Neeta Patel is chief executive of the New Entrepreneurs Foundation, a charity that aims to develop the next generation of UK entrepreneurs. It is pushing for better integration of business skills at all education levels.
Before joining the NEF, Ms Patel worked in private equity, matching technology entrepreneurs to investors. She has also worked at the British Council, the Financial Times, Legal & General – where she launched the first personal finance website in Europe – and Thomson Financial (Reuters).
Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Ms Patel came to London when she was 12 years old. She has an MBA from City University Cass Business School and a Sloan fellowship in strategy and leadership from London Business School, where she is now an entrepreneur-mentor in residence. She is also a non-executive director at Go City Girl, a fashion e-commerce business and a trustee at the Young Women’s Trust.
1. Why did you choose to do an MBA?
I chose to do an MBA to develop a more systematic approach to management. I had reached a point in my career where I felt that to move up into more senior roles, I needed a higher level of strategic knowledge about companies and how they work. Although I had learned my ‘technical’ marketing skills on the job, I really needed to understand the management principles that underpin business decisions, financial management, strategic options as well as the management of people and processes.
2. What is your favourite memory of business school?
The projects that we delivered in our work groups. We were assigned a work group of four to five people at the start of the course and throughout the year we had to design, develop and present solutions to business problems. My work group gelled almost from the first day and our complementary skills and different approaches to problems made us a formidable business unit. I remember many all-night sessions burning the midnight oil to meet delivery and presentation deadlines.
3. What advice would you give to women graduating this year from business school?
Be brave and give everything a go. Do not be put off from applying for that dream job because you think you don’t have the skills or qualifications. Talk confidently about your achievements and relate them to your ambitions. Become a good team player and give time to help people coming up behind you. Work on your blind spots or areas of business weakness. Take evening classes if you feel that you lack strong finance skills, for example. Keep connected with people in other departments in your workplace as this will be your main source of information on initiatives being planned. Volunteer for cross-department projects as you’ll gain visibility with senior people outside your department. Take every opportunity to present you plans and projects. Become known as someone who is going places and you’ll find yourself being invited to actually go to those places.
4. You recently organised a female entrepreneur’s event, what did you enjoy the most from this experience?
More than 120 women came along to hear stories from some successful, entrepreneurial women. I enjoyed meeting so many bright, young aspiring entrepreneurs and was delighted with the energy and enthusiasm that our panel brought to the event. The key thing that I learnt is that you have to inspire young people through storytelling and introducing them to potential role models.
5. What are your top tips for entrepreneurs?
Don’t do it just because it sounds sexy! Do it because you’re passionate about it as the journey is going to be a tough one with many ups and downs and there is no guarantee of success at the end of it. Build a good network at the outset. This is the network you may need to call on for help during your journey. Build a good team around you to help develop your business. Recruit smartly and recruit people with complementary skills who share your vision. Share your vision regularly with your team but don’t be too wedded to one particular path of action. You may have to change direction if your business doesn’t work. Demonstrate passion, tenacity and a ‘can do’ attitude as this is what investors are really funding. Finally, embrace failure. You will inevitably fail at some point so develop a positive attitude to this, learn from failure and carry on!
6. Which entrepreneur do you most admire?
Mohammed Yunus who founded the micro-loan business, The Grameen Bank. This innovative model of lending to women who work on their own small businesses has transformed the lives of so many families in developing countries and has helped them to get themselves out of poverty. Mr Yunus has faced opposition to his idea and outright criticism from his many detractors but he kept his vision true and has created a significant business that really changes people’s lives in so many countries.
7. What is the last book you read?
The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli. It’s a short and easy to read book which highlights how we make everyday decisions and the basic errors and cognitive biases lead us into making poor decisions and choices. I recommend the book to anyone who is frustrated that they keep making poor choices or bad decisions, or anyone who faces making business decisions every day.
8. What is your favourite business book?
I have read many business books over the years that have left a profound impression on me but my favourite has to be The Essays of Warren Buffett – lessons for investors and managers. Although it was first published more than 15 years ago, many of the lessons in the book are valid today. The book is a collection of the annual report-type letters that Warren Buffett wrote to investors in Berkshire Hathaway and show how he decided on the type of companies in which he invests, the metrics, both hard and soft that he uses and provides the clearest explanation of his investment strategies and outlook on the world of business.
9. What made you decide to support the Young Women’s Trust?
I have always considered myself fortunate to have had the opportunities that I had in my early life and career. Our parents provided for us and encouraged my siblings and I to continue further education, get degrees and secure good jobs. For some time, I have been conscious that this is not the case for a large number of young women in the UK. These young women who are largely invisible to society face tremendous hardship from the very early stages of their lives. The support that is out there for them is sporadic, underfunded and inadequate. The Young Women’s Trust seeks to campaign on behalf of these women to highlight their plight and lobby the right authorities to change policies or introduce more support. When the post of trustee was advertised, I applied as its mission really resonates with my concerns and I wanted to be involved in providing solutions.
10. If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?
I would probably do the MBA a little earlier in my career as I think I would have benefited from the business confidence that such training gives you. If I had the opportunity to study overseas, I would most certainly consider an MBA in France, Switzerland or some of the schools in the US to get a different perspective on world business, or I would choose a programme that offers an exchange option to spend some time in another country.