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Rethinking Social Impact Competitions

Written by Julian Cottee (Social Innovation and Sustainability Expert) and Chris Blues (Programme Manager for Social Ventures).

Competitions, accelerators and prizes are now well-established fixtures in the social entrepreneurship world.

The Chivas Venture, The Earthshot Prize, Nesta Challenges, The Audacious Project, European Social Innovation Competition, Food System Vision Prize and Tata Social Enterprise Challenge to name only a few.

The ‘Gardeners’

Outside of award schemes that recognise retrospective excellence and best practice (like the UK Social Enterprise Awards for example), competitions come in a number of flavours. On the one hand there are the ‘gardeners’, who delve through the undergrowth looking for the green shoots of promising innovation to nurture. These are prizes like our own Skoll Venture Awards, which aims to spot potential and deploy small but targeted doses of no-strings capital to encourage growth. Other variants of the gardener paradigm are more involved, seeking to actively engage in and boost the evolution of new businesses.

In addition to publicity and funding, accelerator programmes offer a range of other services including learning and development opportunities, networking and access to investment, sometimes taking a stake in the business in return. 

The ‘Architects’

Elsewhere in the innovation support ecosystem are the ‘architects’ – challenge prizes that carefully identify problems that they or their funders are particularly keen on solving, and design tailored competitions to promote innovation in the sector. This is an idea with a long history. Famously, the British government in 1714 offered an award equivalent to several million pounds in today’s money for anyone who could come up with an innovation to precisely determine a ship’s longitude at sea. Today the X Prize Foundation offers similar amounts, and more, to those who can offer advances in diagnosis for medical conditions, or remove CO2 from the atmosphere. 

Both the gardeners and the architects of the social entrepreneurship world have in common the ambition of supporting innovation that our societies need, but for which there is not yet (or might never be) the market demand to unlock capital from traditional investors. They support young ventures with innovative ideas and high social impact potential, but with business plans that are still unproven. In between this high-risk grant capital and the world of traditional growth finance, is the world of social investment, which plays off the calculus of return on investment against the chance of societal benefit.

Systemic Challenges

But how well is our landscape of capital and other support for social ventures really enabling the potential of the best social entrepreneurs to ideate, prototype, launch and grow new businesses that provide answers to the world’s systemic challenges at the scale we need? Even since the inception of the Skoll Venture Awards in 2012, the number and breadth of organisations (corporates, governments, nonprofits, and academic institutions) building awards that catalyse social ventures has grown exponentially. The ecosystem might seem crowded, but are we filling all the right niches, and are we providing support at all of the crucial pinch points along the social entrepreneur’s journey to allow beautiful, wise and impact-led ventures to grow, and to fill the landscape? 

Social innovation needs gardeners and architects, and like any ecosystem, thrives on diversity and plurality. But by combining the best of these two approaches we might see something else too. Taking the big picture approach of the architect alongside the gardener’s ability to see possibility and provide it with what it needs to grow, we can map the system that enables and shapes social ventures to thrive, and ask how it could be improved. How are competitions feeding into the wider social innovation and investment ecosystem? Are we collectively selecting for and nurturing the most important attributes of truly impactful ventures? Are we duplicating efforts? How might social ventures move from one competition or accelerator to another most beneficially? How might we partner for increased impact? 

Competitions play a key role in celebrating and supporting individuals and teams who have chosen to follow their imagination and to demonstrate leadership and courage through building a venture. To serve them better we can step back and consider how we can work together towards just, equitable and sustainable systems.

My Journey Post-MBA

Florentina-Daniela Gheorghe, Skoll Scholar 2018-19, reflects on her own personal learnings moving out of Oxford in September 2019, a few months before COVID-19 struck the whole world.

“You will really understand the value of the MBA after 2-3 years,”

a friend and Oxford MBA alumnus told me last year.

I took the MBA as a reflection and learning year: to get to know myself better, improve my leadership skills, understand my strengths and my values in contrast, get to connect with people from all around the world. Learn not only about myself but about the state of the world: of business, of economics, of government. What a ride it was: from moments of exaltation, to moments of tension, to deadlines, to a variety of projects, to cultural alignment and conflict. A ride that I appreciate more and more with the passing of time.

