Alex Zhou

Programme: MSc Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Management

Nationality: American

Undergraduate education: Hotel Administration, Cornell | MPhil Real Estate Finance, University of Cambridge

Job after Imperial College Business School: Co-founder and CEO, Refund Giant

MSc Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Management

About you

What work experience/internships did you have before beginning with Imperial College Business School?

Prior to Imperial College Business School, my work experience has been split between a focus on design and real estate. Within the field of design, I was employed as an Architectural Intern at three different architecture firms – a Chinese-French architecture firm, a sustainable design firm and Perkins+Will. Within real estate, I worked as the Customer Acquisition, Retention, and Analytics Intern at SquareFoot (a New York based commercial real estate technology company), an Acquisitions Intern at Vanke (the world’s largest residential development firm), a real estate summer Analyst at Goldman Sachs, and a Development Intern at Strategic Property Partners (a $3 billion real estate joint venture).

Why did you decide to study an MSc Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Management at Imperial College Business School?

I wanted to bridge my background in design, real estate, and hospitality under an entrepreneurial framework, to give myself the knowledge and practical experience needed to disrupt the real estate industry in the future, a line of business that has remained practically unchanged for centuries. At the same time, I also applied with the intention of finding a classmate to bring on board as a co-founder for my future ventures. I’m very happy to say that I’ve found an incredible co-founder to be my Chief Operating Officer, and that the two of us plan on working on ‘Refund Giant’ full-time after graduation.

Imperial College London’s emphasis on a cosmopolitan education parallels my endeavours, not only to draw motivation from my peers’ diverse work, but also to inspire them with my own discoveries. The global perspective I have gained through discourse with students from such a wide array of social, economic, and legal systems will be critical for my future success as an international leader in the business startup community.

Did you receive a scholarship? If yes, what were the benefits of receiving this?

I was very humbled to be a recipient of the Imperial Business Scholarship, which provided a generous grant to subsidise my education. This scholarship has allowed me to set aside funds for working full-time on my startup after graduation, giving me a substantial runway to develop my business with less financial burden.


What aspects of the programme do you most enjoy the most?

The people! To be frank, I didn’t join this programme to receive a piece of paper upon graduation; I joined it for the intention of growing my network within the UK, and for the purpose of developing meaningful relationships with my peers. What is so unique about our programme is that my peers come from all backgrounds and walks of life. Yes, every programme you’ve heard of probably says this; but I’m pretty sure no other programme brings together social media influencers, management consultants, theatre majors, social entrepreneurs, and sustainable fashion designers under one tier.

Which has been your favourite module so far and why?

Venture Capital and Growth Finance with Miguel Meuleman has been extremely insightful, as my co-founder and I were initially struggling with a real-life example of the Founder’s Dilemma (retaining more control of your company vs giving up equity to potentially accelerate your progress) in real life. His lectures on structuring term sheets, and how certain terms can even make valuation meaningless, were extremely practical for my co-founder and me.

What has been the most rewarding part of the programme?

Again, the people! Aside from the quality of the curriculum, much of my learning has come from my interactions with my peers. I’ve learned so much from working with my co-founder, as our backgrounds are vastly different.

What has been the most challenging part of the programme?

Trying to maintain a balance between building ‘Refund Giant’, studying, and maintaining a life outside of school and work. At the beginning of the school year I tried to go to every social event possible, but over time I had to scale back to prevent myself from over-committing. On the flip side, I’ve been trying to take the time to celebrate the small victories that come our way for our business (my co-founder sometimes needs to drag me away from work and forces me to relax).


How would you describe your cohort at Imperial?

Diverse is an understatement; our programme has people from all over the world, but also from all different educational and work backgrounds. At my previous university, most people came from a traditional finance or economics background; my cohort at Imperial is much more eclectic – my colleagues are working on building water purification businesses, democratising access to nutritionists, designing makeup dispenser machines, and more.

Did you have a favourite professor/lecturer and why?

Dr Sankalp Chaturvedi was an excellent professor because he was able to blend the theory behind Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management with actual practice. He was able to help us understand OB/HRM from a textbook perspective by incorporating much of his own research on how companies operate, and by using statistics wherever possible to bolster his teachings.


What has been the greatest opportunity you have had at Imperial?

The greatest opportunity at Imperial was having enough time on the side to work on my own business, while bolstering it with teachings from my classes. Much of what I’ve learned from classes such as Design Thinking, Entrepreneurship, Venture Capital and Growth Financing, OB/HRM, Technology and Innovation Management, Marketing for Entrepreneurship, and more has been incorporated into various aspects of my own startup, ‘Refund Giant’.

