Mia Smith, Associate in the ECI Commercial Team reflects on what she’s learned since joining ECI nine months ago, how working in a social enterprise impacts her approach to work today and the enduring reputation of Alcibiades
Q: Your first role after university was at Debate Mate, what did you learn there that you still use today?
Debate Mate is a social enterprise that uses the format of debate to help children in areas of high child poverty develop confidence, communicate more clearly, and ultimately engage more effectively with the world around them. Competitive debating has historically been dominated by public/private schools, but Debate Mate seeks to make it – and the life-long skills it can help students develop – more accessible to all by removing the formalities and making it more fun. I went to a state school in Forest Gate, East London, and was one of the first students in the Debate Mate program, so I was really able to experience first-hand what an impact it can have. That was my main reason for getting involved full-time.
After university, I ran Debate Mate’s primary school program across roughly 100 schools in London and Manchester. It’s a small team in head office so my responsibilities really varied – from submitting funding applications to hiring mentors and checking in on student progress. It taught me lots of things – including that 10-year-olds can be far more articulate than 45-year-olds when they want to be – but in particular, how important it is to get stuck in and remain positive when a problem arises. Funding in the charity and education sectors is tough… paired with a small team running operations across the UK, things often went wrong. It taught me that when times get challenging not to panic, to pull up my sleeves and try to solve the problem!
Q: You went on from there to strategy consultancy. What made you decide to move from strategy consultancy to private equity?
I really enjoyed strategy consulting because it was super varied, and a mixture of quite quantitative detailed data analysis, and qualitative problem-solving. The thing I didn’t like was the detachment from the businesses you were working with. While you get to work with great clients, you don’t have the day-to-day interactions which makes the job I do now feel so much more impactful, and more interesting.
I also think working on short-term timeframes, as you often do in strategy consulting, means you never really get to the bottom of a problem. You work hard, you package up a solution, but you’re not really responsible for making sure it happens. You’re seldom challenged to consider the long-term repercussions, the reality of how the business operates, and what’s most helpful for them. So that’s what I was looking for, and can confidently say I’ve found at ECI.
Q: Was that what made you look to join ECI?
The consultancy I joined from works quite a lot with ECI, so I knew they had a great reputation for doing interesting work and being good people to work with. Private equity has a stigma of being hyper-competitive, intense… a bit of a “boys club”. ECI definitely didn’t have that reputation, which was a big reason behind applying for the role. I also liked that ECI has a dedicated Commercial Team to support the businesses it invests in – which shows value creation and collaboration are at the top of ECI’s agenda during investment. It isn’t about squeezing margins, it’s about offering support in a constructive way.
Q: What’s been the biggest learning curve since joining?
Patience. Nothing happens as quickly as you think it will! You can come up with great ideas, and you can have people invested behind them, but if people don’t have bandwidth, or the right data, things simply can’t go ahead – and that’s okay! Sometimes you have to make peace with things not happening straight away, which is very different from the deadline approach of consulting. I’m naturally quite impatient, so that’s been something I’ve had to learn since joining.
Q: You’ve been leading on building out the ECI ESG toolkit to support our portfolio. What do you think is the most valuable support investors like ECI can offer here?
I think the main thing that firms can do to support management teams is to help them get out of the detail and realise they can’t do everything. People often think progressing on ESG is about making detailed commitments, but it can be as simple as identifying a theme that means the most to your employees and customers. Once you have the high-level priority/priorities, it’s a lot easier to work out what the next steps are. ESG can be overwhelming, there are so many things you can do… it’s ECI’s job to facilitate conversations to get to the priority issues, and then support management progress on those.
Quick Fire with Mia:
As a classics graduate, who is your favourite figure from classics?
Quite a controversial figure, but the disgraced Athenian general Alcibiades has always held a soft spot. He does some pretty terrible stuff – defects from Athens, to Sparta, to Persia, and then back again during the Second Peloponnesian Wars, and is the architect of one of the most devastating Athenian defeats in Sicily in c.413BC – but he’s presented in such a ridiculous way in my favourite classical text, Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War”, that I can’t help but be intrigued…
What’s your most treasured possession?
I have a memory box that I’ve been adding to for a very long time. It’s full of random stuff – photos, train tickets, theatre tickets, trinkets, birthday cards. I’ve got less good at keeping things to put in it recently, but whenever I remember to I have a flick through the box and it brings back lots of good memories!
What is the best advice you’ve had in your career?
Don’t be afraid to look stupid. You learn from making mistakes and asking “silly” questions, it’s part of building who you are in your career.
What would you choose to send to Room 101?
People who chew loudly. Or people who tap their legs, or play music out loud on the train. I have this thing which I think is called misophonia, where small repetitive sounds really get to me – it makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
What is your karaoke song?
I’m a big fan of any song you can duet… Maybe Promiscuous Girl by Timbaland and Nelly Furtado. Early 00s RnB is always a crowd-pleaser.