Sarah Gillin has more than 15 years of experience in the luxury goods market with a focus on branding, marketing and customer experience. She is also a member of the class of 2019 in the one-year executive MBA program at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. This is her first blog for EMBA Diary.
I’ve always been working in a creative industry. For my entire career, my focus has been marketing, branding and tailoring the customer experience. My passion for the arts took me from Toronto to New York, and back again to Toronto, in the process working for many local and international luxury brands.
Most recently I worked as the head of marketing for a bespoke jewellery designer in Toronto. While I loved the creativity of the jewellery world, I found a growing curiosity in the potential of the burgeoning legal cannabis market. This curiosity led me to co-found Olli Brands in 2017 with the goal to, one day, become the leader in premium curated cannabis-infused teas and edibles.
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Given my creative background, I acknowledged the need to build my own financial and business acumen to tackle Olli. As I was going through the early business planning stages, I wondered, should I consider going back to school to augment my skill set? Entering an entirely new business in an upstart industry as a leader and entrepreneur, I wondered if I needed more knowledge in order to take my career to the next level? To that end, I began to wonder if achieving an executive MBA might give me the foundation I needed to move my company from a startup to a successful enterprise.
After attending an information session and connecting with Rotman alumni, I quickly realized that the answer was a resounding yes. The decision to pursue an executive education at the renowned school was the the opportunity to further my career and broaden my mind. As I made this decision and felt the ensuing relief, I was blissfully unaware that my life was about to change.
I remember walking into Rotman that first day with nervous anticipation of what was to come. Within moments, it was clear that my fellow students were diverse, intelligent and impressive in their achievements and boundless in their motivation. Having come from working in the creative industries, the first few weeks of the program were admittedly an adjustment. Financial terms like EBITDA and NPV were almost second nature to so many of my peers, but to me were like learning a new language. I started to worry that I was in over my head. Moments of exhaustion and uncertainty left me wondering: Was I too far out of my comfort zone?
With the support of my family and friends, I focused on the day-to-day work and plugged away. It took some time, and plenty of sleepless nights, but eventually I found a balance between the intensive class schedule, countless assignments, group meetings and exams. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this program was changing me for the better and I was building the knowledge base and confidence I both wanted and needed.
After raising Olli's first round of financing, I left my job as the head of marketing in jewellery to join the Olli team full-time. I’ve never looked back.
To say that the program has made me a different person would be an understatement. I find myself now engaged in discussions with my business partner, Olli’s chief executive officer, about our valuation, how to achieve scalability and sustainability in our business model, the importance of transparency and how to build the foundations of a successful corporate culture.
Through this program, I have had countless opportunities to lean on my highly regarded and cerebral professors and classmates, all of whom offered supportive and relevant advice that I could apply in my new role. The personal and professional development skills I have learned, coupled with new leadersership and communication skills gained in the program, have given me the confidence and ability to assertively lead.
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We are now beginning our fourth and final semester. I am writing this from Milan, Italy, having completed an intensive three-day exchange program with Bocconi University. As I enjoy an espresso on the banks of the Naviglio Grande canal and write this EMBA Diary entry, I find myself reflecting on my wonderful time in this executive MBA program.
It’s been a phenomenal ride, and it’s not over yet, but I feel incredibly lucky that the Rotman’s admissions committee granted me the privilege about a year ago to join the program and take my career and my mindset to the next level.
What’s next? Well, I guess distracting myself from the beautiful Italian countryside with my pending accounting assignment, thinking about my sustainability project and, of course, planning for both my, and Olli’s, very bright future.