Shiemaa Ahmed is a 2020-2021 Skoll Scholar at the University of Oxford. She is a social entrepreneur, passionate about economic development and social impact. In this blog post, she describes her journey to Oxford.
Being at the heart of the million person protest in Khartoum that took down a 30 year dictatorship, where almost 90% are under 30 and over 50% women, I was fascinated by the hope in the eyes of young people for a better future and a peaceful, united and developed Sudan. The Sudanese revolution reignited in me and millions of young Sudanese, the spark and passion to increase our impact to achieve Freedom, Justice and Peace.
My own revolution started a few years back. I was born in Elobied, the capital of agricultural and livestock trade in Sudan. I absorbed the culture and local traditions of honouring guests and generosity. I was also born to a brutal dictatorship, two civil wars and a country torn into two. I recon my school years, studying in a school with people from all around Sudan; Muslims, Christians, northers and southerners and I witnessed my own friends leave the only home they knew because of the political and economic divide.
At 16, I was pushed by family to study engineering, believing that it would bring the most financial benefit for me and the whole family, but I was drawn more to working in social impact. I could not find what I was looking for through engineering, and with a desire to increase my impact, I started working with NGOs, being engaged in civil society and the public life. As a student, I launched my startup, a platform for marketing Sudanese handmade traditional crafts working with women from my hometown Elobied and neighbouring cities in Darfur. It was a chance to contribute to the economic development of the people and ultimately the area. Unfortunately not long after we started working, my co-founders and I encountered some disagreements, and with the difficulty of operating a global business in Sudan with the economic sanctions, we had to pause our work.
Entrepreneurship is a very agile practice, mistakes are expected and accepted. I learnt this, not only after seeing our own startup crash, but also working with other entrepreneurs who become stronger with polished ideas and a clearer vision. Nevertheless, I was very convinced that to be an impactful social entrepreneur, one needs to really understand the context and be able to analyse the social and economic problems. I did not want to fall into a saviour’s complex trap, thinking I can change a world I did not fully understand, and after studying Development Planning, I wanted to put myself at the intersection of development and social entrepreneurship.
Continuing to work in impact, I worked in a think tank, where I got to assist social science researchers to examine the causes of the economic and social challenges in Sudan and write policy recommendations for them. I wanted to better understand the root causes of the development problems in Sudan and I got to be part of an amazing team of young people who share the same dreams and aspirations of a real, more equitable development of Sudan.
After working with international development/humanitarian organizations, I was exposed to the complexity and shortcomings of the international development field, and I could compare the possibilities and opportunities between working in an established organization and working in a social startup. One is stable, steady but bureaucratic with little room for change, and the other is nimble, scalable and innovative. I became more interested in the entrepreneurship eco-system building and enabling innovation. Specifically, the role of social entrepreneurship in development and the impact of the development plans on the social entrepreneurship eco-system.
You might be wondering, why do an MBA then? I asked myself the same question before submitting my Oxford MBA application, yet I have chosen the Oxford MBA because unlike most MBA programmes, it is focused on impact. Coming from a natural sciences background I need academic teaching on the concepts I have been doing without such training, and to discuss these ideas and examine them. I also need the management skills and knowledge the programme offers, but most importantly, to meet people with the same dreams and ambition is the most powerful!