Innovation and entrepreneurship: Fulbrighter Greg Marsh

As part of the Fulbright Commission’s 70th anniversary celebrations, we are producing a series of profiles of current Fulbrighters and alumni.

Greg Marsh was the 2004 recipient of the Fulbright British Friends of Harvard Business School award, where he earned his MBA. He was the founder of onefinestay, a pioneering luxury hospitality business, which was sold to Accor Hotels in 2016. Greg co-authored the 2017 Taylor Review of modern working practices, serves on the international board of Amnesty International, and teaches at Harvard Business School and Imperial College Business School.

Here, Greg shares his perspective on his Fulbright experience.

What were you doing before you started your Fulbright?

After reading philosophy at Cambridge and gaining my first work experience in private equity and venture capital, I joined a startup in the late 1990s that had the ambitious goal of creating a single electronic platform for trading airfreight. Not a glamorous industry, but an important one! We raised $80 million in funding and eventually built the industry leader. It wasn’t a good investment for the backers, but it was great experience for me. My four years there allowed me to see entrepreneurship up close and learn by doing. At this point, an MBA was an attractive way to put my practical experience into perspective.

What was the significance of receiving a Fulbright award?

Receiving a Fulbright award to study at Harvard was decisive in my decision to attend that university. Stanford was an attractive alternative given my interest in technology, and in fact they offered to match the financial offer I had from Fulbright to attend Harvard. However, I was as intrigued by the Fulbright brand and community as I was by the financial support.

What did you do immediately after your Fulbright?

I always planned to return to London after my MBA. I did a summer internship at a London-based venture capital firm, which I then joined after graduating. It was a great way to meet and learn from the best in the business. However, having been in an entrepreneurial environment before business school, I had the itch to do my own thing. I left the firm to start onefinestay in September 2009. Coming shortly after the Lehman Brothers collapse, it was a difficult time to raise seed funding, so we were as scrappy as possible to get things off the ground without a lot of capital.

How did your Fulbright develop you as a leader?

One of the elements of leadership is audacity: a presumption that gives someone the confidence to offer their leadership. Scholarship programmes like Fulbright have a role in fostering that sense of responsibility; in a way, receiving a scholarship grants the recipient the permission to offer to take the lead in their field, and the courage to try.

There is also a strong strand of social innovation underpinning the Fulbright ethos. Right in the application we were asked what contribution we would seek to make to our community if selected for the programme. For me, the act of making the pledge made me feel more obliged to follow through. For instance, while at Harvard, I took the initiative to resuscitate a near-dormant student society, the Leadership and Ethics Forum, something I might not have done but for the scholarship.

What impact did your award have on your perceptions of the US -- or of the UK?

It is always useful to be reminded and challenged on the way that we do things here [in the UK]. Going abroad gives perspective on the relative importance of our internal struggles. This is not to say that we should look to the US as a model for our own leadership, but it is fascinating to experience a country so big and diverse, both socially and culturally. It can be welcoming and inclusive.

One of the defining qualities of the US is credulity – a willingness to believe. This can of course be dangerous, but it is also at the core of a spirit of enterprise. To believe, ‘I can really make a difference’ is very empowering.

Do you think the Fulbright programme is relevant for the next 70 years?

I think it can be. Of course, there are many more competing forms of educational attainment today. Fulbright has utility to the extent that it is highly and effectively selective, but it has to get the selection criteria right. It has to continue to refine its proposition and reevaluate who and how it selects recipients.

Fulbright was built on the foundation of a post-war liberal consensus that embodies the values of tolerance, acceptance, empathy, curiosity. I find today that there is an indifference of many in business towards expansively intellectual pursuits, and it is only a small minority that celebrate intellectual debate and curiosity about the world. Programmes like Fulbright can help encourage individuals to indulge their curiosity, to question how the world is changing, and ask themselves what role they can play in making it a better place.

 

Applications for UK citizens are now open through 6 November 2018. Awards include the British Friends of Harvard Business School award to support MBA studies at Harvard Business School, and the Sir Cyril Taylor Memorial Award for Social Entrepreneurship to support a master’s degree, PhD or research project at any accredited US university.