#OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni – Zey Kussan (BA History and Archaeology, 2016)

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

Narrator: Hello, and welcome to the Our Birkbeck Podcast. Our Birkbeck 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’ll hear from our Alumni, students, staff and friends. Whether they are making a difference in their community, bringing about change to their industry or shaping the lives of those around them. We celebrate their story.

To find out more about the Our Birkbeck Initiative, please visit Campaign.bbk.ac.uk


Narrator: In this episode of the #OurBirkbeck Podcast, Zey Kussan, curator at the Museum of London, speaks to Helen Shaw of the Development and Alumni team.


HS: I’m joined today by Zey Kussan and she works at the Museum of London in their collections. Thank you so much for joining us today Zey. We’ll get straight in there – tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you do at the museum? 

ZK:  Yes, so I work at the Museum of London. I’ve been here for a while now, so I’ve been lucky enough to dip in and out of a lot of projects. I’ve had quite a varied time here which is really exciting, and when we said we were going to have this discussion it was good for me to reflect back over what I’ve done as well.  

So, when I started here, I started here in exhibitions, so I was lucky enough to work on four of their major exhibitions from 2015 to 2018; people may know or they may have heard of the Crime Museum Uncovered exhibition, Fire Fire, Crossrail Archaeology as well and Roman Dead, and then I worked on some temporary displays which I project managed after that. Then obviously the new museum move to Smithfield began, so I started working on the move and an audit for that and then in between doing that I started on the new Curating London project doing some curatorial work for contemporary collecting, and that project is still continuing.  

Now I’m back on the Smithfield move so there’s been quite a lot that I’ve got involved in career-wise here at the Museum of London, so that is where we are at the moment! 

HS: Amazing and the Smithfield move is a huge one, I completely appreciate most of it is under-wraps, but can you tell us anything about what is the most exciting part about moving the museum over there? 

ZK: Yeah absolutely – it’s still happening, it’s still going ahead which is great. For us here it’s literally just around the corner, obviously that makes no difference in terms of preparation!  It is really exciting, there’s not a lot obviously that I can say about it, but we are moving right now.  

So, we’ve been working on it for a while now for a couple of years and obviously curatorial are working on the galleries and what they’re going to look like, and then we’ve got the team that’s auditing and looking at this massive project at the moment where we’re looking at all the objects at London Wall to go for the move.  

The Museum of London is across three sites; we’ve got Docklands, London Wall and the archaeological archive and there’s over seven million objects in total. Obviously, we’re not going to look at all those, it is the ones at London Wall we are looking at, so it’s really exciting for people working on the project. It’s very rare that you get to see all of that in one go in any sort of project, so it’s exciting. 

HS: Brilliant that’s amazing – that’s a huge amount of work. It sounds incredible and of course bringing everything from the three sites as well and looking at that holistically must be amazing, a great opportunity. 

 ZK: It’s going to be exciting yeah, definitely one to watch and keep an eye out for. Stuff will be drip fed in time, yeah definitely, it’s really exciting.  

HS: It’s so brilliant that it’s being kept so under-wraps because it’s going to be, when it opens, so exciting and it’s going to be amazing for people to come and see it and discover it all again pretty much. It sounds so fantastic. 

 ZK: There are a lot of pictures online as well so if you want to see it there’s a lot of concept pictures of Smithfield. There is a lot that is out there at the moment so it’s well worth having a look and getting an idea of what it’s going to look like and where it is you know. 

HS: Brilliant, and as part of your work at the Museum of London, you’re also the co-chair of the Beacon Collective which is a staff network for racial equality. What does this involve and why is that important for you? 

ZK: Yeah, so a lot of museums will have their own staff networks. At the Museum of London we’ve got our Beacon Collective and then we’ve also got Proud History Champions; which is our LGBTQ network; we’ve got the Women in Leadership network and we’ve also got a disability network and so we’re very active in that respect.  

With the Beacon Collective, I share that with two other ladies that I work with here and it’s been really important during lockdown actually, and with everything that is happening. So, support for our colleagues and most importantly a support network for our black colleagues, because of everything happened last summer- I say everything happened last summer, it’s ongoing, it’s always there, it’s always an issue, so it’s been an exhausting year, but we’re really set up to support our colleagues in in that respect.  

