2021 MBAs To Watch: Sophia Watkins, University of Oxford (Saïd)

Sophia Watkins

University of Oxford, Saïd Business School

Gringa chola — seeking international perspectives with a heart rooted in rural South America.”

Hometown: Manglaralto, Ecuador

Fun fact about yourself: I was born and spent my early childhood in a coastal fishing village in Ecuador. I would later come to learn that my little hometown was a reduction – colonial towns built to better control and concentrate indigenous populations.

Undergraduate School and Degree:

Oxford – MSc in Environmental Change and Management

Harvard – BA Economics and secondary in Environmental Science and Public Policy

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Prior to coming to Oxford I lived and worked in a town called Juína at the deforestation forefront in Brazil. I dedicated myself to the following companies:

Founder and CEO, Forest Fund A startup piloting initiatives at the deforestation forefront. Pilot projects included: reforestation of hydrologically sensitive river banks and springs (also natural wildlife corridors), standing forest conservation through an “adopt-a-hectare” program, a six-week summer program in sustainable entrepreneurship, and market viability research of forest products.

Co-founder, E4B (English 4 Brazilians) – A school dedicated to improving access to quality language education. We surpassed 100 active students in under two years.

Where did you intern during the summer of 2020? I was writing my MSc dissertation using qualitative and quantitative methods to explore the political economy of fossil fuel subsidy removal in Ecuador: Equity as a political constraint for carbon pricing.

Where will you be working after graduation? Undecided. I seek to strengthen my expertise at the intersection of sustainable rural livelihoods, economic inclusion, and climate finance.

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: Pershing-Square Scholar and Second Year Rep to the 1+1 community.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Debates over pints are a favorite. However, in a global pandemic, these have been substituted by online chats. My contributions usually consist of asking too many questions, helping with economic/statistical intuition whilst also challenging it, and discussing the implications of a quickly declining global carbon budget.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? My thus far unorthodox career has taught me to value authenticity in all my relationships. It is a precursor to trust, an invaluable currency in complex multicultural contexts. I am proud to trust and be trusted by my local network in Juína, which includes ranch hands, miners, loggers, small-business owners, teachers, and indigenous people—whose perspectives I have come to value and better understand.

Why did you choose this business school? Oxford Saïd is an institution dedicated to students wishing to harness business acumen for social impact. Further, the 1+1 MBA program allowed me to couple the MBA with a degree in Environmental Change and Management. This has given me a stronger foundation for future work on climate issues through engaging business. On a more personal note, I chose Oxford to be closer to my grandmother who lives in Wales.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Matthew Amengual is actually a professor-to-be for me, but his involvement in previous courses has already made him a favorite. His grounded experience at the intersection of labor laws and environmental regulation allows him to incorporate practical and engaging insights about the complexities of global business and sustainability.

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? Dinners in the colleges are wonderful. We have not been able to partake in college dinners during lockdowns, but I hope this tradition will soon return. While I am not someone that normally enjoys pomp and circumstance, these dinners are vibrant social events with delectable food that do the architecture proud.

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why?I would dedicate more time to finding and building friendships. The pandemic has made this a challenge and I wish I had been more purposeful in connecting with more of my classmates. However, the year is not over and may yet be filled with picnics and punting with new friends.

What is the biggest myth about your school? I am frustrated that MBA rankings are dominated by salary measures because the opportunities within Oxford Saïd are staggering. Add access to events, faculty, and students from across the university and the resources feel infinite. However, when it comes to rankings, Oxford Saïd knowingly takes a hit in order to achieve mandates around gender equality, a commitment to impact, and running a one-year program. So, I would say that whatever your focus, look beyond the rankings when making a choice.

What surprised you the most about business school? The sheer diversity in the collective experiences of the MBA cohort is astounding. My classmates are each a source of insights, from more traditional consulting and finance jobs to educators and entrepreneurs. This has helped me to add color and depth to worlds that are novel to me.

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? I emphasized lived experience relevant to the problems I seek to address in my career and how I believed an MBA would make me a better agent of change.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Amidst a global pandemic and shifting to online learning, the parents in our cohort deserve the most awe. Osemhen Okenyi is one such classmate who has managed to be a mom and a stellar student. Her energy in class, authenticity, and initiative are remarkable. I hope to get to know her better in the months to come, but already I suspect I am in good company when I say that I admire Osemhen.

How disruptive was it to shift to an online or hybrid environment after COVID hit? To me, COVID has felt very disruptive. Learning from classmates, collaborating on assignments, and networking are fundamental parts of an MBA. While these activities have been possible online, COVID has hampered them.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? My mother has been my biggest proponent, irrespective of the project or idea. Her boldness and dedication have also been my biggest source of inspiration. During my childhood, she directed and co-developed projects with 53 villages along the coast of Ecuador and the impact of those efforts persist to this day. Amongst the most lasting were those projects that affected livelihoods through skills training, investments in infrastructure and tools, and market access. To me, getting an MBA is about becoming more useful to people in developing countries.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list? I want to be a good influence on young people and be able to encourage and support those who want to move towards more sustainable livelihoods.

What made Sophia such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2021?

“Sophia is a driven, socially conscious 1+1 MBA whose values and personal mission to tackle world scale problems make her a perfect fit for Saïd Business School. Faculty, staff and students have praised her positive attitude and thoughtfulness, and her drive to use her studies to further an issue she holds dear to her. We’re delighted she chose Oxford and excited to see how she applies the MBA to her vital work in the Brazilian rainforest.”

Matthew Conisbee
MBA Programme Director