The fellowship experience

Last week I returned from my ESMT Responsbile Leaders Fellowship (RLF) in Cape Town. Time flew. Driving to the airport, it felt like yesterday when I drove on the same road exactly five months ago, in the opposite direction. As I was wrapping up in Cape Town, someone asked me why I chose ESMT for my MBA. This made me go over my ESMT application and I found this.

ESMT Application

RLF was one of the major reasons why I chose ESMT. I am passionate about empowerment and was certain of seeking RLF even before I joined ESMT. After the program was introduced to us, TSiBA popped up as an interesting option. TSiBA is a non-profit private B-school in Cape Town that offers business degree to the underprivileged, and business training and mentoring to disadvantaged entrepreneurs. After talking to the MBAs from the past year who had done their fellowship at TSiBA, I was convinced that it fits my bill perfectly.

Why TSiBA?
Early in my life, I learnt that when one chooses to focus on problems, one sees only more problems, but the moment focus shifts to possibilities, we see opportunities. This is a paradigm shift in thinking which is very difficult to attain given the nature of circumstances you grow up in such areas. There is a lot of conditioning you go through that you have to undo in order to make that shift. And I believe examples are the best way to demonstrate this possibility. I chose TSiBA because I saw the opportunity to be that example. When I learnt of the circumstances the entrepreneurs and students at TSiBA go through in life, I thought I could share my experiences with them to instill the belief that it is possible. I however don’t think this can happen over a guest lecture or talk. I was convinced that being a part of their learning journey is the best way to make that impact, and I saw RLF providing me that opportunity.

The RLF Experience @ TSiBA
TSiBA is a great organisation and I loved the experience there. There are a lot of things to do, and there is a shortage of skilled people who are willing to support. So when I started there, I got to chose what I wanted to do. TSiBA gave me complete freedom in executing the projects that I had taken up. Staff members are very friendly, supportive and collaborative. They are more like a family than coworkers. There is a lot of friendly banter in the staff room. Interactions with students were energising and humbling. The RLF experience made several indelible impressions on me that I am sure will stay with me for a long time. Here are the most important lessons I learnt.

Planning is good, having an open mind better!
The MBA experience gave me fresh perspective on how things don’t always go as planned, and helped me appreciate how important it is to be temperamentally ready to handle any kind of situation, not only in business but also in life. The RLF @ TSiBA helped me put this to practice. Last October, when I interviewed with TSiBA, we agreed on the areas that I would support TSiBA with. By the time I arrived in Cape Town, more than 3 months had passed, and things had changed a lot. The work that I wanted to do was not possible due to unforeseen circumstances. Instead I had a completely different set of projects to choose from. And I chose to manage a brand new program, Juta-TSiBA-EME program, which involved building a small business, ground up, in a tripartite set up.

Juta-TSiBA-EME Program
This program is a concerted effort by two organisations committed to black empowerment in South Africa. The program was conceived of in late 2015 and the execution began in February 2016. The program was sponsored by Juta, a leading publishing house in South Africa. The vision of the program was empowerment of the disadvantaged. The goal was to identify a disadvantaged black entrepreneur and to use donated stock to set up an Exempt Micro Enterprise (EME) business. Juta chose TSiBA to do that and I anchored the program execution for TSiBA. My activities involved research of the target market, coming up with a value proposition for the business, building partnerships with potential partners, drafting contracts for the tripartite collaboration, and selection of a previously disadvantaged black entrepreneur as the business partner (to take up the business once I leave South Africa). To provide experiential learning to entrepreneurship students, I anchored the end-to-end execution of the student project of the program as well. Towards this, I created simple processes for stock reporting, pricing, order placement, invoicing, payments, order collection, stock returns, and reporting. I also provided business coaching and mentoring to students. This was a complete start up experience for me. I learnt a lot and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Student project launch

I went to Cape Town with an open mind about my work. And in retrospect, I think this mindset helped me see the opportunities available rather than getting disappointed by the changed circumstances.

Preparing for failure is an important business skill
The most important lesson I learnt from the Juta program is, how important it is in business to be prepared for failure. My lack of exposure to business landscape in South Africa made the selection of an entrepreneur the more challenging of the work-streams I had to manage. When we announced the program and invited applications, there were quite a few interested in coming onboard as the EME. One of the applicant teams showed the drive and motivation required for our program. We interviewed and found them suitable for the EME. The prospects sounded promising. We were about to confirm their selection, and they pulled out citing workload and alignment issues. In the meantime, the interest of other parties also dwindled and I missed the deadline to select the EME. Within a few weeks, things that seemed very promising faded away one after the other, and I was not prepared for that. This was a major jolt to the program. What I learnt from this experience is that in business even the most promising lead may not materialise and being prepared for that eventuality is very important. This learning came in handy in another project. A few Northeastern University (USA) and TSiBA students collaborated to start a social enterprise and agreed to have me in an advisory role. Drawing from the failure of the Juta program, I was able to make recommendations for strategy that ensured that we were prepared for failures and thereby we could better manage the risks.

