Last updated: March 8, 2012 3:28 pm

Web chat: Valerie Keller

Welcome to the Financial Times live web chat with Valerie Keller who features in our Ten Questions Q&A.

Valerie Keller, EMBA graduate from Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and co-producer of Womensphere Europe, a global community of leaders, networks, organisations and companies which aims to empower women, will answer your questions on T hursday, 8th March 2012, between 15.00-16.00 GMT.

Post your questions to ask@ft.com and they will be answered on the day on this page.

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Did home-schooling make a difference to who you are now compared to others who went to regular schools?

I ask this because I happen to see homeschooling becoming quite a common practice in the US with successful stories. This is a rarity in Asia.

Datin Yeoh Moi

Valerie: It’s an interesting question. I happened to have a mother who was valedictorian of her class, is a naturally-gifted educator and a good disciplinarian. (A necessity since she was the mother of seven girls and homeschooling several at a time!) She made sure I followed a strict curriculum and I annually tested in the 99 per cent percentile on state exams. So she was more than qualified as an instructor and went on to have a successful career as a private school teacher. (However, I have also observed other US homeschooling that is not as rigorous or outcomes-focused, putting the students at a scholastic disadvantage.)

My homeschooling gave me a solid educational foundation because I was not as distracted by social pressures in a classroom setting. I was competing with myself, if you will. However, my parents and I felt it was appropriate to ‘mainstream’ when I went to high school as education is more than just the ‘three R’s’ and soft skills working with others are very important.

The reason I mentioned my homeschooling background in the FT Ten Questions is because I wanted to emphasise the potential and possibility for women to access top-tier universities like Oxford even when coming from non-traditional backgrounds or via schools that are not the best ‘brands’. I wanted to address an assumption I often hear from women that ‘I am not good enough; they would not want someone with my educational or career background unless I come from a school like x’ - an assumption that is often erroneous but prevents the woman from applying for the degree.

What was the biggest challenge you faced at Saïd Business School and what did you enjoy the most?

Valerie: This is a great question, thank you. The Saïd Business School’s EMBA has a unique structure where we traveled to Oxford every four to six weeks over two years, spending a week in lectures each time. I really appreciated this because it gave me the opportunity to continue working while studying. When at Oxford I could focus fully on soaking up the tremendous knowledge instead of cramming learning into little weekend bites like many other EMBA programmes.

The biggest challenge was that when I started the EMBA, I was CEO of a social enterprise in the Southern US, launching a housing development and a treatment center, I had fallen in love with an EMBA alumn and moved to NYC…and I was also commuting to Oxford. So I highly recommend the EMBA at Oxford but do not recommend doing it whilst working, living, and studying in three different places!

I most valued the global aspect of Oxford, both in the learning context and in the vast and diverse network. I have a powerful network of friends all over the world now – and I learned almost as much from them as from the professors.

(And on a more personal note, I married that EMBA alumn in Oxford the day after I graduated so I have many, many reasons to be grateful to Oxford and the Saïd Business School)

In your view, what is the role of business in society in the future? Does business have a role to play in solving big global problems? How can we focus on the bottom line and contributing to the community?

Sara Nilsson DeHanas

Valerie: Excellent questions. ‘What is the role of business in society?’ is the question that drove me to do an EMBA - coming from a background working in NGOs and government, I wanted to be able to harness the language and tools of business to address social problems. It is also the question that drove me to Oxford specifically because that university is global and, like you rightly said, we have big global problems to solve.

Personally, I believe strongly that business has a vital role to play as a change-agent within society. During the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos this was discussed at length and I agreed with those positing that our global multinationals often now have more power than governments…and with power, responsibility.

I believe both large and small businesses have the opportunity to move beyond a Robin Hood philanthropy approach, taking some profits and giving them to charities. Businesses can ‘be the change they want to see in the world’, embedding a social ethos into their DNA that touches every activity (e.g. ensuring diversity and inclusiveness for employees, green sustainability in procurement, processing, leveraging buying power with suppliers to improve working conditions, etc etc) A quick troll on the Internet reveals a host of studies where the business case is made for resulting improved employee moral, supplier relationships, customer loyalty. Moving beyond a narrow ‘financial bottom line, return value to shareholders’ view of business to ‘also realising social and environmental returns with stakeholders’ is good for business, good for the world. Business can have both profits and purpose, money and mission.

In the US, B-Corps are one example of organisations modeling business embedded more deeply into society, blurring traditional lines between the sectors. I also do not subscribe to an either/or mentality – we need government, NGOs and businesses to be stepping outside of silos to harness the power and perspectives each can bring to truly transform systems to address social problems. Some of the most sustainable and impactful projects I have worked on or witnessed have been public-private partnerships that were profitable win-win-wins for government, business and communities.

And one more closing thought on business - the more we can stimulate entrepreneurship globally, creating jobs and stimulating innovation, the more sustainable our communities and countries will be.

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