My boomerang journey to Oxford University

libby headshot

My boomerang journey to Oxford University

Libby McCarthy is a 2020-21 Skoll Scholar. Here she shares what brought her to Saïd Business School and the Oxford MBA.

What do yellow beans, Bill Clinton, and a sprinkler have in common?

Threads of a 16-year journey that trace all the way back to an average high-school day in New Zealand.

As a geeky teenager, I signed up for a Model United Nations conference on a whim and was randomly assigned the country of Myanmar. I found Myanmar on a map and soon became enthralled by the country’s turbulent political history, state of complete isolation and Aung San Su Kyi’s then message of perseverance and hope. The conference ended, but my learning had just begun.

Wanting to do more, I entered speech competitions, volunteered with new New Zealanders from Myanmar, and walked to school so I could use my bus money to sponsor a child from Myanmar. I was full of adolescent energy, but on reflection, I lacked the nuance and tools to match my intentions with my impact.

As my friends headed off to university, I headed to work, and saved the funds to move to the Thai-Myanmar border. I first worked with a pro-democracy group, and after 6 months was invited by the community to move to a remote refugee camp of 25,000 to help prepare the community for resettlement.

mae la oon camp from above

I shared a bamboo hut and ate from the same rations as everyone else. Yellow beans with salt twice a day. I remember vividly the panic that pulsated throughout the camp the day salt was eliminated from daily rations. I remember the muted angst as cerebral malaria worked its way through the camp, targeting indiscriminately. Most enduringly, I remember the insidious mundanity and stunning loss of human potential. Vibrant contributors who wanted more out of their lives—to open a shop, grow a plot, provide for their families—had their hands tied behind their backs, slowly losing their sense of self one food ration at a time. This was not the way to unleash someone’s full human potential.

Having experienced the impact of policy at an intimate level in the refugee camp, I wanted to understand how decisions are made at the top. I wanted to be a fly on the wall in the rooms where salt rations were pulled. This question led me to spend 3 years working with the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) in New York. It was at CGI—working with governments, multilaterals, corporations, and philanthropists to combine forces in addressing the world’s most pressing challenges—I found I wasn’t the only one who felt uncomfortable with the current status quo. There was another way. I learned about the potential of business to drive social good. But something still wasn’t sitting right. While the efforts of global stakeholders were well intentioned, I found that they often were brutishly optimistic without an understanding of the complex reality on the ground.

clinton global initiative

Four years ago, I found a home for my values working at Proximity Designs in Yangon, Myanmar. Under Jim and Debbie Taylor, the values of being proximate to our customers, of making their problems our problems, and of co-creating solutions with them, permeate through the organization. Leading product for our irrigation business unit, I managed a portfolio of drip, misters and sprinklers that were proven to increase a farmers’ income by 250 USD or 25% of their income. Growing our portfolio and reach, I learned that true impact is not just a matter of introducing a shiny new product. In an industry where there’s often pressure to be the “most innovative,” I found that our most impactful innovations were invariably the least sexy. The devil was in the messy details.

Though our impact and growth felt invigorating, that voice inside me spoke up again. This time telling me it was time to go home.

I’ve come to Oxford to think through how to address inequality in New Zealand—the apex of a boomerang journey home. A year to simultaneously look back at what I’ve learned, and look forward to what could be. And where better to ask those questions than in the city and school that is leading the global conversation on how to build our systems back better. I’ve quicky learned, this is a place where any chance interaction, a snippet of a case study, or a potluck dinner can trigger that same lifelong trajectory change as the ‘model UN moment’ from 15 years ago. This time, my eyes are wide open.

libby next to irrigation system in field