Thelma West designs fine jewellery from her studio in the heart of Soho, London. Her pieces are one-of-a-kind, showcasing diamonds and jewels that are carefully sourced for their ethical provenance. And in recent years, they have caught the eye of some of the biggest stars in the world. US actress, Zendaya, is a fan. And at the 2021 Met Gala, the singer Rihanna was snapped wearing the Thelma West Rebel Black diamond ring. Meanwhile, West’s rising star has been profiled by the likes of Vogue, The New York Times and Forbes Magazine.
With the media spotlight on her work, and her business experiencing meteoric growth and international expansion, West was at an inflection point in 2022.
“In my world, you learn on the job. But when your business suddenly starts taking off and things start moving fast, it’s time to stop and take a bit of time to learn; to stop talking and listen.”
Taking her company to the next level would require stepping away from the “tunnel vision” that had got her this far, and broadening her network, her understanding and her horizon.
“I wanted to connect with new minds, and with minds outside of the ‘safe space’ of my own industry to challenge my thinking. And I wanted to do this in a way that was quick but intensive and really transformative.”
The INSEAD Entrepreneurship: New Business Ventures programme spoke both to where she was and what she needed, says West. What’s more, the school had “the reputation.”
“My partner did his MBA at INSEAD, so I knew the school and I’d heard about the experience from his friends and fellow alumni. This felt like the place to broaden my thinking.”
Going into the programme meant bridging a decades-long gap between working and learning in an academic setting. But West was open to “every possibility,” and to being both challenged and motivated. What she didn’t fully expect was the intensity of the learning experience.
Education has always been important to West. Growing up in Nigeria, she wanted to study to become an engineer, and isn’t afraid of tough academic challenges.
“I believe in education and will continue to push for time to learn when I can manage it. My business offers internships to women looking for a chance to enter or develop in the industry. I have also supported young girls’ education through to secondary level in my home city, Lagos. As someone who was denied the opportunity to pursue their initial academic dream, it’s a duty to give other young women access to education in my own small way.”
Nonetheless, her INSEAD experience was “incredibly challenging” and intense from the word go.
“It was amazing. From the moment the teacher walks into the classroom, it is this perfect combination of engagement, hard work and fun: delving into people’s dreams, goals and fears is simultaneously funny, tough and kind. The learning never stops.”
The learning itself integrated project work and team presentations with diverse peers which were opportunities to collaborate, to make joint assessments and to delegate: new experiences for an entrepreneur accustomed to working alone. There were also real-world case studies—sometimes with the actual protagonist in situ—to be dissected and discussed with classmates.
“It’s wonderful to hear so many different approaches and perspectives on the things we discussed. One of the things that really blew my mind was a real-life case about an INSEAD alumnus. We were invited to weigh in —positively and negatively—on his journey, winning contracts with Apple and Microsoft. So it was astonishing when he actually stood up there in the classroom,” West laughs. “But the programme offers you a safe space to really open up and talk. Everything is there on the table to discuss without upset or anger.”
Coming out of the programme, West feels she’s had the opportunity to clear her mind and to reflect on the path forward for herself and her company. It has given her clarity and renewed purpose on how to strategise and grow in the “right direction”. It has also given her a sense of courage.
“During the programme, you hear real stories about entrepreneurs being bold and courageous and you’re encouraged to think about what you’d do in their shoes. Since I’ve left INSEAD, I’ve consciously changed the way I run my business. Among other things, I’ve taken bolder steps to connect with people in my industry and really start pushing for transparency and greater regulation in mining for gems. I’m working with industry leaders and finding new ways to help drive change by pivoting and finding new angles for growth. In my little corner, I’ve reconsidered every angle of my business from a sustainability standpoint. Not just the provenance of the gems and metals, but also other more mundane choices like the materials and components of our jewellery boxes.”
The experience of being at INSEAD has given West new insights, ideas and tools to really champion what for her is a life purpose. And it’s an experience she would recommend to anyone from any background looking to accelerate a business in any industry.
“Being African, I want to model good governance in my industry. I want to shine a light and be able to tell positive stories about my culture and its practices. This programme really helped focus my mind. It helped me grasp that this is my path and to get better at finding more sustainable partners to help our industry grow in this direction,“ she says.
“My friends thought I was crazy to go to INSEAD; that I didn’t have the business education background. But I’ve come out of it with new ideas, a new network of wonderful diverse and eclectic colleagues who want to support me. This worked for me, as a mother, as Black woman, as someone with an atypical background. And if it works for me, it will work for anyone. So I’d say: if you can access it, you have to go to INSEAD.”