Rising to the challenge
As Covid-19 caused global havoc, Oxford Saïd’s students and alumni continued to tackle world-scale problems
Covid-19 not only changed how we worked and studied in 2020, but the pandemic also inevitably had a profound effect on both training and recruitment.
‘Students were immediately worried about the job market,’ says Joy Bussell, Head of Executive Careers at Oxford Saïd. ‘Around 80 per cent of interactions between Oxford Saïd and Executive MBAs (EMBAs) will be face to face. And where I feel we stand head and shoulders above other business schools is that we have a careers academy on campus.’
Without being able to offer that unique on-campus experience, Bussell’s team had to consider what tools would give students the best chance of succeeding in this new environment. One obvious example is that employers couldn’t conduct job interviews in person.
‘Our students will ultimately be going through a selection process where typically the final interview will be face to face,’ says Bussell. ‘We have offered a huge amount of training around virtual impact and used ex-BBC employees to train students in how to set up the room, promote yourself, have gravitas, presence and, crucially, how to hold the audience.
‘We also worked closely with a lot of key employers to understand what the market intelligence was and communicated that to students,’ Bussell adds. ‘There were also understandable concerns about how full-time MBAs would commit to a different experience.
‘We always work closely with students ahead of them joining our programme, to enable them to start ahead of the curve, understanding how to engage with us ahead of the structured hiring season (for MBAs and MFEs). You can never fully replicate the experience of being in Oxford. We ran over 70 virtual events for MBAs during launch and saw higher attendance than we saw on campus.
‘With the incoming EMBAs, we also focused on virtual networking. It has been a bit like speed-dating — what would someone learn about you from a 15-minute conversation?
‘Talking to other business schools, I recognise that because of our established virtual Careers Academy and online careers learning, the School truly is ahead of the curve. Our coaching has continued apace with hundreds of career coaching sessions taking place online each month.’
Oxford Saïd was also able to call on its alumni to provide advice for the 2020 cohort based on their experiences from the last major economic crisis, the 2008 global recession. Covid-19 has also reshaped trends in the job market, with fintech and healthcare providing areas of continuing opportunity while other sectors struggle.
And Bussell adds: ‘We’re working with Women On Boards to support students to broaden and build their profile. That aligns closely with people coming to Oxford Saïd with significant skills and wanting to add value. It’s a key strategic partnership, and they work to support both men and women to secure those roles.’
Bussell joined Oxford Saïd in 2019 and says what differentiates the School’s executive cohort from their peers is their desire to tackle systemic world-scale problems.
‘It’s a huge challenge trying to manage our global ranking and employment record as a School that prizes social impact, and I see that as one of the major triumphs of the careers team. What hasn’t changed is that Oxford Saïd continues to celebrate how you apply your values to your career trajectory.’
DRIVING POSITIVE CHANGE
Tackling world-scale problems continues to inspire the members of our Oxford Business Alumni (OBA) Network. For example, Beth Larsen is the co-founder of Charm Impact, an impact investment platform that crowdsources debt financing for clean energy initiatives in the world’s emerging markets.
‘More than 800 million people globally do not have access to electricity — and a further one billion are connected to an unreliable grid,’ explains Larsen. ‘There are safe, clean solutions that could reach even the poorest and most remote of people, but they are not being distributed on a mass scale.
‘Unfortunately, many early-stage entrepreneurs who are looking to address access to clean energy, particularly in developing countries, are unable to access the finance required to grow their businesses. We’re aiming to address this through impact investment, enabling investors to drive positive change in the world while earning a financial return.’ Larsen is keen to connect with OBA members as Charm Impact looks to expand its investor base.
Another alumna who is using impact investment to tackle a global issue is Natasha Garcha, Director of the Innovative Finance team at Impact Investment Exchange (IIX). ‘Seventy per cent of frontline health workers are women but they get paid 11 per cent less than their male counterparts,’ says Garcha.
