Think at London Business School
Monday 1 March 2021
Being your authentic self with colleagues can help you create success for yourself and your business – if there’s a good organisational fit
By Alison Benson
When faced with personal hardship, Ritu Soni Sloan2012 turned challenge into opportunity and decided to reinvent herself. Today, she shares how her decision took her from Mumbai to London and helped her pivot into the financial services industry as VP Product at Paysafe Group.
“When I used to think about my career path, I always thought of it like an upwards slope or an uphill climb. But while there’s nothing wrong with that approach, I know now that it’s not the only way to reach your end destination.
“I’d been working in Mumbai’s ecommerce industry for five years when I had my first daughter in 2004. I didn’t want to be a 9-5 mum and wanted more control over my time, so decided to set up on my own business, Purplewrap, an exclusive customer and employee gifting marketplace. We focused on increasing employee retention and engagement through automated and niche gifting, which proved very successful and led to us counting organisations like Viacom Media as our clients.
“Joining the Sloan programme meant moving to a new country, uprooting my daughters’ lives and spending all of my savings to make the transition. The minute I landed in London and met my cohort, there was no question that it was the best decision I’d ever made”
“But in 2008 when the recession hit, employee engagement went out the window. We quickly shifted our focus to niche customer gifting, bringing on board the likes of Standard Chartered Private Bank India. This proved to be a successful high-value, low-volume direction for the business. But despite this, I found myself constantly hitting a glass ceiling with growth. When speaking to VCs about potential investments, I was given positive feedback but then told that the business just wasn’t scalable without substantial capital investment.
“In 2009, a second daughter in tow, I went through a very difficult divorce. Heartbreak aside, I realised it was a great opportunity to reinvent myself. I wanted to develop a more modern way of thinking, learn the strategic growth tools they were teaching the best business minds in the world and understand how I could overcome the obstacles with scale I’d faced in my entrepreneurial career. I also wanted to pivot into the fintech space, which was a booming vertical with the power to transform lives through financial inclusion and empowerment.
“Even if you don’t strike gold in a new industry, you can always bounce back or start from zero elsewhere. That’s what the Sloan helps you realise – you can start and stop whenever you want. No-one’s counting”
“I was researching leadership programmes when I came across the Sloan at London Business School, which was ideal for my experience level and was aligned with my senior leadership aspirations. It seemed like the perfect fit, but it meant moving to a new country, uprooting my daughters’ lives and spending all of my savings to make the transition. I reached out to five LBS alumni, three of whom were complete strangers, and to my amazement, they all found the time to speak to me. We had very candid conversations about my aspirations and whether the programme would help me fulfil them. Given the visa sponsorship requirements, I knew the Sloan was not a guarantee for starting a career in a new country, yet I knew it would help me get the tools I needed to become a business leader capable of working anywhere in the world.
“The minute I landed in London and met my cohort, there was no question that it was the best decision I’d ever made. I was so humbled by the calibre of my classmates, who I now count as some of my closest friends. Learning about their different experiences, countries and cultures was truly eye-opening – before LBS, I could count my international contacts on the palm of one hand. Now my network is so diverse, both in terms of industries and nationalities, that no matter where I want to go professionally, I’ll know someone who could advise, support and help me get there.
“The network I built at LBS played a huge part in my career pivot. One of my Sloan classmates had joined Wonga – a short-term consumer lending unicorn – and referred me internally. At the same time, a member of the School’s Career Centre mentioned me to Wonga’s HR team. This combination helped me secure an interview immediately, which eight rounds later led to me landing the role of Senior Product Manager, which was my first foray into London’s fintech industry.
“To successfully pivot, it’s important to have transferrable skills. For me, being an entrepreneur required me to get things done and lead by example. When it’s your own business, you have no choice but to be resourceful and find innovative approaches to overcome problems within limited timeframes. This is exactly what was required of me when I first entered the financial services industry as a Senior Product Manager, and it’s still the case in my role today as VP Product for Paysafe Group.
“When I used to think about my career path, I always thought of it like an upwards slope or an uphill climb. I know now that it’s not the only way to reach your end destination”
“It’s also important to immerse yourself in the industry you want to move into. In my experience, the best way to do this is by getting in touch with your contacts and using the School’s alumni network. It mitigates the fear of the unknown when entering a new industry. From coffee chats and phone calls to networking drinks and just emails – I knocked on multiple doors – the alumni community are such a friendly group of people. Even if you don’t strike gold in a new industry, you can always bounce back or start from zero elsewhere. That’s what the Sloan helps you realise – you can start and stop whenever you want. No-one’s counting.
“One of the scariest parts of starting over in a new country was thinking about how it would impact my daughters. I was ready to leave India and rebuild my life, but I had more to think about than myself. Thankfully, I’d forgotten quite how resilient kids are: they make friends wherever they go and have loved living in London, where they’ve been immersed in lots of different cultures. I’d like to think that my decision to join the Sloan has not only changed my life and enriched my outlook, but has done the same for my daughters too.
