Dr Harveen Chugh (MSc Bioinformatics Birkbeck 2002)

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

Interview with Andrew Liddell, Corporate Partnerships Manager with Development and Alumni at Birkbeck

Hello. I am Andrew Liddell, Corporate Partnerships Manager with Development and Alumni at Birkbeck and I am joined by Dr Harveen Chugh, Associate Professor at Harvard Business School. Thank you so much for joining us for this podcast interview Harveen. It would be great if you could tell us about the work that you do?

Brilliant. Well, thanks Andrew. Thanks for having me today. I recently joined Warwick Business, in – where are we now – in January 2021, as Associate Professor in Entrepreneurship. So, I’ve been involved there in teaching on our undergraduate modules and still actually learning about how our university works and getting stuck into the role. Prior to that, I joined Warwick from Imperial College Business School where I was for around four years. I’ve had previous experience at Royal Holloway University. I’ve also had experience with government in consultancy. I also had my own start-up as well. So, over the years, I’ve had a strong background and history in the world of entrepreneurship leading to the academic life that I lead now.

AL: Fantastic, such a rich professional and academic history. You have built your career around expertise and innovation and entrepreneurship. What made you specialise in this field?

HC: Well, that’s a really good question. I would say partly I fell into it with a little bit of design and a bit of not knowing where I was going! For my undergraduate degree I did biology with business studies at Queen Mary (QMUL), so that I knew I had a strength in science. I knew I was really interested in the business aspects of it and that led me to my masters that I did at Birkbeck, in Bioinformatics, which again had science and computational model and protein modelling.

Entrepreneurship wasn’t really a subject when I was an undergraduate or masters student, to be honest, but then I saw what was happening at Imperial. What really drew me to it and keeps me going today is the sort of mindset you can build in encouraging entrepreneurs and new ideas and innovation. This is something that often ideators and innovators have doubts about: is my idea good enough? Is it going to work? There’s a really strong need to build that base and build that empowerment and encourage and help those ideas get off the ground. That’s what really drives me today because there are a lot of ideas buzzing around in people’s minds and a with a little bit of a nudge or guidance in the right direction, those ideas can really go somewhere. That is, I think, what is really needed. That is what entrepreneurship is all about. It is playing that role and that is what really keeps me going.

AL: That’s so interesting and I can see how that is such a powerful motivator. You are a leader in mentoring for entrepreneurship. Can you tell us a bit more about what this means about what makes an effective mentor?

HC: Yes, absolutely. There’s a lot of mentoring and coaching that takes place now in the field of entrepreneurship. Students and entrepreneurs are looking for guidance. They’re looking for mentoring or coaching. Equally, there are educators or people who work in the entrepreneurial community who are required to provide that guidance and it’s really a question of – because it’s still a new field – looking at that practice and how we should do it better. What is the right kind of guidance to offer? What does the entrepreneur need? What does the company need at the different stages? Are we asking the right questions, or should we be providing the answers for entrepreneurs?

So, this practice has developed through my work Imperial and continuing at Warwick. I co-founded with a colleague the Network for Coaching and Mentoring Entrepreneurs to develop this practice. So, it is an exciting niche to be in because there is a lot of development.

What makes a really effective mentor is listening and I think this applies to coaching as well as we often jump in to give advice but have only heard part of the issue. So being a good listener is a skill we really need to develop. But also, with a mentor, specifically, it’s having the experiences and examples to share – having been there and done it – and then guiding and providing options and signposting, not necessarily pushing towards something specific but presenting the options available and leaving the decision there for the entrepreneur.

With coaching, it is a little bit more about asking the questions and helping the entrepreneur to generate the answers, or find them within, rather then providing the options. So, there’s a difference there and ultimately both mentoring and coaching, as much as they are about business knowledge are about building the entrepreneur’s capacity and developing them as individuals as well. They’re both interesting and impactful practices on how we develop our entrepreneurs today.

AL: There have been some substantial changes to the economy and life over the past year. We anticipated Brexit. One we didn’t was the pandemic. What do you see as some of the biggest opportunities and challenges in the year ahead?