That was our main objective when it got set up.  I wasn’t part of it when it originally got set up, so I came in halfway and yeah it is literally a support network, and then to raise awareness across museums because we are the least represented members of the museum workforce. So it’s just providing that support basis and currently our main objectively is working around racism awareness in museums and anti-blackness, so we’ve done a lot of that work in the last 14 months  

HS: Amazing and you talked there about representation, and I know that another piece that you’re really actively involved in as well as the racial equality piece at Museum of London, is a wider group Museum as Muck, which is a network which is actively pushing to improve socioeconomic diversity of staff within the museum sector as well, so it feels very much in the same ilk.  

Can you tell us a little bit more about that as well and how these things necessarily pull across into all the different facets, from the representation of staff, into the exhibits and the collections? How does that all come together? 

 ZK: Yeah, that’s a really big question!   

Yeah I think what you’ve just said though, that’s the aim, that’s the objective:  how this comes into the museum sector and how we affect change. So yeah, Museum As Muck is for working-class people in the in the museum sector. When we say working-class people, I think a lot of people presume it’s the white working class and I know we’ve had a lot of discussions around this, but it’s everyone that identifies as working class, so that’s really important. So we’re getting larger in terms of our members as well. We’ve just put out a new website as well which will obviously track all of our members and see where we are across the sector.  

So initially it’s a support network, but all networks are, aren’t they? So they’re set up because there’s a need there, people need support and it’s usually the minority groups in museums and that’s the whole premise of these networks and why they exist and it’s usually because there’s a problem, so if there wasn’t a problem, then these networks wouldn’t exist  

So the heritage sector, the arts and a lot of very middle-class jobs if you like, are careers that are very unwelcoming or inaccessible for working class people, so it’s about working towards an awareness around that and what we can do and what we can help to change that. And obviously it’s our own experiences as well and that’s where it’s come from – we’ve experienced it, it’s happened to us and we don’t want that to continue happening.  

We want it easier for people that come after us and also we want more people in the sector. We want more working-class people in sector, but it’s got to be comfortable for them you know? and it’s not just about bringing in – because there’s a massive push for diversity and inclusion, and what we shouldn’t be doing is just pushing a whole bunch of people into structures that are not set up to support them because actually that’s causing more damage. So, it’s about working on the internal structure, making it a safe place for people to work.  

So yes there’s a lot of work there that we’re doing, we want to break down the barriers so you know there’s this need to have education degrees to work in museums and that’s not accessible for everyone, so it’s like what can we do around that? Do we have like on the job training? Do we need to have the degrees, or do we just make them cheaper more accessible?  How can we do this? And then there’s this need to volunteer. Working-class people, we can’t always volunteer, it’s really hard and we don’t have that free time, so there’s a lot around that.  

And then the salaries are very low, so even if a working-class person did enter the field, the salaries are impossible to live on, especially in the cities, especially in London. So there’s a lot of barriers there, so we’re sort of working around that and we’re trying to now work with organizations to make them aware of this, and then to make the jobs more accessible. 

 HS: Amazing and I mean you yourself came into the sector kind of later in your career am I right?  What were some of the challenges that you faced kind of coming into that? And obviously you know that kind of fitted in, in part I assume, in terms of giving that extra bit of the education that you talked about there, but tell me about that journey and how that was coming in a bit later in your career? 

ZK: Yeah, so Birkbeck was a massive part of that journey really and before I looked into working in the sector I hadn’t heard of Birkbeck, I didn’t know it existed, so I’d never, I went to college originally but I never went beyond college and in all honesty I didn’t come from a family of people that went to university, so that’s a whole new world in itself, but I’ve always been interested in history and archaeology growing up and I quite enjoyed the history GCSE at school and I had really good history teachers and they were always talking about you’d make a really good historian and things like that. Obviously then I had no idea what a historian was, I just knew I was interested in this subject, so there’s a lot of things that are not open to you, that you really wouldn’t think about, because it does depend on your background and what’s open to you and what’s accessible to you.  

So even working in museums now when people like “oh I’ve done an A-level in Archaeology or Classics” I’m like “wow where did you go school?” I didn’t realize that until, or that was, I didn’t realize that was available until Uni. So when I did finally decide you know I want to do this, I want to work, basically I want to be an archaeologist and it wasn’t until my thirties that I was like you know what, I’m going to do this, I want to do this and then I looked into it and  that’s how I found Birkbeck and I was like okay. There was no way I could study full time during the day, it was impossible especially with paying your bills and you know just general life,  so when that popped up, I came along for an open day and the professor that I met that day explained it all to me and that I could do it part-time.  It was two evenings a week, so I could still work during the day and work in the  evening and the weekend, so I wasn’t losing money, it just meant I had to be really strict with my time and studying and stuff, so that’s how it happened. 

