Tag Archives: Business Schools

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.

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.

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.

When to do your MBA?

By David Falzani MBE, President EIBFProfessional engineer

An MBA is a highly regarded and sought-after qualification for employers around the world. Not only can it leave you standing head and shoulders above your peers, it can transform the opportunities that open up to you as you progress in your career.  One of the questions we are asked by prospective MBA candidates is when to take an MBA. Is there an ideal time? Will I get more out of my MBA depending on when I take it?  The optimal time depends on several factors, but more often than not the answer is a resounding yes.

First, you need to consider your personal circumstances and what stage of life you are at.  Do you have the flexibility to take time out to study? Will your finances hold up? Second, you need to consider your career and how you will really benefit from an MBA. Those with several years’ experience in a business or specialised role such as an accountant, technician or scientist, will have a lot to gain from an MBA. Those with very little experience may still benefit from an MBA – but without the ability to contrast what they are learning with knowledge and experience gleaned from work experience – they will not be getting the most out of it. Or certainly not the same benefits as students who have been in the workplace.

In other words, timing is important.  Let’s take a look at the three MBA categories people can choose depending on their life stage: The Executive MBA, Full-time MBA and MBA straight from university.

The Executive MBA
The Executive MBA is a popular route because it enables you to gain the qualification whilst working, so there is no dramatic change to your personal lifestyle. The Executive MBA allows you to study part-time while actively engaged in employment. It’s very much an educational experience which requires you to link your learning to your ongoing work projects and vice versa. For that reason, it’s essential to take the MBA while you are employed in a role that allows you to make those linkages and reap the benefits.

In order to make the most of an MBA you need to be in a role that will give you the latitude to develop and apply what you are learning. If in doubt, explore each business school’s entry requirements as these will help you to determine whether or not you have the right level of experience and are working in an industry sector/role that will ensure you benefit from studying with the school. A good business school doesn’t just want your fees; they want you to thrive and succeed and therefore help build their brand.

An Executive MBA is a great route for someone who is employed in a role that will allow them to maximise the content of the course, develop/grow and add further value to their company. The Executive MBA is often the number one choice for people looking to balance learning with earning.

Full-time MBA
This is the MBA sweet spot and the most popular route to earning the qualification – candidates usually have between two to six years’ professional work experience.  Typically, full time MBA candidates are in their mid to late twenties.  Business schools are particularly interested in this group for two main reasons.  First, this group has professional experience which they can draw upon and link to the course, and then use it in the classroom to benefit themselves and their classmates. Being collaborative and using your previous experience in the classroom is essential – non-participation is not an option.   Previous experience is crucial to maximise the benefits of a full time MBA. If your work experience is the touch paper on a grill, the MBA is the match that ignites it and really gets things cooking. One without the other generally does not work.

Picture a young graduate with no work experience tackling an MBA. They’ll be able to read, absorb and learn, but without being able to apply those ‘learnings’ to practical experience of work, it’s all theoretical for them. It’s worth bearing in mind that around 25% of what you learn in an MBA is through discussion and collaboration with peers. If a student doesn’t have work experience to bring to the table, he or she may find it hard to relate to some of the concepts that will inevitably emerge, as well as hard to contribute to peer discussions.

Second, business schools are interested in candidates with this level of work experience because they are not so locked into their careers that they cannot make dramatic changes in their thinking and future careers.  Although it’s not a hard and fast rule, by the time people reach their early to mid thirties, they are often very invested in their existing careers, and may have young families and financial commitments such as a mortgage.  Although an MBA is a catalyst for growth and change, helping students to build even more stellar careers, these personal and financial factors make the decision to step out of a secure job and into an expensive and demanding full-time MBA too high risk for people who have been working longer than six years.

So, there is a peak time to take a full-time MBA. That peak may vary slightly from person to person, but you need to demonstrate that you have not only drive and ambition but relevant industry experience and are still able to evolve your career; that you are ready to explore new opportunities that will open up.

From university graduation to business school
This is a bit of a wildcard but it’s worth including because, although it’s rare, it does happen. There are business schools that will take a graduate straight from university, without any or little work experience.  Usually, these candidates have already proven themselves to be academic high-fliers who will benefit from the insights that only an MBA can offer and allow them to go even further in their careers. Furthermore, these students (like all MBA candidates) will meet a diverse group of people and these connections may be useful when entering the workforce.

