Do social impact and entrepreneurship go together?

If stereotypes are anything to go by, no. Social impact comes with a sense of altruism – a privileging of what’s best for a community. Entrepreneurs think only of themselves, grasping opportunities that come their way. The two are chalk and cheese.

Not so fast. A group of Oxford’s university’s Rhodes Scholars have set up a new platform which aims to turn the cliché on its head. Welcome to Rhodes Incubator, launched in 2017 with a clear goal: to develop an entrepreneurial ecosystem within the Rhodes Scholar network, one which, moreover, makes a virtue of supposedly antithetical notions such as social justice and diversity.

Tackling problems

“We believe that uncritically buying into the stereotype is detrimental to the global community,” says Jonas Bovijn, one of the start-up’s co-founders. “The terms ‘social impact’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ aren’t just powerfully complementary. They’re necessary sides of the same coin when it comes to tackling the large, systemic problems facing the world today.”

Bovijn, a 2016 Rhodes Scholar, is currently a DPhil student at Oxford. He has completed three years of post-graduate clinical work as a physician in his native South Africa, and is passionate about problem-solving and innovation in health care. A desire to create meaningful social impact animates each of Bovijn’s partners at Rhodes Incubator: Bogdan Knezevic, Tinashe Chandauka, Jessica Price and Jade Leung. They are all Rhodes Scholars too.

“We’re all motivated by the desire not just to develop ideas but see them work in practice,” says Knezevic, a 2015 Rhodes Scholar and DPhil student. “It’s the difference between thinking and doing – translating a great idea into something tangible.”

“We draw directly on the talented Rhodes community,” explains Bovijn, “and support scholars all the way from idea to concept to implementation. Incubator cycles typically commence with ideation weekends, where teams form around specific ideas. This is then followed by a 7-week cycle, during which teams meet to build their ventures and to attend workshops and speaker events. The cycle culminates in an end-of-term venture showcase event where teams present their progress. Teams are also matched with highly experienced mentors and advisors, and are supported in various other ways in a bespoke fashion.”

In just a year Rhodes Incubator is already working with many exciting projects, from the 2018 Skoll Venture Awards winner Boresha Technologies – which is bringing easy to use digital finance technology to farmers in East Africa, enabling them to better manage and grow their businesses – to Sophia, which is developing an evidence-based mobile intervention for LGBTQ+ mental health in young people. Other projects being helped by the Incubator include Tasilu, which matches refugee families with top-notch English and academic tutors, and Hutano Diagnostics, which is pioneering rapid diagnostic tests for viral disease diagnosis in Africa.

And, adds Price – a 2015 Rhodes Scholar who is currently studying a DPhil in Primary Health Care at Oxford – diversity is essential: “We’re the first incubator to operate within the global Rhodes community and we see diversity as key to our success. We’ve had 37 entrepreneurs come through our first two cycles of programming – 51% have been female, 60% are black, Asian, or minority ethnic, and 48% originate from Africa, Asia, or the Caribbean. This represents a substantial departure from other incubator programmes.” Building on the success of the first year, Rhodes Incubator hopes to extend its programming to the broader University of Oxford student body in 2019.

Rhodes Incubator looks set to prove that social impact and an entrepreneurial mindset are not mutually exclusive after all.

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