Dharshie Mahadeva.

From Sri Lanka to Cambridge to an oil rig in Aberdeen

31 January 2024

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In the third film of the series, Executive MBA participant, Craig Knightley talks to a Low Carbon Fuels Trader, Dharshie Mahadeva, about what she has learned from the Team Consulting Project module on the Executive MBA at Cambridge Judge.

I think the things that I've really valued are the soft skills. I came to the EMBA thinking, I'm going to get so much out of corporate finance and accounting, but I got a lot more out of management science or management praxis or even organisational behaviour.

Dharshie Mahadeva

EMBA in a day with Craig Knightley: Episode 3 transcript

Craig: Hi. I’m Craig Knightley, and welcome to today’s episode of EMBA in a Day. Today, you will hear from Dharshie Mahadeva about the Team Consulting Project module.

Dharshie: I think the things that I’ve really valued are the soft skills. This is the sort of thing you do. You can’t teach an engineer.

Craig: Dharshie is a fascinating character she’s travelled from Sri Lanka, where she was born, to UCL for her engineering degree, followed by 5 years in Cambridge doing a PhD.

Dharshie: I think I discovered myself in Cambridge. Beyond work, I let myself have a bit of fun.

Craig: After this, she went offshore to an oil rig in Aberdeen.

Dharshie: The worst thing about it was getting on a helicopter, and to be able to get on a helicopter, you had to do something called the BOSIET.

It’s a survival course, and I used to think in my head, I can’t swim anyway. If this plane was going to go down in the North Sea, I’m going to die. I am not going to make it.

Craig: Back to London as an energy analyst and then finally to Rotterdam, where she now trades low carbon fuels, she’ll explain more about what this entails as part of our discussion.

We’re here today at Newnham College, which is where Dharshie did her PhD back in 2008, so a place that is very much close to her heart.

It’s great to have Dharshie here today with me. Thanks for coming. I hope you’re pleased to be here.

Dharshie: Very pleased to be here.

Craig: Tell us about yourself.

Dharshie: I started life in Sri Lanka, in Colombo. I spent 19 years of my life there, and then I moved to London for my undergraduate at UCL. All I did at that time was study. I didn’t do anything apart from studying because obviously, at the back of my head, I have my parents paying for it and so it was all about just making sure I get a good grade.

Craig: Your degree was in electrical engineering, was that always a given you were going to do it? For someone that doesn’t really know what that means, it seems very specific.

Dharshie: I knew it was going to be in engineering. I loved physics, but physics alone was going to be hard. I also loved maths but alone that was going to be boring, so I needed a marriage of the 2.

Craig: You wanted to do something a bit different?

Dharshie: Yeah, 2 and a half years of that, and then I thought, well, I want to do a PhD. I applied to Newnham, and they accepted me. I got a full scholarship, so I knew this time there was less pressure on me, it was just magic.

I discovered myself in Cambridge. Beyond work, I let myself have a bit of fun, played some cricket, signed up to some of the clubs.

Craig: You ticked the box of degree, you’ve come out the library, you’re living a slightly broader existence than just studying, and you’re doing the PhD, having a great time at Cambridge. Then you got to the end of that after 5 or 6 years, and you went out into the world.

Dharshie: I’m going to stop you there.

Craig: I’ve got it wrong?

Dharshie: I did say 6 years, but I did finish the PhD in 4 years. There’s PhD snobbery out there. “How quickly did you finish your PhD?”

Craig: OK, right.

Dharshie: It’s always a case of “Did you finish in 3 or did you finish in 4?”

Craig: What were you doing the last 2 years? Just partying?

Dharshie: Yes, I was messing around. I wasn’t doing anything.

Craig: They let you do that. Just popping around.

Dharshie: It was what’s called a postdoc, so when you finish your PhD, you have 2 options. You either become an academic, which most do.

Craig: Yeah, study indefinitely.

Dharshie: Correct. Most of our lecturers on the EMBA have chosen that path. I think at that point, I knew I wasn’t made for academia.

