Whilst on her MBA trek to Nairobi and Kigali this year, Gillian Benjamin had the opportunity to meet up with Oxford alumni working in social impact organisations.
Dennis is a recent Oxford Saïd 2015 – 16 alum who has been based at Dalberg in Nairobi since January 2017. I had a chance to chat to him at their office while on the 2017 MBA Africa Trek, where 17 MBA students travelled to Kenya and Rwanda to meet the businesses and individuals driving Africa’s growth story.
Dennis completed his undergrad in Actuarial Science in Nairobi, followed by a Masters from Columbia. He then worked as a life insurance actuary for PwC in New York for four-and-a-half years before being overcome with an itch to come back and create positive impact on his home continent.
What made you choose Oxford Saïd?
I started looking at various programmes in the US and the UK and Oxford stood out to me for two reasons. The school is very strong in social impact and I knew this was the direction I wanted to take – the Skoll Centre was housed there – so this attracted me.
They also have quite a number of scholarships available for African students. I applied and was fortunate to get admitted and receive a Saïd Foundation Africa scholarship which helped tremendously.
How did Oxford enable your career transition?
While at Oxford I was constantly on the lookout for careers that had a social impact component to them. I joined the Social Impact Oxford Business Network (SI-OBN) and through this I learnt about Dalberg. The idea of getting into a consulting firm that was purely about impact got me interested.
Oxford was also key in preparing me for interviews at Dalberg. I went from not knowing how to do a case interview to being very comfortable with the process thanks to my peers.
In Dalberg cases you aren’t just thinking about the client, but about multiple stakeholders and the broader ecosystem, and most times you aren’t actually thinking about profit but about the impact the client should have. So I tailored the standard consulting frameworks I learnt at Oxford and honed this to Dalberg.
I also organised the Africa Trek from my cohort and while we were in Johannesburg we visited the Dalberg office. Here I met Carlijn Nouwen, the Director of the Joburg office and she put me in touch with Nairobi recruitment. Then when a position arose I was able to apply and was already on their radar.
What mind shifts did the MBA bring?
Actuarial training is very rigorous and technical but it is only one way of thinking about business situations. I’m grateful for this training as it did imbue with top-of-class analytical rigor. However, in taking courses like Strategy, Leadership and Entrepreneurship it felt like there was a brain muscle I was exercising that I didn’t know existed. The MBA brought a completely different way of thinking to compliment my technical mind-set. It added a dimension to my thinking that I didn’t even know I needed. Now I’m able to think about problems analytically and strategically – I’m able to handle the complexity that comes from dealing with projects that involve lots of stakeholders and many moving parts.
What advice would you give to other students who are thinking about pursuing an MBA?
The first step is to do a lot of introspection to figure out what your career journey has been so far, your strengths and weaknesses, and your personal and career goals. You need to be brutally honest with yourself about who you are and what you want to achieve and use that to choose a school that aligns well with your goals.
Different schools have different focus areas – for example some are renown for finance, others have a heavy focus on consulting while others provide a lot of support for entrepreneurs. This affects the type of people the schools attract and the students they ultimately admit. So figure out which schools will make you a better person, a better professional and provide you with access to a strong alumni network in your areas of professional interest.
The second step is to prepare for the applications. Take the GMAT as early as you can and get it out of the way. Do as well as you can on the GMAT because this informs scholarship decisions, in addition to other factors. Also reach out to others who have done it before who can give you guidance on your essays. My first drafts were quite unrefined, but in time I was able to craft my story and communicate this well.
Tell me about your job search process:
I applied to some of the larger corporate consulting firms during the MBA recruitment cycle but I didn’t quite enjoy the cases as much as I enjoyed Dalberg’s case interviews. While completing Dalberg’s I was like, “yeah, this is actually stuff I could see myself doing for the long-term.” It was interesting to me and got me engaged.
Dalberg interviews have a fit component where they try to understand your background, your motivation for being in consulting in the development space and understand whether you’ll fit with the culture – the company is not hierarchical and growing fast.
How has the city changed since you lived here?
There is a lot of infrastructure development – a lot more buildings and roads. There are also a lot more people. Walking around the city it feels a lot more crowded –almost kind of like a New York.
Also there is a lot of exciting stuff happening in entrepreneurship and innovation. There are all these really cool businesses emerging and you can just see it growing. We also have many multi-national organisations setting up in Nairobi like GE, IBM and Google. So it’s really growing in terms of infrastructure, population and business.
What is the alumni network like in Kenya?
We have quite a strong presence in Nairobi. In my cohort, there are two of us and many people from years before. A lot of people are working in social enterprises and in consulting in organisations such as M-KOPA and Open Capital Advisors.
What are you currently working on?
I have just completed my first project which was an ecosystem study of the digital financial services available to small-holder farmers in Tanzania. We did this to identify gaps in the system where our client could then intervene to ensure the farmers could access digital financial services.
What do you enjoy most about the work?
It’s really engaging and impactful. And it’s varied – for example my first project was on financial inclusion. My next one might be on health or energy. So it changes all the time.
Dalberg’s culture is flat and the people are very approachable. I have colleagues who I call friends as well. Here people genuinely care about you and you are encouraged to bring your whole self to work. It’s a different environment and I’m really happy here.