So, is there a good time to do an MBA?
In order to get the most out of your MBA there most certainly is a good time to apply, but that time will vary from person to person depending on their circumstances and life stage.  You should choose to take on an MBA at a time in your life when you are confident that it will enhance your career opportunities. It’s a huge commitment that requires an investment of time, money and effort and you want to make absolutely sure that it’s going to have a tangible and positive impact on your career prospects.

How to Apply for the Sainsbury Management Fellows 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 –the individual scholarship is £50,000 and we award ten of these every year.

How 4 professional engineers used an MBA to change their careers

The MBA is a highly desired qualification by both young professionals and employers.  Not only does an MBA equip the student with a wealth of business and leadership skills, it  shows clear signs of an individual’s focus and ambition as well as an adventurous spirit – leaving a secure job to study for an MBA requires not only funds but courage.

MBAs benefit individuals, employers, and the economy. Although it is essential to hone skills in specialist areas, businesses are keen on hiring MBA graduates because they have a deeper understanding of a range of business practices that enable them to be more strategic and agile in their thinking and problem solving.

The MBA opens new career opportunities, helps students to gain better insight into their motivations and goals, and connects them with inspiring professionals who can support their career ambitions long term.  Taking an MBA is a major financial commitment and because of their prestige, the cost of attending the top international schools is high.  Consequently many students seek scholarships to support their studies.  For over 30 years, the Sainsbury Management Fellows (SMF) scholarships have been awarded to professional engineers who have clear leadership potential.   Today, there are 365 SMFs who, collectively, have been awarded £11 million in scholarships to enable them to acquire skills that help UK businesses succeed and the economy growth.

In this blog we introduce four Sainsbury Management Fellows who have used their MBA skills and experiences to steer their careers in new and exciting directions.

Engineering a Finance Career in Green Energy:  SMF Chris Gifford, Senior Risk Consultant, Chief Credit Officer, Vancity Community Investment Bank, Canada

After gaining his engineering degree at Oxford University, SMF Chris Gifford started his fulltime career in the power generation sector. He worked throughout the UK and internationally helping to operate and maintain the control and instrumentation systems of fossil-fuelled power stations.  He progressed into a commercial role, analysing the financial performance of the power stations, which gave him a deeper understanding of business and a desire to pursue his career in a business direction.

Chris decided that he wanted to work in the cutting-edge transition from fossil-fuel to green technology in a business and finance capacity, but he realised that he needed additional business skills to secure a top-level position in a leading company.  Because of his engineering background, prospective employers tended to pigeon-hole him as a techie. Chris knew that gaining an MBA would enhance his skills and make him more marketable.  The MBA, which he undertook at INSEAD, provided not only the vital business skills needed for a career shift, but accelerated an improvement in his interpersonal and leadership skills.

Today, Chris is the Senior Risk Consultant, Chief Credit Officer at Vancity Community Investment Bank in  Ontario, Canada where he uses his combined engineering and business skills to assess the viability and robustness of complex renewable energy proposals from businesses seeking finance, eliminating the need for the bank to use external professionals to carry out additional assessments.  In addition to identifying potential problems, Chris recommends improvements and efficiencies that allow important renewable energy projects to be funded.

Chris’ engineering background is a major asset in his role.  He explained: “My engineering skills are typically applied to evaluate whether businesses trying to access financing have fully understood the complexities for themselves.  There is a bias for optimism and sometimes blind spots when it comes to risk assessment; I provide an objective and pragmatic view on how likely a project is to succeed.”

Switching from a Technical to Management Role:  SMF Dere Ogbe, Shell Corporate Strategy and Portfolio Consultant, UK

SMF Dere Ogbe was appointed Senior Strategy and Portfolio Consultant at Shell after graduating from London Business School with an SMF-sponsored MBA.   He credits his MBA for galvanising his career in this new direction and says he now has the ability to lead both technical and commercial strategy projects.

Before taking his MBA, Dere was a Senior Operations Excellence Engineer at BP Exploration. This was a technical role which involved implementing best practices to drive continuous improvement across joint ventures in Europe, Middle East, and North Africa. This involved cascading business decisions into technical requirements and this gave Dere an insight into how commercial choices drive project design and operational requirements.  This awareness, coupled with the knowledge from courses such as Managing Engineering Projects, sparked his interest in business management.

Dere sites a number of ways that the MBA has helped to transform his career: “It has given me the necessary financial, strategic, and commercial skills to quickly analyse problems and propose possible solutions. The programme also enhanced my data analytical and leadership skills. Also, I feel very comfortable leading a wider range of people with different technical and commercial expertise.  With these additional skills, I can jump into projects and get up to speed quickly.  The part of my job I especially love is the challenge of thinking on my feet, rapidly uncovering the critical factors and, with the team, creating a roadmap to solve the problem.  The MBA has had a transformative effect on my career and leadership skills.” 

