Right-hand woman to some of the most well-known investors and entrepreneurs the UK has ever seen, Katie Leviten, talks about how the curiosity that Manchester High fostered has helped place her at the forefront of business innovation across the country.
After completing my A-levels I went to Oxford University. I have always been fascinated by people so was excited when I came across the Human Sciences degree in the Oxford prospectus. Manchester High had bolstered my natural curiosity and I spent lots of my time at university attending lectures and speaker events at the Business School; it didn’t matter to me that I wasn’t actually a student of the department!
It was before the media’s obsession with ‘the entrepreneur’ had kicked in and I could be one of just three people sat in a massive auditorium listening to the most inventive and inspiring people. One of the best talks I heard was from James Caan, multimillionaire businessman who at the time was appearing on the BBC’s Dragons’ Den programme. Most of my counterparts were making moves into the worlds of banking and law but I decided I’d much rather work for someone like James. I built up the courage to ask him for an internship and was given the opportunity to work as part of his private equity team in Mayfair.
After three months of interning, I was offered the chance to step up and take my boss’ role when he got promoted. I ran with the opportunity and I cut my teeth managing James’ consumer product angel investments (capital provided for a business start-up), most of which were the companies he had chosen to back via Dragons’ Den. James placed a significant amount of trust in me; the fact that I was just 21 years old was completely immaterial to him; an opportunity I will always be grateful for.
My next move seemed somewhat crazy to others. I was conscious that since leaving university all I had known was a private equity firm and, as much as I was enjoying it, how could I be 100% certain it was truly for me if I hadn’t explored other options? “You’re doing so well, Katie. You should stay within finance. Why would you leave now?” became the familiar refrain of friends and colleagues.
I’d always fancied television and became fixated with securing a role at the BBC; if I was going to make a move I wanted it to be for the best. I landed a position on a BBC trainee production scheme and, after six months, progressed to the role of researcher for the One Show. Working on the BBC’s flagship evening programme had been a dream of mine but once doing it I realised it simply wasn’t for me. I was bored and uninspired there.
Determined to get out, I looked up the fastest growing SME companies in the UK and shortlisted the brands I’d like to work for. Innocent Drinks topped the list. I applied for a role that they filled internally in the end. They were however impressed by my drive and offered me a position as a category brand manager in their commercial team, which I accepted. The role was an incredibly analytical one and I was constantly immersed in data and statistics.
Somewhat serendipitously, the founders of Innocent, Richard Reed, Adam Balon and Jon Wright, had been dipping their toes in the water of angel investing, but their heavily pregnant investment manager was all set to take her maternity leave. Despite being in a junior position, I spoke to Richard in the office one day and told him about my background. My timing was perfect, I was well positioned to take over their investment interests.
For the next 12 months, I performed a juggling act; I had been offered the investment role on the proviso that a fifth of my day to day work would remain in category management. I knew it would be a tricky balance but I was getting to work up close and personal with the founders of Innocent; who would turn that down? It was a high energy, high intellect environment.
In 2013 they sold the business to Coca-Cola for north of $500m. Just 18 months after I started as a category brand manager, these three innovative, multimillionaire moguls asked me to join them, as partner, in their new venture, JamJar Investments.
JamJar Investments backs high growth consumer brands with our money and experience. Our mission is to help entrepreneurs be successful. We invest in strong teams that have a hot idea which we know consumers will love; many of which are digital innovations.
Some of the brands we work with are already household names, the likes of Deliveroo, Simba Mattress, Graze and Babylon Health. It’s exciting knowing I have been part of launching products and services such as these onto the mass market.
I consider myself as still being at the early stages of my career, that said, I would always emphasise the importance of looking for a job that makes you happy, and to keep on looking. It’s true, I love life at JamJar but I hope I never get to a point where I think “Oh, I’m happy enough, I’ll just stay put…”
Life isn’t about settling. Granted, if you take that attitude you may end up with a CV that looks a little bitty, but identifying what you definitely don’t want to do can be just as helpful as finding the things you do want to.
Manchester High School for Girls may often feel like a place with a lot of rules, but actually it can be about challenging the status quo and doing so with real spirit. In my experience, most people in the world at large quite like that. My best friends today are the girls I met at MHSG, we just have the same outlook on life and I don’t think that’s coincidence. I looked up to so many of my teachers including Dr Poucher in Biology and Mr Clarke in History; it’s fantastic to know they are still with the School and more girls are getting the benefit of their wit and wisdom.
Outside of the School, I also think Manchester itself is an amazing city and one that is only going to attract more and more resource. Britain is far too centralised and I applaud the current appetite for change. While at present London is home for me and my fiancé I would never rule out a move back up north. That whole north/south divide is really starting to shift and I’m proud to be a Manchester girl.
Katie’s Role Models
- Martha Lane Fox: An entrepreneur that really earned it. She founded lastminute.com in 1998 and floated it at the peak of the dotcom bubble. She stepped down as MD in 2003 when the company was bought for £577m. She chairs Go ON UK, a digital skills charity and joined the House of Lords as a cross bench peer aged just 40, the youngest woman ever in the upper chamber. She’s also had to deal with personal adversity following a car crash in 2004 that smashed her pelvis, shattered her right arm and leg, caused severe internal bleeding and led to a stroke. She broke 28 bones and almost died. 28 procedures later and she’s still going.
- Eileen Burbage: Those outside of the small East London technology scene have rarely heard of her, yet she’s quietly becoming one of the most powerful forces in Silicon Roundabout (the UK’s answer to Silicon Valley). The software engineer turned investor is one of a trio of partners at Passion Capital, a venture capital firm that has invested millions in business start-ups. Eileen is someone who is impressed by an individual’s passion for an idea, rather than their business plan or Oxford pedigree.
- Katie Piper: Katie’s history as the victim of a bitter and brutal acid attack is well known but she’s gone on to carve out a role for herself as a canny businesswoman and an inspiring philanthropist.