberation, I also realised that the needs of Jeeon were changing significantly…I was definitely not equipped with the skills, network, or visionary perspective that would be necessary to lead the system level transformation we aim for…

Amidst all of this, taking a year off for the MBA really was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever had to make. I was already responsible for something that would deeply affect millions of people in Bangladesh in the coming years. I was part of a stellar team of committed people focused on transforming healthcare on a nationwide scale. Jeeon was about to finally take flight, and the thought of stepping away was excruciating. But after much deliberation, I also realised that the needs of Jeeon were changing significantly. I had played my role well in prototyping and experimenting our way to a business viable service model. I had guided strategy and played a key supportive role in building the team and culture of the company. But I was definitely not equipped with the skills, network, or visionary perspective that would be necessary to lead the system level transformation we aim for at Jeeon.

And hence I decided to pursue the MBA at Oxford Saïd – for its explicit focus on social entrepreneurship, and in no small part for the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship – but primarily because at Oxford, I expect to develop the transformative thinking that I will need in the coming years. It is the end of one chapter in my life, and the beginning of another.

And I am here.

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Going outward: The best learnings from business school take place in the unknown

Songqiao Yao_Head Shot

Back in the first term of the MBA, treatment I wrote a blog on tending to our inner self. With all the possibilities and opportunities at business school, it is easy to get lost in an ocean of activities and forget why we are here in the first place. Now looking back from the middle of the final summer term, what a year it has been! Interestingly, the most memorable moments and major learnings took place when I was so immersed in an activity or with a community that I almost forgot about myself. In addition, when I took a plunge into the unknown and let go of the need for certainty, new doors and ideas opened up.

Many of us come to business school with a preconceived notion of what we would like to do.  We could have had a business idea, wanted to break into a certain industry or plan to work on a blueprint or roadmap for an emerging market. However, I have learned that the ability to let go of the prescribed plan brings better opportunities. We often think if we would try a little harder, work a little longer and talk to a few more people, we would be on the right track, but sometimes they could be the wrong things to pursue in the first place. If it is a new product or new business, it is often about industry trends, market behaviour, and the company’s complementary assets. Being able to have the acumen to sense and read the external environment takes years of experiences to accumulate. Understanding the ecosystem and gaining knowledge from existing players actually, becomes a crucial shortcut to save time and investment.

What about the plan and what we wanted since the beginning of the year? Accepting that we live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world means that we need to be adaptive to change and ready to change plans. Often it is more important to fully understand a problem than to be fixed on a solution. Our Entrepreneurship Project started out to build a tomato processing factory in Sierra Leone, but after months of learning from other factory’s experiences and similar examples in Nigeria and Ghana, we realise that it takes more than a factory to solve the problems we want to solve. To reduce food waste and strengthen food security, building a modern logistics system and improve the small-holder farmers’ cooperatives will do more for the farmers than merely a processing factory.

The Skoll Centre recognises the “solution trap” that entrepreneurs often fall into and offers the “apprenticing with a problem” grant that allows MBAs to be fully immersed in a problem larger than themselves and have the humility to learn from others before coming up with a solution. This will help our EP project grow and be better embedded within the local ecosystem. There are so many players already in the field addressing similar problems, it’s best to be complementary and collaborative and learn from the precious existing local knowledge.

Business is all about people and relationships with different stakeholders. Going beyond oneself means to make genuine connections, being able to listen, understand and empathise from a deeper perspective. One of my favorite classes this year is Leadership Perspectives from Humanities. In the last class, the professor discussed notions of leadership from moral philosophers such as Max Weber, Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber. Contrasting from Weber’s notion that leadership is all about the individual leader’s ability to bring a group of people to achieve certain goals; Arendt believes that it is the people that enable the leader to manifest a collective desire for change. Buber further elaborated and explained that it is building the “I-you” relationships rather than “I-it” relationships that make us great leaders. “I-you” moments mean caring for the other people, deep listening and making a lasting connection rather than the transactional nature of an “I-it” relationship. Opportunities to make “I-you” connections at business school are abundant, but one needs to actively go beyond the self and the autopilot mode of performing daily routines that our mind puts us in. To get a lot of things crossed off our to-do list, we need to keep going ahead without paying too much attention to the others.

The best part of the MBA experience, as all my classmates would agree, is the people. We cannot take it for granted that the MBA is one of the rare experiences in our lives that we get to learn from 340 classmates from different countries and backgrounds, from former military commanders from Australia; social entrepreneurs from South Africa; to technology gurus from France and finance experts from Japan. The numerous small group projects exposed us to different ways of thinking and working across industries and cultures. One of the best memories of my MBA year is participating in the Impact Investing Competition with four other classmates from Kazakhstan, Switzerland, US and Canada. I believe the reason that we were able to out-compete all the other European schools is because of the diversity of both expertise and nationalities on our team.

