Why This UK Entrepreneur Chose China For His MBA
The latest in our series of China MBA stories from the book—Changing Careers, Changing Lives—written by BusinessBecause editor Marco De Novellis
This story was originally published in a book written by BusinessBecause editor Marco De Novellis, in collaboration with Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB).
It was another day in England’s gloomy West Midlands. The clouds were low and dark. The air was cold and damp. Distant plumes of smoke from breweries and factories spiraled into the sky and floated across what was the former heartland of England’s industrial revolution.
Rory Bate-Williams had made his excuses, left his glitzy Mayfair office in central London, and jumped on a train heading north-west. He was to meet ‘Chicken King’ Ranjit Singh Boparan, founder and CEO of 2 Sisters Food Group, one of the UK's largest food companies.
Rory was interviewing for the chance to work under Ranjit for a year as part of a program for young entrepreneurs. As he made his way across the wet driveway and through the gates of an enormous chicken factory, he was not wholly convinced.
“At first I was deeply, deeply skeptical,” he says, “But the one-hour meeting changed me completely. I walked out of the factory, I spoke to my dad on the phone and I said, ‘If this guy offers me a job, I’ll take it.’”
It was the first in a long line of bold, life-changing decisions, spurred on by Rory’s passion for entrepreneurship. That passion would take Rory into business at the age of only 15. It would take him to China and into the world of tech startups in London. And now, quite unexpectedly, he’s starting a chicken business of his own.
Tents and tech
Rory started his first business while still at school. Growing up in the Cotswolds, in the south of England, Rory’s mother worked as a successful textile designer exporting fabrics all over the world— a business that later dried up because of China.
His father was a lawyer who commuted two hours to London and back each day. Looking for a cost- effective extension to the family home, he put a tent up in the back garden. Before long, family friends were borrowing it for parties, typically offering a case of wine in return.
Back then, Rory didn’t drink, but he saw a business opportunity. He built a website, named it Top Up Tents, and started offering the marquee to strangers in the market for money instead.
For the first year of operations, he couldn’t even drive. Aged 17, he bought a “very old” Volkswagen Caddy, employed his friends—paying them cash-in-hand—and drove around the country hiring his marquee out for events.
“It was the perfect business,” Rory smiles. “From the word go, I had this free asset. I never had any cash flow problems. I had storage, I had a vehicle—I almost couldn’t lose money! From the age of 15, I had the confidence to run a small business step-by-step.”
Rory’s first startup experience flicked an entrepreneurial switch. He’d go on to create his own ecommerce platform selling winter sports DVDs. He’d later start up his own video messaging app, a mobile payment platform, and an automated energy switching service that he still runs today.
“I always wanted to be an inventor. As a kid, I was always drawing ridiculous things and coming up with crazy ideas. Looking back, the fact that my parents were both self-employed—seeing their chaotic lives, the ambiguity, the uncertainty, but also the flexible lifestyle—had a huge influence on what I decided to do later in life.”
Rory ran his marquee business all the way through university. After a stint in finance in London, he moved to work with Ranjit at the chicken company. There, he got priceless practical business experience, seeing firsthand what was going on across every aspect of the multibillion-dollar company.
“But in no area was I getting any theoretical education,” Rory explains. “I started to crave an understanding of how you can apply different management models to make better decisions, reduce risk, and move faster.”
Already considering an MBA, Rory spent an “eye-opening” week with a friend in China. He soon decided he was ready to take the leap. “I’m someone who likes to be out of their comfort zone and I thought there’s no better way to do that than by going to China,” he says.
During his MBA at CKGSB in Beijing, Rory went on a six-month exchange to Waseda University in Tokyo. He created his own UK module, taking Chinese classmates to meet with big-names like fashion designer Sir Paul Smith and Lord Nat Wei, the first British-born person of Chinese origin to become a member of the House of Lords.
And in China, through CKGSB, doors were unlocking everywhere he went. He’d later start a consulting business venture with a Chinese businessman he met through a CKGSB event in London.
“The MBA brought me together with so many established business leaders who’d give us their time, almost at the drop of a hat,” he says. “One day you’d visit Alibaba, the next day Tencent—it was like going behind the closed doors of the global economy.”
Rory returned to London’s tech startup scene after his MBA but, today, he’s doing something quite different. He recently launched his own food venture—Voodoo Chicken—selling grilled Cajun chicken, hot sauces, and other Creole cuisine from New Orleans, Louisiana.
For now, he’s doing everything on his own, trading five days a week, roaming around London’s street markets, finding out what customers like, building his menu, and getting up at 5am to meet with suppliers.
“This is the most fun I’ve had in entrepreneurship so far,” Rory beams. “Tech is so distant from the customer—so hidden in metrics and spreadsheets and behind screens—that, after a certain point, I almost cracked. I had to get back in front of the customer.
“With a startup, no two days are the same,” he continues. “There’s always uncertainty and that makes you work so much harder. You don’t need an MBA to be an entrepreneur, but it gives you every part of the toolkit you need to grow.”
Rory is testing out his chicken concept with a view to meeting investors and launching his first brick- and-mortar site by the end of the year.
While fried chicken is a packed market in the UK, in the grilled chicken space there’s only one big competitor. Nando’s has around 3,000 restaurants across the country—and Rory’s ready to take it on.
“My time in China helped me see that anything is possible,” he says. “It broadened my perspective and developed my philosophy on life.
“It gave me that confidence that I can start something up from scratch and achieve anything. I think that’s the most priceless thing—you can’t get that from a textbook.”