You wouldn’t expect the University of Oxford to be the hub of business innovation. After all, business is still a vocation in many corners – not a place for the academic elite. Oxford? The name is synonymous with classics and research, Gothic spires and centuries-old traditions, a place where students follow the same cobbled paths as T.S. Eliot, Adam Smith, and Stephen Hawking.
Business? It’s hollow and grubby, some think – where people make products that aren’t needed and promises that aren’t kept. Why would any hallowed institution want to be associated with that?
BUSINESS WITH A PURPOSE
You could describe Oxford as the “Gatekeeper of Western Culture.” It was the birthplace of penicillin and antibodies – and the muse for the 20th century’s greatest writers. Even the English Dictionary has “Oxford” in the title. For all the talent it harnesses, time seems to stand amid the hills – on the surface, at least. At dawn, you’ll find teams rowing down the River Cherwell. At sunset, students return to their colleges and dress in gowns for three course formal hall dining replete with wine and wait staff. In between, you’ll find students joining choir practice or playing rugby at Iffley Road. And this is the exact ‘Hogwarts’ life that MBAs at the Saïd Business School enjoy.
As students, they can join any college and club and participate in all the unforgettable traditions that make a year at Oxford so transformative. In the process, they become part of a distinctive mission – one Oxford has mobilized its students to pursue for centuries. Business is revolutionary, no different than physics, poetry, or law. At Saïd, MBAs view business as a means to tackle the world’s biggest problems: poverty, climate change, food security, and healthcare. Here, they unleash tools like entrepreneurship, interdisciplinary learning, social impact, and disruptive innovation. This combination of purpose and method led students like Bianca Vermooten to join the Class of 2021.
“One of the cornerstones of Oxford Saïd’s programming is redefining what business success looks like,” she writes. “Success in business is more than a paycheck; it’s an opportunity to change the world from our unique positions of influence. As future leaders and alumni of Oxford, we have a mandate to leave the world better than we found it. The design of Oxford Saïd’s MBA course is curated to equip students to be socially responsible in whatever industry or position they will find themselves. We are all tasked with playing a pivotal role in the success of our world.”
STARTING FAST OUT OF THE GATE
The Saïd experience is unlike any other. Let’s face it: The business school was launched in 1996 – literally 900 years after Oxford was founded during the reign of King William II. As students, MBAs are immersed in a youthful energy and global purpose of Saïd, with access to everything available in one of the world’s most resource-rich universities. After graduation, Saïd MBAs enjoy the life-long credibility and connections that come with the Oxford brand. Alas, the degree also entails a commitment too. It is one that compels alumni to seek solutions and marshal the resources to bring them to life – to live in the moment and never mistake argument for action.
Over the past year, the Class of 2021 has been taking this philosophy to heart. Rami Karak and Fernando Piekenbrock, were part of a team that claimed first prize in the Morgan Stanley Investment Banking Challenge, tendering a 20-page pathway for taking a $6 billion dollar packaging firm private. In contrast, Maria Rotilu and Dániel Léderer have been busy leading the Oxford Seed Fund, which invests in Oxford-affiliated startups that have raised over £200m in capital.
“It’s been super interesting connecting with startups within the Oxford Ecosystem,” Rotilu notes. “Ventures by Oxford students and alumni building businesses that stemmed from academia into commercial products and services across several industries, including Artificial Intelligence, Healthcare, and FMCG.”
A LOVE OF WATER
“At the same time, Osemhen Okenyi – a former child actor – has stayed busy on every imaginable front. “My primary goal for the MBA was to maximize my learning and expose myself to as much variety as I could. To this end, I signed up for a ton of co-curricular activities (Impact Lab, Creative Destruction Lab, Map The System, Leading the Climate Business Network amongst others) and so my days are often packed. Juggling all these, my core MBA curriculum and parenting two boys (aged 5 & 3) in the middle of a pandemic is definitely one thing I’m proud of. I’m glad I get to model my commitment to discipline and time management for my sons.”
These activities don’t count all the “Oxford” traditions (though many were scaled back this school year due to COVID). Past classes, for example, have participated in formal balls or debates in the world-renowned Oxford Union. Singapore’s Ian Loh, for one, has dined at The Hall of Christ Church – where several Harry Potter scenes were filmed. Fernando Piekenbrock was surprised to learn that a version of quidditch – a sport made famous in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – is actually a club sport played in Uni Parks just north of campus. In her first week, Bianca Vermooten managed to go punting – propelling a flat-bottomed boat with a long pole – around the canals that feed the Thames River. By the same token, Dániel Léderer’s most Oxford” moment involved a different water activity.
“It was riding my bike in the rain at 5.50 am on the dim lit cobbled streets of Oxford to make it in time to our Boatclub, followed by a rowing outing in the mist, dark and cold and the sounds of the clunking roars of the crew and the shouting of our cox. When we came third from over 40 boats at one of the Oxford regattas, the hard work got finally rewarded.”
Sanya Rajpal has relished similar experiences at Oxford. “Strangely, most of my “Oxford” things have to do with water,” she admits, “punting on the river with friends, picnicking with classmates in Port Meadow, jumping into the freezing cold river and having mulled wine to heat-up, and going on endless walks by the canals while having fascinating conversation.”
