Alia SUNDERJI – ESCP Europe 2008

Master in International Business and Project Development

Co-founder So(u)l Collective


“Get uncomfortable, sometimes your greatest learning is in the biggest problem rather than opportunity”

  • Why did you come to ESCP Europe?

Right before studying at ESCP Europe I was participating in an exchange program through my university in Canada at the Universidad de Navarra in Pamplona Spain.   Studying in Europe differed from my previous studies as I found the courses based more on real business case studies as opposed to textbooks. I loved this practical approach to learning and also loved the fact that studying in Europe exposed me to so many other students from all over Europe all with varying nationalities. I wanted to continue my studies in Europe and chose to do so at ESCP Europe.

 I chose ESCP Europe as I was interested in the Masters in International Business and Project Development program being offered at their campus in Paris. I have always been interested in how business and marketing vary across cultures and countries and the program provided insight via industry professionals, which I was excited about. I was also attracted to the fact that participants would be from all over the world giving us an opportunity to learn how to work with people from different cultures and working styles. Lastly I chose ESCP Europe because I had always wanted to live in Paris, I love the fashion industry and thought you couldn’t get more at the centre of it than being in Paris!

  • What did you want to do after ESCP Europe?

To be honest, I wanted to work in Fashion Marketing that’s why schooling at ESCP and in Paris in particular was attractive to me. I dabbled in the industry for a little while but the competitive nature of it didn’t provide me as much opportunity as I hoped for.

From fashion I stumbled upon working in the consumer goods industry, particularly for a coffee and bakeshop franchise named Tim Hortons, which is extremely popular in Canada. I loved working for the company as it’s fast paced and there was tons of opportunity for growth in varying fields of marketing such as regional marketing, brand marketing, marketing communications and much more.

  • What was your first job after ESCP Europe?

When I came back from France, I was still motivated to work in fashion. I thought I would try to work on the editorial side because I love to write. I worked for FASHION Magazine based out of Vancouver Canada.  For FASHION I wrote and edited fashion and beauty articles, which were published monthly.

I enjoyed working for a magazine however I was missing the business and marketing side which I was excited about during my studies so from there I looked into the marketing industry of another industry I love which is the music industry.

  • So you joined Nettwerk Music Group as a Marketing and PR intern. How was it like?

Working at Nettwerk Music was a great opportunity. I’ve always loved the music industry and I was exposed to it when I was a singer many years ago. I had a couple of my songs on the radio a long long time ago (laughs) and even though I didn’t continue with my career as an artist I still missed being exposed to the creativity surrounding the industry.

My early career was about testing the waters within a number of industries. I tell everybody: “You should enjoy the journey, people get so stuck and worried after they graduate about what they are going to do”. My best advice is to enjoy the journey and the discovery of who you are, what you like to do and industries you want to work in.

I worked in the Marketing and PR department where I would assist with promoting the albums of the artists signed by the record label, among which we had Sara McLachlan, Great Lake Swimmers, Bare Naked Ladies, Avril Lavigne and Morgan Page…so many great Canadian artists.

I called music directors at radio stations for airplay, sent out singles, tracked the progress of how much radio play they were getting, reported on press received by artists and helped promote music festivals we were hosting such as Lilac Festival.

  • What can you tell us about Tim Hortons, a company you later joined?

Tim Hortons is the biggest coffee shop in Canada. 8 out of 10 cups of coffee sold in Canada are bought at Tim Hortons. It all started with Tim Hortons, a hockey player who was part of the Maple Leafs (NHL Toronto’s team). He opened a donuts and coffee shop in Hamilton 50 years ago and his vision has taken the company from a couple of mom & pop stores to a large franchise company with 4000 locations across Canada and US.

  • What do you think made the success of Tim Hortons?

Tim Hortons is not just about selling cups of good coffee, it’s about making a difference in the community where the store operates. For instance, the children foundation allows economically disadvantaged children to have camp experiences of a lifetime. They get to play football and hockey, go horseback riding, mountain climbing… I went to a couple of the camps and they look like a dream.

It’s not good enough to just sell a product, you have to be able to be entrenched in the community you are in and help the community grow. People really identify with this spirit and with Tim Hortons, the original owner as he was a former hockey player, a sport that is such a big element of Canadian culture.