I moved to Oxford for the MBA in September 2018 and moved out of Oxford in September 2019, a few months before COVID-19 struck the whole world.

I am very grateful for the opportunities that reached me in these hard times.

Here is what happened since September:

Visa troubles

I got my visa application rejected for South Africa from UK twice! When I finally received it, COVID-19 was spreading all over the world.

I had my ticket and luggage ready to fly the next day and went to the embassy to pick up my passport: I found an empty passport. I applied again; application was rejected again. I was devastated. I was so excited to spend some weeks in South Africa and do an internship with a cool payment startup for SMEs in Cape Town. I was introduced to the company’s founder by a fellow Skoll Scholar and friend from the Oxford network. Four months later, I received a visa which I never used: by now, it was February 2020.

The wine industry

I worked on a project I never imagined myself working on, in the English Sparkling Wine industry in Hampshire, UK.

With no place to stay in London and no visa for South Africa plans, in November I moved to a beautiful vineyard in the South Downs. What a splendid experience! Extremely grateful to a professor from Saïd Business School who recommended me for the project. For 3 winter months, I spend my days understanding the art of winemaking, the market and the sustainability challenges. I was dreaming to making our brand the first circular wine brand in the world! After walking my dog in the darkness of the vineyard post 4 pm every day, I spent many quiet evenings – a blessing after a busy MBA year. The most fascinating thing about wine making is that every single activity in the vineyard, every single touch of the vine can change the final taste of the wine.

My journey as an independent consultant was just beginning

Building on the relationship I developed during the class “Implementing new initiatives in business”, I continued working with an education technology startup in Oxford and helped the five people team think through its value proposition. So many wonderful ideas can arise when we put our customers’ needs at the center of our business decisions.

Social impact consulting for non-profits

While at the vineyard, far away from the city life, I found myself with extra time in the evenings. Towards the end of November, a colleague and friend at Oxford introduced me to a social impact consulting project for a London based consulting firm. Since then, together with other MBA colleagues, we mapped the fundraising markets in Romania, Egypt, Uruguay, scanned the world for emergency funds for children, and looked at global strategies for expanding the number of regular donors for different international non-profits.

Daniela pictured while doing a value proposition workshop for the wine producer team

My favorite project so far: access to finance in emerging markets

I got introduced to a skill development institute in East Africa by another colleague at Oxford. Since February, we together looked to map the so-called ‘missing middle financing gap’ for small businesses in Kenya and beyond and understand how we might ensure their access to the most needed capital. Then COVID-19 hit the developed world. Many African countries imposed their own form of lockdown. We are now looking at being part of the mobilization for recovery. 100+ million ‘new poor’: the African continent sees the dark consequences of broken supply chains and economic shut-down. It’s imperative we act. 

As a startup founder in an emerging market, I experienced first-hand the struggles for survival in under-developed support ecosystems for entrepreneurs. Talking to some mentors and system change experts, I knew I didn’t want to work in impact investing: there is enough money in the world. It’s the time for investors to step up during the pandemic. However, what the world needs more than ever is support for entrepreneurs to become investable, to survive and recover.

NEW! Climate tech startup

What else can I do from my small office desk in St Albans, UK? This time, my mentor in the Executive MBA cohort, introduced me to a circular economy startup run by one of her colleagues. I joined the team recently. We look to create a circular sourcing gateway for the textile and packaging industry. In my partnership role, I seek to bring people together and write fundraising applications in advance of our MVP launch in July this year. It’s so exciting to see how the world is progressing to circular strategies. Here is one of my favorite videos on the change towards a circular economy.

As I write this in June 2020, there is still a lot of uncertainty in the world post-pandemic. I am humbly trying to do my best to remotely support amazing initiatives. Though, my heart is in emerging markets, on the ground, in the streets, among people.

Daniela is a customer centricity consultant, ex social entrepreneur in ed-tech in India and a Skoll Scholar at Oxford Saïd Business School. Find her on Twitter @ella_gh

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Pandemics within a Pandemic

Tsechu Dolma is a current 2019-20 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. In this blog, Tsechu reflects on the last three months of the current situation. Sharing her lived experience growing up and how COVID-19 has exposed an already existing pandemic – systemic racial injustice.

