Case Studies and bedtime stories

The EMBABE Diaries

Goodbye – but see you in Spring!

This is it – time to say goodbye to the EMBABE Diaries. It’s been a year since my (yup, still unframed) MBA degree arrived in the post. I have sadly forgotten how to calculate WACC (sorry, Prof. Hennessy, you know I’m still a big fan!) but I’ve been left with an insatiable curiosity about what makes people tick, how we think, our biases, the importance of mindset, how we can help ourselves succeed and how we trip ourselves up (thanks so much, Proffs Pinto, Ku and Adams!). Watching myself and my friends navigate this post-MBA year has made me more and more convinced that these are phenomenally important and relevant topics and that I want to continue exploring them and sharing what I find, but this didn’t seem like quite the right place to do it, so I’ll be moving on. The new home for my musings (and yes, you can expect the same amount of parenthetical thought there too I’m afraid) is called Spring Mind, hope you’ll check it out from time to time and let me know what you think!

If you got here because you’re curious about an LBS EMBA or an EMBA in general, don’t worry, I’m still more than happy to answer any questions about that – just leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.

Happy spring my dears

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For the heart – to protect it

Saturday started ordinarily enough. My four-year old and I woke up early, we had some cuddles and tickles and then went about our usual pre-breakfast rituals: I went into my study to catch up on friends’ Facebook updates and the weekend newspapers; she went into the living room to draw princesses (this is done mostly on paper, but sometimes spills over onto the sofa, depending on how inspiration strikes).

After my daughter was done drawing her princess du jour (red hair, pink face, yellow dress, no name), I was asked to contribute “a big red heart” to the masterpiece, right next to the princess. She came back with the finished drawing a few minutes later – she’d coloured the heart hot pink, but also surrounded it with an unidentifiable black and blue blob: “I drew it around the heart, see? To protect it”. Which made my own heart long for that black and blue blanket, because this was no ordinary Saturday morning; I’d rushed to my computer that morning not to check out my friends’ latest baby photos, but to understand why the first message of the day on our (still very active) EMBA WhatsApp group was “Is anybody in Paris? Hope everyone is safe”. For Romanians, this was two weeks after an accidental (but equally tragic) fire in a Bucharest night club, whose initial death toll has been rising heartbreakingly every day as the severely wounded (mostly youngsters, kids as young as 15) keep losing the fight. And this is just the stuff that’s been happening close to home, in places where I or close friends could easily have been ourselves. Later that day, I found out that Beirut had also hit by attacks on Thursday; I read about the young Lebanese father who threw himself on one of the suicide bombers, saving many lives but giving his own in exchange.

I don’t know what to do with my heart in times like these. My brain is going at a hundred miles a minute, planning, ruminating, pushing me into activity – and my heart is just…stunned. Stuck. As my head tries to make sense of the facts and understand if there’s anything I can do to help, my heart guiltily wraps up in my daughter’s black and blue blanket, knowing full well that so many others need their hearts protected so much more than I do. So if you find yourself in need of a love blanket for your heart these days, you can share ours – here it is.

inima

Much love,

Alex

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How to go from EMBABE to entrepreneur (via motherhood)

Happy New Year, everyone! Hope you had some rest over the holidays (oh, who am I kidding – hope you’re all recovering from the kids’ Christmas break! The silence…it’s so nice, isn’t it? Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone if you don’t…)

And now that we’re back at work, I figured you could use some good vibes to help get 2015 off to a great start. And what better way than with an inspirational story and some great entrepreneurial wisdom from our first EMBABE of 2014, Shefali Modi? Since we last spoke, she has been very busy setting up and running EnycloKidia, and she graciously agreed to share with us some of the lessons she’s learned along the way.

How did you first come up with the idea of EncycloKidia?

