Naturale!

21 Apr

Last week, I made a spontaneous trip to Italy with a couple of friends, who very kindly let me join in on their fabulous itinerary at the last minute. The trip covered Florence, San Gimignano and Bologna and was absolutely amazing. One of the highlights was strolling around the piazzas and people-watching, although as I learned, when you are watching people, people are watching YOU!

I was walking along taking in the sights of street artists, when an old Italian guy waved his hand at me and started to say something in Italian while pointing at my hair. I stepped towards him as he gesticulated… body language being what it is I had a feeling I knew what was coming. Sure enough, as he pointed at my hair in disbelief making cork-screw motions with his hands, I caught the word “naturale” in the midst of his speech. Making a guess at his meaning, I leaned towards him while responding “Si, e naturale”.  At which point he reached out and patted my hair, after which he delightedly exclaimed “Si, e naturale!!!” at the top of his voice! It was hilarious – one more person who couldn’t wait to touch my hair!

Turns out hair like mine attracts attention, and people just love to touch it.  Sometimes, this drives me mental – I mean, I don’t go up to strangers grabbing body parts without permission! My hair is attached to my body, and definitely falls inside the personal space boundary. Why people feel it’s OK to touch it because it doesn’t look like theirs is beyond me. In the bus, on the subway, at concerts, in restaurants, in stores …. you name it, someone’s tried it.

But it’s the hair I have, and yes it’s natural or “naturale” if you prefer.  On the subject of hair, I’ve been contemplating letting it grow a bit this summer, but wanted to try some new hair styles and products.  Imagine my delight when I headed to the internet for some inspiration and found this amazing blog right here at good old WordPress.  Hair just like mine AND a plethora of product reviews just so I don’t have to spend all my money learning lessons she has already discovered! Even better, as the pictures attest – she is in the process of growing hers as well.

Now I’ve got some new ideas, and new hair products on their way. Molto bene!

Advertisements

Backwards and forwards

16 Apr

That first line is always the hardest. It’s like that chore you just don’t want to do – your mind looks at it, and then invariably skitters away to something easier to tackle, or simply as an alternative thing to do (like checking Facebook for the umpteenth time!). But, dear reader, you will be pleased to note that I have made it – made it back into the blogosphere!

So what’s been happening? Let’s indulge in a quick catch-up – studied super-hard all term,worked to develop a marketing plan for a social enterprise to combine education, financial literacy and football, wrapped up exams, watched Oxford dominate in the Boat Race, and did some quality traveling. I totally get that I’ve condensed 3 months into a short paragraph, but more on those things in later posts. After all, that’s the looking backwards part.

Looking forward is actually way more fun. With a just under 2 weeks before the new term starts, it’s interesting to think about what happens next, now that we’ve passed the half-way point in the program. The big thing on many people’s minds is finding that perfect post-MBA job opportunity. Some are already enjoying the pleasure of having offers in hand, while others are going through interviews and preparations in order to land that perfect spot.  Still others are gearing up to launch their own ventures, supported by investors hoping to get in on the next big thing. In one way or another, people are getting ready for the next phase.

In the spirit of looking ahead, it’s also impossible to ignore the metaphor provided by nature – spring has sprung! Cherry blossoms, tulips, casting off winter layers and warming temperatures are just some of the signs.

Oh wait, one more sign of spring – federal elections in Canada! The third in just over 5 years, maybe this time it will actually be about something? One sure way to make elections matter is to vote in them. Lots of people have been doing all kinds of things to encourage people to vote, so here’s my two pence – VOTE!

On that note, I’ll take my leave. Here’s looking forward to you!

A structured rant

2 Feb

About two month ago I attended my first Ignite session.  Well, it was loosely based on the Ignite concept, which is now a global event where hundreds of people in several cities pitch ideas to thousands of their neighbours.  We were doing it on a much smaller scale, getting together with about 50 classmates to share entrepreneurial ideas or concepts they were interested in working on as part of an entrepreneurship project this term.

One of the organizers suggested that a great idea might arise from something that you were passionate about, or better yet, that makes you mad. Something that just bugs you, and might for example, cause you to start a somewhat obscure WordPress blog, as an alternative to yelling at the radio!

