Alumni from the last 50 years share their perspectives on the MBA journey and beyond.
London Business School’s founding aim was to professionalise management and boost industry in Britain. Industrialist Sir John Egan – best known for leading the turnaround of Jaguar cars in the 1980s – achieved both.
After five years in the Middle East as a petroleum engineer for Shell, picking up Arabic along the way, Sir John Egan heard about a new business school starting in London and wanted to be a part of it.
“I felt instinctively that to be a pioneer was a good idea and that’s the way it turned out.”
Armed with a full government grant, Egan embraced his studies, in particular behavioural science, accounting and statistics. But it was the business case studies that provided him with the biggest lesson.
“In these case studies you could see people turning businesses around,” he says. “They gave you the feeling that quite extraordinary things could be done if you marshalled things properly. So by the time I went to Jaguar [in 1980], I felt as though I really could fix it.”
Egan did well at his studies and won the Shell Prize for the best overall contribution to the life of the School. He was selected to speak to business leaders at School sessions designed to showcase its education and its graduates. It was thanks to one of these sessions that Egan met an American, also a business graduate, who was UK Treasurer of General Motors. The encounter changed Egan’s career.
“I remember him saying to me: ‘What do you expect to get out of your career?’ says Egan. “Britain at the time was a rather socialist place with taxation at 80 pence in the pound and very big government, so I didn’t have very high expectations, and I said: ‘Well, I expect to buy a house and have a good pension. How about you?’
“He replied: ‘Hell, no. I want a ranch in Wyoming, a town house in New York, I want to be rich.’
“I have to say his world sounded a lot more appealing than the socialist future I had envisaged. And that’s something that has changed over the years – back then you didn’t really expect to become wealthy from a career but now of course you can.”
Egan joined AC Delco – a subsidiary of General Motors – reporting to the treasurer he’d met. He left a few years later to join British Leyland and helped create the Unipart business, which continues to be successful today. He then became Corporate Parts Director for Massey Ferguson before returning to British Leyland – this time to run Jaguar.
The luxury vehicle brand was the state-owned car company’s biggest loss maker, in the midst of a British car industry that was known for appalling quality and poor productivity. When Egan arrived in 1980, Jaguar’s productivity was 20% of its German rivals. The story of how he turned the company around became a business case study in itself.
“When I went to run Jaguar cars, I was very clear that we had to win the hearts and minds of our people, bring in process improvement and create a company they could believe in,” he says.
“And since then, my career has circulated around these three ideas: first, doing good and making the company into a better company; second, encouraging the workforce to bring their brains and enthusiasm to work as well as their hands and feet; and third, concentrating everyone on process improvement where every process could bring in higher quality and lower costs.”
In just four years Jaguar’s productivity improved by 400%, while the number of engineers increased from 300 to 1,000 to help create better products. The company started to make a profit and was floated on the London Stock Exchange by Margaret Thatcher’s government as a prelude to floating British Telecom, although this is something Egan regrets.
“I think this is one of the reasons British industry has declined ¬– our companies have been far too easy to take over,” he says. “And this is something that really worries me about Brexit. People think that making our industries world class will be straightforward, but it won’t be; it’s going to be very hard work as much of British industry is actually owned overseas.”
Egan left Jaguar in 1990 and became chief executive of BAA, which was then the operator of British airports. He arrived to an equally torrid situation, with a mountain of customer complaints about things people felt were unfair at the airports – in the restaurant, for example, you couldn’t buy a cup of tea, you had to buy a pot; you couldn’t buy a single measure of Scotch, you had to buy a double; you couldn’t park your car for 20 minutes, you had to park for two hours; buses had to pay to enter the airport to take passengers to hotels; and the airport shops were overpriced – even duty free goods could be more expensive than on the high street.
Egan went to the regulator and promised to solve the list of complaints. “I used customer satisfaction as the way to run the airports and it turned out to be immensely more profitable than trying to screw the customer,” he says. “What’s more, we brought competitive retailing into the airports and soon we were making more out of retail than aviation.”
