At just 16, Sarah left education to start a career as a broker in the City, later achieving the impressive accolade of being the first female Managing Director of a Lloyd’s Broking firm. Despite this success, Sarah felt she was missing something and craved a change of career. After speaking with a career councillor, she decided to come to Birkbeck to study History of Art.
Sarah quickly thrived in the Arts world. Her roles have included Fundraising Director at Royal Academy of the Arts, Executive Director of the Almeida Theatre, Executive Director of Arts Council, London, Head of Arts and Cultural Strategy for Olympic Delivery Authority, Founder of The Legacy List, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park charity (now Foundation for Future London), and Executive Producer at the Roundhouse.
In 2013 Sarah was made a Fellow of Birkbeck College and is a regular supporter of our students. Most recently Sarah was Chief Executive of the Design Council. Here we speak with her about her work and her time at Birkbeck.
What made you return to study?
I left school at 16 and was working in the city as an office junior. By about 31 I had made my way up to Managing Director, the first female MD in a Lloyd’s broking firm. I got there and thought ‘is this it?’. It just felt very anti-climatic. People didn’t necessarily understand this and weren’t overly sympathetic. I then spoke to my Aunt. This was one of those moments when my whole life changed. My Aunt is a doctor – she was the first female Chief Medical Officer for Marks and Spencer in the 1970s, so had an impressive career.
My aunt suggested that I went to an educational career psychologist. This psychologist really made a difference and suggested three main actions for me: 1. I should be in the Arts; 2. I was bored and need to use my brain in a different way, ideally at university, 3. I should look to female leaders in the arts world as figures to aspire to. Later, at my graduation ceremony, I thought that I must write to the psychologist and thank him. I happened to be sat near someone I didn’t know very well in my class. She told me she with her partner who was a psychologist. By sheer coincidence it was him! I couldn’t believe it. He remembered me which was lovely.
Why did you choose Birkbeck?
This was pre computers, so I’m not sure how I found Birkbeck, but I’m glad that I did. I wanted to do something I was passionate about and was still a Managing Director in the day, so the evening classes worked best.
I was terrified on my interview day and was directed to sit on the stairs and wait for Professor Lynda Nead (who I am still in touch with). I sat with another student, Gabriel Koureas, who was a lecturer at Birkbeck for many years. He was so calm, and I was so nervous; I hadn’t been in education for such a long time. It was a relief when I was offered a place. I had chosen History of Art as it had always interested me and I decided to focus on the 19th / 20th Centuries as I was fascinated by the social and political context.
How did you find working and studying?
When I began the degree course, I was still working. A year in, I stepped down from my MD role in the City. I suddenly went from earning a good salary to having none. Although I eventually found a job in a gallery, it was at 90% less than my previous salary. Course fees very quickly became a problem. I think I felt too embarrassed to say anything and was in a lucky position where my partner was able to offer me support.
What are your favourite memories of Birkbeck?
How hard everyone worked! We all really wanted to gain our degree and do well, despite day jobs and other pressures like family commitments. I also really loved the studying itself. My thesis was on a 19th century photographer called Julia Margaret Cameron and I remember going to the V&A and being allowed to see and hold her photos. It was incredible to immerse myself and to use my brain in that way.
However, I do remember a lot of tiredness. At the time, there was horrible coffee which didn’t help! Despite that the joy of learning and quality of teaching will always stand out. Birkbeck students can be a challenging bunch as they have had such diverse experiences and some are hugely knowledgeable. It was not unusual for them to correct the lecturers. This kept the environment interesting, a place where everyone could learn including the lecturers.
I also saw so many women as artists, academics and fellow students who inspired me and, in the case of some, became role models.
What do you feel makes Birkbeck so special?
The mix of students that you meet. I played a small part in helping with the creation of Birkbeck’s Stratford presence, having worked on the 2012 Olympics and knowing the area well. The number of students in higher education who come from East London is sadly much lower than other areas of the capital, so Birkbeck wanted to build links there. I enjoyed being a part of this and hope that it gives a chance to students in the area, just as I was given one.
Throughout my work, I always tried to look past people’s CVs and offer opportunities to those who may not have the experience or the advantages but do have the passion and drive. I am pleased to say that many of those I have hired over the years are still in touch with me now and have done fantastically well. Birkbeck echoes this in many ways. When studying, I used to handwrite my essays and take them into the office. My PA would offer me help to type them up sometimes, as she found the subject interesting and wanted to know more. She was really bright but just hadn’t had either educational opportunities or the time to study. I think Birkbeck can offer that opportunity.