Although I highly recommend the cathartic effect of blogging, it might be argued that doing something to pound on, um… I mean work on, the thing that makes you mad might be somewhat more rewarding.  And since I’ve been practicing structured approaches to problem solving, I thought it would be appropriate to make a list of some of those things that have really been getting on my nerves:

  1. Mis-pricing – blame it on my first brush with economics last term. As the saying goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing! But it really bugs me that chronic mis-pricing of resources, and therefore the things those resources are used for, means that we have ended up not valuing things appropriately.  We need better ways of measuring those so-called “externalities” that traditional accounting systems have been unable to tackle.  We won’t have any incentive to manage resources differently until we are paying our way.
  2. Using old ways to solve new problems – enough of this! Doesn’t it make the tiniest bit of sense that new problems need new ways of thinking and responding? I am happy to acknowledge that there are lots of people in the world who get this. Sadly, it sometimes seems that only a few of them are actually in a position to do something about it.
  3. Climate change nay-sayers – I know, I know, I have a bias – but this is my list! Get off this bandwagon, seriously! Do you honestly believe that 7 billion people, and all the development that about a third of them are doing, will have no impact on our planet’s climate and ecosystems? Ever?

So these are my top three. It’s been really helpful to think about these things, particularly at this point in time, when I’m thinking about the rest of the MBA program still to come, and mapping out what I’d like to do post-MBA.

One final note. There is one more thing that made me mad (and not a little sad) as I’ve watched the ever-changing news coming out of the Middle East recently. I don’t know much about the history of the situations that have led to the events of the past several weeks, but it completely floored me to think that one young man thought his only option was to take himself out of the game by setting himself on fire on a street in Tunisia. It makes you wonder how many more people are on the brink of such desperation, whether in the Middle East, or somewhere much closer to home.

So, what makes you mad? More importantly, what are you going to do about it?

Starting from Zero

14 Jan

There are, as you might imagine, many enduring traditions at a university like Oxford. For example, you can be refused entry to write your exams if you are not properly dressed in formal academic dress or sub-fusc as it is known. You can read more about sub-fusc at exams on my classmate’s FT blog here.

A slightly more subtle tradition is the numbering the weeks of term.  This was also the custom throughout my elementary and high school experience, so there was some happy nostalgia when I rediscovered the practice.  Less obvious however, was the need for a Week 0 or ‘Nought Week’ as it is sometimes known. This week was Nought Week here at Oxford. There are no classes, but students are required by the rules of the university to be present. It’s an official part of the calendar and school rules, and there is one every term.

So what happens in Week 0? I like to think of it as built-in ‘brain stretching’ time – that transitional period between vacation and work that we have all found ourselves wishing for on the Sunday night at the end of a vacation, right before heading back to work on Monday. This week, we’ve attended presentations about electives we’ll be able to take next term, and several classmates have been participating in the VCIC venture capital competition.

My particular ‘brain-stretching’ moment came in a small seminar room, where about 20 of us gathered to listen to a presentation about a community wind farm project in Mexico.  There are many unique features about the project, a partnership of the Yansa Foundation and a local indigenous community in Ixtepec, which has designed as a social enterprise.  Perhaps one of the most exciting things about the project was the plan to formally quantify and verify the social and environmental impacts, beyond GHG emissions reductions, that the project will deliver.  These certificates will then potentially become a traded commodity, as companies and potentially countries, look for ways to meet their commitments to support GHG reduction and climate change mitigation.

But how do you measure something that doesn’t have a convenient scale, like dollars or megawatts or milligrams? It’s the ultimate ‘starting from zero’ kind of problem. Economists and accountants traditionally branded these things as ‘externalities’ that were conveniently left off the balance sheet because they were so challenging to measure. But times have changed. Imagine my complete delight when an hour later, the very last elective presentation of the day introduced a new course on impact valuation – the technical process of defining social, financial and environmental metrics and quantifying them, with a view to fully integrated triple bottom line assessments.

Clearly, we have some way to go before this approach to valuation of resources, and products and companies is mainstreamed. But it’s encouraging to think that ‘zero’ is not really nothing, but may be the start of a really big something! Here’s hoping you too can find a ‘zero’ in your world that becomes a brain-stretching moment for this year.