He tried the same tactic when he joined the Severn Trent water company in 2004 as chairman, going to the regulator to confess to a litany of problems. Unfortunately the response wasn’t so lenient and the firm had to pay £90 million in fines, but at least Egan was in a position to start putting things right. He brought in process engineers from the car industry and let them loose in the water industry to find ways of improving the way things were done.
Egan has also been President of the Confederation of British Industry and chairman of the government’s Construction Task Force, which examined ways to improve quality and efficiency in UK construction. He’s been chairman of numerous companies and involved in multiple organisations, only stopping full-time work at the age of 71. He completed his ten-year term as Chancellor of Coventry University in 2017.
Today, he still drives a Jaguar and has an F-Type parked in his London garage. He’s also planning on buying an F-Pace SUV for his chalet in Switzerland and is aware that things have turned out well for him.
“I think LBS was extremely important for me,” he says. “I think it did open my eyes and prepare me. I can be proud of what each of the companies I’ve run has been able to achieve and we haven’t cut corners. What we’ve been able to do is create better businesses – better quality and lower cost.”
London Business School’s Masters students became increasingly international as the programme grew - within ten years, 25% came from outside the UK. Hong Kong-born engineer Savio Kwan was among them, and credits the experience with giving him a new take on life – although he nearly didn’t get in...
Savio Kwan recently attended Alibaba’s 18th annual gala in Hangzhou, eastern China, where Jack Ma started the giant e-commerce company. Only the Yellow Dragon Stadium was big enough for all 50,000 employees, whose singing and dancing, Kwan says, symbolised the company culture and innovative spirit.
Kwan helped turn Alibaba around in its formative years (its market capitalisation has since topped US$450 billion, or £343 billion). He feels humbled and grateful to have played a part in it, even though his time as Chief Operating Officer and President tested his business stamina to the limit.
“It was a really hairy time. Everything I learnt from LBS, my time at General Electric and BTR, all my experiences around the world, came into really sharp focus. I had to deal with things that were thrown at me at 500 mph and hope I got it right 60/70% of the time.”
Kwan arrived in England in 1965 aged 17 after a teacher at his Hong Kong technical college found an apprenticeship for him and a friend at the electronics company Pye. Having worked their 26-day passage on a cargo ship, they arrived at Pye’s factory in Cambridge, where theirs were the only Asian faces.
Thanks to Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s support for the “white heat” of technology, Pye released them to do technical studies one day a week and they topped up their learning at night school. Kwan also took a Masters in telecommunications. Meanwhile, he spent a year in Sierra Leone installing a nationwide telecoms system for the police. Yet Kwan was impatient for more progress. Back in Cambridge, he switched from installations to systems engineering, but still didn’t feel satisfied.
“I was 22 and my boss was in his late 40s and was section leader of the systems engineering section so I thought that must be a prime job, but I worked out that I would have to wait 25 years to have his job. I suddenly woke up and realised that systems engineering wasn’t my passion.”
Heading for business
There was a growing trend for engineers to take up business studies, and Kwan heard about LBS from a Hong Kong friend. He applied to the School, only to receive a rejection letter signed by Charles Handy, who was running the Masters Programme. Kwan jumped into his minivan and drove from Cambridge to London to make a plea for a place.
“I ambushed Charles outside his office and asked him why I had been rejected,” says Kwan. “He told me that my application hadn’t shone. ‘We all know what London Business School can do for you,’ he said, ‘but we don’t know what you can do for London Business School.’ That was the lightning rod that changed my thinking and it’s stayed with me ever since.”
On the spot, Kwan offered up his multicultural approach and academic commitment – but Handy also told him to get a better reference from his employer. Kwan duly did so, along with an offer of sponsorship and a tax-free loan. “It showed me that if you fight for what you believe in passionately, things will happen,” adds Kwan.
At LBS, Kwan found a far more international mix than he was used to at work. There were students from the US, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, Argentina and Czechoslovakia. “Looking back, I can see how this international approach helps the students educate each other and creates drive and motivation,” says Kwan. “It was a much higher standard and pace than anything I had experienced and was all very brisk and exciting.”
Our man in Asia
In his last term, Kwan found himself with several job offers – including returning to Pye – but he decided on EMI Medical, which came about after music group EMI had stumbled on the CT (or CAT) scanner. The organisation was assembling a team with a technical background who could market the product. One of their key areas of interest was the Far East, and Kwan was perfectly placed to help.
