Off Grid Electric: Oxford MBAs Illuminate East Africa

Helgesen: "I entered the MBA program with some specific goals: I wanted to find a business partner and find a new business opportunity." Courtesy photo

Helgesen: “I entered the MBA program with some specific goals: I wanted to find a business partner and find a new business opportunity.” Courtesy photo

AN ALL-EXPENSES PAID OXFORD MBA

Off Grid Electric is not Helgesen’s first foray into social entrepreneurship. After graduating from the University of Notre Dame with a bachelor’s in management information systems, he co-founded Better World Books with two classmates. They grew the company into a leading online book retailer with a triple bottom line. The company traded in used books (environment) and donated to literacy programs (social), while turning a profit (financial). It was also among the first B Corps, a group of companies committed to rigorous  social and environmental standards.

Helgesen knew he had a good thing going, but he was ready to try his hand at starting something new. He wasn’t interested in cruising the standard MBA prospective-student circuit and spinning his wheels for two years to find himself and his future career. Entering B-school at 31, he was older than the average U.S. MBA. Plus, he had a kid and a profitable business to run.

But Saïd appealed to him. For one, it was free. Helgesen had nabbed one of five Skoll scholarships, which cover tuition and provide a small living stipend.”If I hadn’t gotten the Skoll scholarship, I don’t think I would have done an MBA,” he says. For another, the program was only one year and attracted a geographically and professionally diverse crowd, so he could tap into different pools of knowledge. He started B-school with a laser-like focus. “I entered the MBA program with some specific goals: I wanted to find a business partner and find a new business opportunity … I also had a goal to contribute to the broader MBA class experience,” he says.

THE WATERSHED MOMENT

He accomplished all of them. While at Oxford, Helgesen served as chairman of the entrepreneurship group and introduced an unofficial class on the intersection of lifestyle and entrepreneurship. He estimates that over 10% of his MBA class attended a typical session. He also met his co-founder, classmate Erica Mackey, within the first few days, though they wouldn’t collaborate on Off Grid Electric until the second term. She had extensive experience in East Africa, spoke Swahili fluently, and shared Helgesen’s interest in addressing the energy issue on the continent. They later recruited Off Grid’s CTO, Joshua Pierce, who brought extensive renewable energy experience.

Three months into the MBA program, Helgesen had the germ for Off Grid in his head. He fleshed it out during the Entrepreneurship Project, a required course that puts MBAs in teams to formulate a business idea and then build a business plan around it. “It allowed the idea to progress further than it otherwise might have,” Helgesen says. Courses such as Entrepreneurial Finance with Tim Jenkinson and Marc Ventresca’s TIS course, which covers how new technologies enter the market, proved valuable too.

The team’s watershed movement came when Oxford held a business plan competition with a $250,000 investment as the grand prize. “It was supposed to be for businesses that were a bit further on and had proven what they were going to do, but somehow with a PowerPoint we got through and made an impressive presentation, and we won the award,” Helgesen recalls. Though the team didn’t end up taking the investment, which Helgesen says included restrictive terms and a major stake in the business, it galvanized them to move forward.

Page 2 of 3