What’s your academic background?
I was a technical student on the ALEPH experiment at CERN’s LEP collider in the mid-1990s, and then continued with a PhD on OPAL. It was very much a flat organisation and, despite being just a student, I felt I was also making a valuable contribution. When I left in 1999, not only had I acquired analytical skills but I also discovered the importance of institutional culture.
Why did you leave the field?
I was looking for some stability, which I did not think I would find if I remained in academia. We didn’t have social-media networks back then, so I relied on email and face-to-face networking to try and determine what I was going to do after CERN. I enrolled in an evening-class course on quantitative finance and found that the world of finance shares many similarities with physics – modelling and simulation for example. One thing I enjoyed is the sense of competition, although in the financial sector there is a lot more secrecy than in academia.
Did the course lead to a job offer?
Not directly, but I received lots of good advice, where to try my luck, which books to read, and how to highlight my own strengths. I worked in London from 2000–2007 as a quantitative analyst and hedge-fund manager in several organisations, including Merrill Lynch. Then, at the peak of the financial boom in the mid-2000s, I had what you might describe as a midlife-crisis. I started to think “what is the positive social outcome of what I’m doing?” So I enrolled for an MSc in environmental technology at Imperial College London, which led to a position as a policy analyst at the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change. I found the civil service quite strange in contrast to academia because it is extremely hierarchical and slow, and there is little freedom to implement what you think is best. But I gained valuable experience in understanding how government works and I enlarged my network.
How did you get into the world of start-ups?
I witnessed a huge amount of innovation in clean energies, especially in developing countries, so I started working as a freelance adviser, supporting green start-ups in emerging markets: a Colombian reforestation business, a clean-energy business in Sri Lanka and a manufacturer of solar systems for markets in Sub-Saharan Africa. Having participated in workshops, meetings and conferences, I had built up quite a network. In 2014, along with a friend who I’d met whilst studying for the MSc, I co-founded “Bidhaa Sasa” (“products now” in Swahili) based in rural Kenya. Bidhaa Sasa seeks to provide services to otherwise under-served communities, focussing on goods and services that will improve the quality of life for rural communities – particularly for women. What I bring to any table are my technical skills – anything that involves modelling, financial projections, building spreadsheets and developing the financial aspect of a business.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned so far?
There is a huge amount of value in the connections you make, which I did not realise when I started out. Do not feel shy when you reach out to people for advice, as you will be surprised by the kindness of strangers and the extent to which people are willing to help. Also take a course or attend a conference in an area of interest, speak to people and collect business cards. Use the power of the network!