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What My MBA Taught Me About Being An Intrapreneur

Lishini Karunatillaka applied for an MBA to understand what she needed to be an intrapreneur. She now finds and tests new products for the world’s largest clothing brands

At MAS Holdings, one of the world’s largest clothing manufacturers, business entrepreneur Lishini Karunatillaka works to find the latest products and innovations for brands like Nike, Calvin Klein, and Victoria’s Secret. It's a role many would call an intrapreneur—working like an entrepreneur within a larger organization—which global recruitment specialist Michael Page named their top skill of 2020. 

It’s about spotting areas where companies can be more efficient, more innovative, and more in line with what the customer wants. As for someone working in a startup, it’s about spotting opportunities and gaps in the market. 

It was during her MBA at Aston Business School that Lishini learnt how to think like an intrapreneur, preparing her for a role in innovation and, in the near future, starting her own business. 


A new, broader experience of an MBA

With a bachelor’s degree in economics and finance under her belt, Lishini’s career hit the ground running when she landed a role at Unilever, first in sales, then moving to brand management. 

As far as experience went, it was a strong foundation for Lishini’s promising career; but after four years she craved a broader experience—an experience that would help her, one day, set up her own company.

“I realized that an MBA would give me a holistic view of skills and knowledge, that I could bring back to the corporate world, and that would help me eventually start my own business,” Lishini remembers. 

With a diverse classroom and an emphasis on entrepreneurship, Aston Business School’s MBA program ticked these boxes. 

From day one, the MBA gave her exposure to a diversity of nationalities, skills, and industries that kept broadening her knowledge. 

“There were people who had started their own business, who had come from finance, pharmaceutical backgrounds—so many different skill sets and industries,” she says. 


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Learning from other entrepreneurs

It was exposure to entrepreneurship, however, that really stuck with Lishini. 

In her MBA class, there were several people who were running their own businesses—at all stages from someone who had just started it, to someone who was already running several businesses that were turning a profit. 

“It was interesting to understand how they each look at the strategy of growing a business,” she says. “That really helped in seeing how people have experimented with various tools to see what works well in different situations.”

From group work to business simulations, she saw how people approached problems with an entrepreneurial mindset. 

Lishini had a chance to explore her own startup ideas, conduct research and writing a business plan for her final project. It started as a faint idea—a mobile beauty business in Sri Lanka—that grew into something more fully formed. 

“With the help of my supervisor, it felt more realistic, even though it was part of my dissertation, and I felt it was something three years down the line that I could feasibly start on my own.”


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Three important skills

Lishini often reflects on the most important things she learned about being an entrepreneur from Aston, which boils down to three core skills. 

First—risk taking. 

“I learned not to be worried about failing. If you fail, it means you’ve learnt something, and you just adjust your plan,” Lishini advises. 

If the plan fails, then it’s simply about iterating and repeating the same idea, with a slightly fine tuned approach. If you never fail, then you’re unlikely to learn the right lessons to build a stronger business. 

Second—people skills. 

This is about networking, about learning from others, but also about receiving funding. If you can’t talk to people and negotiate well, you’re unlikely to garner the funding for your project. 

Finally—developing a strategic mindset.

This is more than just grasping strategy, it’s about seeing the bigger picture in business, from customer demand to practicality and efficiency in products. This involves thinking three-to-five years ahead about what you want your business to look like. 

“If you’re launching a bottle of water, you need to think about whether it’s a bottle of water you are launching, or are you providing a solution to help people who are thirsty?” Lishini says. 


Next steps in her journey

As a business entrepreneur in the innovation department at MAS Holdings, Lishini is constantly applying what she learned about entrepreneurship at Aston. 

“It’s about looking at opportunities and new market spaces that our MAS customers can expand into. We look at customer needs, look at technologies that can solve it, have a trial period, validate the technology and the solution, and then pitch it to brands,” Lishini describes. 

This involves everything from making their processes more sustainable, to incorporating internet-of-things technology into their clothing. While Lishini continues to develop the possibilities for her own business, it’s a role that’s honing her entrepreneurial skills ready for an exciting startup journey.  

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