EMI Medical was taken over by GE and Kwan spent 17 years with the company, ending up as general manager of its joint venture in China producing ultrasound machines. He was then approached by a British industrial conglomerate, BTR, which wanted to expand its operations in China making products such as industrial batteries, tyres, electric motors and glass bottles.
“I met the CEO and he said: ‘You have the technical background but are you international?’” remembers Kwan. “And by that, he meant how many places had I lived in rather than travelled to. I was able to tell him seven different cities in 20 years and he was happy. So he entrusted me as country manager to be the company’s most senior representative in China, reporting directly to him.” But the China focus didn’t survive BTR’s merger with Siebe, which was renamed Invensys, and Kwan was told to wind down the China operations within a year.
In 2001, a headhunter came calling with a role at Alibaba. He had to explain to Kwan that this company was a pioneer of the new economy. “So I remembered Charles Handy and turned his words around saying: ‘What can an old economy guy like me do for a new economy company like Alibaba?’” remembers Kwan. “The headhunter told me that Jack Ma needed old economy people to help him build the company.”
Kwan was hired as Chief Operating Officer, gaining the title of President after a year. But it was a high-risk situation. The company, which had started in 1999, was spending too much, testing the patience of its investors. Kwan’s first task was to fire its employees in the US, Europe, Korea, Hong Kong – in fact everywhere outside Hangzhou, including other mainland China cities – taking the number of employees from 360 to 150.
“We broke even a year later in 2002, and when I met one of the investors, I asked him how much time I would have had,” says Kwan. “He told me to sit down and then held two fingers up. I said: ‘Two months?’ And he said: ‘No, two weeks. If we hadn’t seen you do anything in that time we would have fired you so that we could persuade our second choice to come and take your place.’”
Kwan became Chief People Officer in 2004, instituting management development programmes before stepping down. He sat on Alibaba’s board during its first privatisation and is on the board of its Entrepreneurs Fund. Now aged 69, he has co-founded a consultancy, A&K Consulting, which helps start-up businesses in China, and he is also on the board of British American Tobacco.
Is he surprised at how things have turned out for the Hong Kong teacher’s son who made his way to England at the age of 17? “Luck has a lot to do with it,” he says modestly.
In the 1980s, finance took over from manufacturing as the top career choice for London Business School (LBS) graduates, which was perfect for Tokyo-based government loan officer Yuuichiro Nakajima. He used his time at LBS to help him change job – and location – and has gone on to carve out a unique portfolio career in finance.
When Yuuichiro Nakajima took up his first job at SG Warburg in London in 1987, the UK’s financial scene was buzzing. The year before had seen the ‘Big Bang’ – the major government deregulation drive that opened up the country’s finance industry to greater competition – and deals were taking place on a daily basis as UK and US firms led the way in buying up smaller houses while others merged.
Amid the frenzy, SG Warburg was the premier merchant bank to join. “We were the crème de la crème,” says Nakajima, who had been courted by the firm throughout his MBA at LBS. In his first months at the firm, he had to ride out Black Monday, the global stock-market crash. Tucked away in the corporate finance division, Nakajima learnt how things were done at this former giant of the financial world – including how to write good English.
“The attention to detail and the rigour in making sure the writing was clear, concise and precise was astonishing,” he remembers. “You were corrected down to the positioning of the comma. That was the level to which we were trained. Even the most simple of internal memos was subjected to checking by somebody else.”
In such an environment, Nakajima was glad he had his MBA training to fall back on. He had lived in London for four years as a child, before returning to Tokyo. He studied economics at Keio University and joined Japan’s Overseas Economic Co-operation Fund, a government institution that disbursed foreign aid. Three-and-a-half years into his role as a loans officer, he felt gloomy about a career path that he could already see mapped out 30 years ahead of him. He dreamt of returning to the UK and moving into a new sector.
LBS helped him make both transitions. “Looking back, I don’t think I would have been able to achieve the change of career I wanted without my experience at LBS,” says Nakajima. “It also gave me the confidence to work in the UK, contacts that are still useful, and credibility.”
