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Innovative approach to personalising the experiences of online consumers

Alumni Stories.

Having recently graduated after completing the two-year Executive MBA course at Cass Business School, Isabella Aberle is already putting her new and developed skills into action by improving the experiences of both consumers and online companies. Isabella’s new venture Xarista – which has just successfully secured a spot on City Launch Lab – will support businesses with personalising their websites based on who is visiting them, making the user experience much more relevant and enjoyable.

We caught up with Isabella to find out more about her time at Cass Business School and how Xarista came about. 

 

Can you tell me about your time at Cass?

Having heard great stories from friends advocating for an MBA, it definitely weighed in on my decision to study the programme. Now with the studies behind me, I feel fortunate that I shared a similarly fantastic experience and learning journey. My time at Cass Business School was one of a kind!

It was challenging at times to manage time and energy, especially during year one of the two-year Executive MBA programme. But with the breadth of subjects and assignments, there was a constant sense of achievement. I equally enjoyed learning about new disciplines, and more about those I was already familiar with, either as part of my first studies or professional life.

Also, I cannot overemphasise the importance of my cohort and other Cass and City, University of London members. I’ve met amazing people from all types of backgrounds who I now call my friends.

 

What happened after you graduated?

I used my thesis to look into a specific business idea – a new form of web personalisation on users’ terms. With the learnings from the MBA and previous roles in strategy and product management, I had a solid tool kit to analyse the market, shape the core proposition and assess the potential of different routes to market.

By the time we finished our last lectures, I was confident in the business idea and dedicated most of my time to it. While we reached the next milestones over the following months, for example market validation with our prototype, I phased out other work commitments. Now, just after graduation, we are a small and growing team gearing up to launch our service Xarista.

With Xarista, third-party online companies can personalise their websites based on who is visiting them. Online companies in fashion, travel or groceries can tailor their products and content to suit each visitor’s preferences, and thus drive conversion and sales. Xarista users, individuals browsing the web, save time and enjoy relevant experiences online, while they are in control of their data.

Xarista offers true 1:1 web personalisation from the first second, and is a great step towards responsible marketing practises online.

 

How was Xarista born?

I spend a lot of time online and was frustrated by the time spent unnecessarily. Personalisation has been a ‘hot topic’ in marketing and consumer services for many years. However, when I go to a retail website, it takes time and effort to narrow down the product range to what I like – although a large part of my preferences and requirements (e.g. shoe size, holiday preferences) are consistent over time or across shopping sites. The cookie approach just doesn’t help much.

Moreover, I strongly believe it is the right time for the retail industry to take the next step in building out their web experiences via personalisation. There are regulatory pressures (GDPR), commercial pressures (it’s an Amazon world), and users are increasingly sensitive about their data and its value.

It was almost an obvious choice to combine my experience in marketing automation, transactional digital products and blockchain, and team up with other subject matter experts to create a service that meets the needs of both individuals and online companies.

 

Sounds great! Congratulations on Xarista securing a spot on City Launch Lab. Can you tell us a bit more about how that happened?

We learned about the City Launch Lab in the Entrepreneurship elective of my MBA. The City Launch Lab is the first of a series of steps CityVentures have taken to support student and alumni entrepreneurs with learning and support infrastructure.

We’re thrilled that Xarista got selected as one of the most promising ventures for the next intake this February. We look forward to the programme, especially the initial accelerator phase and the opportunity to share office space with some of the brightest entrepreneurs and most successful ventures that will grow at City over the next 12 months. This will definitely help boost Xarista and facilitate faster progression on our journey.

 

What have been the biggest challenges with setting up your own business?

Starting a company is a constant struggle of resources – time, human capital and financial capital. However, a successful entrepreneur is someone who thinks beyond current limitations. This meant for us two things. One, to be creative and always look out for a better way to spend our time, skills and funds to progress Xarista. And two, to balance dependencies between these resource pools carefully.

This was sometimes counterintuitive. We have, for instance, turned down an investment package including development resources, when we were looking for funding as well as development capacity. It was a tough call. Fewer dependencies – hence better optionality – helped us move faster and more confidently eventually.

