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From Watching Diggers Construct the M25 to Shaping the Future of the UK’s Aerospace Industry – this is SMF James McMicking’s Story  


When discussing his fondest childhood memories, you certainly don’t expect Sainsbury Management Fellow James McMicking to recount tales of spending hours (and hours) sitting and watching diggers go about their work to build the M25. For James, it was these hours, plus a ‘traumatic’ incident watching his engineer uncle disassemble and incorrectly reassemble his parents’ broken washing machine at the tender age of 3, that was the start of his journey into the world of engineering. And what a journey it has been. Since these early days, James has had a passion for all things mechanical. It led him to study engineering at university, but it was the completion of an MBA via a Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarship that took his career to new heights (literally) as Aerospace Technology Institute’s Chief Strategy Officer. This is James’ story… 

Where my passion for engineering began
Faulty washing machine aside, I’ve always had a knack for mechanical things. Even at an early age my parents were convinced that I’d become an engineer! I loved seeing machines in action. That’s when I’d be at my happiest and this passion endured as I grew up, with my thirst for knowledge seeing me gravitate towards mathematics, physics, and sciences.

It was the clarity of these subjects that appealed to me, and with an interest in sports and racing cars, there were clear signs that pursuing an engineering degree would be the natural next step for me after leaving school.

It was at the age of 15 or 16 that I started thinking seriously about studying engineering at university. I visited engineering departments and got a real buzz seeing what I could be involved in as an engineer. That grabbed me. The prospect of developing products and solving problems was something I got excited about. I could have an impact on the world and make my mark as an individual, so needless to say I was sold.

Talking to universities and graduates cemented my decision, and I was off. Studying for an engineering degree was a valuable and exciting time for so many reasons, a highlight of which was leading Bath University’s Formula Student team.

From watching diggers to building them
During my degree, I landed a one-year internship at JCB thanks to its sponsored undergraduate programme. I was back in my spiritual home but no longer was I simply watching diggers, I was building them! My time at JCB didn’t just help my progression as an engineer, for the first time, I began to learn how engineering businesses were run as well as what the job of an engineer is.

I’m very grateful for my time at JCB, I had the chance to be involved in so many aspects of engineering, from design through to manufacturing, testing and development, yet it was my interest in working on higher performance products that saw me move on to Ricardo Plc.

My time globetrotting as an automotive engineer
My time at Ricardo opened up a whole new world of opportunity. I was able to develop as an engineer and get amid lots of exciting, industry-leading work as part of its driveline transmissions business in the Midlands, not to mention travel all over the world.

Working internationally at Ricardo, I saw how well-regarded British engineers were and what made us different. I was lucky enough to get some real variety in this regard, working across Europe, North America, India, China and Korea. Besides seeing some amazing places, working with people from different cultures with different educational backgrounds showed me new ways of thinking and taught me a lot about working internationally that was important to getting things done.

I worked on many thrilling projects at Ricardo. Memorable experiences included testing the 550 hp Ford GT through the streets of Detroit to pushing hot-hatches to their limits at race circuits in France to diagnose transmission faults.  There were certainly times when I was thrown in the deep end by the company and still expected to impress challenging clients. These were often the most important development experiences for me and when you grew the most.

The moment I hit my career crossroads
Driving and testing cars and working on various engineering projects around the world was an amazing experience and I became a specialist at Ricardo and progressed in many aspects of my job as an engineer, but I started to develop a new craving. I wanted to extend my role on the business side.  At this stage, I was managing projects, leading and managing teams of engineers across the firm. I was interacting more and more with customers, which I enjoyed, and with this, I hit something of a crossroads.

I became particularly interested in the strategy behind the business, the markets we were working in, the competitors we were up against, and the decisions the management took and what made commercial sense or not.

My curiosity grew more and more. I asked myself what it took to run an organisation, how they built the business into the global player it had become, and how they would progress further. I had always been encouraged to develop leadership qualities, and always thought that one day I could be a leader of a business myself, but I needed more than my experience and skills as an engineer to achieve this. If I was to make the most of my potential, it would not be by continuing in the current role at Ricardo. I could change direction or keep doing what I was doing and build a long, and of course successful, career at Ricardo. After much thought, I decided that it was time for a change and that business education would be my catalyst.

There are so many options for getting a business education, and this can be daunting for engineers looking to unlock their potential by gaining business skills that support their engineering experience and qualifications. You can study part-time, go to a top business school, or go to a mainstream university that offers MBAs at a much lower cost.

For me, a full-time MBA made perfect sense. With a full-time MBA, I could give myself the time, space and focus to study how I learn best. It is not easy deciding to take that leap. It is of course costly, and as a successful and experienced engineer, potentially, there is a lot to lose. You must think about this, consider how much savings you have, and how much debt it could leave you with.  But remember, there is so much more to gain, especially with the various sources of funding accessible to those wanting to do MBAs. This brings me to the Sainsbury Management Fellows.

The day I discovered SMF made pursuing an MBA even more possible
Discovering Sainsbury Management Fellows (SMF) changed my outlook and made pursuing an MBA a stronger possibility than ever before. I did endless hours of research and spoke to others within the industry before being led to SMF by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Sainsbury Management Fellows’ scholarships offered the perfect opportunity to accomplish my career goals. The scholarship supports engineers who are passionate about engineering and technology and want to get a business education so that they can take up leadership roles.

I applied for the scholarship and was pleasantly surprised by the interview process. The interview was not a daunting formal experience as I anticipated. Instead, part of the event was an informal gathering with other scholarship applicants who all had interesting stories to tell and views to share about their careers. Then there was a personal interview with an assessment panel, and I discovered so much more about the benefits of an MBA from the people who had been to business school themselves. It was an enriching experience.

The assessment also involved presenting a real work project, so I shared a piece of work that I had done at Ricardo – it was great to have a deep technical discussion engineer to engineer. We talked through my logic for pursuing a business degree and discussed how I planned to use my newfound skills once I emerged at the other side of an MBA.

I had received two offers, one from London Business School and the other from Kellogg School of Management.  The latter was costlier, but Kellogg had a special appeal for me. It offered a combined degree – two for one so to speak – with an MBA and a Master’s in Engineering Management that focused on business and innovation.  Attending Kellogg would allow me to live in the US and immerse myself in a different culture, something I relished doing at Ricardo.

I was fortunate to make it through the process and be awarded the SMF scholarship. It gave me the freedom to study away from home and pursue career opportunities post-MBA with less debt. 

Working hard and playing hard at Kellogg
Chicago-based Kellogg School of Management was a special place. The high energy environment and feel-good culture meant you worked hard but also played hard, and I relished that it would challenge me in so many ways, not just academically.  Students were encouraged to get out and take risks on a personal front, and that’s something I have taken with me even now, years after graduating.

Living in the US was another experience that would not have been possible at that stage of my life without doing an MBA. I met, conversed and interacted with people from different backgrounds and industries, and this rounded out my view of the world. This helped me think a little differently and act a little smarter.

Thanks to Kellogg (and of course the SMF scholarship that made it possible) I achieved more than an MBA. I developed the confidence to engage in and challenge business strategy and management practices.  I now have the vocabulary and insights I did not have before by doing my MBA. And I can honestly say I would not have gone into management consulting without it. The thinking space an MBA afforded me was also valuable. For once I had the time and space away from a busy day job to consider a broader range of careers and take my next step with confidence and clarity.

My status as a Sainsbury Management Fellow and Kellogg alumnus has given me the support I need, even now, years after doing my MBA. You find out quickly who else has done an SMF- sponsored MBA or attended Kellogg, especially with networks like LinkedIn. Let’s just say, if you get a message from a fellow Kellogg alumnus or an SMF, you respond!

Now back to my passion for engineering and technology
After graduating from Kellogg, I worked in management consulting for three years to further extend my learning experience.  That was an excellent way to rapidly acquire experience solving a variety of business and commercial problems. It also ensured I made the switch from pure engineer – I had gone from fixing transmission designs to fixing business strategies, processes and organisations as part of very high-performance teams. But I had an overwhelming urge to get back to my passion for engineering and technology and put my technical past together with my newfound business acumen.

Shortly after this realisation, I joined a small team to establish the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), a not-for-profit organisation created in 2014 half funded by the government’s Department for Business and half funded by the aerospace industry.

With annual combined government and industry funding totalling £300 million to spend on world-class R&D programmes and promote transformative technology within the aerospace sector, the ATI and the work it does was a real game-changer for the UK. As one of the founding members of the Executive Management Team, I was so thrilled and considered myself so fortunate to be doing something so significant for UK industry and engineering.

Unlike most start-ups, the ATI was fortunate to have solid and long-term funding to focus on delivering to the needs of the sector. To date, we have been instrumental in encouraging industry collaborations to the UK in some of the biggest global aerospace programmes that will lead to more sustainable commercial aircraft in the future. Our partnerships with businesses interested in doing R&D in the UK has created significant momentum towards achieving this goal and it has been the foundation of so many fantastic projects. We are encouraging investment in technology research and aerospace like never before and giving the UK leadership, competitiveness and even more business.

We recently created project FlyZero, a ground-breaking initiative bringing some 90 secondees and contractors into the Institute to research the potential of future zero-emission commercial aircraft in just 1 year. The ATI is part of the government’s Jet Zero Council, with the ATI’s FlyZero initiative seen as instrumental to the council’s future zero-emission strategy which ultimately aims to lead the world in zero-carbon emission aircraft with exciting and radical technologies. The initiative is unique in how it is harnessing the best of UK industry and Academia in a way traditional research agencies elsewhere don’t. Our FlyZero initiative represents a thrilling future for the UK and its place in the wider, global aerospace sector.

Every opportunity starts with a conversation
If I were to advise other engineers, I would say, start having conversations with people from different career backgrounds. I was headhunted for the ATI role having been recommended by someone I had met 18 months before the opportunity arose. Building relationships is important – you never know what might arise from these connections further down the line.

If you are wondering whether an MBA is right for you, remember that studying for an MBA is more than a qualification. Business school is the ideal place to explore ideas without fear of failure; gain the confidence to progress in your career; engage with and sometimes challenge the way things have always been and lead from the front to change practices for the better.

Having a good mix of engineering and business skills in your job is more beneficial than many give credit for. As a passionate engineer, I am very tempted and often guilty of getting drawn into the technology and spending days learning about it. The beauty of blending engineering with business is that you comprehend what a piece of technology means in terms of how difficult it is to deliver but also how it can be exploited. You will be able to determine the impact it could have, and then translate that into a business impact, an economic impact, and a societal impact – that is a powerful thing in any organisation or industry.

Engineers who are a little further along in their decision to study an MBA should reach out to Sainsbury Management Fellows and the Royal Academy of Engineering to learn more. Through SMF, you can not only get funding to pursue an MBA but get support from people like me throughout your journey. I have met and connected with many people during my time as a Sainsbury Management Fellow, helped with scholarship applications on the interview panels and mentored young engineers. There is nothing more rewarding than talking to young people about their ideas and progression and helping them to make their career-defining decisions.

The SMF MBA Scholarship
If you are a professional engineer considering an MBA as a stepping-stone towards a business leadership career, visit our MBA scholarship application page, you could be awarded a £50,000 scholarship.

MBA Helps Engineer Imogen Rey Broaden Her Perspectives and Step Up to Strategic Challenges 

SMF Imogen Rey, Senior Manager, Bain & Company

Deciding to do an MBA is a big decision and cost is a major factor. For most, the cost of attending business school is daunting enough, let alone attending one of the most prestigious schools in the world in a country you have never visited.  For UK-born Imogen Rey, now a Senior Manager at global management consultancy Bain & Company, her MBA at Stanford Business School in California was an eye-opening and inspiring experience.

Imogen’s studies were supported by a scholarship from her employer and a Sainsbury Management Fellows (SMF) MBA scholarship, without which, Imogen says, she would not have been able to attend Stanford and build an exciting career in the US.  Imogen tells us how a business education enabled her to transition into a leadership role at Bain & Company.

Starting My Engineering Journey
My journey to becoming an engineer began with a love of maths and science and a natural aptitude for the practical, problem-solving aspects of both subjects. I was fortunate to be at a school with strong maths and science departments run by passionate teachers who encouraged students to pursue these subjects.

