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Getting Ahead With Mentoring

When studying and working towards a successful career, whatever the industry, there are two essential components to reaching your goals. The first port of call is the learning; all the theories, concepts, facts and figures that make up the armoury for your profession. These are the elements of success gained through higher education. However, the second element is more elusive, but just as essential to progress in one’s career – experience. Experience can often be hard to come by, yet having it on your CV is a must for most employers. This is where mentoring can help.

SMF has helped facilitate the career progression of many talented and ambitious young engineers over 30 years. We believe that mentoring can help the mentee stay focused on their goals, boost industry and technical knowledge, and expand personal skills set, enabling them to fast-track their careers and even surpass their original goals.

Case in Point: Chris Shelley and Arnaud Doko
Arnaud Doko, a 27-year-old graduate from the University of Bath, having gained a MEng in Mechanical Engineering in 2016, had his heart set on a mentor with a background in technology and entrepreneurship.  Not only was being mentored important to Arnaud, as emulating role models had been crucial to his development up to that point, he also aspired to be a mentor himself one day. This is what SMF looks for, talented young engineers who are passionate about success, but who also want to give back to the engineering industry.

Arnaud’s passion for technology and entrepreneurship stems from his family.  He explained: “My goal was always to gain enough knowledge and experience to become a technology-centric entrepreneur, as my father is and his father was before him.  I chose the field of mechanical engineering because I perceived it to be objectively useful, sufficiently general for my purposes, and capable of giving me the technical literacy to understand the technologies of our time.”

Arnaud started to expand his skills and experience to further his career ambitions. At university, he became involved in Engineers Without Borders, public-speaking, and education-outreach clubs. He also had huge fun helping to design, build, and race with the Human-Powered Submarine Club!  He rounded off these exploits with an ERASMUS exchange semester in Lyon, where his final year project was on a zirconia ceramic.

Arnaud also undertook a placement year within his degree, gaining industry experience at an engineering design consultancy.  During that year, he applied to the Royal Academy of Engineering for an Engineering Leadership Advanced Award (ELAA), a financial award given to engineering students, at UK universities, who have shown strong academic performance and leadership potential.

He continued, “I knew that my career success would depend not just on how much I invested in myself and my development, but, more importantly, how much others would be willing to invest in me as well.  I saw the ELAA as an opportunity to receive merit-based support to that effect. I was thrilled to be accepted, and used the scholarship to attend several career-developing courses/conferences – a personal highlight was attending the 2015 Global Grand Challenges Summit in Beijing.”

Through the ELAA Programme, Arnaud met SMFs who are involved in the selection process and workshops and quickly realised that he could learn a lot from them.  He asked around, looking for an SMF who was based near Bath and who had experience in technology entrepreneurship and was introduced to Chris Shelley, CEO at Dymag Performance Wheels, by  SMF Adam Bazire.  Chris became Arnaud’s mentor and the rest, as they say, is history!

What does mentoring look like?
The beauty of mentoring is that there is no set structure to it. As long as you are ambitious, open, receptive and ready to learn, then a mentoring relationship can take any form you wish.  In the case of Chris and Arnaud, they would meet two to three times a year to discuss Arnaud’s career plans and to explore any questions he had.

Chris also took Arnaud on as an intern, something new for his company at the time.  He was given the opportunity to observe the office work environment, work in the factory, and shadow Chris on the day-to-day business.   Arnaud explained what led to his internship: “As the summer between my third and fourth year of university approached, I was looking for internships to gain further experience.  I wanted something in a new field of technology: Dymag’s latest innovation is a carbon fibre car wheel and that seemed like a great opportunity. I asked Chris if he would consider me interning in the company and he agreed, saying I would need to get “stuck in” right away and work hard – I was ready for that challenge!

“I worked at Dymag for two months and made myself generally useful to the staff – anything that needed doing, I would volunteer for it. I worked in production, did some marketing work, managed some small projects and started learning more about the component-level testing of wheels. The fact that I speak fluent German helped to secure a meeting for Dymag with the German working group of wheel companies, OEMs, TUV and the Frauenhofer Institute, which is developing a common testing standard for carbon fibre wheels.

“I also undertook remote work on Intellectual Property for Dymag during my final year of university.  I worked on a wide prior-art patent search of existing carbon wheel technologies and also helped collate information for the final patent text, which Dymag filed. Dymag’s patent has since been granted in the UK and Germany and is pending in several other countries. This was exciting and incredibly valuable experience,” said Arnaud.

Chris was extremely taken with Arnaud as an intern. He was drawn to his positive attitude, enthusiasm, high intellect and his willingness to learn. He was always willing to roll up his sleeves and charmed colleagues and clients alike with his engaging style and sense of humour.  This is not only proof that a strong sense of endeavour and positivity is a winning attitude, but also a shining example of how a mentor can serve as the elusive ‘foot in the door’ to the industry.

From intern to full-timer  
Not surprisingly, Arnaud’s relationship with Dymag did not end with the internship.  Arnaud continued: “The opportunity to join the company full-time came from my positive internship experience – I liked the company and the company liked me. Chris offered me a job and I considered it carefully. I was inspired by the passion in the company and I knew from my internship that I would be given responsibilities that would stretch me and allow me to grow quickly. Plus, I already knew I would have a great boss from whom I would continue to learn.”

In his role as a Project Engineer Arnaud is managing projects for OEMs, which include wheel testing for customer projects and core R&D.  He has also been involved in detailed design work on the wheels and on the productionisation of wheel designs in the factory.  Alongside these technical roles, he has also become involved in sales, representing Dymag at large automotive exhibitions and liaising directly with OEM customers and B2B business partners. Arnaud said:“One of the most thrilling experiences was setting up and attending meetings between Chris and a large cast wheel company to discuss the possibilities of working together on specific projects.”

What lessons do you learn from a mentor?
In a nutshell, what you get from a mentor that you can’t get from any book or lecture is the expertise of someone who is doing the job you aspire to.  Theory is all well and good, but application of those theories is quite another thing. In the case of Arnaud, he learnt a great deal from mentoring.  Chris shared the details of his career trajectory, explored his own career failures and successes, and helped to plan Arnaud’s own route to entrepreneurial success.  Let’s take a look at the top three lessons learnt on his mentorship journey:

  • It’s all about sales! The number one job of the entrepreneur is to sell their vision to the world, be that to customers, investors, business partners, employees or the general public.
  • Honesty is everything! When it’s time to have difficult conversations with customers or business partners, you stand a good chance of making progress by being open and honest about the situation. This was a lesson Arnaud learnt by observing Chris’ behaviour and conduct with customers and business partners.
  • ‘Multi-tasking’ is not a dirty phrase! It can be tempting to try and only focus on one thing at a time, but business is rarely so simple. The key is to find the most impactful activities to focus on.

Chris also gained much from the experience. He came to appreciate just how valuable mentoring and internships are to the point that now there are several interning opportunities at Dymag, both in engineering and in business. A good mentorship should be a symbiotic process, one that both parties stand to gain from.