My homecoming has been beleaguered with grief, anger, heartbreak, angst, exhaustion, and hope.

Ten weeks ago, as in-person classes suspended, borders shut down, and toilet paper ran out, I scurried out of Oxford and sought my mother’s warm embrace in Queens, New York. Little did I know then that I was stepping into one of the hardest-hit communities in the world, and the COVID-19 pandemic was exacerbating already existing pandemics.

This pandemic has exposed stark disparities in my beloved city as minorities are more likely to lose their job and die due to systemic racial inequality. Many states are reopening, and we are still seeing low-income areas and communities of color being hit the hardest in transmission rates. Death has been imminent, and disease prevalent in my neighborhood; we are the city’s working-class borough of immigrants. We all ended up here because we were escaping civil war, religious persecution, Jim Crow South, among others, and building our ethnic enclaves for security and economic mobility. Everything has felt so out of our control in the last three months.

My community and inner cities across the country are burning today, protesting the use of excessive force with perceived impunity on people of color by police officers nationwide; George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, these are just recent names added to a list of countless horrifying racist killings. I have been participating in the peaceful Black Lives Matter protests, and I have never once felt in danger or seen violence in these demonstrations. However, being a brown girl growing up in post-9/11 New York on refugee status, I have always been afraid of law enforcement. Every morning, starting in sixth grade, my classmates and I would line up for an hour waiting to pass through the metal detectors to get to classes. We had a police officer for every thirty students. What does this do to black and brown children’s psyche when you have armed police in your cafeteria, classrooms, and playground? We had very little margin of error. More of my classmates ended up in the prison system than in four-year colleges.

Crowd of people peacefully protesting, holding cardboard banners stating 'No Justice, No Peace'

Colonization, white supremacy has been around for centuries. Today, I am emboldened by demonstrations around the world. We need to sustain this movement with staying power to reimagine systemic and structural racial justice work radically. Currently, most of the funding does not go into black and brown communities. Every $1 a white-led organization raises, a black-led organization will raise only $0.24.

I leave you with this quote from Howard Thurman, Black-American educator, and civil rights activist,

All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born; It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung, the one more thing to try when all else has failed, the upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor. This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint, and men have lost their reason, the source of confidence when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash. The birth of a child — life’s most dramatic answer to death — this is the growing edge incarnate. Look well to the growing edge!”.

As our MBA program is coming to an end from a distance, and we step into our business and management leadership positions, I encourage my classmates to look well to the growing edge and be better allies. I will be using my Skoll Scholarship to fight racial injustice in the American inner-cities. We all have to do this work collectively. We need to prioritize supporting leaders with lived experience, leadership, and communities of Black people.

Author: Tsechu Dolma, 2019-20 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA.

If you can’t measure it, does it even exist?

Khanya Okumu is a 2019-20 Oxford MBA candidate and participant on our co-curricular Impact Lab programme. She reflects on one of the Impact Lab Masterclasses taught in the autumn term, an ever growing and popular discussion  by social entrepreneurs, impact measurement.

For quite a while now, in the world of ‘impact’, there have been many opinions on whether impact can be measured. Even more contentious views exist on how it should be measured and if there is scope for these measurement metrics to be standardized. To address this specific topic, the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship hosted a masterclass on the ‘Theory of Change and Impact Accountability’ as part of its Impact Lab Masterclass speaker series.

In a room of 100 people, less than a quarter were confident to admit they know everything there is to know about impact measurement and have the requisite skills to implement impact measurement well. This created fertile soil for speakers Nick Andreou and Francesco Valente (MBA 2018-19 candidates) to plant some ideas on how impact measurement works and how it should be applied to different initiatives.

The ‘why’ for impact measurement is relatively clear, imagine being a business owner or manager who did not monitor income, expenses, employee productivity or customer satisfaction, you would have no idea whether the business should continue or if you should just close shop. In the same way then it makes sense for social impact projects, programmes and investments to monitor and measure whether they are adding value in the way intended.

It’s the ‘how’ for impact measurement where things start to get blurry, and this is where a theory of change becomes important.

The logical steps in a theory of change start off with a needs assessment which identifies specific inputs or activities. These activities when done well lead to a specific set of outputs and outcomes. The result, therefore, should be impact.

