It was with a little sadness when, last year, I decided that my formative career in photojournalism should come to an end. I was leaving behind a varied and often exciting industry for a course which bills itself as business administration. Now, Cass may just be letting me down gently, but in the last few months, I’ve been more than pleasantly surprised at how misleading this course title is.
Today, for example, I’m on a bus heading across one of world’s most controversial and disputed borders. We’re on our way out of Israel and heading to the West Bank, Palestine. Its hard to think of a starker contrast between this and the events a few weeks ago at the Cass London Symposium.
Fitting my current circumstances, was the core theme running through this year’s Symposium: explorers. Numerous speakers over the week peddled the same underlying message: the world is changing at an astonishing rate, and, if you’re not creating the change, you better be prepared to adapt to it.
The Symposium is the biggest and most varied event in the Cass MBA elective calendar. An impressive line up of speakers in the mornings followed with more bespoke group site visits to businesses in the afternoons. Alongside many of the London cohort and alumni, the Symposium also welcomes attendants from all over the world, including LUISS Business School in Rome, Germany’s Mannheim Business School, GIBS from Pretoria in South Africa, and our own Cass MBA students from the Dubai campus.
Having opened with a former Lord Mayor of the City, Sir Alan Yarrow, we knew the speakers were going to be impressive, and Cass likes to set the bar high; I’ve met three ambassadors and dined with a president in the last few weeks. Yet, alongside the big company names you might expect from an event such as this, including Accenture, TFL and PwC, were inspirational individuals from beyond the corporate world. These included Antarctic explorer Kate Philp and the UK’s first astronaut Dr Helen Sharman whom, to the captivated audience, reflected on their incredible experiences with challenges and changes, and the lessons they had drawn from them.
But the Symposium also offered even the most native of Londoners amongst us a chance to access parts of the city few are privy to. Morning talks took place in unique venues across the city, including private access to the discovery hubs of the Science Museum and the Wellcome Trust and, perhaps most prestigiously, a true birthplace of innovation, the Royal Institute. It was here on the final day, we listened in captured awe to the incredible Dame Barbara Judge, whose anecdotes about her rise through the business world are both brilliantly funny and utterly fascinating.
The afternoon site visits equally saw the discovery of both new and varied areas of our city. On the Tuesday afternoon for example, I found myself in the rather enviable position of
quaffing studying gin in the cellar of the East London Liquor Company, to the backdrop of numerous casks housing their recent foray into whiskey. We heard how this small company is managing to shake up an age old industry by challenging the established behemoths. And they are not doing this, how we might assume, with boutique high priced products, but by going head to head on the middle ground with, given the current lack of scale and production in London, an improbable offering: ‘high quality gin at competitive prices’. Yet, under the stewardship of Alex Wolpert, they’re gaining traction in the gin market and have expansion in sight. We also heard from Jullian Sawyer of Starling Bank at the Science Museum’s IMAX theatre, who talked of their ambitions to reshape the banking industry by reimagining a simplified, whittled down mobile offering, more suited to the digital generation.
For me, it was ultimately these emerging players and individuals whose messages resonated the most. There was an infectious confidence in their desire to change and challenge the status quo. This mind-set seemed even more pertinent in the last few days in Tel Aviv, where almost universally, the ambition of start ups appeared to be selling to an industry giant. Whilst this is undoubtedly tempting, it reinforced the respect I felt for the entrepreneurs I’d heard and spoken to at the Symposium. Whilst they may very well go on to form billion dollar unicorns, there seemed a deep drive behind their innovation. They wanted to be an agent of change of a better way.
As we cross over into Palestine, the need for a better way seems never more apt. There is also an uneasiness about the stark contrast between the challenges faced
here and the luxury of the Symposium finale at the Savoy, or the midweek evening bash atop Tower Bridge. The challenge, privilege, and importance of seeing both ends of the spectrum is something I hadn’t expected to be witnessing a year ago. Speaking with other MBA students, both at the Symposium and over here, it seems this unique approach to teaching is admired and envied. Right now, I feel very privileged to be part of a school practicing what it preaches by doing its own bit to explore a better way.