Having been named in Computer Weekly’s UK Top 50 most influential women in UK Tech in 2018 and listed as part of ‘Top 100 BAME leaders in the UK’ by the FT/Inclusive Boards, we’re delighted to catch up with Neeta Patel (Marketing MBA, 1995), CEO of the New Entrepreneurs Foundation and the Centre for Entrepreneurs. Neeta is an experienced executive with over 20 years of strategy and operational leadership experience in launching new ventures, business turnarounds and change, and has a sharp focus on growth and revenues. She was an early internet pioneer having launched the first personal finance website in Europe for Legal & General in 1996 at a time when there were only 300 URLs registered in the UK.
Can you tell me about your time at Cass?
I was part of the Cass MBA class of 1994, a long time ago! The business school at that time was located in the Barbican complex. The MBA programme was split into five verticals; marketing, IT, Finance, International Trade and Shipping and HR. I joined the programme quite late as I was going to be self- funded and needed to get my funding arranged. Doing the MBA was a really great learning experience for me because I was at the middle management level and I had the technical skills around marketing and communications. However, I needed that big picture experience and understanding of how businesses work. The programme itself and doing an MBA at Cass especially, was really an eye-opening experience in that I understood how strategy works, how companies compete and how a company sees itself. I also learned about financial management, managing HR and IT. I had learned the tools and techniques of marketing through working so it was nice to have the academic theses to back up what I had been doing intuitively. In a nutshell I think it taught me the language of business; it gave me the fluency to talk at a higher level in business.
What happened after you graduated?
I was headhunted before I even graduated! I was approached by the board director at the insurance company, Legal and General (L&G). It was just after the Easter break and it came as an out of the blue letter addressed to me at Cass Business School (this was before email became commonplace!) asking if I would be interested in meeting him for lunch at his offices in the City to talk about a potential job opportunity. I was surprised and of course I never say no to lunch, especially a free lunch so I accepted. After the lunch, he called me and offered me the role of Head of brand, advertising and communications for L&G, which was a huge step up from what I was doing as marketing communications executive in my previous role. I started the L&G job after graduation and soon realised the enormous scale of the job; I had 47 staff and a £40m budget to oversee. It was certainly the MBA that facilitated that because I don’t know how the board director at L&G would have known about me unless he had spoken to one of the Professors – but I never found out who had recommended me.
How did your businesses and entrepreneurial interests come about?
I had always been interested in the ‘business’ of business but having worked in several senior roles, I realised that the type of roles I was being offered and actually doing in these companies were always around transformation, innovation and turnaround – I was always an ‘intrapreneur’ launching new ventures and new ideas within established companies.
After L&G, I joined FT Personal Finance (part of the Financial Times Group) where I was initially developing partnerships in Europe to launch local language finance websites and then ran the FT.com business news website. After the FT, I did a bit of a career pivot and joined the British Council where, during my six years there, I led the global internet operations, customer service functions, knowledge management and marketing activities.
The shift to entrepreneurship happened when I went to London Business School in 2008. I decided to leave the British Council as I’d been there six and a half years and I was at a crossroads in my career. The Sloan Fellowship programme which is for senior managers at a crossroads was just the impetus that I needed to get back from the public sector to the commercial world; it was like an MOT for my career. It was whilst I was there that I met a couple of people who came up with the idea that we should launch a consultancy helping publishers to monetise content. That venture failed very quickly but shortly afterwards I was approached by my ex-boss from L&G who had an idea for a new kind of personal finance start-up and asked if I would join as a co-founder and as CEO and lead the development of this start-up. We spent a year and a half from 2009 which was just after the 2008 financial crisis (not a good time to be raising money!) and during my time I pitched to over 100 investors and they all said ‘that’s all very nice. But no we can’t invest right now’. We closed the business but the following week I met a venture capitalist I knew from LBS who asked me to join his company. I was working there when I was tapped on the shoulder by the chairman and founder of the New Entrepreneurs Foundation which is where I currently work.
What has been the biggest challenge with regards to your idea/business?
I thought at the time that our main challenge was our timing (starting a finance venture immediately after the crash of 2018) but looking back on it actually the challenge was that we weren’t able to sell the proposition properly and nowadays people can start businesses and go as far as launch without any external funding. We were three people who had come from a corporate background so we didn’t really understand how to do a lean start-up so our business plan said ‘give us three million and we’ll set up this amazing company which will be profitable within three years without any traction! That’s not the way start-ups work and I don’t think we understood the start-up mentality. I understand it now, ten years later!
Other general challenges which I come across when speaking to entrepreneurs I mentor is this chicken and egg situation where entrepreneurs say ‘I need to get traction but in order to get some traction I need money’ and the investors say ‘we’ll give you some money but we need to see some traction’. Another challenge for founders is finding the right people for your early teams and especially finding the right co-founders because it’s a lonely business doing it on your own. I know of many businesses that have gone belly up because of co-founder conflict.
What has been the most rewarding experience?
I think the rewarding experience for everything I’ve done whether its failed start-ups or working in corporates is that I’ve learnt something from each one of them and I’ve met some really incredible and talented people, many of whom are friends to this day. If you have a learning mindset and you’re curious, in any job you do you’ll learn something if you ask the right questions. I think curiosity is something that is ingrained in me – if I don’t know something I will ask people and find out.
It was also a great honour to be listed recently in the UK’s top 50 most influential women in Tech by Computer Weekly magazine. I’ve been ‘in’ tech since the day I graduated so I was particularly delighted by this recognition.
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to follow in your footsteps?
If you want to be successful in a big corporate and move up the ladder, you’ve got to grab opportunities as they arise, which is something women are shy about doing. You’ve got to get out there and look at cross-departmental projects, put your hand up and say you want to lead it. Say yes and figure out how you’re going to do it later. That’s always my approach. I always say yes and then think ‘oh great, how are we going to do that?’. Get involved and be seen. So, when it comes to big projects you’re top of the mind in senior people’s heads. Once you deliver a great project and when promotion time comes, you are the first person they think of. It’s about creating your own brand within the company if you want to be successful.
Now, let’s find out a bit more about you outside of work…
What is your favourite place in London?
Hampstead Heath. It’s my favourite place. I live right by it and it’s where I walk my dog every weekend. I love to see the yearly changing of the seasons through the trees, shrubs and bushes. It’s the place I go to when I need to think about a seemingly intractable problem or if I’m feeling a bit low. My dog, Jasper always cheers me up with his energy and enthusiasm.
What is your favourite holiday destination (that you’ve travelled to)?
The Amalfi Coast and Amalfi specifically, I’ve been there six times. I just love the whole coastline; the ambience, the views, lifestyle and food. You can just sit there and look at the view forever. Having said that, I have recently discovered the beaches of South Goa, so Amalfi has competition!
Which website do you check every day?
Very few. I subscribe to a lot of news feeds so I don’t actively go into websites everyday but if I do it would be BBC News. I also use Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and will look at LinkedIn once a week or so.
What is your dream travel destination?
I want to do the Silk route from Istanbul all the way to Beijing and X’ian, so right across Asia. I’m already making plans to do it in three years’ time or when I can take a sabbatical because I’ll need three or four months to do it properly.
Do you prefer cheese or chocolate?
Cheese. I don’t mind a bit of dark chocolate once in a while either!