 

What has been the most rewarding experience?

Unlocking the various pieces of building a company, step by step, was a most rewarding experience – and it still is!

Among the top things about entrepreneurial life I cherish, are the sense of purpose and how feedback from users or the businesses we speak to keeps the team and myself going the extra mile.

It’s true that every single conversation or meeting can bring up new ideas, new partnership opportunities and even more audacious goals. You never know what’s next. But we do know we’re onto something and wouldn’t want to miss it for the world!

 

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to follow in your footsteps?

I genuinely enjoyed that my MBA journey took me to a very different place than I imagined at the outset. Hence, my advice for anyone considering an MBA or secondary studies is to keep an open mind. To embrace the challenge – and the change! To gauge if an unforeseen opportunity is the right one to go for – and if it is, to do so decisively.

 

Is there anything the City community could help you with at this point?

Yes, indeed – I wouldn’t be a true start-up entrepreneur without asking for help!

Fellow students and alumni, do you have experience in online retail or know someone who is an expert in the field? I would love to hear your thoughts on Xarista and its impact on online retail/eCommerce as we know it today. Please email: isabella@xarista.io. Thanks for reaching out!

Do you spend a lot of time online and would like to own your experience with online retailers? Learn more about how Xarista can help you and sign up today at: https://xarista.io/ to start building your profile.

Now for some quick fire questions:

Where is your favourite place in London?
Shad Thames

What is your favourite holiday destination (that you’ve travelled to)?
Hong Kong

Which website do you check every day? 
Product Hunt

What is your dream travel destination?
I’d be suspicious of myself if I had only one! Cuba has been high up on my list for a while.

Do you prefer cheese or chocolate?
Chocolate

To find out more, visit: xarista.io.

Protecting the biosphere

Alumni Stories.

Angus Forbes is the founder of the charitable endeavour Bankers without Boundaries and is a Cass MBA alumnus passionate about protecting the biosphere through the creation of a Global Planet Authority, by way of the first action of global self-determination. He has recently launched the website www.votegpa.com and is married to ballerina and Strictly Come Dancing Judge, Dame Darcey Bussell DBE. Find out more below about Angus’ story… 

 

What did you study at Cass and what happened after you graduated?

I did an evening MBA in the Barbican Building.

I was working at Merrill Lynch as a stockbroker while I did my MBA, so I kept on working there. A few years later, I joined a hedge fund for a further six years and for the last 10 years, I have worked in small business, non-finance.

 

How did your business idea come about?

Two years ago, I started advocating global governance of the biosphere. I suspect it was due to my life experiences and observations.

The first 20 years of my life, I lived all over the world as my father was a diplomat. The second 20, I was in the City, here in London and I specialised in the consumer sector. The last ten I have had reasonable exposure to the environmental philanthropic sector.

 

What has been the biggest challenge with regards to your business?

Well, I started from scratch. I had to be brave enough to stand up and start talking about what I felt passionate about.

In two years, people have joined and we are beginning to get organised into work streams and become more effective at getting the idea out.

 

What has been the most rewarding experience?

Having 90% of hands go up of A level students, indicating that they would vote a Global Planet Authority into place…and having people join me on the journey.

 

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to follow in your footsteps?

If my footsteps are to be followed, I’d say, always pursue your passion when you can. There are times when you have to just knuckle down and earn some cash and feed yourself and your family, but never let go of what feels right and natural for you. Your passion doesn’t have to be some revelation, or some great insight. Most of the time, it’s just recognising what comes naturally to you. That’s because your brain and your soul are telling you.

 

Now for some quick fire questions:

Where is your favourite place in London?
Probably the walk path just inside Green Park, heading down towards the Mall. You have the London plain trees around you and feel right in the epicentre of a world city, a global cross roads.

What is your favourite holiday destination (that you’ve travelled to)?
Wherever there is a clean beach and a medium sized wave. Bondi at the middle flags is pretty special.

Which websites do you check every day? 
Daily Telegraph, Bloomberg and embarrassingly, I google Dame Darcey Bussell, my wife, just in case there’s some erroneous article written about her. I like to know if she needs a bit of protection, given she is in the public eye.