The world of finance
The MBA also readied him for the commercial rigour needed in the merchant-banking world. “It wasn’t just the technical knowledge but also the work ethic,” says Nakajima. “This is something you were taught at LBS. You were given 150 pages to read and told to write a report overnight and you had to do it.”
After a summer job at Warburg, where he also carried out his second-year project, Nakajima was free to choose which part of the bank to enter. He picked corporate finance/M&A advisory on the basis that very few Japanese people were working in the area. At the time, Japan was a thriving economy but largely isolated from the international corporate community, so there were relatively few M&A deals involving Japanese companies.
To avoid being pigeonholed, Nakajima asked to do mainstream UK corporate finance work and was put on UK and European deals. Then in 1994 he moved to Tokyo with the bank, returning in 1996 just after Warburg was acquired by Swiss Bank Corporation, later becoming a part of UBS. In 1997, he was headhunted by an M&A advisory house called Crosby Corporate Advisory, where he worked on transactions between European and Asian companies, only to see the number of deals wiped out by the 1998 Asian currency crisis. Nakajima moved to PricewaterhouseCoopers and worked in corporate finance for two years in London before moving with the firm to Tokyo.
Back in Tokyo, Nakajima found himself once again longing for change. He disliked working for such a large firm and the silo mentality that went with it, and decided to set up his own firm. He co-founded Crimson Phoenix in 2003, an M&A and strategic advisory boutique with a focus on UK, Europe and Asia-related cross-border transactions and situations.
Fourteen years on, Nakajima is pleased with his choice, not least because being in control of his own time has given him the space to explore other opportunities. Based in London, he is a non-executive director of an investment trust run by JP Morgan and, more surprisingly, has developed a sideline in the world of football finance. He is the Asia representative on the Audit and Compliance Committee of football’s international governing body, FIFA, a member of the finance committee of the Asian Football Confederation and a member of the advisory board of the Japan Football Association. He continues to play football himself and supports the Japan national team along with Arsenal, on the strength of his days living in North London as a young boy in the 1960s and a personal acquaintance with Arsène Wenger.
Most of all, Nakajima is pleased with the range of disciplines he’s managed to explore in his chosen field of finance. “It’s not just straight finance but also part strategy, part commercial, part legal, part accountancy, along with the international aspects which I find fascinating,” he says. “And it is all much more varied and diverse than I could have expected had I stayed with one large firm.”
In the 1990s, the worlds of management consultancy and finance were fighting over the top London Business School MBA graduates. Argentinian Carolina Dams felt the same tension in choosing her career path at the time and says that – like many of her peers – she could have gone either way.
When Carolina Dams started her MBA at London Business School (LBS) 20 years ago, she was torn between the worlds of finance and consultancy. Today, she’s managed to combine them both in her roles as an angel investor in Argentina’s tech entrepreneur ecosystem and as founder of a management consultancy. She’s also dean of undergraduate business at Universidad Austral, and teaches an Entrepreneurial Finance elective at IAE Business School, Argentina’s top business school.
Dams has come a long way from the finance department of an oil and gas company, where she worked for three years before her MBA. Every month she received information, analysed variations and prepared the financial reports. It was a good job – but a routine one – and she longed for a change. She and her Argentinian husband Santiago Petri shared a dream of living abroad, so they started researching the best places in the world to do business studies.
“We’d been to London on our honeymoon and we dreamed of living there,” says Dams. “We knew it was a long shot for us both to be accepted at the same time, but we were. We are still married now so I say that if I can survive being at LBS with him then I can survive anything!”
While on the programme, Dams took two work placements in banking – one in research for HSBC in London, the other in corporate finance for a Brazilian bank in Buenos Aires. But it was an American exchange student visiting LBS from Tuck School of Business who gave her the lead she needed.
Joining the thinkers
“He told me about an Argentinian he knew who had started working at a consulting firm called Hermes in Buenos Aires where the work combined the two fields,” she says. “I sent my CV to them and then flew to Buenos Aires for an interview.”