Initially, I was fascinated with biomedical engineering after having read books and watched documentaries showing the impact it has on people’s lives – from high-tech prosthetics giving paralysed patients the ability to walk again, to replacement valves keeping hearts beating.  Whether through prosthetics, bridges or aeroplanes, I was inspired by the impact engineers can have on the world around us.

I did my engineering degree at Oxford University.  Apart from it being a prestigious university, I liked the environment and the people I met there.  I chose a four-year course; the first two gave me the opportunity to try out all engineering disciplines, and the last two allowed me to specialise in mechanical engineering, which I found I enjoyed the most.

Towards an MBA
While I was studying at Oxford University, I interned for two summers at Jaguar Land Rover. I worked on various projects and loved analysing different problems and working towards solutions.  I found that engineering training gives you a set of powerful analytical skills which enable you to tackle complex projects spanning different areas of business.

When I graduated from Oxford, I decided to go into consulting as a way to experience a broad range of industries and projects.  I was delighted when I was offered a position as an Associate Consultant at Bain & Company in London.  Bain is a global management consultancy that works with large businesses on projects spanning strategy, operations, finance, transformation, digital and more.  I used my analytical skills to help clients address their highest priority challenges. Around two years into my time at Bain, I started thinking about the benefits of business education. I spoke to colleagues and clients who had done an MBA and they all spoke so highly of the experience that I decided to apply. I believed an MBA would give me a deeper understanding of my clients’ problems, complement my engineering skills, and open new career possibilities.

I was accepted by several schools including Harvard, Wharton and Stanford, and visited the schools before making my decisionA few things made Stanford the most attractive option for me. It has smaller class sizes than the other schools, which I felt would offer a more personalised experience and allow me to chart my own path through the two-year course. I also liked that they use a mix of different teaching styles. They have lectures, case study-based teaching, and experiential classes. Stanford also has a strong leadership curriculum which I was drawn to as I am very interested in the people side of organisations. Stanford over-indexes on this area and has some fascinating pathways and approaches to teaching leadership skills.

Financial Support for My MBA
Once I had decided on Stanford I spoke with my employer and they were happy for me to take time out to do the MBA and offered some financial support contingent on my returning to the company after graduation.

Although I was sponsored by my employer, I still needed additional financial support – I did not have significant means myself, or family members who could support me, and while you can fund your MBA with a loan, I was uncomfortable taking on such a large debt. An MBA is an investment in your future, but it is a significant outlay.  Before I started researching other funding sources, I recalled a conversation with an engineer I met at an event, who was also working in management consulting and had received a Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarship for her MBA.

I investigated the SMF scholarship scheme, submitted my application, was selected for an interview and, to my delight, was awarded a £30,000 scholarship. Without the SMF scholarship, I would not have been able to attend a world-class business school or move myself and my husband to California. The funding allowed me to show US immigration that we had sufficient resources to cover our living costs, allowing us to get the visas we needed.

The MBA Experience
Arriving in California was hectic – there was so much to do. I had to organise an apartment, buy everything I needed to get settled in at home and business school, and there were a lot of new people to meet and get to know.

The business school experience was very different to my undergraduate degree. At Oxford, I attended a lot of large lectures, followed by individual work on problem sets.  At business school, the classes were smaller and more centred around debate with no single right answer to the issues we were exploring.

The diversity in my class made for fascinating discussions.  There were people from so many different countries, industries and backgrounds, all of whom had different perspectives and aspirations – it was a melting pot of ideas and a truly unique experience.

Mixing with so many new people also opened my eyes to a much broader range of career paths.  Many students were involved in entrepreneurial ventures and there were lots of large tech firms in the area, and both sectors were hiring a lot of engineers. The experience showed me that the fusion of different skills and perspectives is essential for the innovation that will define our future.

Lessons from Business School
Going into business school, I was keen to focus on softer skills such as leadership. At Stanford, I had the opportunity to learn from leaders with decades of experience. They shared strategies to manage people, deal with difficult situations, drive organisations forward and problem solve. Their years of wisdom and expertise have been invaluable to my post-MBA career.

Among the most important things I have taken away from business school are the relationships with my peers. During the two-year course, I made life-long friendships and strong connections with many people I would feel comfortable turning to for career support, particularly when it comes to making big decisions or exploring new paths.

Going to Stanford also broadened my horizons and gave me the opportunity to explore different career paths, including an internship at Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle.  It was fascinating to work at a big tech company, and it taught me a great deal. One of the key things I learnt was the importance of autonomy and the freedom to innovate.  I observed Amazon hiring talented people and giving them the freedom to spend time developing new ideas, an approach that I think has been key to their continued success.

An Exciting New Role at Bain & Company
SMF Imogen Rey, Senior Manager, Bain & Company - graduating from Stanford Business School

After I graduated from Stanford, I decided to transfer to Bain’s New York office, where I have been working for two years now. Returning to Bain has allowed me to gain further exposure to diverse companies and work on some of their highest-priority projects. The environment is fast-paced and challenging, and I am learning a huge amount, which is a priority at this stage in my career.

Having an engineering background helps enormously in my role at Bain. A big part of my job is to take a problem and break it down into components, and then analyse each component before putting them all back together again. My engineering training taught me how to approach problems in this way, and to find a logical path through complex issues.

Before my MBA my role was primarily analytical. Now I spend most of my time developing the approach, drawing insights from the analysis, coaching and developing my team, and building relationships with clients. Stanford gave me the leadership training, confidence and broad perspective I need to succeed.

The SMF MBA Scholarship
If you are a professional engineer considering an MBA as a stepping-stone towards a business leadership career, visit our MBA scholarship application page, you could be awarded a £50,000 scholarship.

How Being Open-minded and Taking a Leap of Faith Helped Engineer Kofoworola Agbaje Become a Successful Venture Capitalist


 

A broken Walkman and advice from a younger brother may seem unusual career influencers but they both combined to set Engineer, Kofoworola Agbaje on an inspirational career path via seven years in banking to her current role as an Investment Associate at Quona Capital which, so far, has seen her successfully close venture investment deals in six countries. Quite a feat for someone who has, in her own words, experienced ‘imposter syndrome’ at points in her life.  A key turning point came in 2017 when Kofoworola was awarded a Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarship for her MBA study at Wharton Business School where she would build her business skills further.  Kofoworola’s story told by her, highlights the importance of not being afraid to step out of your comfort zone and, above all, being open to advice and guidance from others.

Choosing Engineering
Becoming an engineer wasn’t my first career plan. I had a hankering to be a doctor, but unfortunately for me, I hated the sight of blood, and it transpired that biology wasn’t my strongest subject. Clear signs that a career in medicine would not be my path.

However, I excelled at maths – I absolutely loved maths and at school I would jump at the chance to help younger students, even today it’s still one of my passions. I find maths comforting which is just as well as I do a lot of analysis in my current role. Clearly, maths was going to play a big role in my career, but as much as I loved working with numbers, for me studying maths at university would be too narrowly focused. I felt it could limit my career options.

I started to think about career options. I had always enjoyed tinkering with tech and one incident prompted my brother to suggest that I study engineering. I had accidentally broken the Walkman that my dad had bought me, so purely on instinct, I took it apart and repaired it. Seeing this, my brother jokingly said, “you should study electrical engineering”. That banter turned into serious discussion and then research into the subject. I applied and to my delight was accepted into Imperial College London. So, my route into engineering was partly due to playing to my strengths in maths and partly from listening to a shrewd piece of brotherly advice.

When I arrived at Imperial College London for my interview, I remember feeling lost. I’d been to school in rural Sussex so wondered how I would survive in central London and what the course was going to be like. Unlike a lot of universities, the term started later in the year which, thankfully, gave me time to build my confidence. I used that summer to get comfortable with the idea of being at university.

The best part about the university experience was the diversity of students. There weren’t a lot of females in my classes, but there were far more than in my A level classes, and more importantly, there were females from many countries and lots of students with different backgrounds and stories and studying with such a diverse group broadened my view of the world. It was also my first experience of expressing my African side in the UK which I was able to do through the university’s Afro Caribbean Club. There are many such clubs at universities that give you the opportunity to mix broadly with students academically and with specific communities. This was incredibly good for me.

Above all, my time at Imperial gave me so much confidence. I did well to get there, but I struggled with imposter syndrome. I remember thinking “why am I here?” and that feeling lingered for the first two years of my four-year course, yet I graduated with a first-class degree. Being at such a prestigious university and still being able to succeed despite my concerns boosted my confidence and it was an important part of my growth at that time.

During my first year at Imperial, I was convinced that after graduation, I would get a job with an engineering firm like Land Rover. In my second year, firms came to the campus to recruit – there were so many tempting opportunities that it was hard to decide. There was a period of confusion trying to figure out what my post-graduation career would look like. Everything fell into place in my third year – I gained an internship with the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), and I went on to join its graduate trainee programme after I graduated.

RBS Internship Helped Me Choose my First Career
Whilst on the initial RBS internship, I met a lot of people with totally different backgrounds and seeing all those people working in finance, helped me realise that I could do almost anything post-degree. You can feel a little overwhelmed with all the opportunities presented by recruiting firms and an internship helps you focus on what you want to do.

During my two-month internship, I worked in different teams depending on who needed support. My boss at the time, Stuart Gurr, was incredibly helpful and was one of the reasons why I took the graduate role. He was always busy as he ran a department of over 100 people, but whenever we had our catch up, he always took time to talk and that impressed me. He said that to build a career in banking, you must do multiple roles and advised me that whether I loved or hated a particular task, banking would provide a solid foundation that would allow me to do many other things. Whether I opted for a banking or an engineering career long term, he said the experience would be invaluable and he was right.

Full Time at RBS
When I joined the RBS graduate programme, I received the obligatory six weeks’ training and then did my rotation across different teams in multiple roles. During that time, I learnt that I could do anything I was tasked with! I went from doing an electrical engineering degree at Imperial where the only coding language I knew was Pascal to learning C#. Then I became a business analyst and later moved to another team that coded only in Java. I worked at the equity desk, in finance and strategy and credit risk – I moved around a great deal and learned so much.

During my seven years at RBS, I held a variety of challenging roles that stretched me. The experience taught me that it’s important to remain open and not to put yourself into a ‘career box’. It’s easy to fall into trap of thinking that you must do the same job as your last one. The default position tends to be move from being a developer in one firm to being a developer in another, from business analyst to business analyst and so on. However, many skills that we learn as undergraduates and on-the-job are transferrable: you may be working in healthcare today, but it’s possible to take your skills into banking tomorrow. My time at RBS taught me to stop thinking about myself as someone who could only do one job.

Five years into my time at RBS I began seriously thinking about doing an MBA. The MBA had always been in my mind, and I had attended an MBA information session in London while I was studying at Imperial. Even though it was early days, and I was advised that applicants need work experience before doing an MBA, I registered on the GMAT website so that I could receive the MBA articles and build up a knowledge bank for the future.

Which Business School – Wharton or MIT?
The desire to do the MBA was spurred by my increasing interest in working “front-office”, as it’s called in banking. When you work in tech in a non-tech organisation you are often seen as back-office professionals, people who help the business to function rather than driving growth and profit. I was keen to move into the business side of things and succeed but my resume was very tech. That’s what I mean by putting ourselves in boxes. I asked myself, how can I move out of the tech space where everyone thinks that is all I can do? Doing an MBA was the answer.

Choosing the business school was not straightforward. I ended up in a school where I was so adamant that I would not go! I knew for certain that I would study in the USA because I wanted a completely new experience.

After initial research, I attended information sessions for Harvard, MIT and Wharton. I was confident about wanting to apply to MIT and Harvard, but I didn’t feel any affinity with Wharton. However, when I delved into Wharton’s website, I quickly realised that my experience in financial analytics was a perfect match for the school. I was also a good fit for MIT, so I applied to both schools and received offers from them.

Then I attended the welcome weekend for both schools and again I came away with the feeling that Wharton was not for me, but I felt at home with MIT. The attendees at the MIT event included a lot of people with similar backgrounds to mine: engineers, rocket scientists and the like. Wharton’s event was attended by people who were a world apart from me at that time, for example, from private equity backgrounds. My first thought was, “this is not my tribe, and I don’t know how to interact with them.” I was uncomfortable and I was so sure that I wouldn’t choose Wharton that I didn’t go to view the accommodation options!

