Think - AT LONDON BUSINESS SCHOOL

What we're doing now in order to thrive

Making the most of the present and working towards a better future means changing plans and seizing new opportunities

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Six members of the LBS community share their learnings from last year and offer new perspectives, possibilities and priorities for 2021 and beyond.


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Hussein Kanji MBA2007, Partner, Hoxton Ventures

Looking back at the start of the topsy-turvy year that was 2020, I honestly thought the pandemic might knock the wind out of the sails of the tech economy. We’ve had a decade plus of growth in the tech economy, driven by overlapping waves of disruptive innovations – first social, then mobile, with the migration to cloud in the background all the way through. 

As the pandemic began spreading globally in February and March, I thought, well, that was a good run. We might have to prepare for harder times ahead and return to more modest expectations. Most of the disruptive waves had long since tapered off, so it was inevitable that the party had to wind down.

Boy, have I been surprised. Coming at the end of the week with a bevy of strong IPO performance, from Doordash to Airbnb to Pubmatic (Pubmatic, a 14-year-old slow growth company in the much maligned adtech sector!), it looks like my fears were completely unfounded. 

The pandemic was a squirt of firestarter on an already healthy flame. 

There are so many explanations I could give, but I think it all boils down a few points. Central bankers with no resources at their disposal other than running the printing machine have committed to an era of absurdly low (or negative) rates, a growing pool of excess liquidity has nowhere to safely place that liquidity, the world continues to migrate from offline to online models, while tech companies can demonstrably show that they can scale to ever-new heights.

Even the most cynical members of the stodgy old guard have had to admit that the new economy is real, works (even in a pandemic), and has the ability to print cash like no one’s business. That meant the supply/demand mismatch between capital and good businesses became more pronounced than ever. And whenever that happens, prices go up.

Even my own little pet project – to find and invest in European tech startups – has transformed. Ten years ago, most folks politely closed their doors to the possibility. Even three years ago, in my second fundraise, one elderly scion of a prominent European business family took a good look at me, switched off and proceeded to take a nap for 30 minutes while I explained the virtues of tech investing in a 1:1 meeting.

Now every family office is scrambling to find ways to get exposure to tech, and Macron is finding new ways of making France great again by replicating last year’s business models, because surely Europe must be known for contributing something to the global tech economy other than selling out too early and providing new clunky regulatory regimes to increase business friction. Meanwhile the good and great of the American venture capital community are setting up shop in London to cherrypick the best and brightest of the new generation.

In all of this, we’ve been busy. We’ve actively invested over the course of the year, finding ways to train ourselves to say yes to writing million-dollar-plus checks sight unseen, without so much as a meeting in person, because a no is far more costly when you say no to a future Revolut or UIPath.

A typical year is four investments for us, an unusually busy year means six new investments. In 2020, we did 12. All in new areas – many of which we would have never guessed we’d be investing into because we never thought software would make an impact in some of these industries. We’ve done everything from invest into an AI dermatology company to a safety helmet that beams 3D plans in front of a construction worker, to a teen and pre-teen social gaming company for girls. All run by LBS graduates, I’m proud to say.

We’ve learned to embrace Zoom fatigue. We’ve found that we are in regular communication with our founders, with frequent and informal brainstorms, as our communication channel of choice has migrated to WhatsApp. Conversations on WhatsApp lack the stuffiness that comes when someone thinks you’re checking up on them.

As our portfolio has grown, our board load has as well. We’re finding that time – a totally finite resource – stretches elegantly in a virtual world. We can handle two or three boards in one day – because when you have no travel, you can pack a lot in. As long as you don’t overrun. One thing we’ve learned in this new world, you can’t keep anyone waiting and you have no excuse for being late.

The downside to all of this is finding time to eat, walk, stretch in between meetings and occasionally request a bio break during a meeting. We’ve also all set up home offices complete with studio lighting, low aperture lenses and big monitors because if you’re not going to be able to turn up to a board meeting in person, at least you can look more present and engaging on the screen. 

Our feeling is that 2021 is going to be more of the same. After giving up our lease in the beginning of 2020 and moving everything in storage (we thought this might run long), we did the highly contrarian thing of renting an office midway through 2020. Our fit out has just finished, meaning that, regulations permitting, we’ll probably end up working from a new socially distant office (4000 sq ft for three people) two to three days a week. 

We also expect we’ll continue investing at the same pace as 2020. This means we’re going to have to grow the firm 33-66% next year. We’re also going to have to raise more money because we are spending it darn fast. 

