“At the London Alumni Breakfast Series I ask people to be a bit more vulnerable than they normally would. I’m fascinated by what they have to say.”
“Networking can feel phoney,” says London Business School (LBS) MBA graduate Sarah Bishop. “People arm themselves before they go in, they put on certain filters and that really defeats the purpose.”
Wanting to provide a more authentic experience for LBS alumni, Sarah hit on the idea of an informal breakfast series, along the same lines as the popular student breakfast club. It would have a careers focus and see senior alumni openly and honestly discussing their experiences since leaving LBS with a small group of more recent leavers.
Sarah worked on a volunteer basis with Alumni Relations to set up the monthly series, which launched in September 2015. Among the alumni who came to speak were a Disney executive, several people from finance and a senior manager at Google. As well as supporting with logistics, Sarah moderated many of the breakfasts. “It has been incredibly successful, fulfilling our objective of engaging new alumni,” says Amina Abassi, Alumni Relations Coordinator at LBS.
Honesty was always a priority, says Sarah. “At the start of the meeting, I’d always say, ‘This is private, it’s all behind closed doors and we’re among friends’. I ask people to be a bit more vulnerable than they normally would. I’m fascinated by what the alums have to say – and I get to ask all the questions that I’d like answers to.”
Sarah appreciated how truthful the conversations were. “They were genuinely revealing – here were these great authorities that we’d look up to talking as humans who had struggled through whatever they were doing till they became successful. That appealed to me very much because my role before the MBA was in curating experiences for people to connect and become vulnerable.”
Sarah’s interest in genuine connection is longstanding; before the MBA, she worked at StartingBloc, which runs workshops to connect innovators, and wrote a book The Connection Agency. “My role was fellowship director – what that really meant was turning strangers into best friends.” Now she is continuing in the same field as community manager at Prodigy Finance, which funds the student loan scheme for LBS and several other schools.
As someone who values candour, Sarah is upfront about her own mistakes. Post-MBA, in 2014 she launched an indoor gardening company called Gardenin. Looking back, she says she should have paid closer attention to advice about cashflow. “I hadn’t listened properly. I knew that a product business that does manufacturing is going to be the most painful in terms of working capital, but I blocked that from my mind.” She learnt the hard way and ended up closing the business. “One day I’ll start something else.”
She had chosen LBS for its internationalism and the chance to be in London. “Going to another school in the US wasn’t diverse enough for me and it wasn’t going to open up the same kind of opportunities.” She also valued having two years to reflect and grow both personally and professionally, and the flexibility of the programme, which enabled her to focus on entrepreneurship from the start. In the summer between the first and second year she chose to join the Entrepreneurship Summer School.
As class chair, Sarah also regularly chats to her MBA classmates, keeping them involved with School events. The legendary LBS network is grounded in a well-planned student experience, she says. “Even when you’re meeting someone for the first time, you know you have a common knowledge, a shared understanding. You can build a connection between the people as a result. The whole LBS experience is designed to do that really well.”