The job worked out and Dams was able to feel that her two years studying an MBA were well spent. “I had moved to a place where I was one of the thinkers not the doers,” she says. “In consulting, you really generate a lot of ideas and use your brain in your work. When comparing that to what I’d been doing before my MBA, I could really appreciate a difference in terms of the responsibilities I had and what was expected from me.”
Post-MBA, Petri became a fund manager for the US finance company Franklin Templeton Investments, where he still works. But Dams has taken her career in new directions. With one of the partners at Hermes, she opened her own consulting firm called A2C Advisors in 2005, giving her more flexibility for working while looking after the couple’s two young sons. The firm became known for company valuations and business plans. In 2010, the manager of a US$20 million (£15 million) venture capital fund offered to work with them in partnership to invest in new companies.
“This was something new in Argentina after the dotcom bubble and a decade of tough times economically and politically,” says Dams. “Now we are seeing a resurgence of the country’s tech entrepreneurs – we have three of the five or six unicorns from Latin America and a new government that is putting a lot of focus on this sector.”
Analysing the deal flows, negotiating with entrepreneurs and working with the companies they had backed gave Dams an appetite for investment. In 2010, she created a small angel investor fund of her own, which has invested in seven Argentinian start-ups. These include Satellogic, picked by Fast Company magazine as one of Latin America’s most innovative companies of 2017, but which Dams identified as one to back from an early meeting with its founder, Emiliano Kargieman.
“We met him in a hackers’ meeting about cyber security issues and were impressed by his ideas. After some months, when he came back from Singularity University in San Francisco, he pitched us his new business idea: to design a constellation of nano-satellites that can give a picture of anywhere in the world cheaper and quicker than any system today.
“He sent me a six-page PowerPoint and when I read it I thought that I wanted to be part of this crazy dream.”
Today, Satellogic has raised US$50 million (£37.7 million) and has six satellites in space, with plans to launch six more next year. The data they collect could be useful in agriculture, oil production, emergency relief, financial trading and other areas.
Next generation MBAs
In 2012, Dams convinced her business partner – and her husband – that she should take a sabbatical to do a PhD. Her topic: entrepreneurial finance in Latin America. While at the university, she offered to create an elective in Entrepreneurial Finance with the director of her thesis. That put her in front of a classroom of MBAs and executive MBAs.
“I took that course at LBS and loved it, and the entrepreneurial ecosystem is so exciting that it’s hard to give a bad class on this topic,” says Dams. “We have a guest speaker in every class and we work on live cases with entrepreneurs so we are really doing what I did when I was working as a fund manager. I always have a couple of groups who want to create a fund and start investing. It’s really contagious.”
Around the same time, Universidad Austral was looking for someone with start-up skills to become dean of the undergraduate business programme and Dams agreed to try it. Two years on, she says one of her priorities is helping her final year students to decide on their career.
“I never had this support as an undergraduate myself but I experienced it at LBS – they gave me a broad picture of all the possibilities we had as MBA graduates and I started understanding what my possible jobs could be,” she says.
“Now that’s something I do with these 21-year-olds to give them a road map. If you are anything like me you know that map will change a hundred times, but at least then it’s possible to think about a goal.”
Where once London Business School populated British manufacturing with business graduates, it is now sending people into tech companies. Clancy Childs, for one, has found the skills he learnt on his MBA are increasingly in demand.
When American Clancy Childs was interviewed by Google in 2007, at the end of his second year at London Business School (LBS), he was a relatively rare example of an MBA technologist – someone who straddled the worlds of both business and technology. He started with the company as a senior sales engineer, moving on to manager and then product manager for Google Analytics. During that time, Childs saw his MBA skill set becoming increasingly desirable and understood within the tech industry, while also being tremendously useful in his own job.
“Today, I’m meeting more people in technology companies, both established and start-ups, who do have MBAs alongside a technology background,” says Childs. “In the more senior roles that go beyond the simple day-to-day building of products and coding, you need to know about how to bring something to market, how to finance a project and how to properly account for capital expenditure. These are much easier to do if you don’t have to learn them on the job.”
A love for coding
Childs got into computers at a young age. While neither of his parents were technologists – his father is an artist and his mother was managing editor of Vogue – they bought an IBM XT for the family one Christmas and Childs says something just clicked. He started writing code at the age of 12 and went on to study computer science and economics at the University of Michigan.