We’re still not promising anyone that we have any idea of what we’re going to invest into. Until that rare mission-driven founder walks in (virtually) and explains to us why the future is just about to be transformed by the big thing they are working on, we are happy to plead ignorance. We’re searching for that glimmer of insight we can get behind by allocating capital to people much smarter than us.

Strangely, as we do more and more of this (and our companies start becoming our calling card), this shockingly weak sales pitch is starting to make more and more sense to people. We're just hoping no one falls asleep on us in 2021. Because on Zoom, there’s no way for us to nudge them awake.


Ioannis Ioannou, Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship


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At the start of 2020, we thought the economy and the wider world were going in roughly the right direction, but the pandemic has shaken that sense of security and safety. Mother Nature has shown us she’s still in charge. Business leaders must start planning for a world in which there’ll be highly elevated levels of uncertainty. We should think about how the institutions we work for or represent can strengthen their systems authentically in 2021. This is one of the subjects we explore at LBS on the Sustainability Leadership and Corporate Responsibility programme.

The pandemic has put new emphasis on data-driven, evidence-based decision-making. Experts are back in the game and are to be trusted. If we’re to beat this, we need to put our belief in science and experts. Epidemiologists are on the news every evening, giving us information about the virus, rates of infection and vaccines. We must not allow demagogues, fake news and conspiracy theories to take over. Business leaders can lay firm foundations for the future by responding to data and incorporating it into policy.

It shouldn’t be the role of business to undermine government. Governments can implement effective solutions pretty quickly – only they could tell us to stay at home, as it will save lives (and, of course, we also need a functioning, well-funded healthcare system). There’s tax avoidance and trying to make the state as small as possible, but when a crisis hits, everyone expects a bailout. Business leaders from now on shouldn’t fight against the powers that be.

Government stimulus packages will have profound impacts for the next decade and business leaders should consider how they will set the foundations for economic growth over the next ten years. A lot of that money will be channelled with green credentials in mind. What does that mean for business? We’re going to see broader institutional commitment towards a more sustainable, inclusive, equitable future. That should provide business leaders with the external legitimacy they need to transition their companies towards more sustainable, purposeful and impactful ways of operating.

The pandemic has pushed us collectively to rethink the social contract – about who’s important. It’s shown us the value of people in all sectors of society, from doctors and nurses, to delivery drivers and those who work at the grocery store. We must consider how essential they all are to our daily lives and survival. The world will be watching how business leaders go forward, in terms of how they contribute to society at large – especially as it pertains to employees and their health, safety and wellbeing and how you treat those who work for you in time of crisis, as well as how you treat local communities and supply chains.

It’s clear now we must focus on long-termism. As we exit this pandemic, business leaders need to understand ESG (environmental, social and governmental issues) that are on the horizon, whether that’s pandemics, health crises, climate change or loss of biodiversity. Business leaders should not take for granted that the institutions and systems are bullet-proof. Many people say coronavirus is a sneak preview of what we’re going to see in the future: so start thinking about the long term now. 


John Dore, Programme Director, Senior Executive Programme


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In March last year the neat throwaway term “disruption” suddenly became something that felt deeply personal and unsettling.

I had spent much of the past two decades running interactive, high-touch leadership events, which encourage close collaboration with strangers from every corner of the world. If the government needed a poster boy for corona super-spreading then, short of running a sweaty nightclub, or an all-comers’ wrestling venue, it seemed I was their man. In a world of mask-wearing, social distancing and travel quarantines, return to the halcyon days of running Executive Education programmes at first seemed not only to be impossible, but, depending on the various regulations, probably illegal.

Having survived the initial seismic shock, like many others, I have invested in the green screen, key lights and HD webcam and moved into a radically different mode of working, learning delivery and facilitation. Back on campus this autumn, our transition to “hybrid” classrooms (simultaneously mixing in-person and online cohorts) looks likely to be the default learning environment for some time to come. Our migration of some existing programmes has been relatively smooth and we have also launched some innovative short “live online” offerings as well. The feedback has been encouragingly strong, and we have learnt much.

Looking further ahead, the challenge is to do more than survive, but to thrive. Without an immediate return to the business travel, hospitality and social distancing norms of 2019, we will need to continue to closely focus on serving participants wherever they are.  Increasingly, we need to recognise that half the world has lived through much of another day by midday GMT, so we may need to radically rethink our schedules, timetables and programme formats. 

As more participants attend major business schools without flying and residing, how can we enable them to have that sense of attending, not just observing? Getting participants into a deeper space of observational feedback, or emotional engagement is more difficult online.  Now we are beyond the technological hurdles of hybrid teaching, the focus in the future will have to be on making the experience deeper and more impactful.

