After earning her MBA from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management in 2013, Melita Cyril made the boldest move of her career – as least that’s what she assumed at the time. She went for the MBA triple jump – when B-school students leverage their degree to change country, job function, and industry.
Most MBA graduates keep at least one of those variables constant, but Cyril successfully changed all three: She moved from Sri Lanka to Canada, jumped from finance to consulting, and switched from trading to consulting strategy.
But after building a resume that ticked off all the checkboxes of traditional success—a bachelor’s degree from the London School of Economics, an early career as a trader at Lehman Brothers and Credit Suisse, and a consulting career at A.T. Kearney—Cyril did something out of the ordinary.
FOLLOWING IN HER FATHER’S FOOTSTEPS TO START HER OWN COMPANY
She quit her job as a management consultant with A.T. Kearney and decided to start a children’s sock and book company, Q for Quinn. “I would say that this is probably a bit bolder and scarier than [the triple jump]. There was some security with that move, and this one I’m just on my own. There’s lots of uncertainty, but it’s also a little bit more exciting,” Cyril says.
Her move wasn’t totally out of the blue. After several years at A.T. Kearney, she took a six-month sabbatical in Sri Lanka, where she helped her father with the family business. Working with her father’s company, she felt a sense of control and ownership that simply didn’t exist in consulting, where she traveled from client to client. That experience and the birth of her son, Jacob, stoked her entrepreneurial drive.
Cyril had always wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps to start her own company, but the timing never quite worked out—she opted for an MBA after moving to Canada to build her network, then she needed to pay off her B-school loans, so she shelved her startup ideas. But motherhood proved to be a surprising impetus to entrepreneurialism. As a business owner, she’d have more control over her schedule, making it a logical choice timing-wise. It also gave her a business idea.
Q FOR QUINN
Like many founders, Cyril turned an everyday frustration into an opportunity. She found herself regularly showing up late to events and meetings following a mad scramble to get her son, and herself, ready. Inevitably she’d be searching for the second sock to a matched pair. Hence, Q for Quinn’s USP: all orders come with three pairs of socks designed with complementary patterns. If one sock goes missing, parents have five other options. Cyril also writes accompanying children’s books featuring characters who wear the socks on adventures—creating a connection between the child and their footwear. The company launched in late March, and Cyril has just released her second children’s book.
Cyril admits that socks and creative writing are a far cry from finance and consulting. “I had no idea I could write. I’d never written children’s books before. I’d always been crunching numbers,” she says. “But I started writing anyway, and I realized that I really, really enjoyed it, and then I thought, ‘Let me just follow the steps and see where this will take me … if all goes to hell, I’m going to have a book that’s inspired by my son and written for him.”
She felt more comfortable on the business side, where she put on her MBA hat to research supply chains, develop a marketing strategy, and establish a competitive edge over other boutique sock sellers, hence the children’s books.
LEARNING ON THE FLY
Cyril doesn’t see anything particularly unique about her choice to take on another challenging career move after the triple jump. It fits her action-oriented personality, and she recognizes that same drive among other MBAs, she says. “When you do an MBA, you’re attracted to a diversity of challenges and learning experiences, especially taking up a role like consulting where you have got to succeed in new environments,” she explains.
That versatility would lend itself to her new career choice. Cyril didn’t take entrepreneurship courses at Rotman, and the case studies in her classes primarily focused on established companies, she recalls. She picked up skills such as bookkeeping and inventory for small business on her own. But Cyril doesn’t see the MBA as a wash. She credits the program with soft skills, things like confidence and assimilating new information quickly. “It’s that process of learning quickly over and over again that trained me to figure out what I don’t know and to figure it out fast, and put it all together,” she says.
Rotman also offered a Rolodex of connections. While she’d had business ideas before Rotman, she didn’t feel confident in her network. “Network is so important when you’re starting a company because network is what gets you that initial traction,” she explains. Since starting her company, she’s leveraged Rotman’s career office and found a mentor in a former Rotman career counselor turned entrepreneur. “Entrepreneurship is a very lonely journey, so it’s nice to know that there are people I can tap into as sounding boards for advice,” she explains.
REGRETS? JUST ONE
Reflecting back on her B-school experience, Cyril acknowledges that the hefty price tag of the degree can deter would-be entrepreneurs from striking out solo. So can the wealth of career options. “I was very influenced by the path that traditional MBAs take, so I’d say stay true to your goals because it’s so easy to get influenced by all these other shiny choices,” she says. “I felt strongly that I did want to become an entrepreneur, and I kept pushing it [back]. In the end, I’m still here and I’m still doing it, but it becomes harder and harder to make that decision once you take a stable, high-paying job after the MBA.”
Cyril has no second thoughts about her career path, from trader to triple jumper to consultant to entrepreneur. “There are no regrets in doing my MBA or my consulting career, the only regret I would have had is if I had kept going without trying entrepreneurship. I don’t think there’s always a perfect time, so when you feel like you know, you’ve got to just take that leap.”