A Laidlaw Scholar's journey to the Oxford MBA

5 minute read

Davinia Cogan is joining the Oxford MBA in September 2021 as an inaugural Laidlaw Scholar. In her first blog post, she shares her journey to the Oxford MBA.

During the final semester of my undergraduate degree in Business, I thought I’d made a big mistake. I walked into the Student Office at the University of Technology Sydney and asked if I could start a second degree in International Relations. The reality of a corporate job was imminent and there was little that excited me about the business world, beyond justifying the purchase of a work wardrobe! Ultimately, I did need to make ends meet though, so I began working in Finance at a global bank in Sydney, while undertaking a Master’s in International Relations part time.

At the time, my dream was to work for the UN or World Bank, where a second language is a prerequisite. With that in mind, after three years in Finance, I took a ‘career break’ and moved to Paris to study French for the year, while working in a cocktail bar by night. Not long before I was due to return to Sydney, I received a phone call from the bank, where I was still technically an employee.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the bank’s European headquarters divested the Australian company, which left me with a sizable redundancy payment, equivalent to a six-month salary. I returned to Sydney to complete the final semester of my Master’s, then moved to Uganda, determined to find a job I could love.

I spent six months volunteering for an education non-profit in rural Uganda, researching ways to increase the income of the small off-grid agrarian community, where the school run by the non-profit was based. I spent several weeks in Rwanda as part of the project, researching the growth of Rwanda’s specialty coffee industry after the genocide. I met remarkable farmers who had transformed their families’ futures through coffee. I remember one farmer in particular, a widowed father who was illiterate. He wore oversized clothes and had missing teeth and, as we spoke, his daughter arrived on a bus from Kigali, where she was completing her law degree, funded by her dad.

Those six months were personally transformative, but I also became disheartened by the nature of the international development world. It felt inefficient and, sometimes, futile as donor objectives were often put before local market needs. My desired career path was starting to feel a bit foggy.

One of my housemates, at the time, was studying for the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) and applying to universities I’d only heard about in films. I quizzed myself with my housemate’s GMAT book out of curiosity, but an MBA from a top-tier school felt firmly out of reach.

From Uganda, I moved to London to pursue impact investing, thinking that would combine the best of the non-profit and corporate worlds, and I began an internship at a startup, which hoped to become the world’s first stock exchange for social purpose businesses. 

While it was an incredible opportunity, London didn’t feel right. While job hunting in London I had applied for many jobs, internships and fellowships, and I was delighted to learn that I had been selected for a four-month microfinance fellowship programme with the online crowdlending platform Kiva. During the sixth and final interview, I received the good news, but there was a catch. 

Despite listing five Sub-Saharan African countries as my preferred placement countries, they had a particular country in mind for me – Tajikistan. I wondered why on earth they were sending a monolingual Australian to the poorest performing country in their loan portfolio, but I said yes.

I flew to San Francisco for the fellowship training and I met fellows who were applying to MBA programmes. This is the first time I felt a firm interest in doing an MBA, particularly one with a social enterprise focus. But I also needed a permanent job and savings to make my dream happen.

During my time in Tajikistan, I witnessed a stifling economy, where business appeared to be purposely suppressed by the government to maintain power. It was deeply depressing and in stark contrast to the vibrant economy and way of life I’d seen in East Africa. By the end of the fellowship, it was clear that I wanted to live in East Africa and work in the private sector.

For the past eight years I have helped companies that sell life-changing off-grid energy products, like solar lights and energy-efficient cookstoves, to raise finance from investors. I managed a co-investment fund that catalysed over $11 million of investment into startup energy access companies in Africa and Asia. I published eight research papers on financial innovation and I became a Research Affiliate at the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance, where I worked with financial regulators globally on the importance of financial innovation for financial inclusion.

One year into working in the energy access sector, I knew I wanted to do an MBA and Oxford was my number one choice as I felt so aligned with the School’s values and I was so impressed by the alumni I met through my work. 

In 2014, I spent the day at Saïd Business School, visiting another Kiva fellow doing the MBA and I planned to apply to the class of 2016. But three months later, I had a surprise pregnancy and my plan diverged. It took several years to get my plan back on track, but I feel that becoming a mother gave me a crash course in self-awareness and resilience, which makes me a better leader and student.

If you are facing one of life’s curve balls or feeling uncertain, stay curious about what your heart desires and trust that you will make it happen. It might take patience and stamina, but you HAVE got this. Courage!