2021 Best & Brightest MBAs: Toni Thorne, Cambridge Judge Business School

Toni Thorne

Cambridge Judge Business School

“Afro-Caribbean in soul; innovation in mind; compassion in heart; global citizen: never confined.”

Hometown: Barbados, West Indies

Fun fact about yourself: Since I have been both a fashion designer and a shoe designer, I can make an entire fashion ensemble. My favourite hobby is handcrafting shoes. It takes an hour for me to make a pair of sandals by hand. I find it very therapeutic.

Undergraduate School and Degree: University of the West Indies- BSc. Economics and Accounting (Hons)

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Apart from my consulting business, the last place I worked before enrolling into Cambridge Judge was as a radio host at the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation. I hosted a weekly program, “Women’s Wednesdays” dedicated to women’s rights and issues. The programme enjoyed a listenership of over thirty thousand. Media taught me that everyone has a story worth sharing and listening to. Everyone we meet is a teacher.

Where did you intern during the summer of 2020? The summer of 2020 was to be spent in Austin, Texas as a US State Department Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative Fellow. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this opportunity was postponed to January-March 2021.  I spent the summer of 2020 volunteering with non-profit organisations instead.

Where will you be working after graduation? Specialising in finance, I am currently exploring opportunities in the Financial sector. I am particularly interested in Fintech, Impact Investing and Venture Capital – three very exciting and fulfilling areas where I believe I can bring great value and commitment.

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: I was selected as a Cambridge TARA Women in Finance mentee. I sat on the Cambridge Union’s Speakers Committee, where I was encouraged and inspired to actively push for continued and heightened diversity in the luminaries hosted by The Cambridge Union. I represented Cambridge with three awesome classmates in the Yale Africa Startup Review’s Africa Startup Ecosystem. I participated in the Cambridge Judge Against Covid (CJAC) outreach programme with the Bristol Yoga Roots Project for refugees. I worked with the Co-chairs of the Wo+men’s Leadership Student Interest Group in their outreach efforts and the planning of their annual initiatives. I formed a group of women of African descent in the MBA and EMBA cohorts from both Oxford and Cambridge, with the aim of mentoring young, black girls who dream of walking the halls of these two great institutions. I was re-elected as President of Variety -The Children’s Charity and remained President of Oistins Festival in Barbados. Managing these from Cambridge, despite the four-hour time difference, has been surprisingly efficient and manageable. During our Lent Term, I pursued my US State Department’s Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative. I am also a Cambridge Trust Scholar and Cambridge Chevening Scholar 2021.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I am most proud of gaining critical knowledge, skills, and exposure to successfully pursue a career change into the world of Finance. My accomplished and dedicated mentors provided invaluable advice, introduced me to key players in career development, and encouraged my pursuit of further accreditation such as the CFA ESG Certificate. The programmes and mentors have been critical to my pivot into finance. I enjoyed access to conferences and seminars that I would not have been generally exposed.  Most importantly, I was able to see how the experience gained from these programmes, in addition to the knowledge gained from my coursework, enhanced the lives of those with whom I interacted on these non-profit and extra-curricular initiatives.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? Starting a consulting business eleven years ago, and witnessing its growth and impact, has been my proudest professional achievement, to date. I started the business with very little resources. This demanded strategic and innovative thinking from the inception. With an assiduous work ethic, I eventually built a roster of satisfied public and private sector clients; mastered the skills of project management and business development; contributed to the cultural landscape of my country and region; led projects which fostered youth entrepreneurship and tourism development; and advocated for gender equality, the rights of children and HIV and AIDS awareness. My business has been a gateway to the opportunities and experiences which have brought me to Cambridge.

Why did you choose this business school? Raised by my mother and grandmother who are Barbadian educators, there has always been a great appreciation for the British educational system and the global reputation and embodiment of excellence associated with the University of Cambridge. When applying to business schools, the Cambridge MBA was by far the most exciting curriculum. The specialisation components and one-year programme were commendatory, as I aim to pivot my professional career post-MBA.

The school’s focus on entrepreneurship and being in the vicinity of Silicon Fen (Europe’s entrepreneurial hub) were game changers.

I was very impressed by the way the MBA Admissions Department treated prospective students at the interview weekend. It truly set the tone for how we would be treated as students. Having a small but diverse cohort ensures our class maximises every resource at our disposal. Our cohort is perhaps one of the very few across business schools globally that enjoyed some level of in-person classes.

On our first day, the introductory slide in the presentation read “A Transformational Year”. This is the best description of this adventure.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? This is tantamount to asking a parent who is her favourite child. Without coming across as overly diplomatic, each teacher had something special about them. However, there was an added respect and admiration for the female professors.

Allègre Hadida was exemplary. I audited the Creative Arts and Media Management course out of curiosity. This class turned into bi-weekly discussions and debates on how art has shaped societies. What I initially assumed would have been brief overviews on how artists craft a business plan delved into serious discussions on geo-politics, race, classism, ethics, sustainability, nationalism, and democracy (to name a few). It was refreshing to debate with people who had opposing views where we could shift our thinking and, in many instances, see other perspectives.

