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.