After college, he returned to his native New York and became a programmer. He joined a small telecoms company that sold internet phone services to businesses, first as a developer and data architect and later as the director of IT. By the age of 26, Childs realised that to be better at product development he could do with the kind of business skills and knowledge provided by an MBA. As such, he applied for LBS (in an effort to leave his New York comfort zone and increase his international network) with no intention of entering either consultancy or finance – and as a result found himself to be in a minority.
“There is definitely more of a ready-made career path for MBAs to enter consultancy and finance,” says Childs. “And it was funny that those of us who wanted to enter industry – which technology is one part of – basically fell into this ‘miscellaneous bucket’, and yet to me this represents a majority of the productive work being done in the world!”
The business of technology
Childs was able to plug into the parts of the MBA programme that seemed particularly relevant to his line of work. He revelled in courses around strategy, financing and entrepreneurship, especially Financing the Entrepreneurial Business and New Venture Development. He says he often uses his knowledge of analytical marketing in his work today, along with topics that did not necessarily appear relevant at the time of learning – such as organisational behaviour.
Childs also enjoyed having the freedom to follow his career interests “without the background noise of having a job”. Being passionate about video games, he set up a panel on the future of the video game industry, bringing in executives from several different companies. The event helped him build a network in the industry, while flagging to the companies involved that LBS was developing a rich talent-pool.
It’s in the same manner that LBS graduates have been building networks within the technology industry and populating technology companies, including Skype and Apple. Childs says an alumna from the School put his name and CV forward for his application to Google, something that Childs has since done for other LBS contacts. Once in place at the company, he was surprised to find several of the School’s alumni already there. They not only gathered for drinks regularly, but also had an internal email group within Google and hosted events, especially when LBS interns were visiting.
The start-up scene
The LBS links have also provided other leads. One of Childs’ LBS classmates, Marcos Steverlynck, also joined Google but left to join another classmate, Scott Phillips, in starting Rise Art, which sells affordable art online. The temptation of getting involved with a start-up eventually lured Childs too – he left Google after six years for a venture targeting the complex market for maintenance and repair supplies in far-flung sites such as offshore oil rigs and remote mine sites after being introduced to it by two other LBS classmates who were involved.
Unfortunately, the venture foundered, and Childs struck out on his own as a product management and data consultant. One of his clients, Dow Jones, convinced him to join them in a permanent position three years ago as chief data officer for the consumer side of the company, which produces The Wall Street Journal and other newspapers and websites. He has since switched to chief product and technology officer for the side of the business that provides news and information to be used by data scientists and analysts and in algorithmic trading through products such as Factiva and Dow Jones Newswires.
The job is the perfect marriage of his technology background and business training. “I still get to work with and develop products and play with really exciting technologies, including artificial intelligence and machine learning,” says Childs, “but a large part of the role for me here is running a sizeable capital programme and determining the strategy for our product roadmaps, and that’s about much more than stringing bits of code together.
“It involves understanding the kinds of things that the MBA exposed me to and I don’t think I’d be able to do this particular job without what I learnt at LBS.”
Having arrived in London from New York with his girlfriend (now wife), Childs expected to stay for only the two-year duration of his MBA programme. Twelve years on and with two children aged two and five, he’s aware that the LBS experience changed not only his career but also the direction of his life.
With the recent launch of London Business School’s Business for Development Institute, it’s clear that MBA students are increasingly interested in doing work that generates social returns. Shoshana Stewart, CEO of the non-profit organisation Turquoise Mountain, is eager to help others enter the field.
In her first five years in Afghanistan managing non-profit organisation Turquoise Mountain, American Shoshana Stewart, a former schoolteacher with a degree in astrophysics, learnt a lot about development and in particular “managing chaos”. So when she started her MBA at LBS in 2011, she was aware that her background was “a bit more messy and varied than others”.
The organisation’s work in the heart of Kabul’s historic old city had started with clearing the six feet of rubbish that had accumulated there during 30 years of war. Then began a patient process of rebuilding homes, laying stone paving and putting in electricity, water supply and sanitation services, while at the same time trying to revive the craft industry.