PART OF A LONG LINE OF DISTINGUISHED GRADUATES
Matriculation is the Oxford tradition that carries the greatest mystique, however. Call it a time-honored initiation that welcomes Oxford students during the fall Michaelmas term. Michael Philbin, a 2020 MBA grad, describes the ceremony as an introduction to the school’s long heritage and demands for academic excellence. Here, students don their academic robes and march to the Old Theater, where the ceremony is incanted in Latin. Afterward, you’ll find students taking “wacky” photos and downing champagne, adds Eli Mitchell-Larson, a classmate of Philbin. While the 2020 Matriculation ceremony was held virtually due to COVID, it still left a sense of class solidarity notes Haruka Udagawa.
“Listening to the Latin phrases confirming our membership at the University of Oxford in a solemn atmosphere marked such a great beginning as an Oxford student,” she writes. “Having the opportunity to celebrate the start of our MBA journey with new friends while wearing ‘sub fusc’ (academic dress) at signature locations such as Radcliffe Camera and Bridge of Sighs was an incredible experience. It is amazing to imagine all the students who have passed through these same sites.”
Someday, MBAs may say the same about Udagawa. She arrived in Oxford after serving as an Attaché, for the Embassy of Japan in the United Kingdom. Before business school, she helped negotiate the outcome document for the G20 Osaka Summit – the largest international conference ever held in Japan.
“In addition to the hardship of adjusting logistics of each country’s delegation in accordance with lengthy final rounds of negotiations, building consensus for the G20 Osaka Summit Leaders’ Declaration which includes a few contentious issues where each country’s position differs was also quite challenging,” she writes. “Understanding each country’s position over certain issues and finding a point of consensus requires meticulous preparation. After the final day of the G20 Osaka Summit, I was exhausted from sleepless nights. At the same time, I was proud to be part of such a large-scale Summit and issuing the G20 Osaka Summit Leaders’ Declaration to set a course of collective action among the G20 countries.”
A “UNIQUE PRIVILEGE”
Since she was 14, Sanya Rajpal has been involved in development. This has taken her to roles ranging from lobbying the UK Parliament to coordinating youth programs and policy for the United Nations. Rami Karaki, a private equity consultant, has managed projects across seven countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Speaking of global, Jo Goodall ranked 3rd-best – out of 6,000 test-takers worldwide – for one of her Chartered Institute of Management Accounting exams. At the same time, Ian Loh and Osemhen Okenyi have managed millions of dollars in fintech and construction contracts. In Hungary, Dániel Léderer has founded an advanced studies institute – one that boasts 1,000 alumni, including members who’ve moved on to Oxford and Cambridge.
The class even includes a film producer, Bianca Vermooten. Her documentary, KUSASA, follows a youth soccer team in South America and earned best feature awards at the Chagrin and Savannah film festivals. “Despite the awards, which are always great to receive as a filmmaker, this film was used to raise funds for COVID relief during 2020,” she explains. “It is also currently being used to fund scholarships and place a group of children into good schools. Seeing a project that changed my life, change the life of others in-turn is an accomplishment that will stay with me forever.”
Business school has been an adjustment for Vermooten, but not due to her arts backgrounds. Instead, the Oxford experience of dining halls and lecture halls have been replaced, to an extent, by “Zoom breakout rooms and walk ‘n talks,” she points out. That said, she still considers her time at Saïd to be a “unique privilege.” It is a sentiment she shares with classmates like Fernando Piekenbrock, who discovered some unexpected benefits to COVID sheltering.
“I would say I have learned how important it is to feel at home and spend time with the people I live with. Having lived in six countries since I left my hometown, I tended to choose an accommodation which was functional and cheap, interacting little with my housemates. In my college household at Oxford, we are truly a family, and we have socialized every day during lockdown doing movie evenings, yoga sessions, Bumble workshops, disco evenings, walking tours, cooking contests and many more activities.”
“YOU ALL DESERVE TO BE HERE”
COVID also made the Class of 2021 more appreciative of their interactions with their MBA peers. Haruka Udagawa has gained a wealth of expertise, she says, from classmates who’ve worked in everything from artificial intelligence to medicine. And she wasn’t alone in feeling enriched by her classmates’ diversity. “I’ve learnt about social entrepreneurship in Burma/Myanmar, the finer points of negotiating at the WTO, impact investing in Japan and the nitty gritty details of sustainable coffee sourcing, all from fellow students who worked in these fields pre-MBA,” writes Johannes Olschner-Wood, who previously ran an impact investment firm in his native South Africa.
Many of the best exchanges, MBAs say, involved students from far different disciplines. Some of Fernando Piekenbrock’s best memories (so far) came when he discussed the shortcomings of Karl Marx’s philosophy with Marxist graduate student and learning about the pluses and minuses of the Oxford COVID Vaccine from a student engaged in its development. Over dinner, Sanya Rajpal – who practices Buddhism —has discussed books with a monk and spying with a doctoral student. For Dániel Léderer, the best memories came at the Warden’s Lodgings at New College, where he’d meet his advisor – often over red wine and next to a fireplace.
“Each time we meet, I receive from him an inspiring leadership training based on his vast experience as the former worldwide chairman and CEO of a major international company and his passion and knowledge in the humanities,” writes Léderer – a man who could play chess before he could even read or write.
For the Class of 2021, these conversations often hammered home a point: you may feel inferior sometimes, but you’re really just different. Stay humble and open and never forget what a gift it is to spend a year at Oxford.
“I really do deserve to be here, as much as everyone else, Jo Goodall asserts. “When I first arrived, I admit there was some “imposter syndrome.” But as our Dean, Dean Tufano, said in his welcome speech to us: “No one made a mistake in accepting you. You all deserve to be here.”
Next Page: 11 profiles of the Class of 2021
An interview with Matthew Conisbee, MBA Programme Director