Sarah Barratt Ball is the Director of Oxford’s Creative Destruction Lab (CDL), a programme that runs in nine business school locations globally, founded in Toronto in 2012. CDL is a global program that mentors massively scalable, seed stage, science and deep-tech ventures so they can reach their full commercial potential. CDL works closely with many University departments and Oxford University Innovation (OUI) for suggestions for new start-ups and individuals that might be a part of our programme. Surrounded by industry and university experts, CDL are leveraging the convening power of the University to build an incredible mentor community to guide entrepreneurs.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I graduated in 1992 from Exeter University. Then followed my core ability – maths and statistics – I spent 12 years trading and then creating risk management solutions in Currency Derivatives, which wouldn’t have been what I would have chosen for myself, but it really got me outside my comfort zone, and I loved it. I loved the rigor of it; I loved the global macro-perspective of it. I loved that you had to listen carefully to people’s needs were and find a solution.
I left because I found I was really good with a blank sheet of paper. I liked building and creating new things.
When I got to New York and was a managing director on Wall Street for Morgan Stanley, I loved that every one or two years they gave me something different to build, something new to construct. From there my transition into hedge funds was relatively straightforward – even though it was a risk in 2008 when the financial landscape was far from stable.
After co-founding a consultancy firm in New York and then moving to the Cotswolds, I started as Director at CDL because I wanted to be back working on a team. At CDL we’re all working with this vision of bettering our world. Nobody that works for me is doing it for the money – they could earn more elsewhere. It’s about making a difference. About taking these seed ideas and helping commercialise them for the betterment of humankind.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
It’s being creative and solving problems. There’s an art as much as a science behind it, because you have to balance being a good listener and also being nimble and decisive.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Number one is transparency and feedback. You have to be transparent with how you communicate. It’s useful to listen to other people’s advice and be open-minded.
Perhaps a little contrary to that, number two – you have to be decisive.
And number three: execution. You have to work hard, but also smart. There’s vision, strategy and execution. You need some of that in every job you do, but entrepreneurs must thrive in the execution.
(Three and a half – learn to delegate!)
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
We only have limited time on this planet – and from my perspective, it has always been about how best to spend that time. Being entrepreneurial allows me to be creative, it allows me to lead, to energise. And CDL allows me to meet people who are also on this journey, are incredibly interesting and very passionate.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
This is a difficult question because it also represents what I stand for. In terms of my DNA, I would have to say Morgan Stanley; I thought it was a great culture and a fantastic learning platform. I respected the way it was run, the people there, the transparency, the feedback. That’s a boring answer but it suited me so well in my growth period.
In terms of innovation, although this is very close to home, I really admire the CDL platform. What we are building is fascinating, it’s exciting, it thinks outside the box. Our goal is to be here for the betterment of humankind. We’ve already created $4.5 billion of value in ventures that are here for that very purpose. I am so excited to be on this platform.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
My favourite moments all centre on seeing people in my teams reach a potential they never thought they could reach. My goal is always the outstanding, and I impose that goal on everything I do, and everything the team does. We don’t always hit it, but it is a really great bar. You break your team goals into individual goals, and you try to stretch people – and when they achieve what they thought they couldn’t, it is a fantastic moment. It is the best kind of ‘I told you so’.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
Something I’ve learned is it is vital to pick yourself up quickly. We all fall down. Getting back up again takes courage but it’s the only way you will ever succeed.
Another important lesson is not to burn any bridges. If you are entrepreneurial you are probably creative and want to work with different opportunities. I’ve always been very careful to continue to work with my past relationships and build an important network and infrastructure around myself.
Also, I wouldn’t call any decision you made with consideration and thought a ‘mistake’, even in hindsight. Your mistakes are the fabric that become you. Some things in hindsight might be painful but it is a part of your experience, it makes you different and stronger.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
There are endless resources for students at Oxford University – the Entrepreneur Centre, Oxford Foundry, the Skoll Centre. There’s also so much online; so many Ted Talks; and so many educational sessions you can just find online.
I recently read the Elon Musk biography, and I think that’s fantastic. I think if you’re an entrepreneur you’re probably born that way, and sometimes you need the encouragement. To me it’s less about the path of building a company and more about the belief that you can – so I would point you to biographies of people that have done it and failed, done it and failed, and done it and failed again. He’s a really interesting example of having a great vision and not allowing failures to slow him down.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
When I graduated and went into banking I was one of three women on a three-hundred person trading floor. I think that was a challenge – especially having come from an all-girls school. I was brought up feeling like I could do anything and suddenly I was in an environment where I wasn’t invited to things, where I wasn’t in groups, and that feeling of exclusion was a quandary to me. I didn’t take it personally – instead, being solution-focused, I tried to find a way to get into that group. I ended up feeling embraced by banking. I just started picking up the culture of where I was working, and picking up the culture of my clients.
I took up golf and I was pretty useless at it – but each time I was invited by a client, it meant I could go and spend time with them. I needed to play on their field before I had the opportunity to shift the field in my direction. If the only field that exists is theirs, get on it. Start playing by their rules, and then you can influence and adjust them.
I’ve often been the only female in meetings, organisations and teams. I don’t see it as a weakness – I see it as a strength. I see it as empowering rather than demoralising: I have a perspective no one else in the room shares; I’ve got more of an opportunity to add value.
It all comes back to the importance of time – I have no interest being in a room where I’m represented by everybody else. If I’m in a room full of people very different from me, I’ll learn from them and they’ll learn from me – and that’s perfect.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
Mentorship. Don’t ever be afraid of asking someone to help mentor you. And network, fairly relentlessly. Also, get an elevator pitch. Know who you are and what your business is. You should know how to represent yourself. Your experience and achievements will, overtime, build a lot of your credibility – but otherwise it’s all about the first two minutes.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
At CDL, 52% of our programme’s MBAs are female this year. We want to find the right representation at every level, but also influence changes. We’ve started the ‘High School Girls’ Programme’. We’re engaging young women from 14-18 years of age, who can come into the programme for a day. They receive keynote speeches by young women who are scientists, who are founders, who are mentors, and hopefully it inspires them. If they see someone that looks like them, they will believe they can do it. It’s a way we can give back and try and change the demographic so young women stay in STEM subjects.
I think the University of Oxford is looking very carefully at its demographic and knows that diversity is more than gender – it is also sexual orientation, race, economic background. It is vital to us that we are building a CDL programme that is diverse.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Three pieces of advice:
Firstly – don’t feel you have to.
Secondly, if you want to, just do it!
Thirdly, when you fall down, pick yourself up very quickly. Don’t waste time second-guessing yourself.
Any last words of advice?
Know you are still valuable when the room doesn’t look like you – moreover, that you have a valuable perspective that no one else has. If the room all looks the same what progress and change will that make?
With the pandemic, we’re at a point where I have never felt things move faster. Our way of life has seen a seismic shift, and I think entrepreneurialism always exists best when there’s some kind of earthquake – things breaking, and adjusting, and changing. There is an earthquake in society right now and there are a lot of fissures being opened up. It is entrepreneurs filling those fissures. The old way of things has to be reconsidered. Right now is a fantastic time if you happen to be an entrepreneur.
EnSpire Oxford is a University of Oxford initiative to help connect people to the entrepreneurship resources they need, and to promote entrepreneurship across Oxfordshire.
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