Think at London Business School
Nguissaly Gueye, LBS’ first Senegalese Masters in Financial Analysis student, on the importance of Black role models in finance
By Sophie Haydock
I was born in Kerala, India and moved to Qatar aged two before my family relocated to Dubai. My dad was a merchant who worked for luxury retailers and travelled the world; I used to travel with him, which helped me develop a perspective of my own. My mum was a grammar school teacher – she was tough, direct and sometimes stern. It was interesting being raised by parents who had different styles of leading and impacting people.
My parents sent me to Canada for high school when I was 12 and joined me, as immigrants, when I was 15. They’d saved up to buy a nice middle-class home but had to furnish it, which meant they had to start earning quickly. My dad’s first job was collecting boxes outside a retail store at night, while my mum worked in a local retail store. There’s nothing wrong with these roles – seeing my folks work their way up the value chain of life as immigrants to provide for my sister and I was powerful, and shaped my upbringing and values.
My parents didn’t force their values on me or push me to take certain subjects at school. They only wanted me to follow my curiosity. ‘What do you want to pursue? What’s going to keep you relevant?’ That’s what my dad kept asking when I was 18. I followed my gut by studying science in college with a plan of going to medical school. During my undergraduate studies, I gained healthcare experience as a Clinical Research Coordinator for the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. This was when I realised medicine was too slow-paced for my liking; my personality was better suited to being around people, process and technology. I liked the tech side of healthcare because it’s all about accelerating outcomes and patient impact.
“Jessica Spungin taught us to be valuable, resourceful and inimitable, and to architect space for ourselves whatever field we’re in”
In 2005, I gave up a well-paid job in Vancouver, managing clinical trials at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia, to move to Bangalore. When I got there, I saw that there was an appetite for businesses catering to the US and Europe, and stumbled across a startup focused on life-sciences analytics, product management and cloud enablement for pharmaceutical companies. I dropped everything and told my parents I wasn’t coming back to Canada; my mother thought I was crazy. But I wanted to push myself to grow. As Engagement Manager for this startup, I helped drive the build of a global business model leading clients and teams in the US, Europe and Asia Pacific. This is also where I met one of my mentors, who challenged my thinking and inspired me to eventually pursue an MBA.
I met my wife in India; she was teaching climate change and ecology at the Vasant Valley School in New Delhi. I’m lucky, because I married a woman with strong moral values, who’s incredibly capable and has her own point of view. Who you marry is one of the biggest, most influential decisions you can make in life.
At 29, I decided to do my MBA at IE Business School in Madrid and was then offered an excellent job with a consulting firm in Asia as Lifesciences Practice Lead. But before starting the role, my wife had a miscarriage. Sometimes we don’t want to talk about these taboo subjects, but it was a turning point – I reprioritised and chose my family over my career. I asked HR to extend the offer and when they couldn’t, I turned down the job. A 70-80-hour working week at the expense of your partner isn’t a marriage, in my view.
To focus on starting a family, my wife and I returned home to Vancouver – which was crazy, as Vancouver isn’t as big professionally as New York or London. It’s a lifestyle city – where you buy expensive homes and retire in front of the Pacific Ocean, so I found myself having to start from the bottom up. I got a job at Walmart, at first in their garden centre, then driving milk trucks, and finally as a cashier. These roles taught me humility and how to connect with people; I was able to see that you don’t need a title to have an influence. This wasn’t exactly what I’d planned career-wise post-MBA, but I needed to make money and support my wife.
“My time at Walmart taught me humility and how to connect with people; I was able to see how that you don’t need a title to have an influence”
Looking back, I knew that no matter where I started, I’d do okay because of my work ethic. After seeing me perform well in different roles, my Walmart bosses started to ask for my CV because they wanted to sponsor me for leadership roles – thanks to my experience of building business models in the US, India and Asia. I took on the role of Operations Lead and drove e-commerce readiness for the business.
Along the way, I’d taken online courses in advanced project management at Stanford University and noticed a business manager job at Apple in Vancouver. I didn’t even know what a business manager did. But a recruiter reached out and we spoke about what I was doing at Walmart, and how they wanted to do something similar at Apple but with a core focus on B2B. After a series of interviews, I was hired as Business Product Manager. It was my first gateway into big tech and one of the most significant moments in my life and career.
Working at Apple was transformational in almost every sense. Apple taught me to think critically, to not settle for mediocrity, to debate and take things apart, to pay attention to detail, to be authentic and to lead with purpose. I learned compassion, and how to look around corners, and had a clear point of view about my business. It was a rewarding experience that shaped me into the leader I am today.
