Dean Peter Tufano introduced the Oxford Social Impact Careers Conference by telling an excited and diverse audience that we should measure the impact of our lives by the extent of our ambition, the scale of our influence, and whether the impact is positive or negative.
The opening keynote which followed was delivered by Dr Vivienne Ming, an individual who exemplifies success by these measures, due to her work in artificial intelligence systems.
In her inspiring speech, which received a standing ovation, Dr Ming said that human systems are messy and complex, and so solutions to their problems can only be messy themselves. In every attempt to improve a system you must consider the “trade-off between the good you can do in the world, and the inevitable harm it might cause”.
With extensive experience working with social businesses, she suggested that when the business and purpose sides come into conflict, it is vital that we prioritise purpose. Crucially this decision must be made ahead of time, on behalf of the organisation, and within the minds of every employee. When the inevitable clash comes, it is therefore evident which direction to take.
Her ‘Dirty Tricks of Social Entrepreneurship’ were varied, nuanced and witty. They demonstrated her experience for catalysing innovation by, as she put it: “doing something when nobody else cares, or no one else is doing it.” At various points in her speech she labelled herself as nothing special (an assertion which was hard to believe), instead suggesting that she possesses a group of highly malleable characteristics which have aided her entrepreneurial success: crucially Dr Ming believes these exist in everyone, and they simply have to be engineered and managed correctly.
This view aligned with her belief that unexplored potential of young people is a preventable tragedy: simply put, if you allow people to grow up without the right opportunities then you have robbed yourself. Much of her recent work and her passion is focused on unearthing and testing ‘belief-based utility’: the idea that people will defend their beliefs from challenges, even from clear contrary evidence. It is individual experience and clarity which will challenge us to think again. Finding human potential to aid the future of humanity is the focus of her latest project, Socos Labs.
Following this energising call to arms the conference split into concurrent panel discussions focusing on the future of careers in different sectors: healthcare, education, finance and energy.
The healthcare discussion was focused on the broader concept of bringing blended value to the space, and how ideally a business can combine organic revenue growth and impact growth. The discussion returned to one topic repeatedly, that is: how can impact remain at the core of an organisation? The answers came in practical forms, such as working with investors whose priority is identifying investment opportunities with high impact, and in non-practical forms, such as ensuring that impact is implicit within the team, the product and the market of the organisation.
One particularly interesting thought, from Laura Moore, CEO and Founder of Nell, was the parallels between the current development of CSR programmes and the emergence and necessity of digital marketing departments within the last few decades. It is encouraging to think that the transition won’t stop with ‘social innovation departments’, but that social innovation might seep into the heart of the majority of businesses.
The lunchtime break was an opportunity to immerse ourselves in a Careers Fair, packed with organisations contributing in different ways to the social impact sphere. A particular highlight for me was the work of Friendly Fires, who produced a sheet ‘Visualising the Ecosystem’, a wonderful solution for the complexity of the fair.
The afternoon session was a series of explorative workshops, including ‘Problem Solving and Design Thinking’ led by consultants from Systemiq and EY. This was a refreshing, albeit short opportunity to brainstorm with the diversity of people in the room, within specific project guidelines.
The closing keynote to the day was given by a SBS alumnus, Yusuf Randera-Rees, the CEO and Co-Founder of the Awethu Project. The speech shared a number of insights that the social entrepreneur has gained in his journey, in particular the unique challenges of social business and the privilege it grants you of loving your work: “What I care about and what I do are so integrated.”
The conference was well-constructed and diverse, fuelled by the evident passion and accomplishment of the array of speakers and attendees. The highlight at the end of the day was a brief collection of words of wisdom by Mohamed Amersi, including: “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” This brought us back to the words of Dr Ming: “the core of purpose is sacrifice”.