As always, I discuss big decisions with my family and my brothers had an influence on my final decision. Talking to them about how well I fitted in with the MIT group compared to the Wharton group, they made me realise that I was putting myself in a box. One said, “The fact that you felt uncomfortable with the group at Wharton is the exact reason why you should choose that school. You’re not going to business school to get comfortable; you’re going to get out of your comfort zone!” It made sense. I was going to America because I wanted to experience something new and challenging, what could be more challenging than joining students with totally different backgrounds to me? So, I chose Wharton, and it is the best decision I have ever made.

Scholarship Awardees Helped Me Secure MBA Funding
Neither of my business school offers came with financial support, which is not unusual. The MBA is a significant cost and even with family support, I needed additional funding. The work to raise the funds started with a list of sources of possible help. I researched many websites, anything that was related to masters, MBAs, engineering, and diversity support, be that gender or ethnicity. It was during this research that I found the LinkedIn profiles of SMFs. First, SMF Busola Banjo, who had been awarded a Sainsbury Management Fellows (SMF) scholarship to study at INSEAD. I checked out the SMF scholarship and it looked like a great opportunity. I messaged Busola to ask for her help and she willingly agreed to share her scholarship application experience.

Thankfully, the SMF scholarship applications were still open for the year I wanted to start business school and I was selected for an interview. I contacted another SMF, Animish Sivaramakrishnan, who had just been awarded a scholarship to ask questions that helped me prepare for my interview, The information and advice shared by both Busola and Animish were enormously helpful, and I am so grateful to them both.

I must confess that despite all this preparation, I was very nervous on the interview day and my imposter syndrome tendency crept in, but I needn’t have worried. I was interviewed by a fantastic panel, and it was reassuring to see the diversity on the panel: someone older, someone younger, someone who had done his MBA fairly recently, and a hugely impressive lady called Naomi Climer CBE. I was so impressed I emailed her after my interview. I heard quickly after my interview that I was being awarded the SMF scholarship; I was delighted. Not only would I have financial support for my MBA, but I would become part of the SMF network.

Key Lessons from My Business School Experience
So, I headed off for my MBA adventure and what an adventure it was. Again, I learned the value of not putting myself in a box and being open to fresh ideas. I tell anyone who wants to know about MBAs, that you can literally craft the experience to suit yourself. People who knew me before the MBA tell me that I came out of my shell because of my MBA. I met so many people that were not like me and that forced me to change my worldview. It was challenging at the beginning, but it helped me flourish.

I learnt many important lessons at business school. Probably the most important is to embrace people and their ideas and don’t be afraid of failure. I work in venture capital now and the idea of working in this sector came from a classmate who had worked in private equity. I was deeply sceptical at the time because I had no experience in buying companies but listened to his rationale for saying that my tech background and experience would be ideal for venture capitalism. Despite my protestations about lack of experience, he kept insisting that I would be a good venture capitalist. So, I started taking courses in the subject; I did eight in total and spent four months in San Francisco during my MBA, to get to know the venture world first-hand.

It’s amazing how those experiences have helped the career path I’m on now. The idea of becoming a venture capitalist seemed random back then, but my classmate was right. I am so grateful that I was willing to step outside my comfort zone: that’s why I picked Wharton Business School and even though venture capitalism seemed strange electives at the time, I still checked them out. I’m grateful for being open-minded and for being surrounded by people who were so different from me.

When I tell people the story of my MBA journey and post-MBA career, they think it makes sense, but it didn’t always make sense to me back then, because my journey wasn’t straightforward. Even with the MBA from Wharton, transitioning into venture capitalism took tenacity. I must have sent hundreds of emails with a response rate of around 0.1%, but I made it!

Taking to VC like a Duck to Water
Now, I’m an Investment Associate at Quona Capital, a VC firm that invests in financial services technology in different markets – it’s such an exciting business. Since I have been with the company, we have invested in businesses in Nigeria, Kenya, Turkey, UK, Egypt, and South Africa. I’ve worked with all our portfolio in these countries supporting our investments (though of course much has been done remotely during the COVID pandemic). I love my job, especially working with seriously smart people who are experts in their field and who are so passionate about their ventures!

My job entails analysing markets and specific sectors, as well as deal sourcing. Once we have the data on a sector, I research companies and propose them to my team. If we decide to invest, I build a model on that investment so that we have clarity about its likely progression and return on investment. When we commit, we support the lifecycle of our investment, which covers everything from supporting the CEO with hiring and financing to product and company expansion. Essentially, anything that helps companies achieve their goals.

Engineering and Business Skills Working in Harmony
My path into venture capitalism has been atypical and I draw on my engineering background and skills all the time at Quona. Analytics is the bedrock of an engineering career. You learn how to analyse situations, models, numbers – the skills you learn from that, regardless of what engineering you’ve studied, are transferrable. My manager says that when they were recruiting for my role, they saw my engineering background as a real asset. I might not have done consulting or investment banking but put me in front of any Excel spreadsheet and give me time with it, and I will tell you what is going on with the data! Most people I know who studied engineering have strong analytical abilities. It’s important to remember that there are so many things that you can do with those skills.

If you’re a young engineer looking to make a paradigm shift in your career, I would suggest that you take stock of what you’ve been doing and what you’ve learnt in your current role. Then think about what you can apply your skills to. Think laterally, you might be a lawyer – companies need lawyers in high-tech too, you don’t always have to work for a legal firm. You might be a coder; you can work in healthcare just as much as you can work in cleantech.

So many industries have tech underlying them. There are so many roles within different sectors where you might not have been able to work in five or ten years ago, but today you can because of the pace of innovation. Explore sectors you might not have considered before, and don’t take the easy route! Then figure out how to get there – do you need another degree, extra work experience, or a new classification? Whatever it takes to get where you want to be, do it!

I’ve come a long way in my business life, and I have left the imposter syndrome tendency behind me. I think I’ve shown what is possible with a combined engineering and MBA education and by embracing other people’s observations and advice, not least my wonderful brother, who reminds me far too often about his hand in my career! I’m delighted that he is also thinking about doing  an MBA and now it’s me who is trying to convince him to go to Wharton – remember, if you can dream it, you can do it!

The SMF MBA Scholarship
If you are a professional engineer considering an MBA as a stepping-stone towards a business leadership career, visit our MBA scholarship application page, you could be awarded a £50,000 scholarship.

“I’ve never worked so hard in my life”: How an MBA helped SMF Henning von Spreckelsen go from Engineer to Business Guru

Many engineers can pinpoint a moment in their childhood that sparked a real interest in engineering. For entrepreneur Henning von Spreckelsen, the spark was ignited by his father, who suggested it as a possible career.  As an adult, Henning has used a combination of engineering skills and business education to develop an impressive career.  He has worked in senior management positions in international companies both large and small, with experience in chemicals, plastics, and packaging, as well as having founded and/or invested in innovative manufacturing and technology companies.  One of those companies, Plastecowood, has just become an international award-winning business in the Santander X Environmental Challenge.  Here, Henning takes us on a brief tour of his journey from engineering student to entrepreneur.

Becoming an engineer was complete chance. During the careers’ discussion process at school, I had a chat with my dad, and he suggested studying engineering because it would give me a breadth of options, even if I did not want to work in the field at some later point.  So, with the help of one of my teachers, after A-Levels, I applied to and was accepted to study electrical engineering at the University of Southampton.

Southampton turned out to be a great choice. It had pioneered the Master of Engineering course and in the fourth and final year, students undertook real-world commercial projects sponsored by companies.  From the entire engineering faculty, they took just three or four students from each engineering discipline, and I was one of those selected, therefore ended up studying alongside mechanical, civil, aeronautical and electronic engineers. We did additional courses in basic accounting, law and project management alongside the normal engineering subjects

Thinking Outside the Textbook
In the final year of the programme, we did two commercial projects. One was a marketing study for Southampton airport on the freight and charter brokerage services they could offer to existing and new clients.

The second project was an airborne wind generation unit. The university had been approached by a barrage balloon manufacturer who wanted to test the feasibility of hanging a wind turbine under the balloon to get it 100 to 200 metres up in the air as the wind speed at that height is much greater, more regular and could generate a lot more electricity than at ground level.

Our team worked out a concept design of turbine, cable and generator allowing the company’s idea to pay for itself in three years, but then we realised that the life of a balloon was only three years!  I learned then that you can be the best engineer in the world with the best product, but unless you understand the finance and customer side of things and the value of teamwork, you will not be successful.

Although most people think about MBAs a few years into their work life, this project got me thinking about business education early. I felt that an MBA would supplement my engineering knowledge and help me work out how to make companies and products successful.

I was fortunate also that the Master of Engineering programme required students to secure corporate sponsorship. With the help of the university’s corporate links, I interviewed successfully and was sponsored by GEC PLC during the last two summers of my studies.  It made a big difference to me as a student because it gave me work experience, a small income and I had a great experience working alongside engineers. Even then, I could see that the engineers who would be most successful would be those that could marry engineering with the financial side of the business.

Becoming a Boffin
After graduation, I joined ICI (then Britain’s largest company) in the “boffins department” the Advanced Process Control Team – we worked on the simulation of chemical plants using rocket simulation software. We wrote programmes that simulated ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, paint, plastics or nitroglycerin plants and then travelled around the world helping ICI factories to make their products more effectively through control engineering and applied common sense.  I had thought that being in this department would be dry, but it was fantastic because we were innovating, and we got to travel all over the world and help different divisions improve their performance.

We were only a small team within a large multinational company, so to improve our reach and effectiveness, I developed a course called Tuning for Profit which involved bringing teams from the ICI divisions in training sessions to learn how to reduce costs by “tuning” their factory control systems.  They were given a deadline to implement the learnings and every division participating was able to reduce its production costs by implementing what they had learnt with us.   This initiative enabled us to amplify the impact of our small, young team, through the people working in the divisions around the world.

Business School and Beyond
Seeing my keen interest in business, the chief engineer at ICI recommended that I read The Machine that Changed the World which is about the Toyota Production System and The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt which is about improving production performance but written in novel format.  These books opened my eyes.  I realised that the nascent thoughts about business that began back at university would become the driving force for my career.   At that point, I committed to doing the MBA, did my research, did the GMAT and gained a place at IMD Business School in Switzerland.  Funding an MBA at a top school can be daunting, so I was delighted to be awarded a Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarship.

One of the attractions of IMD was the multicultural, multilingual nature of the students – there were 42 nationalities in my cohort!  I am a German national, educated in the UK and Belgium so I speak fluent French and German and thought that with three languages I would be on par with other students, but the average number of languages spoken was between four and five. You went into the study rooms to debate different cases and it would be done in Spanish in one group, in French in another group; you might have a German lawyer arguing with an Italian engineer in a language that was not their mother tongue – it was impressive.

IMD also offered international consulting projects – companies paid to get fresh, strategic thinking on their operations from MBA students who could analyse their business challenges differently.  My team had the exciting opportunity of analysing LEGO’s business and was able to show the board of directors how a major competitor, which one could argue did not produce the toy bricks to the same high quality as LEGO, was gaining market share by turning its packaging into a toy/storage item that the kids could enjoy, rather than throw away cardboard.  We recommended a change to LEGO’s packaging strategy as well as the introduction of movie-themed bricks.  Within a few years, the company started implementing these proposals and continues to do so today.  This was a brilliant experience to have during the MBA course.

Teamwork, Teamwork, Teamwork
Work is full-on from the moment you start business school.  On the first day at IMD, I was given three cases to work on and develop a solution for the problems posed.  With six years of work experience under my belt, I was feeling confident in handling them.  I remember phoning my wife and saying, “I think I’ve got the hang of this; I know what the answers are.” The next morning, I was put in my team, and we discussed the cases – I thought I had nailed the cases the night before but there were at least three different answers to the problems, all of which were better than mine.  Later that day all the students came together, about 80 of us, for a session with the professor and to my surprise, there were even further potential solutions to the cases.  This demonstrated to me, the power of collaboration and teamwork.

I have never worked so hard, before or since business school. We started at 8am and worked until midnight – it was work, work, and more work!  When I did my engineering degree, my notes were in four folders, one for each year of the course. For my one-year MBA, I had 20 folders of double-sided typed pages as well books and other material.  It was incredibly intense – you are placed in a group for a month and just as you are getting comfortable, they change the groups to generate different dynamics and pressures.  You stand and fall by the group, which is much the same in real life. There were intermittent moments of play though, cultural events from the different nationalities, trips, etc– we even had a series of 5-minute parties – where after hours of working late into the night, we would play loud music through the building for exactly 5 minutes – dance like crazy – then go back to work.