Arnaud’s impact as a young professional
Arnaud is a great example of how, with drive, tenacity, enthusiasm and a mentor, you can shoot up the ladder of success quicker than you might think. Here’s what Chris had to say about his newest team member:

“Arnaud is a very self-motivated and ambitious young man, a natural leader of our product testing and certification programme.  Also, he has become a leading contributor to Society of Automotive Engineers working group, developing industry standards for the testing of carbon composite wheels.  I have received very positive feedback from other committee members with over 30 years’ experience.  They compliment him on his extraordinary contribution. He is a born leader and ultimately, he will use his engineering skills and work experience to pursue his dream of developing his own technology business.”

The final word from Arnaud Doko
“Mentoring has helped to accelerate my learning; specifically it has supplemented my engineering knowledge with transferable business principles. Through Chris’ guidance and his willingness to continually expose me to new opportunities, I have leapfrogged ahead in my personal development as an engineer and eventual businessman.  Any young person trying to establish a career could benefit from mentorship, but you must be proactive about it and lead the relationship into the direction you want, so your mentor knows how they can support you. If you don’t naturally have access to mentors, put in the effort to find them!  It’s a great return on investment on your time – I owe my entire professional trajectory of the last three years to the Royal Academy of Engineering and Chris Shelley.”

Learn more about the SMF MBA Scholarship scheme.

Three lessons I learnt while founding a startup – SMF Taha Dar

SearchSmartly founders Taha Dar (left) and Gil Razafinarivo

For many years, I kept telling myself that I would, one day, start an innovative business. I have always been passionate about using data to solve problems and improve human experiences. I had developed a technical skillset as an engineer at Red Bull Racing, a Formula 1 team. Yet the reasons that stopped me from taking the leap into entrepreneurship are probably familiar to any budding entrepreneur: Are my ideas good enough? Do I have the skills needed to succeed? Where do I even begin?

Finding the answers to these questions isn’t easy, but here are some of the lessons that I learnt on my personal journey.

Share your vision…
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve met budding startup founders who are protective about their idea and don’t want others to learn about the ‘next big thing’ that they’re working on. Except in certain rare circumstances, I think that this is a mistake. An idea’s value lies in its execution, and not in the concept itself. By exposing your idea to feedback, you maximise your chances of learning from potential customers, meeting potential mentors, and finding others that are equally passionate about your problem set. Starting a business as a solo founder is incredibly difficult, and one of the most fundament challenges a startup faces is that of building the right team. Only by meeting others who share your vision can you maximise your chances of finding the right people to work with.

I told everyone that I met during the early days of my MBA about my idea for the future of property search, and that’s how I met Gil Razafinarivo, my co-founder at SearchSmartly. He had just been through a six-week ordeal in finding a flat for his family, and by sharing my vision I learnt that he was as determined to change the property search experience as I was. He brought an extensive background in technology sales – something I had no experience of and a skillset that would be critical for the B2B business that I was looking to build. It was a great match.

…Because it will be wrong anyway
To paraphrase a famous piece of military wisdom, “no startup idea survives first contact with the market.” Entrepreneurs often have elaborate plans for bringing their idea to market, ranging from a fully-baked user interface to a particular market niche that will fall in love with the product. These plans invariably fail in their original guise, as the market is always more complicated than you think. Investors know this too, and they aren’t worried. It’s often said that early-stage investors aren’t really backing your idea at all; they’re betting on you being able to test your hypotheses with potential customers, learn from feedback, iterate on the product, and pivot your business in a new direction if needed.

My co-founder and I made some large changes in our business model very early. During our time in the London Business School’s Launchpad pre-accelerator, we pitched our idea in front of customers, market experts, and potential investors. The feedback we got from these individuals made us quickly realise that our initial, consumer-facing (B2C) business model would not be sustainable against the duopoly of Zoopla and Rightmove. Following this insight, we pivoted to a business-facing (B2B) model with the view of selling our technology direct to estate agents.

Take the first step today
I felt deeply uncomfortable taking the leap – it’s human nature to fear change after all. I had a technical skillset, but I utterly lacked the business education that I felt I required to get my idea off the ground. I knew programming, but I didn’t know much about web design. My first step was to teach myself HTML, CSS, and Javascript, the building blocks of any basic website. Using great tools online such as CodeCademy, I was able to get started. Yet I didn’t feel that this was sufficient. I ultimately decided to pursue an MBA to develop the business education that I lacked – in areas such as finance and marketing – greatly aided by my MBA scholarship from the Sainsbury Management Fellows.

The most important lesson of all is to get started today. In hindsight, much of what has been most relevant to my business was learnt from creating our first prototype and sharing it with potential users and pitching to investors. Speak to your users. Write the first line of code. Start sketching out your product. Draft the first pitch deck. Get out there!

About Taha and SearchSmartly
Taha is a Sainsbury Management Fellows Scholarship winner.  He is also the co-founder of SearchSmartly, a software-as-a-service startup making property search more efficient for estate agents and their clients. The team won the London Business School Launchpad 2017 demo day and is a winner in the Great British Entrepreneur Challenge. SearchSmartly is currently looking for a talented software developer to join its team and for contacts in the estate agency industry.   To find out more, contact the team at

Are you a young engineer interested in studying for an MBA?  Visit this page to learn about applying for the Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarship.

MBA a game changer – switching from a technical role to a broader management role

Chartered Engineer Dere Ogbe, Shell Corporate Strategy and Portfolio, who gained an SMF-sponsored MBA at LBS, tells us about his career progression.

How has the MBA galvanised your career?
The greatest benefit I derived from my MBA was acquiring the skills to tackle problems holistically; through case studies and class lessons, I learnt how to use different concepts and analytical tools to solve wide-ranging problems. This training has given me the foundation to switch from a technical to a broader management career.

With this foundation, I joined Shell as a senior strategy and portfolio consultant with the ability to lead both technical and commercial strategy projects. For example, I am leading a project stream that is helping shape Shell’s view of energy transition and future energy demand. This involves working with large numbers of industry experts to analyse multiple trends in consumer behaviours, demographics, government policies, and technology. With such complex issues, there is always a danger of information overload.

However, my MBA training on world economics and data analytics gave me the grounding and tools to lead the team though several workshops in analysing possible scenarios for energy demand transition, that won the team a Strategy Excellence Award.

Previously, I led a mergers and acquisitions (M&A) team in the evaluation of midstream opportunities across North America. This required building financial models to analyse competitive situations across the value chain. The resulting output was key to making the case for the project’s recommendations. This would have been difficult without the financial knowledge gained while earning my MBA.  Possessing an MBA has definitely galvanised my career by enabling me to broaden from a technical leader to a business leader.

In addition to professional advancement, the scholarship and resultant MBA has given me the tools and inspiration to give back through taking part in voluntarily social impact projects such as, which aims to connect artisans in Africa to the international market; and, which is developing grassroots football leagues for African youths and providing coaching support for African academics.

After 12 years in industry, what spurred you on to pursue an MBA?
Before my MBA, I was a senior operations excellence engineer at BP Exploration. This was a broad technical role that involved implementing best practices to drive continuous improvement across multiple joint ventures in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

The role required cascading business decisions into technical requirements and gave me an awareness of how commercial choices drive project design and operational requirements.  This awareness coupled with the knowledge from courses such as Managing Engineering Projects (that I undertook as part of my ImechE Continuing Professional Development) sparked my interest in business management.