HS: yeah. 

ZK: I did do the BA in History and Archaeology part-time, yeah so that that’s…I feel like I’ve just gone on and on but that’s why it started, and it was amazing. If Birkbeck didn’t exist, I mean I’m sure there’s probably other ways of doing it, but if they didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have done it and I wouldn’t be here. They were a massive part of that journey and the professors were amazing they were so supportive and really understanding of your situation. 

HS: Amazing to hear and I think you know, it’s amazing to see how you’re kind of taking as you said earlier, your own experience and kind of making accessible to making sure that the sector is accessible to other people. I mean, what do you think will be the fundamental change? If we could make the arts and cultural sector, the heritage sector genuinely one that was open to a diverse group of people, what do you think would be some of the biggest changes that we’d see? 

 ZK: That’s a big question! 

 I think it’s quite, yeah, I mean it’s a relevant question with what’s going on in the world right now I think and everything that’s gone on, and yeah I think in in this sector and in many sectors, but just specifically focusing on this sector, equity is really important.  

I know we’re in the press a lot and there’s been a lot that’s happening with the statues being brought down and retained and explained and all of that. Now if from the beginning, if we were all equal and the sector was open to everyone, then we wouldn’t always be looking at history through this middle-class lens. Obviously going back it’s always been through a white male middle class lens, so a lot of our collections are still documented and they’re still in our collections from that view, so there needs to be a whole heap of work done on revisiting collections, so I’ve been looking at that quite a lot as well.  

We all need to do that so it just, it would give an overall rounded story of history and not just a one-sided story, especially not just from a top-down approach. So that’s what it would change you know, and it would make it more inclusive you know and we wouldn’t have the, I’m trying to stay away from saying that the “culture war” that people are talking about, because it really isn’t, but I know there’s been a lot of articles and stuff around that, so they’re saying we’re in this culture war, and if we had equity to begin with that wouldn’t be happening right now. 

HS: Yeah I mean that’s a brilliant answer, and I think it is fascinating that this whole idea of re-examining history through a different lens, and what it will mean for the learnings we take for the future and you know I was talking to a Birkbeck academic out in the in the History department just the other day who is all about public history and he was very much saying a similar piece of like, now is the moment where we are we’re re-examining history through these new lenses with fresh eyes and new perspectives and it’s enriching so much of what we can take forward to the future. It’s really, yeah, it’s such a valuable piece of work. 

ZK:  Yeah it’s been gate kept for so long and it needs to be and it’s not even it’s  

Terminology is really important as well isn’t it, like the language that we use, because a lot of people are saying it’s rewriting history. Now, I understand what people are saying when they say that, but and I think that’s where the confusion is and why we get this big sort of backlash if you like. It’s not, we’re not rewriting, we’re not changing history, it was always there, it’s just not been taught in that way before. 

HS: Yeah. Going back to the archaeology piece, it’s almost that element as you said like it was always there, like almost when you know with archaeology and discovering it, it was always there it’s just that it’s only just being discovered almost, so it’s kind of like, it’s yeah, it’s a really interesting way to look at it.   

I mean from your perspective, what is probably one of your having studied part-time while working and getting into the sector and really you know moving up and creating an incredible career within it, what would be your biggest piece of advice for other people looking to get into the sector from non-traditional backgrounds? 

ZK: Okay yeah:  get a mentor. I’d definitely say get a mentor early you know, make some calls, send some emails, speak to your professors if you’re at university, or if you’re just starting out, just email people you admire you know, people whose papers that you might have liked. Don’t be afraid to contact people and don’t be afraid to ask! But yeah,  get a mentor early and if it’s someone that will sort of stick with you that’s great, if not, then change them every couple of years. It’s really important and I wish I’d done that earlier on, I do now and I’ve been really lucky actually to have two really great mentors. They actually are from working class backgrounds which is great and they were  through, or part of Space Invaders. So space invaders are another network in in the museum sector,  women in leadership. So yeah like we really go out there and look I found that really helpful.  

Also, find your squad: it’s really important to have people around you, so networks are important. Join a network that that you can sort of relate with and then find your squad because if you have good support around you, you can thrive and that’s really important because sometimes, if you are part of the minority in a workplace you can feel really isolated, so it’s really important to have a support network. So that’s the sort of two main things I’d say.  

