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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Oil Rig to Board Room

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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!

From MBA to DNA

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

SMF 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 mouths 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 90s 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 more than dozen years ago, this was almost unheard of.”

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