After the MBA from London Business School, I had been keen to start my own business. Being pregnant then, I was rapidly exposed to a parallel universe – the one only parents and parents-to-be know exists. Stepping into this world for the first allowed me to look at it with the fresh eyes of an outsider and I saw so many opportunities for new ventures. Gaps in the market that could be addressed, improvements to an existing process, etc. After discussing several ideas with friends and family, EnycloKidia was the one that felt right. An information website that not only told parents about services for their children but allowed them to see what other parents thought about these services. I have had first-hand experience on how difficult it is to find the right daycare, swim school, and baby sitter for my daughter. There was really no quick and reliable way to get the details of the services each provider offered or to get feedback on people you employed for your child’s welfare. This is the problem EncycloKidia solves. 

What was the most difficult aspect of starting your own business?

London Business School taught me that I thrive when working with a team and that the right team can transform a good idea into a brilliant solution. Without doubt the most difficult part has been to bring the right people on board. These had to be people who were as excited about the business solution as I am, were willing to take the risk to make this work, and had the right skills sets to become valuable contributors to the business. It is hard to find people who tick all three boxes. I was and am very conscious of how expensive the wrong person can be, both in terms of money and time (again a London Business School lesson), so have spent a lot of time, ensuring I avoid type II errors. For example, I had a fantastic co-founder when I started. She was the tech lead, a mum herself, and just an amazing person to work with. Unfortunately, we had to part ways and replacing her was both emotionally and practically hard. It took me two and half months to find a new tech lead, but I am 100% confident that my new CTO is in this for the long run, has the same commitment as me and will be fantastic for EncycloKidia.

Do you feel that the MBA helped you? How?

Without doubt! As a founder, I wear many different hats – HR, Marketing, Sales, Accounting, Finance, Blogger, Data Analyst, Grunt Work… Because of the MBA I have a head start on almost every element of the business that I take on. I should add though that having an MBA from London Business School specifically has made an even greater difference. I don’t know much about other MBA communities, but the community of students and alumni at LBS are amazing beyond words. At any juncture when I’ve needed advice I’ve had between 10-15 experts volunteer their time. Some of these “volunteer advisors” have also expressed interest in investing in the business – music to the ears of an entrepreneur. There is significant pride within the community and a deep rooted desire to make one of their own succeed. I don’t think I could’ve gotten this far without the LBS MBA or its community. 

Where did you get your energy from / what support systems did you put in place?

Social Media Statistics, LBS Community/Taunton Café, Family.

EncycloKidia depends on heavy interaction from the parent community. The pilot website has limited features for interaction from parents, but we’ve been lucky to have pretty decent traction. With just a little over 1,000 listings and 20 blog posts, we’ve had almost 48,000 page views, 8,000+ unique visitors, and 275 facebook and 400+ twitter followers within the first 100 days. The first thing I do every morning is update these numbers. They tell me if I am on track but also rev me up for the day’s work.

The two things they don’t tell you in Entrepreneurship class is how lonely the road can get and how much of a roller coaster ride it is. Until you build a team you (and your co-founders) are fighting every battle on your own. When I felt lonely, especially after my co-founder left, just sitting in London Business School’s Alumni centre speaking to other entrepreneurs would inject me with fresh energy. The same happens after I speak with volunteer advisors (see earlier question) from the London Business School community.

But in really dark moments it is family that really helps you pull through. I was very upset the day I parted ways with my co-founder. My husband spent a ridiculous £30 to purchase a single episode of Downton Abbey (the Christmas Special), to just cheer me up! My father is as enthusiastic about EncycloKidia as I am. Every few days he asks me for updated stats on web traffic. He was also my first angel investor. My super-busy brother, who also runs his own business, offered 10-hours/week of his time in any capacity to help me. My mother, a finance director herself, sensing I have too much to do, recently visited me for three weeks, taking full responsibility for my daughter during her stay. Having so many people standing on the side-lines, cheering you on, makes a big difference.

Three pieces of advice you would give to budding entrepreneurs

  1. Most business fail because they run out of money. Keep it lean and plan revenue/capital injections from day one.
  2. Plan your personal finances – this is an extension of the above. Most entrepreneurs outside of Silicon Valley do not draw hefty salaries. Many don’t take any salary for at least a year. If you are worried about putting bread on the table, you will have less bandwidth for the business.
  3. Network as much as you can. Pick up the phone, write emails, talk to people. It’s the only path to good ideas, people, resources, energy, and market traction.

