These executives did an MBA and started their own companies

Business schools are incubators of the entrepreneurs of tomorrow. Three MBA students reveal how they were inspired to turn ideas into businesses.

Holly Richards began exercising at home for the first time during the pandemic lockdowns. Always plus-sized, she revelled in the freedom of moving her body in private. “I started to really get into it because I was in a safer space, I was at home, moving my body and I guess embracing it a little bit more than I was when I was out and about and exercising,” she says.

Bigger bodies are largely ignored by the sports and active-wear industry and as her interest in exercising grew, Richards discovered she would not be able to buy a sports bra in her size. “It literally did not exist,” she says.

Already part-way through an MBA at the University of NSW Australian Graduate School of Management which she had started in 2018 after pivoting from a long-term career as a newspaper and magazine journalist, Richards decided to look into the idea of marketing a plus-sized sports bra. “I’ve always had a million ideas,” she says. “I have been plus-size my whole life and I have always found shopping for clothing in general very frustrating, if not impossible.”

Larger women are routinely ignored by clothing retailers, she says, adding that although 67 per cent of Australian women considered plus-sized (size 14 or larger), only 6.7 per cent of retailers offer plus-size clothes. The average Australian woman, she says, has a waist size that equates to a size 16 to 18.

Richards jumped at the chance to explore her ideas in a two-week AGSM incubator program, called New Wave. “I used the sports bra idea; a radically adjustable sports bra for plus-sized women,” she says. She won the program’s pitch competition and got nearly 700 responses to a survey on the bra idea. “Hundreds and hundreds of women joined the wait list before we even had anything.”

Her company, AmpleFolk, will launch its first collection early next year: the plus-sized sports bra, along with leggings and a towel. Richards says she focused her MBA studies on solving AmpleFolk business problems, building a comprehensive business plan, a growth strategy spanning five to ten years and scenario planning for risk mitigation. It was all new to her, she says: “I didn’t even know how to create a spreadsheet”.

David Mallett started his own company in 2019, three-quarters of the way through his MBA degree with the University of Adelaide motivated by his passion to strike out on his own and build an Indigenous-owned business. “We’re quite an under-represented crowd in professional services,” he says.

A Ngarrindjeri man from south-eastern South Australia, Mallett joined the Navy after school, working with Australia’s elite special forces as a clearance diver and later as a sniper with 2nd Commando Regiment, part of Tactical Assault Group East. After time in Iraq training Iraqi police, significant back injuries pushed Mallett into a career pivot and he turned to the private sector, graduating from UniSA with a master’s degree in project management in 2011.

“I enjoyed that type of work, I spent some time in the construction industry and then a couple of years with Iluka Resources,” he says. He worked in planning and scheduling mining development projects, but he finally decided to move on, starting an MBA degree with the University of Adelaide and launching his own company, Yunan Project Services, in 2019.

Taking the degree boosted his confidence in his business skills. “I felt I had the motivation to start my own business but I probably lacked the polish of knowing all the methodologies, understanding the ins and outs,” he says. “I’ve been a really good operational-type person but I needed to step out of that and be on the balcony looking down.”

Mallett graduated this month (subs Sept 21) and his company is up and running strongly, with consultancies on capital works projects across the nation for clients including the Defence department, the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation, and Aurecon (for Transport NSW).

Yunan now employs eight and Mallett has set up a First Nations Development Pathway model, recruiting Indigenous candidates, mentoring them and partnering them with suitable corporations.

“I find solid candidates from community connections and coming out of school and bring them in on an on-the-job arrangement,” he says. The candidates take a certificate in project management and get exposure to the projects and teams of large companies. “Those trainees still employed by us, they’re trained and mentored, we give them all the pastoral care,” Mallett says. “They sit in our office once or twice a week, but they also sit in the corporates’ offices.”

The plan is to grow the First Nations pool of professional resources, and Mallett says the system has worked well with BHP, and defence contractor BAE Systems is soon to take part.

He gives credit to his mentor, Jim Whalley, at the time the chief entrepreneur of South Australia, who he met through the then University of Adelaide MBA director, Damian Scanlon. “He (Whalley) was instrumental in guiding me through early years of Yunan,” Mallett says, “he opened doors for me.”

Andrew Fitzgerald also has an engineering and project management background, but he wanted to move fields entirely. He worked in mining for about 17 years, the last three or four in feasibility projects, until he decided to change gears and co-launch his own company: making and marketing rye whiskey.

He and his business partner started distilling whiskey in Melbourne’s Brunswick in 2015 and launched The Gospel in late 2019. “Since then we’ve grown quite rapidly, we’re in nearly 3000 locations around Australia, exporting to seven countries,” he says.

Fitzgerald soon knew he needed some specialist retailing knowledge. “I thought I was wading into waters which were just completely foreign to me,” he says. “From looking at delivering a project in mining to launching a consumer product in international markets – they’re sort of worlds apart.”

An MBA course at Deakin University helped him understand more about a side of business he had not encountered in the mining sector. His company now markets The Gospel and also produces beverages for other companies – contract distilling.

“Deakin allowed me to do a lot of assignments and work using my business as the base study, which was hugely important,” he says. “Things like a deep dive on a market analysis. It’s something you think about, but don’t necessarily have to time to do: the MBA almost forced me to do that. I thought that was hugely rewarding.”

The degree’s core subject on market strategy informed his business plans, he says: “it’s made me pull different levers within the business”. He now has another product in the works, with a launch scheduled for next year, and he expects to graduate by the end of this year, with all the core course subjects completed.

“One of the things that came out of the MBA was about the penetration we can gain in having a singular focus,” he says. “It’s about the deep and narrow entry into a market. We’ve grown from there and having a singular focus means we can almost be a voice of authority with that particular type of whiskey.”

Australian Financial Review