Having the Bottle
After graduating from IMD, I was recruited by Tetra Pak, famous for its UHT milk and juice cartons.  After induction and training, I joined a four-strong team that was asked to form a new division. We were tasked with setting up an extrusion blow moulding division to make milk bottles for the price competitive global market.  In three years, we grew the division from four to 170 people, with four factories in the UK and Argentina and bidding on over 20 others around the world. I designed and project managed the first factory installation and then had a team of project leaders reporting to me, each project effectively creating “brownfield” startups on customer premises.

I spent an enjoyable three years heading up projects for the division and only left because I wanted to forge out on my own and buy a company and I was fortunate to be backed by Deloitte & Touche corporate finance on a fully contingent basis. One thing led to another, and, over several years, I founded a company that developed an innovative bottle-top technology. The new technology led us to create bottle tops that enabled lighter weight (more environmentally friendly and cheaper) bottles that are faster and easier to fill and eliminated any possibility of leakage after the containers were opened and recapped by consumers.

I raised £6 million to build the first bottle top factory, having all sorts of adventures along the way, raising a further £6+ million a few years later, with all the highs and lows associated with the process. Our first customer for the new bottle top was a small Irish dairy that bought £20,000 worth of stock. The second customer was Del Monte in Canada. The company used our technology for canned fruit and doubled their sales. Del Monte’s market share in Canada soared from 30% to over 60% in less than 12 months, knocking Dole off the top spot. We won an Ameripack award for the product.  Our third customer was PepsiCo for whom we created an oval bottle top for Tropicana juices in North America.    During these ten years, we filed 170 patents in 30 countries and built factories and a research centre in the EU and the USA. A multinational packaging company, Aptar, has now bought the business and transferred our technology to its portfolio.

Playing a Greater Role
I then began looking at getting involved with companies by investing and/or taking an active role in the business strategy and development of both product and business profitability.  Today I am involved in several companies, including underwater yacht and marina lighting through Bluefin LED, with a company called Parafricta International, and Plastecowood. Parafricta sells products made from a high-tech fabric that prevents or eliminates Category 1  pressure ulcers in 14 days.   Over the past eight years, they have been working with an NHS trust in the northwest, with thousands of patients using Parafricta products, and the trust has a 75% lower incidence rate of hospital-acquired pressure ulcers than the NHS average.  Based on the NHS’s own figures, we estimate the NHS would save upwards of £240 million per annum on the cost of pressure ulcer treatment if it adopted the products across the country.

Plastecowood recycles plastic that would otherwise go to landfills or incineration. The company receives plastic waste, mainly from household collections, and reprocesses it into plastic lumber called Smartawood – it is cheaper than concrete and longer-lasting than wood.
This innovative solution has led to the company being one of six winning projects in the Santander X Environmental Challenge, a global competition for entrepreneurial companies that create more sustainable products.

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to gain both engineering and business education.  I have been able to help previous employers develop and deploy technology that has improved businesses, economies, and people’s lives.  Now I get to use my combined skills and experience in companies that I am intrinsically involved with – it is extremely rewarding to work alongside great people who are so passionate about creating value through technology and to use the combination of business and engineering disciplines to help drive the companies forward.

Sainsbury Management Fellows MBA Scholarship
Over thirty years ago Lord Sainsbury had a vision of getting more engineers with business education into boardrooms so that they could make a difference to UK plc.  He did this through his MBA scholarship programme for engineers, which is still going strong today, enabling people like me to acquire the business skills needed to help grow the economy.  Not only that, the next generation of engineers who have an eye on business leadership, have a set of role models.  They can look at the CVs of the 375 SMFs who received an MBA scholarship, and see different pathways towards a diversity of business careers.

For me, the beauty of the SMF network is that there is always somebody who knows something about what you need to know. And as our SMFs get more experienced, they branch out into different ventures, so this network becomes even more valuable over time.

The SMF MBA Scholarship
If you are a professional engineer considering an MBA as a stepping-stone towards a business leadership career, visit our MBA scholarship application page, you could be awarded a £50,000 scholarship.

How an MBA Helped A Nuclear Energy Engineer Become A Business Leader at Google – SMF Samarth Sharma, Head of Partnerships for EMEA App Developers at Google

SMF Samarth Sharma at INSEAD Graduation

SMF Samarth Sharma is pictured far right

Born in Tezpur, a small town in a developing region of northeast India, Samarth experienced a unique multi-cultural childhood. Growing up in the remote region, there was very little to occupy this young boy with big dreams.  When his father, a civil engineer who built bridges for a living, got a posting in Paris and announced the family would be moving there, Samarth – aged eight – had no idea what to expect. Fast forward to today, and Samarth is Head of Partnerships for EMEA App Development at Google, in no small thanks to a Sainsbury Management Fellow MBA scholarship.  

 Samarth reflects on his journey, describing how his interest in engineering started and how the MBA helped him get to where he is today. 

The first spark of interest in engineering
When we moved to Paris, I was eight years old.  I had never seen tall buildings so imagine how I marvelled upon seeing the Eiffel Tower.  Perhaps the biggest change was the abundance of electricity in France and it got me thinking about the differences between the two countries.   When I learned that France used 80% nuclear energy, I became intensely interested in it.  How do you build a nuclear plant?  How is energy produced and stored?  If I could help bring energy to millions of people who, like me, never had reliable access to it, the world would be a better place.  I knew there and then, at that young age, that I wanted to become an engineer. That was the spark.

Building on that interest
I was fortunate in my early education to study the International Baccalaureate. I remember being around 16 years old, working on my diploma.  We had to do a project and a 4,000-word thesis on a topic that interested us.  As part of that project, I built a small wind tunnel because I was intrigued by how aeroplanes fly.  I built the tunnel with a cardboard tube and modelled the wings with straw and foil and set things up to find out at what angle the lift of the wings would occur.

So my passion for engineering started early and stayed with me. There was an Indian Prime Minister – Rajiv Gandhi – who studied at Imperial College London. I thought if I could follow in his footsteps and get there myself, it would allow me to get a good general understanding of engineering and then specialise in a particular field like energy or aeronautics.

Imperial College and the beginnings of a career
I was so fortunate to study at Imperial College.  To this day, I look back on the four years I spent there as some of the best years of my life. I was very studious!  Whilst many of my fellow students were out clubbing on weekends, I spent (most) of my Saturday evenings in the lab and loved every moment! Imperial College is strong in applied engineering, so for me, it was perfect, and it had extensive resources.  In my final year, when I did my masters’ degree in nuclear reactor technology, we even got to work on a mini nuclear reactor!

On graduation, I thought I would go straight into the energy sector, but I took a diversion. I had gone straight into Imperial College from my international school and found that many of my peers at Imperial had taken a gap year and had experiences that stretched them.  That got me thinking about doing a gap year.  With London being a centre of finance, Imperial College was one of the target universities for investment bank recruiting, and they vied for the top graduates.  Deutsche Bank offered me a one-year graduate program, and I thought working at the international bank would be an excellent gap year. Different from the norm, but I would expand my horizons and learn about the world of finance and business.

From bank internship to nuclear energy
Would you believe that I started my internship on the same day that Lehman Brothers failed – what an initiation!  Yet, despite the turbulence in the financial sector at that time, I had a great experience at Deutsche Bank.  It was a blessing in disguise for me because I got to see an entire industry change in front of my eyes.  As part of the graduate program, I was seconded to New York to work on a large US automobile company’s restructuring.  I do not think I have ever learned so much in such a short space of time, aside from my MBA experience.

I learned that how you react to setbacks defines you as a person, particularly things out of your control like global financial crises. I also learned that the world of work is very different to university, where you solve problems in front of a computer.  Work is much more about people management and nurturing relationships.  Another key takeaway was the importance of delivering on promises and being dependable for your team and those around you.

When I began the Deutsche Bank graduate program, I had planned to work in banking for one year, and I stuck to that and left with a range of valuable new skills. Once I finished the graduate programme, I made plans to leave the bank – but where next?  Fortunately for me, at my graduation ceremony, Imperial College had awarded an honorary degree to a highly respected female business leader, Anne Lauvergeon, formerly the CEO of the French nuclear company, Areva.  Through a connection with Anne, I was introduced to Areva, gained an interview and was hired, enabling me to fulfil my dream of working for a world leader in nuclear reactor technology.

Working for a world leader in nuclear energy
My first posting at Areva involved working with one of the project management teams to build a nuclear reactor in China. I spent two years in China working as a Project Engineer on the critical path of a key project, identifying stopgaps with sub-suppliers.  When I came back to Areva in France, I was one of a few people who had a combination of finance and engineering experience, so I was asked to join Areva’s investment team to handle project financing of several projects.  Halfway through my seven years at Areva, I was asked by our UK CEO to build the UK team to work on major UK government projects (Hinkley Point nuclear power station and off-shore wind projects in the North Sea).  I managed negotiations with the British government and EDF, our chief supplier.  I was chief of staff to the UK CEO and helped grow the Areva UK entity from 20 to 200 people.

I reached a crossroad near the end of this project. With eight years of valuable work experience under my belt, I had to decide whether to continue in nuclear energy and build a long-term career at Areva or do something different and push onto the next level.

First encounter with an MBA
My first glimpse into what an MBA could do for me came when I met a friend, Chris Hughes, for a drink on a beautiful summer day in Paris.  He was in the middle of his MBA at INSEAD, and he talked about how transformative the experience had been for him.  He suggested that I do an MBA, but I told him it was out of the question – there is no way I could afford it!  Chris had an answer for that too.  He put me in touch with Cathy Breeze at Engineers in Business Fellowship (EIBF), a charity that helps engineers in their career development. Cathy told me all about the Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarship for professional engineers and the network of graduates who provide ongoing support for members.

I had to go through EIBF’s competitive application process, of course, but the chance of financial support spurred me on. I was invited to an impressive historical building in London for my scholarship application interview, part of which involved a short presentation. I had put a lot of effort into telling my story, my journey from Imperial College London to working on the Hinckley Point nuclear plant, but I was still nervous.  However, once I was in front of the panel, it dawned on me that having reached this stage, EIBF must have seen something persuasive in my written application; all I had to do was convey that passion in person.  I was delighted when they decided that I would be a good custodian of the SMF scholarship.  I chose INSEAD as my preferred business school and gained a place.  Being awarded the scholarship was genuinely life-changing for me. I will be forever grateful to Chris for introducing me to the idea and the charity.

A brief spell in finance
Before starting my MBA, I had the opportunity to work on a project at a leading VC firm in London called Index Ventures.  I had the time and wanted to try something new, and this experience taught me how much I enjoyed being an advisor to entrepreneurs and working in a fast-growing company. The energy sector is very stimulating but has reached a mature growth level (compared to say the technology sector).  It was then I realised that I wanted a very different future career.  I even started thinking about working for a company like Google and decided to spend my time at INSEAD figuring out how to break into Google.

Takeaways from INSEAD and the MBA 
I went into INSEAD with an open mind, ready to absorb whatever knowledge I could.  I wanted to learn more about the world of business, learn from my peers and see just how far I could push my career.  Looking back, Deutsche Bank set me up well on the basics of business; I understood how accounts worked and all the basic tenets of running a business.  The real lightbulb moment came when I realised that business is only really half of what you do on an MBA.  The rest is about your relationships with people, how to manage them and their expectations.  At business school, you are put into hypothetical situations, for example, acting as a CEO. You learn so much from role-playing. For me, learning hard skills was a small tick, whilst learning soft skills was a huge tick!

You also get time during an MBA to figure out who you are in a way that work does not allow. It is all about introspection, teamwork and learning from those around you.  Learning from such a diverse group of people with different backgrounds and different ambitions was a privilege.

One of the things that INSEAD taught me was how to connect with my inner self and find a higher level of patience.  It helped me realise that some things are outside of my control and to be okay with that. You can give your best, but even then, it might not be good enough.  Life will throw challenges at you, and if you keep thinking it is your fault, you will never succeed.  You have to take a step back, accept that there are things that you cannot control, and you have to let go and not take them personally.