In addition, given that I was already a chartered engineer with significant operational leadership experience, the timing felt right to explore a broader career route. An MBA offered the best route for me to make this switch. It also appealed to me on a personal level as an opportunity to learn about other industries, expand my professional network, and gain new perspectives.

What were your expectations before you started to earn an MBA?
I had two key expectations in advance of undertaking my MBA:

My first expectation was that an MBA would broaden my world. The MBA exceeded this expectation, as it not only exposed me to a broader set of commercial and social viewpoints but also gave me the chance to interact with CEOs, corporate founders, political leaders, and accomplished alumni. These interactions broadened my horizons and made me more willing to step out of my comfort zone and strive for ambitious goals.

My second expectation was that an MBA would provide me with a new set of skills and areas of expertise. Again, I feel this expectation was met, as the London Business School MBA Program not only provided me with a solid grounding in finance, also enhanced my data analytical and leadership skills.

What difference did the SMF scholarship make?
Finances were a serious consideration for me as I had to defer my first MBA offer because I had insufficient saving. The SMF scholarship not only made the MBA attainable but was key to reducing my family’s anxiety about financing my continued education. Without the SMF scholarship, I would not have been unable to take full advantage of the MBA opportunity.

How did you learn about the SMF scholarship?
I first learned about SMF during my preparation to become a chartered engineer. However, it was while doing my research into business schools that I found out more about the scholarship, which is available at the only top business schools.

What was the scholarship application process like?
I enjoyed the process. There is a strong vision behind the scholarship that is evident in the application process, which requires applicants to reflect on what they hope to accomplish by having an MBA. For example, I had to get references from two senior leaders at my employer, which meant discussing my plans with them and getting their honest assessment of my achievements and post-MBA plans. These discussions made me better prepared to make use of the MBA and to pursue the right opportunities.

The interview stage of the application process was very friendly and encouraging. I was interviewed by a chartered engineer and a Fellow who both gave encouraging comments. The best part, of course, was receiving the positive news of having been awarded the scholarship.

How much did the MBA contribute to you getting the type of job you wanted?
One hundred percent! It is very unlikely I would have attained my post-MBA position without having earned the degree, as I would not have had the experience or training for the role.

How is your MBA experience helping you in your new role?
It has made me more comfortable leading a wider range of people with different technical and commercial expertise. It has also given me the necessary financial, strategic, and commercial skills to quickly analyse problems and propose possible solutions. With these refined skills, I can jump into projects and get up to speed quickly.

In addition, the intense case studies approach during the MBA practices makes leading strategy projects feel like second nature and it has increased my ability to seek and incorporate diverse viewpoints in building a strategic response.

What especially do you love about your job at Shell?
As a senior strategy and portfolio consultant, the part of my job I especially love is the challenge of thinking on my feet, rapidly uncovering the critical factors and creating with the team a roadmap for solving the problem. There is always a buzz at the start of every project and a key part of my role is keeping the team motivated by retaining that excitement and creativity throughout the project.

Are you active among SMF alumni?
Immediately after earning my MBA, I was not as active in alumni affairs because it was a period of tremendous change for me. More recently I have become much more involved: networking with other Fellows, attending the SMF annual dinners, and joining in the fundraising campaigns. I’m deeply inspired by the achievements of the SMF alumni, and the chance to networking and building relationships with senior alumni is one of the key benefits of being an SMF alumni.

Would you recommend the scholarship?
I’m biased, but yes! I highly recommend both the SMF scholarship and what it represents—the advancement of engineering talent to managerial and board positions in technical industries. With the help of SMF scholarship, skilled engineers can grow from their technical base of knowledge into broader commercial skills. The scholarship brand itself is highly prestigious as it signals a commitment to excellence in both the technical and managerial fields.

What tips would you give to a potential scholarship applicant?
The scholarship is a means to an end—the first focus of any applicant must be on the end goal, what they hope to achieve in their professional life with an MBA. if they are clear on this it will make the scholarship application easier. Secondly, I would recommend making the best use of the great networking opportunities that both the MBA and SMF provide.

Visit the scholarship page to learn about making an application.

SMF Scholarship Winners: 2015

Busola Banjo 1 MB
Busola Banjo BEng (Hons) CEng MIET
Busola is currently pursuing her MBA at INSEAD Business School. Prior to this, she worked as an engineering consultant in London where she spent a year as a Principal Engineer with Ramboll and six years with Arup. She graduated from the University of Nottingham in 2008. During her career as an electrical engineer, Busola managed teams to deliver technical designs on a variety of projects worldwide ranging from schools to office buildings and data centres. She also had the privilege of working on iconic projects such as a stadium for the Qatar World Cup, the Shard and the British Museum extension. Busola is passionate about making an impact on the built environment through social regeneration and, after her MBA, she wishes to pursue a career as a real estate developer/ investor in the UK and in Nigeria, where she was born.

John Collins 6 MBJohn Collins MEng MPhil MCIHT
John began studying his MBA at INSEAD in January 2016.
Previously, John was a Senior Consultant at Steer Davies Gleave (SDG). He has worked on a wide range of transport projects including High Speed 2, Crossrail, Smart Motorways and the London 2012 Olympics. Prior to joining SDG John was a “Fast Stream” graduate at UK Department for Transport. John studied Civil and Environmental Engineering at Imperial College, where he served as the student union president. He also completed a masters in Engineering for Sustainable Development at Cambridge. He hopes to find a role in the transport industry when he graduates from INSEAD in December 2016.

Evi Giamouzi too smallEvi Giamouzi MEng MSc
Evi started her MBA at London Business School in August 2015. She is currently the Vice President of the Energy Club organising the sponsorship for the Global Energy Summit in London. Prior to this, she worked as a project planner at Balfour Beatty for its construction projects in the UK, including the tender for the ElecLink at the Channel tunnel. Evi graduated with an MSc in Structural Engineering from the University of Sheffield and also holds a MEng in Civil Engineering with a specialisation in Geotechnics and Earthquake analysis. Following her passion for engineering and education, she championed the STEM ambassador programme by partnering with schools in the Midlands to motivate students to take up engineering careers.

Christopher Hughes 2.9MBChristopher Hughes MEng (Hons) CEng
Christopher Hughes started his MBA at INSEAD in August 2015. After graduating from Imperial College London as a Mechanical Engineer in 2008, he ultimately advanced to Project Engineer working for Hitachi, a Japanese High-Speed Rolling Stock manufacturer. During his time there, he became the first ever foreign Design Engineer to be based in the heart of Hitachi’s train manufacturing site near Hiroshima, pioneering the way for future UK engineers at Hitachi to learn and develop their engineering skills in Japan. At INSEAD, Chris has developed a strong interest in entrepreneurship, winning the Identifying New Business Models Competition and leading a team of four to the semi-finals of the INSEAD Venture Competition. Chris is an avid traveller, having lived in the UK, France, Argentina, Japan and now in Singapore.

William Jones 699 resWilliam Jones MEng
William moved to France at the start of 2016 to begin his INSEAD journey. After graduating from Warwick University in 2008, he moved to Beijing to study Chinese. He then began work as Product Designer in Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong. While there, he worked on the design of numerous consumer products and contributed to three patents. After another stint in Beijing to improve his Chinese, William returned to the UK to become a consultant with PA Consulting. At PA Consulting, William worked with both private and public sector clients on product industrialisation and organisational transformation. William has played several sports including rugby as a junior for Hong Kong and club rugby to a high standard. This has fed his passion for creating strong and high-performing teams.