For me, I wanted to be more practical, I’ve come up with this concept. Can I see it on the ground? Can I see how it works in the field? It will take probably another 10 years before you see it to fruition. I needed to lift and shift away from academia.

Craig: You were just wanting to see something that was a bit more vibrant, a bit more dynamic.

Dharshie: Right.

Craig: Rather than being here for another 20 to 30 years.

Dharshie: Correct, indeed.

Craig: That’s when you went to Scotland at that point?

Dharshie: I did, yeah.

Craig: You went from London to Cambridge, and you skipped a long way and went up to Aberdeen.

Dharshie: Correct. Imagine turning up, Cambridge to Aberdeen. I think it was January.

Craig: There’s a song in there somewhere.

Dharshie: It was snowing, and it was awful. I was thinking, have I done the right thing here? I’ve just left Newnham, and I’ve moved into this new city. It was great, I loved my job. I was on a graduate scheme at the time.

I did get to go offshore on the rigs, see some of the engineering. It was a real engineering job, and that’s what I wanted to do anyway.

Craig: You actually went out onto these massive structures, right? Wearing a hard hat and suit?

Dharshie: Yeah, that’s right. I loved it.

Craig: Did you have a clipboard?

Dharshie: No clipboards. The worst thing about it was getting on a helicopter. To get on the helicopter in the first place, you had to do something called the BOSIET. It’s a survival training course that must be done before you step onto a helicopter.

I used to think in my head, I can’t swim anyway, if this helicopter was going to go down in the North Sea, I’m going to die. I am not going to make it. Do I really need to do the BOSIET?

Craig: Yeah, we know what’s going to happen. If that happens, don’t worry about it.

Dharshie: Yeah, it’s an awful course. They put you in a helicopter, dunk you in water, and rotate you upside down.

Craig: You’re in the helicopter, and they literally twist you around to see how you deal with it?

Dharshie: Yeah, they did, that was just 2 days in every 2 years. Then I had my mother asking me, do you want a real job and do you want a real home?

Craig: Is it because you’re living on and off rigs?

Dharshie: Yeah, exactly. You’re doing 3 weeks on, 2 weeks off and so on and so forth. It’s nice when you’re young, and after a while, you just want to come home and watch TV. Then I applied to strategy consulting, and I had a job offer at McKinsey.

Then on Thursday I got a call from London, from this team that said, they’ve got an analyst role here, and I you should apply for the job. I applied, got interviewed on Friday and then I got offered the job on Friday evening. I had to call up my potential future employer, and I said, I’m going to stay on in my current employer. That’s how it happened. It was never going to happen, but it happened.

Craig: You’ve gone from PhD engineering background to an oil rig.

Dharshie: You make me sound like I’m like, PhD, engineering, etcetera.

Craig: I’m trying to create your story where you go from technical, slightly geeky background to being a hard-hitting capitalist.

Dharshie: Yeah, true.

Craig: What was it about the more commercial dynamic that appealed to you?

Dharshie: A couple of things appealed to me, one motivation is the puzzle and solving the puzzle. Where’s the market going to go? My second motivation is about value. It’s about it’s about wanting to make money. It’s about wanting to make money for the company you work for and for yourself to a large extent. I think I’d be lying if I said I didn’t.

Craig: No, it resonates. Someone once said to me, you want to do what you’re passionate about, you’d want to do what you’re good at, and you want to do what pays you well. What you’re describing is you were getting a good blend of all of that by making some of the career moves you were making.

Dharshie: Absolutely. To get paid to do what you love is like the ideal scenario, and every day is a puzzle.

Craig: You’ve been doing that for a period of time. You’re then doing the trading directly yourself, having gone from the analyst role. Tell me more about your low carbon trader role. What does a low carbon trader do for someone that might not know what that means? Not me, obviously, I mean for other people because I fully understand.

Dharshie: That’s a great question because I’m going to pretend to answer like I know it because I’ve only started the job, 3 or 4 months ago. In the team I work in, we trade the physical, non-fossil barrels, so the renewable barrels. In our world, it’s called biofuels, so it could be anything from waste cooking oil to waste wheat, corn, basically waste crop. You can take that and essentially convert that into fuel.

