Room to grow: ‘The EMBA made me more self-aware and helped with my emotional intelligence,’ says Sharon Cunningham
Room to grow: ‘The EMBA made me more self-aware and helped with my emotional intelligence’ © Patrick Bolger

It was late 2010 and I was quite happy in my work at PwC in Waterford in the south of Ireland, where I had trained as a chartered accountant. On top of that we were in the midst of a deep recession, so I was not really looking for a new role.

Nonetheless, I went for an interview at a local pharmaceutical start-up called EirGen Pharma. Immediately on meeting the co-founders — who themselves had met during an MBA — I was inspired by what they were doing and really wanted to join the company.

I was very fortunate to join at an early stage and watched the business grow and become a success. I gained great exposure to all aspects of running a pharmaceutical company. For example, I would lead the due diligence processes that were part of the fundraising.

In 2013, I decided to do an executive MBA to complement my skills, broaden my network and — crucially at the time — give me the confidence to embark on an entrepreneurial journey myself. My employers were supportive. They sponsored it fully, I think because they had been on similar journeys and could see the benefits. I chose Smurfit Graduate Business School at University College Dublin. It has a fantastic reputation in Ireland and globally, and has the “triple crown” [of accreditation from the AACSB, Amba and Equis bodies], which I felt was my guarantee. And I had a wonderful time when I visited — the Dublin campus is beautiful.

It was a two-year programme, and I started on the weekend course, with classes on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings. During the summer break I gave birth to my second son, but the school was quite flexible, so for the second year I transferred to a weekday class and would travel into Dublin on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. This was easier than staying away from my home near Waterford, 200km south of Dublin, over the weekend.

Smurfit was really supportive — the university couldn’t have done more. I now have three little boys and they are a big part of my EMBA and company because it was during my first maternity leave that I crafted the proposal I later presented to my chief executive to persuade him to sponsor me to do the EMBA.

The EMBA gave me a fresh way of thinking — knowing that you cannot grow if you are still in your comfort zone. It wasn’t necessarily the academic content, but more the real-life experience that came from the other people on the course. It made me more self-aware and helped with my emotional intelligence so that I could build really strong interpersonal relationships. Up until then, I think I was very academically focused.

There were about 30 people in my class. We have a WhatsApp group and five years after graduation, we are still texting regularly. It’s a great sounding board and support system.

When I graduated in 2015, EirGen Pharma was sold to Miami-based multinational OPKO Health. A colleague and I started talking, which led to two years of nights and weekends planning what would become Shorla Pharma. We left our jobs in December 2017 and the following month founded Shorla, a pharmaceutical company based near Clonmel in the south of the country specialising in women’s and children’s cancers. My co-founder, Orlaith Ryan, is a biochemist with a masters in regulatory affairs. That complementary skillset was really important.

In June, we raised €7.5m, having taken in €2m of strategic investment the year before. Our first drug, a sterile injectable solution to treat T-cell leukaemia in paediatric and adult patients, will launch in the US next year. The next steps are to continue developing a pipeline of products.

An EMBA is not for everybody. You need to really want to do it — it is a big commitment. You also need to ensure your employer is fully on board because you will need flexibility to keep all aspects of work, life and study going. Do your research and find the programme that suits you best. That can come down to timetabling, which is so important. And if you want to start a company, it is a great opportunity to identify a co-founder.

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