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what i’m doing with my mba

Queen’s MBA Kate Murphy and chess champion Magnus Carlsen have joined forces to take his brand global.

This story is the fifth in a series that features students and graduates who are using their MBAs and EMBAs in unique fields other than the traditional ones of finance or consulting.

Kate Murphy made the right move when she became CEO of a company dedicated to turning the Justin Bieber of chess into a top-selling brand.

He is Magnus Carlsen, a hunky 24-year-old chess sensation whose popularity since twice winning the world championships, first in 2012 and again in 2014, has transformed him into a rock star in his native Norway. He's now the world's highest ranked player.

Armed with an MBA from Queen's University in Kingston, Ms. Murphy's job is to take his renown and turn it into something tangible that will make other people smart.

"Affecting youth and encouraging them to use their brains," is how Ms. Murphy puts it.

Since moving to Oslo two years ago, the 30-year-old native of Coquitlam, B.C., has been working to build the chess star's global brand by creating a business out of his hard-to-forget first name, which translates as "great."

Under Ms. Murphy's watch, Play Magnus has become a $15-million (U.S.) company with a focus on "unlocking the fun of chess and putting it into products targeted at youth."

Those products include an app, which has been downloaded half a million times, and a vinyl chess board that looks like a yoga mat when rolled up. The plan now is to create an entire ecosystem of chess-related products, working with partner companies such as General Electric, clothes retailer G-Star Raw and Google in order to turn Mr. Carlsen into a force for positive change.

"Magnus believes that chess makes the world a smarter place and the goal of the company is to help make that happen," Ms. Murphy says.

The strategy appears to be working.

In a tiny Scandinavian country previously known for its Viking relics and reputation as the inspiration behind The Scream, the angst ridden portrait created by another Norwegian son, Edvard Munch, chess is today bigger than the surrounding fjords.

A Magnus-led chess revolution has created an enormous demand for the two-player board game powered by critical thinking.

His influence has led to chess clubs and programs sprouting overnight in Norway's schools and community centres. Education experts are thrilled, as chess has been scientifically proven to enhance critical thinking and problem solving in the very young.

"Chess improves cognitive function and leads to better grades," says Ms. Murphy, citing international studies showing how the playing of chess improves the ability to focus, analyze, strategize, visualize and think ahead. "Chess trains all these skills without you knowing you are being trained in them, so it's a very powerful tool."

Ms. Murphy didn't play chess growing up in Canada, and yet she doesn't lack for smarts.

The daughter of a blue-collar labourer who works the Vancouver shipyards, she developed her own particular skill set studying finance at Simon Fraser University and helping to create a still thriving company while a university student.

iDance Convention, which she co-founded in 2008 with a now ex-boyfriend whose family has links to the competitive dance industry, showcases top dancers from the So You Think You Can Dance television shows in Canada and the United States at large-scale events staged across the country.

Running the business confirmed to her that she was an entrepreneur at heart.

"But I knew that iDance wasn't enough. I wanted something more, " she says. "I needed to develop my entrepreneurial skills so that one day I could go out and create something that would have an impact."

Not knowing exactly what that something might be, Ms. Murphy enrolled in the 12-month international MBA program offered by Queen's at what is now called the Stephen J.R. Smith School of Business.

She did part of her studies in France before moving to Norway in 2011, immediately following graduation, after falling in love with a Norwegian she had met during the course of her MBA.

"I've never been one for major planning," she says. "I like to leave things open; it's how I've ended up in interesting places."

And yet Ms. Murphy is quick to add that first year in Norway was difficult.

She didn't speak the language and had no job prospects. Her personal relationship broke up and she found herself feeling alone and friendless in a country with weather wetter than the West Coast.

Not wanting to admit defeat, Ms. Murphy started her own consulting company, despite vowing to never do that, which brought her into contact with influential members of Oslo's business community.

Among those she met was Espen Agdestein, brother of Simen Agdestein, who was then Mr. Carlsen's coach. He and business partner Anders Brandt had already formed a company around the Norwegian chess prodigy.

One of their first ventures was a conventional chess board, which they had wanted to bring to market. They contracted Ms. Murphy to give them advice. She told them not to bother.

"The first thing I said was to think beyond chess and the second thing I said was to go digital. And then they hired me to implement my ideas, making me CEO."


And now a new game had begun in which the aim is to take Play Magnus into more uncharted territory.

The momentum is there and will no doubt build as Magnus prepares to defend his title in classical chess (one of three official time controls) at the 2016 world championship taking place next year in the United States. (He's also defending his world blitz and rapid titles this week and next in Berlin.)

"We've seen a huge upsurge in interest in Magnus and in chess in general," she says. "Essentially the goal now is to build on that."

So how does an MBA come into play?

"The MBA is what you chose to make it," Ms. Murphy says. "You can go in and follow the common path and end up on Bay Street or you can take the same skills you learn in an MBA and apply them to anything that makes you feel alive, whatever your passion."

Follow Deirdre Kelly on Twitter: @Deirdre_KellyOpens in a new window

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