Now CEO of Turquoise Mountain, Stewart initially worked alongside its founder Rory Stewart. He is now her husband and father to their two young boys, as well as a UK government minister (he stood down from the charity in 2010 when he became an MP). Turquoise Mountain has extended to Myanmar, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and now has contracts with leading luxury hotels and sells local crafts through international retailers.
The organisation started by training Afghans in traditional skills such as woodcarving, calligraphy and jewellery, making the most of Afghanistan’s natural resources of emeralds, rubies and lapis lazuli. But the workers needed access to a doctor and education for their children. So Turquoise Mountain set up a primary school and a health clinic that now serves 24,000 people a year.
They knew their efforts would only be worthwhile if they could sell the crafts abroad. While they had begun to produce at the quality needed for export markets, they were still trying to get the pricing, design and marketing right. What they needed were several long-term sustainable contracts that didn’t lead to the kind of huge spikes in demand followed by troughs that hurt artisan businesses. Stewart decided to go to business school to understand how to crack this challenge.
With her local team running day-to-day operations and Stewart in position as managing director, she eagerly absorbed and put into practice what she was learning at LBS. Management accounting, business planning and project management were particularly useful. “I was flying back and forth to Kabul every four weeks, applying what I was learning,” she says.
“This was a time when our craft workers were beginning to set up as independent businesses, so I was sitting in Kabul writing business plans for the artisans. We were also pitching for a big contract for a hotel in Saudi Arabia which was the kind of market opportunity that I hadn’t known how to take before. Now the artisan could quote for this project as an independent business and I could use the project management software I’d just learnt about to run it.”
That first big hotel contract landed in early 2014, just after Stewart graduated. Now the Afghan business is selling goods worth over US$1 million a year and Turquoise Mountain is currently working with the design teams of luxury hotels in the Middle East including the Four Seasons, Marriott and Radisson.
Just as key for Stewart was acquiring organisational skills. She was used to managing the different personalities involved in the project by instinct but now she was able to evaluate her own management style and make the best of it.
“I remember they said: ‘Don’t pretend to be Steve Jobs, the only Steve Jobs is Steve Jobs. You need to figure out who you are and then there is a margin within that of filling in your strengths and your weaknesses.’ That approach has given me a lot of confidence in running a much larger organisation.”
Meanwhile, Stewart says her LBS classmates were continually interested in what she was doing and many wanted to know how to get into something similar, although a major concern was that they wouldn’t be able to support themselves – or a family – on the amount they would make from it.
Stewart could see there was a lot of goodwill but a surprising lack of clarity on how to enter the sector. After a conversation with alumnus John Vermilye, who participated in LBS’s Accelerated Development Programme in 1995, they set up a two-month social impact internship at Turquoise Mountain – funded by Vermilye – for one MBA each year. They have just seen their fourth intern.
Stewart is excited about the growing interest in both entrepreneurship and doing social good, among MBAs and more broadly in society. She believes the launch of LBS’s Business for Development Institute will put the School at the forefront of the social impact field.
In her last term at LBS, Stewart was already rolling out plans to expand Turquoise Mountain to Myanmar and Saudi Arabia. Since then, she’s opened a country office in Jordan with an emphasis on Syrian refugees and wants to work with 15 small businesses with the aim of generating US$500,000 worth of sales within the first two years.
Four years since completing her MBA, Stewart has a strong vision to make the organisation “a really fit-for-purpose entity that gets artisans to market in a larger way by enabling everything from quality through design and product development to meeting industry standards.” She is now focusing on gaining larger-volume sustainable contracting for her artisan businesses.
As Turquoise Mountain continues to grow, Stewart remains grateful for her time at LBS. Having an MBA from the School has made people take her more seriously, particularly in the world of charity, and it transformed her view of the world and where she fits into it.
“It gave me a sense of the possibilities of what I can do with Turquoise Mountain,” she says. “The scope for expansion but also why we are unique. It made me realise that we are at the crossroads of many sectors: cultural preservation, livelihoods, charity and business; and that I wanted to keep doing it and growing it.”