Check out EncycloKidia: www.encyclokidia.com ¦ on facebook ¦ on twitter ¦ on pinterest

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Why it was all worth it

Here’s some fun trivia for you about the week of December 1st, 2014: Romania celebrated its birthday (many happy returns!), LBS topped the FT European business school charts (hurray!) and I went to the last class of my last elective. The following week, I received (a) my degree in the post and (b) an imperative (and suitably impenetrable) email from the school’s IT’s department advising me that I would be migrated to alumnus status as of next Friday, meaning that my school email and electronic storage would shut down.

So here I am, sorting through emails, assignments and case studies. My last two years. I’m going to give in to the cliche and say it: it’s a very bittersweet moment. And, of course, it’s also almost Christmas, and almost the end of the year, so everything kind of conspires to ask for a moment of looking back, taking stock, and wondering – was it all worth it?

Which is when I come across one Word document called “Toast”. I don’t remember any case studies about bakeries so I can’t figure out which course this belongs to without opening it. It’s not a case study at all, but my notes for an actual toast – the one I made at our end-of-core masquerade ball a year ago. And I can’t think of a better explanation of why it was all worth it:

“I’ve agonised over what to say here, first because I’ve never had to do a toast before and second because I couldn’t think of anything to say that would really convey how much this year has meant for me – short of belting out “I love you guys” with “Friends will be friends” playing in the background, which would have been a little pathetic as toasts go.

So then I figured – I’ll just say something about macroeconomics. For one reason or another, that should get everyone really excited! So here’s the one thing we learned in macro which I can guarantee is 100% true – one of the reasons Eastern Europe is lagging behind in development is that we suffer from a lack of social capital. That’s just a needlessly fancy way of saying we have serious trust issues. Being Eastern European is kind of like instead of having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, you cram the angel and the devil on the same shoulder and on the free shoulder you have this sour little babushka whose official responsibility is to bring you back to “real life” whenever there’s any danger of the rose-tinted glasses coming out. Whoever you talk to, she’ll go “where’s the catch? what’s the hidden agenda? how are you getting tricked here?”

Which means that when I started researching MBAs and kept coming across people saying “the academics and all that are great but the most amaaaazing thing about the MBA was that I made these amaaaazing friends for life”, I didn’t buy that at all. I was like – this person is either one of those insincere professional networker types or someone who had really bad grades. All the talk about a “safe, supportive learning environment” was also kind of hard to swallow. Yeah, take 75 super-competitive types and add a grading curve. That’s a no-brainer recipe for a safe and supportive environment. Right.

And then the most incredible thing happened. I found myself parachuted, once every two weeks, into this parallel universe that blew away all my cynical expectations. Yes, everyone is super-competitive (Ok, some more than others), but also really supportive – the vibe is: we want to know what your dreams are and we’ll push you to reach them, with some tough love, if needed. We’re forever talking about the big issues – life, love, dreams, what success really means, what we really want in life – and, of course, the all-important question of which celebrity you really fancy. We get really silly – and super-serious. But at the same time, the most amazing thing is, as my husband put it after our epic Belgrade trip, “You know what’s strange about your LBS group? You guys just fully accept each other, just for who you are”. Which is so true – and kinda magical.

So here I am, less than a year after meeting all of you, and I’ve become that person telling everyone “you know, the most amaaazing thing about the MBA was that I made all these amaaaazing friends, and we’re going to be friends for life”. And, of course, my Romanian friends look at me like I’m insane. And of course, my own babushka is dutifully whispering in my ear: “Oh please, cut the violins. You must realise that none of this is real and it won’t last – this is a highly artificial environment, it won’t survive the real world.” And she’s partially right. This isn’t what real life is like. But that’s just the thing. Let’s keep this unreal. We’re the DREAM class – so dream big, dream wild, keep sharing those dreams with the rest of us and know that we’ll all be there rooting for you every step of the way, not because your being successful will make our networks more impressive or useful, but because, you know, we love you – for who you are and for who we know you can become.”

And yeah, another year on, I still feel the same – except that electives have brought me some more “amaaaazing” friends, and I am even more certain of everything I said.