I resonated with the initial definition provided by Nick and Francesco on what impact measurement is, as I am an accountant by trade, they defined it as ‘data collection and analysis – the accounting of the impact world’.

In order to do any kind of impact measurement well, the metrics need to be focussed on programme design, delivery and effectiveness. The three approaches covered in the masterclass are outlined in the figure below:

Figure table:

Impact (heading)
born ~50 years, example of bespoke study, focus on internal & external, is both quantitative and qualitative, has a low or different comparability, low to high rigour and very precise measurement.

Accounting (heading)
born ~20 years, example of GRI, ISO 26000,IRIS+ and more examples, focus on internal/external, is quantitative, has a high comparability, medium rigour and medium precise measurement.

Finance (heading)
born <5 years, example of Impact Money Multiple, focus on external, is quantitative, has a high comparability, low rigour and least precise measurement.

What is clear is that because of the varying outcomes to be measured different measurement tools such as reports, proxies and triangulation can be used. The challenges in adding rigour to the tools are the increase in costs and additional time required. Many ‘impact-first’ programmes tend to rely on external funding, funding which is intended to implement not necessarily for monitoring and evaluation. This is an opportunity for a work-around in the way funding is currently allocated by funds, donors and project sponsors.

By the end of the session, one thing was clear to me: there is a better understanding overall of impact measurement within the impact sector. Furthermore, our impatience with how metrics and measures could be standardised will draw us closer to a world where the metrics and measures are used in a way that adds value to all stakeholders.

The session noted above was part of a curated series of masterclasses for the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship’s Impact Lab 2019-20 cohort. This session was run by Nick Andreou and Francesco Valente and co-created by MBA students Marvin Tarawally and Aupah Makoond.

A new decade of impact investment: Three tactics to accelerate towards the SDGs

Tara Sabre Collier is not only a 2012-13 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA graduate- in 2019 she joined the Centre as a Social Entrepreneur in Residence. She has extensive experience in the world of social finance and international development, as a social entrepreneur and impact investment advisor.  As we begin a new year and decade, Tara Sabre shines a light on how far we’ve come (and how far we have to go) in achieving the UN SDGs.

This January kicks off an inflection point to consider the realities we have created since 2010 and those we aim to create by 2030. As of 2020, we now have ten years remaining to reach the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which serve as guiding pillars for envisioning a better future for the world.

Twenty years ago, the last time the UN set forth the ambitious Millenium Development Goals, we fell short of accomplishing some of the outcomes we envisaged. 2020 is different and can be a watershed moment for global development. Today, the private sector and public sector have partnered at historically unprecedented levels to tackle the world’s challenges. New allies have emerged, leveraging far greater amounts of philanthropic and commercial capital and every kind of vehicle in between. Impact investing, which was valued over $500 billion in 2018, continue to grow by leaps and bounds. By 2025, 30% of family offices expect to allocate 25% or more of the funds to social impact investments.

Nonetheless, the size of the impact investment required to reach the SDGs appears daunting in some cases. For example, achievement of SDG #7 (universal access to affordable and clean energy) would require $1.3-1.4 trillion per year until 2030. So how do we (the impact investment ecosystem) improve our odds of reaching the SDGs by 2030?

One important tactic that impact investors can take on is to pursue synergies across multiple SDGs. Researchers at Aberdeen University and University of Potsdam have already embarked upon fascinating research to analyze and forecast the synergies and trade-offs across the SDGs. This provides an evidence base for impact investors to accelerate and measure progress investing in multiple-SDG strategies, from gender-smart agribusiness development to climate-friendly infrastructure.

Another tactic is to innovate cross-sector partnerships. When impact investors pour capital into agriculture or education enterprises that impact SDGs, the business enabling environment can make or break the potential financial success and social impact of said ventures.  This is why alignment between impact investors and public sector will continue to be crucial; innovation can play a vital role in amplifying these alignments. Development impact bonds were the last decade’s major step towards innovating cross-sector alliances. The 2020s are an opportunity to bring technology, such as big data, blockchain and AI modalities, to continue innovating these alliances for more effectiveness.

