Diane Perlman

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Diane Perlman sits on the Business Advisory Board for the Global Online MBA. Diane has two decades of professional experience in start-ups, big brands, agency work and running her own business. On the Board, Diane brings her expertise in marketing, her understanding of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and her knowledge of the innovation challenges large companies are facing.

With recent changes to the programme design on the Global Online MBA to now include Entrepreneurship and Corporate Innovation as core elements of the programme, Diane shares her career background, the entrepreneurial and innovation challenges facing corporates, and the value of sponsoring employees to study an Imperial MBA.

Tell us about your career to date.

I moved to the UK from America 17 years ago as Marketing Director of Cyveillance – which was then a start-up – before running my own business Branding Matters, where I worked with other big brands on digital, advertising and strategic communications. I also spent six years at Microsoft, four of those when I was running the marketing for the then new Windows Phone in the UK – that was great fun! I left that role to help Microsoft launch the Microsoft Accelerator in London before leaving to join Mass Challenge as Chief Marketing Officer. I am currently on a summer sabbatical and in September will be joining a leading advertising technology company as their SVP of Marketing & Communications.

Describe seeing the start-up ecosystem grow. 

It’s been incredible. I was working in the Northern Virginia tech corridor where AOL was growing up back in the mid-late ‘90s and Silicon Valley was on the rise. The internet was growing up around that time and it was all very new and interesting.

What do you think when you look at the start-up industry in the UK now?

It’s just so different. When I first came to the UK in 2000, there was no real start-up community. Even several years later when I was running Branding Matters, I was doing a bit of work for start-ups but it was still very nascent at the time. If you wanted to hang out and meet people who were building start-ups, there were monthly Drink Tank events run by Huddle where you could have a drink with people who are likeminded. Now you can’t even throw a pebble and miss hitting any number of start-up events happening in Tech City.

The Global Online MBA at Imperial has added two core modules: Entrepreneurship and Corporate Innovation. How important is entrepreneurship and innovation in today’s global business world?

It’s hugely important. Mass Challenge was almost entirely funded by corporates who were trying to get a handle on innovation and how to do it well, for example how to source and work with start-ups. A lot of the corporates who came to Mass Challenge also wanted to use it as an employee retention tool. They sent their top employees to soak up the start-up DNA and bring that mindset back to the company.

There’s a growing trend in corporates, especially in the banking sector, among others, where people are leaving their jobs to start their own business because they want to solve the problems they themselves experience and they also want more creativity and a workplace with more entrepreneurial spirit. To retain these top performers, there needs to be a change in the conversation.

Most corporates haven’t worked out how to do innovation well yet. On the whole, big companies will have a small innovation team and a large Research & Development unit. The units do the long-term stuff really well but getting products commercialised takes a long time and it is difficult stay on top of trends and be nimble enough to bring new products to market quickly. They’ve realised they need to work with start-ups and they’re starting to hire people to work on these cutting edge projects.

Entrepreneurship and innovation has never been more important as corporates change to keep up with today’s demand for competitiveness, and meet the demands of an employee base that wants more freedom and more entrepreneurial opportunities.

What are the bigger challenges facing the growth of innovation in companies? How does the Global Online MBA train students in those skill sets?

Right now, a lot of organisations pull people from other parts of the company to create an innovation team, which becomes a pocket of forward thinking people responsible for innovation initiatives, including sourcing start-ups that could help the business. It’s their job to understand the business challenges and to identify innovations that could potentially address those needs. What often happens, however, is that when the innovation team sources a start-up that could address a challenge e.g. streamline HR operations, HR isn’t thinking along the same lines or they don’t have the budget for it.

A lot of the challenge happens in the hand off, which is why companies need to spark and foster an innovative, entrepreneurial or intra-preneurial mindset throughout the organisation that goes beyond the innovation team.

The Global Online MBA is a big opportunity to give employees the skills and forward-thinking that’s needed to take a company into the future. If companies don’t get more entrepreneurial then they won’t be around for very long. Nearly three-fourths of the Fortune 1,000 have been replaced in the last 10 years, according to Forbes. To stay ahead of the trends, companies need to hire and retain people who can think and act in entrepreneurial ways.

The Imperial MBA provides students with expertise in the fundamentals of business, including Organisational Behaviour, Corporate Finance and Strategy, as well as essential skills in Entrepreneurship and Corporate Innovation. Students can develop their specialism in Marketing, Finance, Entrepreneurship or Strategic Management.

You sit on the Business Advisory Board for the Global Online MBA. What’s the role of the board?

The Business Advisory Board brings together industry leaders who review and advise on all aspects of the Global Online MBA. We advise on how relevant the programme is to students and employers, lend specific expertise in marketing and recruitment, and support the development and delivery of the programme. Each one of us is from a different background so we all add different things to the mix – that came out in the first meeting!

You’ve got a wealth of experience in entrepreneurship and innovation. How do you bring that experience to the Board?

I’ve spent the past five years working in the start-up accelerator space, with large corporates like Microsoft and many others, so I can see that industry quite clearly. With my background in marketing and my understanding of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and some of the challenges that large corporates are facing, I can offer insight on some of these areas.

Most Global Online MBA students work and study at the same time. Why should a business sponsor an employee to do the Global Online MBA?

Companies should sponsor employees to do programmes like the Global Online MBA as part of building the kind of workforce they need in this world of rapid acceleration that we live in. Everything is speeding up and companies need to be more agile. They need innovative people with an entrepreneurial mindset, who can think beyond the parameters they’ve been given.

Sponsoring the Global Online MBA is about motivating and retaining talent, and being competitive. Some employers might be worried that employees will start their own company, but the key is to see it as a retention tool that gives top performers a great opportunity to learn and apply skills the rest of the company can benefit from and motivate them to drive to the next level with that company.

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About Ruth Saunders