Billy Comes to Life Through Engineering and Business Talent: SMF Rob Deering, CEO, Billy, Australia

Before business school, SMF Rob Deeming gained a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Nottingham. After graduation, he spent five years as a consultant at Bain & Company where he developed practical skills such as problem-solving and collaborative working.  This role gave him the time and freedom to decide what he wanted to do longer term.  He said: “It was an incredible place to start a career. The level of learning, skills development and personal support available in consulting is second-to-none.”

Rob took his MBA at Harvard and says that it gave him both personal and professional perspective: “It opened my eyes to new career pathways, in particular, those which combined his engineering and business skills.”  Since graduating, Rob has lived in both New York and Sydney where he has built several tech-driven businesses, including three start-ups.

The most recent entrepreneurial venture is a technology company, Billy, which addresses the fundamental challenges of caring for seniors, while allowing them to remain in their own homes as independently as possible, on their own terms. Billy uses a series of Internet of Things sensors to identify patterns of behavioural routine for seniors, and shares this information through an app, in real time, with family members and professional carers. Billy can read all the activities of daily living using smart analytics to determine patterns in routine and identify changes before they result in medical emergency.

The future is exciting for both Rob and the company; Billy is growing in size and reputation and is now in 1,000 homes across Australia and the USA. Initial feedback shows that customer confidence is high and there has been a reduction in hospitalisations in the households where Billy is installed.

Winning an SMF scholarship enabled Rob to undertake his prestigious MBA, which gave him the skills to follow his entrepreneurial dreams.

Engineers with Business Skills Transform UK Industry: SMF Ian Peerless, Operations Director, ExRobotics, UK

SMF Ian Peerless and ExRobotics Colleagues

Ian Peerless’ route to an engineering career began at the University of Southampton, where he graduated with a First in Civil Engineering, after which he spent a year with British Leyland in a mechanical engineering role.  The hydrocarbon industry in the North Sea was booming and he was keen to move into that sector, so gained a Petroleum Engineering Masters at Heriot-Watt University and shortly after graduating joined Shell as a Petroleum Engineer and enjoyed an international career for five years.

However, he reached a ‘crunch point’ in his career, as is often the case with young engineers.  At this point there is a choice; to work up through the ranks of a company as a pure engineer or to diversify and move upwards in a different direction.  Ian chose the latter. His interest in business management led him to the MBA, with a scholarship from SMF to attend IMD in Switzerland.

The MBA gave Ian the credibility required to step into a management role; a role that would otherwise been out of his reach. He was one of the first engineers to benefit from the SMF scholarship programme, and proved that having engineers in management roles throughout industrial companies is extremely valuable.

After the MBA he joined British Steel, where he gained a wealth of management experience. He worked in Business Development, Sales, Operations, and finished as the number two in the Business Strategy department reporting to the main board.   After 15 years with British Steel, Ian was enticed back to Shell, where he was a key member of an internal consultancy group.  He travelled the world advising, coaching and facilitating leadership teams on project management and contract strategy.   When that project was completed, he set up an independent consultancy, IPKA where he continued to perform a similar role to the Shell position, but with different oil and gas companies.

In 2010, Ian took on a Shell contract to develop an oilfield robot. He gained extensive knowledge of this specialist robotic niche which led him to form ExRobotics, a company that is tackling the problem of oil and gas operators being sent into hazardous, harsh, and remote locations. The robots can be permanently stationed at those locations, removing people from harm’s way as well as cutting costs and reducing lost production.

Summing up the benefits of the MBA, Ian said: “The MBA gave me skills that I still use in my work. In particular, the ability to understand a business, its markets, its competitive position, and to turn that into an action plan for success.  Furthermore, the MBA made me understand that if you combine the strengths of individuals and create a motivated team, wonderful things happen. The MBA not only changed the direction of my career it also changed my industry.  The combination of my life before the MBA (technical) has been combined with my life after the MBA (management) to create ExRobotics.”

How to Apply for the Sainsbury Management Fellows 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 –the individual scholarship is £50,000 and we award ten of these every year.

