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MBA's Start-Up Ventures Make A Social Impact In Emerging Markets

MBA students prove that entrepreneurs can create a great social impact and develop profitable business models at the same time.

Wed Dec 10 2014

Julia Glenn spent most of her career as an equities tech developer in the City of London, working for investment banks and hedge funds including Credit Suisse. Now she is a social entrepreneur, helping to develop shelters for the world’s most vulnerable people including in the Middle East, the Caribbean and South America.

Extremis Technology, her fast-growing social venture, designs hurricane shelters and pop-up transitional homes. Inspired by the events of 2010 in Haiti, in which millions where displaced by an earthquake, Julia has grown her company to have three products in a range: flat-packed hurricane shelters and seismic isolators.

“We can deal with hurricanes or we can deal with volumes in terms of housing people quickly,” says Julia.

Having risen through the ranks at Credit Suisse to vice president of new business, she began an MBA at Norwich Business School in the west of England and graduated in 2012.

Julia illustrates the way social entrepreneurs can create a great social impact while developing profitable business models at the same time.

This is something that many graduates seek, but which is much harder to do in practice.

“We would like to prove that you can build a sustainable business in Africa that also has a positive impact, and can generate significant returns for investors,” says Mike Quinn, chief executive of Zoona, an African mobile money operator.

An alumnus of the Skoll Centre, a centre at Oxford’s Saïd Business School which seeks to foster social entrepreneurship, he joined the venture’s founders – Zambian brothers Brad and Brett Magrath – after graduating from the Oxford MBA in 2008.

The founders pooled a few hundred thousand dollars of their own savings into Zoona, Mike says, while he borrowed $100,000 from his parents, who mortgaged their retirement home to lend him the cash.

But Zoona, the first start-up based in Zambia to raise a series A venture capital round from international investors, has received nearly $4 million so far from backers which include the Accion Frontier Investments Group.

“The MBA opened a lot of doors for me [and] gave me a lot of credibility,” says Mike, who is based in South Africa.

Zoona has revenues exceeding $800,000 a month and is growing 240% year-on-year.

It is regarded as a social business because it provides financial services to poor communities in Africa and provides jobs for hundreds of people.

Zoona delivers mobile money transfers and transactions to Africa’s new consumer class from branded booths and small retail stores. About 700,000 customers are sending and receiving $30 million per month in money transfers.

Its vision is to enable thousands of entrepreneurs whom are emerging in Africa’s start-up clusters with jobs and income, to help communities thrive. It has 750 agents earning over $300,000 in commission each month.

“The idea came from the reality that 80% of adults don't have a bank account in Zambia, and moving cash around is a massive inconvenience,” Mike says.

Extremis Technology is also unique in that it is both a for-profit business and a social enterprise.

Perhaps cynically, Julia says, the opportunity to export was seen in the sheer volume of the market of those who have been displaced.

She plans to use liquidity gleaned from the private sector to enhance the company’s humanitarian work, and research and development.

“We show that we have the business sophistication to make money and make a return for our investors,” she says.

A technologist by trade, she focuses the company on research and development in engineering. The group has IP on a number of product designs. “That’s our passion,” says Julia.

But longer term, she is looking at a licencing model. “That’s a very easy way for us to make a clean profit.”

But she stresses that the company isn’t in it just for the revenue. She says: “We want to be able to measure our impact where we are deployed.”

Julia also demonstrates how entrepreneurs can benefit from gaining a business education.

Extremis Technology has grown to receive backing from the Technology Strategy Board, the Low Carbon Innovation Fund and two private investors, as well as the UK government.

“It is tenacity and resourcefulness,” she says of gaining start-up investment. “You knock on doors ‘till your knuckles bleed.”

Philippe Pauly was able to raise $200,000 in funding for his social venture after graduating from the MBA at IAE Aix Graduate School of Management in the south of France.

His start-up, Cambolac, sells hand-made souvenirs to tourists in Cambodia and also derives about 40% of its revenue from selling to hotels and hospitality groups.

“The souvenir market is big,” says Philippe. According to figures compiled by Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism, receipts from an influx of tourists have risen from about $100 million to $2.5 billion over the past 20 years.

But Cambolac seeks to make a social impact by employing hearing impaired young adults and others who are from poor local communities. “We focus on job creation for vulnerable people,” says Philippe.

A former investment manager at BNP Paribas and Société Générale, he was turned to social entrepreneurship on his MBA program. “It was a turning point for my professional career and my personal life,” he says. “My mind shifted from being focused on money.”

He is one of a growing number of MBA graduates turning to socially impactful ventures instead of corporate careers.

By utilizing business schools’ entrepreneurial training initiatives and investment funds, students are able to launch social enterprises – both for and not-for-profit – and both locally and abroad.

In North America, Rotman School of Management runs a Net Impact club, a chapter of the non-profit organization that supports social and environmental causes, while NYU: Stern runs a social impact fund to help MBA students pursue internships at social enterprises, which often pay less in salary.

Social impact has gained much ground at business schools, with Europe’s ESADE, Oxford Saïd, IE and London Business School all fostering its development, to name but a few agitators.

Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Centre at Oxford, says: “Students today are demanding new solutions. They want to understand how to use markets to create value not just for shareholders, but for all stakeholders.”

For Julia, her venture is about much more than achieving a return for shareholders. She doesn’t want to be stuck in the “social enterprise conundrum”.

Already in a few global locations, Julia hopes to see Extremis Technology products wherever there is displacement or natural disaster. “If we can license our production overseas to places where there is a deployment, then we stimulate businesses and economies there,” she says.