After eight years with Apple, I wanted more. When you’re in the same environment for a long time, it’s important to look outside in and not lose perspective. Not doing so can make you redundant and maybe even obsolete and this can not only feel scary but also result in insular thinking, where you can’t see the world through several lenses. My peers were among the brightest you could work with and comfortable with their lives professionally – but that felt limiting to me. I wanted to step up and challenge myself again.
This was one of the reasons I applied to LBS and was accepted onto the 2020 cohort as a Sloan Fellow in Strategy and Leadership. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime immersive programme that allows you to take stock of what you’ve achieved; it gives you a chance to challenge what you’ve learnt, and identify what you’re good at and what you need to be better at. You arrive with 360 feedback that you collect from your employers, bosses and lateral peer group, and work with an executive coach, who unpacks it all with you. It was invaluable. My peers made me better.
Investing in broadening our knowledge and getting a refresher on the latest insights can push us to think beyond what’s possible and challenge our own assumptions. At LBS, I had some of the smartest people in the world in my class who’d come to the programme to invest in themselves and have a big impact on the world. It’s nearly impossible to get a fighter pilot, a paediatric heart surgeon, entrepreneurs and a group of accomplished executives across industries into the same room – unless you’re in a world-class institution like LBS.
“Education is so powerful. My dad would say it’s the only thing that people can’t take away from you”
An alumnus who interviewed me said, ‘At LBS, opportunities often come along, ones you might not have been expecting. Someone might tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about doing this, given your background?’ I didn’t understand initially, but when the pandemic struck I started to get phone calls from leading advisory networks like GLG, Guidepoint and the Boston Consulting Group asking if I knew how to digitally restructure companies and build digital customer experience models for businesses without an online presence. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘And do you know how to help small businesses take advantage of mobility and apps, so they don’t spend thousands of pounds in licensing fees annually for archaic pieces of software?’ This is exactly what I specialised in at Apple – helping businesses go digital. So I ended up becoming a consultant in the middle of a pandemic. I’d never consulted before in my life but I received over 70 referrals, which led to a series of projects on enterprise mobility, product management, customer journey design, e-commerce, machine learning and artificial intelligence over the past six months. I never thought I’d be worth up to £1,000 an hour for some clients.
I love strategy and simplifying problems in ways that lead to meaningful growth for small businesses. As a consultant, I’ve been quick to apply the concepts I’d learned from Jessica Spungin, Adjunct Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at LBS; she was so focused on drilling down the basics that it gave me a whole new perspective that I wouldn’t have had if I’d not been in her class. This new understanding of strategy was valuable for the businesses I worked with in London. I worked with the owner of a pub, for example, who felt his business wasn’t technologically relevant – we were then able to build him new space in the industry by building an online presence so that he could sell eggnog and liqueurs at Christmas, while still being closed. It’s all about brand expansion, and finding spaces to make little shifts in how we think.
Jessica taught us to be valuable, resourceful, and inimitable. Valuable: you uncover and create value for the customer. Resourceful: take what you have right now and build it out, preserving what you’re great at. Inimitable: whatever you do, know what your edge is, and make it difficult for others to copy you. Jessica taught us to architect space for ourselves in whatever field we’re working in. The beauty of strategy is that once you make a change and it’s successful, you can keep building. Then you build the confidence to do more.
During the pandemic, I noticed a massive acceleration in the use of technology in healthcare and education. After having recently completed my degree, I wanted to find meaningful work within technology, and I’ve been very fortunate to join Logitech at their headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, to help build out their Global Partner Program for Education and ramp up growth over the next few years. I’m excited about the impact the work will have on educators and learners through our partners and products.
My dad would say that education is the only thing that people can’t take away from you. Over the next decade, I aim to inspire entrepreneurship among women. I’d like to enable seed funding for women-owned businesses so they can use their craft to build small businesses. Women entrepreneurs are so important to economic growth.
My boss at Apple always said, “If you’re looking to grow or trying to carve out a career, be interesting, so others can find something in you to connect with. And knock your current role out of the park.” Those who’ve uprooted their lives to invest in their education and now find themselves in the job market are incredibly brave. It’s hard to not feel overwhelmed when looking for work and stability. My tip would be that instead of sending out CVs to hundreds of companies, focus more on your story. Then find a few people to help you connect the dots – to share what your story means and how as a result you could help a business or a cause find ways to grow and become even better.