What does it take to commit to a life of continuous learning? For one ESCP Business School alumna, now Associate Director of Marketing, Communications and Events on the school’s London campus, it’s more than just time: it’s a journey to be a better version of the person you were yesterday.
Emily Centeno was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. As the daughter of a teacher and a lawyer, the value of education was instilled in her at an early age.
With the strict environment of Catholic school all the way to her undergraduate studies in teaching and then advertising and marketing, Emily credits both her family and education institutions for giving her a framework for learning.
A hunger for learning that went far beyond the classroom
With a Bachelor’s degree and several years of experience under her belt in Venezuela, Centeno, 27 years old at the time, made the decision to leave her home country for the UK and pursue a Master in Marketing. Moving to the UK was a culture shock in itself, even more so considering that – by her own admission – Centeno’s English was poor.
The learning journey started immediately: within a month of arriving, Centeno had enrolled herself in English classes and begun working at Starbucks.
Serving coffee, cleaning toilets – it was hard work. And I feel proud that I did that, and I would do it again if I had to. It helped me to keep grounded.
When a former boss now working at the Venezuelan embassy mentioned her role as an events coordinator was opening up, she approached Centeno with the news. The role would require another steep learning curve: impeccable etiquette when dealing with ambassadors and diplomats, and the confidence to approach high-profile guests. Centeno jumped at the chance.
Her manager at Starbucks was less keen to let her go. For most people, working two jobs in two languages as well as studying would be a daunting process; but the challenge is something Centeno is today able to shrug off. “It has always been my appetite, for pushing,” she says.
Two jobs, a master’s and an EMBA: oh my!
However well her professional life was progressing, the goal had always been to return to academic study.
Finally confident in her linguistic skills, Centeno began a Master in Marketing Management at Westminster University. While studying in the evening, Centeno maintained a full-time job. The workload was intense, she admits.
“It’s about discipline and being organised. When I’m doing one thing, I’m doing one thing: I’m full-on. I have a clear idea of how I’m going to run my day and my week. The planning is very important.
“I’m not going to lie: it was very hard. I remember spending nights at the library thinking ‘When am I going to enjoy being in this city?”
The word ‘sacrifice’ comes to mind, an idea that Centeno easily dismisses.
That’s a word I don’t like. It sounds like you are leaving something you like for something you don’t. Compromise is a better word. It’s a mindset. Learning is a growing exercise. I will never stop learning until the day I die.
With her master’s complete, Centeno returned to advertising – once again on the agency side. It was during this time she came across ESCP Business School and the Executive MBA programme. Having attended an open evening, it was love at first sight.
“Here in the UK when you apply for a role, they look at your CV and see what you have done in the past; if you have done it before, you can do it in the future. Whereas I believe more in transferable skills. If you have the potential to develop new skills, why not? When I was applying for jobs, I was just getting offered the same types of roles in advertising. I really wanted to work client-side.”
“I applied for the General Management Programme at ESCP in 2008, and completed the full EMBA in 2010. And in the middle, I did a certification in digital marketing.” Centeno laughs as she recalls that period of her life. “Oh my god, I had a lot of energy!”
Learning what matters – the hard way
Probably the most unconventional example of continuous learning came in 2010, when Centeno was diagnosed with breast cancer while in Venezuela.
Having completed her EMBA and joined ESCP as the Head of Marketing, her life was turned upside down by treatment – but even this traumatic time became an opportunity for growth.
“I considered it the most challenging but also most amazing experience,” says Centeno.
“I had to go inwards. I started reading a lot about resilience, survivor stories, and I started working on my emotional development.” She taps her head. “I was working a lot on here but not so much on my emotional fitness. It switched my focus from the academic to the emotional.
“Thanks to that I am who I am now.”
This revelation has taken Centeno on a whole new path in her journey, but she continues to pick up lessons in everything she learns that apply to the workplace.
“I love sports, and there is a relationship between a strong body and strong rituals and how you perform, your productivity. I decided to qualify as a personal trainer. I didn’t plan to leave my job, but now I know how to train myself. It’s not a season, it’s a mindset for progress.”
To encourage others to learn, start with yourself
When asked what’s next in her continuous learning journey, Centeno exhales and laughs, giving the impression that it could be anything – or, indeed, everything.
“My current chapter of learning is coaching. I wanted to be a better manager and coaching is about listening, growing people and tapping into their potential.”
I understand that the more I grow, the more the team grows. The better manager I am, the more my team will grow personally and professionally.
“It’s like the oxygen mask on planes: put your own on before helping other people with theirs. I always want to feel like I am progressing. Not because I am comparing myself to anyone else – the only person I am comparing myself to is the person I used to be yesterday.”
And her advice to other managers is simple: be an advocate for your team to learn.
“It doesn’t have to be what they are doing on the job: what they do in their free time will also bring oxygen to the team. The more they experience, the happier and more productive they will be.
“But you create the momentum in yourself that feeds down. If you stop learning, your team will stop. It’s a culture of progress that starts with you.”