Tim Hortons has become such a big element of Canadian culture too. If you ask Canadians: “What’s famous about Canada?”. Amongst hockey and maple syrup they will also say: “Tim Hortons”. The first thing I did when I came back home from Europe was go to go to my local Tim Hortons and it made me feel like I was home.

  • What was your first position at Tim Hortons?

I started as a Marketing Coordinator for the Cold Stone Creamery brand out of the Vancouver office. It’s an ice-cream franchise that Tim Hortons decided to partner with to build co-branded locations across Canada and the US. Cold Stone Creamery is a popular American franchise so leveraging off their brand when we were entering the US and leveraging off Tim Hortons when Cold Stone was entering Canada was beneficial for both brands.

Adapting an American brand to the Canadian market was extremely challenging. In the end, we actually decided to convert back the co-branded locations to Tim Hortons. I think the marriage of the two brands wasn’t right. At Tim Hortons, you can get a great meal for a value price whereas Cold Stone creamery offers premium products.

  • How have you evolved within the Tim Hortons company since?

I have changed positions three times in four past years. I have been really lucky to have people believe in me in particular my previous boss Doug Gunn in order to get such great opportunities within the company.

From the Vancouver office, I moved to Calgary where I worked on regional marketing for Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. I supported the Marketing managers in each of these markets with sales building activities after the launch of products. The brand team would launch a product and Regional marketing supported them with sales building activities to help promote new products and also entrench ourselves in the communities as well.

From my position in Calgary, I then joined the brand team in Toronto as the Associate Brand Manager for Breakfast for Canada and US. I worked with the Category Marketing Manager to launch new breakfast items all the way from ideation to launch. It was very much a project management role, I worked with a number of departments and teams such as demand planning, research, operations, legal, marketing communications to ensure all the touch points were considered for the launch a new product.

  • From Tim Hortons you then went on to start a social business named So(u)l Collective, could you tell us a little bit about it?

The idea of So(u)l Collective was inspired during my studies at ESCP.   One of the case studies we reviewed was the Danone case in Bangladesh India.   The Grameen Danone project opened my eyes and heart to the fact that you could carry out a business in a socially responsible way where you are benefitting people that need the help the most. Giving opportunities to economically disadvantaged people in an empowering way was inspiring. Not only did Danone benefit by entering small markets, the people selling the yogurt also benefited from a job and the people they sold the yogurt to also benefitted by getting the necessary probiotics they were missing in their diets – win win win – brilliant.

It wasn’t until last year when I visited Nicaragua and reunited with an old friend Christine Orton that I went to school in Montreal that my inspiration and passion from the Danone case reignited.

So(u)l is our combined vision to work in marginalized communities with artisan communities by co-designing boho chic home and accessory products that blend cultural tradition with modern style. We import and sell these products in Canada and US providing a link to the global marketplace all the while providing fair wages in hopes of upward social mobility.

We currently work in Guatemala and Nicaragua and are looking into opportunities to expand into India. Our website is

  • What advice would you like to pass onto the students?

A couple pieces of advice that I would extend that really helped me along my career are:

Cast your net wide. If you can’t find the opportunity in the city that you are in, broaden your search to other cities. Open yourself up to bigger and broader opportunities.

Enjoy the journey. Try different jobs and industries to figure out exactly where your skill sets and passion can be capitalized. We all get so caught up in figuring things out quickly but taking out the time to find where you belong within the work force is worth it – waking up everyday to do exactly what you love is worth the time and effort.

Get uncomfortable, continually challenge yourself and increase your marketability. When you get to the point in a job where you are not learning anything anymore, get uncomfortable and look for a new opportunity. Sometimes it means feeling like you don’t know anything anymore, but it’s good because it’s proof you are broadening the skill sets that you have. As a whole-rounded person with great knowledge in so many different areas, you become that much more of a stronger asset.

Be passionate. Find or build a company that you love. If you believe in the company’s purpose and the product that you are selling, you are more motivated to get up in the morning to ensure success.

Leave a legacy. In every project that you work on and every team that you work with, make sure you leave a legacy: “She was such a hard worker”, “She really cared about her team members” or “She always strived to do not just what was asked for but much more too”.

Have sponsors and mentors not only inside but also outside your company. Look for the people who will be your biggest cheerleaders and show you which path you need to go.


Loïc GIRALDI, Writer for ESCP Europe Around The World