From MBA to CEO: navigating the waters of entrepreneurship with Oxford Saïd

5 minute read

On day one of the Oxford MBA, I was struck with the stark realization that I would need to make a set of life altering choices, and very quickly. Should I continue to pursue a career in the energy sector, try out consulting, or forge a new path in entrepreneurship? The sense of urgency was further compounded by the fact I had responsibility - my decisions had a wider impact. I was a father to a 9-month-old boy, and husband to a wife who had put a very promising corporate law career on pause whilst I pursued my excessively time consuming and expensive dream. To add to the confusion, many of my fellow MBA colleagues appeared to have it all figured out; in many cases knowing exactly where they were headed coupled with a meticulous plan of every step in their journey to get there.

I had always been entrepreneurial so that avenue was the most appealing. In reality, at least to me, entrepreneurship had always seemed like a pipedream type career option, reserved only for the Bransons, Gateses and Musks of the world. You hear disproportionately about the 10% of successful startups and barely anything of the 90% that fade into extinction. As an engineer, I was stereotypically risk adverse and sceptical - entrepreneurship was ‘too aspirational’ and would never be a means of paying the bills. However, I was enamoured by all things climate. Even my time in oil and gas was spent deploying environmental deep tech, constructing a liquid hydrogen carrier in Japan and testing the feasibility of carbon capture and storage and its associated supply chains.

For me, a career in entrepreneurship meant a career in impact. That said, I had odd pre-conceptions of what impact-focused ventures involved and how they operate. It seemed somehow fraudulent to focus on impact whilst simultaneously seeking to drive commercial success. Similarly, impact seemed quite nebulous and abstract, and at best niche - therefore where would the critical funding required for the much-needed progression come from? This mindset hazed my perspective in the early days of the MBA and I nearly made regrettable decisions. 

Before joining the MBA, I had co-founded a deep tech company, Armada Technologies. Armada designed and engineered climate hardware solutions to curtail the monstrous emissions of the global shipping industry. The company had real promise and had raised a small amount of grant funding to conduct a critical function test, off the back of which Armada gained some decent industry traction. However, my co-founder and I had only a blurry vision on how to scale and raise finance. 

Fast forward to today, Armada is adapting and growing at a remarkable pace. We have a growing sales funnel, increased headcount and are strongly capitalized following a $3.2M seed round closure. Our progress is in no small part thanks to the academic rigour of the MBA programme, the real-world insights of professors of practice, and of course the unwavering dedication of MBA colleagues who dedicated their valuable time to support the business through the Entrepreneurship Project and the strategic consulting project - one such MBA colleague is now Armada CFO.

I’m extremely proud of the strengthening interlinkage between Armada and the business school, which continues to evolve and strengthen. It’s true that the Armada team has grasped every conceivable opportunity offered up by the School with both hands. That said, it is absolutely a two-way street and Oxford Saïd has never failed to support us on our journey.

The make-up of our capitalization table is testament not only to the school’s prioritization of entrepreneurship (Oxford Seed Fund and a crowd fund from the Oxford MBA cohort of 21/22) but also the global recognition of the school’s brand. Both of which helped Armada get a seat at the right table, at the right time, through Founders Factory, Future Planet Capital and investment by David Scrymgeour (Executive in Residence at the Entrepreneurship Centre and a Business Fellow at the University’s School of Enterprise and Environment).

Post-MBA, we continue to meet frequently with our entrepreneurship mentor, Stephen West, to thrash out business strategies and novel financing avenues. Similarly, we regularly receive ‘kind delivery of brutal honesty’ from mentors Michael Wilshire and Guy Turner on sticking points we experience along the way. Our incoming non-executive director on the Armada board is a seasoned maritime executive, having sat on the board of NYSE-listed shipping companies and serves on the board of governors for the Society of Maritime Arbitrators. He also happens to be an Oxford alumni, class of '77.

Armada now enjoys the support, connections and experience of a real melting pot of perspectives which we utilize to address day-to-day challenges and to trial, error, implement and affirm business approaches in the ‘real world’.  

Throughout the MBA and since, I have come to appreciate the broad spectrum of what it means to be impactful as a business, and what’s more that the realization of impactful business is both correlated with, and driven by, commercial success. Whilst the funding landscape is challenging, financing is available for businesses with a clear linkage to angel and climate-focused venture capital thesis.

I co-founded Armada with a friend and experienced maritime executive. Experiences and relationships developed on and alongside the MBA have lit the fuse on what Armada is now growing into. As it turns out, I found my calling at the cross-section of entrepreneurship and climate impact. However, without the belief, guidance, sacrifice and dedication of many people, we would never have gained the confidence to go after it. 

I’m lucky to have developed so many fantastic connections that underpin our success to date and I’m excited to lead Armada through the next phase of Armada’s mission - to decarbonize shipping.

Oxford MBA