You learn a lot more when you teach/coach
At TSiBA, I had a variety of interactions with students. As part of the student project of Juta program, I coached students on setting up businesses and mentored a few of them. I also had an opportunity to be a tutor for entrepreneurship and leadership. There were many brilliant ideas discussed, personal stories and issues shared and discussed, ideas challenged, solutions proposed and debated, agreements and disagreements, viewpoints countered and so on. Those discussions helped me learn a lot about the South African culture, and I also felt I got a good understanding of how the youth think (Not saying that I have grown old!). The element of vicarious learning associated with such interactions is fascinating and it taught me a lot. There were many eureka moments when sharing my experiences and beliefs with students gave me a fresh perspective on my life.

Wrap up
The feedback on my programs has been very positive and the results promising. In a span of three months, the student arm of Juta program sold 1,571 books, resulting in a revenue of ZAR 18,105.30.

Revenue

At the time of my leaving Cape Town, the EME had sold about 140 books and generated about ZAR 12,600 in revenue. The revenue from the student project and a part of the EME revenue will go to TSiBA scholarship fund for future students. Reading through the reflection papers submitted by students at the closure of the student project, I felt the project met its goal of providing experiential learning to the students. Personally for me, what stood out was students giving feedback that my guidance helped them sell to customers, made them think differently about doing business, and that they made real changes to their business approach.

Farewell

Thanks to ESMT and TSiBA for the wonderful opportunity!
santom

Venture capital crash course

This year European Venture Capital Investment Competition (VCIC) took place in February in Barcelona. ESMT team performed great and was 2nd among top tier business schools such as London Business School, Oxford, HEC and Bocconi.  It is the best result of ESMT in this competition and we, as a team, are proud of it.

teams

The Team included Daria Markova, Julia Odegova, Didier Goepfert, Daniel Abel and Jose Fuquen. Our main goal was to understand the rationale behind Venture Capital investment decisions.

Since we didn’t know where to start, we started with reading. Blogs and articles gave us tons of information, but it was way too theoretical. The next step included interviews with VCs. Here we faced the first challenge: cold-calling VCs seemed to be a rather ungrateful job. To our surprise nobody told us “We, financial gods, don’t talk to mere mortals”. In the end, we had great talks with Mihai Streza from AQAL Capital, Rodrigo Martinez from Point Nine Capital, Thorben Rothe from Capnamic Ventures and Philipp Hartmann, former analyst at Index Ventures. From those we extracted detailed practical information about assessing entrepreneurs and business plans. Based on this we developed a draft term sheet and our own framework for business plan evaluation. However, we also understood: many VCs, many minds.

VCIC-VCs-1

We still lacked practice in communication with real startups. So our preparation culminated with a mock day at ESMT. This was the most important stage of our training. First, we managed to invite real entrepreneurs who are looking for pitching to VCs. Among those were Coyno, Elopay, Grabafruit and Keydock.

Second, we had a great jury that showed us how to improve: Christoph Räthke (GTEC), Olga Steidl (Inbot), Junayd Mahmood and Andreas Dittes (Talentwunder). Each of the jury members had his/her own unique style, which contributed not only to our learning experience, but also to the startups.  They had a possibility to rehearse a meeting with a VC and check their own performance in an extraordinary situation. We hope that expert recommendations they received will help them on their way to success.

VCIC-mock-1 copy

We were glad to put in practice all the theoretical knowledge and get expert feedback on our performance. Junayd Mahmood and Andreas Dittes were concise and looking deep into the startup challenges. Olga Steidl showed us the chair-on-fire tactics, shooting the entrepreneurs with simple but burning questions that drilled into the very core of the value added (or not added). Christoph Räthke representing GTEC was rather tough and critical regarding our startup evaluation. He noticed that our questions had a prepared structure and advised us to be more oriented on the concrete startup we were talking to. His “commonsense” approach included personalized questions to yourself: “Do I (not an average citizen, not Mr. Black, not some imaginary friend of mine) like this idea?” “Can I feel the pain of the target customer?” “What kind of person is the target customer?” We also appreciated how much energy and time Christoph and Andreas spent with us: they stayed until late discussing all the possible evaluation strategies.

Last but not least, the mock day was also an enriching learning experience for the audience, mostly students of the full time MBA and MIM programs at ESMT.

The mock event played a crucial role in our preparation. ESMT team took the second place in VCIC and was very close to winning. Probably the best part of the competition day was the feedback session with the judges, experienced VCs from all around the world. They praised our knowledge and realistic approach. The main reason we didn’t take the first place was that we didn’t sell ourselves well enough. Great, there is still some space to improve!

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We want to say a big THANK YOU to ESMT, GTEC and all the participants, it was a great experience overall.

P.S. Interesting fact: Barceloneta bars are great in any time of the year!