Yeah, you need your support but also people that are not from the same background: I’d say if you come from a privileged background, educate yourself on what’s going on right now, because you’re more likely to succeed and you’re more likely to get through and progress quicker than people from non-traditional backgrounds, so if you’re aware of what’s going on and you get into a position of power earlier or quicker than others,  use it to do good and understand what’s going on and try and break down those barriers. So I think that’s important too.  

HS:  Absolutely valid point. Yeah absolutely, I think that’s such an important point because as you say, so many people can be in a powerful position to help others and I think as well the kind of practical advice around how to get a mentor, even from that you know when people say you’re like “oh god where do I even start?” 

ZK: “Where do I start?” yeah. 

HS: I think that that piece around knowing, not being shy to ask and you know, lean in the people who you admire and look up to and it feels from everything you said like there is a real willingness within so many people in this sector, from all backgrounds, who are willing to now start to create change. it feels like a really exciting time for the sector.  

ZK: Yeah it does, it does feel different. I mean, there’s a long road ahead but it does feel different. Things have changed, discussions are different, you know, there’s definitely an air of change at the moment that started from last year, but yeah. I think a lot of people are afraid of networking, like the worst someone’s going to do is either say no or ignore you, you know. Use LinkedIn, use twitter, there’s a massive museum community on twitter. Don’t be afraid to get in touch with people, and people love helping other people and they love talking about themselves. 

HS: Yeah. 

ZK: Just send them a – you know, just “slide into the DMs” but not in that way! 

HS:  I get it, no that’s brilliant. It’s really solid advice. Amazing, thank you so much for taking the time to chat through that. I feel like it’s been, as I say it feels like you have put so much of your yourself, of your own journey into the work that you do now. You can just feel how passionate you are about it and it feels, you know as you said,  it’s a long road ahead but it feels like there’s some real palpable change starting, so that’s fantastic and brilliant to have you as part of that, so thank you so much. 

ZK: No worries, no worries then, thank you. Thanks for inviting me, I’m going to do a slight, plug is that all right? 

HS: of course, yeah. 

ZK: So anyone that is obviously starting out, do follow Museum As Muck and Museum Detox. I am a member of Museum Detox as well you know, they’re the two of the big networks and it’s well worth finding them online and going through their websites and stuff, and join those networks early, like I said, I mean once you’ve got your support network around you, you will thrive.  

HS: Brilliant, as I think as many places as we can signpost people to, I think the important thing to emphasize is that they are networks and they are grassroot networks with genuine purpose and they’re genuinely there to support and I think that’s amazing, absolutely brilliant. Thanks so much. 

ZK: Thank you. 


Narrator: That’s the end of this episode. We hope you’ve enjoyed hearing from Zey and Helen. If you’re interested in finding more about #OurBirkbeck, please visit Campaign.bbk.ac.uk to read more about the impact our community are having around the world.

Thanks for listening, and until next time.


#OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni and Supporters – Iain Drayton, Goldman Sachs

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

Narrator: Hello, and welcome to the Our Birkbeck Podcast. Our Birkbeck 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’ll hear from our Alumni, students, staff and friends. Whether they are making a difference in their community, bringing about change to their industry or shaping the lives of those around them. We celebrate their story.

To find out more about the Our Birkbeck Initiative, please visit Campaign.bbk.ac.uk


Narrator: In this episode of the #OurBirkbeck Podcast, Nic Katona, Director of Development and Alumni at Birkbeck, interviews Iain Drayton from Goldman Sachs.


NK: Hi everyone, my name is Nic Katona and I’m the Director of Development and Alumni here at Birkbeck. I am joined today by a fabulous friend of Birkbeck by the name of Mr Iain Drayton who is with Goldman Sachs. Iain is the Partner and Managing Director at Goldman Sachs and co-head of the Investment Banking Division in Asia so good day to you Iain, how are you?

ID: I am very well Nic how are you?

NK: I’m doing well thank you very much. We are we are experiencing a little bit of rain today and a cool down which is always nice and how are things over in your neck of the woods?

ID: In our neck of the woods things are blistering hot as they have been for a while. Once in a while it rains but even when it rains it’s hot, so it’s like being in a sauna!

NK: That just sounds enjoyable, you’re making me want to come and visit and I believe if I’m correct you are in Hong Kong, is that correct?

ID: That is absolutely correct.