Have to go now – Elsa (if you don’t know where that’s from, you must live on a different planet) and Steve (we’re into Minecraft now, in case you were wondering)* thankfully still know who I am even two years of constant travelling and there are war cries of “mum!!!!!!” coming from the living room. Have a wonderful Christmas, a fantastic New Year, and see you soon – the EMBABE journey has just begun.

Much love,

Alex

*Note for the uninitiated – I refer to my kids in this blog by the names of their favourite cartoon / game characters.

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And then there were clouds

I realised I haven’t been keeping you guys up to date with my cloud adventures – so here’s the latest 🙂

The big advantage of 6 am WizzAir flights - misty sunrise over the Carpathians

The big advantage of 6 am WizzAir flights – misty sunrise over the Carpathians

photo 5

Approaching London

Approaching London

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Your work-life balance hangs in these four quadrants

We MBAs love a good framework, and the impetus axis / energy axis framework proposed in this article makes more sense than the usual work/life balance talk. Also love the idea that “what the world needs is more people who have come alive”. Enjoy!

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The Stories of A Most Passionate Adviser

In the last session of our Communications elective, the professor, Saatchi and Saatchi’s Richard Hytner (whose new book, Consiglieri, is out now btw) made us step away from the world of corporate communications and look at how we could use the tools we’d just learned to tell our own stories better. The starting point, as is often the case in a good story, was a dream – our personal dream. To help “sense check” the dream, we were to “Make a list of 5 people that are most inspirational to you. Assume they know you intimately. […] Select three of them as your key advisors.” In all honesty, I struggled with this exercise. But one of my five was a no-brainer – Isabel Allende. In fact, I don’t just want her as my adviser; I want her as my fairy godmother, although she’s probably too busy writing fabulous books to be interested in the position. I’ve loved her books for years now; her magical stories, her incandescent, fearless heroines, the zest for life jumping out at you from every page. I’ve always known Allende was flawless in writing, but I was in for a real treat tonight (a Halloween gift undoubtedly brought by the espiritus that haunt all her books), when I discovered that she is almost better as a speaker. In this short TED speech, filmed in March, she delivers a lesson in living passionately at any age. I’ll be keeping it on my “to watch and re-watch” list – hope you enjoy it too!

And since we’re on the topic of stories, I heard some pretty amazing ones at the Power of Storytelling conference in Bucharest a couple of weeks ago – but more on that some other time, we’ve got pumpkins to carve! Can’t wait? Ok, ok, here’s one of the best (a 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist, if you’re asking): Kelley Benham’s story about the extremely premature birth of her daughter Juniper. Yes, it’s a tear jerker, but also much more than that: a story about life, motherhood, and choices so difficult they seem impossible (and there’s a happy ending too).

Much love (y passion!), Happy Halloween,

Alex

P.S. And if you’re still in a TED mood (you know you are…) you could do much worse that Allende’s 2007 speech

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A 9 Step Cheatsheet for Becoming a Public Speaking Expert

Ok ok, reblogging is not “a real post”… but I thought this was a really good summary – enjoy!

Moving People to Action

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 14.12.08

What does it take to be a great public speaker?

London Speaker Bureau has put it all together on a pretty page.  From content to delivery, from startings to endings and from logos to ethos to pathos, its all here in this infographic.

The London Speaker Bureau represent and work with some of the most influential people in the world, from politicians and economists to thought leaders and entrepreneurs.  Between them, they cover a vast range of topics, from management and finance to technology, education, innovation and the environment

If you’ve ever wanted a beautiful poster size infographic to guide your development as a persuasive speaker, this is the one.

9 Steps to Public Speaking Expertise

pscs-londonspeakingbureau
Hat tip to Joe Shervell.

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WIB conference continued: speakers’ top tips

..and we’re back! So, as I was saying in my last post, I finally managed to get to the LBS Women in Business Conference, which I missed last year because it clashed with the school schedule (that still hurts, but hey, I made it this year!!). It’s a truly brilliant event, so do plan on attending next year please. As promised, this is the post in which I share some of the “top tips” from the speakers and panellists, right in time for your morning coffee:

General:

– don’t do anything that you don’t really enjoy

– treat yourself like a project plan

– stop believing that all you have to do is work really hard and then people will notice

– don’t be afraid to ask for help and to accept the help that’s offered

– love what you do (see? told you it kept coming up!)