Eirini KoukakiEirini Koukaki MEng MSc, MIET
Eirini joined London Business School to pursue a full-time MBA in August 2015. Prior to her MBA, she worked for three years as a product manager in Vodafone Group where she was responsible for the global expansion and delivery of a B2B Unified Communications product which improves internal productivity. In 2010, Eirini was accepted on a two-year rotational graduate engineering scheme in Cable & Wireless Worldwide where she held four roles: Optical Fibre Network Engineer, Procurement Manager, Pre-sales Engineer and Product Manager. Eirini studied Electrical & Computer Engineering (MEng) in Aristotle University in Greece while she also graduated from Imperial College London with an MSc in Optics & Photonics. Eirini is a Greek citizen who has been living in London for more than seven years.

Sinead O'Sullivan, winner of a Sainsbury Manangement Fellows MBA ScholarshipSinead O’Sullivan BEng, MS Aero
Sinead O’Sullivan started Harvard Business School’s two-year MBA program in Autumn 2015. Prior to this, she was an Aerospace Researcher at the Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory at Georgia Tech, USA, where she worked on advanced concept designs and robotics for NASA and the US Navy. Sinead’s specialisation is in space systems, having completed both her Bachelor and Masters of Aerospace Engineering at Queen’s University of Belfast and Georgia Tech respectively, as well as a certificate from the International Space University. Combining her engineering and business knowledge, Sinead has started a US-based company specialising in the integration of drones and satellite data.

Pierre-Nicolas Queyroux I MBPierre-Nicolas Queyroux MEng
Pierre-Nicolas started his MBA at INSEAD in Fontainebleau in September 2015. Prior to INSEAD, he worked for 5 years for MBDA in the development of radio frequency systems for a range of weapon programmes. Starting out as a simulation engineer, he then became Project Leader for a Franco–British technology development project. In 2014, as Principal Engineer, he was seconded to MBDA UK in Bristol to take part in the development of the Franco-British Sea Venom/ANL system. Pierre-Nicolas graduated in 2009 from ENSAM and Supélec, two French Grandes Ecoles engineering schools. He is committed to fostering scientific education and has been supporting an educational charity in Paris as a volunteer. At INSEAD Pierre-Nicolas is the President of the Industry Club and the Co-President of the Football Club.

Saquib Mohammed 4 MBMohammad Saquib MEng (Hons), CEng
Mohammad started his MBA at London Business School in August 2014. Prior to commencing his MBA, Mohammad founded Castrum Energy Partners, a specialist provider of well engineering and project management services to the global oil and gas industry, and served as the Managing Partner of the firm until September 2014. Mohammad exited Castrum during an acquisition deal. Prior to founding Castrum Energy, Saquib worked for Shell UK based in Aberdeen and was part of running offshore drilling operations in the North Sea. Mohammad also chaired the Multiple Sclerosis Society Aberdeen branch, where he re-structured the struggling branch and made it sustainable over the long run. Mohammad holds a MEng (Hons.) in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Southampton with specialisation in aerodynamics and propulsion. He is a British Citizen and was born in India where he completed his primary and secondary education.

Visit our blog to see Q&A interviews with our 2016 scholarship winners.

From MBA to DNA

Chris Martin is Chief Executive of Sciona, a company at the cutting edge of business innovation and the revolution in genetics.

Chris Martin is a highly qualified chemical engineer. His MBA demystified the workings of corporate finance and enabled him to pursue his ambitions for commercialising technology. Chris, who started his career as a chemical engineer, has harnessed the knowledge he gained from an MBA at leading Swiss business school IMD (formerly IMI) to combine his natural commercial flair with his scientific know-how.

His sector is one of the freshest business areas to have opened up in the last decade – taking technology developed in academic institutions to mainstream markets.

Sciona, the latest in a string of spin-out ventures Chris has presided over, is leading the push to bring the benefits of major breakthroughs in mapping the human genome, to consumers.

His company offers a service to customers that reveals if they are genetically predisposed to illnesses affected by lifestyle factors like stress, diet and exercise. It offers consumers the opportunity to tailor their lifestyles to ensure prolonged health and well-being. Customers simply take a swab from inside their mouth that is then analysed by the company’s expert team of leading scientists to produce each individual’s unique genetic make-up. Combined with a brief lifestyle questionnaire, Sciona can advise its customers how best to make lifestyle changes to enhance their well-being.

Chris’ career started with a degree in Chemical Engineering at Aston University. He followed it with a DPhil in Engineering Science at Oxford University. It was during 18 months of post-doctoral work at the University and the Atomic Energy Research Establishment that he first started to develop his commercial instincts, starting a computer software company with his flatmates. Chris recalls, “I got a real taste for the commercial world and realised I enjoyed that side of the industry as much as the technical elements.”

He joined a small consultancy working in the offshore oil industry that then diversified into the pharmaceutical sector and other process engineering industries. “I took a diploma in management studies to try to understand more about business. From my work I thought I could see situations where large companies were making poor technology investment decisions.”

His interest in this subject grew and in 1988 he applied to Sainsbury Management Fellows for a place on the International MBA programme, opting for a one-year course at the leading Swiss business school IMI, now IMD.

Chris says, “Mine was a classic MBA, very strong on international finance and organisational development. The key thing was that the course demystified a lot of aspects of business. One of the biggest advantages my MBA gave me was a thorough understanding of corporate finance.”

After completing the course Chris used his new skills to tackle the trend of poor technology decision-making he had spotted over the previous years. He and a partner set up the consultancy as part of Marex in late 1989.

Early success, including a series of contracts from Courtaulds, was followed by Chris leading a management buy-out of the consultancy to form Paras Ltd. Growth over the ensuing years created a team of 40 professionals at offices in the UK, Holland and South Africa.

In the early 1990s Chris’ attention turned to the growing trend of companies formed around technologies from leading universities and industrial research. He joined a fellow engineer to set up an early stage feed capital company after recognising that embryonic companies founded on campus research required expert outside help.

Chris and a growing number of expert colleagues created a string of successful technology companies including Solcom, which develops web-enabled systems monitoring and management systems, Despatch Box, a data encryption and security company, and SpiroGen, a biotech spin-out developing the technology to stop cancer cells replicating by binding specific DNA strands.

But it was Sciona and its potential for putting a truly groundbreaking health product in the hands of ordinary people that really fired Chris’ imagination. “It’s a really fascinating area to be working in, with some tremendously talented people.

“I’ve never been a traditional chemical engineer but the scientific foundation combined with the skills and knowledge I gained through my MBA have enabled me to take my career forward in challenging and, I hope, innovative ways.”

He concludes, “Every day I see that there is a significant change in the UK climate for entrepreneurial innovation. There are now a lot of well-educated, ambitious young people using their technical education to launch themselves into business. When the SMF scheme started, this was almost unheard of.”

Case studies correct at the time of publication.  SMFs may have moved to new posts since publication.  For the latest career information on our Fellows visit our SMF Profile Page.