Rethinking business

12 Nov

It’s absolutely unbelievable that the previous post is dated October 6th! If I didn’t know better I’d say some blog-bug hacked in and changed the date.  But it’s probably fair to say things have been a little bit hectic!  As I hinted in my last post, the beginning of term has been a storm, characterised by a whirlwind of assignments, group projects, careers events, guest lectures, MBA class elections and more! And that’s just the weekdays!

Despite the controlled insanity, it’s been very interesting to reflect in some quieter moments with a few classmates on how the things we are being taught really could play out in the real world.  One emerging theme is the concept of “rethinking business”.  What is a business for? This question came up in our first week of classes in just about every course.  Some of the concepts hinted at the traditional – to make money, to create and capture value, to innovate – but others also acknowledged a broader sense of purpose – to do all those things with an eye on the big picture of society.

I’ve been very fortunate in the past several weeks to attend events with an incredible list of speakers, two of whom resonated deeply with me personally by capturing different facets of this concept of greater responsibility.  The first was Stephen Green, the chairman of HSBC Holdings plc, speaking at the first Pears Business School Partnership lecture.  You can read more about the event here, but the key takeaway for me was his assertion that companies must transition from treating corporate social responsibility as a solely philanthropic or “do good PR” issue to using it as a core business strategy tool that selects investments in social and environment issues as a component of a successful business model.

The second speaker was Bob Dudley, the newly appointed CEO of BP.  The Confederation of British Industry’s Annual Conference was the location for Mr. Dudley’s first public appearance since taking office on October 1, 2010.  While much of his discussion centred around the in-depth internal analysis and stock-taking within the organization following the Gulf oil spill, he also clearly acknowledged that BP has had to completely rethink its role as a business, and is working on forging a very different relationship with areas like the Gulf where it does business.  Regular readers will know that I’ve written more than once about BP, and I still believe those opinions were founded and appropriate for the time.  Time will tell whether BP actually is able to achieve their objectives under Mr. Dudley’s leadership, but I will say that his personal commitment through his speech is not in doubt.  We can only hope that the new BP that emerges from this disaster will continue to be fully engaged in its broader responsibility as a global company.

So what is a business for? No doubt this will be a central theme revisted in posts to come, but I can say that we are working on defining this for ourselves in a way that centrally integrates the idea that perhaps a better question may turn out to be “Who is a business for?”

The storm before the storm

6 Oct

No, that’s not a typo. That’s really what Freshers Week at Oxford feels like.  It’s a whirlwind of activities – social events, networking events, college induction, degree program orientation, examinations rules sessions, college formal dinners, and some plain old pub-crawling.  Brand new students, the “freshers”, are sucked into this cyclone of activity from the very first moments of Week 0.

Last night I attended my Newcomers Dinner at Linacre College.  In true Oxford tradition, we dressed up in our formal robes, and entered the dining hall.  Five long tables, with a mix of students, staff and faculty, all dressed up and eager to get to know each other. The 5 people who sat at my end of the table for 20 included a History of Science Major from Vancouver of all places, a DPhil (PhD) candidate in Archeological Science from New York City and one in Classical Archeology from Greece, along with a professor in Organic Chemistry, a Master of Financial Economics major and another DPhil student in Chemistry. And that was just my corner of the table!  Imagine the conversations happening at the other 4 tables, among about 100 people!

Walking home after post-dinner drinks and socializing in the Common Room, the student run bar and gathering place at the centre of college life, it was amazing to feel the energy in the streets.  Literally hundreds of people, some dressed to the nines in black-tie and gowns, others in jeans and T-shirts, all excited to be here, and ready to start a new term. I swear the air even smelled like anticipation!

Next week, Week 1 of the Michaelmas Term, is when classes officially begin.  That’s likely to be the second “storm”, and one that will no doubt consume a great deal of our time.  In the meantime, it’s Freshers Week! Pubs and friends await!

Ready to change how we think

28 Sep

Going to business school is a personal decision, based on all kinds of things.  What you do now, what you’d like to do next, what new ideas you have, how interested in business you are, and a host of other factors that shape your thinking through the application and acceptance process.  Notwithstanding this very personal vision, many of the experiences my classmates and I have shared so far have been somewhat “broad strokes”, touching on the traditional areas and sectors that the “typical” business school student is likely to be interested in.