– make a difference to other people’s careers

– learn from things going very badly – or, to quote Darla Moore again, “When you lose – and you will lose – don’t take it personally and don’t lose the lesson”

– know what you want and ask for it

– be resilient

– do what you love; do what fires you up

– control what you can control, but let go of the rest; anxiety is crippling

– have a burning desire to expand your own creativity

– remember kindness and courtesy

On salary negotiations:

– be confident – wave your flag!

– really know your numbers and have a value proposition (that’s MBA-speak for “be prepared to explain why you’re actually worth that much to the firm”)

– don’t take salary negotiations personally (yes, I know that’s firmly in the “easier said than done” category, but it’s worth trying to keep in mind…)

– don’t focus only on salary, but on the overall package

On gender balance:

– true equality for women will come only with economic power

– it’s very tough to drive gender balance in the office when there’s no gender balance in the home

(and, yes!!!) the sooner the superwoman myth is debunked, the better

And yes, I know I also promised you Snow Patrol in my last post, and I was going to talk about them here, but then I realised that would make the post really long again, so I’ll have to save that for next time. (I do really need to learn to write in short form…maybe if I didn’t have all these parenthetical thoughts? But then again, I love parentheses, couldn’t live without them! Oh well…)

 

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The best conference I’ve ever been to

conference_banner

If you stumbled across my latest post (or looked at the banner just above…), you already know that I’m talking about the LBS Women in Business Conference. For once, a conference I can gush about (in case you were wondering, I still failed to do any networking, unless you count talking to my friends – and I could argue that we should count that, because building a network is about strong ties as well as weak ties, and I was having a strong ties day, but I’ll spare you the blah blah and just admit that the whole networking thing is still very much work in progress).

So what did we get, apart from a fabulous line-up of speakers? (all great, but Jo Malone, Darla Moore and Sharon White were just unbelievable – talk about exceeding expectations!) There was, of course, a lot of talk about juggling, about the “gender cliff” between ages 32 and 45, when so many of us get lost among the myriad competing requirements on our time and energy and end up falling behind in our careers, about mentors and sponsors and everything else you might expect in a conference about women and business. But also…

  • healthy differences in opinion, such as when one panel member suggested we should be completely up to date with sports news so we can be “one of the boys” and another member heartily disagreed (Can I get a “hurray” for that? Yes, I’ll keep to myself my opinion that it’s incredibly silly to get so excited about watching grown men chasing a ball, just please don’t make me pretend to care about the scores and who won which pointless trophy. There’s only so much a girl can do for her career.)
  • some hope for those who got married before “will support my career” made it to the Mr Right checklist: yes, most speakers said that choosing your life partner is one of the most important career choices you’ll make, but there was also the candid “it’s fine to marry a man who’s not supportive, as long as you’re successful enough to put that support in place yourself”.
  • the best every way of saying “don’t be afraid to change direction”, c/o Darla Moore: “When the horse is dead, dismount”. Am seriously considering getting a motivational poster with that quote…
  • Sharon White including “remember kindness and courtesy” among her top tips. Yes please!
  • the same ideas coming back over and over again, so often that they became a leitmotif of the conference: (1) do what you love, (2) don’t be afraid to ask for help, (3) take risks, (4) ask for what you want
  • selfies on stage!

Next Post – Tips Alert

The organisers asked each speaker to share some “top tips” with the audience. Now, I know that some people dislike the idea of “top tips” as at best a simplification and at worst a deformation of reality. If you’re one of those people, don’t read my next post unless you really like Snow Patrol (mysterious, I know!). If, like me, you enjoy some nuggets of wisdom, even simplified, with your morning coffee, check back next week for my selection (I was going to post them here, but it turns out my posts somehow end up longer than they should be, so you’ll just have to wait a bit)

 

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