What is an MBA? – by EIBF President David Falzani MBE     

Benefits of Studying for an MBA

The MBA has been around since 1908 when the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration was established in the USA. Across the world today, the MBA is the watchword for business career success, and prospective students are spoilt for choice as to where and how they study – from the world-leading schools like Harvard and London Business School (which was the first UK business school) to virtual online schools, from full-time courses to part time study.

MBA programmes prepare professionals for senior management roles in business.  Typically, MBAs are taken by those who have already been working for several years, but that’s not always the case.  Some people go straight from their first university degree to study for an MBA degree and this is the beauty of the business school offering; there are options to suit everyone.  This includes MBAs at premium business schools, like LBS or Harvard, and, for want of a better term, ‘mainstream’ business schools.  Courses are available either full-time (30-60 hours per week) or part-time (one or two days per week) and there are Executive MBA programmes for senior corporate executives and managers who study whilst working, and sometimes their study is partially or fully funded by the employer.

Requirements to Study an MBA
To study for an MBA, you will usually require an undergraduate degree.  Most MBAs require a 2:1 or above, but there are some that will accept 2:2 degrees so long as they are paired with an exceptional application and a set of relevant skills and experiences.  Some work experience is generally required; this being the case most MBA students are between the ages of 27 and 30. One important entry criterion to meet, particularly for top schools, is the GMAT exam score. The Graduate Management Admission Test, or GMAT, is designed to test your abilities across a wide range of areas. A good score will often facilitate entry into leading schools, and each school’s GMAT averages are widely published.

Benefits of an MBA
MBAs expose students to many areas of business including accounting, finance, marketing, people management and leadership skills, and full-time courses do so in an intensive, immersive way that challenges and stretches students’ perspectives and thinking.  The MBA experience often pushes candidates hard – the speed and sheer amount of work faced is sometimes described as a re-wiring of candidates’ brains, such that they can think critically and quickly analyse information, filtering out what is important from the irrelevant. The skills taught in an MBA programme enable you to read, assess, structure and plan rapidly; skills that will enable you to find innovative ways of dealing with big problems.  An MBA graduate also gains an up to date and razor-sharp ‘tool kit’ to apply to any business challenge. These aspects are some of the reasons why the MBA has become so highly regarded by employers.

People from all walks of life want to gain an MBA qualification in order to improve their understanding of business and to accelerate their career.  Developing your business skills is not only good for your personal and career growth, but it is also good for companies and organisations and essential for the economy – enhanced knowledge and skills leads to better solutions to problems which can increase productivity, as well as transform products and services that affect people’s lives.

If you are at that pivotal point in your career where you want to learn more about business and the decision-making processes, it’s important to know that as valuable as the MBA is, the programme is not a final destination, it’s very much the start of a longer journey.  In an MBA you will be introduced to many facets of business and gain a foundation that enables you to confidently delve deeper into areas of interest across a range of subjects as you need to.  Because of this solid framework, when you are back in the world of work, it will be easier to go deeper into subjects that are needed in your job. You will be able to understand business issues and explore them at a level you were unable to do before your MBA.

A Wealth of Choice of Business Schools
Every year thousands of professionals start their search for the right business school for them.  At the top of the MBA tree are the premium schools – these are equivalent to Ivy League ranked universities, which often have long histories, coveted brands, outstanding facilities and attract the best staff and candidates.  The institution’s brand, the quality of faculty and quality of student admissions are all perpetuated by each other, creating an institution designed to offer the very best environment for business education.

Gaining a qualification from a top international business school will open new opportunities.  However, their prestige and resources mean they command high fees – some can be as much as 10 times more expensive than mainstream business schools.  On the upside, their brands add considerable value to the graduates’ own personal brand, giving them an additional asset when they go back into the job market.

There is fierce competition to secure a place at the top business schools – because their brands are so revered.  Unsurprisingly, these schools are often 7 to 10 times over-subscribed for places, so getting-in requires some real work.  Candidates must be very driven and highly organised to maximise their chances. Having access to the necessary funds also helps – some will seek assistance with fees by applying for a scholarship (eg through charities) to supplement their private financing arrangements.  Many candidates have a risk profile that allows them to take on loans, confident that their future income growth will resolve any debt soon afterwards.

There are many fantastic mainstream business schools that do not cost the earth.  More and more, universities are developing high-quality MBA programmes.  Excellent business education is on offer but, being newer into the MBA market, these do not have the same historical pedigree and reputation enjoyed by their premium counterparts.

While those who attend the mainstream business schools may not come away with quite such a prestigious brand to append to their own, they receive a rounded business education (perhaps with less of the heightened level of induced stress that the premium schools engender into their programmes) and can use their new skills to further their career goals.