At the beginning of the year, I mentioned a childhood goal of visiting the Antarctic to my other Skoll Scholar friends. I never thought it would become a reality, and now I am working with other organisations on climate change education, expedition and women’s leadership, some projects that I never dreamt to be able to work on. Taking that initial plunge, going beyond myself into the unknown enabled new possibilities to present themselves.

Have I totally contradicted myself? Not at all. I actually think going inward and setting the right intentions enables the right external opportunities to take place. Plunging into the unknown with mindfulness will make the adventure much more fun and full of learning!

 

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Just Business

Maria Springer_Head Shot

Skoll Scholar, online Maria Springer, shop reflects on her classes during the Oxford MBA programme.

Economies can, patient and indeed should, work for everyone. While studying the MBA, I realised that all business is social business and that no business is all good or all bad. Every company has a choice. Companies can operate ethically and value social impact and environmental responsibility while maximising bottom-line profits. Of course, this choice is not a one-time decision. Companies must make and reaffirm this choice at the most senior levels of leadership on a continuous basis, not because they should, but rather because it’s good for business. With this understanding of social business, small, medium and large public companies can indeed be a force for good.

In Strategic Human Resources Management, I learned how wages, equity ownership, and benefits can motivate employees to deliver exceptional results. In Leadership, I learned how executives, investors, bankers and shareholders can deliver social impact without jeopardising financial performance. In Private Equity, I learned how companies can form a diverse Board of Directors to increase shareholder value. In Supply Chain Management, I learned how reliable suppliers, ethical manufacturing standards and robust environmental policies can make or break a company’s reputation and viability. And, in Strategic Brand Management, I learned how companies can defy unhealthy marketing standards to create engaged and loyal audiences.

I am walking away from the MBA a pragmatist, but also an optimist. I am clear that no business is all good or all bad; even Patagonia, Tesla, and Whole Foods get it wrong sometimes. I am also hopeful that companies are being forced to correct where they may have been wrong. Acting responsibly is becoming a business norm, required by clients and consumers alike. In response to the market, Wal-Mart, Shell and Monsanto have been forced to transform their operating practices and image in recent years.

Pragmatism and optimism feels more relevant than ever. After the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by United States police, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has gained unprecedented momentum as voices of outrage, fear, pain and frustration dominate the media cycle. Yet, I also see hope. Black-owned banks have witnessed an unprecedented number of depositors. Policy and social movements can be powerful solutions to widespread discrimination, but so can businesses that step up to address racism, inequality, and environmental injustice.

Throughout the year, as I walked into formals at colleges hundreds of years older than my country, I felt immense privilege. As a Skoll Scholarship recipient, I have been afforded immense privilege and as a white citizen of the United States, I was born with immense privilege. As I prepare for graduation, conscious of my privilege and the complex world we live in, I am encouraged that my classmates and I have been equipped with the tools required to start, run and grow businesses that will play a role in constructing just, equal and sustainable global systems.

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Diversifying myself at Oxford

How does one judge whether this year has been a successful one or not? Have we been able to achieve things we wanted to from this year? Have we picked up the skills that we thought we would like to? Have we found the jobs that we wanted to?

These are big questions and they are not easy to answer. But one thing on which most of my class agrees is that this has been one of the best years of our lives. There are no two ways about it.

What is the one thing that we are going to take away from this year? For me, and it would be the conversations – both within and outside the classroom. I believe that the person who does the listening in these conversations is the one who derives the most value from them. These conversations with people from across the globe and across industries have broadened my professional and personal perspectives. Furthermore, in our classes and study groups, the diverse approaches of my classmates towards problem solving, almost always so different from mine, has enabled me to learn from different ways of thinking and approaching challenges. One of the main ways I have grown this year is in my ability to have conversations about multiple business disciplines and industries. There are many who would cite this kind of growth as a highlight of their MBA – and I have certainly found this to be true in my own case.  I consider it a privilege to have lived this year in Oxford and to have grown in this way.

One thing which I have come to realise is the power of networks, rather than just networking. The people we have met this year and the relationships that we have fostered are going to stay with us. These are the people who are going to go and manage large corporations and build successful startups, and we will need each other at different points in our lives. In order to reap benefits from the network that we have built this year, it is very important to be conscious of how people perceive you. Do they have fond memories of you from a conversation, an event or a dinner? And when you drop a note 10 years down the line to one of them, these memories and how they thought of you back will stand out. I would like to believe that if, at the end of the year, many classmates perceive me as a friend – as someone they would love to hear from even 10 years down the line – then I have succeeded in my MBA.

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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.