What is your dream travel destination?
Right now, to ski in the rockies, I have never been there.

Do you prefer cheese or chocolate?
Tough question. Chocolate just wins.

Tamara Hasan (Banking and International Finance, 2003) takes home prestigious prize at alumni awards in Qatar

Alumni Stories.

Tamara Hasan

 

When a close friend suffered an injury and wasn’t able to find a quality physiotherapy clinic, Tamara Hasan (Banking and International Finance, 2003) decided it was time to take action and raise the standards of healthcare in Qatar by opening her own clinic.

Having opened The International Physiotherapy Clinic in 2015, Tamara continued to expand her business by opening a second branch, as well as a third clinic, The International Medical Centre. This commitment to provide the highest level of medical care to the local community has rightfully earned Tamara the Entrepreneurial Award at the Study UK Alumni Awards in Qatar.

Following the awards, we caught up with Tamara to find out more…

Can you tell me about your time at Cass and what happened after you graduated?

It was a very long time ago but I have very fond memories of the University, the people I met and who can forget the student union!

Once, I graduated, I completed an internship with Lehman Brothers, which was a great experience. Fresh out of university and working with highly intelligent individuals! Following this, I then joined their graduate scheme and the rest of this as they say, is history!

Nomura then took over Lehman Brothers and I continued working there on the proprietary trading desk, trading equities globally for the portfolio managers. It was one of the most intensive jobs I have ever had, but one in which I will never forget. It taught me to be accurate, determined and definitely no pushover! In 2014, I got married and moved to Doha, where I set up my own healthcare business.

 

Yes, please tell us about how your business was born?

Unfortunately, a few years back my friend broke his arm while on a desert safari. After the incident, he really struggled to find a quality physiotherapy clinic in Doha and contemplated moving back to the UK for treatment.

So, I knew change was needed, and that is when I chose to open The International Physiotherapy Clinic in 2015. A year on from that, I opened a second branch and then another clinic with GP doctors, The International Medical Centre, to continue improving the health standards in Qatar.

 

What have been the most rewarding and challenging aspects of opening your own business?

There are many rewarding aspects to opening your own business, however with healthcare it is more tangible. What has been most rewarding is knowing that the clinic has been able to directly impact the local community by rehabilitating people from various injuries – anything from minor to chronic. These are people that previously travelled abroad for high quality care, or lived silently in pain.

I would say that the most challenging aspect of opening your own business is all the paperwork! There are lots of rules, regulations and ministries to deal with, and often the information required is not easily accessible. It has required a lot of hard work, and of course patience!

 

Well it certainly seems like you’ve been very successful. Congratulations on winning Entrepreneurial Award at the Study UK Alumni Awards!

From a very young age, my dad instilled in me the saying ‘education, education, education!’ That is the one thing that no one can take away from you and he really pushed my sister, brother and I by putting us in top schools in the UK. It was this education that allowed me to go onto complete my university degree at Cass Business School and set the foundations of what was soon to be my career in banking.

Having moved to Qatar and set up something totally out of my comfort zone and unrelated to my 10-year banking career, it has been a dream to win the Study UK Alumni award. Especially as Doha is actually my birth place, so to be able to give back to the local community and help improve people’s health in Doha has made it even more special. I also felt very lucky to have had the opportunity to study in the UK and now represent my university, Cass, for all the doors it has opened for me.

 

Do you have advice for anyone looking to follow in your footsteps?

There will be people who will tell you your goals are impossible or put doubts in your mind that things are possible. My advice? Don’t listen! Keep pushing yourself and give it a go – you would be surprised how far drive, hard work and common sense get you.

 

Now for some quick fire questions:

Where is your favourite place in London?
Has to be Covent Garden. The cobbled streets, the market stands and who can forget, Ben’s Cookies!

What is your favourite holiday destination (that you’ve travelled to)?
Beijing

Which website do you check every day? 
BBC News

What is your dream travel destination?
Africa on a safari

Do you prefer cheese or chocolate?
Chocolate – hands down!

