Saïd MBA was ‘best year of my life’

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For Keely Stevenson, working as a hospice volunteer was the spark that first lit a long-term passion for social entrepreneurship, bringing her in a series of steps to Oxford University’s Saïd Business School in 2004 – as one of the first Skoll Scholars to take the MBA.

In between have been so many different experiences that Ms Stevenson could almost be called a veteran social entrepreneur at the age of 28. Starting from the University of California Berkeley, where her research included projects on US public housing reform and microlending in Bangladesh, Ms Stevenson has had a rich variety of roles.

Among other things, she has been a Fellow at the United Nations, working on public outreach strategies; designer and manager of Social Edge, an online community for social entrepreneurs, a task she undertook while working at the Skoll Foundation; and interim executive director of ProWorld Service Corps, a social enterprise working in Peru, Mexico and Belize on community empowerment and social and economic development.

Even with this experience, however, she felt that doing an MBA would help her to make a bigger impact. “I considered a masters in public policy,” she says, “but decided I needed to build my finance and general management skills. I thought that using the academic framework of an MBA would be helpful, and I had not had any sort of management training.”

But which MBA? Although there are several MBA programmes in the US with social entries electives and other related activity, Ms Stevenson was attracted to the Oxford programme partly because the social entrepreneurship side was new and there was thus “a chance to shape something,” but also because of its broad, entrepreneurial remit and its international character. “It’s really useful to get the perspective of someone from Kenya or Egypt,” she says.

The Oxford MBA was “the best year of her life”, says Ms Stevenson, and even by her standards was eventful. She spent the summer as an MBA intern/consultant at Triodos Bank, a social bank with offices in the UK Netherlands, Belgium and Spain. This, she says, was an important way to apply the skills learned in the MBA classroom, in a financial institution whose values and vision were aligned with her own.

A further opportunity to put classroom experience into practice came with Ms Stevenson’s three-month strategic consulting project for an outside company or client, which for her and four classmates was South Africa’s Royal Bafokeng tribe. Platinum was recently discovered on the 300,000-strong tribe’s land, and it is now investing its wealth in designing world-class education, healthcare and economic and social development projects.

Following an invitation from Princess Tirelo Molotlegi, the MBA team stayed with the Royal family, which has begun a campaign called Vision 2020 to ensure the tribe is self-sustainable by 2020.

Ms Stevenson is now back in the US, looking for a job in microfinance and capital markets, a sector where the strong finance background she has developed as a result of the Oxford MBA should help her as she pursues her social entrepreneurial ambitions.

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