The Enduring Power of the Alumni
Apart from the new skills propelling your career prospects and salary (it’s not uncommon for business school graduates to double their pre-MBA salary), there is a huge ‘hidden’ benefit.  During the MBA, students develop a network of peers that become long-term associates and lifelong friends.  The business school Alumni is a powerful asset – because of their shared experience, members will reach out to each other when they need help or advice at any stage in their business career, whether that’s as a senior-level employee or as an entrepreneur.

MBA – A Cause for Celebration!
The tremendous success of the MBA is a cause for celebration: the diversity of schools (some offering campuses in several countries as part of the curriculum), programmes and study timetables allow many people to attain business education in a way that suits their ambitions and circumstances.  The timescale over which one can study an MBA has transformed access – there are full-time courses that run from nine to 21 months depending on the school, and part-time learning up to five years. Schools can be physical or virtual.  And, there are prices to fit almost all budgets.

It’s come a long way since its origins in 1908, adapting and evolving to meet the market needs. Accessible, flexible and current – today’s MBA is a truly wonderful platform to boost business education.

If you are an engineer considering an MBA, visit or scholarship page for details on how to apply for a £50,000 award.

 

MBA Scholarship Awardees Share their Experiences

£300,000 of SMF Scholarship Awards Help 10 Talented Engineers Attend Top Business Schools

Wharton, INSEAD, Kellogg, Stanford and LBS are welcoming 10 awardees of the Sainsbury Management Fellows MBA scholarship.

The awardees each received £30,000 towards their study costs.  They are Kofoworola Agbaje who chose Wharton; Nicholas Asselin-Miller, Qiang Fu and Andrew Glykys are attending INSEAD; Mukunth Kovaichelvan is studying at Kellogg; Imogen Rye is at Stanford, and the other four awardees – Benjamin Banks, James Diaz-Sokoloff, Matthew Dixon and David MacGeehan – all chose to study at London Business School.

The SMF Scholarship scheme is run by Engineers in Business Fellowship (EIBF) which helps young engineers fulfil their aspirations to become business leaders by supporting them financially in gaining business skills including leadership, strategic thinking, marketing, economics and finance.

The value of Sainsbury Management Fellows awarded now totals £9 million.  During this time the scholarship has helped over 300 engineers forge outstanding careers in diverse areas including the corporate sector, social enterprise, charity, healthcare and education.

The success of the scholarship scheme is measured not only in terms of the career achievements of the SMFs but in their contribution to society.  For example, 153 SMFs have founded or co-founded businesses valued at £4.6 billion, creating 18,000 jobs; 265 SMFs support and mentor young engineers, helping them with career or entrepreneurial goals and 122 SMFs are actively involved with charitable organisations.  Several SMFs teach business and innovation as visiting professors at universities, including the EIBF President, David Falzani.

After graduation, the scholarship awardees become Sainsbury Management Fellows and become SMF Alumni.  Many say that the Alumni is, perhaps, the most rewarding part of winning a scholarship, because of the lifelong support. The Fellows benefit from ongoing career and entrepreneurship mentoring which can often lead to important collaborations and high-level networking via SMF, the Royal Academy of Engineering and other leading institutions.

Commenting on the purpose of the SMF Scholarship David Falzani said, “The world is changing at an unprecedented rate, creating new challenges for UK businesses, these include globalisation, cross-culturalism, the rise of the Asian markets and flux in international politics, the economy, technology and environmentalism.  The need for multi-skilled engineers is actually increasing.  The SMF scholarship expands the pool of business-minded engineers available to employers.  The more SMFs we nurture, the more they can help boards make sound strategic decisions and deal with the challenges arising from new paradigm shifts.”

New Applications Invited
The SMF scholarship is open to engineers with the potential to gain leadership roles early in their careers, who have a clear vision for their MBA study and career aspirations.  Candidates submit a written application and shortlisted candidates undergo a panel interview with members of the Royal Academy of Engineering and Sainsbury Management Fellows.    Find out more about making an application.

To learn directly from 8 of the successful awardees, click the grey panels on the right and read their Q&As.

Will an MBA really make a difference to my career? Choices & Options – David Falzani, SMF President

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In our previous post in this series, we began to explore in a general sense how an MBA can give your career a huge boost – if you make the most of it and are in it for the right reasons. MBAs give you a toolbox of new skills, enable you to make important contacts, provide access to the school’s brand and help you develop your personal bandwidth. They also can let you gain real-life experience through placements, develop personally as well as professionally, and, of course, specialise.

