I continue with my series of interviews with members of the NEF programme, as mentioned in my first interview yesterday, I will be interviewing and releasing interviews of all the members of the NEF programme throughout the month.
Today, I have Ushma Soneji. Ushma is a Graduate from Oxford University currently placed at DFS based in Doncaster and also shadowing the CEO, Ian Filby.
Here is the interview
Hi Ushma, Its great to finally have you on YHP, how are you doing today?
I’m great thanks! Just enjoying being back home over the festive season.
Before we move on, could you quickly give us some background information about yourself so that the YHP audience can get to know you better?
Sure- I’m working at DFS in role that is vaguely entitled ‘Project Assistant to the CEO’. It involves a mix of business development and shadowing the CEO, Ian Filby. I got this role through the New Entrepreneurs Foundation, an organization that aims to nurture entrepreneurs by giving them tailored training and mentorship as well as experience within small to medium sized companies.
How did you get into entrepreneurship, what was your inspiration?
If I had to narrow it down, I’d say it came about when I first got involved in Young Enterprise at school. I decided to apply for Managing Director and loved the whole experience. I’d considered a number of career options by the time I reached university, but I realized that business, and especially big businesses, gave you the opportunity to touch lots of people’s lives in a small but positive way. That was what really appealed to me.
What was your first business, how the idea came about and tell us your experience running that?
Our Young Enterprise company, Route 17, made cushions with embedded speakers that could connect to MP3 players. We won a lot of awards for having an innovative product- but in all honesty, somebody in our team had a speaker cushion on them in the first meeting and said ‘we could do this’! Everyone got behind it, and it made sense to put the effort into creating a new product that everyone was passionate about. The most important lesson I learned that year was how much fun you can have when you throw yourself wholeheartedly into anything.
You studied PPE (Politics, philosophy and economics) at Oxford University; tell us about your experience at Oxford University?
It was an experience I feel very privileged to have had. The best thing about Oxford, by far, is the people. The friends you meet; the people you work with; the speakers you see; and the tutors that give you so much of their time. Terms are short and intense, but I loved my subject so it made sense to work hard and play hard!
I guess there’s been a lot of talk about going to university, the value of having a degree, entrepreneurship becoming a viable option, what made you realise that this was the right choice for you?
It’s problematic if you believe a degree is just a signal to future employers. When you start to consider self-employment, and particularly entrepreneurship, it doesn’t appear to be fully necessary. For me, however, my degree was a natural extension of everything I loved learning about and had little to do with employment opportunities. I was brought up to believe that while you are young and have few responsibilities, you should put your education first as it is the most natural time to focus. Similarly, you are also in a position to take financial risks and try new things, which is a key requirement for entrepreneurship. I therefore saw education and entrepreneurship as complementary, rather than conflicting.
You were quite involved in the oxford entrepreneurs society, tell us about that experience and some of the key things you learnt from that and opportunities that it has given you?
I became involved with Oxford Entrepreneurs when I took part in one of their OxPrentice events which involved pitching, creating and selling an ice cream flavour! Following that, they invited me to interview to join the society as the secretary. Taking meeting notes and writing the weekly newsletter allowed me to find out everything that the society was involved with. It’s a hugely successful and powerful society, but the best thing for me was meeting like-minded individuals. Your average week in Oxford will include at least one free meal/drinks event powered by a law, finance or consultancy firm and a lot of people fall into those careers because they are well-represented as well as being respectable and well-paid. It was nice to meet people who were considering different routes and trying something new.
You were also the president at SIFE during your time at oxford university? Talk us through how that happened and some of the key things you learnt from that also?
It’s a great story. I told the President of Oxford Entrepreneurs that I was interested in social enterprise, and he said I should meet with the current SIFE president to talk about it. I went to meet him for the first time over coffee and the conversation went a little something like this:
Him: ‘I’m leaving for India tomorrow. Can you take over?’
Me: ‘Er, sure. How can I get into contact with your team?’