NK: Brilliant. Well for all of those that want to have a sauna experience I hear Hong Kong is a wonderful place to do it. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to take some time to talk a little bit today as is part of the our Birkbeck initiative that we have here at Birkbeck, that talks about the impact that our friends and Birkbeck community are having around the world. We recently kind of welcomed Goldman Sachs to the Birkbeck family as both a corporate partner and supporter of Birkbeck in our initiatives and so we wanted to sit down with Iain today to learn a little bit more about him also learn a bit about Goldman and kind of the partnership between Goldman and Birkbeck. So hopefully Iain you’re ready to kind of dive in and go on a journey with us. But the first piece I have for you is how about you just tell us a little bit about yourself, where are you from, a big or small family? What was it like?

ID: OK so I’m from a small family. My immediate family is small. My father, my mother, my sister myself. My father was from Trinidad in the Caribbean, my mother English and I was born and raised in a village called Lyme in Cheshire in the northwest of England. I went to school from age 11 to 18 in Manchester before heading out for university.

NK: So being an American I’ll just take a stab – I’m going to guess that you might be a Man City supporter.

ID: Wow this is not going to go very well, this podcast. I don’t know if this was like a planted question or remark… Manchester United is my religion.

NK: Yes, for all for all of those that couldn’t see, Iain was about to jump through the computer and come and strangle me. I did in fact know that he is a Man United supporter.

ID: Die-hard Man United supporter!  

NK: Perfect well there you go. So I just had to break the ice a little bit and get everybody comfortable and stuff like that.

ID: Well you certainly made me laugh.

NK: Well good, there you go. So growing up in a kind of small town and going to school in Manchester, tell us a little bit about kind of your educational journey what was that like for you?

ID: So as I say I was at a boys private school in Manchester from 11 to 18. I was quite academic or rather I was quite academic and my parents, particularly my father being an immigrant into the United Kingdom, as you see with many immigrant families, education is the great equalizer and the great opportunity. So you know a confluence of maybe my academic intent and his interest in academia, and I don’t know which came first, meant that I studied pretty hard and I did my A Levels in languages and mathematics and then I went to Cambridge to study languages. I actually took a year out first of all I went to China when I was 18 and I studied Mandarin there for a year. Then I went back to the UK and did my undergraduate degree in Japanese studies at Cambridge.

NK: Interesting so having that kind of the family and you know your father’s influence and education always being there, was higher education or university always something that was on the table?

ID: Yeah I mean I don’t know if it was on the table, but I think there was an expectation that that’s what I would do, that’s where I would go. It was always a question as to what I wanted to do, but I think for at least in my case, very quickly into my secondary education it was pretty clear that I was quite interested in and had an aptitude for languages. That was the direction that I ultimately would likely go, so languages and now kind of you know looking down the road a bit, languages and then Goldman Sachs.

NK: Languages and investment, languages and banking – how does that connect?

ID: In a very non-linear way!

NK: OK so tell us a little bit about that.

ID: Having been asked this question now I’m going to start with the Steve Jobs way, you know where he says when you look back and you can connect all of the dots and it all makes sense. So now it all makes sense and I’ll try and package it for you, but obviously at the time as I was growing up I didn’t necessarily think that that was going to be the case. So my story is as follows:

So I study Japanese and without embellishment, when I was in my second year at university I won a national speaking competition in the UK in Japanese. Out of that I was fortunate enough to get an internship with Toyota the car company in Tokyo. I worked in the international public affairs division and my job was to translate the fiscal results from Japanese into English and that meant that I together with colleagues, given that I was extremely junior, would interface with the research analyst community at investment banks. So my introduction to banking was essentially via contact with research analysts. That’s point number one. Point number two – if you study languages or at least back then at university it was a four-year course. Most of the courses that my friends did were three-year courses and so what that meant was in my third year, when I came back from Japan given that we didn’t have a year abroad at that time we had a term abroad, I had two terms where I was basically doing nothing and I was very unstressed because I didn’t have final exams. I was watching all of my friends not only stress for their finals but stress with the milk round, so I saw them applying to investment banking. Obviously I knew a little bit about this, albeit from the narrow perspective of research, and as I started to investigate a little bit and seek counsel, I was told that maybe corporate finance (which is what we call the investment banking division where I am) is a more general introduction to finance and so I decided that I would apply for that given that I had the luxury of an additional year. I did apply and I ended up going straight from university into employment in an investment bank that was called SBC Warburg which over time has morphed into UBS and I spent the first five years of my career there. Three years in London and two years in Tokyo.

