Michelle Mitchell OBE (MSc Politics and Administration 1997)

The following blog is a transcript of an episode of #OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here

Hello and welcome to #ourbirbeck podcast. #Ourbirkbeck is an exciting year-long initiative to share and showcase the impact members of the Birkbeck community are having around the world. In this podcast series you will hear from our alumni, students, staff, and friends. Whether they make a difference in their community, bringing about change in their industry, or shaping the lives of those around them. We celebrate their story. To find out more about the #Ourbirkbeck initiative please visit: campaign.bbk.ac.uk

In this episode of the #ourbirkbeck podcast, Luisa Staley from Birkbeck’s Development Alumni team interviews Birkbeck alumna Michelle Mitchell.

L: Hello everyone, I am Luisa Staley, and I am delighted to be joined today on an #Ourbirkbeck podcast by CEO of Cancer Research UK and Birkbeck alumna Michelle Mitchell OBE.  Michelle welcome.

M: thank you, delighted to be here.

L: Thank you so much, that’s fantastic. Well, I thought we could just quick off with a really easy question, but actually quite a broad one. Tell us about yourself.

 M: So I grew up in Merseyside, which is near Liverpool in the 80s and I was the first in my family to go to University. I studied Economics at Manchester and then came to Birkbeck to study my MSc in Politics and Public Administration. Delighted to do both of those things, and then moved on to work in Parliament between the years of 1994 and 1997 where I worked for an MP at the time, and got a wonderful understanding of how parliament and politics work, but felt quite deeply rooted in my values that charity is probably the best social change and push forward with those things that are important to me including Equality and Social Justice. As well as improving the health of the nation and I have a long career working in charities ever since. Including currently Cancer Research UK, but previously the Chief Exec of the MS society, the director general innovative UK and also being a non-exec board member of NHS England. So delighted to have had the opportunity to, I think make the world a better place through the work I have being able to do within four charities.

L: Absolutely, wow! That is extremely distinguished. It really sounds like you had an incredible career, you know working and leading several fantastic organizations which you just mentioned. Are there any highlights that stand out for you?

M: oh, there’s lots of highlights absolutely. What really interests me and what really gets me going is I am really passionate about leading charities to achieve their purpose impact and deliver change and big part of that for me is how we collaborate with others and hardness the power and ambition of people. Whether that’s our staff, our volunteers, citizens, scientists, corporate partners, volunteers, around a set of big life changing goals. So, for us at Cancer Research UK that’s about improving cancer survival by 3 and 4 by 2034. Other highlights in my career have been where I have worked at the MS society and during my time as CEO, we oversaw significant progress and effective treatment for people with MS. That was from 40% to 58% that was the charity’s number one goal because so few people were taking treatments which would have slowed down the progress of multiple sclerosis for them. I was also pleased at that time because we were facing challenges about how we increased our income to fund this great research and the support for people with MS. So we developed the 10 year research strategy and launched a major appeal called the stop MS appeal. That was a big bold £100M fund raising appeal and by the time I left we had raised over £40Min just three years which was a huge change for that charity. Before that, Age UK which is the UK’s, now for Older people charity, I was one of a small number of people who let them merger, l helped with Age Concern and brought to bear a new organization, Age UK and is often recognized within the top 10 consumer charity brands here in the UK. The difference we made, two things there during that period: one was running a multi-year campaign that successfully introduced the Equalities act in 2010 and that resulted in protection of all older people from Age discrimination in the provision of goods and services and introduced for the first time maintained retirement ages, so great there. The other issue was working to reduce pension and poverty. Again the campaign over many many years and resulted in the pensions act in 2014 which introduced the triple lock for the basic state pension which meant an increase of 50 to 70 percent of women reaching state pension age with the full basic pension and at Cancer Research UK I think it has been great to persuade the government to set an ambitious target about committing to improve cancer survival. They are talking about 75 percent of people being diagnosed at stage 1 and 2 by 2028, we shall hold into account whether they were able to do that and it’s been an absolute privilege to launch several major innovations including new research program called the Graham Challenge which is funding the best and the brightest scientists around the world on the most difficult questions in cancer and bringing together teams from all over the world to help us accelerate progress against our mission and save lives through research. Oh I could go on, and in my twenties I was chair of the Forces Society which is a gender equality campaign organization and we pushed the agenda on equal pay on changing to the criminal justice system and improving female representation in business in public life, oh I could go on. I am full interest and full of ideas about how to change the world.

L: Amazing, there are certainly some highlights, I mean not even just career highlights, but just life highlights. You set some absolutely amazing examples there. Thank you. You kind of touched upon a little bit, but has there been a guiding kind of passion or principle that has guided you through your career?

