Learning To Expect The Unexpected: What LBS Taught Me

By Meredith Estren (MBA2016)

My MBA Study Group

Choosing to go to London Business School (LBS) was one of the best decisions of my life and even though I didn’t know it at the time, put me on a path of self-actualisation and exploration beyond anything I had hoped for. Reflecting on how much my life has changed in the last 9 years since I moved to London and had the deeply transformative experience of the LBS program, a few things stand out that I am happy to share.

The Before

Before LBS, I followed a fairly standard path. I was a nerdy child, devoted to school and getting into the best possible university, and then applied myself to an engineering degree at Duke in the US. After graduating, I went into strategy consulting at L.E.K. and while I worked there for a bit longer than the usual MBA track (4.5 years instead of 2) and moved countries in the process to Australia, I came to LBS knowing that having a background in consulting was really quite common. Being American and choosing to remain outside of the US rather than go to one of the many elite business schools back there was slightly less so, but I was determined to forge a new less trodden path going forward.

The During

I was enchanted and overwhelmed in the best way by the sheer amount of diversity and options available to me in the MBA program. I did realise fairly quickly that my desire to pursue something completely different than the vast majority of the class would mean I would have to be innovative and persistent in finding connections and opportunities. I was what they called a “triple jumper” – wanting to change my location, industry, and function – essentially a complete overhaul of my career. My dream was to be in the luxury hospitality industry and there was essentially no one else in my class with a similar goal. This was a benefit as it meant I could instantly avoid the finance and consulting information sessions that over 75% of the class went to, but a disadvantage in that I had to come up with my own strategy on how to break into the industry. Through opportunities such as the Walpole Programme in Luxury Management, LBS’ partnership with HEC, and the flexible structure of the program meant you could do block classes and work at the same time. I attended lectures on luxury from industry leaders in London, spent a term on exchange in Paris taking luxury strategy courses, and dived into two internships – one in the more traditional luxury hospitality space with a 5-star London hotel brand and one with a more start-up mindset around media in boutique hotels. I also leaned into my love of travel by organising a trip to East Africa (my first trip to the continent) and learnt enough networking skills to organise a number of meetings with luxury hotel groups based in Hong Kong purely through cold emailing alumni in the LBS network. 

Despite unfortunately not taking advantage of the numerous entrepreneurship classes and opportunities at LBS, I nevertheless found myself drawn to an early stage start-up in the proptech space as graduation neared. It seemed far from my initial goal of being in strategy in a hotel group, but the business of operating luxury around Airbnb properties felt interesting and a space that was poised to really grow versus the less tech-oriented nature of traditional luxury hospitality.

The After

Lavanda Conference

I plunged headfirst into early-stage startup life at Lavanda shortly after graduating and found myself on a roller coaster for the next 4.5 years of pivots, intense highs and lows, and a huge amount of learning about how to essentially grow a business from scratch, hire (and sadly fire when necessary) a team, and think critically about how building tech products can enable operational scale. As our business pivoted away from a luxury B2C product into a B2B SaaS solution, I missed what had initially drawn me to the company but found fulfilment (and plenty of stress!) in transitioning into a COO role preparing the company for a Series A fundraise. Managing the business throughout COVID taught me grit and resilience, but burned me out and left me seeking a new opportunity. 

I next worked at Uber, intrigued by its somewhat polarising brand and its “Version 2.0” culture post IPO. I initially worked on the mobility side of the business in its more “luxury” products, thus retaining a small link back to my MBA goals, but I will be the first to admit I personally had pivoted quite far away from my MBA self and now found genuine interest in getting behind the scenes of a big tech company managing data at a truly mind-boggling scale. I greatly appreciated the opportunity to switch roles multiple times over my time there and ended up running the Driver Operations team for the UK. It was a fascinating experience being at a recognisable global brand with such incredibly intelligent colleagues. However, my experience also forced me to reckon with the fact that my personality wasn’t cut out for being at a big corporate after all, despite longing for more stability when I was at a start-up. It turns out that despite the perils and existential stress of start-up life, all I needed was a little break from it, and I actually craved the excitement and chaos that comes with building a company from scratch.

Albertine Team

So now, I am the CEO of an early stage start-up called Albertine in the luxury hospitality space, building an app that aims to ease and enhance the lives of its customers through recommendations and bookings of everything from dining at the latest restaurants to local itineraries for far-flung destinations to getting tickets for cultural exhibits or concerts. We plan to use automation and AI on our custom-built back-end to get to know our customers and then supercharge our customer service agents so that we can continue to add a luxury level of personalised service as we scale. We have a growing base of private clients and are pitching to luxury brands, credit cards, and banks to white-label our app and thus gain thousands of customers at a time.

The Main Lesson: Expect the Unexpected

I feel like I have finally come full-circle in realising the goals I set out in my essay when I applied to LBS 10 years ago, but not in the way I expected at all. I never thought I would be growing a company from scratch, or become so interested in product management and how apps are built. I also thought I wanted to be part of a well-known brand rather than try to create one myself. And I didn’t anticipate that I would resonate with chaos and lack of structure more than an established corporate hierarchy. 

Life at LBS can be unexpected as well. I didn’t expect who I would be most drawn to in terms of their personalities and backgrounds, and I certainly didn’t expect how hard it would be sometimes to find the right opportunities for internships and jobs. It turns out that the unpredictable nature of the life that I chose at LBS prepared me very well for my career post business school. Moving out of your comfort zone is truly scary the first time you do it, and much of my life at LBS was devoted to exploring things entirely new to me – new cultures, new life philosophies, new countries, new realisations about what I truly wanted out of my life, and more. I am grateful that LBS facilitated my self-awareness and a new-found sense of confidence in plunging into unknown opportunities and situations. I would encourage anyone considering applying to LBS to expect the unexpected and lean into the unknown with a sense of curiosity and adventure!

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