NK: You linked that together quite nicely.

ID: You can you can tell I practiced…

NK: It was it was quite good! I mean obviously while you were at university you were able to go abroad, you were able to get experiences, you were able to have the global experience and get your feet in some experiences in finance and things like that. Do you think that the educational experience opened those doors to those opportunities, or do you think that you would have naturally been able to follow this career path without the educational influence?

ID: Right, so I think in my case it was the educational experience that opened that door for me. But I have a pretty strong view despite my educational background that education shouldn’t be exclusive. It should be available for everyone – I care about talent and aptitude and in many cases people with great talent don’t have the opportunity to get the education that they deserve.

The reason why I say all of that is because I think for those people who don’t get the opportunities, I think it would be wrong to say therefore you’re not going to get the opportunity to travel abroad or to go into finance. And that’s something that we are all quite focused on ensuring that we do try to provide people with the opportunity, regardless of their educational background, to enter fields like finance. But I do think it’s obviously easier, given the UK’s educational system, to come from a university into the financial field. I mean it’s a long-winded way of saying I think for me it was great because I went from languages into finance. I mean typically if this were in the US, maybe you’d do finance as a degree and you know the other thing I would say is that one of the things I love about the UK, at least back then, is you could study whatever you wanted. I remember my analyst class when I started at SBC Warburg, the star of our class unfortunately wasn’t me, it was a guy who had majored in theology and I thought that was brilliant. So you had mathematicians, you had computer scientists, you had economists, you had linguists and you had theologians as well. To me it’s all about the ability to think independently, to have intellectual curiosity and if you can kind of marry those things with resilience, grit, determination, stamina – whatever you want to call it. That is what I think is helpful to forge a career in in the financial services field.

NK: So the ethos and mindset of ensuring that education is available to all people and helping to remove those barriers and is quite progressive and not necessarily shared by all. So where do you think that rooting came from, what helped to solidify that view in your mind?

ID: Yeah I’m going to come at this two ways that are quite unrelated. So the first point would be: I remember at university, and I studied hard okay so I was a bit of a geek, but outside of my interaction with my tutors and my own study I learned a tremendous amount from my peers and I felt incredibly privileged. They were studying different subjects but if you’re an intellectually curious person, certainly if you’re at a university like Cambridge, you have access to untold opportunities and that stuck with me. I felt very lucky to have had that exposure, but then starting at Goldman Sachs you realize very quickly, and this is codified in our business principles, where we talk about wanting to tap into the broadest possible pool of talent – very simply, you just want to be surrounded by the best people. Whether that’s at university, whether that’s at Goldman Sachs and if you want to be surrounded by the best the broadest possible pool of talent surely you should be drawing from the broadest cross-section of society. Taking that to its logical conclusion I think that the composition of the university population and by extension the composition of the Goldman Sachs population (ideally and were not there yet) should be reflective of the complexion of modern-day society. As opposed to anchored in the past and be driven by class. I’m under no illusion that I was very lucky to go to Cambridge and in part because my parents had a lot of drive and ambition for me and I’m grateful for that. But I don’t think it has to be that way and if you’re smart and you are encouraged and you have the opportunity and financial barriers are removed, that allows us to think about trying to attract from the broadest possible pool of talent. It’s less about altruism or socialism, so much as I just want to have the best people here. I want to be surrounded by the best people in my work or at university because if I am, I can learn a lot more and I would have thought that they could as well. So it’s that kind of mindset that I have which is obviously personal to me.

NK: No that’s very interesting and to pick up on that – finding the best talent pool or surrounding yourself with the best individuals and things like that, based upon your comments it sounds as though that cuts across gender lines and background.

ID: A hundred percent.

NK: Also what about what about age? I mean what are what are your views on does learning and does education stop once you leave university or is that something for you of a lifelong pursuit.

