August 31, 2014 11:00 pm

Women in Business - Sophia Arthur, MBA graduate

BIZ LIFE: Sophia Arthur Photograph: Rosie Hallam©Rosie Hallam

Sophia Arthur is an MBA graduate of Imperial College Business School in the UK and team leader of Angel of Hope, one of the seven teams shortlisted in the FT MBA 2014 Challenge with UK charity World Child Cancer (WCC). For the challenge, her team needs to write a business plan that shows how WCC can raise £1.5million in the UK.

There are three other MBA students in Ms Arthur’s team, representing Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, Fudan University and the University of Oxford Saïd Business School. Another team member is studying for a masters in social research methods at the London School of Economics.

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Ms Arthur was born in the UK but grew up in Ghana. She moved back to the UK for college and studied chemical engineering at the University of Birmingham. After graduating, she joined HSBC where she has held various roles in technology before self-funding her MBA. She is now a project manager at HSBC.

In her spare time, Ms Arthur enjoys cooking European and West African dishes and reading contemporary African literature.

1. Why did you enter the MBA Challenge?

The challenge offered the opportunity to apply the financial and entrepreneurship skills I had acquired on my MBA to a real business challenge in the charity sector. The idea of being in a team with other MBA students drawn globally from three continents was also exciting. The participants - who I had never met before - shared the same passion as me and I was interested to find out what ideas they could bring.

2. How would you describe the experience so far?

The past few months have been interesting but challenging. My team, who at any one time can be located in five different time zones, are driven to collaborate and brainstorm to come up with brilliant ideas. Finding a suitable time when we can all be present for a conference call can be difficult, but the commitment shown by all has been exemplary. During our meetings, no idea is ever dismissed without being given due consideration for its potential and practicality.

3. Who are your business influences?

I draw inspiration from Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, president of Liberia. Despite her imprisonment in the 1980s and exile from Liberia, her drive and passion to use her skills to build a country that was left with barely no infrastructure can only be admired. Her ability to draw women into her leadership team also confirms the belief she has in creating an inclusive work environment. Her leadership abilities should be emulated, especially in Africa, to give women a platform to show their true capabilities in all facets of society.

4. Why did you choose to study for an MBA?

With more than 10 years of professional experience in IT, I had reached a plateau in my career and was ready to become a business leader. Having regularly visited Ghana and other African countries since attending university in England, I was acutely aware of the corruption, lack of transparency and ineffectual institutions that oversee the management of the country’s financial resources. My plan was to improve the lives of those in Africa through development programmes centered around private sector and social impact partnerships. In order to do this, I needed to augment my soft skills in management and negotiations while developing my knowledge of entrepreneurship, finance, operations and marketing.

5. What is your favourite memory of business school?

One of the highlights was the innovation, entrepreneurship and design programme, which we took on completion of the core courses. The module gave us the opportunity to put into practise the theoretical knowledge we had acquired during the first half of the academic year. It began with us forming teams then evaluating and selecting a business idea from a portfolio of projects pitched by budding entrepreneurs. We had to work to a tight timeline and present our findings to fellow classmates and to an assigned mentor on a monthly basis for gruelling but constructive feedback. The project brought to the fore the challenges that start-ups face as they transition from an idea through to raising funds and becoming a product or service.

6. What would you do if you were dean of a business school for the day?

I would get the entire class in an auditorium and let the students present the 10 things of great concern to them in the business school. I would let the students vote for each of the issues and five issues would be shortlisted to be progressed. I would ask the students when voting to consider issues involving quick wins in terms of resolution, effort and time.

7. What advice would you give to women graduating this year from business school?

Earmark at most two or three industries and roles that you would like to pursue and remain focused. Network to gather information on an industry’s landscape. Women should be given similar opportunities to men post-MBA. However, to be able to move into new roles, women and men alike have to be able to articulate their transferable skills - those they had prior to embarking on the MBA as well as what they believe the MBA has provided them with.

8. How do you deal with male dominated environments?

I do not believe that the gender ratio in the workplace should be a topical subject for discussion. Ultimately, you have to be armed with the tools and knowledge to deliver on your job. You have to be assertive and stand by what you believe in. Most organisations have a team culture and the most important attribute I believe an individual should possess when working in any team, regardless of the team dynamics, is to be an active listener and to respect each individual’s strength in the various aspects of the job... Sharing a mutual interest or even having an awareness of a subject of interest to someone will go some way in rapport building.

9. What is the last book you read?

One of the books I really enjoyed during my high school years that I always longed to re-read when I was a bit older, was So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ. I recently found the book on Amazon. The plot is about the emancipation of the African woman who, despite the significant strides she has made in acquiring an education, still struggles to get her voice heard in her society where the man still reins as the head of the family. In his old age, the man marries a younger woman while his first wife strives to make a home.

I draw parallels from this book with women still trying to fight for equal opportunities in a world where men still appear to be the ‘boss.’ While significant strides have been made in awarding both men and women equal remuneration where their jobs are perceived to be the same, for example, it appears that the conversation between the gender gap, pay and lack of opportunity faced by women in some parts will continue for many years to come.

9. What is your favourite business book?

C. K. Prahalad’s book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, has given me valuable insights on addressing poverty through means other than hand-outs from developed economies. He coined the phrase ‘the bottom of the pyramid’ to address the many millions of poor people who are sidelined because of the misconception that they do not have the disposable income to consume goods and services. His book also shows that the lives of the poor can be transformed through business solutions. Today, entrepreneurs who support initiatives that serve the poorer people of our societies are being supported through many patient capital funds which look for both a social and financial return.

10. What are your top tips for networking?

Networking was one of soft skills touched upon immensely at business school. Through conversation with people about your background and interest, you may find that people you engage with provide links to the very people you want to speak with. Once you have graduated, keep abreast of events at the school as they attract a diverse group of people. Prior to attending any event, do your homework to know who will be there and where, carry out basic research on speakers or people you want to network with. Striking a chord with a speaker is always a good icebreaker in a networking session.

The art of networking itself improves over time. While the idea of speaking to someone and making an impact in a short space of time may initially seem daunting, be rest-assured that the more you do it the easier it becomes. Attending these sessions with a friend or colleague who you believe is good at networking may be another way to master this skill. It is also useful to try and connect as soon as possible using LinkedIn or other networking tools out there as the connection is still fresh in everyone’s memory.

Read about the other team leaders:

Onyanta Adama, an MBA student at Lagos Business School in Nigeria and team leader of Ripple

Ingrid Marchal-Gerez, an MBA graduate of London Business School and team leader of Cut out Cancer

Gabriela Galvano, an EMBA graduate of IE Business School in Spain and team leader of Green Light

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