INSEAD and the springboard into Google
The access and exposure you get to people from different cultural and professional backgrounds at INSEAD are remarkable.  While there, I worked as a strategy consultant on a so-called ‘moonshot projects’ for Google’s experimental ‘X’ division.  This was my first taste of life at Google, and I loved it.  Following my graduation from INSEAD, I did not take the traditional path of post-MBA careers in consulting or finance like many of my peers.  I knew I wanted a future at Google and was happy to carry on networking to secure an interview there. That interview came a few months later through networking with professionals associated with Google.  I was introduced to the leader of the strategy team for the EMEA business for the SMB (Small and Medium-Sized Businesses) sector at Google.

Since Deutsche Bank, I had a newfound respect for job creation and the volatility of the job market. My passion for helping small and medium-sized businesses scale-up was recognised and I was offered a role as EMEA Strategy & Operations Manager. It was a great fit and I had a fantastic experience.

After leading business planning for the entire EMEA region, I joined our Apps business to become Head of Partnerships for App Developers and manage Google’s third-party partnerships.  We are all spending so much time with apps these days – from gaming and shopping to education and socialising.  Many of those apps benefit from services from third-party players and it is my department’s job to grow successful partnerships with these players to help our customers expand their businesses.

Advice for engineers considering an MBA
Everybody’s circumstances are different but do not let financing an MBA be a limiting factor.  If you decide an MBA is right for you, you should apply for a Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarship.  It is also a good idea to let go of any preconceptions you have about people who do MBAs – they do not all go on to work for the likes of McKinsey or Goldman Sachs.  You will get far more out of an MBA if you keep an open mind and stay true to your ambition.  Another thing I would suggest is always trying to operate slightly outside your comfort zone, but never in your panic zone.  Continuously nudge yourself in new directions as this will help you to thrive.

Lord Sainsbury’s vision of getting more engineers into business organisations through the MBA scholarship scheme is a force for good.  Engineers can bring perspectives to business that other people might not have because engineers have built things their whole lives.  I am grateful to everybody who has helped me on my SMF journey – my family, Chris Hughes, Cathy Breeze, the interview panel that awarded me the scholarship and the SMF network that, to this day, is a valuable resource.

The SMF MBA Scholarship
If you are a professional engineer considering an MBA as a stepping-stone towards a business leadership career, visit our MBA scholarship application page, you could be awarded a £50,000 scholarship.

How My MBA Changed My Career Journey – SMF Davina Patel

SMF Davina PatelDavina Patel is one of 375 professional engineers who have been awarded our prestigious Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarship to study an MBA at a top tier business school.   After gaining her MBA at London Business School, Davina has used her newly acquired business skills and insights as a catalyst towards an exciting new career.  Davina has taken time out to talk to us about her early passion for engineering, her MBA experience, her career and lessons learnt along the way.

What inspired you to become an engineer?
From a young age I was curious about the world around me, and I found science gave me answers to help satisfy that curiosity. I had an aptitude for maths and physics and some great teachers, it was only natural for me to gravitate towards these subjects at school. When it was time to pick university courses, I knew I wanted to stick with maths and physics, but I wanted a course that covered a variety of interesting subjects and one that was practical in nature to allow me to build skills that would help me explore and start my professional career. After many years of academic success, applying to university was my first real lesson that sometimes life doesn’t always go to plan as I didn’t get into my first-choice university.

Nevertheless you gained an excellent BEng in Mechanical Engineering & Aeronautics degree at Brunel University. Give us a snapshot of your university experience and first jobs.   
I decided to pick a ‘thick sandwich’ engineering degree which allowed me to spend one year on a work placement between my second and final year. I worked at Hawtal Whiting an automotive design and engineering services company where I gained experience in a very specialised area (finite element analysis), the best part of the experience was my direct interaction with customers working with BMW on some very cool product development projects.

I returned to university for my final year which specialised in Aeronautics, my favourite part of the course. I was flattered to be offered a PHD opportunity in flight mechanics, but after my year working, I had more clarity that I didn’t want to specialise in one area but wanted a broader experience across all of product development and manufacturing at aerospace companies – so I politely declined the offer. I remember stuffing envelopes with CV and cover letters applying to nearly every major aerospace engineering company. It was overwhelming to face rejection after rejection. I decided to take a ‘gap year’ after university to travel and take some time to think about what I wanted given maybe working in aerospace wasn’t going to happen.

I stumbled across a role at ebm-papst, a company that manufactured fans and motor products, it didn’t scream out dream job, but I liked the company culture and its people.

My first role was as an application engineer focused on driving sales of its standard products. Then I progressed to a project engineer working more intimately with customers managing a portfolio of product development projects. Being in such a small and informal company I was able to participate in other projects relating to quality and operations. In hindsight, it was a great first job; I was around some incredibly supportive and fun people and given the opportunity to be exposed to a variety of experiences.

Why did you decide to do an MBA?
Working at such a small company I was limited, as career progression went from application engineer, project engineer to business development manager, I had done two out of three and the third was purely an ‘on the road’ sales role which was not for me.

It was time for a change, I started applying for engineering consulting jobs and then it dawned on me I didn’t want to specialise in any engineering discipline. My exposure to broader aspects of operating a business excited me, I knew I wanted to learn more and have the time to explore other possibilities. My journey took me to London Business School, as soon as I walked through its doors, I knew it was the right place for me.

What are the stand-out learnings from your MBA?
It’s almost a given, but the MBA provided a phenomenal learning experience. It was great to look back on my time at ebm-papst and connect the dots on what worked well at the company (and why) and what could have been done better: how it managed its products, its operations and its people.

My London Business School experience gave me so much more:

First, finding my tribe. Nearly 15 years on and my closest and most cherished friendships are with those who I met because of the MBA. Not only are they great friends, they’re the best cheerleaders!

The MBA unleashed a newfound confidence in me. We all doubt our abilities and I was no exception. Being at one of the top business schools in the world I was surrounded by some of the best and brightest minds and the experience made me believe that with hard work and a learning mindset I could aspire to and be good at so many different things.

Finally, the exposure to a new world of possibilities. The MBA provided me with skills that could be applied to a variety of different industries and allowing (once closed) doors to open for me.

How has your MBA changed your career?
I had experienced very small engineering companies, post-MBA I wanted to experience a large and diverse engineering company where I could directly impact change.

I had 10 amazing years at Honeywell, performing mainly strategy and marketing roles of increasing responsibility working across various businesses. My experiences were so varied and exciting, and I got to do what I love; travel the world! Most importantly, I was around some incredibly supportive people who provided me with some great learning opportunities.

From day one I was pushed beyond anything I thought I was capable of prior to the MBA. Within a month I was sent to spend a week with a partner company to build a joint business plan. Within three months, I was asked to create and deliver a pricing presentation to 500+ internal audience with less than 24 hours’ notice.

My first roles were at Honeywell Process Solutions (automation control solutions to process industries), performing strategic marketing roles covering different geographies – strategic planning, go to market execution, pricing focus, joint venture business plans and then progressing to building and managing high performing teams in some high growth countries.

The most significant role and learning experience in my career to date was a broader role leading the transformation of a marketing organisation, it was a significant contribution to the turnaround of Honeywell’s Safety Products (personal protective equipment) business. I was given the opportunity to lead the organisation as I wanted to; I created a vision to inspire, a clear strategy to align, processes and tools to execute, I placed a strong focus on people and their development to drive the culture and deliver results.

In the process I was able to really understand the type of leader I am and the type of joy that work could bring. What we were able to achieve within two years was incredible, it was powerful to know I could affect positive and impactful change in people to do extraordinary things. Hearing the words from a team member “you changed my life” were humbling yet self-affirming words that will remain with me for life.

In my final Honeywell role, I was fortunate to get even broader business experience where I acted as a general manager leading the integration of two acquisitions in parallel. The measure of success was hitting the acquisition model targets and ultimately working myself out of a job by integrating each acquisition and transferring ownership into Honeywell’s Security and Fire business – nine months later, the integrations were complete.

After 10 years, it was time for a change and I was fortunate that a former Honeywell boss introduced me to Trimble. From the moment I met its most senior leaders and learnt about its culture I knew it was a place for me. I get to do what I really enjoy and am empowered to get it done. I led the inception, creation and launch of a new Trimble Marketing Framework for the company which provides a common language and approach through easy-to-use content to help people build valuable skills and capabilities to deliver customer value and exceptional business results.

How has the MBA influenced your thinking about business and leadership?
The MBA gave me exposure and a thirst to learn more about how a business operates and the skills required to do so. At Honeywell, I was given a tremendous playground to learn, apply and build these skills, as well as exposure to successful (and not so successful) leadership qualities and the opportunity to develop my own personal style.

An MBA was the perfect complement to an engineering background. At the very core of engineering people are finding solutions to problems, this principle can be applied universally to running a business. In engineering and business (from strategy/marketing to operations) you need to follow a structured, analytical approach to break a problem down into logical steps to solve it. And people are always at the very centre of everything to get things done.

You are now part of the SMF Alumni.  How do you benefit from being part of this network? 
My decision to do an MBA came first, I was fortunate to learn about and grateful to benefit from the SMF scholarship after I had started the course. Being part of the SMF network, it’s comforting to know there’s a vast group of people you can reach out to if you ever need advice or guidance. It provides lots of opportunities to support a variety of activities and initiatives. I was fortunate to spend a couple of years as a Visiting Teaching Fellow working with the engineering department of a college in London, through a series of introductory talks and coaching sessions with the students, I tried to share the possibilities that a career in engineering could bring to them.

As an engineer who took stock and went to business school to further your career, what advice would you give a young engineer at a similar crossroads in their career?    
As I think through my experiences, career and what I’ve learnt along the way, I would like to share these thoughts with anyone at a career crossroad or bump in the road:

  1. Don’t get too fixated on big brand companies and job titles. Think about the experiences you want in any next challenge in terms of building upon existing experiences as well as thinking about new ones you want (or need) to be exposed to. Then see which companies and roles can tick your experience boxes.
  1. Look at company culture and the quality of its leaders and people, the variety and depth of experiences and level of empowerment you will be afforded. As much as you focus on identifying industries and types of companies you’re interested in, be clear on what you’re not interested in. Make sure you’re in an environment doing work with people you can enjoy every day.
  1. Always have a learning and continuous improvement mindset. As you invest (time and money) developing your skill set, don’t forget to invest in developing your mindset. Make sure you take on challenges that make you sweat a little as they tend to provide the greatest learning and development opportunities.
  1. Be clear on your own personal brand and what you want to be known for, and make sure every interaction and piece of work delivers on your brand promise. Think about how to differentiate yourself from the crowd (skills and talents you possess vs. what you need to acquire). Be the person who gets things done to a high standard; think about what work, results and behaviours you want your name attached to.
  1. Find your tribe/s and your own cheerleaders because there are many times you will have a lack of self-belief. Mentors and great teachers are important, but sponsors are key; those people who recognise your potential (even beyond what you think you’re capable of), who advocate for you, expose you to growth opportunities and give you the space to achieve great things. And never forget, you need to be your own greatest cheerleader!

Finally, remember that things don’t always go to plan; you will face challenges, obstacles and undoubtedly fail at things. While plan A might not work out, there’s always plan B (and plan C).  Focus on the possibilities surrounding you in any given situation, always invest in the process and not the outcome.

The SMF MBA Scholarship
If you are a professional engineer considering an MBA as a stepping-stone towards a business leadership career, visit our MBA scholarship application page, you could be awarded a £50,000 scholarship.

An Engineer with a Head for Finance: How an MBA Paved the Way for a Billion-Dollar Dealmaker – SMF Simon Duncan, CFO & Entrepreneur


As an A level student, Simon Duncan wasn’t sure what he wanted to do for a career.  His mother would ask him what he wanted to do, and he would reply with vague ambitions of becoming a pilot or a nuclear scientist, never quite settling on anything permanently.

With his three A levels in maths, physics and chemistry almost complete, Simon decided to visit the careers room in his school for inspiration.  It was 1979, and the careers room consisted of little more than a shoebox containing cards with different job titles written on each.  There were holes in the box, and students would write each of their subjects onto a piece of paper and attach it to a knitting needle and push them through a hole and then pull them out  to reveal career suggestions!  A single card was pierced by all of Simon’s needles and it said Chemical Engineer.  

