Where Confidence Meets Curiosity
London Fashion Week is fast approaching, and Emma COX ’03 is hustling to get Grabble, a fashion app, ready in time. Grabble lets a user swipe through photos of clothes, grab ones she likes, and discard those she doesn’t.
At her spacious East End office on London’s trendy Old Street, Emma’s team shares a workspace with a ski company, a t-shirt printing group and a handful of tech startups working on mobile apps. The vibe is youthful and relaxed – employees often head to the ping pong table when they need a break – but it’s also an intensely creative and collaborative space. The Grabble group meets to brainstorm ideas on a whiteboard. As Grabble’s Head of Mobile Product, Emma’s job is to turn the team’s vision into a to-do list that will make Grabble the best app possible.
Emma’s fast-paced life in the UK is worlds away from her school days on Lonsdale Road, but she brought many of her BSS values with her when she leapt across the pond. Emma’s confidence and curiosity were two major characteristics ingrained in her at BSS.
She arrived at BSS in Grade 9 from a co-ed French school. “As a girl, you didn’t speak up as much because you thought the boys would tease you,” she says. “At BSS, it was just easier to speak up in class. I was really nervous as a public speaker. I still don’t enjoy it, but at least now I know how to do a good job. BSS helped me master things like that.”
Emma’s stepdad was an engineer, which ignited her interest in science. However, she also wanted to maintain her language skills. BSS fostered many facets of her curiosity, rather than shuttling her into any one particular stream.
“I remember always feeling like I had so much choice,” she says. “I could pick my schedule and my classes. I’m the sort of person who enjoys knowing a little about a lot of things. I think BSS gave me that curiosity and that chance to explore.”
After graduating in 2003, Emma headed to the University of Oxford for engineering. She won an award for her final-year project in which she researched a new cancer treatment using high-focused intensity ultrasound.
After Oxford, a backpacking trip through California led Emma to Silicon Valley at a time when the region was flooded with fledgling startup companies desperate to get their experimental tech products off the ground. Mochi Media was one such company. They were developing a gaming app for Android phones. Eager to grow, and hungry for talent and expertise, they hired Emma on the spot.
“It wasn’t as mainstream as it is now to join a startup,” Emma explains. “They were hiring anyone who was smart and willing to take a leap of faith. Whereas now you have to have a Harvard MBA to be an intern at Twitter.”
After several years, Emma left San Francisco and returned to England to fulfill a longtime dream of living in London.
She worked for two different startups, helping to build an iPhone app called LoveThis, which lets users share recommendations from books to TV shows to hotels. She also worked on an events marketing app called Evently.
Compared to more traditional careers, tech startups are still very exploratory workplaces with few established blueprints for success. The industry demands a willingness to take risks, fail, and begin again. Thanks to BSS, Emma feels well-positioned to approach her work this way.
“If you don’t have that confidence and curiosity, it’s difficult to be in an environment where there’s no direction, and no one telling you what to do,” she says. “BSS made me confident in my ability to explore ideas and know that it’s okay to fail.”
Emma fondly remembers the culture of acceptance and integration at BSS, which gave her another skill she finds crucial in her work today.
“BSS was pretty international,” she says. “There were girls from different backgrounds and countries because of Boarding and the scholarship program. It gave me an appreciation for different types of people.”
Because startups tend to attract creative, visionary thinkers with competing passions and eccentricities, Emma has honed her ability to navigate a range of big personalities. Achieving an alchemy of different ideas is what drives Emma in her work, but it’s not without its challenges.
“For me, it’s about interacting with a group of people to create something. Sometimes that’s really fun, and sometimes there’s tension, but I enjoy those ups and downs. You don’t get to choose who you’re in the workplace with. Sometimes you have different opinions and you have to fight for your opinion. Had I not been at BSS, that would be a lot more difficult.”