HC: Yes. That’s another good question There have been quite a few things to think about and consider. You know, with Brexit, it’s really a double-edged sword. Opportunities ae equally challenges. Opportunities are opening up for businesses. Equally, there are a lot of challenges in keeping up with the legislation and the guidelines and the time businesses have to spend in order to make sure they get it correct.

Export levels are down 15 per cent, which is data from 2020, so it is interesting to think about what is the competitive advantage of a business, what we can offer and how we can continue to encourage exports. There is also more access to finance and to talent, so it’s a bit of both. The challenges are in the opportunities in Brexit too. But equally with covid, we have seen opportunities in tech and online education, in online payments, health tech and a move to more online consultation. So, the digital transformation has definitely accelerated. There have been those businesses that have seen opportunities in covid and have seen new needs arising and needs that are not being met. I think that a lot of people have business ideas. For the people in jobs it’s been a question of what should I do? It’s about the timing, which is quite exciting because it’s a tough time to explore those opportunities.

Unfortunately, at the same time, a number of businesses are closing down as well. So, I think that it’s really bringing about that agility and adaption which for entrepreneurs is a real test, as well as, of course, environmental conditions. It’s a real test of the entrepreneurial spirit and personality as well. Some external conditions make it hard to continue, so people will think about other things that they should do.

Yes, overall, I think that there are opportunities. One thing that is quite big in the entrepreneurial research community is that with opportunities, you have to be alert to them. So, I guess that alertness may be increasing for some and for others it may be coming to an end and it may be time to explore other opportunities in life, not necessarily entrepreneurial ones.

AL: You graduated from Birkbeck with an MSc in Bioinformatics in 2002. What brought you to Birkbeck?

I did my undergraduate project I was at Queen Mary (QMUL) at the time. In my undergraduate project I was really interested in molecular biology and that sort of led me to bioinformatics. It was a new and emerging field. This is going back to 2001 – 2002 and I had a look around and I know this programme is still going strong at Birkbeck today. But it was a unique and emerging subject and Birkbeck was already there doing it. It was already up and running and so for me it was something that others were not doing at the time. Birkbeck was ahead of the game in that sense and, given my personal interest in it, it seemed the natural choice for me, so I put all my eggs in one basket and I said, ‘that’s the masters programme I want to do’. It had a central London location – and I won’t lie that helped. It was an amazing location and I loved being around Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road and places like that!

AL: What is it, do you think that makes the Birkbeck community special?

HC: I’ve kept some of my connections with the Birkbeck bioinformatics community, but I’ve also made new connections at Birkbeck and what I’ve really noticed is that it’s warm and friendly and there’s a genuine interest in that student experience and doing great things with students and that, you know, as a person on the academic side looking to do that myself, that really resonated with me as a sort of shared goal and a place in which I could get involved. I’ve specifically seen that on two programmes I’ve been involved in.  In one, I worked with colleagues on the Pioneer programme (a programme designed to encourage entrepreneurial success for students involved in new or existing businesses), doing workshops for students and encouraging them and encouraging business ideas. Another project, I was involved with, which was nominated for a Times Higher Education Award last year, was the Ability programme which helps students with mental health issues or neuro-diverse conditions. With both projects that I have been involved with personally, I cannot speak more highly of them and my experience with the colleagues who are involved in designing them. So that for me is what’s really special and why I keep that relationship with Birkbeck going.

AL: For those thinking of starting their own entrepreneurial venture, or who are interested in innovation, what would be your strongest piece of advice?

HC: My strongest piece of advice would be to research ideas – I don’t know if it is one piece of advice, or two or three tied together – to research and explore ideas, and that comes from starting off with good assumptions and good hypotheses. But ultimately looking at your assumptions, testing them, but also being really honest about what that data is showing you. In some cases you might test a business idea and that idea is backed by the data. In other cases you might test a business idea and that business idea is not supported by the data, in which case – face the feedback, be open to it and don’t ignore it and say ‘OK this is telling me that this isn’t going to work but I am going to continue anyway’ – as sometimes happens. So, I would say: research and try to read the data correctly and decide, making a fair decision about what you need to do.

AL: That is fantastic advice for all students at Birkbeck and alumni community. Thank so much for your time Harveen and for sharing your story with us on this Birkbeck podcast.

HC: Brilliant. Thank you, Andrew. It’s been great.


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