But what if you are not typical? Clearly we all like to think of ourselves as unique, and to some extent we all are. But equally, in a business school setting, there are going to be several people who delight in the idea of 12-hour work days as investment bankers, thrive on the excitement of the trading floor, and leap out of bed at the thought of complex financial modelling.  I’m not one of them, I’ve realised, but figuring out what I don’t want to do early on is a good thing, I think.

What I really want to do is change the way we think about stuff and the people and companies who make it, sell it, use it and deal with it when we’re done.  I’ve written about stuff as a consumer and as an owner, and realised since moving into a small student bedroom that living with less stuff is not only possible, but kind of peaceful.  I’ve been practising my “elevator pitch” to my classmates, and researching companies, organizations and people who already seem to be thinking about stuff differently.

Now, it’s early days on the research front, but I thought I’d share some cool things I’ve found so far.  Some of these may be familiar, while others may spark some new interest.

  1. Look to your right, over there in the side bar.  Click on The Story of Stuff and see with Annie has to say about things.
  2. Check out this blog post by Joel Makower, the founder of Greenbiz.com, and a “guru of green” I think has some neat things to say.  The book he recommends is now officially on my list.
  3. While you’re browsing through the blog roll, stop on by The Clean Bin Project, which chronicles the great things Jenny and Grant did and learned in living “waste free” for a year. I was lucky to meet these two about a week before they took off on a cross-Canada bike tour this summer, and they are doing something special.

So here’s what I’m ready to test through business school, and hopefully get some of the best brains I know (my classmates!) to think through this with me:

  • How do we make better stuff? The kind that’s good for the environment, and for people, and for the companies that make them?
  • Is a stuff vs. services conversation something we’re ready to have? And who should we have it with?
  • How much, and what kind of stuff, is “enough” in a finite world, a closed system with limits on all kinds of resources?

You probably have ideas about your stuff too. Let me know what you think – say it out loud.

So this is what diversity looks like

26 Sep

240 students, 48 countries of origin.  These were the stats for last year’s MBA class, and from the looks of it, our class is poised to match them.

Over the past few days, we’ve been accumulating in Oxford in ever-increasing numbers, from just about every part of the world.  This week, we spent an intensive 2 days together at a career “bootcamp” designed to introduce us to some of the possible career options post-MBA.  This was our first chance to meet a significant portion of the class, and it seemed that all we did was ask and answer the “four questions” – what is your name, where do you come from, what were you doing before the MBA, and what do you plan to do after the MBA.

The “where do you come from” answers are my favourite. So far I’ve met people from Belgium, Canada, Nigeria, United States, England, Scotland, Norway, Costa Rica, Spain, Russia, Mexico, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China, Japan, Chile and India.  And lots of us come from more than one place, having worked and lived and attended school in different countries from those where we were born.

What’s even more interesting is looking at our various backgrounds against the landscape of media coverage, political and popular opinion about who our countries’ “friends and enemies” are at any given point in time.  The backgrounds are extraordinarily diverse – the person who flew helicopters for the US military, the investment banker from Saudi Arabia, the clean-tech entrepreneur from India, the UN agency staffer most recently back from Africa.    We’ve been connecting online and in person, socialising and finding common interests, and already planning how to grow this energy into productive study groups, student clubs and other activities.

It’s tempting to wonder whether things will evolve over time into less aggregated groups, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. As one classmate said to me yesterday “When you get to know someone one-on-one, you can’t help but find the similarities between you.”  So far there are a few things that stand out that we all seem to have in common – we are excited about being here, we are determined to do well, and we are ready to change the world.

Oh, and we all like English pubs.

Free enterprise vs. red tape

23 Sep

OK, so this isn’t the title of my first business case or anything like that. It’s the contrast between dealing with different service providers here in Oxford.

So first, the “free market”.  One of the first things I attempted to tackle was getting a new phone number.  Step 1, find mobile phone provider that provides iPhone service. Step 2, get phone unlocked. Step 3, get new SIM card for phone.  It’s Step 2 that made me chuckle.