To find out more, visit https://theipcentre.com/ and https://theimcentre.com/ and follow the team on Facebook and Instagram: theipcentre & theimcentre.

Photo credit: British Council Qatar

Helping women take control of their finances

Alumni Stories.

After starting a career in investment management, Davinia Tomlinson (Executive MBA, 2017), soon realised that the number of women actually investing in their future was considerably low. Noticing a gap in the market for a financial advice service for women, Davinia recently launched rainchq.

Here you can read about Davinia’s time at Cass Business School and how rainchq is supporting women with making financial decisions for themselves and their families.  

Can you tell me about your time at Cass?

I originally embarked on the Executive MBA because I’d become frustrated with corporate life and felt that I wasn’t really fulfilling my potential. I was desperate to run my own business but lacked the confidence, the resources and the the understanding of how businesses worked.

This is why I chose to study at Cass. I knew it would provide me with access to the university’s outstanding academic and professional networks both in the UK and overseas, while also encouraging me to build relationships that would stand the test of time. I’m pleased to say that my experiences at Cass are among some of my most rewarding and memorable.

The modular programme was particularly attractive because it enabled me to juggle work, study and motherhood simultaneously and gave me an insight into how far I could stretch myself in meeting multiple different commitments. I couldn’t have selected a better launchpad for my transition into entrepreneurship.

What happened after you graduated?

By graduation, I was pregnant with my second child so I went on maternity leave a few weeks later. During this time, my thinking around a concept – that would eventually become rainchq – had started to crystallise.

I began the process of fleshing out the idea in more detail and testing it with colleagues, friends and family. Over a year later and having pivoted the business model twice before launching, rainchq opened for business to help women take control of their financial futures.

How did rainchq come about?

The idea for rainchq came to me shortly after I started my career in the investment management industry over a decade ago. I was shocked by the low numbers of women investing and couldn’t understand why. With data showing that women typically save up to 3 times less than men do for later life and a gender pension gap in the UK of 40%, there was a real opportunity to make a difference to how women plan for the future.

My vision is to help millions of UK women take control of their financial future and ultimately, prevent pensioner poverty through a 3 pillar service. We offer:

  • financial education – designed to demystify the world of investing and unravel the jargon the industry is renowned for
  • access to qualified and regulated financial advice, delivered via video conferences to maximise accessibility to women across the country
  • events focused on all aspects of holistic wellbeing, from financial through to physical

What have been the biggest challenges?

As a bootstrapped business, financed through savings as well as support from family, one of the biggest challenges of course is funding.

Aside from this, there was also a small minority group of people who questioned the validity of a financial services business focused exclusively on women. Some of the feedback I received during the research process, primarily from women, was that I was at risk of alienating or isolating them even further. My response to this is: for many of the population, the current approach to financial services, at least in the UK, excludes many women through poorly targeted communications, inaccessible services and a more masculine and aggressive approach overall.

rainchq is designed to tackle some of these issues by creating a service designed to meet the, arguably, distinctive financial needs of 50% of the population, who have historically been ignored.

What has been the most rewarding experience?

The best part of this journey for me was the research process. During this time, I met dozens of women in focus groups, conducted scores of one-to-one interviews and received survey feedback, which helped me to validate the business idea and gave me greater confidence that there might be a gap in the market for a service like this.

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to follow in your footsteps?

Surround yourself with a positive, supportive group of like-minded people who can help keep you upbeat during the inevitable slumps but who can also offer constructive feedback on things you can improve. I would also encourage anyone in a similar position to ensure that they have a good financial safety net before they leave paid employment so they don’t have to worry about paying the bills in the first year. And finally – however long you think it will take to get the business off the ground, double it! Patience is a much needed virtue in this process.

Now for some quick fire questions:

Where is your favourite place in London?
Greenwich Park

What is your favourite holiday destination (that you’ve travelled to)?
Thailand

Which website do you check every day? 
Financial Times

What is your dream travel destination?
Anywhere in the Caribbean

Do you prefer cheese or chocolate?
Chocolate!

To find out more, visit rainchq.com and follow the team on all social media platforms @rainchq

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