Changemaker: Dreaming spires, inspiring dreams
At Oxford’s Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, students brainstorm solutions to global challenges, from accessibility apps to mental health services in rural Africa. Chris Blues CA explains why he is helping these budding entrepreneurs change the world for the better.
In the public imagination, studying at the University of Oxford is a romanticised Brideshead Revisited-style fantasy involving shuffling between honey-hued quadrangles, balancing dusty tomes on bicycles or arguing about Plato and Socrates in creaky medieval pubs. For the most part, it’s a vision that rings true (except for this year when students were forced to swap lectures in Wren-designed colleges for watching webinars in parental homes), with Oxford’s academic ambience having changed little in centuries.
One department does things slightly different, though. At the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, part of the university’s Saïd Business School, students might be seen in the school gardens soaked in sweat playing table tennis between classes. Or watching spoken word artist George the Poet riff on social inclusion. Maybe they’re having “walking meetings”, stopping under an oak tree to discuss Latin American fair trade. Because, as one Skoll employee tells CA magazine, “trees are a metaphor to talk about things”. Then there’s Skoll’s headquarters – an incongruous ziggurat in this city of dreaming spires.
It’s a can-do attitude: let’s get deals done and make things happen; shoot first and aim well.
“Skoll is the rebel on the block,” says Chris Blues CA, who, as Skoll’s Programme Manager for Social Ventures, helps to develop Oxford-led businesses that benefit the environment or society. Skoll aims to hatch a breed of ethical entrepreneurs and develop innovative solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems, from accessibility to forging more ethical ways of doing business with developing countries. There’s no specific social enterprise degree course at the centre; rather, it runs co-curricular courses open to Oxford students. There are also fully funded Skoll scholarships available to four lucky Saïd MBA students every year.
Skoll might be based in Oxford, but its origins lie more than 5,000 miles away in Silicon Valley, California. The centre was founded in 2003 with a $7.5m (then £4.4m) donation from Jeff Skoll, who made his fortune as eBay’s first full-time employee and President. As such, the free-thinking, “think-big, fail-fast, fail-well” idealism of tech titans such as Google or Apple is palpable at Skoll. “Our work has evolved from a North American approach to entrepreneurship,” says Blues. “It’s a can-do attitude: let’s get deals done and make things happen; shoot first and aim well. Skoll’s methods don’t just come from academia, but nature retreats, yoga and Google X-inspired accelerator workshops. Because we have such a diverse cohort of MBAs [95% of 2019-20’s class were international students, spanning 64 countries], beliefs and mindsets from Africa and Asia also have a big input; we listen to them and change the curriculum accordingly.”
Over the past 17 years, Skoll and Saïd alumni have spawned a slew of innovative social enterprises, such as Zoona, which delivers fintech services across southern Africa, and Kai Pacha Foods, which sells quinoa-based milk purchased from Andean farmers at fair prices. According to Blues, it’s important to view these enterprises as dynamic start-ups in their own right, rather than charities that might pop up on a friend’s JustGiving page. “None of these ventures have a long-term reliance on charitable donations,” he says.
“Instead, they look to capital to scale and grow just like any other business.” He also believes that the economic damage unleashed by Covid-19 may, conversely, create more purpose-driven firms. It’s an idea shared by Skoll himself, who gifted $100m to his California-based Skoll Foundation earlier this year specifically to fight the pandemic, including helping firms founded at the centre pivot their business models.
Blues’s backstory is no less socially responsible than the enterprises he works alongside. Following the completion of a geography degree, a desire to “understand how things work” led him to EY and qualification as a CA in 2013. “I reflect upon the CA qualification a lot,” says Blues. “It’s enabled me to speak the language of finance and understand the building blocks of any organisation.”
Following his departure from EY in 2014, Blues spent the next five years working for a series of socially responsible firms, such as grant-making group Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, online learning platform FutureLearn, and a two-year stint in New Zealand at social enterprise development firm Ākina, working with indigenous communities in the South Pacific. When the Skoll job was advertised in 2019, he applied immediately. “What made me apply was curiosity,” he says, “I wanted to spar with some incredible intellects.”
But social enterprise is a verb. Whether you’re an EY auditor, HR director or a social entrepreneur, considering social and environmental impact in your everyday work is a choice
The centre certainly attracts star wattage, not least at the annual Skoll World Forum. Billed as a “non-profit Davos”, it sees 1,000 social change luminaries such as Jimmy Carter, George Soros and Arianna Huffington gather in Oxford to discuss global problems. “Skoll puts you at the table, rather than being outside the room shouting in like Greenpeace or Extinction Rebellion,” says Blues. “Trying to change the conversation at the table is messy… [but] if you slightly move the needle of powerful individuals, interesting things happen.”
It’s an ethos that also extends to Skoll’s MBA students, who, Blues believes, will carry a lasting social consciousness throughout their careers as a result of being immersed in the organisation’s values. “Some MBAs might go into big business, and that’s fine,” he says. “But social enterprise is a verb. Whether you’re an EY auditor, HR director or a social entrepreneur, considering social and environmental impact in your everyday work is a choice.
“Social enterprise has changed a lot: 15 years ago, it was seen as ‘other’. Now, social and environmental responsibility is part of strategy at places like BlackRock and BP; it’s viewed as a competitive advantage, driven by shareholders, stakeholders and consumers who want transparent supply chains. And a need for talent – millennials and generation Z don’t want to work for companies that aren’t socially responsible.”
As we become accustomed to living with Covid-19 long term – and Skoll has responded by running a mix of in-person and virtual activities for this academic year, “designing flexibility into each programme,” he says – Blues reckons those working in financial services will play an instrumental role in any new purpose-driven corporate landscape. “I truly believe accountants will save the world,” he says. “Accountants are seekers of truth, guardians of fairness; our role is to articulate what is valuable. We should redefine ‘CFO’ and consider ‘CVOs’ (Chief Value Officers) instead. Accountants should also think about the social and environmental work of a business, rather than just the monetary aspect.
“We’re living in a Goldilocks phase. We have the data; we know how to physically solve the causes of global problems through technology without having to deal with the symptoms. If we wait 15 to 20 years, my niece and nephew will have to solve both the causes and the symptoms. For me, it’s a call to action. Most people from my generation – and those at Skoll – feel the same way. Sometimes, it just falls upon certain generations to step up and do things.”
Every year, the Skoll Venture Awards grants £50,000 in funding to a socially impactful business founded by an alumnus. Here are some of the success stories
Accomable: Rental accommodation platform founded by two childhood friends. After winning the Skoll Venture Award in 2013, the “Airbnb of accessibility” was itself acquired by Airbnb four years later.
I-Drop Water: By installing its water purification machines, Waterpods, in grocery shops throughout Africa, the company aims to reduce the price of drinking water on the continent.
Wazi: The company, which won in 2020, plans to connect rural communities in east Africa to mental health services.