At the time, Simon didn’t know what a Chemical Engineer was, but, given that he was interested in chemistry, he thought it sounded like a good idea – and, believe it or not, that’s how his career started.  Here he reflects on that journey …

Making a start in chemical engineering
“There must have been more than one hundred cards in that box, so my three needles piercing the card that read Chemical Engineering seemed like fate.  I was already interested in nuclear reactors and particle physics and had written essays on the subject at school, so I was happy when that career option came out of the box.

I set about researching universities and decided that, if I was going to commit to being a chemical engineer, I wanted to do my degree at one of the best institutions in the world, so I applied to Imperial College of Science and Technology in London and was accepted.  I graduated from Imperial College in 1983, but, when I stepped out into the world of work, I was met with very few job opportunities, thanks to a severe economic recession.  Despite that, I managed to join a London-based graduate scheme at Davy McKee, a multinational chemical engineering contractor.

From graduate to lead chemical engineer
One memory sticks out in my mind during my early days at Davy McKee.  We were designing an ammonia plant for ICI and among the team was a man who stood out.  He would sit in the middle of the working area surrounded by technical documents and whenever anybody on the team wanted to know something about the project, they sought this person’s advice.  Eager to find out more about his role, I asked him why everyone turned to him for decisions and he told me that he was the lead chemical engineer.  Here was an engineer who seemed to know everything about chemical engineering, and also took full responsibility for the big decisions. I knew straightaway that I wanted to work towards becoming a lead chemical engineer as well.

My chance at being the lead chemical engineer came sooner than I expected, at age 25.   Four years on from joining Davy McKee, the head of process engineering called me into his office to brief me on an English China Clay project, a mineral plant at Indian Queens in Cornwall that had to be completed and commissioned.  The assignment was due to last six weeks, then we would hand over the plant to English China Clay to produce kaolinite, the chemical used to make paper white.  At the meeting was an important-looking man who I assumed was the lead chemical engineer and that I would be working alongside him, learning on this important project.  Not so – he was the graduate trainee, and my boss was now entrusting me to run the show and commission the new plant. It was so unexpected; I was now the lead chemical engineer.

Developing a thirst for business
During our initial meeting with the engineers at the English China Clay site, we learned that half of the plant was actually ready to go live, and, in addition, that the plant was designed to work half on/half off.   Yet the plant had not been started, despite the company needing it to be operational as soon as possible.  All that was needed was for the lead chemical engineer to sign things off and give the green light.

I had a discussion with the decision-makers of the new plant and explained that half the plant was ready and asked them if they wanted that half to be commissioned immediately, and the whole plant once the other half had been completed, and they agreed emphatically.  To their surprise and delight, the following morning half the plant was up and running.  The delay in commissioning that half of the plant was due entirely to the fact that a lead chemical engineer was needed to evaluate the plant and ensure that everything was in perfect working order before it could be started – none of the other engineers on the project had the authority to do that.  This was a milestone in my career, one I had been working towards for four years.

The other half of the plant was completed in the next three weeks, so the project took half the contracted time.  That was a significant success for Davy McKee and the company earned a bonus.  That experience got me thinking about the economics of projects: how do contracts come together and how does a company make money and profit?  I began asking questions about how we cost proposals, for example, how does a business know how many labour hours to allocate to a given project and that the quotes given turn out to be accurate?  When you do your chemical engineering education, you are taught some economics, so you get a basic understanding of supply and demand and company finance, but it doesn’t delve further.  I became extremely interested in learning more about how businesses work.

Unlocking career options with an MBA
At this point, I started talking to other people about my interest in learning about the intricacies of business.  It was my current girlfriend who suggested an MBA; at that time, I knew next to nothing about MBAs.  After doing research on what an MBA is and how they help to expand your knowledge and opportunities, I realised that the career potential following an MBA would be incredible – some graduates were receiving five or six job offers and doubling their salaries after graduating.  It was during this research phase that I discovered the Sainsbury Management Fellows (SMF) scholarship which, if successful in making an application, would pay for tuition and accommodation for my MBA programme.  This would be transformative – I could do an MBA straightway and not have to get a loan or save up for several years.

I contacted the  Institution of Chemical Engineers which promoted the SMF scholarship to find out how to apply, only to learn that I had missed the application deadline by two days.  However, I must have said something convincing during the conversation because I was asked to apply despite the missed deadline.

I really enjoyed the whole process.  In addition to the application form, I had a three-hour panel interview which covered everything from my education and career experience, to what I had accomplished in engineering, why I wanted to do an MBA and how I planned to use the new skills after graduating.  I talked about my experience at Imperial College London, my work at Davy McKee including my progression to lead chemical engineer and gaining chartered status.  I also gave a presentation on a unique project that I had worked on: the first ever plant to encapsulate nuclear waste in concrete and store it, which the panel found fascinating. When they asked what I wanted to do when I got my MBA, I said I wanted to become a strategic planner at Davy McKee and be more involved in the future of the business.

I received a conditional SMF scholarship offer.  After successfully completing the GMAT, I was offered a place at my first-choice business school, INSEAD. Then my SMF scholarship was confirmed and I was on my MBA journey.

The ‘golden ticket’ effect
When I graduated from INSEAD in 1991, having learned a great deal about finance, business, and strategy, I was raring to go.  We used to call an MBA a ‘golden ticket’ because, career-wise, one could go anywhere with it – the possibilities were limitless.  Sadly, my graduation coincided with another global recession, and the job market wasn’t as ripe and fertile as it should have been. In fact, when I left INSEAD, fifty per cent of its graduates did not have one job offer, let alone the typical five or six.

Despite the downturn, I was fortunate to get a job offer from the chemical company Eli Lilly to work on its European inventory and was considering it before fate intervened.  A friend I hadn’t seen for a while invited me to a birthday party and I dithered about going, but then decided why not, nothing ventured, nothing gained!   During the party, my friend told me that he was working for a  large American company called GE Capital, financing big infrastructure projects.  It sounded fascinating and, despite the recession, they were looking for six new hires. Before I knew it, I was in an interview with the director, with him talking about how much he valued experienced engineers with an MBA. He explained that finance was easy to teach, but engineering skills and acumen were not, and that having an engineer overlooking business decisions gave them a unique and informed perspective.

The next day I was offered the job and went on to work for the company in London, where I stayed for seven years before being transferred to the USA. I worked for a decade in the US before being lured back to the UK by another interesting and lucrative offer, to be a chief credit officer within the European arm of GE Capital.

As a chief credit officer, I was responsible for reviewing the team that analysed the performance and financial status of 800 companies in order to tailor-make financial solutions for them.  This involved looking at the businesses holistically – marketplaces, supply chains, purchasers and finances – and then developing innovative financial solutions beyond conventional bank loans, for example equipment finance, leverage finance, equity, etc.  By analysing these companies in depth, we were able to pitch solutions and work with them on alternative routes to develop and create partnership opportunities for GE Capital.

Ironically, recession has played a pivotal part in the forks in my career path.  Come 2008, the financial markets crashed, and, like many other companies, there were cutbacks and reorganisation at GE Capital, and this led to a change in my role.  I was handling leverage finance doing management buy-outs.  At that time GE Capital did not have a retail bank in England (as it did in other major cities), so the company decided to set one up, and I was tasked with establishing the credit and risk side of the bank, ensuring that it was completed properly and gained FSA approval.  Despite the responsibility, my transition from project finance to retail banking was difficult because I didn’t find the new role as stimulating, so eventually I felt I wanted to move onto something new.

A Shade Greener and becoming Chief Financial Officer
A company called A Shade Greener, which generates electricity through solar panels, was looking for funding.  It had secured £20 million from RBS, which was at the limit of what it could lend to the company, and that’s when it crossed my desk at GE Capital.  It seemed like a great business.  At the time, it was doing 40 installations a week, but I thought it could manage three times that amount.  Long story short, I ended up taking a 92% pay cut to join A Shade Greener as its chief financial officer in 2011.

To move from a steady corporate job with the largest company in the world to becoming an entrepreneur was, to put it mildly, a calculated risk. However, this job move was an exciting challenge, much more in line with my aspirations at that time.  Overnight I went from approving loans to trying to borrow money. My initial expectation was to work three days per week to raise money for the business, but it quickly became a full-time job. Within four years, we had raised £500 million in equity, debt and sales acquisitions and were doing close to 500 installations per day. The business has flourished and today it is what is known as a cash-cow.

Lessons from the MBA
One of the most important things I learned at INSEAD was how companies make money.  If you are in business and you don’t understand how a business makes money, you won’t understand how it will continue to make money and survive.  Engineers with MBAs help because we’re not bamboozled by financial terms and we tend to look at risks in a critical way.  Running a business and making decisions is surprisingly similar to working on a chemical plant where you are constantly doing ‘what if’ analyses.  The combination of engineering experience and an MBA puts you in a unique position to do this analysis.

Today I’m an entrepreneur working with several innovative UK tech and engineering companies. I’m passionate about helping new businesses raise the funds they need to take off.  A huge part of that is helping entrepreneurs effectively communicate the unique selling points and benefits of their innovations so they can secure investors.  For me, this all started with A Shade Greener, but I consider myself a lilypad-hopper, jumping into exciting new opportunities as they arise, for example plastic recycling, an SME fund to cover the Covid impact, and assisted living accommodation.

For instance, through the SMF network I was recently introduced to a company called Plastecowood which manufactures plastic lumber and outdoor garden furniture from recycled plastic waste, and I’ve since become its CFO.  I’m also trying to set up a ‘Back to Normal Fund’ to invest in British businesses with the aim of delivering more innovative and flexible funding solutions than traditional banks allow.  The aim is to support companies that have a strong offering and future but have suffered the ravages of the COVID pandemic lockdown.

I have always felt that I owe British engineering something because of my SMF MBA scholarship; that’s how I got my big break and ended up where I am today.  If I can get this fund off the ground, that will be the epitome of what Lord Sainsbury wanted us to do!

Advice for those thinking about an MBA
My number one piece of advice to anybody considering doing an MBA is: do it now!  We are about to experience another recession, this time driven by the pandemic.  So, going to business school now is, I think, a good time.  Do it now and come out of business school with your ‘golden ticket’ when we are bit further along this difficult route.  My other bit of advice would be to keep an open mind about job roles and go and see anybody who expresses an interest in interviewing you. My unexpected turn of luck was getting an interview at GE Capital that led to me doing deals of $1.5 million to $27 billion. That opportunity would not have come my way had I not taken a punt and gone to a party that I really wasn’t in the mood for at the time!

If you are an engineer seeking an SMF scholarship to help finance your MBA, always be yourself, be thorough and well-prepared if you want to impress the panel.  Be three questions deep on every topic and back up everything you put into a presentation, with facts and examples of your achievements.  Make sure you know what you’re presenting and what’s behind it, and never wing it as inevitably you will be caught out and will lose your credibility.

Simon has had an incredible career and, most importantly, he has had fun along the way.  Today, as an entrepreneur, he can decide which projects he wants to support, and is helping a diversity of businesses become financially sound.  Like many Sainsbury Management Fellows, Simon is involved in community and voluntary work.  He is one of the country’s many volunteers on the COVID frontline, in his case, as ambulance crew for St John Ambulance doing 999 calls.

The SMF MBA Scholarship
If you are a professional engineer considering an MBA as a stepping-stone towards a business leadership career, visit our MBA scholarship application page, you could be awarded a £50,000 scholarship.

How an MBA Helped my Transition from Chemical Engineer to CEO of Ceres Power


At a  young age Phil Caldwell’s passion for engineering was sparked by his sister who is a mechanical engineer and his brother who was studying physics at the time.  He then met a group of chemical engineers and was fascinated by the versatility of the discipline and his destiny was cast – he would study to become a chemical engineer and get a job that would enable him to work on interesting projects that would make a difference in the world.  But it wasn’t only the chemistry that fascinated Phil; from an early stage, he was drawn to business; how technology-based companies are grown into great businesses.   Now a Sainsbury Management Fellow, Phil Caldwell shares his journey from chemical engineer to CEO of Ceres Power, one of the UK’s leading clean energy  technology companies…

Early Education to Chartered Engineer
My interest in engineering as a potential career was sparked through family and friends in engineering during my teens, however, even at that stage I was more interested in the business side of engineering rather than a purely technical role.  At 18 I was fortunate to secure a scholarship from Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) and worked for year in industry before university.  Being onsite at chemical plants was an eye opener for me and a great way to start my career, especially as I returned to ICI during my university summer breaks and had the opportunity to work overseas in the USA and Holland.