Karla Sayegh and Stella Pacihidi’s Digital Business class was also exciting and thought-provoking. I finished the class with great understanding of digital transformation. My favourite second term exercise was the Digital Sprint where we worked on a retail product. I still believe our team should sell the product to a major retail chain!

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? Very few Cambridge colleges conducted formals this year. Unfortunately, my college did not have formals. I missed the delicious food and chance to whet my appetite for the latest fashion. My favourite MBA event thus far was the socially distanced Christmas dinner and photoshoot hosted by our student leadership. It was delightful to see many familiar Zoom and Microsoft Teams faces in person. The tradition I am most looking forward to would be the annual International Women’s Day festivities. I feel honoured to be assist with its planning.

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? One of my best friends died the week I was ready to leave for Cambridge, which meant I had to postpone my trip. As a result, I arrived in Cambridge two days before the term started. Apart from the obvious fact that I would love to snap my fingers and bring her back with us, arriving in Cambridge at least two weeks before the start of this life-enhancing year would have been ideal. The city is magical and filled with so much to explore. The 45-minute train ride from London provides a wonderful escape to the world’s favourite city. Making early connections with fellow members of the incoming cohort and the wider university community is something not to be undervalued.

What surprised you the most about business school? Cambridge Judge MBA is jokingly referred to as “The Nice MBA”. The collaborative nature of everything coordinated by the business school ensures that life-long friendships are born, teamwork is seen as a critical element of leadership, and no student – regardless of her or his background or degree – is ever left behind. This focus on collaboration impacts the culture of the school. It is not a rarity to see people offering support to each other for interview prep, job opportunities, or even the most serious of personal issues. We all lift as we climb.

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? Your “why” matters. Once you dissect the reason for an action, you find the gift of clarity. For a short while, I was intimidated applying to business school. My background was far from that of the typical business school applicant. Thankfully, the imposter syndrome was very short-lived. Embracing all that made me who I am and being very clear on why I was pursuing an MBA gave me an edge in the application process. I was focused; knew I deserved to be in a space of excellence; articulated a vision for my life post-MBA; and communicated my willingness to be an asset to the school.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? The classmate I most admire is medical doctor and entrepreneur, Gbeminiyi Onabanjo. He is kind, principled, and the first to admit his imperfections. He will greatly transform the health care system in Nigeria. He was there for a classmate in the early hours of the morning when our classmate was paralysed with pain and had to be rushed to surgery. We had an exam a few hours after and he never complained about having to facilitate our friend. He was a confidant in tough times, a pro bono physician to classmates, and always had a positive word for everyone. In the midst of the Christmas break, when everyone was enjoying the season, he risked his life to save others working assiduously as a member of what was at that time, an overwhelmed NHS in the UK.

How disruptive was it to shift to an online or hybrid environment after COVID hit? I remember being on lockdown in Barbados and reading about the fact that many programmes were going to be online. My stomach sank. I envisioned formal dinners, the famous May Ball, studying in the beautiful libraries, sitting in the Cambridge Union, and participating in the debates. With online classes, these dreams would not come to fruition. I spent a week drafting a pros and cons list on whether I should defer. In the end, the list consisted of very few cons. In truth, I felt guilt over how fickle my cons seemed in the broad scheme of things. I became determined to squeeze every opportunity from this ‘disrupted’ process. Every day, I am excited at what the teachings will present. There was no disappointment in my hybrid first term nor the fully online second term. This is an opportunity for the education system to evolve. Pursuing an MBA in this pandemic has been a front row seat to the transformation of the education sector. Exciting times indeed!

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? This is a running joke in my family, but my answer is my father. However, not in the way you may think! I had started designing clothing for my friends as an undergraduate and I really wanted to establish it as a business. I remember asking my father for an investment into the idea. He shrieked with terror and insisted I focus on my studies exclusively. This forced me to enter a business plan competition on behalf of my University. The winnings of $75 USD, money saved from my weekly allowance, and the teachings of my undergraduate degree brought the clothing line to fruition. It was featured in the London Times and sold to many Caribbean fashionistas. A passion for business development was born and has grown since then.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list? At this time, my two top items are focused on the short-term. First, I want to successfully pivot my career armed with a Cambridge MBA and a specialisation in Finance.

Secondly, I want to look back two years from now as an employee in a world-class organization which uses financial tools to empower millions and truly feel as though I am actively participating in enhancing lives and building greatness.

What made Toni such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2021?

“A successful entrepreneur and true champion for social justice and women’s leadership, Toni is bright, enthusiastic, open-minded, and equally keen to share her knowledge and expertise as well as learn from others. She also has a knack for making everyone in the virtual classroom feel comfortable, welcome, and heard. She has been a beacon of positive energy during this difficult covid-19 academic year, and she is most definitely the person you want in your classroom and on your leadership team.”

Allègre Hadida
University Senior Lecturer in Strategy
Cambridge Judge Business School


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