As the world shifts back onto a steadier familiar axis in 2021, then the temptation is to hope for a rapid return to face to face programmes as the default format. Some predict that like the cinema and high-street retail, things have shifted so profoundly in the past year, that real growth, if it is ever found again, is still more likely to come from virtual learning.  But then again, perhaps the post-disruption outcome might not just be different from today but improved.

We recently had four very different CEOs from four market sectors speak on our SEP programme at LBS.  It was a thrill to hear a sense of the future articulated as not just as different, but better. The theatre impresario is still investing in modern hi-tech venues; the sports administrator is still prepping stadia for the safe return of crowds, the medical sector entrepreneur is looking to better serve the developing world, and the global food producer is focused on sustainable purpose, as well as profit. 

Even on my own doorstep, a local business is launching a smart-looking co-working space. Thinking of WeWork, it seemed to me wrongheaded. But maybe the counterintuitive route is right? Most of us have spent too long this year staring at the same four walls and we need other voices and distractions than our partners, children and pets. We may well long to return to working collaboratively elsewhere, but without having to commute amidst the crush. 

Aleksandra Makarova GMiM2021, Global Masters in Management student

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I’m from Moscow, Russia. I’ve lived in London for six years, so virtual reality isn’t new for me. Having gone to an international boarding school, and having experience keeping in touch with friends and family in different time zones, has helped me, in terms of planning, being able to adapt and being comfortable with the technology.

Saying that, I’d never experienced a fully virtual interview before the pandemic struck. Before Covid, there were phone calls and video calls for first rounds, but there’d always be a face-to-face element. When you meet someone in person during an interview, there’s a certain energy – you talk to a person, you connect. It’s not just visual clues. When that part is missing, it’s much more difficult to convince someone to hire you.

This is where LBS really helped. They led workshops in helping us identify our stories, for example. They taught us to practise these answers and come across as naturally as possible. Now I don’t overprepare, in order to come across authentically. It’s about being genuine.  

This term at LBS, we learnt in a “hybrid classroom” – some people were in the room, some on Zoom. When we met our classmates, we had to introduce ourselves and convey our persona not just to our professors, but to our peers. You figure out how different people are coming across by what they do – so I learnt very quickly from that. When you meet someone in person, it’s more difficult to sound rehearsed, but online, via a webcam, you can almost see people reading from the screen. You don’t want to convey that impression.

I won a scholarship to LBS. I’m studying for a GMiM to enter the world of finance. Before, I was at UCL, where I studied History, Politics and Economics. My final year got disrupted by Covid. All of our seminars got cancelled and there was a question about whether our exams would go online. I had to make a snap decision about whether or not to go home to Moscow. I did go, which ended up being a good decision as all our exams turned out to be online. I didn’t take many clothes with me as I thought I’d be back in a few weeks. I ended up stuck in Moscow with one pair of jeans – and then the world stopped for months.

Have my goals changed? I want a career that’s exciting and challenging, but the pandemic has taught me I also want stability. Coming from Russia, always being on a visa and having to renew it, I look for companies that promise stability and treat their employees well. I look carefully at the history of a company, at how they treated their staff during the pandemic, whether a bank laid people off in the past, even before Covid. It’s not feasible for me to apply to those kinds of companies, even if they offer seemingly fantastic opportunities. 

This year has shown me that your life is made better by the people who are in it. It’s not just your network or your family, but the people you interact with day to day, and the quality of those interactions matter so much. I’d go to parties before Covid, and I’d be a bit bored. I’d be revising GMAT formulas in my head while talking to one person, or thinking about texting someone or liking pictures on Instagram, rather than giving someone my full attention. In the future, I intend to be more present, and not shift to multitasking in my head.

This year I’m hoping the pandemic will ease and people will be able to start resuming something more like normal life, even if it never goes back to exactly how it was. I hope people will remember what they’ve learned, especially when it comes to hygiene.

When it comes to work, in any career, at any age, people appreciate flexibility. Even before the pandemic, the world had become so digitalised that there is no reason for us all to get up at 6am and be on the Central line in a packed Tube carriage, hating our existence. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we should abandon preset notions and have a more flexible approach to work. 

Nasi Rwigema MBA2020, founder, Umwuga

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In the run-up to 2020, I had every reason to believe it would be my greatest year yet. I was set to graduate from my MBA in July of 2020, I had a newborn child and enjoyed having a flexible student schedule, and I was building confidence in the viability of a start-up business idea.

My plan for 2020 was therefore to: 1) squeeze out every last drop of student life and explore new corners of Europe; 2) settle into first-time fatherhood before re-entering the ‘real world’; and 3) make a go/no-go decision on my start-up and drive hard down whichever avenue made the most sense.

