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:
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.
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
Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018
Hugh Courtney 2018 EMBA student at the Saïd Business School, reports on the Skoll World Forum session ‘Emerging Technologies: Shifting the Path from Poverty to Prosperity?’
Whilst Silicon Valley pundits are quick to espouse the benefits of a world transformed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, many detractors worry about the impact that Automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will have on jobs, inequality and livelihoods. Whilst this debate centres on the developed world of the USA, EU and UK, are we considering the impact this will have on low and middle-income developing countries where the majority of the world’s population live? On a gloomy Thursday morning in Oxford, this was the question raised by Stefan Dercon (Professor of Economic Policy, Blavatnik School of Government).
Many of the benefits of Automation and AI are well known and frequently cited by their proponents. It will increase efficiency and throughput, allocating available resources more effectively and freeing humans up to think and be creative, removing the need for humans to perform repetitive tasks. What about opportunities for poor people? Terah Lyons (Executive Director, Partnership on AI) and Gargee Ghosh (Director, Development Policy and Finance, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) see healthcare and precision agriculture as possible early beneficiaries. Vaccines designed to stimulate the bodies own antibodies show promise in leading to a reduction in communicable diseases. In agriculture developing more resilient crops (such as green super rice), mapping regional soil composition and remote image mapping could generate significant benefits for yield, sustainability and planning for 75% of the world’s poor who are farmers. Ghosh is quick to point out however solutions need to contain a bundle of different technologies to be effective. She also notes that engaging with the correct end user of the solution is very important to avoid designing technologies what people are unlikely to adopt (one such example was an innovative seed planter which had to be redesigned because the it was too heavy for the end user, primarily women, because only men had been consulted in the early design stages).
Maryanna Iskander (CEO, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator) has a counterintuitive view on job losses and job creation in Africa. Through her work in South Africa, which has the second highest youth unemployment rate in the world at 54.2%, she has found that young job seekers do not have an expectation of a linear career path, but rather they expect to “hustle”, which she asserts will enable them to adapt more easily to a changing world. In fact a country like South Africa may actually be less susceptible to job displacement than a developed country, an assertion supported by a report conducted by the World Bank which found that the automatable share of employment (adjusted for adoption time lag) was lower than the average for an OECD country (57.0%) at 47.9%. In an automated world, humans will naturally occupy positions where empathy and emotive abilities are required, which may mean less disruption of jobs in countries like South Africa, where STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) jobs make up a small proportion of existing jobs.
Job seekers developing skills at Harambee Youth Accelerator. Picture Credit: Fred Swaniker (Facebook)
Creating solutions that are not exclusionary or ignorant of the needs of the poor is an important challenge to overcome. Lyons believes the onus is on technology companies to ensure this does not happen. Her organisation formed a board consisting of a balance of NPOs and private sector stakeholders. In addition, she points to engaging early with constituencies which may traditionally not have been represented or only engaged at a late stage. Given that regulation tends to lag innovation, Lyons asserts that the actors in technology need to hold each other to account, pointing to her previous findings whilst working for the Obama government that the private sector was spending on average eight times as much on research into AI than the government (as at 2016).
For Iskander ensuring solutions are not exclusionary is not only about regulation but also getting to grips with the realities and dispelling myths. Understanding the root of the problem is key and as Iskander points out, this is not always as simple as one might expect. Her organisation makes use of data in many cases to confirm what they already know. Despite the much-publicised penetration of mobile phones across Africa this does not always translate into usable information. In Iskander’s experience, people may have access to phones but are not as likely to have access to data (air time). Counterintuitively this increases the importance of using multiple channels to communicate including traditional print.
In closing Dercon pointed out that the session raised more questions than it answered. One aspect is however clear: the fourth industrial revolution will have a revolutionary impact on how we live, but path from poverty to prosperity will remain the responsibility of humans.
 World Bank, Unemployment, youth total (% of total labor force ages 15-24) (modeled ILO estimate). Unemployment, youth total (% of total labor force ages 15-24) (modeled ILO estimate) | Data. Available here [Accessed April 12, 2018].
 World Wide Web Foundation, 2017. A SMART WEB FOR A MORE EQUAL FUTURE. Webfoundation.org. Available here [Accessed April 12, 2018].
Skoll Scholar 2016-17, Alex Shapland-Howes, is passionate about education. He spend several years teaching Maths and Politics in London schools before he led the major growth of UK education charity, Future First. In this blog, Alex explores the future of our education system and the classroom experience.