M: Yes I think so, I love to work with great people, the best minds, to tackle the biggest social challenges in our world and for me the charity sector is a brilliant place to be to do that and to lead if you fundamentally believe in social change. In terms of my specific motivation in my role at cancer research UK, my life like many people’s has been changed by cancer, so like many I am really determined to see, and accelerate progress in cancer because you know I’m just not satisfied with what’s happening today to the millions of people being directly and indirectly affected by cancer, and we have seen cancer survival significantly improved. In fact double over the last forty years, but we still lacking behind many comparative countries in Europe, Canada, Northern America, where we should and will do better in this country. So this was really attractive to me, to join Cancer Research UK and of course we are made up of an excellent group of people who share this determination. I have a fantastic supporting network of scientists, GP’s, nurses, researchers, supporters, and people directly affected by Cancer so you know it’s great to be part of that Team all united by one mission.

L: Fantastic. That’s really interesting to hear, that approach and how It gets transcended across your career. Obviously, you are Chief Executive of one of the largest charities in the world and you know, you’ve been a strong advocate woman in leadership. Why is it so important and what do you think will help create meaningful change in supporting more women into leadership roles?

M: Well, I strongly believe in diverse teams, I think it’s well-proven that the more diverse organizations are the better they will perform. You know a diverse team will help make sure we draw on the depths of skills, perspectives, that we represent the communities we serve and that we can make the best possible decisions and while particularly more recently at cancer research UK we’ve made progress, on our EDI agenda and particularly on supporting women and women leaders. Don’t get me wrong, we haven’t seen all the changes we want to see and this is especially true in relation to women from ethnic minority communities, but we have done several things at cancer research UK. From us It has been a focus before I joined that is in 2017 and what we had noted that we’d seen a drop off from our senior levels, particularly director and executive director and so we’ve implemented some practical steps around that, executive board sponsorship for about 15 high potential female heads. We have developed leadership programs available for aspiring leaders at lower levels in the organization. I believe particularly in relation to equality diversion and inclusion you have to set targets and be adaptable for different targets and be accountable for delivering those targets, so we have targets in place around minimum of 50 percent representation at both director board levels within three years. We have made good progress, COVID has hit us harder because we had to make serious, significant redundancies and reduction the number of posts, but that is what we are continuing to aim for. And particularly through lockdown, you know we’ve all been hit hard, and I don’t know about you, I know that there is many additional work I have been doing at home as well as leading CRUK, but have sort to introduce a policy of best endeavor, so people are really doing their best around their specific personal circumstances and I know for staff  those with children and caring responsibilities it’s been a really tough time and we have looked at, and just about to launch a new flexible working policy.

L: Wow.

M: It’s a really quite a progressive one, we believe you know, and I believe the world has changed and we need to adapt our approach to support well-being, retained talent, move barriers to progression. And I think by evolving our approach to flexible working will improve ways of working help/support people achieve a better work-life balance and ultimately make faster progress and that benefits everybody. But you know the feedback I’ve had from my female staff is setting targets outlining the ambition you have around supporting female leadership, putting practical programs in place and continuously to evolve and adapt flexible working are the areas that staff have said they’ve really valued.

L: Yeah, that’s really interesting, it feels there is a sort of consolidated and multifaced approach. It’s not just a one sized for all and it really sounds like you are digging into that.

Yeah, one of the things that people spoke to me when I first joined it meant a lot, actually to have a female CEO for a number of members of our staff at cancer research UK and it should have not surprised me, but it did a little. You know it really felt I was the first female CEO for this wonderful charity and it was interesting to get that feedback and of course what women want to see is people like them in senior positions of leadership as well, so I think there’s a sense a sense of having senior women in these roles sends a message about, you know we can all do this.

L: Yeah absolutely, great thank you. And in terms of you know the life-saving research that CRUK does on a daily basis, we all know with the pandemic, and with Brexit that there have been amends challenges and particularly for academic researchers and we felt that here at Birkbeck, what do you see as some of the biggest opportunities and challenges for the scientific research community in the years ahead post Brexit and post pandemic.