She sees the pandemic as a chance to build back with gender-equal financial markets. She worked on the third issuance of IIX’s award-winning Women’s Livelihood Bond series, the world’s first gender-lens, impact investing instrument to be listed on a stock exchange and quoted on Bloomberg. ‘The Women’s Livelihood Bond series will mobilise $150m from private sector investors to empower three million women from rural, low-income or marginalised communities in Asia-Pacific,’ she adds.
Covid has also prompted many of us to become community volunteers. This inspired Stella Schuck and her colleagues at BCG Digital Ventures to consider what could be done for small businesses and charities that will struggle to survive lockdowns without a digital strategy.
It resulted in the launch of Digital Boost which provides advice and guidance — from building a website and launching digital advertising to scaling up delivery for e-commerce — by connecting small businesses and charities to expert volunteers.
Schuck, a digital architect at BCG Digital Ventures, says: ‘I hope other members of the Oxford community — alumni, students, faculty — will support Digital Boost through mentoring and masterclasses. Please sign up to become a volunteer or connect with me if you’d like to get involved in other ways.’
The pandemic has changed the way we work. But in the case of Neil Yeoh, it has enabled him to launch OnePointFive, which aims to develop cost effective solutions for existing organisations that will eliminate human-made greenhouse emissions while creating long-term value and profitability.
‘I came to Oxford to develop a broad set of business skills that would permit me to pivot towards a career in climate change,’ says Yeoh. ‘The response to Covid-19 has demonstrated that remote work is possible. We don’t have the overhead costs and can pass on these savings to clients by mobilising digitally.’
OXFORD ASPEN LEADERSHIP SEMINAR
The Oxford-Aspen Leadership Seminar was launched in 2018. It is a collaboration between Oxford Saïd and the Aspen Institute in Colorado that promotes values-based leadership through a dialogue focused on reading, literature and philosophy. For the past two years, students from 31 business schools who are members of the Global Network for Advanced Management had been invited to take part in seminars that examined the ‘why’ of leadership, rather than the ‘how’. And one could certainly argue that there has seldom been a more important time for values-based leadership.
‘We previously ran one face-to-face seminar for 20 students because the intimacy of that seminar is what really makes it work,’ says Kathy Harvey, Associate Dean, MBA and Executive Degrees, at Oxford Saïd. ‘But when Covid happened we said we would offer our seminar online to all our MBA students and give them a chance to reflect on the kind of leader they are, and explore their own values and purpose through discussions, with literature, poetry and art. It meant that we were able to run something at scale which had never been done before in this context. And we were able to put students into smaller groups with the same tutor each week.’
The theme for 2020 was ‘Leading Through Chaos’ and three seminars, held across consecutive weeks during June, focused on ‘Self’, ‘Others’ and ‘Society’. Among the works under discussion was the article ‘Camus on the Coronavirus’ by Alain de Botton, which was published by the New York Times earlier this year, and a photomontage by Turkish artist Ugur Gallenkus that juxtaposed The Pietà by Michelangelo with a recent photograph taken in war-torn Syria.
In total, there were 135 unique student attendees. A feedback report revealed that 78 per cent of respondents said they would recommend the seminar series to other students, while 94 percent said Oxford Saïd should be offering similar online experiences. One student observed, ‘Although it felt uneasy at first to talk about weaknesses, I believe there lies great strength in recognising them.’
Another focused on ‘the importance of taking time and space to think and reflect (I am a very task-oriented person who is chronically ‘busy’!). I also came away with a determination to get better at telling people what my purpose/mission is.’
Inevitably, there was an element of learning on the go. But given that this year’s programme was able to reach so many more people than before, Harvey says, ‘We will continue to do the seminar online while offering something physical, possibly by way of a follow-up. ‘Whenever you try a new initiative, which is a bit different from the core MBA curriculum, if it’s small then it’s hard to create an immediate impact. But if you can do it at scale you create more noise and more feedback to create something sustainable.’
WORDS: RYAN HERMAN
PHOTOGRAPHY: GETTY IMAGES, SHUTTERSTOCK