What I did after completing my MBA

20 May 2022

Distance Learning MBA alumna Caitlyn Lewis explore the impact of MBA programme, and how her dissertation sparked the concept for a new company. 

I did my MBA because I needed credibility. I had worked in start-ups since I was 23 - having lasted nine months at my first job in a rigid corporation - and they had served me well. I’d learnt how to work in fast paced environments with no rules and a lot of uncertainty and had relished every minute. I loved having to work things out for which there was no obvious or established answer and, more importantly, being able to see immediate results from the work myself or my team was doing. But, as experienced as I thought I was, the truth was that I lacked understanding for what big companies are like: how their teams work, how decisions are made and how work gets done. So, I embarked on a new journey. I applied to do my Distance Learning MBA at Warwick Business School (WBS) and I left my job at a London-based start-up to join Unilever.

WBS was an easy fit. I loved learning that there were well researched academic theories and models and frameworks for the things I’d been seeing at work for the last eight years. The Leadership and Organisational Change modules, in particular, provided me with good context and understanding for some of my experiences. But making the shift to working at Unilever required more of an adjustment. Having found my niche in Seed or Series A stage start-ups I’d worked in companies of no more than 10 to 15 people. My team alone at Unilever had 20 people! Everyone spoke with a kind of shorthand that comes with working at the same place for more than eight years and they just knew how things worked. I was the new kid on the block and had a steep learning curve. On top of this, I joined the company with no specific job description: they had asked me to join because of my experience in start-ups and because they wanted to embed a more entrepreneurial mind-set in their culture.

To say I relied heavily on what I was learning in my MBA modules is an understatement. My Economics of the Business Environment module, which I did on Unilever, helped me to understand and analyse Unilever’s long-term business strategy. And the Innovation module, ultimately, helped me to find my niche. As the months progressed, I began working with the team who was overhauling Unilever’s 25 year old innovation process where I coached brand teams to adopt more agile practices and leaders to build more psychologically safe environments in which their teams could become high performing individuals.

Before I knew it, it was time to submit a proposal for my dissertation. I knew it needed to be on how large corporations innovate but I needed an angle. Something fresh and unique. Around the same time, I met my now investor, Mark Perera. I shared some observations with him about how dependent companies like Unilever are on their suppliers and external organisations to do anything. Mark introduced me to the concept of business ecosystems and how much more important they would become as companies started tackling issues like climate change. So, I decided to focus my research on how large corporations are building relationships and dependencies with external partners to form business ecosystems. I looked at Novartis, Unilever and Vodafone. I loved the vision I was creating around how businesses could thrive when they built strong relationships and focused on delivering value for all stakeholders. But if I was a CEO and read about business ecosystems I’d be thinking “this makes total business sense, this sets a great scene for the future of enterprise… but how do I do this?” And out of that, came the idea for Supplier Day.

Backed by Mark Perera and Alex Martinez I founded Supplier Day in 2020 based on the fundamental belief that how you communicate determines whether or not you achieve your goals. Simply put, companies will never be able to shift from transactional and, frankly, contentious relationships with their suppliers, if they don’t learn how to share their vision and build environments for knowledge exchange and collaboration. Given that 80% of an organisation’s emissions come from their supply chain and that companies source upwards of 60% of their innovation externally, there’s an urgent need for stronger relationships between companies and their suppliers to solve the world’s current challenges. The way we help our clients to do this is by designing, producing and hosting net zero virtual events that amplify their vision, energise their supplier ecosystem and accelerate action. We call it state-of-the-art supplier engagement and have worked with Siemens, Bayer and Logitech.

Leading Supplier Day has been the most rewarding experience and has challenged me in ways I never imagined. For the first nine months I ran the company on my own which can be incredibly isolating. I was extremely grateful to have built connections with peers from my cohort who were always happy to jump on a call and share their advice, whether it was legal, commercial or to put me in touch with others. I very much view the time I spent doing my MBA as when the idea for Supplier Day was seeded. Did it also help me with my original goal of building more credibility? I believe so. At the very least, it gave me the confidence to take a risk but more importantly, it helped me to know where to start and how to execute. Supplier Day now has a team of five people and we have worked with clients across Europe, the UK and the United States.

To find out more about the Distance Learning MBA programme here.

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