We were delighted to welcome Cobham Hall Elder Deshani Gunathilake back to the School in the summer. Currently studying for an MBA at the Stern School of Business in New York, Deshani specialises in Fintech, or Financial Technology, and in sustainable business and innovation. Returning to the UK for a holiday before undertaking a full year internship with the Founder Collective, Deshani dropped by to show her old school to her husband.
Deshani joined Cobham Hall’s Sixth Form in 2010 and went on to become the Head of Round Square and our Deputy Guardian. “I had such lofty dreams which Cobham Hall more than lived up to,” she told us.
Leaving in 2012, initially she studied law, but decided it wasn’t for her and transferred to political science. While in Washington DC for her final semester on an internship, she became involved in building apps and discovered she really enjoyed working with tech teams. After securing a first career thereafter acting as a consultant to early-stage start-ups, Deshani ultimately decided she wanted to see the other side and how they are funded – hence her MBA. She is also privileged now to be an investment partner of the Dorm Room Fund, the oldest student-run venture capital fund in the US.
“They incentivise students to be creative and passionate while staying in school,” Deshani explained. “Industry tends to encourage entrepreneurs to drop out of school to focus full-time on their start-up, but this fund enables the opposite.” She likened the organisation to Round Square: “As soon as I came across them, and the association of schools behind them, I knew it was the place for me,” she said.
We asked Deshani if her experience at Cobham Hall had played a part in her career journey.
“The leadership I learnt at Cobham has been a big part of my career. In my time working with start-ups, I’ve found myself leading lots of teams, often as the youngest and as the only woman in the room. I’ve felt comfortable and confident about doing it, and never questioned whether I had the right to be there. Cobham Hall gave me that.”
What, we asked, is the key to success in innovation and entrepreneurship?
“It’s something I’ve thought about a lot as I’d really like to be one myself after my MBA,” she said. “I’ve worked with some of the most exciting and amazing entrepreneurs, and their personalities have been very different. But the key, I think, is drive and passion. You have to be optimistic about your chances, believe in yourself and that you have the skills and resources to succeed. And secondly, it’s about being able to execute something,” she added. “It’s not about the wild ideas – every wild idea will have been had somewhere before. It’s about being able to make a plan and follow through.”
Finally, what was the most important piece of advice she would like to give current Cobham Hall students?
“Concentrate on what’s really important and learn to say ‘no’. Through university, I tried to do everything – had real fear of missing out. I always felt I should be doing more activities, more clubs. But then I realised that I and the people I surrounded myself with were doing lots and lots of things, but only to 60% of our ability. Now, I try just to do one or two things, but at 90% of my capacity; to do them really well.”
Our thanks to Deshani for returning to Cobham Hall and sharing her advice. We wish her all the best for her internship and in her MBA.