Him: ‘I’ll send you their emails. But most of them are exchange students and leaving soon. You might want to recruit new ones’
And so I did exactly that. I recruited a great team, with really passionate people, and we began a couple of consultancy projects including working for a cruelty free milk organization (www.ahimsamilk.com), a Kenyan microfinance project (www.mashfoundationtrust.org) and sold our own paper pads for schools in India. I learned a lot over the year about how to recognize people’s skills and passions and delegate accordingly. It’s a tough lesson to learn, but a very important one.
You are also a member of the Kairos society, tell us about that organisation and why you decided to apply for it?
A few of my friends told me about the Kairos Society and said it sounded like something I’d enjoy. The Kairos Society aims to connect future leaders and entrepreneurs across the world through a passion for a better future. The real appeal lay in a trip to New York to meet entrepreneurs from around the world. The whole experience was a really positive one- there were so many passionate students who had started up innovative businesses, and it opened my eyes to the impact of disruptive technology on businesses. It was a trip for building friendships, as opposed to ‘networking’ and I really value the people I met here.
You did all of these things while you were in the university and still graduated with a 2:1 in your degree, how were you able to balance your time and keep focus?
Oxford can be intense at the best of times, but I think that all the extracurricular things I did actually forced me to focus my time better. Since I enjoyed it all, it felt more like a break from work than an additional workload most of the time. More practically, I didn’t have exams in second year and my final year counted for 100% of my degree, so I tried to cram as much into my second year as possible!
What would you say was some of the key things you learnt from that experience?
Being busy makes you more efficient.
Tell us about NEF and how you got involved?
I applied to the NEF because I felt I needed guidance. There’s a lot of agreement around the fact that the best way to start up a business is to get stuck in as soon as possible, but I still felt that I wanted to explore different industries and learn as much as possible about the process itself. The NEF seemed like the perfect opportunity for me, because I didn’t want a long term commitment to one role in one company, and to keep my ambitions to start up a secret. There is such a wealth of experience within our NEF class and we are all trying to achieve similar things. It’s been a hugely supportive experience and I’m grateful to be involved in it.
What company are you currently working with, what do you do and how’s the experience been so far for you?
I work for DFS and am based in their head office in Doncaster. I am working on and managing a few projects that will be tied into the company’s brand reappraisal and extending our customer base. It’s a fascinating time to join as it’s going through a lot of internal change in tough external retail conditions. I was also trained as a salesperson and spent two weeks in store to get to know the product and the customer experience. I’ve got three mentors and am trying to understand the company on different levels.
The first is the director I work most closely with on the projects, who has a lot of experience in the industry. The second is the business development director, who helps me get an overview of how the projects come together to create future growth for the company. Finally, I get to understand the overall company strategy from the perspective of the CEO.
What are some of the key things that you’ve learnt so far from working at DFS?
1. Know how to sell.
2. Relationships and people come first.
3. You can’t know everything about a business, but you do need to know how to get relevant information when you need it.
Is this something that you would recommend to other aspiring entrepreneurs? What value can they get from the experience?
Definitely. I think the biggest benefit of the programme is the constant reassurance that entrepreneurship is a viable path, and that there are concrete steps that you can take and people you can talk to, to help you in this direction.
What would you say has been your most memorable moment so far?
I really enjoyed the opportunity to go to Richard Branson’s house for a Q&A session with other young entrepreneurs. I asked him his views on social enterprise, and he gave a really well- thought out answer on the different priorities of a business as it grows. It changed my perspective a little on social enterprise, and just goes to show how much advice you can get by talking to the people who have already achieved what you aim to do.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs looking to start their own business?
Meet as many people as possible with similar interests to you. They are likely to be the ones that push you in the right direction.
What are your plans after NEF programme? What can we be expecting from you in the future?
I’m keeping my options open and prefer to set long term goals. My aim is for my next steps to help me with my goal of starting a meaningful and value-led business, and to meet some interesting people on the way!