Engineering my Way into Digital Publishing

Serge Taborin
Serge Taborin, MD, Archant Digital Ventures

Engineering qualifications and skills have led Serge Taborin in directions he couldn’t have imagined, including winning a Sainsbury Management Fellows (SMF) MBA bursary which is available to professional engineers who want to pursue a career in senior management. “I can honestly say that without the MBA I would not have been able to pitch myself for certain roles and develop such a diverse and challenging career,” said Serge.

Today Serge is managing director of Archant Digital Ventures, part of the 165 year old Archant Group, one of the UK’s largest independent regional media businesses with £142m turnover per annum.  Archant publishes regional newspapers, magazines, and websites and offers a wide range of services including digital publishing, specialist publishing and contract printing.

Serge ‘caught’ the engineering bug in his early teens, captivated by the notion of creativity and practicality embodied in a single discipline.  His interest stemmed from his parents being engineers.  “I didn’t stand a chance,” said Serge.  “What with dad fixing radios and mum designing bridges, which she would excitedly point out on journeys, their passion for engineering rubbed off on me.  While they didn’t push me towards engineering, they instilled in me the value of education and the importance of subjects such physics and maths.  Engineering teaches you how to solve problems, how to take a step back from the challenge in front of you; evaluate all the ingredients at your disposal and to develop a solution that is both creative and practical.  Engineering opens up many career opportunities.”

After gaining his Engineering Science degree at Oxford University, Serge worked in leading edge technology companies.  First, he joined the IT services specialist, SEMA Group (now part of Schlumberger) as a graduate trainee and worked his way up to project manager in eight months. By that stage, he was handling client-facing teams working on the implementation of customised telecom network systems globally.

Next stop was INTEC Telecom Systems where, as a senior business consultant, he travelled the world implementing billing systems and developed strong relationships with global telecom operators.  After three years with INTEC, he took a year out of industry to undertake an MBA programme at INSEAD in Singapore and France, having been awarded a £30,000 SMF scholarship.

Serge picks up the story: “My career had progressed rapidly into the strategic side of business and I wanted to move upwards into senior management, but I didn’t have enough knowledge of some areas of business.  I had to decide on the fastest route to plug my knowledge gaps; learning on the job at INTEC was, of course, possible but it would have taken longer and I was eager to get on. The MBA route won hands down and was definitely the right choice for me.

“Having an MBA from a leading business school opens up a host of career opportunities that might otherwise be more difficult to access.  It has enabled me to build a more diverse and exciting professional life. INSEAD has, and continues, to open doors to me. As well as gaining the academic knowledge and business tools I needed to progress, I also have the INSEAD brand behind me and fantastic contacts I made during my MBA course.”

On graduating from INSEAD, Serge was appointed business development manager of new media at the BBC, where he helped the broadcaster identify areas where its technology and content management skills could add value to clients’ digital strategy.

A year later, Serge landed the head of group strategy role at Perform Group, a global leader in the provision of broadband and mobile digital video services and the commercialisation of digital rights for sports and entertainment brands.  Serge was responsible for developing the growth strategy and negotiated commercial deals with many organisations including the Premier League, Chelsea FC, Liverpool FC, Tottenham Hotspur, Major League Soccer, Warner Brothers, Virgin Media, ITV and Channel 4. Perform Group grew rapidly, from 20 people with a turnover of £3m to £650m valuation when it floated five years later. Today it is a £1bn+ business with 900 staff worldwide.

Fast forward to today and we find Serge heading up Archant Digital Ventures, the investment and incubator arm of Archant. Serge is responsible for identifying new opportunities in the online and mobile space for the whole group, developing or acquiring the technology needed and then turning this portfolio of products into profitable businesses.

Serge continued, “I have an exciting and equally challenging job in a sector that has undergone huge changes. After 100 years of having virtually a free reign, regional newspapers in general are facing their biggest threat, not just to their revenues, but to their very existence. The internet has transformed how we consume content and the advertising model has also changed dramatically.  And the rate of change is accelerating, with mobile being the next battleground. There are no easy solutions for traditional publishers, but those that succeed will be the ones that supplement pure news/content distribution with new services that are relevant to increasingly segmented customer bases. Finding, developing and commercialising those solutions are top priority for my team.

“Achieving our goals means recruiting the best talent, but attracting smart digitally-born young people to a traditional publishing business is not easy. We’ve approached this creatively, hiring people with great potential and enthusiasm, regardless of whether they are graduates, and we develop and mentor them on the job. This approach fits very well with my own belief in coaching and passing on business skills. I mentor seven staff who report to me, plus other team members in group sessions where we look at business development strategies.

“Our Digital Ventures team is ambitious to grow business within Archant and through external ventures so I’m involved in mentoring online and mobile start-up businesses, advising on strategy, funding and marketing so the inventors can develop their novel ideas into great businesses. For example, a contact I met at INSEAD is an investor and director of, a social networking site that connects people living in the same geographic area who have shared community interests, but may not necessarily know each other. Archant has acquired an equity stake in Streetlife and I have become a director of the business, providing advice and direction.

“By combining my engineering experience with first-class business education and becoming part of the SMF network, I am enjoying a very rich career.  Apart from enabling me to attend INSEAD, which financially would have been difficult without the bursary, SMF has a network of highly ambitious and successful individuals who provide support and advice to its members, other business people, professional and educational institutions; as well as mentoring young engineers.

“The SMF network carries a certain gravitas when talking about one’s profile and achievements, which is helpful in career terms and in promoting professional engineers.  For 25 years SMF has done an excellent job helping engineers like me move into leadership roles. I hope it continues to support the most talented individuals to gain the skills needed to get into leading edge companies and to start their own ventures,” summed up Serge.

Case studies correct at the time of publication.  SMFs may have moved to new posts since publication.  For the latest career information on our Fellows visit our SMF Profile Page.

Marrying Engineering and Business Skills for an Exciting Career

David Falzani, President of Sainsbury Management Fellows
CEO, Polaris Associates
Visiting Professor at the Nottingham University Business School

“One could say that my career as an engineer was destined – as a youngster I was fascinated by technology and the complexity of how things work. I was drawn to engineering because it had both a reputation for being difficult but also, because I would be able to apply the knowledge and skills I learned to solve problems in the real world,” said David.

Now a chartered engineer, David did an MBA at Wharton/SDA Bocconi and started several businesses, including one of the first internet companies, before setting up a consultancy, Polaris Associates. He has formulated and launched FMCG brands as well as helped better market and communicate professional qualifications standards for various organisations. As an entrepreneur and visiting professor David specialises in the customer decision-making process, modern manufacturing and the economic value of hi-tech industries.

David continued, “Like many engineers, I am inspired by the achievements of giants like Brunel. But what interests me most, was Brunel’s considerable entrepreneurial and commercial skill in raising funds for ground-breaking ideas. Similarly, world-changing projects like the completion of America’s Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 and the Panama Canal built between 1881 and 1914, were at least as challenging to organise and finance as they were to execute technically.”

This admiration for combing engineering, entrepreneurial and commercial skills traveled with David and is evident in his career today. After seven years in engineering roles, one of which saw him project manage the design and implementation of a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility for a high growth Silicon Valley company, he reached a crossroads. That role had increasingly exposed him to ever-widening business and commercial issues and he was being asked to interact with wider business problems. He had to decide how best to gain the additional knowledge and understanding needed to tackle bigger business challenges.