Perhaps the most important tactic to accomplish the SDGs is to counteract “impact washing, i.e. the practice of funds or enterprises claiming impact in bad faith without generating any demonstrable social or environmental benefits. B Lab is one of the oldest sector-agnostic certification initiatives to bring accountability and transparency to the social enterprise ecosystem. And IFC launched their own impact investment standards in 2019. But for intentionally aligning impact investment with reaching the SDGs specifically, the Future Fit Business Benchmark is potentially one of the most powerful new tools for companies to understand and operationalize their impact.

Twenty years ago, there was no impact investment industry, no development impact bonds, no blockchain, no social impact certification agencies and barely any smartphones! And yet, despite the shortcomings, the period of the Millennium Development Goals was marked by biggest drop in global poverty in recorded history. Today, we have a fleet of new technological advancement, more supportive business enabling environments and a thriving new asset class supercharging our progress towards global development. Even with the enormous scope of the Sustainable Development Goals, with continued progress we may be on pace to accomplish them this decade.

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My journey from Sydney to Oxford

Rangan Srikhanta is a 2019-20 Skoll Scholar and MBA. He is dedicated to equal and fair education for all as a catalyst for future progression and access to opportunities for the world’s most marginalised communities. Rangan shares the story of how this came to be his passion and how he ended up at the University of Oxford doing his MBA.

My journey to Oxford isn’t a typical one, but then again – as I soon found out, no one’s is!

Born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, my family and I fled a civil war that would change the lives of millions of people. Arriving in Australia, it took me many years to realise that social disadvantage transcends nations and disproportionately affects minorities.

Many government policies when combined with externalities, in whatever their form, first manifest as minor differences in education and health in early childhood, but snowball into much wider social divides later in life (lower life expectancy, lower employment opportunities and so on). Layer in the rapidly changing landscape, thanks to technology – a fast forming digital divide, would also become synonymous with an opportunity divide.

As fate would have it, in 2005, I found an opportunity to do something to contribute to improving access to educational opportunities for thousands of children by closing the digital divide. One laptop per Child (OLPC), was a partnership among businesses, NGOs, and governments to produce the world’s least expensive laptop and to distribute that device to children all around the world. I was intrigued by OLPC’s vision of bringing those sectors together to solve social problems. I was equally impressed by the low-cost laptop that OLPC proposed to create.

Rangan Srikhanta is Ceo of One Education, an offshoot of the One Laptop Per Child scheme.

The device, which came to be called the XO, would cost just $100 a piece to manufacture, had free and open software, ultra-low power usage, a sunlight-readable screen and be field repairable.

Inspired on so many levels, I chose action over theory, opting to make numerous late-night phone calls to MIT to figure out what we could do to bring the project to Australia. Armed with what would be my greatest asset, my child like naivety on how these projects came in to being, I set upon a journey that would not only improve educational opportunities for thousands of primary school children but also change my entire trajectory in life.

Whilst our early days were focused on advocacy, it wasn’t until after our volunteer group formalised into One Laptop per Child Australia that I realised that the OLPC initiative needed a re-think to some of its core principles.

After delivering computers to many remote communities, it was clear that flying in, dropping off computers for free and then leaving was not sustainable and would undermine our ability to improve access and usage.

A major challenge facing remote schools in Australia is the tenure of teachers. On average teachers last 8 months. Any model that required face-to-face training was not scalable, would only serve to build a dependency relationship on our organisation, and do little to build local capacity to overcome teacher turnover.

In fact, we found there were many dependencies on suppliers (by design) that resulted in schools being forced to come back for repairs, support etc. This was a market failure that increased the cost of technology and reduced access to those that needed it most.

After evolving our programme over 10 years, raising just under $30 million to train over 2,000 teachers and deliver over 70,000 computers, it became clear that I needed time and space to reflect on my journey into the future.

Truth be told, after the management rollercoaster I’d been through over the past decade, I wasn’t convinced I needed an MBA. But to classify Oxford’s MBA with its deep connection to the Skoll Centre as ‘just another MBA’ is a career limiting move for anyone who wants to lead an organisation deep into the 21st Century. It forms the reason why I wanted to come here – this MBA, is a place to consider how externalities need to be core business for all executives.

One thing I didn’t anticipate was how the power of such a resilient institution like Oxford could be a catalyst for my own change. In my short time on campus, not only have I been able to reflect on why I came here, but have also started to reflect on where I will be going.