Which workshops, events or guest lectures at the school have been useful in developing your skills and knowledge?

Although I personally didn’t end up using the Careers services because I wanted to start my own business, I found that the guest lectures in all my classes were an extremely integral part of my learning experience. Compared to my undergraduate education in the US, I’ve found that education in the UK tends to be more theoretical and focused on frameworks. The guest lectures were a good way to balance classroom education with real-life work.

What clubs, societies or other activities have you been involved in at Imperial?

At Imperial I am the SSC Chair for Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Management, and sit on the Dean’s Student Advisory Council. Together with my SSC committee, we’ve put on several events for our cohort, including a Halloween party, Networking Happy Hours, and alumni coffee chats. You’ll also find me taking salsa classes Mondays as part of the Imperial College Dance Club.

How have you benefited from being part of the wider Imperial College London community?

My co-founder and I use the Enterprise Lab heavily as a basecamp for our business. Within the Enterprise Lab, you’ll find a quiet environment with plenty of hotdesking space for startups, white boards, touchscreen TVs, free snacks and drinks (did someone mention free beer?!), conference rooms, and the most incredible staff members.

Did you get involved in any initiatives hosted by the Imperial Enterprise Lab?

Yes! In addition to practically camping out at the Enterprise Lab whenever I wasn’t in class, I’ve gone to many of the workshops that they put on (recent workshops include ‘How to Master Email Marketing’ and ‘How to Value Your Value Proposition’) and have been getting priceless mentoring through Idea Surgeries and Business Coaching Sessions. The Enterprise Lab has also kindly offered to let us use their space to host Business-Tech Networking Happy Hours to help startups find co-founders and is also generous enough to provide drinks and nibbles.


What are your future career goals and how have they been realised since being at Imperial?

My intent for joining this programme at Imperial was to bring an idea that I had begun working on in my last year of my undergraduate university to fruition. Since then, I’ve found an incredible co-founder with a very different skillset who has successfully exited from his previous ventures. We’ve spent the school year developing our operational process for our VAT refund business, building relationships with programme teams and societies at the top universities in London, and validating our assumptions by talking with as many companies as possible. During the summer, we will be working on the business startup module together and will be testing our MVP.


Do you think studying in a central location such as London is beneficial for networking and career opportunities?

Definitely. London is home to some of the brightest minds and most promising startups. In addition to taking advantage of the many conferences held in London (play the student card and you’ll be surprised how many you can get into for free), I’ve been meeting with many startup founders in person to onboard companies for pilot testing. Without studying in London or having the Imperial network, many of the leads we’ve developed would not have been possible.

Where do you live in London and why did you choose to live there?

I lucked out and found housing in South Kensington (a 15-minute walk to campus) for well below the market average. It’s great being within walking distance of the Business School, Hyde Park, and the university gym. Additionally, the South Kensington tube station has both Circle/District and Piccadilly lines, which means I can get practically everywhere in London with ease. Next year my co-founder will be moving into my building, which will make working together even more efficient.

When you’re not studying, what do you enjoy doing?

I can’t say I have much free time, but I love cooking, going to the gym, playing ukulele, traveling, thrift shopping, and mentoring others. My co-founder and I are planning on spending one Friday each month volunteering in a soup kitchen to give back.

If you had to move to London for the programme, what have been the benefits and challenges of moving to London?

You’ll fall in love with London. New York used to be my favourite city, but now I believe that London is a cleaner, safer, greener, better-spaced-out version of New York. However, living in London is EXPENSIVE. I’ve needed to make sure that I am always on top of my finances and meal prep as much as possible to reduce expenses.


What advice would you give someone who is thinking about applying for the programme?

While prior knowledge in business is great, what really matters for our programme is who you are as a holistic person. Yes, previous work experience and internships are a huge plus, but the Business School [arguably] care more about why you are interested in entrepreneurship and how you will drive innovation in whatever it is that you are passionate about. Additionally, much of our coursework is group-based, so the Imperial will look for evidence of your communication, collaboration, and teamwork skills.

Programme: MSc Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Management

Nationality: American

Undergraduate education: Hotel Administration, Cornell | MPhil Real Estate Finance, University of Cambridge

Job after Imperial College Business School: Co-founder and CEO, Refund Giant