“I could either acquire my next level of skills organically through the workplace or through an intensive MBA. My personal learning style strongly favours a crucible high-intensity environment, so it was an easy decision to study for a full-time MBA at a top school.

“With the aid of a Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarship, I studied for my MBA at SDA Bocconi in Milan and The Wharton School in Pennsylvania. It was as testing as I imagined, but the rewards more than made up for the 60 hours per week schedules! Imagine studying in an environment filled with über bright people from all over the world, being surrounded by world-class faculty, being set continually stretching tasks; having a learning machine wrapped all around you to whet your appetite and then satisfy it, and an addictive growing sense that anything is possible. I flourished in this environment and came away from my MBA with a toolbox of functional business skills, an enduring network of friends and contacts, and the school’s renowned brand name to augment my own.

“A more surprising by-product of the MBA was a rewiring of my brain, to think differently about my career. My first job post-MBA was with a leading strategy consulting firm where I consolidated my skills. After that, I plunged into an exciting new tech venture with some former MBA classmates, having gained the confidence to raise venture capital funds during the MBA. After that, I was involved in a tech turnaround. I used my engineering, commercial and entrepreneurial skills in both businesses.

“Sainsbury Management Fellows played a big role in my career transition. The financial support is, of course, very helpful, but for me becoming part of the network of Fellows upon graduation holds the greatest value. Fellows have given me advice, inspiration and have been a useful reference point throughout my career, and I have secured at least one job through the network.

“SMFs’ raison d’être is to equip ambitious engineers with business skills that will enable them to secure senior and board positions in blue-chip companies that would otherwise be unattainable. They are then in a position to use their combined engineering and business skills to enhance commercial performance. SMF also supports engineers with entrepreneurial ambitions, as entrepreneurs innovate and commercialise products and services that create jobs and wealth for our economy.

“Innovation and productivity growth are essential if we are to retain our quality of life in the global economy. Although we are good at inventing new ideas we, in Britain, have a notoriously poor record of translating these into commercial value. Also, productivity is a key success factor for mature economies like ours to compete and continue to grow in value.

“A key causal factor in both of these areas of growth is the development, integration and commercialisation of technology. Engineering sits on the interface of technology and commerce, and in this way, engineers are uniquely placed to understand ‘the tech’ and also bring a business brain to deliver more successful enterprises. I hope that we can bring this issue forward in the country’s agenda and better use our considerable resources to inspire people to prioritise activities that assist in developing promising technologies and then better commercialise these.”

Case studies correct at the time of publication.  SMFs may have moved to new posts since publication.  For the latest career information on our Fellows visit our SMF Profile Page.

From Oil Rig to Board Room

Richard Kluth SMALL
SMF Richard Kluth, Managing Director Pulse Structural Monitoring

Richard Kluth’s journey to becoming managing director of Pulse Structural Monitoring, a fast growing structural monitoring company for the offshore industry, took some interesting turns, including a job in offshore drilling, an MBA programme at Spain’s IESE Business School and a stint in asset management at Morgan Stanley.  Richard shares his experience and his views on the need to promote engineering as an exciting career choice.

Like many young lads, I had an idealistic notion of becoming a musician, but as our band members drifted off in different directions, reality hit I started thinking about a proper job!  My maths was strong, so I studied physics and after graduating travelled throughout Asia and Australia and caught the travel bug.  This motivated me to find a job that would allow me to travel the world.  I joined my father’s pioneering fibre optic business, Sensor Dynamics, the first to install fibre optics in the oil industry.

It was a very exciting time, as I went from developing demonstration products for clients to creating prototypes and then travelled to California to oversee production and implementation of the products.  I received great development and mentoring at Sensor Dynamics and it gave me a passion for working in the oil industry.  I particularly enjoyed the service side and being out on the rigs.

After a fantastic grounding at Sensor Dynamics  it was time to spread my wings.  I landed a job as a field engineer on a fast-track management programme at Schlumberger, a leading oilfield services provider.  Schlumberger satisfied my thirst for getting in the thick of a job and travelling.  As a field engineer, I moved to a new country every 12 to 18 months, working as the second or third hand in a 2-3 man crew.  Drilling is a very complicated and complex function which requires absolute precision.  Initially I was responsible for providing the technical information that enabled the crew to drill safely, but by the end of my training I was also drilling wells.  I worked in Germany, Canada, America and the Middle East and at the end of that three year period I was head of the team, leading on the rigs.

By then the wing-fluttering had started again, and I realised that I didn’t want to pursue a structured career path that would lead me into managing logistical projects; I was after more intellectual rigor and wanted to join one of the big operators.  So I left Schlumberger.  This was back in the 1980s when oil prices were at rock bottom and hiring in that sector was not high on the agenda.  Rather than see it as a set-back, I decided it was the ideal time to do an MBA to develop my management skills.

Funding an MBA can be a challenge, so I was very fortunate to learn about the Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarship through a university brochure and even luckier to get through the stiff assessment panel and be awarded the £30,000 bursary.

Learning a new language was a big factor in where I did my MBA.  In all the years I had worked abroad I still hadn’t learned a second language, a source of great embarrassment, so I decided to learn either Italian or Spanish.  I fell in love with Barcelona when doing my recce, so chose IESE Business School in Navarra to do my MBA and learned to speak Spanish into the bargain.

The MBA rounded-off my commercial knowledge and improved my confidence in conducting commercial discussions.  It also enabled me to see that it was possible to make the leap from a technical function to a management/commercial role at a plc.

The MBA work placement was another big experience and confidence boost – I joined a global growth equity team at Morgan Stanley. They needed someone with an engineering background who understood fibre optic technology to help with the stocks they were managing in this field.  This was intellectually challenging and I learned more about the economy.  I must have done something right as they offered me a full-time position which I took after I graduated from IESE.  I received great training and worked with very bright people in a less structured career model than Schlumberger.  For example, if we wanted to create new products around what was happening in the industry, we could.

After working in asset management, I plunged straight back into the oil industry, taking up the role of business development manager at the VC-backed start-up, Sensornet, which specialises in fibre optic sensors and monitoring systems.  Its growth was rapid and I progressed quickly into a sales and marketing role, and then became sales & marketing director.  When the original investors decided to sell Sensornet, I was elevated to chief operating officer and ran the company freeing the CEO to focus on the sale. Tendeka acquired Sensornet and I made a bid for COO but they needed someone with both oil and gas experience, plus mergers and acquisitions expertise.

After seven years with Sensornet, I was at another career crossroads, and the SMF network – you become a Fellow when you graduate – was incredibly helpful at this point.  I put out feelers to Fellows who were very willing to talk and share ideas and contacts.  I even started discussing an entrepreneurial venture with another Fellow. The SMF network will always be there to support the Fellows and it certainly inspires you to take the next step in your career.

While thinking about my next move, I did what I love most – I went travelling with my wife and young child assuming that we would have a six months’ adventure.  But no sooner hand we landed in Australia, a head-hunter called with the exciting prospect of joining Pulse Structural Monitoring, a dynamic young company with a lot of promise.  The long distance interviews were followed by a personal one when I returned to the UK.  I was drawn to the role because Pulse is a strong company, with highly skilled engineers with a fantastic work ethic.  They needed a senior manager with both commercial and technical skills to consolidate and help grow the business.

