Nina Brener-Hellmund founded her first business as a 19-year-old Stanford University student. Today, the Founder and CEO of Cult Mia, an online fashion retailer championing a global selection of independent designers, reflects on how the MBA and LBS accelerator programmes played such a big part in her success.
I come from quite an international background: my grandparents moved from Spain, Poland and the Netherlands to Mexico, which is where my parents were born and raised. In the 1990s, Mexico City was a dangerous place to be, with robberies and kidnappings taking place regularly. My parents wanted to live somewhere safer – somewhere where I could play on the street without them worrying – so my family first moved to Los Angeles, California and then to Houston, Texas.
My parents were very successful in their respective fields, which I think subconsciously inspired me to make something of myself. My dad was originally a businessman and later became an investor. He joined the family business with my grandfather and went on to bring successful American businesses over to Mexico – once of which was Blockbusters, which he franchised in Mexico. My mother was one of the first women in Mexico to complete a computer science degree, and went on to set up the computer systems for some of the biggest banks in Latin America.
At 11, I moved to Switzerland to study at Aiglon College, a boarding school near Geneva. My mother went to an all-girls Catholic school in Switzerland when she was my age, so it seemed to be something of a family tradition. It was also important to both of my parents that I was connected to my grandparents’ European roots.
“I wish more people knew that business school is one of the best places to start a business”
My passion for business started at 19 when I joined Stanford University. It was while studying International Political Economy that I started my first business. It was called Food2Campus and was essentially today’s equivalent of UberEats. I knew that students like myself were growing tired of the limited food options and stringent cafeteria opening hours on campus, so my idea was to connect students with local restaurants. I didn’t know much about growing a business at the time, and I realized the skills I needed to build for this or any business to take off. But it sparked something in me – a passion for business and a willingness to try new things.
After graduating from Stanford, I moved between roles in finance and business development before realising that I wanted to start my own venture. I returned to Geneva in 2013 to take a job at Goldman Sachs, working in asset management and covering Latin America. I quickly realised it didn’t excite me, and felt the need to do something where I could give back. After less than a year, I joined the United Nations’ Women and Trade team – supporting female entrepreneurs in underdeveloped countries by growing their micro-enterprises and connecting them to an international market. I deeply enjoyed the role, but realised that you had to pursue a number of different academic degrees to progress in the UN. I then took the opportunity to develop my finance, private equity and investor skillset, and took a job at UBS’ Investment Bank in London. I joined the private market sales team – analysing private equity, debt and real estate, pre-IPO fundraising opportunities. It was a great experience, but finance was never my passion and I couldn’t ignore the desire to start my own business again.
“I almost always have an LBS MBA student working with me, the most recent of whom had six years’ experience at Goldman Sachs in Tokyo”
I hoped an MBA would act as a launchpad for my business idea. Before applying, I was in the process of setting up a company called JobInsider, which was about democratising recruitment and helping people find work they were passionate about. It was in the ideation phase, and my goal was to grow the business during and after the MBA. My plan was to use my classmates as applicants – and the LBS alumni network as employee advisors. I wanted to make employment more accessible to everyone, rather than just the people who have a contact at the company they’re applying to.
The more I learnt about the resources available at LBS, the more I realised that it was the perfect place to bring my business idea to life. There’s a big emphasis on entrepreneurship, which was my primary focus, and different accelerator programmes, like the Incubator Programme, were a huge draw for me. In fact, I even wrote about the Incubator Programme in my MBA application.
LBS is a great place to explore ideas and figure out what you want to do, yet I joined the MBA with a goal and stuck to it. I had a clear career plan and was able to optimise my experience as a result. I knew the areas of development I needed to focus on and viewed every class through the lens of an entrepreneur looking to set up a new business.
During my MBA, I went through the Launchpad Programme – a student-run pre-accelerator programme that was part of the Entrepreneurship Club. It’s an intensive five-month programme for aspiring entrepreneurs with a business idea, and it really pushes you to stress-test and develop your idea. At the end of the programme, you’re given the opportunity to pitch to VC judges, and my business idea – Cult Mia – won the 2019 programme, which told me that my business instinct was something worth following.
It can be hard knowing where to start with a new business, but the LBS Incubator Programme creates structure in a pretty chaotic and unstructured environment, which was hugely beneficial when launching Cult Mia. It works as a great follow-up to the Launchpad Programme, which focuses on helping you develop your business idea. The LBS Incubator Programme selects 11 businesses from a pool of applicants, all at varying points in their journey; it takes you through a series of courses and introduces you to accounting platforms, legal counsels and fundraising opportunities.
“It can be hard knowing where to start with new business, but the LBS Incubator Programme creates structure in a pretty chaotic and unstructured environment”
The idea for Cult Mia came to me during one of my MBA internships at Moda Operandi, the US version of Net-a-Porter. I was working in the ecommerce team and thinking about how to improve the user experience, and optimise their app and website. I’d always been interested in fashion and absolutely loved the internship, but never really thought it was where I’d carve out a career. I noticed that Moda Operandi’s top designers were up-and-coming names, not the big names you might expect – and this got me thinking about affordable fashion from different parts of the world. The market was a mix of established luxury retailers like MatchesFashion and fast-fashion brands like ASOS, but there was nothing in between. This gap inspired me to tap into emerging brands offering quality design at much better prices than the luxury brands and retailers.
Another reason for starting Cult Mia was to help micro-enterprises and female entrepreneurs grow their businesses. In 2019 – our first year – we on-boarded over 70 designers from 25 different countries, which was a huge achievement. Looking to the future, I’d like to develop a consulting arm to do more for these designers than just sell their products; many of them are incredibly talented, but need support on the commercial side of things. I’d also like to eventually expand outside London and into key markets like the US.
My first Cult Mia employee was one of LBS’s MiM2019 students who asked for an internship after hearing my pitch at Launchpad. I almost always have an LBS MBA student working with me, the most recent of whom had six years’ experience at Goldman Sachs in Tokyo and has just finished working on an operations project. Another of my first hires was an MBA2020 PR expert who came in and set up our communications strategy. If it wasn’t for the LBS community, I’d never be able to afford talent with this level of experience, so the School’s network really has been central to the success of my business.
As a founder and CEO, I’m finally learning to be patient with the growth of my business. In finance, you jump on every opportunity to secure the biggest contract, but as Cult Mia grows, I’m aware of needing to be ready to support different stages of its growth. It’s sometimes tempting to bring on a designer who might bring in a huge amount of new web traffic or an influencer who might secure lots of press coverage. But I have to ask myself whether we’d be ready on the operational front to support that growth. There’s a right moment to do things and you need to be ready for these business changing opportunities.
I wish more people knew that business school is one of the best places to start a business. It’s scary and risky, but you get a safe space to test and build your ideas for two years. And if it doesn’t work out, there are so many great job opportunities on offer at the end of the programme.
If you’re considering an MBA at LBS, it’s a good idea to know what you want to achieve from it. Yes, it’s perfectly normal to arrive without a plan of where you want to be or to change direction during the programme itself. But for me, having a clear strategy around the skills I wanted to develop was so useful. It was how I’ve been able to make the most of everything LBS has to offer.