None of the “official” mobile phone operators will unlock you phone for you, but when asked, they all were able to point me in the direction of a certain “news agent’s shop” that provides some value-added services, namely unlocking phones for anywhere between 10 and 20 pounds and 15-20 minutes of your time.  You walk in, you say you need a phone unlocked, they tell you up front before you pay if they can do it, and invite you to have a seat.  Mohammed, the mobile phone locksmith, does some magic with his laptop and hey presto! Phone unlocked, 20 pounds please. 

During my 20 minute wait, I counted about a dozen people who came into the shop for various things – cell phone charger, internet usage (they also have an internet cafe in the basement), printing, scanning, and cigarettes.  The bus driver ran in to grab a drink on the fly as the bus stops outside. A builder down the street came in to get a set of drawings and notes copied. And a lady popped in to pay the 5 pounds she owed from the week before, when she needed a charger in an emergency and didn’t have any cash.

Contrast this with my attempts to open a bank account, the definitive “red tape” experience.  I’d researched online, knew which bank and which account I wanted, and showed up to open an account with all the paperwork I thought I needed.  Not so! First off, a 20 minute wait in line, only to be told I needed an appointment to open an account.  Um, no I said account, not mortgage! But yes, apparently an appointment is required, and of course there were no more appointments left that day.  Come tomorrow, I was told, you won’t need an appointment tomorrow. Oh and by the way, we actually need a completely different document from the one we told you in our brochures.

So visit 2, back the next day, new document in hand, another wait in line.  First question – do you have an appointment to open this account?! At this point, I start looking for the hidden cameras, thinking this has got to be a joke in the making.  Not so! After recapping the previous day’s conversation, the person serving me agreed they could “squeeze me in”, probably because some other poor sucker didn’t have the right documents when he showed up for his appointment!  But then … oh no, this isn’t the right document either, it needs to be signed and dated and on letterhead from the university. Grrrrr!

A classmate also in the line took pity on me, and showed me the letter he’d received.  Having confirmed that in fact, this third piece of paper held the magic formula, I agreed to go and source this document instead.  In the meantime, I was able to persuade the bank to open the account “provisionally” for me, on condition that I would drop the magic document off later that day. 3 visits, 1 bank account, maybe. Wow!

There’s a lesson here somewhere.  I’m still trying to figure out what it is.  Off to navigate my way through another day…

8 new things before breakfast

20 Sep

Well, I made it! Oxford is now home for th next year. There’s more things to blog about than you can imagine, but here’s just a taste from the first 24 hours. It’s my 8 new things before breakfast:

  1. Luggage trolleys with brakes! This was a fabulous discovery at Heathrow as I headed down a steep ramp to the underground walkway to catch the bus to Oxford. Turns out brakes are far more effective than purposely crashing into the railings every few steps as a way to slow down.
  2. Tipping isn’t always OK. I tried to tip th bus driver for helping me with all my bags, but he gently informed me, “It’s your money, love. I get paid alright!”. I didn’t get his name but he was great at helping me get to the taxi stand, er, I mean “taxi rank”.
  3. Pear trees can be tall! There’s one I can see outside my window, of which I’ll post a picure next time.
  4. I walk slower than everyone else here. A woman pushing a stroller with a toddler overtook me on the sidewalk!
  5. In a city where building a new building probably requires a royal decree, reuse is taken to a whole new level. There’s a restaurant down the street housed in what used to be an old church! More pics on that to come as well.
  6. The Oxford University Press has the greenest grass I’ve seen so far anywhere.
  7. The zig-zag markings on the pavement aren’t weird street art by tipsy line markers. According to the highway code, it has something to do with no overtaking.
  8. Taking a shower involves pulling on a string to turn on a switch that turns on the showerhead and water heater. The string is by the door – on the opposite side of the room from the shower. I was already IN the shower when I learned this lesson!
  9. I love English breakfasts! I got to discover this at about 3 p.m. on my first day here, which by my calculations was about 6 a.m. Vancouver time, and therefore appropriate!

Well that’s it for my first post.  I am now internet-ready, so will be able to provide more updates in coming days.  Look out for a complete post on unlocking and activating a cell phone, uhm, I mean a mobile (gotta get with the lingo!).