It is sometimes said that school classrooms look the same today as a hundred years ago.
Students often still sit in rows of desks, writing about Shakespeare on reams of paper. They practise algebra in books and teachers mark them. Blackboards are now white, but teaching is still mostly led from the front of the room.
Yet this description masks huge cultural and pedagogical changes over the last century. Corporal punishment has gone. Girls and boys are now (usually) educated together and both take subjects historically restricted to the other gender. Children with special needs are included and catered for. And whilst teachers do often stand at the front, they employ a whole range of different techniques such as student- and peer-led learning. Our classrooms are also more diverse than ever before.
Almost all would agree these are huge, positive changes. They are. But whilst this represents seismic progress over the 20th century, the change in the last 10-15 years has, perhaps surprisingly, been slower.
Schools in the UK have improved overall. Results are getting better, albeit too slowly (especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds). Much more is known about how to turn schools around. There’s been a revolution in the use of data to help students make progress. The Academies programme was born and grew. But in the classroom itself, progress has been evolutionary not revolutionary.
This steady classroom development has taken place in the context of one of the biggest technological revolutions the world has ever seen. Smartphones. Tablets. Broadband. Netflix. Crowdfunding. Kindles. Those George Clooney coffee machines. None existed when I was a school boy.
But we’ve yet to see these types of technology truly transform the classroom. Teachers now do more on computers than ever before. Students do too. Computer Science is being rolled out as a subject in schools across the country. In Higher Education, we’ve started to see the adoption of MOOCs.
Yet we’re only now at the advent of the technology that truly can transform our schools. Perhaps the greatest opportunity lies in ‘personalising’ learning.
One of the biggest challenges for teachers is supporting those students finding a topic difficult, whilst stretching the others who pick it up quickly. With so-called ‘adaptive learning’ technologies, students are able to benefit from additional (computer-led) tutoring that is personalised to them according to how they’re progressing. The most revolutionary aspect of the new technologies is that not only will the technology be able to adjust according to whether a student answers a question right or wrong, but it will be able to spot where they’re going wrong and try to fix their misconceptions.
Imagine every student being given individual support, personalised to the exact stage they are at, all the time. That’s the opportunity.
As with most technological disruption, alongside opportunity comes risk. Firstly, this technology must not be seen as a chance to replace teachers, downgrade their importance, or hire fewer of them. These technologies are an opportunity to help teachers maximise their impact on students. One day computers may become so advanced that a conversation is required about whether a robot really can replace everything a teacher does. Even with this new technology, we are absolutely nowhere near that point.
Attention must also be drawn to who is providing this technology and who therefore owns the data. As leading EdTech thinker Nick Kind has observed, Google, Facebook, Amazon et al are already positioning themselves as leaders in this field too. Each relies heavily on data. So does adaptive learning. As Kind argues, schools and their pupils will miss out on great innovation unless we make sure this data is open to start-ups as well as titans.
Early adopters in the profession will bring others on board when they see what is possible, but it is imperative that the companies leading this charge engage properly with the profession. The best innovations will be co-led by teachers, technologists and experts in learning science. The companies that act on that early will win this race.
Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.
MBA Candidate 2016-17, Davidson Edwards, at the Saïd Business School gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum session “Data-Driven Models for Change”.
As I pushed open the doors of the well-lit lecture theatre and entered into the business school corridor, my mind ran busily over the last session’s insights. I’d just listened to a panel comprised of Jessi Baker, Ania Calderon, Sarah Jakiel, Oren Yakobovich and Ma Jan; moderated by Jake Porway. Each panelist was a change-maker and innovator, leading an organisation that leverages data-driven models to tackle pressing social problems. Their selected mission ranged from combatting modern-day slavery, as with Polaris, to validating the ethics of supply chains, as with Provenance, to exposing producers’ non-compliance with environmental standards, as with IPE (Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs).
The thesis behind their session was simple: without the necessary data, we cannot even begin to address these massive problems. This fact is well evidenced by Polaris, whose analysis of 33,000 cases of human trafficking in the United States has revealed 25 predominant types, each with their own business model and network of stakeholders. Furthermore, with these insights, partnering law enforcement and non-governmental organisations are now able to execute targeted interventions and more effectively save lives.
As I sat in the lecture hall, I was both excited to hear of the progress and troubled by an unsettling question: “have we only started doing this recently?” You see, an estimated “21 million people worldwide are victims of forced labour” (Unseen, 2017), so given that cluster analysis was discovered in the 1930’s (Driver & Kroeber, 1932), I’d assumed it had long been thrown at the issue. But after listening to Ania talk about Open Data Charter’s challenges getting governments and organisations to share data, or even agree on standards, I began to empathise with the systemic nature of the problem. As emphasised in Atul Gawande’s moving opening plenary speech, the problem was not discovery, but delivery.
