What we think

This is where you can peer into our minds and learn a bit more about us as recruiters, consultants and humans. Expect plenty of insight into Consumer, Retail, Recruitment, and life in our Leeds and London spaces. Some tips from the top and the odd guest appearance. Enjoy and please feel free to leave us a comment!

Corporate vs Start-up: can you work for both?

9th March 2022

Jemma is currently MD for *shopt UK; a B2B rewards app for the independent convenience channel working between brands and retailers rewarding retailers for promoting and raising the profile of brands in-store, whether that’s distributing products or compliance. Jemma’s varied career in Retail & Consumer Goods spans both blue-chips and start-ups, making hers an unusual but fascinating career path. We interviewed Jemma on her experience and asked whether it’s possible for candidates to make the leap from big corporate to start-up, and back again? Thank you Jemma for your time!


Lovely to meet you, Jemma! You’ve had such a varied career so far. Can you take us through the major steps you’ve taken to arrive where you are now?

I was introduced to the world of retail execution back in the mid 2000’s when I headed up Retail Operations for Heinz in the UK and where I was given the broad and exciting opportunity to define the future for Heinz in the UK as part of the Heinz Explore model. My investigations and learnings really connected me to the innovative and entrepreneurial start-up world and after a few years I made the decision to step out of FMCG corporate life and cross over to work with early stage companies. This has included working in clean-tech, oil & gas, retail and consumer verticals, consulting companies on growth and investment strategies from Vancouver to Melbourne.

When I made the decision to move back into Corporates, I wanted to take my Field Marketing experience further. I believe our capability and development will be led by technology rather than people and what I’ve been able to do is take my background within retail and tech and leverage my business turnaround experience to work on some transformative projects.

What an exciting and enviable job offer from Heinz. How did you feel when they offered you that role in Heinz Explore?

Heinz was the market leader in six huge categories at that time but it’s hard to grow your top-line much further when you are so dominant. Explore was established to set up new growth engines for Heinz, with no edges to the brief which meant the opportunity to investigate and identify new products and categories was broad

Working at the ImpactHub social innovation space in Kings Cross gave me lots of exposure to start-ups where the environment is very much to lean in and help out. When it comes to people, places and technology the start-up world offers fantastic exposure. I’ve even become a non-exec director on the board of one of the companies I helped when I was there.

What do you think is the biggest difference in working style of start-ups compared to corporates?

When you work in a start-up, everybody has to be focussed on generating revenue and cash quickly. Resources are limited, so you prioritise on the few things that will make the biggest difference. This is how we work at *shopt; we don’t need to be slowed down by bureaucratic processes and structures that don’t reflect the businesses we are.

Corporates are oil tankers of businesses, it can take a long time and distance to change their course!! Businesses get very scared by that and they often root themselves in structure and process they are familiar with or from which they came from. This backward lens often doesn’t reflect the environment they’re in. This organisational legacy can be tricky when you’ve come from a start-up; you can find yourself feeling shackled by all the governance. Conversely, people with corporate careers can provide learning, experience, expertise and investment but getting them to roll their sleeves up can be a challenge, and in a start-up everyone is critical bringing in cash. But advice and direction from other sectors are great and useful.

It’s rare to meet someone who’s had exposure to both sides of the coin. What have been the highlights of either side, for you?

I spent 15 years at Diageo and Heinz, so I know the best of big business but also the worst of it. Often start-up founders have put their whole livelihoods on the line and I’ve been really happy to share ideas and experience that would save them time and money. I’ve loved that sense of giving back and contributing to brilliant people doing amazing things.

I’ve worked with billionaire investors in the USA through to social impact entrepreneurs in the UK and Australia, but I’m still the same person whatever my role and I adapt the best bits of what I learn from everywhere I’ve worked. I think that’s how to succeed at work; select the best bits of what you know and deploy that, rather than changing your entire working environment.

That’s great insight on how to succeed at work. Continuing to speak of working environments then, where were you working in 2002 and what was your greatest learning from that time?

I was 5 years into my time at Diageo in a sales role in the GB business. In those years someone advised me to find your ‘benchmark’ when considering how you want to progress. There’s always people out there who are best in class in different areas, so identify those pockets of excellence and that gives you something to work towards. I learnt to find people that are doing things brilliantly and look at them for inspiration. You should look forwards and outside of the sector you’re in too; all skills are transferrable so everything you do is relevant.

It certainly is! You’ve already given us some great advice but if you could go back to 2002, what specific piece of career advice would you give yourself?

Nothing is set in stone. If you think something isn’t right and it can be done better or there’s other opportunities for you, take ownership of that and go make it happen! Also a mantra of mine has always been “How can we make this easier?” which helps to grip the situation and simplify things. Remember, if you have more than 3 priorities, they are no longer priorities anymore!

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