ID: So there’s a lot embedded in your question. I’ll answer it personally and then maybe a little bit more generically or conceptually. So on a personal level, education is a lifelong thing. I mean I’m doing a job which I learn something every day and that’s frankly what keeps me going because if I’m not learning, I get bored and if I get bored I’m not very nice to be around. So you know that’s a personal thing and I want to learn, if health’s on my side, for the next 50 years of my life. And this is something obviously that Birkbeck offers for people who have not necessarily gone along the conveyor belt and at 18 years old you do your a-levels and you go off to university. I think that that’s absolutely fine as well and the other thing that I’ve learned over time and certainly, now you know I’m in my late 40s, is the value of life experience. And again, not to take away from any of the absolute superstars that we have at Goldman Sachs that made partner when they were 30 years old and it’s not meant in any way to be a negative comment, but you can be very good at a narrow discipline and that serves you fine for as long as you’re kept within those lanes if you will. But when you are dealing with people and certainly the job that I do, the part of the bank that I operate in, is a very externally focused, people-driven business – you need to be able to connect with your clients. Put another way you can be the smartest person in the room but if you can’t forge a connection with someone why are they going to give you business versus giving the next bank business. So that’s an observation that I have made and is becoming more important to me as I get older.

But then you know the kind of the more general comment I was going to make is whilst education can be a lifelong thing and for me it certainly is (and I expect will continue to be), you know I do think that employment today in many of the more institutionalized professions, I just use banking as an example, we will bring new graduates on and that’s kind of like the ‘done thing’. We obviously will bring people laterally from different stages of their career into the firm but we’re bringing people in because they will be additive to what we already have. I can see though that we do bring cohorts in every year who are in their 20s – that would be the big group and then you could have had a different experience, and someone could come in in their 30s or in their 40s or having worked in other professions coming into our firm or into the industry much later on. And I just draw that distinction because you know if someone is planning a career or thinking about a career in banking, I think that there is a more conventional path into it. I think the point that I’m trying to make is that it shouldn’t be the only path and anyone who is intellectually curious hopefully will find the sort of things that we are doing quite interesting. This is not an advert for Goldman Sachs by the way, it’s just my view on education and trying to conflate my educational journey with what I do now. I guess the short version is it continues to challenge me and that’s why I like it.

NK: Yeah I think that’s very helpful and this appreciation and recognition of both the conventional but also the unconventional paths through education and the benefits that both have is great. With that I think it’s important that we talk a bit about the Goldman Sachs Birkbeck partnership to give a little bit of background for folks. We began having conversations in June 2020 in the throes of the pandemic and what we were able to do through several conversations was identify an opportunity for partnership in supporting members of the Birkbeck community, but students specifically from the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities who have been or were being impacted by the pandemic. So Goldman Sachs stepped forward, Iain being a champion of this, and helped to provide a generous gift to support 500 students through bursaries to help address some of the financial issues that were arising because of the pandemic. This was so that folks wouldn’t have to make the decision between their educational pursuits and addressing the new things that are coming up within the pandemic. It was also about reducing the digital access divide that we saw very clearly with the pandemic to make sure that people could continue to get their education online but also to help facilitate the strong work that Birkbeck does in our local communities to help individuals understand that education might be for them and the pathways into that. So with that partnership and the success that we saw with it, it would help to understand a little bit about what it was about Birkbeck that intrigued you to lead this this quite significant partnership.

ID: OK so let me start with last year very quickly and then we’ll get into Birkbeck. So number one, obviously we had the growth of BLM in the United States and we had Covid, so the whole kind of racial equity question was at the forefront of people’s minds in popular discourse from May of last year. And the pandemic had started and very quickly I think we were able to draw certain conclusions from those two events, meaning that there is a correlation between disadvantage and ethnicity and by extension socio-economic background. Goldman Sachs has been a champion of both racial equity but more broadly diversity and I say diversity not just from an ethnicity perspective or from a gender perspective also from a socio-economic perspective. I sit on a committee called the partnership committee it’s a small group of partners within the firm that is charged with thinking about the firm’s culture, we’re essentially stewards of the firm’s culture. We forever discuss how can we make an impact where we are linking this back to the business principles that I touched on, you know, one of them being you know attracting talent, believing in diversity. We were asking ourselves this question: ‘how can we make an impact on society which is of its time given everything that’s going on in the world?’ There was a whole movement within Goldman Sachs around not just helping students through the pandemic for the reasons that I’ve discussed but it also then forced a much bigger debate which is ongoing.

As an aside, I think that the real test of organizations is a test of time i.e. that they’re not just reacting to something that happened, not just ticking the box, throwing some money at something and then moving on and ceasing to engage. What we want is to invest in something, and that’s equally an investment of money as well as time, such that you can see something grow and forge a relationship for the longer term.