 

The Room with a View

The walls are rising, rising very fast. A little more than 11 months have passed since the day I arrived in Berlin, and the view of the Berlin skyline from Auditorium 1 at ESMT was an integral part of my classroom experience. The historic Berliner Dom, the Altes Museum, the E&Y building on a far corner, the moving arms of the cranes carrying steel rods, frames and what not and the Berlin skyline in general, were the unnecessary but often unavoidable distractions to many of the current students of the full-time MBA class (if not many, at least for me). The “Berliner Schloss” coming up right across the street is unknowingly taking away the view that once had offered me an enjoyable momentary distraction.

Schloss_construction_2014

Change, they say, is the only thing that is constant. At this point in time, I could not agree more. I was a stranger on the 13th of January this year—to the city, to the 61 other colleagues of my class—but not anymore. The MBA journey has been filled with memories, both sweet and bitter, memories nonetheless. There have been moments when the case readings seemed never-ending, assignments stretched late into the evening, and work in general seemed overwhelming. There were deadlines one after another after another. One of my biggest learning experiences this year is that precisely during such moments, I should not ask for the rush to pause, for the flow to slow down; since such a wish is akin to wishing for death. There will be work, there will be change. The best we can do is to stay prepared and face it head on. As long as we breathe, at least minimally, life moves.

Why do I bore you with philosophy on change right now? Did I run out of topics to write, and is it the usual non-coherence of my thoughts? Well, we graduate today. I could not think of a better theme than “change” to write briefly about.

Life ahead is interesting, full of opportunities, I believe. Some of us head back home to take a break before we restart the job search, some stay back to look for opportunities, and some others are all set to start their new career. All the best to everyone.

I will miss the view, I will miss the class, I will miss ESMT.

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My MBA Friends Forever!

 

If you ever talk with an MBA student, the first thing you would hear would be how busy they are. Yes we are busy…Busy like bees. But that’s not all. Yes we do have time schedules for group projects, certainly we study for long hours together but that does not mean we are not networking together or we are not getting to know each other. The most enjoying part of doing MBA is having a lot of friends and getting a chance to learn from people different cultures. Now we are in Module 3 and I had chance to work with people from 6 nationalities. I still have a lot to go but even now I am feeling that I developed long-lasting friendships in ESMT.

 

I believe that building good relationships has more value than the value you gain completing your MBA studies. So, Hello my friend, Hallo there, ¡Hola my friend, Namaste, Goeie dag, Ete-sen! I can not wait to get to know all of you. See you soon!

Because you’re worth it… NOW

It is the last week of the first semester and my class are heading into a period filled with the following highlights; a financial accounting exam, finance exam, the start of four new subjects, a Bergfest on Friday evening and the lure of spring break. The smell of freedom, travel and reprieve is a permeable. That being said lets remain true to the nature of the task. Everything that you are warned about prior to enrolling into an MBA; i.e. the distortion of time, rapid rates of learning and unfathomable workloads – it IS all true. In a mere four weeks I have become reasonably comfortable with terminology like ‘credit swaps’ and ‘leveraged asset/debt capital structure.’ Watching videos on the financial crisis’ at 2:00 am and researching the financial statements of household name firms, is what you will do out of interest in your spare time, at 2:00am. The demands of each subject are not diluted by the time frame in which you are required to become an expert in whole subjects. That being said, you will learn; how to learn faster, more collaboratively and under the microscope of time pressure. Module 2 has introduced the newbies (i.e. myself) and refreshed the experts, in our class on the bare bones basics of business finance and it is empowering to have these analytical tools.

So, that was a look into my immediate future, now lets delve into my immediate past. Last week’s highlights included; a glimpse of Berlin’s fabled great summer weather, 2 exams, a Harvard marketing simulation and a full day transitions leadership workshop. We are clear on the workload issue, lets discuss leadership and self development that the MBA package presents. It is easy to get caught up in the grades, even when you promise yourself not to. ESMT is good and managing your lack of commitment to self made promises. Marcel has been gently nudging us toward getting our CV’s manicured. Corporate and faculty mentor meetings are geared toward preventing you from leaving the CV submissions for September. The MBA coaching sessions provide guidance when researching potential future industries. In the year away from the workforce, the MBA gives you a chance to look at the workplace environment as an outsider with insider knowledge. The position demands perspective and self reflection. I have asked myself fundamental questions like “Why do I want a career?” It was a surprisingly challenging question to answer and I found myself more equipped to tackle the question within this removed environment. That being said, you are not wholly segregated from the world of business, lecturer’s ground theory in context, because they are all involved in ongoing current corporate research. I hope I have given you realistic insight into the MBA program at ESMT. Hoping to not sound too sentimental with this last message, I really want to convey the value of the self investment that this program has paid toward my own career and self development.  I encourage you to challenge your comfort zone, and don’t be surprised by the strength of reserves you will muster.