It’s this specialisation and personalisation that an MBA offers which we’re going to be focusing on today. Of course, choosing the right school is important. Small schools can be tightly-knit communities, inclusive, and cohesive – and may offer unique specialisations. However, they won’t offer as many electives or as much customisation as a larger school, and you may find your thinking will be less challenged at a smaller school.   In contrast, larger schools give you a broad choice of electives and tend to have much larger alumni networks – although it can come at a cost, with such schools sporting, for some, daunting student population sizes.  Thanks to specialised cohorts, however, the size or location of school isn’t nearly as important as programme length and structure.

When it comes to selecting an MBA, you have a wide range of choices and options in terms of course structure, length, and teaching style. We can classify MBAs into three different types: part-time, full-time, and executive. Selecting between them is one of the first major decisions you’ll have to make before applying for an MBA.

Part-time MBAs
Often pursued for their lower financial cost, part-time MBAs are great for people looking to boost their careers without necessarily overhauling or changing things too much – they’re often referred to as career enhancers, rather than career changers. These courses last at least 2 years and you will often be taught during the evenings or weekends.

A part-time course allows you to continue working, which inevitably makes the course less of a financial burden and should put you on a good track to promotion at your current workplace. Some employers will even pay the tuition fees for such a programme in part or in full – but beware, it is likely that you will not have the same access to fellowships or other funding from the business school.

However, the part-time nature of these programmes means you are not exposed to the same intensive learning environment as in a full-time MBA, as we will explore. Whereas you are placed in a tough, immersive environment on a full-time course, typically your central focus in a part-time programme will still be on your day job. You will not be as exposed in your thinking to radical new ideas.  This is why many argue that a part-time MBA is not so much a career changer as it is an enhancer – but if you’re concerned about the cost of tuition, or if you’re set on pursuing promotions in your current job or industry, a part-time MBA could be the right choice for you.

Full-time MBAs
The full-time MBA tends to be the mainstay of most business schools, and with good reason. These are frequently billed as the ‘career changers’ – an opportunity for you to take a complete break from work for up to 24 months and re-evaluate your personal approach, skills set, and mindset towards management.  Of course, as we discussed in the last post, an MBA is what you make it, but a full-time programme is particularly special thanks to the immersive environment it offers.

MBAs attract an incredibly diverse range of people, from a huge variety of personal and professional backgrounds. Like in a real business environment, you will be working with people you may not normally come across in your personal life.

Your interpersonal skills aren’t the only thing that will be tested on a full-time programme. Exposed to new disciplines and what might be entirely new ways of thinking, learning quickly is one of the most important skills you’ll develop thanks to a full-time MBA. The internship opportunities that come as a result of this will open up even wider career opportunities in finance, investment banking, consulting, start-ups, NGOs, and more. In this way, it is not just a career changer, but a potential life-changer.

Full-time programmes aren’t without their issues, of course. There’s the financial element as we’ve already discussed. There’s also a possibility of ‘group think’ developing as a result of working so closely with the same people in such an intense environment. Heterogenity of views can be lost in the process of working together towards common project goals – leading to a lot of people pursuing the same career path after an MBA, such as in consultancy or finance. It’s important to remember that a full-time MBA opens a lot of doors for you, and carving out your own path using the skills and knowledge you acquire is a major benefit of MBA study.

Executive MBAs
An executive MBA is much like a part-time MBA. They’re designed for people who are still working, with flexible timetabling and attendance in recognition of this. They’re designed to be completed in two years or less. The main difference is who they’re designed for: experienced managers, executives, and other entrepreneurs around halfway through their career.

For this reason, the knowledge and skills developed on an executive MBA programme are rarely transformative – instead, an executive MBA is about updating your existing knowledge and skills as well as increasing the number of career options.  Again, they are a career-enhancer.

You will usually be encouraged to pursue an EMBA by your company’s executives, who want to fast-track you ahead in the company hierarchy. While EMBAs do tend to be more expensive than the regular MBA programme, they are usually sponsored by the company – so financial considerations are less significant.

Conclusion
Your career ambitions and tolerance to risk and financial outlay will determine which type of MBA will help you achieve your goals. Once you know the type of MBA you want, you can decide which type of business school will enable you to flourish and make the most of the MBA experience.

Read part 1: Will an MBA really make a difference to my career

You may also be interested in reading interviews with the winners of the SMF MBA Scholarship.