Managing growth is our biggest challenge.  When I joined we were 17 staff and we’ve tripled in size in three years, with 60 people working in Aberdeen, Woking, Rio, Houston and soon Singapore.  We have had to adapt quickly to manage the growth.  Previously, we operated more like a project management company, where all the expertise was concentrated within project groups.  We have now developed new production and procurement departments so that key knowledge and expertise is centralised.  Likewise, we have introduced new systems in areas like quality and training to ensure that we capture the expertise of existing professionals to train the next generation of young engineers joining Pulse straight from university.

Engineers are critical to Pulse and wider industry and I don’t think the UK takes engineering as seriously as countries such as Germany.  When companies are growing as fast as Pulse, it’s frustrating to be faced with the struggle of finding engineers at the entry level.  The UK needs to produce engineers to tackle the big problems in society now and in the future.  More needs to be done to highlight the diversity and excitement of careers in engineering.

People tend to think of engineers as a bit nerdy, but engineers change the world – take energy – without it the world cannot grow and prosper.  Today, we all have to think about renewable energy and who will deliver the technology to make that a reality?  It is engineers who will provide the solution to cleaner energy.  We need to change the perception that engineering does not offer an attractive career path.  We need to communicate that engineering skills and experience can catapult you into different careers, especially when complemented with commercial and people management training.

Sainsbury Management Fellows helps to equip engineers with the business skills and experience needed to broaden their career opportunities and move into senior management positions, as in my case.  Engineers have a diversity of skills that are valuable at board level, a key one being logical, analytical thinking.  We bring a good structured analysis and approach to key issues in a business, which helps companies to grow and prosper.

From Marine Engineer to Online Publishing

Lee Cowles
SMF Lee Cowles, MD of Europe, Blurb

Lee Cowles has enjoyed a varied and challenging career, starting as a marine engineer in the Royal Navy before jumping ship into bespoke manufacturing. He then made a major turn in career direction by studying for his MBA and moved into the world of business and worked his way up to director at Betfair, the phenomenally successful online gaming company. Today Lee is leading another exciting internet business, the fast-growing online publishing company, Blurb.

As a youngster, what were your career aspirations?
As a teenager I couldn’t possibly have imagined that I would be running an online publishing business as it was pre-Internet days! Back then, I was instinctively drawn to engineering because I saw myself as a problem-solver; I liked the idea of ‘making things work well’ though at that point, I had no idea what I might make work.

Why did you study engineering?
My first job was a marine engineer in the Royal Navy where I had ample opportunity to make things work! I resurrected damaged equipment, bringing things back to peak performance. That experience led me into a manufacturing job. When I left the Navy, I joined an unusual manufacturing business in Huddersfield – it produced customised winches and gearboxes. Yes, I know this doesn’t sound terribly exciting, but imagine selling a concept to every new customer and then having to go away and make the product? It was quite a challenge, as each product was a turnkey solution. No off-the shelf products, meant no standard price list, yet it was essential to get the price right to make a profit and keep the customer satisfied. Sometimes I had to take a leap of faith or we would have missed out on brilliant business opportunities.

Why study for an MBA?
My employer at the manufacturing firm was keen for me to develop in the business and offered to sponsor me to study for an MSc at Warwick University, but I already knew engineering. I had been so involved in product development and sales at the firm, I started hankering after learning more about business. When you’re in the Armed Forces you know exactly why people do the things they do – everyone has a shared understanding otherwise things can go horribly wrong. But in business it’s different – there are lots of stakeholders with competing or hidden agenda. I felt that an MBA would help me to learn what I needed or at least get me started.

How did SMF help you?
Realising that I would be unlikely to return to the firm after studying for an MBA, my employer understandably didn’t want to sponsor my MBA study. I was fortunate to discover the SMF scholarship and to get through the selection process. Without the funding, it would have been a struggle financing my MBA and I would have had a larger debt at the end, which might have influenced the job I took at the end of the course.

By providing the funding, SMF gave me the opportunity to start a different career and explore different options. SMF doesn’t look for people based on the particular career they want to go into so you get a very mixed set of people. SMF is about getting people into senior jobs across the board. This helps Fellows to stretch their careers in different directions.

And the biggest benefit of your MBA?
The real revelation – and benefit – for me was studying with such a diverse and vibrant group of people; there were students from many different backgrounds and cultures. The university places students in very mixed groups to maximise friction and learning!

Has the SMF Network been useful?
You make lasting friendships and, because everyone takes different career paths and are not competing in the same arena, you can contact them and ask their views and advice without any conflict of interest.

How has business education changed your life?
My first job after graduation was with Ford, where I worked on the accelerated Manufacturing Leadership Programme. I also undertook a government research project into adult education for the workforce. The project brought together civil servants and the private sector to explore how business might help to tackle adult illiteracy. While this project was intellectually stimulating, working in a very large corporation wasn’t for me. I wanted to be in a more entrepreneurial environment.

The game-changer for me came in 2003 when I become Head of Operations at the innovative online gaming company, Betfair. Betfair has a great business model – it allows customers to choose their own odds, matches all the bets and charges a small commission on winning bets.

Moving money around is a bit like logistics and works like an engineering business; that’s how I positioned it at my interview and they liked my pitch! Betfair was a small business when I joined, but it grew rapidly. In a small business you take on many different jobs and build very quickly. My division went from two to 50 people in 18 months and I must have hired 200 staff during my time with the company.

Initially, I set up the back-office systems and then progressed into other roles. I professionalised processes and systems in one area, and then moved onto the next. This included product management, product development and even the software development area. By the time I left in 2011, I was Director of UK running half the business. When the business floated it was valued at £1 billion and today it employs around 2,000 people. In a small growing business you do many different things which may not be your area of expertise. The MBA prepares you to deal with unexpected challenges.

What are you doing now?
Scaling up the business at Betfair prepared me for my current role as MD of Europe at Blurb, a venture capital backed online publishing business, which allows customers to produce everything from personalised e-books to professional books on demand. Blurb publishes around 2 million books a year, the same as a medium size offline publisher. In the online publishing world, authors can create demand for their books through social media.

What is the biggest challenge in your business sector?
The Internet has increased the speed of every aspect of business. It’s imperative to keep your eyes on the ball – on everything from systems and processes to sales and marketing – otherwise you will be outflanked by new competitors, trends and customer behaviour.

How can engineers help the UK economy to grow?
We need to embed flexibility and skills into the economy. Engineers have valuable skills, for example, analysis and problem-solving; bundle these with business education and they have a big role to play in growing the economy.

What advice would you give budding entrepreneurs?
People who start a career in engineering are pretty risk averse. That’s probably why we don’t see many traditional engineers, compared to software engineers in Silicon Valley, become entrepreneurs. My tip is to ‘just do it’ – don’t let fear hold back a great idea. Often the risk is not as great as you think it will be.

Which engineering pioneer do you admire and why?
Brunel – he was audacious! He was a hands-on engineer, who was never put off by failure. He achieved so much and left us some wonderful structures. In Brunel’s time engineers had the advantage of being able to over-engineer and learn from their experiences. There’s no room for that in modern engineering!