I went to Imperial College London to earn my degree in chemical engineering.  Studying at Imperial was great because they injected a lot of business into the course and we had access to Imperial College Business School as part of the curriculum.  I also had the opportunity to learn more about business by handling the management and business side of several student group projects.

After graduating, I was offered a fantastic opportunity to join ICI’s graduate scheme and work anywhere in the world that had a chemical plant – that was irresistible.   Initially I went into conventional engineering, but I was interested in getting into something that had a business focus and I learned about a small business unit within ICI which was selling electrochemical technology to companies outside of ICI.  I was successful at securing a position in this unit, so I deviated from an engineering path onto a commercial path.  I went from a technical service engineer, helping customers onsite, into business development, working on new sales for chemical plants globally.   That was my transition from traditional engineering into my first commercial role.  I travelled extensively working in China, Indonesia, Korea and India – and I was still only in my mid-twenties.  It was brilliant experience as I was expanding  my business knowledge and developing an understanding of different cultures, all whilst working to gain chartered status.

Pursuing a Business Interest
Back then, switching from engineering to commercial at ICI was not a natural process.  I recall a conversation with the head of engineering, expressing my desire to work in the commercial side of the business.  He explained that, as a rule, they hired engineering graduates from the likes of Oxbridge and Imperial to be engineers and looked to humanities graduates for commercial roles and if I deviated from the traditional engineering path it would have a negative impact on my progression.  This made no sense to me, surely it would be beneficial to have engineers who understand technology working in commercial roles.  It spurred me on in my goal to combine business with engineering, but at the time I wasn’t sure how to go about it.

Discovering the MBA
As I got more involved in the commercial side of the small business unit at ICI, I started to feel that certain tools were missing.  For example, I did not fully understand the financial aspects of the business and felt that, if I wanted to continue down this path, I needed to add a business qualification to my toolkit. During this time ICI was undergoing significant change as it split into different parts divesting several businesses and was no longer the blue-chip company I joined.  After eight successful years it felt the right time to make a change and pursue my passion for business.  I decided the best way to do this was to get back into education and, specifically, do an MBA.  Fast forward a few months and I had secured a Sainsbury Management Fellows MBA scholarship and was on my way to IESE  Barcelona.

Spring-boarding to a New Career
There was a huge emphasis on entrepreneurship in the MBA at IESE. I found the best courses for me were Entrepreneurship,  Finance and Strategy, which really resonated with my passion for business and filled significant gaps in my knowledge.  The MBA as a whole was a time of reflection for me and I had to think hard about whether I went back into a major corporation.  The MBA qualification made me very marketable as an employee and I had brilliant offers to work for big companies, but one of the things I learned about myself while studying the MBA is that I wanted to do something more entrepreneurial.  This was inspired by the courses taught, the exposure to business cases and learning how to finance start-ups.

So, I turned down the safer job offers from the major corporations and took on a position in a small fuel cell company, Intelligent Energy, where I felt I could make a real difference.   At that time not many people knew about fuel cells, but because of my previous electrochemical technology experience at ICI, I understood the potential of this technology and felt that this experience combined with my newly acquired business skills, would enable me to make a valuable contribution at Intelligent Energy, an exciting new venture.

The Journey to Directorship
Intelligent Energy was a spin-out from Loughborough University.  I remember being at one of the Sainsbury Management Fellows alumni dinners and mentioning the opportunity at Intelligent Energy and the other Fellow said to me, “It’s certainly not a safe option, but there will  never be a dull moment.”  He was right!  Like many tech start-ups, managerially it was quite disorganised at times with huge ambition and high growth along with significant downsides and the usual challenges of a tech start-up.

It was challenging but having the MBA behind me was a great help.  I had the theoretical knowledge of how a company should be financed and run and this enabled me to help with financial management and investment strategies.  From a blank slate, I set about establishing joint ventures with partners including Suzuki in Japan and Scottish South Energy.  I progressed to the role of Commercial Director, grew the team and increased the top-line revenue.  I enjoyed the 10 years I spent at Intelligent Energy, but it was not for the faint hearted as it went through significant highs and lows.  Having said that,  I wouldn’t change a thing about my time there;  the exposure you get to tough business challenges in a smaller venture is invaluable.

The Move to Ceres Power
Throughout my career, I had been aware of Ceres Power, another fuel cell company that had spun out of Imperial College London, which had started well but later fell on hard times. It ran out of money and the technology wasn’t working at that point.  While I was at Intelligent Energy, we had considered a possible acquisition, but the timing wasn’t right for various reasons.

Seven years ago, I was contacted by Engineers in Business Fellowship (which awards the SMF MBA scholarship) and informed about the CEO vacancy at Ceres Power.   The company was under new ownership and I was curious about the change in direction.  Was it a serious bid to turnaround the business for good, or a quick flip for profit?  I decided to apply for the position and meet with the new owners and was encouraged with what I learned.  They wanted to get the right management in, build the board, support teams, and finance the company to long-term growth and profitability.  I came away thinking here was an exciting opportunity – a chance to become a chief executive, run a business in its entirety, with a supportive board and shareholder base that would allow me to rebuild the company.

First Steps as a CEO
The turnaround at Ceres Power wasn’t easy.  At that point, it had reputational and morale issues, but underneath all of that it had exceptionally good people and great technology.  Right from day one, I could see the passion from the staff, and I thought that if I could set a clear vision and lead, people would follow.  Step by step, we changed the strategy towards partnering with large international organisations, just as I had done at Intelligent Energy.

The first thing I did was open a Japanese office because that is the biggest market for fuel cells.  We invested in the core technology, worked hard to secure partners and as we started to build business with commercial partners, rather than just internally focusing on technology development, people started to believe.  Once we secured our first major partnership, it was easier to get the second and the third and it grew from there.  Our first partner was Honda, followed by Nissan, Bosch, Cummins and more. Today Ceres is working with world-leading partners to embed its SteelCell® technology in mass-market energy products for the commercial, residential and transportation markets, bringing cleaner and cheaper energy to society to address climate change.  That purpose of applying cutting edge technology to address climate change is an incredibly powerful motivator for our people!

I have been CEO at Ceres for seven years and, in that time, we have grown from 50 to 350 people, increased the value of the company from £50 million to more than £2 billion and recently secured Bosch and Weichai Power as strategic investors in the company each with approximately 20% shareholdings.

Value of an SMF Scholarship
Engineering is like a language, it’s a skillset and disciplined approach that is used consistently by our partners globally no matter which region or culture they operate in. It gives you an understanding of what it takes to develop products, run projects, deal with technology and understand complex issues.  These skills never leave you. If I didn’t have an engineering degree, I could not run an organisation of 350 scientists and engineers.  What I felt was missing all those years ago at ICI, where the gap between the engineering and commercial areas of the business is not the case at Ceres. The engineering and commercial and business side at Ceres are all closely linked.

That’s what makes Engineers in Business Fellowship (EIBF) so special – it’s getting engineers into business.  I strongly believe that, like myself, most engineers need rounding out with business skills.  We are so tuned into critical thinking that we need exposure to business, risk, finance and entrepreneurial skills, otherwise we will tend to play it safe.  The SMF MBA scholarship helps to get engineers into boardrooms, running businesses, generating income and creating jobs – that’s powerful.

The MBA scholarship made a huge difference to my life and career.  Being able to leave my job at ICI and go to business school, without having to worry about financial support or debt, was invaluable.  Winning the scholarship was also a huge confidence boost; it was validation that I was doing the right thing.  Being able to draw on the SMF network post-graduation was also useful.  I may have found out about the Ceres CEO position separately, but it was the contact at EIBF who first alerted me.  One could say that I wouldn’t be where I am now without the SMF scholarship and the connections in the network.

Advice to Engineers Considering Business Education
Whether or not you do an MBA, it is important to develop commercial and business skills no matter what job you are doing.  Choosing a high growth sector is likely to provide more future opportunities than a conventional industry path with little or no growth and gaining exposure to the business side of the organisation at an early stage will open doors to new ways of thinking and new opportunities.  The MBA is a personal decision because it is a big investment, but it has incredible rewards too.  It may sound like a cliché, but you literally step off the treadmill and do a big assessment of your life and career and go into a whole new chapter.  It takes you to new places and you meet amazing people many of whom you stay in touch with for life.  It really is a life-changing experience.

The SMF MBA Scholarship
If you are a professional engineer considering an MBA as a stepping-stone towards a business leadership career, visit our MBA scholarship application page, you could be awarded a £50,000 scholarship.

From Engineer to Entrepreneur: How an MBA Helped Change My Career Trajectory – SMF Chris Hughes, Founder of Wilfred’s Aperitif

SMF Chris Hughes has always been an engineer at heart. As a child he spent many happy hours in his parents’ basement workshop designing and building things – he enjoyed the process of creating solutions to problems. At just 11 years old, he built a ping pong pick-up device from wood and a levy system to avoid having to manually pick up the ping pong balls himself. One of his creative inspirations was Leonardo da Vinci (he was an avid reader of comics featuring da Vinci), which gave him an early understanding that engineers are innovators, people who create rather than fix things. Chris said, “The idea of innovation excited me. Looking back, I guess engineering was always a natural path for me.” Chris takes up his story…

Becoming a student of engineering
“I did Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College London with an Erasmus year in Lyon, France. After graduation, I wasn’t sure how I was going to use my engineering degree because there are many different routes you can pursue with an engineering degree. My third-year project at Imperial was designing an artificial heart valve, but my internship in France was working in R&D on high-speed trains. These are such different aspects of engineering, yet both interested me greatly. When I graduated, I took a year out and travelled to Argentina where I worked for a charity and learned to speak Spanish. It was a great time to reflect and think about my future and I decided that I would like to do a job that allowed me to travel and to build on my experience in the rail industry. I started applying for engineering jobs in the UK and abroad and a golden opportunity presented itself at the Japanese company, Hitachi, inventors of the high-speed bullet train. I couldn’t pass up the chance to work for such an innovative company and, possibly, the chance to work in Japan.

Starting a career as an engineer
“The Japan dream would have to wait for a little while. When I started my 5-year stint at Hitachi, the company had just expanded into the UK and had a 30-strong team in Ashford in the UK. This provided excellent experience and knowledge of how Hitachi was run. Because the UK team was small at the time, I shared an office with key decision-makers including the MD and even brushed shoulders with the CEO. I was entrusted with assignments that would normally be out of reach for someone of my level of experience at that time. I always had a hankering to work where the trains were being built and persuaded my superiors to post me to Hitachi in Japan. I was the first UK engineer to move to the Japanese business on a semi-permanent basis and it was fantastic.

“In just under a year, I was back in the UK managing the coordination between Hitachi Japan and Hitachi UK. It was around this time I started to take a keen interest in the business operation, rather than focusing purely on the engineering side of things. Being so close to the team in the UK, and then mediating between the UK and Japan while helping to handle customers, gave me a real insight into how to nurture and develop a business. I started to think about whether I could I have a bigger impact in an engineering company if I had a stronger business background to help make big decisions. This is when the prospect of doing an MBA entered my mind.

The Move to an MBA
“By that time, I had also become a Chartered Engineer, an important career milestone for me. I felt like I had achieved so much, and it would be a good a time to explore other possibilities. I first heard about MBA courses through some of my friends who were studying MBAs at the time. It sounded like something that could open doors for me and get me more involved in the world of business. Hitachi kindly offered to support me through a part-time MBA, but I wanted to make a huge leap, transitioning from a pure engineering role into a management one. I felt it was best to get a formal business school education, so I started researching schools and the application process. The only real concern I had was how to fund the MBA. I couldn’t believe my luck when I got speaking to a stranger on a train who also happened to be an engineer. She worked for the Royal Academy of Engineering and mentioned the SMF scholarship and the generous MBA grant. Getting the scholarship wasn’t a given, but if I could get the grant it would remove the financial worry of doing an MBA. I got through the scholarship application process and not long after that, in 2015, I was awarded a £30,000 SMF scholarship and I was on my way to INSEAD.

Doing an MBA at INSEAD
“My time at INSEAD was enlightening. I learned the basics of good business acumen, from marketing and strategy right through to finance and accounting. It gave me real insight into how business works, how people think and how organisations behave as a collective enterprise. I learned that business is about more than numbers; it’s very much about people.

