Women empowering women: How I started my Cambridge Executive MBA adventure

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Dr Bola Grace, a recipient of the Executive MBA Scholarship for Women, reflects on how she got started on her EMBA journey.

Empowering friendships

Sometimes you get incredibly lucky and find amazing friendships at work. My friendship with my colleague Giulia was one of those, despite being based in different countries.

My Cambridge Executive MBA journey began in January. It was that time of year when we make a list of grandiose resolutions we start to renege on by March. On a business trip, Giulia and I were discussing previous New Year resolutions, big goals on our lists and why they haven’t been accomplished. I mentioned an EMBA on mine, Giulia immediately switched from chatting to fake-interview mode, as we do whenever we want to positively challenge each other. She shot a series of questions at me, starting with “why do you need an EMBA?”

Once she Giulia was satisfied with my responses, she immediately switched to chatty mode again and said:

“well then, what’s stopping you?”

I came up with a long list of excuses: time, money, work-life balance, choosing the right university, admission process, GMAT, intellectual capacity, lack of business background, did I mention GMAT? Giulia responded by saying “you’re over-complicating this Bola! You’ll keep talking yourself out of it at this rate. Take it one step at a time. Why don’t you apply first? What do you have to lose? Then if shortlisted, go for the interview, then take the next step and the next and the next…”

That completely serendipitous conversation triggered the entire process for me and now here I am, nine months later, in Cambridge.

Arriving at Cambridge Judge Business School for the first time

Empowering sponsors

Professor Judith Stephenson (Institute for Women’s Health, University College London) supervised my PhD, and from the moment I walked into her office for our first chat, she’s supported my professional progression every step of the way. After completing my PhD, Judith championed me to take on academic research collaborations with my industry career. When I mentioned that I wanted to go for an EMBA, Judith was extremely encouraging and went on to give what must have been a glowing reference to support my application. She was over the moon when I informed her that I was successful.

It’s always empowering and heart-warming when someone genuinely roots for your success. Judith does that ‘embarrassing-proud-mum-thing’ when introducing me at events, which is embarrassing when my mum does it, but pretty cool when Judith does!

Empowering network

Shirley Okere (EMBA 2017) and I met at an EMBA information session in London, where she was presenting on the alumni panel. We had similar technical backgrounds in the healthcare/biotech industry and similar reasons for pursuing an EMBA. We exchanged contact details and Shirley soon became my go-to person for next steps. She happily provided tips and pointers.

I recall a Saturday morning conversation when Shirley talked me through what to expect and helped with my interview preparation. It was also good to connect with David Wilson (EMBA 2017), Ayobami Olunloyo (EMBA 2018) and other students and alumni at the event. It made a world of difference speaking to Cambridge Executive MBA alumni who had been on the programme and gone through the process.

Empowering team

Once I had submitted my application, everything started moving pretty fast. Megan from the Executive MBA Admissions Team was super helpful throughout the process and patiently responded to all my questions (and I had tonnes). Rachel, another member of the Admissions Team, was so welcoming when I visited Cambridge for the first interview. They certainly helped calm my nerves.

I had a separate interview for the Executive MBA Scholarship for Women On that day it rained cats and dogs! Everything that could possibly go wrong with technology on my end did, but the late Professor Sucheta Nadkarni and Executive MBA Head of Marketing and Admissions Alison Greenwood were so encouraging. I was concerned that my pitch didn’t go as well as it could have, but I later found out that I had them hooked from the first slide. My experience with the Admissions Team sealed the deal for me.

At a drinks reception ahead of a dinner at St Catharine’s College

Empowering family

My younger sister Tay was my cheerleader every step of the way. Her opinion is always pivotal in my decision making as we’ve always maintained a healthy sibling rivalry. She finished her PhD before I had even started mine, so it was important to beat her to the EMBA for the natural order of things to be restored.

My sister helped me prepare for the scholarship interview. When I presented a first draft of my talk, she came back with a strong critique. She complained my slides were too wordy, and recommended I make the visuals punchier. “You have just 5 minutes for a pitch. These are some of the most expensive words you’ll be speaking for some time. Make them count!” she jokingly complained. When she was happy, I knew that was half the battle was won.

Empowering connections

Now that I’m officially on the programme, I can talk about my experiences at the Cambridge Judge Business School!

Reflecting on the Orientation Week, it was an exciting as well as intense experience. Dr Simon Learmount perfectly described what to expect: it was like “drinking from a fire hose”.  The wealth of diversity (in every sense of the word) was mind-blowing – nationality, ethnicity, industry, skills, personality, cognitive diversity. My cohort includes bankers, a film actress/producer, hedge fund managers, CEOs, scientists, clinicians, lawyers, and even former professional rugby players, all working in a wide spectrum of sectors. We even had superwoman who’d run to breastfeed her 12-week old daughter during lecture breaks!

Many new friendships and connections have already been made – too many to list. My study group members are some of the most hardworking and super-engaged people I’ve ever met. There was bit of trepidation when lectures fully kicked off and I had one of those of “what-have-I-gotten-myself-into-now?” moments .

I remember a discussion in Corporate Finance class. Being the only one without a finance background in our small study group, fellow participants Steve, Munish and Gennaro came to my rescue, breaking the exercise down in a language I’d clearly understand by making it relevant to the biotech industry. That was a truly empowering moment – I knew I wasn’t in this alone and we all have each other’s backs.

The Cambridge Executive MBA 2019 cohort

Empowering voices

It wouldn’t be accurate to end this without saying I received quite a bit of discouragement along the way from different sources too. So, for those seeking to embark on a similar journey, it’s extremely important to know why you’re doing this and that at the end of the day, you’re doing it for you.

Surround yourself with empowering voices, male and female. For me, the positive voices, including mine, won, and 9 months later, I’m at the University of Cambridge, embarking on this amazing journey and looking forward to being empowered by the challenges the next 20 months will bring.

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