How a ‘no-plan’ plan launched a career at Facebook
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Sandra Marichal does not have a career plan, she insists, despite having already built an impressive, highly international CV by the age of 30. “And I don’t think 10 years ahead. But I make sure that I learn something new every day,” she adds.
Marichal has just flown back from her native France to Singapore, where she works for Facebook, the social media platform. The epitome of the “citizens of the world” who made the UK capital their international base during the pre-Brexit era, she is overflowing with anecdotes about her time at London Business School and a subsequent spell marketing the 2012 Olympic Games.
A mix of millennial free spirit and ambition — she was named one of the 20 Women to Watch in Marketing by trade magazine Campaign Asia in 2014 — Marichal has a refreshingly personal take on her rapid rise.
Now employed by Facebook as regional content strategist for the IQ programme, the company’s marketing insights operation, she spent the years following her LBS masters in management course in 2010 working for FutureBrand, the consultancy.
Finding what she calls the right “niche” in the consulting world, she was able to satisfy her appetite for direct contact with clients and quickly found herself in control of projects, even collaborating with world-famous creative minds.
FutureBrand was responsible for marketing the Olympic Park in east London, which involved working with the sculptor Anish Kapoor on his monumental Orbit tower.
“My parents were consultants, so I knew there were long hours and stress,” she says of her decision to choose branding and marketing. “But I didn’t realise that you come in as a junior analyst to a lot of number crunching.”
Warned by a senior partner of one of the mainstream consulting firms during an interview that she would be bored by, as he put it, “spending two years behind a spreadsheet”, Marichal quickly shifted her job searching during her year at LBS to creative agencies.
At FutureBrand in London, where she spent her first year and a half after graduating from the course, she found her involvement in strategy highly satisfying.
“I still had a few numbers to deal with but I did escape most of the spreadsheets,” she says. “And I would not have had the same opportunities in conventional consulting.”
The prestige qualification helped, she believes. “I was the only one there from business school, and the LBS name is quite big, so I was immediately put on the tricky B2B projects.”
Within five years she had been promoted to strategy director for FutureBrand in Singapore, before being recruited by Facebook a year ago in the city state. She expends some of her abundant energy on environmental activism. Other spare time is absorbed by helping at Block71, an incubator for young entrepreneurs near the National University of Singapore, where she relishes “growth hacking” for small enterprises.
She says this is something she enjoys — “I am paying something back” — that is also of value to the global companies she has encountered in her day job. “The big brands I have worked with were desperately keen to learn about my experience with start-ups, because they want to be leaner.”
Marichal argues that the next great opportunity tends to come up “if you stick close to what you enjoy and what you are good at — then it will happen”. She speaks about where her enthusiasms might take her next — possibly further into the world of advising small organisations, especially if it means she can help harness business skills to tackle global issues such as the environment.
Marichal credits the one-year management course at LBS with helping her find the right path on which to set out. From the start there is a focus on embedding students in business and helping them find the right employer. But the year on the Regent’s Park campus also developed her appetite for a cosmopolitan environment and a mix of international colleagues and clients.
Her previous bachelors business degree at Essec in France included a year’s exchange to McGill University in Montreal, after which she realised that staying on home territory was not for her. She applied for masters in management courses around the world but LBS attracted her for its philosophy of immersing students in business and giving career support for a recruitment round that starts immediately. “I wanted a real springboard,” she says, keen also to stress London’s role as a gateway city for all nationalities.
“LBS was a massive intercultural introduction for me — I loved it. I think it shaped the kind of environment I thrive in,” she reflects, noting the similarities between the melting pots of nationalities and cultures in Singapore and London.
In her study group on the MiM course, where she was part of the first cohort, the young Frenchwoman was “stuck together” with a Russian, a Pole, an Indian, someone from China and someone from Taiwan — perfect preparation for her current role, where she often has to mediate between different cultural styles of business communication. “Now I work with every single nationality in Asia plus the expats — I am the person in the room who translates,” she says. “They are saying the same thing but not necessarily in the same way.”
If she gets stuck herself, the LBS network can be invaluable. “Building my skills as a consultant, I sometimes need to go back and you can literally just send an email and pull in expertise from everywhere,” she says.
But she has not been afraid to strike out on her own, even to extreme destinations. Last year, partly sponsored by Ben & Jerry’s, the ice cream maker, she joined a trip to Antarctica with the explorer Robert Swan, raising S$30,000 ($22,000) to fund a journey by sea for future leaders concerned about climate change. She came back fired up — “It was an eye-opener for me: you see the negative impact of humans” — and started a campaign to convince Singapore to turn down the air conditioning in public buildings.
“We went to parliament, we sponsored research, we shared the findings, met the ministers . . . it was big and it was exhausting.” Her campaign succeeded, and municipal air con systems will now be set at 25C rather than the previous standard 23C.
Looking back, she sees her year at LBS as crucial to developing the skills consulting firms want in young recruits. “They are looking for sharp people who can think fast. In those interviews they are looking for agility in your thinking,” she notes.
But now her business education gives Marichal what she sees as more exciting prospects and a responsibility: the ability to pass on those skills herself. “When you go to an accounting class or a finance class, you don’t realise how important it is,” she says, “until you are sitting down with some non-governmental organisation or small project that needs support.”
She may not have a plan, but she certainly has a sense of mission. And many more countries to explore.
This interview is part of our Masters in Management series. The FT’s global ranking of masters in management courses will be published on September 11 at FT.com/masters-in-management