Ameesh Manek EMBA2013 explains how his ability to build long-lasting relationships scored him the role of a lifetime at Arsenal FC after 11 years at Barclays.
“I knew I wanted to do something extraordinary with my career before I’d even gone to university. I was born and raised in Tanzania, but after the sudden death of my father, my mother moved my brother and I to the UK for more stability. We lived in a poor part of Brent and I joined a tough school in North West London, where I was bullied for being the immigrant kid and an easy target from a single-parent family. It wasn’t a happy time, and when I left, I felt angry at the world. I wanted to do something big – to prove myself after years of being put down.
“I decided to study Business Administration and Management at Aston University in Birmingham, and secured a job as a Category Manager at hospitality company Mitchells & Butlers in London. I stayed there for three years until the financial services industry – which was booming in the early 2000s – caught my attention. It seemed like the perfect place for high-performers who wanted to test themselves, and after working with various recruiters, I landed a role at Barclays.
“There were times when I doubted my decision. But ultimately, my drive to prove myself and do something new outweighed that”
“I spent 11 years at Barclays, rapidly progressing from Junior Manager aged 28 to Director of Global Deals at 33. I worked on high-level transactions, projects and deals in South Africa, India and the Middle East, which gave me the opportunity to travel the world, earn good money and have a great lifestyle.
“Despite this, I felt unsatisfied. I was successful, but I hadn’t done anything extraordinary like I’d intended to. I began thinking about what my passions were and I kept landing on sport. Growing up in North London and going to watch Arsenal at the weekend, sports (and football in particular) were something I’d always had a huge passion for. At the time, the sports industry was becoming more commercial and a business in its own right, which made me start to think about finding a way into it professionally.
“In 2006, my brother was recovering from a serious operation and I’d taken some time off to help him. It gave me time to sit back, reflect and think about what I really wanted. I work better with a strategy, so I created a life plan made up of three-year blocks, mapping out where I wanted to be and what I wanted to achieve right up until the age of 90. It included career aspirations, how much I wanted to earn, the skills I was looking to develop and the education I’d need to do it all, along with goals for my personal life.
“The EMBA was definitely part of the plan. I enrolled specifically with the intention of making a career pivot – which it certainly helped with. I left Barclays half way through the programme as my role and department were being relocated to Singapore. They made me a very attractive offer to move out there, and it felt uncomfortable to turn it down, but it would have been a step back from my plan. I’d only been on the EMBA programme for a year but it had already given me the confidence to take risks. I decided to reject the Barclays offer and forge a new path.
“In 2013, one year after leaving Barclays, I invested in a business started by my cousin – converting tube station kiosks into coffee shops. My role was as an investor and advisor, and I supported the business here while focusing on my next career step.
“Barclays gave me the opportunity to travel the world, earn good money and have a great lifestyle. Despite this, I felt unsatisfied”
“It was a particularly intense time as pivoting into the sports world wasn’t as simple as just applying for a role: I needed to get to know the right people first. In 2009, I’d joined the Arsenal fan forum – a group of supporters who meet once a quarter with the club’s senior management. Rather than complaining about player signings or seating issues, I spoke to them about things they wanted fans to address – like how to bring the Arsenal brand to the Emirates Stadium following their move from Highbury and creating a more welcoming environment for fans from ethnic minorities – but in a professional and empathetic way.
“After attending a number of meetings, I asked their COO Trevor Saving and CCO Tom Fox for 15 minutes of their time. They knew my background and knew that I was looking to transfer into sports. CCO Tom Fox in particular was very open with me, giving me information on how the industry worked and advice on how to move forward. I maintained that relationship, and in 2012, landed a separate role with England Basketball as an independent board director.
“There are virtually no people of Asian heritage in senior sporting roles; I’m proud to have been one of the first – and hopefully not the last”
“Suddenly I was speaking at parliament, conferences, and fronting interactions with government bodies to try and increase and improve basketball participation and infrastructure across England, which gave me a profile in the sports industry. In the end, it came full circle when I pitched the prospect of investing in community and professional basketball to Arsenal and other Premier League clubs alongside the NBA and private equity firms. As I came towards the end of my term there, Arsenal was going through a transformation period on its sporting side; an opportunity came up and they offered me the role of Head of Academy Football Operations – seven years after joining the fan forum. It goes to show the importance of building relationships – so vital for anyone considering a career pivot.
“Naturally there were times when I doubted my decision. But ultimately, my drive to prove myself and do something new outweighed that. Added to that, there are virtually no people of Asian heritage in senior sporting roles; I’m proud to have been one of the first – and hopefully not the last.
“Today, the pandemic has forced me to make yet another pivot, spending more time on my cousin’s business, which we are taking in a new direction. With very few commuters in London, we’re instead focusing on people working from home, and are due to launch Stanmore Place Food Market – an artisan grocer and food delivery service in an 800-person residential community in North London – in March. It just goes to show that if you pivot once, taking your career in a new direction again is never off the table.”