Craig: Why have you done the EMBA?

Dharshie: To be honest, I think for a couple of reasons, and maybe the reasons have evolved over time. Before I applied, I think I wanted to do it because, I did want to bring my head out of the sand. I’ve been doing this one thing now for 10 to 12 years, and it’s just nice to put your head back out. I wanted to be back in Cambridge. It was such a special 5 to 6 years here and just that intellectual space to be able to think. I thought at the time before I applied, that the EMBA would give me a better sense of how to be a bit more commercial in the job that I am in.

Looking back, now that we’ve done a year, I think the things that I’ve really valued are the soft skills. I came to the EMBA thinking, I’m going to get so much out of corporate finance and accounting, but I got a lot more out of management science or management praxis or even organisational behaviour.

You can’t teach an engineer. If you think stereotypical engineer and apologies for anyone out there who isn’t this. It’s the soft skills that are the hardest to learn, to be honest.

Craig: Part of the consulting module, we had to form a team with other classmates. The team consults with a client of their choosing, applying their learnings from EMBA to a live business issue. The project may cover any aspect of business and can involve travelling anywhere in the world.

For example, one group worked with a pharmaceutical company in China on patents whilst another team, Dharshie’s, worked for the Gates Foundation in Kenya.

At the end of the project, you receive formal feedback from the client. We also had to submit an essay on how we worked as a team. You’ll hear more from Dharshie in the second half of the episode on how her project went.

It’s great to have you here to go through one of the core modules. You got into a team very early on.

Dharshie: I think the reason we had a team very early on was that we took part in this EMBA competition that Kellogg University organises.

The competition we took part in was an impact investment competition, and the topic of our choice was already defined. We took Africa, and we chose agriculture and biochar.

Biochar, is where you take waste crop, waste everything from your farm. You put it in a pyrolyser, and you make something called biochar. You put that back on your land and you sequester carbon dioxide.

Craig: Almost a year ago you’d already got into a group with 3 other people, and you’d worked on this sort of niche project, which isn’t really part of the EMBA, right?

Dharshie: Yeah, exactly.

Craig: Obviously, you all worked together well and on a topic you’re passionate about from what I could observe. What did you end up working on?

Dharshie: Our sponsor was the Gates Foundation. They’re the largest non-profit in the world. They have several goals and ambitions. Number one is health, and then number 2 is climate change. How does the world transition?

This is looking at it from a global perspective. When we talk about climate change, a lot of the time we’re talking about it in different pockets of the world and maybe potentially forgetting that it’s almost like the COVID-19 vaccine. You can’t vaccinate part of the world and think that the problem’s gone away. You’ve got to vaccinate the entire world from a climate perspective.

The Gates Foundation has worked a lot in Africa. Kenya tends to be their capital of Africa, where their line of work is focused. We got in touch with our sponsor, the agricultural director for the region, and that’s how we started.

Craig: Then he came back with the project details?

Dharshie: Yeah, he did.

Craig: I know you explained it to me.

Dharshie: It was about scaling voluntary carbon markets in Africa. The focus here is, can you reduce emissions from livestock or, livestock-related ecosystem? The result of doing that, would you be able to claim carbon credits in what’s called a voluntary carbon market?

Craig: If I simplify it, you’ve got cows in Kenya, that are emitting methane.

Dharshie: Correct.

Craig: You’re trying to say 2 things. How do I make that more efficient? How many cows a year, are emitting methane and how do I make sure I reduce that? Is there a way of generating carbon credits by doing that more efficiently? That was what the project was in simplistic terms, am I right?

Dharshie: Yeah, absolutely. Can you reduce emissions from cows? As a result, can you bring these small-scale farmers some revenue in the form of carbon credits? That’s the real crux of it.

Craig: Then you flew out to Kenya, and you’re part of this project. You’re working with the Gates Foundation that fund it all and obviously passionate about it. What was the main experience that you left them with? What was the conclusion of the week that you did out there?