My actuality for 2020 was rather that student life would be narrowed down to the in-class experience albeit not actually in class. Travel became an Instagram daydream. The opportunity to spend time with family came true except not exactly as we had imagined it. If anything, the pandemic accelerated my re-entry to the ‘real world’ and, with fewer social distractions, I was able to focus more on my business and career and make larger strides to bring my start-up to market.

As a graduating MBA, I was set to enter a terrible jobs market. My startup, Umwuga, was a business to help people find jobs: our target customers were semi- and middle-skilled workers. Pre-pandemic, I had concluded that our market opportunity was strong and, more importantly, the problem of cleaners, barbers, farmworkers and others finding work was real.

The pandemic only served to make this problem more severe, but it also made it trickier to solve. With businesses under economic pressure, many jobs were destroyed. This meant that we had more people to serve but far less ability to say “we can help you find another job”.

This pushed us to shift our offering to one which helps you transition into the next job you want or need to pursue. I believe this strengthened our opportunity since it plays more into the management and development of long-term career paths rather than simply solving today’s challenge. It does, however, look less attractive to someone who has recently lost their livelihood and has a terrifying cashflow picture leading up to month-end.

Looking forward, I would like to believe that I am somehow in a good place. I used the lockdown to put my head down and work on building something exciting. The truth, I’m sure, is that the promising future I have been dreaming of will be that much more difficult to get my hands on. Markets and peoples’ spending power will remain constrained for some time to come. Lack of competition was never an issue in my space, but more and more entrepreneurs have naturally been leaping at new angles to address joblessness.

I think our adjustment for 2021 will need to include a shift from selling a customer benefit to recruiting customers to join our mission. We are all feeling battered, beaten, exhausted, and poor. We used to have the world on a string but now we just have it at our fingertips. Even so, we’re less certain of what to hold on to and what to let go of. We are finding it difficult to trust in projected versions of the future and so we’re sceptical of anyone who promises to take us there. For success in 2021, I think it will be important that we meet our customers at the point of their insecurities and fears and offer them a helping hand rather than a panacea.

Overall, I hope the world in 2021 is a better place than I am preparing for it to be.

Stephanie Webster EMBALJ2021, Executive MBA student and nutritional therapist

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When you’re doing something as intense as an MBA, but you’re doing it under a pandemic, there’s a crisis element. You learn more about who you’re surrounded by when you see them under pressure. Some people get angry, some get sad, some people fearful. Maintaining a sense of calm was an important lesson in leadership for everybody last year. 

It’s been so incredible to be part of the MBA programme and witness the shift from face-to-face classes to virtual. LBS figured out how to do that and maintain its standards. I’ve been heartened seeing professors adapt to the demands of new technologies. Zoom has broken down the barriers between professor and student – we’re all in this together, all struggling with technology and all trying to make it work. 

What has struck me about the pandemic is how compassionate everyone has been – we’ve all had a masterclass in empathy and making allowances. There’s much more consideration about why someone might be struggling. What additional pressure must they be under? What have they walked into the meeting with? How is the home-schooling going? How is the financial pressure?

Some people lost their tempers over seemingly nothing, but they’re carrying so much. When we didn’t have Covid to poke at, you never knew what happened before someone entered a meeting. Covid has allowed us to give people some slack.

Of course, the virus poses a significant danger to our health, but I’m worried about the smaller impact on our bodies. I’m worried about Zoomitis and our eyesight and we’re sitting down an awful lot, so we’re not getting enough steps in. The stagnation is extraordinary. It’s so important to keep the blood moving around the body. Lockdown makes it difficult to keep up with our healthy routines. Finally, sleep is so important. Looking at your phone is so bad before bed. It has such a knock-on effect on hormones, appetite, energy levels and your ability to concentrate. If you’re trying to get a lot of work done, and want to be performing at your best, you cannot afford to sleep badly. 

Working from home has been a minefield. Everything during a pandemic takes more time than expected. Anything that’s too technical and too fancy doesn’t go down well. Things need to be simple. Projects that require a lot of meetings are best avoided. It’s important to condense issues down to a few that really matter and don’t need too much maintenance or meetings. Ask yourself, what am I trying to achieve? Are there any elements in this project that have moving parts that we can remove? For 2021, I have learnt to remove any steps that have a high probability of failure. 

I’ve loved helping to develop the Facul-tea series of lectures since I joined LBS. We interview professors and bring in alumni and industry experts to talk about controversial topics online. We might talk about psychedelic mushrooms in healthcare, or how to make your first million. Around 300 people tune in to each event. It’s a real community. I don’t think it would be as strong if it wasn’t for Covid. The pandemic seems to have brought us all together, even if it’s from afar.