Solving big problems with bold empathetic solutions

By Kristy Bartlett, current student in the University of Sydney Business School MBA program.

So often we find solutions to society’s biggest challenges, that are localised and small scale or before adequately understanding the complexities in which they exist. Through the University of Sydney Business School MBA program, I recently had the chance to consider both challenges in the context of social entrepreneurship in India.

For the MBA Social Enterprise module, I spent two weeks in Bangalore exploring some of the challenges, risks, opportunities and characteristics of social enterprises. Central to the learning experience was our partner organisation, 40K –  a pioneering Australian social enterprise, delivering English language education to children in regional villages. Without these critical English skills, students have less opportunity for further education, employment and mobility. Our core challenge during the program, was to explore how 40K could scale and further commercialise their enterprise to continue to reduce this inequality of opportunity globally.

Before leaving Australia I was curious about what I might learn in India that I could apply to the social enterprise sector on my return. The reality of being in India however, immersed in a culture and environment so different to what I had experienced before, was overwhelming. In less than two weeks, I developed an appreciation for the country I hadn’t expected (and a determination to return) and a list of insights, learnings and ideas that could be applied in so many ways to my work and life more broadly.

The two things that struck me most from this experience though, were the need for scale and the value of an empathetic learning mindset to solve complex problems.

In and around Bangalore, we saw what innovation at the base of the pyramid looked like -from a hundred-year-old open-air laundry to an enterprise making bags from recycled tetra-packs in order to create employment for women in the local slums.

Travelling around the city visiting these social enterprises, it became blatantly obvious that no government could address the breadth and depth of challenges faced in such a fast changing environment by engaging with the array of localised, small scale social enterprises, charities and organisations that existed. The most effective way for the government to make in-roads into its infinite list of priorities would be to find providers who offered significant solutions to broad problem areas, effectively taking a problem off their plate completely.

We saw this in the Karnataka governments willingness to negotiate with a provider who could deliver a service to 4,000 villages and indifference towards one currently reaching 14 villages. It wasn’t that the smaller operator didn’t have a highly impactful proposition; it was just simply more feasible and impactful to work with one supplier instead of 285 different suppliers that were all tackling the issue in a different way

Innovation in social enterprise we heard, is often about innovating within constraints. In this case, I quickly learned that scale was a critical constraint to add to our innovation framework. To create a compelling offering for the government, we needed to design a solution that would reach 5,000 villages, not 50.

During an overnight stay in one of the villages 40K operated in, we also had the chance to speak with locals about business, education and the future. I expected to feel compelled to give to the local community charity. Instead, I felt driven to find ways to create equal access to opportunities, but not charity. I expected to see opportunities for productivity, instead I saw the benefit and opportunity within dispersed networked micro-enterprises. I expected to rely on solutions from the world I knew, instead I found better solutions by observing and learning about what already existed in the villages.

After spending two and a half years doing an MBA, I was looking forward to the opportunity to apply all the knowledge I had accumulated to a real social challenge. In the end though, the most important ingredients to finding new pathways to scale for 40K lay simply in having an open mind, a desire to learn and absorb as much as we could from as many new sources of inspiration as possible, and to empathise with our stakeholders.

The social enterprise module in Bangalore exposed us to incredible diversity. From extreme wealth to extreme poverty, from the fastest to slowest pace of change I have witnessed, from empowered women start-ups taking on global giants to subsistence micro farmers, content with making just enough for their family to survive. To experience all of this, in such a short amount of time was both energising and overwhelming. I left inspired by the immense opportunity to effect change and humbled by the incredible complexity of the ecosystem I had only just scratched the surface of.

India has given me much to contemplate at the end of what was already an incredibly thought provoking MBA journey. It was a unique experience that epitomises the University of Sydney’s commitment to experiential learning. I know many of my fellow students will value the learning experience as much as I did and I thoroughly look forward to the many conversations and actions it sparks on and off campus in the future.

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