Arnab Dutt OBE, co-founder of Divine Ox

arnab dutt photo

Arnab Dutt OBE is the co-founder of Divine Ox, a social impact technology startup in partnership with the University of Oxford. Divine Ox creates a knowledge hub for companies and offers educational resources to help them find solutions around environmental and social risks. He is an SME (Small and Medium Enterprises) Panel member for the Cabinet Office and the Chair of Social Value Policy at the Federation of Small Businesses, the largest small business organization in the UK. Arnab, who has been committed to social and environmental justice, is a trustee of the Anti-Racist Trust. He is an alumnus of Saïd Business School. 

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur? 

I come from a first-generation immigrant family, where my parents had to work hard from nothing to give us a good life. I felt the struggles they felt within that society. If you're from that kind of background, it makes you inquisitive and explore the world around you, because you're reconciling a multiple set of identities to form who you are. It made me engage with the questions about diversity, equality, and social justice. I knew that these themes were going to be important throughout my life, but I didn't necessarily associate them with my initial entrepreneurial journey. But when I left engineering about eight years ago, I wanted to devote my life to bringing change. I've been aware of the climate crisis since the 1990s and felt it was important to get involved. For me, social and environmental justice naturally came together.  

My professional background is in growing small businesses, and my whole grounding has been in understanding the culture of small businesses and entrepreneurship. I’ve always been passionate about climate and have been wondering about how to onboard SMEs to help us with this challenge.  

What is your definition of entrepreneurship? 
divine ox

It's about making change, innovation, and disruption — but disruption for good. It's more than just making some money.  

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it? 

When we look at the global supply chains, we see 400 million small and micro-sized entities make up 99% of the world's commercial organizations, representing 65% of the global GDP. They are almost entirely invisible in terms of data and data capture for greenhouse gas emissions. If we are to reach our climate targets, especially the United Nations SDGs for 2030 and 2050, how do we do that? For us, that seemed an important question. That was the starting point for Divine Ox. 

Recording and capturing data around ESG is something that isn't being done well. We're trying to build a compass in uncharted waters, but we're trying to sail the water at the same time. How do we change the behavior of an organization so that it's purpose-driven, and that stakeholder value becomes more important than shareholder value? That is a huge gulf because capitalism has developed in the last hundred years around the theme of shareholder value. Now it is transforming into something around the value chain as opposed to the supply chain, and around stakeholders as opposed to shareholder capitalism. We are trying to educate organizations on what steps they must take to achieve that. When we talk about sustainability, we believe that the sustainability leadership and change must come from the top, or the CEO and the leadership team; otherwise, the culture change will not embed itself in the organization. But it also must come from the bottom up. That's why we talk about knowledge and learning and having the tools within an organization to make sure that everyone who joins that organization is empowered to do all these right behaviors and understands that the purpose of the business is more than just making money.  

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why? 

Self-belief, the ability to listen, and reading. First, start with the self-belief that you can make a difference in the world. Second, listen to people, because you won't be able to do it alone. It’s important to put aside your ego and be open to criticism. Everyone has something important or profound in them, so even if you don’t agree with what they're saying, it's still worth listening to. Third, pick up ideas from great authors, because we stand on the shoulders of giants. I pick up ideas from thousands of books that I read, and great authors have shaped my thinking. Don’t be driven by money or the idea of success, in terms of being applauded by others. Be yourself, have some compassion and humility, and listen. 

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?

I’m inspired by the arts — great artists, painters, and musicians — because they speak to the soul. At the same time, my guiding principle comes from internal dynamics. I ask, what is the value of my life? Have I done anything to make things better? I’m trying to use my talent, knowledge, and everything I’ve learned to make the world even fractionally a better place than when I came into it, so my motivation comes from the internal. I've never been motivated by business gurus, who have amassed a fortune.  

How have you funded your ideas? 

We're in a lucky position where we can self-fund. In my position and with my background, financing is no longer an issue I personally have to face. We have onboarding clients, where we’re generating good revenues for the future. The challenge at the moment is bringing people on board and growing the business, but all of us have grown businesses before. So, it's a different challenge for us.  

I'm aware that challenges are myriad for those who are starting on this journey. If you're a woman of colour, otherly-abled, or from a diverse background, the environment is still not good enough out there. There's some lip service, with good intentions, from the finance industry because they know that they would miss out on potentially fabulous, long-term clients if they don’t deal with it. There is a lack of patient capital because we're driven by private equity and VCs that are driven by short-term results. We have seen a new breed of people in PEs and VCs who want to see the long-term impact and are prepared to wait. The ecosystem of patient capital is growing, but it's nowhere near as big as it should be. Meanwhile, we know that the vast majority of the startups will fail in the first 24 months. There's a huge long tail before they become profitable, so this is always going to be a big problem. 

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?

Your biggest resource is your immediate network. Make sure you listen — it means that you look around you and get involved with events and societies. There are social events around entrepreneurship, impact, and ESG. It’s important to familiarize yourself with all of the informal networks and start having those conversations because ideas you would have never thought of will spring from them. Oxford is a place full of wonderful minds, whether it's amongst staff, your colleagues, or your fellow students.  I can't emphasize how important it is to use these informal extended networks and to be part of them, because once you're in them, you're in them for the rest of your life.  

Any last words of advice?

Follow your heart, and use your head. Think carefully. Talk to everyone. Especially if you're at Oxford, definitely use the network. You’ll face challenges but you’ll learn from them — you'll learn more from getting things wrong than you will from getting things right. So don’t be afraid or be held back; just be brave and go for it.