How did it feel to become a Fellow of Birkbeck?
It felt totally unbelievable. Within a day or two, I was awarded the CBI ‘First women Awards’ for public service and received a letter asking me to be a Birkbeck Fellow. I kept thinking back to sitting nervously on the stairs on my interview day. I couldn’t believe it. I felt really honoured. Wonderfully, Gabriel Koureas, who sat on the stairs with me that day, was on the staff platform when I became Fellow. This was such an extraordinary thing and I managed to quickly weave our story into my speech.
That day, during the graduation ceremony when I became a Fellow, I distinctly remember a woman who crossed the stage. She was in her late 60s, maybe older, and reached the other end of the stage where her daughters had to help her back to her seat. They had massive grins on their faces and were obviously enormously proud of her. It brought a tear to my eye and it felt great to see that people of all ages and backgrounds had this opportunity.
What made you choose to give back to Birkbeck?
My partner and I both had fairly disastrous school careers. I wasn’t disruptive, but very quiet and removed; I found it boring and uninspiring. I left school as soon as I possibly could. My partner on the other hand was rather more disruptive. She came to my BA graduation ceremony and remembers watching the PhD students collecting their Doctoral degrees and thought ‘I want to be one of them…’. She went on to do an MA at Goldsmiths and then went to Birkbeck where she gained a PhD in History. It has therefore had a profound impact for both us and played a real influence in our lives.
We would now like to help students who may feel education is not an option for them, due to finances or situation.
Tell me more about your time as Chief Executive at Design Council.
One thing that I enjoyed about the Design Council is that everything in life is designed. People will often assume that design just focuses on decoration and objects. I was questioned, asking if we were the equivalent of the ‘cushions and carpets dept’. However, nothing could be further from the reality, which is that the Design Council, uniquely, focuses on representing design right across the economy including healthcare, housing, transport and aerospace. The Council aims to tackle some of the toughest economic, societal and environmental challenges providing evidence, through stats and stories, of both need and impact. Our mission is to make life better by design and has four main areas of work through better ‘places’, ‘products’, ‘processes’ and ‘performance’. I enjoyed being able to emphasise that impact within my role.
There are often examples where design plays a role, but which go unnoticed, as the best design just works. The furlough scheme is one – this was something that had to be designed very quickly. It is a shame that no one really mentioned the technicians and designers who worked together, putting an immense amount of hard work and skill into designing these processes within days. Which then made such a difference to millions of peoples’ lives.
How were the Design Council effected by COVID-19?
Luckily, we had invested in Teams a couple of years before the pandemic took hold and actively encouraged home working. So we were able to move online at great speed, delivering our first workshops for clients in a very different way within 10 days. I worked hard with the senior team to make sure that they felt as supported as possible. Like everywhere, we had people in very different and sometimes intensely challenging situations. I tried to break it down into steps of necessary initial actions to get through this period with a focus for all of us on digital bravery, communications clarity and having the right people working on the right purpose. As the CEO I also focused on what seemed like the three most important priorities: 1. Ensure that clients are supported, 2. Look after the team and each other and 3. Do what is possible to earn our place in the world living with COVID. All organisations need to keep actively adapting to this new situation.
You were awarded an OBE for service to the Arts, how did that feel?
Co-incidentally, I had been at a Birkbeck dinner and came back home to this large brown envelope. The letter inside was written in very heavy language and I couldn’t quite understand what it was saying. I was a little nonplussed. My partner was away and she rang me later that evening for a chat. We had a normal conversation and then right at the end I said; ‘I think I’ve been recommended for an OBE’, which caught her by surprise! I felt uncertain whether an OBE was for me, but my partner encouraged me to look at those I have admired who have received awards in the honours list, as well as the criteria and process I would have been judged against. I also wanted to accept it in honour of all the colleagues with whom I had worked over the years – I believe that it is always a team effort and I am one part of a jigsaw. My colleagues were great and very supportive of it.
It was so interesting to go to Buckingham Palace and meet fellow awardees, as it felt like such a leveller. We were all so different, getting our awards for myriad things, but also united by this recognition. You really felt part of something much bigger. My mother was living with dementia so couldn’t attend, but alongside my partner and one of my sisters I was with my aunt, my mother’s sister, who had recommended the career counsellor all those years ago and helped to set me on my path. It squared the circle in a perfect way.