“As an engineer, you tend to want to fix every individual problem you encounter. But business is different and managing people can be unpredictable. There’s a discipline I learned about at INSEAD called ‘Design Thinking’ which takes a human-centred approach to business. You start with a human problem, and then you work back to find a solution to fix it. This approach works well with engineering, once you identify the human need and establish problems and barriers, you can apply an engineering solution.

“During my MBA, my passion for innovation was reinforced. I went into my studies thinking I would do a management role in an engineering business when I graduated, but I met so many amazing people and saw so many different perspectives. It felt like another world of opportunity was opening up to me. Instead of going back to engineering after graduation, I went to work with an innovation company called What If, something I might never have had the confidence to do without the MBA.

How Wilfred’s Non-Alcohol Aperitif was Founded

“I worked at What If for two and a half years following my MBA, which allowed me to hone my innovation, prototype testing and business skills. Armed with this knowledge and my MBA skills, I had the confidence to branch out on my own and create Wilfred’s Non-Alcoholic Aperitif, my first business venture.

“Like most young people, I enjoyed the occasional alcoholic drink with friends. But as I got older, I became less interested in alcohol, to the point where I barely drank and would rather have alcohol-free drinks. It frustrated me that, aside from one or two instances of clever branding, no interesting non-alcoholic drinks had really made it into the mainstream. I decided to try and change that, which began with prototype testing.

“I started making drinks from scratch for my friends to try using ingredients from all over the world, such as English Rose, Japanese Hibiscus, Mate from Argentina. Increasingly though, I ended up using ingredients that were closer to home – rosemary, strawberries, raspberries – many from my mother’s garden. I had a formula to describe how I wanted the drink to taste, which is typical of an engineer or mathematician – that’s the way my mind works now. I would say making a drink is part science and part art; I’ve taken a very scientific approach to making Wilfred’s. Without a doubt, engineering has helped in ways you would not expect. Just three and a half months into the launch, Wilfred’s won the award for Britain’s Number One Non-Alcoholic Drink, as judged by the 2020 Great British Food Awards.

“There are many ways in which my business education, the innovation courses and experience have helped me in developing and launching Wilfred’s, ranging from understanding the intricacies of finance to marketing and scaling-up the business. Like most entrepreneurial ventures we had challenges along the way, for example, scaling from home batch to production batch involved trial and error to find the right production partner, and many months of work went into creating exactly the right brand. Even though I had adopted a “bootstrapping” strategy to finance the business in the early stages ultimately I decided to engage a branding specialist to perfect the design. The drinks industry is complex and highly competitive and getting the branding wrong would have set me back months. Understanding when to make these big decisions is vital and having a business education helps.

“Likewise, deciding on the channels to market is critical to success. Before the COVID-19 pandemic I had ambitious plans to sell to restaurants, bars and pubs and had some success, for example, Wilfred’s is available at the Hilton Lexington Rooftop Bar, but once lockdown came, I had to completely pivot to online sales via the website. Because I now have a good grasp of sales and marketing planning, I had already established a strong network of partners, for example, a reputable and cost-effective distribution centre which ensures that everything from the packaging to the delivery are perfect. I had also implemented a communications strategy, including traditional advertising and social media, to build a brand reputation, long before the product hit the market.

“I am at the start of an exciting journey. I am already looking at selling the product via channels like Not on the High Street and Yumbles, and the long-term goal is to get Wilfred’s into major supermarket chains, a goal that requires considerable work and relationship building with buyers. In a year or so, I will be looking at fundraising, something I would not have embarked on without the knowledge I gained through the MBA and working for What If. External investment will enable me to start bringing team members on board.

Value of the MBA
“The MBA has given me a much more strategic and structured approach to launching my business and has helped me make critical decisions at the right time, for example, changing from the original production company to a new one. Likewise, my engineering background helped me to deal with production issues we encountered with the first company. Having this knowledge allowed me to understand what the problems were, probably better than the people who were bulk producing the drink! I have been able to speak with people on an equal footing when it comes to technical areas such as pasteurisation and sterile filtration. In this respect having an engineering background has been so helpful.

Advice for Young Engineers Considering an MBA
“Doing an MBA was one of the best decisions I ever made, but it’s not necessarily the route for everyone. Think long and hard before making this decision, as MBAs are expensive. That said, even the process of considering it (or applying) can be extremely helpful in terms of thinking about your career. Just exploring the benefits of an MBA will focus your mind on what you want to do with your future, as well as the things you might want to steer clear of. If you really do want to open doors and take a sideways, upwards or altogether different step, an MBA is definitely worth doing. If I had not been awarded the SMF scholarship and done the MBA, I would not be where I am now – with my own business, winning awards and looking forward to a strong future for Wilfred’s.”

The SMF MBA Scholarship
If you are a professional engineer considering an MBA as one of the stepping-stones towards a business leadership career, visit our MBA scholarship application page, you could become one of our successful awardees – today the individual scholarship is £50,000.

How an MBA Helped me become A Business Leader in the Energy Sector: SMF Busola Banjo, Business Development Manager at Siemens

SMF Busola Banjo

SMF Busola Banjo was born with an intensely curious mind.  At a young age, while her peers were playing with their toys, Busola would take hers apart piece by piece – much to her mother’s dismay – only to reassemble them.  It’s as if her path to becoming an engineer was being written from that tender age, even though she says her passion for engineering was not instant.

At school Busola’s gift for mathematics and science related subjects was recognised early.  She said, “In Nigeria, schoolgirls are actively encouraged to take an interest in engineering.  If you’re good at maths and science subjects you are nudged towards engineering regardless of gender.  Engineering was presented to me as an option more than other subjects because of my educational ability.  I didn’t fall in love with it right away, but I certainly grew into the role. So much so that I went on to study Electrical and Electronic Engineering at university, with more of a focus on the electrical element which helped guide my early career choices.”

Five Year ‘Itch’ Led to an MBA
After graduating from the University of Nottingham with a degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering, Busola spent six years at Arup, a multinational professional services firm headquartered in London that specialises in engineering, architecture, and design.  Once again, her talents were recognised early on and she was on track to becoming a manager when she started to wonder what other options could be open to her.

“I started to get a bit of an itch and wondered if being in a purely technical role was right for me long term. I wanted to do more than just engineering and project management, so I started looking at different paths,” she said.

By this point, Busola was close to achieving Chartered Engineer status – a big milestone in her career – but then what?  She continued, “Do I go back to school to study?  Maybe take a course or two and see where it takes me?  At that point, I was lucky that friends started discussing MBAs.  I didn’t know anybody personally who had done one, but the more I learned about it, the more I was drawn to the idea.”

After attending a few business school fairs and events to learn more, Busola’s mind was made up; an MBA was the next logical step in her career.  She approached her employer at the time, Arup, and explained her life plan.  In a bid to retain her, they offered to put her on an accelerated path to management.  “I was delighted they wanted me to stay, but I also wanted to excel outside of a purely technical environment, make a move away from construction, and learn more about the managerial and administrative side of business, so I felt it was best to do an MBA.”

Busola set her sights on doing her MBA at INSEAD, a top international business school in Europe, to balance her technical expertise with career-advancing business administrative skills and was successful getting into her first and only choice business school!

MBA: Expectation Vs Reality
Figuring out your main reasons for doing an MBA and how it fits into your career plan is a huge part of the application process so Busola had to consolidate her thoughts on why she was pursuing an MBA and what she wanted to get out of it.  She continued, “During the application process I had to do a lot of thinking about why I wanted to do an MBA.  At the time, I was looking for a trifecta of change – different location, a new industry, and completely new role.  I wanted to pivot into real estate finance with a corporate developer, and thought my technical background combined with the MBA could get me there.”

In many ways, Busola got more than she bargained for at business school. For the first six months of her MBA, she focused on real estate finance with a firm view of what she was working towards.  However, speaking with her network of friends and colleagues at INSEAD, she began to realise that there were many different career options to explore.  “Gradually, I realised that I was limiting myself by being so focused on the original plan.  Throughout the MBA, my mind was opened to new opportunities – suddenly I could see myself working for the likes of Google or Facebook, or even moving into a completely different industry.” Despite never having considered retail as an option, Busola did a summer internship at Amazon which reinforced the idea that she could think more broadly about ‘what next.’

Into the Corporate World
Even before graduation from INSEAD, Busola was recruited to join Siemens, the largest industrial manufacturing company in Europe, with branches worldwide.  She joined the prestigious CEO* Program which provides a unique opportunity for potential future leaders to work on top level strategic projects and to learn what it takes to lead a global enterprise.  Busola said “The CEO* Program was the ideal launching pad for a successful career in general management in Siemens.  There was continuous exposure to top leadership as well as the opportunity to work on impactful business growth projects.”

By the time Busola completed the Siemens CEO* Program, with three job rotations in Zurich, Berlin, and Newcastle under her belt, she had switched to Siemens’ Energy business.  It was around this time that the company announced that the energy business would carve out and become an independent company. Busola was then given the opportunity to play a vital role in the carve out.  Three years into her career, she is a Business Development Manager, and today she is a key member in the carve out Project Management Office and currently runs the Post- Formation Office which handles legal requirements for a carved out German entity.  Every day, she works with colleagues all over the world (albeit remotely at the moment because of the COVID-19 pandemic), drawing from the business and leadership skills gained through both her past roles and her MBA to drive vital collaborations amongst diverse teams across the globe.

She said, “This was an opportunity of a lifetime. I will probably never again be in a position to have such in-depth understanding of the inner workings of a company as I have gained from working on probably the largest carve out in German industrial history.”

Biggest Takeaway from the MBA
Busola’s goal was always to complement her background in engineering with business administration skills.  At the time she was destined for real estate finance, but now that she is at Siemens, does she think she achieved what she wanted from an MBA?

“My engineering background definitely provided the right foundation for me to be where I am at Siemens right now and the MBA made all the difference.  When I look back to where I was in terms of my business knowledge before the MBA and where I am today, I’m amazed.  Previously, I knew so little about the commercial side of running a company because I was so technically driven.  Apart from understanding and being able to interpret company reports, I had also wanted to learn about strategy execution in management.  Now I have both these skills – educationally and professionally, they were the two biggest take-aways from my MBA. The gain was 100%,” she said.

Becoming Part of the SMF Network
Every engineer who receives a Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarship to do an MBA automatically becomes an SMF on graduation, with access to the SMF network and all the benefits it brings. What did Busola make of the scholarship?

“The SMF scholarship, which at that time was £30,000, was a tremendous help.   I had a reduced amount of debt after my MBA, which many of my colleagues weren’t fortunate enough to have.  Since graduating I’ve attended an SMF Annual Dinner and, along with other SMFs, was a mentor at an Engineering Leaders’ Scholarship training weekendThere’s always a lot going on and I try to contribute when I can.  I feel very reassured that if I ever need to draw on the network it’s there for me to tap into,” she said.

Words of Wisdom for Aspiring Engineers
There is still a lot of work to do to inspire girls to consider engineering as a career path, so to wrap up our interview we asked Busola for a few thoughts on women in engineering.  She said, “I would tell any female student wondering about studying engineering, not to be put off by what they may have heard about engineering.  It’s not that it isn’t difficult, but the rewards are great, in terms of the knowledge you acquire, job satisfaction and the impact you can make on society through your work.   For example, for two years I worked on projects to further develop Siemens’ large gas turbines services.  That work is helping to improve the reliability and efficiency of gas turbines that, eventually, will enable towns and cities to have more reliable power, thus supporting people in their homes and workplaces.”

Busola concluded, “Engineering is so broad it is easy to become overwhelmed, so narrow down your areas of interest.  If you like gadgets and electronics, consider Electronic Engineering; if you like to see how things can be dynamic and changed, maybe Process Engineering is for you. Break it down, look at your interests and link it to the relevant type of engineering.  Never be discouraged because engineering seems more difficult than it is.  And don’t let people dissuade you – even if you do not seem like someone who would naturally lean towards engineering, if it’s your dream, you can make it work!”
The SMF MBA Scholarship
If you are a professional engineer considering an MBA as one of the stepping-stones towards a business leadership career, visit our MBA scholarship application page, you could become one of our successful awardees – today the individual scholarship is £50,000.