Social Impact Careers Conference – Julia Standish-White and Débora Gouveia

“The question is no longer what are you doing to do to change the world, it’s how you are going to change the world”.

With those words, Dean Peter Tufano opened the Social Impact Careers Conference at the Saïd Business School on Friday morning. This conveyed the mood for the conference proceedings: one of optimism, urgency and responsibility. The Conference was geared towards encouraging delegates to choose career paths that had a social impact, and the bigger that impact was, the better. As a student finishing up my Masters in Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation here at the University of Oxford, I was excited to attend the Conference, and gain a deeper sense of what such a career path might look like. The Conference certainly delivered on this, as well as on providing me with some practical next steps to pursuing this path.

The opening keynote address was delivered by Dr Vivienne Ming, an extraordinary woman who is unequivocally dedicated to doing good in the world, largely through her own artificial intelligence innovations. Her address was raw, real and radical. She shared five insights that she has learned as an entrepreneur. These included sentiments such as, ‘social entrepreneurship is nonsense’, ‘entrepreneurs are not special’, and ‘innovation fails’. My key takeaway from her address, was the integrity with which she pursues her work. Dr Ming has relentlessly pursued innovations in order to make the world a better place. She has developed technology based on her son’s diagnosis of diabetes that will have ramifications for thousands of young children. She is deeply committed to making change, and to sharing her ideas with the world for the betterment of society.

“If you are there to solve a problem in the world, you don’t get to pivot.”

Following this inspirational keynote, was a panel discussion on the future of education careers. After receiving such arguably life-changing insights in the keynote address, this discussion felt laboured. The panelists spanned a variety of business areas – from Pearson Education, to Dalberg consulting to the LEGO Foundation. The highlight for me was the ‘icebreaker’ in the beginning where the audience had to build a duck with Lego blocks in 45 seconds. Beyond this, there was a high-level discussion on the importance of social impact in the education sector, and how important it is to facilitate the inclusion of social impact into any given career. An important point was made that ‘the time has gone that other people are responsible for our own personal development’. My key takeaway from this discussion was that impact can be achieved in a number of ways in one’s career, and that the responsibility lies within ourselves above all else, to ensure that we are striving to achieve this.

During lunch there was a fascinating array of organisations represented at the Careers Fair. This included AgriDevelop, a farming initiative throughout Africa and Zinc, a social enterprise that is ambitiously trying to solve the world’s biggest problems. A commonality across these companies was the rate at which they were growing. They are both in the process of opening up second offices and have plans for expansion beyond that. This was an encouraging reminder of the pace with which good, conscious, business is expanding.

After lunch, the conference broke into practical workshop in areas such as innovative finance and exponential technologies. The session on problem solving and design thinking challenged us to use unconventional frameworks to tackle perplexing social issues. One of the cases discussed the formulation of common standards for measuring impact under the Sustainable Development Goals, while the other called for the use of non-linear thinking to address the problem of plastic pollution in oceans. For me, the most interesting part of the session was having to work with small groups to come up with ideas in under 30 minutes. This quick group work exercise allowed us to discuss the advantages and limitations of applying design approaches to systemic thinking, such as what’s required for the implementation of a circular economy in the case of the plastic pollution problem.

The Conference closed with a keynote address delivered by a South African Oxford alumnus, Yusuf Randera-Rees. In a candid, provocative and fun speech, he shared the ups and downs of a career dedicated to impact investment. Though Randera-Rees has raised millions of dollars to support entrepreneurs in the developing world through the Awethu Project, these results still pale in comparison to the exponential impact he intended to have in the beginning of his career. Work on the ground, he highlighted, takes you away from a linear journey into a much more meandering path, full of unexpected and complex challenges. The first leaders his company supported were selected through carefully designed tests – a sound method for finding some of the smartest, most capable people in the country, yet completely ineffective when it came to uncovering true entrepreneurial potential. Yet while urging the audience to go into the social impact field with open eyes and clear goals, Mr. Randera-Rees inspired us to seek purpose. His passion for unlocking the potential of South Africans who would otherwise not have access to support in their ventures showed how fulfilling it can be to dedicate a career to taking action on a problem that matters to you.

The Social Impact Careers Conference was an uplifting and inspiring experience. It provided me with a deep sense of optimism and responsibility. I am optimistic about how the business sphere will continue to realise its ambitions of achieving social impact. I feel responsible for being a part of this realisation. Once again, the Weidenfeld Hoffman Trust has assisted me in clarifying the kind of career I would like to pursue when my time at Oxford comes to an end, and for this, I will be eternally grateful.

Weidenfeld Hoffmann scholars attend the conference