To lend jargon from Saïd Business School’s Strategy and Innovation courses, the ‘nascent space’ that is data-driven social impact, has yet to agree on a dominant model. We have yet to figure out how to incentivise governments to share their data with organisations, or what standards social impact organisations should adhere to, or how to provide the mass of human capital necessary to make data-driven impact commonplace. But the power of viewing the problem through this lens is that we already know how to deal with nascent spaces. We prioritize collaboration over competition and share lessons learnt, we set universal standards to allow efficient transactions, we consider the landscape as a network of actors with individual motivations, and we work to build up complementary resources.
Thankfully, the panelist session highlighted efforts in this direction, Open Data Charter has gotten over 70 governments to agree on standards for publishing data (Open Data Charter, 2017), Polaris is partnering with Mexican organisations to curtail sex trafficking across the border, Videre Est Credere sources data from various actors with various motivations and factors this into its data checking process. And efforts such as Skoll’s organisation of this panel, serve to move data-driven models away from the early adopters to the mass of social impact leaders taking on today’s pressing problems. There is much left to do but these valiant efforts show significant promise.
If our ‘impact motive’ can mirror the ‘profit motive’ in capitalist markets, then our collaborative efforts should make well-thought-out, tech-enabled approached to solving social problems the norm, in coming years. I’m eager to see the development of this space and play my part.
Oxford’s Fierce Compassion – Series of Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2016.
1+1 MBA student and Skoll Scholar, pillsAshley Thomasgives 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.
Oxford’s Fierce Compassion – Series of Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2016.
MBA student and Rotary International Foundation Scholar,Mariko Nakayamagives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘Leapfrogging Development: How New Technologies will Accelerate Change’.
Solving the problems that matter – this session was definitely one of the most inspiring and full of “Wow!” and “Ah-ha!” moments for many of the audience, at least for me! The session really showcased the new technology and applications that had the potential to better reach underserved populations, navigate market gaps, and allow developing countries to leapfrog outdated models in ways that I never could imagined.
The session kicked off by Obi Felten, director of Google X introducing the new technology such as Google Glass, a self-driving car and Project Loon – the Internet-blasting balloon initiative. The wow moments continued with the five presentation that followed – namely; a remote sensing technology presented by Jim Taylor, the chief executive of Proximity Designs, a self-powered mobile WiFi presented by Juliana Rotich, the executive director of BRACK.org, a drone delivery and logistic system presented by Andreas Raptopoulos, CEO and Co-founder of Matternet, Inc. a 3D-mapping of oceans presented by Sly Lee, founder and president of The Hydrous, and digital currencies presented by Sarah Martin, the vice president of Digital Currency Council.
At the beginning of the session, Obi Felthen addressed three critical tips in order to accelerate the change we hope to see through new technology and its application. The first tip; start with the problem, not the technology. The second; think from a customer’s perspective so that one can ensure that he or she was able to solve the problem that matters to the users. And finally the third tip; partner with the experts in order to introduce the product to the market.
Personally, the story behind the development of the self-driving car gave me the “ah-ha” moment with regard to the first tip that Obi Felthen mentioned. It illustrated an example of thinking through the root cause of the problem. The thought process behind the innovation was not how Artificial Intelligence can be applied in day to day life (which I initially thought it would be the case) but it rather started with the thinking of the problem; how car accidents could be reduced. As a result, the emerged radical idea was to remove people, who were identified as the major cause of the car accidents!
In addition, it was interesting to hear that public organizations are part of this journey. The usage of drones in order to deliver medical equipment in collaboration with World Health Organization and the 3D mapping of oceans in order to support Maldives, the lowest-lying country in the world built on the planet’s most endangered ecosystem, coral reefs, illustrated how the problems would meet the new potential solution with a partnership with the public sector.
Having worked in the international development agency, I really enjoyed the session and I was inspired by how the new technology and its applications have already or were going to solve the problems that I had not imagined before.
One audience member asked whether any of the presenters had an idea of an effective way to connect the radical technology with people who were tackling the problems on the ground. The answer to this question was yet to be discovered, but after having such “wow” moments, I was left with an optimistic thinking that someone will be able to answer this question at the next year’s Skoll World Forum, or if not then, in a few year time…!