When Elizabetta Camilleri won female entrepreneur of the year in the 2013 Smarta100 Awards last month, she finally got recognition for what has been one hell of a journey.
The MBA, who graduated from London Business School back in 2000, has achieved great success since leaving her consultancy career with PwC and becoming an entrepreneur. She is part of a minority of female business owners in the UK.
Her start-up, SalesGossip, was voted one of the top-20 best websites by The Times for saving shoppers money earlier this year. In July last year, Zabetta snapped up the RBS EnterprisingU competition – bagging £25,000 for her start-up. They work with big-name brands such as Armani, Nike and Tommy Hilfiger.
But SalesGossip, which provides an online and mobile service that gives users access to fashion and beauty deals in over 600 stores, is the culmination of hard graft, trial and error, and serious difficulty.
When she launched the business two years ago with fellow LBS alumnus Emilio Sanz, she was confident that it would be a smooth ride.
“But that was complete bull,” she says from SalesGossip HQ in London. “It was ten times harder than I ever could have imagined. Everything became a problem. Describing it as difficult is an understatement.”
There are many challenges associated with start-ups, and Zabetta struggled to raise finance, get employees and attract more people to the company’s website. But looking at the business now, you wouldn’t know it – SalesGossip has swelled from 500 to around 250,000 users.
“It becomes an addiction,” says Zabetta. “Everything is a challenge and you have to overcome them. It’s so amazingly rewarding to pass every stage of the journey.
“The only thing that gets you through it is perseverance. When I look back I realize that we have come so far; it is just unbelievable.”
SalesGossip has come a long way but it is not her first entrepreneurial venture. Zabetta founded indiluup – an online platform for parents similar to a family calendar, which she ran for almost three years. After developing a detailed business plan, it was clear that she missed a few tricks.
Obtaining information on children’s events at school was fraught with security issues. Big companies “monopolized” the industry and in the end, she had to close the company down.
Gaining an MBA from the UK’s highest-ranking business school was Zabetta’s way of gaining international exposure and moving away from a career in management consulting. Before beginning the program 25 years ago, she was a senior consultant at PwC for a number of years.
A lot has changed in the business school world between now and then. LBS has climbed to the top of the UK’s MBA Rankings and there is a lot more support for entrepreneurs. Zabetta thinks an MBA is still valuable today – especially for those with an entrepreneurial mind-set.
“An MBA is an amazing luxury; to be able to have such an in-depth overview of what’s happening in the world of business,” she says. “It offers you that breath of knowledge to be more inquisitive and gives you the skills and tools to succeed.
“As an entrepreneur you are in a very weak position. You are no-one, you’re starting from scratch. It’s essential to have a view of everything that can impact your business.”
After leaving LBS, she entered a start-up in a marketing role before working as a senior manager at Orange – the mobile phone giants. “After working in that start-up, the bubble just burst,” she says. “I knew I wanted to work in areas with innovation and high growth.
“When I moved to Orange it was interesting because there are very few big companies that remain innovative. I realized if I wanted to create innovation then the only place I could work was within a startup.”
Zabetta was inspired to create SalesGossip after a shopping trip. Lots of her favorite stores had sales on that she didn’t know about. By the time she got there, all the good stuff was gone.
“I asked my friend what App she was using to find shopping sales,” she explains. “But no one knew of one. I thought: surely this can’t be? I talked to my business partner and we tested the idea without a business plan. After we saw that it worked, we began analyzing the industry.”
Launching a start-up is immensely difficult and Zabetta would have been forgiven for returning to a consulting firm. But after co-founding her current business with fellow LBS MBA Emilio, they used the business schools incubator programme.
With a free office space, money could be reserved for other needs. They were also surrounded by like-minded entrepreneurs and experts from a wide range of industries.
“I feel that is the most amazing part of LBS; how supportive the whole network is,” she said. “We are still very much entrenched in it. Recently, we brought a senior editor into the company on recommendation from a friend at LBS. It was perfect.”
While she received much help from LBS, it is a sad fact that there are just not many female entrepreneurs in the UK. Just 17 per cent of business owners in the region are women and Zabetta is part of a rare minority of successful female entrepreneurs.
She says that some women have different priorities and it can be difficult balancing family life with running your own business. It is personal choices, not capability, which is holding women back - as any MBA will tell you, managing a successful start-up will take over your entire life.
But Zabetta thinks being female is an advantage. “Growing up, it was difficult to find role models that were women,” she says. “Maybe we need more female role models who have become amazing businesses people.”
While just 4 per cent of CEOS in Fortune 1000 companies are female, diversity was given a boost this week when Mary Barra was named chief executive of General Motors.
Zabetta says there are three things that MBA entrepreneurs need to succeed: time, perseverance and tolerance to earn very little money.
“A lot of people want to become entrepreneurs at the moment, but there is no glamour in it,” she says. “You have to work round the clock with no money. If you are in it for the money, go into consulting or banking.
“You have to percevere. Something will eventually work; you just have to keep trying. If you have the energy, you should just go for it. Nothing is as rewarding as seeing something go from nothing to all of a sudden [becoming a success].
“What you will learn in the process is unbelievable.”
Zabetta studied an MBA many years ago – but what she learned is still valuable today. LBS allowed her to evolve from a management consultant to an entrepreneur, and the business school is still helping her today.
There should be more successful women who are entrepreneurial leaders.
Perhaps female MBAs now have one more role model to look up to.
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