Dharshie: The conclusion was the Gates Foundation’s motivation was to try and bring back the revenue back down to the beginning of where it starts, the farmer, because in the voluntary carbon markets, you’ve got several entities that get involved in the chain of participating in this credit transfer. For the Gates Foundation, they want to bring it back down to the farmer, so how do you do that?

Craig: To try and reduce the chain to make it more efficient.

Dharshie: Correct. How do you remove the inefficiencies and make it much more profitable than it is currently for your subsistence farmer?

Craig: We must write an essay about this topic, we present our findings to the company, but the other thing we have to then do is talk about how it all went as a team. You’re working with a completely different set of people for a week in a different country on a different topic to what you’re used to. Obviously, there’s some domain knowledge, but it’s a bit of a different topic. Did you learn anything about yourself?

Dharshie: One of the takeaways was around team dynamics. One of the things that we probably reflected on as a group when we came back in after the Kenyan trip was that we didn’t have one leader. We had people taking the role of the leader at different phases of the project, and maybe there’s a benefit to that. There’s also a benefit of having one leader across all phases.

Craig: If you’ve got different people stepping up into that leadership role at different phases, to me, in a way, that was very similar to our team. It felt very fluid, but it didn’t feel very orchestrated. It didn’t feel like one person’s now taking the lead. It naturally happened because, of the different skill sets you have. Someone is better at presentation, so they lead on that.

Then it’s about contacting the client, and someone’s slightly better at phrasing that and getting us over the line with the client. That meant different people, stepped up at different times I think largely by their skill set in a very fluid way, and I think that worked well. There was a high degree of trust between everyone.

Craig: That’s what I took away from it and I have tried to apply this to work. For instance, when I go back to work, how do I create more alignment across the teams, and how do I create that level of trust? What dynamic can I put in place and how do I operate whereby I encourage that in myself and in others around me?

Dharshie: He’s written the essay already.

Craig: Yeah, I’ve done the essay.

Dharshie: He’s got the answer.

Craig: Yeah, I have.

Does that resonate for you? I think your team worked well together by the sounds of it, and why was that?

Dharshie: I think a motivation, passion and in a way because all of us came together on the premise that this is going to be a non-profit TCP (Team Consulting Project), there was some level of commitment around what we were going to do here.

Craig: You all shared that passion about that topic independently?

Dharshie: Correct and that really held us together because we largely wanted to get started. We wanted to get things done. How do you continue to be passionate about what you do without changing jobs every 3 months? How do you continue to keep your level of motivation where it should be for it to still be fun?

Craig: It’s an interesting one, and you mentioned this earlier about the soft skills. It resonates massively for me on the EMBA. Every month, we get together for 2 or 3 days, and it’s an intensive social environment.

When I go back to work and I meet with external people, I found that I feel more relaxed with people. I’m just willing to share and talk. They probably don’t want to hear about what I’m talking about, but I feel very open because it’s that muscle memory of engaging people over the EMBA weekend. Does that resonate with you?

Dharshie: It’s funny you say that. I think there’s an element of it because whilst we were in Kenya, I went to see an ex-Newnhamite who was at Newnham with me when we did our PhDs together.

She went back to Kenya, she opened up a school, and we went and visited her as a team. We did careers talks with these bright kids. She said to me, when I was in Newnham, I used to look on the floor when I was talking. That’s how shy or socially awkward things were.

Craig: I can’t picture you being socially awkward.

Dharshie: I have to say that has changed for me.

Craig: If we wind forward to the end of the programme, when you look back in a couple of years’ time, what do you think will be the biggest thing you’ve learned from it?

Dharshie: For me, I think I came here to grow outside my numbers world, it goes beyond just the content, for example, being part of group activities. That helped me immensely in terms of interacting with people. Getting feedback from people is very helpful, most of my learning has been on the soft skills.

Craig: There’s been lots of examples where I’ve had to jump out my comfort zone. It makes you more comfortable to keep going because you suddenly think, well, I’ve done that before.