Sometimes making a change isn’t a choice; it’s a necessity. Marc Jacobs Sloan2014, CEO of Molecular Plasma Group, explains how his organisation changed direction in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Adapting to change has always been part of who I am. I was raised on a farm in North Belgium, where my childhood was spent helping my parents tend to animals and fix machinery. Farming is dependent on so many external factors – you’re at the mercy of nature. So from a young age I learnt the importance of flexibility and developed a willingness to just get things done, no matter the situation.
“This ethos has filtered through to my professional life – and at the start of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced me to make the biggest pivot of my career so far. In 2016, I co-founded Molecular Plasma Group – the manufacturer of a new cold atmospheric gas plasma coating technology. I was active as an angel investor and mentor in Luxembourg’s startup ecosystem when I came across the business; it had just come out of the research phase and despite there being no clear path to commercial use, I could see its potential.
“Did I question my decision to take the business in such a radical new direction? Of course”
“I’d graduated from London Business School’s Sloan programme in 2014, and was 50 at the time. After working in a number of senior managerial roles and as an MD, the programme gave me the foundations to step up, look at my career in a more reflective way and think ‘What do I want to do with my next 50 years?’ I left with three new guiding principles: to always be my own boss, to ensure anything I did had a positive, scalable impact, and to not do something if I didn’t think I’d enjoy it. I measured Molecular Plasma Group against these three criteria, and despite being in its infancy, it seemed a perfect fit, so I invested in the business and became its CEO.
“For years, many businesses have wanted to get rid of the aggressive chemicals used in surface preparation prior to adhesive bonding for high-end applications in aviation, aerospace and automotive. Molecular Plasma Group’s solvent-free, low energy technology soon became the environmentally friendly go-to for companies like Heineken, ArianeGroup and Samsonite, until 2020, when the pandemic hit and the industries we supplied shut down overnight.
“You can assess things to a certain point – but after that, you just need to make the jump”
“The situation forced me to step back and consider how we could adapt and respond to something that was completely out of our control. I decided to attack the problem and began to think about how we could apply our technology in the fight against COVID-19.
“In March 2020, we started working with the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology to find a solution that could be applied to facemasks to make them safer. Knowing that people regularly touch their facemasks, we created a ‘self-disinfecting’ virucidal coating that eliminates 99.9% of the viral load on the fabric of the mask within minutes. After finding the right product, we began working to scale operations from the lab to an industrial level, achieving in 10 months what would have normally taken several years, with our first commercial orders ready to go early 2021.
“While we were using the same technology we’d always used, doing so with different applications in a completely new market was a shot in the dark. Going from general industry to the medical world during a pandemic and at such a high speed was a huge pivot, but one I’m proud to say we accomplished.
“To pull this off, the LBS network was key, particularly in the ideation phase. We were entering a completely new sector so I used my contacts as a sounding board, speaking to hospital managers to see if the idea was something that resonated. Even more essential was the team I was working with. In less than a year, Molecular Plasma Group went from nine to 17 people, and I made a conscious decision to hire high-performers who could work independently and take the lead, but also come together as a team. We all share the same vision and build on each other’s strengths, which is something you really need in order to achieve a successful pivot. We’re diverse too; our team is made up of Flemish Belgians, French Belgians, French, a Brazilian, a Romanian, a Pole, a Portuguese and a Syrian. This brings a diversity of thought which helps ensure we don’t go down any rabbit holes; when everyone thinks the same way, it can be risky.
“Going from general industry to the medical world during a pandemic and at such a high speed was a huge pivot, but one I’m proud to say we accomplished”
“Did I question my decision to take the business in such a radical new direction? Of course. I’m always revaluating where we are and what needs to be readjusted. But just because a decision was made yesterday doesn’t mean it’ll be right today or tomorrow. In this scenario, there was no real way of knowing whether it would work. You can assess things to a certain point – but after that, you just need to make the jump.”
1. Build connections in your sector of interest
Reach out to people who have experience in your chosen field and make them aware of your intention to pivot. Whether leveraging your existing network or creating new contacts, having others to vouch for you is key when breaking into a new industry.
2. Recognise what’ll be required
Think about the industry you’re aiming to enter into and identity your transferable skills. Reflect on the areas that need further development and the education and training that might be required to bring you up to speed.
3. Immerse yourself in your chosen field
Build a solid understanding of your desired sector by following the latest news and developments. Get an insider’s view by speaking to people who work in the industry – they’ll offer invaluable insights and provide the extra context you’re looking for.
4. Become a more self-aware leader
Step back and think about what’s important to you and what you want from your career. Create a set of clear actionable values, and assess whether your future career plan sits in line with them.
5. Embrace uncertainty
Don’t assume that if you’re making the right decision, you shouldn’t feel doubt. Second-guessing yourself is only natural when making big changes in your career and everyone will deal with it differently.