Innovative online project fosters understanding and appreciation of different cultures

KArim El-HAmelSMF Karim El Hamel, General Manager of Ficosa International in Turkey, a leading automotive parts supplier and Co-founder of PocketCultures

Who inspires you?
I’m inspired by people who are motivated by innovation rather than money and influence; by those who invest in motivated people and contribute positively to the world.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I was fascinated by flight and dreamt of being a pilot. Even as a child, I was amazed that only 70 years after having discovered flight, man was able to go to the moon. It was my first awareness of the impact of technology and engineering. Those childhood dreams of being a pilot did have some bearing on my career- I went on to study aeronautical engineering, which enabled me to play a part in the process of converting ideas into real-world products and solutions.

How has your engineering background helped your career?
Engineering has armed me with a logical, investigative approach to tackling complex problems. I soon learned that one plus one doesn’t always equal two! Sometimes the best decisions for shaping the future come about from ‘back of the envelope calculations’ – it’s easy to drown creativity in too much detail. Other times, particularly where small factors have a big influence, decisions need to follow a detailed technical study. An engineering background helps identify the best approach to take in the decision-making process and has been of real benefit to me at Ficosa and PocketCultures, my entrepreneurial venture. Reverse engineering is also important when analysing your own and other companies in order to make improvements.

What has been the greatest influence on your business life?
Recognising that, despite cultural differences, people are essentially the same the world over and that we need to try harder to understand the differences and similarities if we want successful relationships and businesses.

I’m Libyan/Italian and have worked internationally, including in Turkey, where I am Country General Manager for automotive parts supplier, Ficosa (engineering is relatively standard across different territories which facilitates geographical moves). This international experience and my multi-cultural background have shown me that many of the problems in the world stem from misunderstandings caused by a lack of intercultural awareness.
I’m passionate about demystifying cultural differences and highlight areas of common ground. By inspiring a culture of learning, and providing a platform to facilitate learning, I believe it’s possible to address this issue.

That’s why I and my co-founders set up PocketCultures in 2006, a non-political, non-profit online resource where people can learn what life is really like in different countries from contributors across the globe. PocketCultures’ content covers science, language, food, music, personal stories and interviews with people living across cultures or in cross-cultural relationships.

This online project provides a platform for learning, connects people across the globe, improving cultural awareness and understanding between members. We aim to do our bit to make the world a fairer, more tolerant place. The media has a powerful influence on how cultures are presented, and there is a responsibility that goes with that. PocketCultures is committed to providing an accurate picture of the cultural side of people’s lives by featuring those with first-hand experience of life in the country in question.

Cultural differences influence our approach to engineering. In Europe, for example, we tend to plan everything out and ‘do all the maths’ first because we want the engineering to be perfect before production takes place. But in places like China and America, engineers tend to produce physical products for trial and adapt and perfect. If it works then they scale up. In my opinion, this more adventurous approach can result in these countries gaining an economic advantage and perhaps Europe needs to take a lesson from other countries.

What’s Next for PocketCultures?
Since PocketCultures was launched, the number of visitors has grown exponentially – we now have 25,000 unique visitors each month, 30 regional contributors and the list is growing; so much so we’ve employed three professional editors to support contributors.
The site has been reported in the Lonely Planet, has started topping Google free searches and is becoming a familiar sight on Flickr, Facebook and Twitter.

We recently released a free, downloadable eBook for children, Games for Kids of the World, produced with contributions from supporters around the world. We’ve also just launched, PocketButiks, the e-commerce element of the site which allows craftspeople from around the world to sell goods. The revenue will help to offset the cost of running PocketCultures.

What’s your greatest achievement?
During my time at Rolls-Royce and while studying for my SMF-sponsored MBA, I embraced the idea of a ‘learning organisation’ being the ultimate sustainable advantage for a business.


management control for a learning organisation nov 2012

The process, illustrated here, needs to be supported by having a psychologically safe and interactive environment. It is an integral part of the development of PocketCultures too. As Country General Manager at Ficosa, I’m responsible for delivering sustainable employment and development of young colleagues through fresh challenges, training and dreaming.

My greatest professional achievement has been working with my team at Ficosa, to develop and implement ‘learning organisation’ activities. I believe this has helped Ficosa grow and thrive even in this tough economy. Click here to enlarge image Achieving a ‘learning organisation culture has been enhanced by working in partnership with one of our major clients, Toyota, which lives and breathes this philosophy.

Why add business education to your engineering degree and experience?
Engineering can help you design and build things, but to take an invention forward as a business requires a whole new skills set. I saw an MBA as the route to gaining a fuller appreciation of business processes. I saw it as the path to make more of a positive impact on society.

The business degree has given me a keener understanding of how to target customers and has taught me how to read between the lines when it comes to interacting with and understanding the needs of stakeholders. What’s more, the combination of professional engineering and business skills affords unlimited success across both business and geographical borders. The natural route would have been to become an engineering manager, but the experience of the MBA – and a supportive wife – allowed me to shift into general management and also to set up PocketCultures.The MBA has also enabled me to adopt a learning approach within business.

Has the MBA made you more of an entrepreneur?
Definitely. In addition to learning entrepreneurial techniques, and gaining insight from the experience of others, I met people – who like me – were motivated by social responsibility and philanthropy. It gave me the confidence to set-up a not-for-profit business. The MBA helped me develop a sound business plan for PocketCultures, and has now proven invaluable in developing and bringing PocketButiks to market using purely theoretical projections and mutual trust.

The entrepreneurship route is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a risky one, especially for work/family life balance so I’m fortunate that PocketCultures’ managing editor, Lucy Chatburn, is my wife! We work long hours on the site during weekends, but we’re doing it together, so family life doesn’t suffer and the rewards are great.

Lucy and Karim – co-founders of PocketCultures

Learning entrepreneurial techniques is proving valuable in my role at Ficosa, as it helps to create a supportive environment for intrapreneurship. It also helps to define the system to control new project evolution and maintain them aligned with the company vision and business practices.

What benefits have you gained from being part of the SMF community?
SMF gave me the financial support to study for the MBA, allowing me to concentrate on my studies rather than worry about how I was going to pay off a bank loan! This has helped me follow a path towards a job that I feel passionate about.

Being a leader can be a lonely business, with few counterparts to use as a sounding board. SMF provides a network of professionals to benchmark myself against. Like many Sainsbury Management Fellows, I was initially attracted by the financial support to do the MBA, but I soon realised that the benefit extends way beyond money. One of the greatest benefits is the network of SMF colleagues from many industries with whom I can discuss challenges and get objective feedback. The advice and feedback offered by our network is a key ingredient in releasing entrepreneurial talent and has played a big part in my career.

Do engineers make good board directors?
I’m bound to say Yes. Seriously, research conducted by EngineeringUK for SMF revealed that almost 60% of FTSE100 companies have a professional engineer on the board. By combining their risk analysis skills with their ability to identify and focus on critical success factors, they can help reduce the potential for failure. A strong grounding in project management also helps business to apply technology more rapidly.

I believe it is the mix that brings the sustainable advantage, so a board would benefit from including women and men from different backgrounds, including engineering. The company would link vision and delivery more rapidly to the benefit of all stakeholders including society.

Case studies correct at the time of publication.  SMFs may have moved to new posts since publication.  For the latest career information on our Fellows visit our SMF Profile Page.