You become very attuned and comfortable with pushing yourself and trying things and sometimes failing. There’s lots of people around you that are doing the same thing at the same time. It’s almost like you’re all jumping in that helicopter and rolling around.

Dharshie: It gives you a bit of a mirror because at this point in our career, we’re no longer starting our careers anymore. We’ve got 10, 15, 20 years behind us.

Craig: I’m starting to feel older.

Dharshie: Yeah, well, 20 years for you and 10 years for me. You think you know yourself a bit better at work. It’s a great opportunity to reflect on where you are, who you are, and where do you want to be pushing.

Craig: You can’t go anywhere without reading in the press about sustainability and climate change and where is the world heading. I know you’ve got a young daughter and, I’ve got two little boys. I don’t know if you do, but I think about what the world might look like for their kids and their children’s children.

I’m slightly anxious about all this stuff that you read. Are we ever going to get there? What’s the world going to look like in 30, 50 to 100 years? Where is this taking us?

Craig: You’re more knowledgeable about this topic than me, I’m intrigued what your perspective is and is it all going to be OK. Is carbon sequestration going to be fine, is there going to be ways around this, will technology find a way? Should I be panicking?

Dharshie: Great question. I think one of the reasons I picked this job was you do really think about what’s going around you. Are we going to meet our target in 2050? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure we’re going to, but I don’t think it’s the end of the world. I believe one thing about the human race, it’s that we evolve and we adapt so quickly. Technology is going to get us there.

Craig: You subscribe to the view that humans will find a way, and technology will find a way.

Dharshie: Yes.

Craig: We will evolve, we’ll try things, and we’ll take risks, and eventually, we’ll figure this out in a way that there’ll be some form of solution because we’ll have to?

Dharshie: Yeah, and you’ve got to have many elements or many parties involved to try and get that moving, and in my view, it must be regulated. I think the bit that worries me is the COVID vaccine analogy.

If we think about what surrounds us as a problem only in certain parts of the world, and not think about where else we need to go and think about exactly the same problem, then we are in trouble because you can’t vaccinate part of the world and think that the disease is going away. You can never eradicate it.

Dharshie: It needs to be a global effort, and for it to be a global effort I think it needs to be regulated. You can’t stop at Paris. It needs to translate down. I think we’re moving in that direction. China, for example, have their own carbon market, a compliance market. There is an organic transition that’s waiting to happen or is happening.

Craig: We will win, humanity will win.

Dharshie: Yeah, we will win as cheesy as that sounds.

Craig: Good. I can sleep at night now. This has been amazing, so really, really appreciate your time.

Dharshie: Thank you for having me.

Craig: Thank you for having me here, I feel like I’m the guest.

Dharshie: A true trader would say, my check will be in the post at some point. It’s an hour and 20 minutes, right?

Craig: You might be waiting for that check for a while, but eventually it will come.

You’ve heard from Dharshie, working in a different company with a new team in a foreign country was an amazing experience. There’s a real danger we become comfortable with the status quo in our industry, and looking at other industries to get a different perspective is invaluable. Things like AI, sustainability, geopolitics are macro trends that affect all industries, and to see how different companies are dealing with these was enlightening.

On a completely different tangent, the other learning for me was just how important trust and alignment of interests are to making a team successful. The team I was part of was a close-knit group of friends. We were able to perform well as we could debate and decide things quickly due to the high degree of trust and alignment between us. Figuring out how you create trust within a team is essential if you’re going to perform well.

We hope you found today’s episode useful. Stay tuned for episode 4, where we’ll be discussing macroeconomics with Mo Tanweer. Thank you for watching today.

If you've got different people stepping up into that leadership role at different phases, to me, in a way, that was very similar to our team. It felt very fluid, but it didn't feel very orchestrated. It didn't feel like one person's now taking the lead. It naturally happened because, of the different skill sets you have.

Craig Knightley

This series of films are sponsored by Craig’s company, Inigo Insurance, which aims to attract individuals who align with one of its core values: ‘get smart’.