 M: well, for those of you who like to listen, read Charles Dickens, you know some of us have describe this period as being the best of times and the worst of times, of course it has been a time of great scientific endeavor. The science that has underpinned, or hopefully recovery and route out of COVID has been incredible, it’s been an amazing work. But COVID and Brexit have served as a double whammy for charities and universities. The UK has so many strengths, world-class universities, world-calls sites, a proud history of innovation and invention, you know we invented the jet-engine, the steam engine, a great science has decoded the structure of DNA, we have an NHS, you know free, universal NHS free at the point of need. This incredible longitudinal of datasets we’re top area in Europe for investment, we have amazing talent and we’ve also seen that talent considerably develop in cutting a JI and Tech, so I think the good thing is you know we can and are globally competitive and I strongly believe that science and research innovation are critical to the prosperity of the nation to jobs, services, new products, transforming  public services, and also adjusting those big issues that we face around sustainability and public health for example cancer. But we do face considerable challenges, not least the impact that declining the economy and covid has had on university and charity funding and I think we are at a point where our global competitiveness could be threatened and to give you a couple of examples what this means specifically in cancer. We’ve been hit incredibly hard, we are anticipating a drop of income of 300M over a three-year period, as a consequence of COVID, that is 160M a year and we’ve had no choice but to scale down our work to reflect our reduced income. Of course, our determination has not faulted but It means in the short-term we have to reduce the number of PHD students we support, receive fewer publications, we’ll be able to fund fewer clinical trials and I am concerned that we will see some of our brilliant and most in demand scientists leave for better funded areas in research, other countries or even other sectors and this cuts which translate to fewer discoveries and slower progress, so at the moment you know we have a mission at cancer research UK and is to absolutely outperform our plan to protect more of our leading research and give our researchers the breathing space to do best what they do best which is disrupting the status-quo, innovating and accelerating progress for us and in beating cancer together so I think we’re facing together, universities, scientists, academics, charities, a tough few years, but I am completely confident that we will recover in time and we will stay at the forefront of the global fight against cancer. We’re as determined as ever to beat cancer and we’ve got to adapt, which we are and change this new environment that we are operating in. I mean we’ve got to exploit the post-covid, post-Brexit environment and we can do that by enhancing the regulatory framework for cancer research. Focus on the clinical innovation that needs to happen to improve cancer survival and forge ahead with some exciting industry in academic partnerships. I think the NHS is going to play a big role in this to deliver NHS reforms, perhaps using cancer as exemplar to drive better disease interception, early detection, research intensive, clinical care environment and lastly double down on the UK signs base and ensure the government invests and that its rhetoric is matched by its funding for the joint aim that we support is to ensure UK remains a global scientific superpower.

L: Absolutely, well said, and I think as you clearly identified the synergies between you know at us Birkbeck the researchers and charities are all fond of that too. So yes, thank you for that. Actually now, bringing it back to Birkbeck now, and your time here. So, you’ve studied Politics and Administration at the college, what role did Birkbeck play in your career?

M: well, it’s interesting actually, it’s been lovely to reflect on it for this interview together. So I was very fortunate to have the late professor Ben Pimlott as my supervisor on my MSc Politics and Public Administration course and he sadly died very young, at 58 of leukemia. he was an important part of my decision about whether I would go to Birkbeck. I was considering LSE and Birkbeck at the same time. The other important criteria for me was it enabled me to work full-time and study in the evening and that was absolutely critical because it made it affordable to do a post-graduate education. Live in London at the same time, I was working at Westminster at the time as I started with research and then political adviser and it was near to Westminster so the great excellent in teaching and very attractive supervisor, the ability to work in the evening and the location all made it the perfect choice to me and I very very much enjoyed my time at Birkbeck.

L: Fantastic. Everything seems to have aligned there for you which is what we often see from our students and alumni. And what do you think is special about the Birkbeck community?

M: well, I think the Birkbeck community is very special. I think there is a great standard of teaching, I think the fact that education is accessible is really important and I think that diversity of people who come to Birkbeck, study at Birkbeck adds to the richness of the teaching so I think there’s something very special about the diversity of Birkbeck community and that enabled us to really think through, challenge ideas, assumptions, opinions in a very lively way and I certainly enjoy lively debate and discussion and critically I think again people being rooted in often having jobs, working, you get certain type of person who’s probably pretty determined and perhaps loves education who come to Birkbeck and I think that along with high standards makes it a very special community.

L: Thank you, I agree Michelle. And finally, have you caught up or kept in touch with any of your fellow Birkbeck alumni since you left?

M: So, you often come across people, on the course I did there were several servants, who were studying away with me and of course you keep track of some people who have a good relationship and become friends after that, but you know I, watching it closely would certainly recommend the course I did to anybody.

L: Brilliant. Thank you so much and thank you for your time today and for joining us on this #ourbirkbeck podcast. It’s been great chatting with you, and I wish you all the very best success as you move forward with CRUK post-Brexit and post-pandemic too. Thanks Michelle.

M: Thank you

And that is the end of this episode. We hope you enjoyed hearing from Luisa and Michelle. If you are interested in finding out more about #ourbirkbeck please visit campaign.bbk.ac.uk to read more of the impact our communities are having around the world. Thanks for listening and until next time.

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Alumni & Student Ambassador Officer

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