Anyway, we’ve done a lot of work with HBCUs in the US and of course we don’t have the same sort of institutionalized thing if you will as HBCUs, but myself and a couple of other partners said ‘we’ve got to do something that also is going to resonate in the United Kingdom’. And that’s where we started to talk to Ashley and Liz and Charlotte at work and we said ‘what can we do?’ And they said well this is really timely because we’ve been having some conversations with Birkbeck which is not an HBCU per se, but when you look at the students that you’re looking to attract again above and beyond ethnicity socioeconomic background etc., where you have a more open-minded approach to attracting talent. Going back to the point on talent giving people opportunity and saying just because you’re a little bit older or because you’re working through the day, that shouldn’t deprive you of educational opportunity. So as Ashley and Liz and Charlotte were explaining this to myself and my colleague Anna Skoglund, we started to get really excited because we thought this is something that we believe can make an impact on people’s lives. Even if it’s one person that’s a good thing. But again, per my earlier comment, if we can create this or establish as a foundation and try to impact at scale and over time build relations between Birkbeck and Goldman Sachs, there are a number of things that can come out of that. First, you look at the students at Birkbeck obviously through Covid and you know some people didn’t have the sort of digital access that they would otherwise have had because of the circumstances in which they live. If we can overcome some of those problems and give people the comfort, the mental comfort as well as the financial comfort, so that they can continue their education – that’s great for them because you’ve removed problems you’ve given them confidence and you’ve given them opportunities that otherwise would have been removed because of the pandemic. Second, if along the way one or two of the students are interested in banking or interested in Goldman Sachs, that’s also great because we want to broaden our talent pool and by the way it doesn’t even need to be interested in Goldman Sachs you could just be interested in finance and decide that you wanted to go into finance or explore it. Maybe it’s a slightly inarticulate way of saying that you’re helping students for themselves in the narrow context of their immediate education but at the same time hopefully opening their eyes to other opportunities beyond education should they so choose to explore them. If we can see a confluence of those two things then it’s win-win all round. But at a minimum, a win for Goldman Sachs would be to have tangible proof that you have helped people continue their educational journey.

NK: That’s fantastic and thank you for going into that. I think some of the words that you’re calling out time and time again is this idea of impact and I think what we at Birkbeck really want with any type of partnership we’re developing, is to make sure that there’s a positive and long-lasting impact for our community and as you rightly point that’s our students, our academics, our broader Birkbeck community and our global community as well.

You and I had an opportunity to meet some of the students last week. What did you take away from that conversation with those students?

ID: I would say a few things, stream of consciousness – so starting with resilience, optimism – they juggle so many things and yet they were able to navigate through last year (and by the way it didn’t end on December 31st, it’s continued into this year), so I thought that was very impressive. So there’s point number one. Point number two is their willingness to engage and to ask questions, and we asked some quite pointed questions – you know, what do you think about us you and you learn that finance can be intimidating to people… OK well how can we help debunk some of those myths. I think for many things in life, ignorance, if that’s the right word to use, can cause preconceptions right and it can cause prejudice and yet when you spend time with people and you realize that they’re just kind of like you then some of those myths fall away and you can establish a real connection with people so I thought that I thought that was good.

Then the other thing which was completely unintended was your guys gave us a really good business idea last week and let me explain this, and you know we had because you can’t script this sort of stuff. We walked in looking forward to a conversation and one of your students said that our consumer banking offering which was established in the UK over the last couple of years means that Goldman Sachs felt really approachable. None of us, at least the people who met with them last week, had thought about that. That comment went right back into our firm and this just goes to show again, tying a number of these threads together, in some of the most unlikely places can come some of the best ideas. So it was encouraging as it relates to the students doing what they’re doing and navigating their own education. It was invigorating and it was enlightening because we too came out of this not just with a sense that we are doing a good thing in terms of helping people but we were learning as well. That may be my own personal interpretation, but coming out of a conversation or an interaction feeling as though I’m learning something is that for me is ultimately all that I really want to get from that encounter. So it was brilliant and we don’t just want to kind of have a one-off interaction, this is something that we want to do over time. It’s obviously up to Goldman Sachs to prove that to you but I think there are a few things planned over the next few months where you know we will have the opportunity to interact with your students. But equally all of those opportunities go back to how can we take the Birkbeck relationship further? So we start with 500 students, can that be scaled over time? If so, how? What could we do better that we’re not doing well now?

NK: Well I’m glad to hear that from your earlier comment that if you don’t continue to have the opportunity to learn and be challenged you get bored, and we don’t want to see that side of you! So glad to hear that the experience is keeping you in engaged and educated along the way. But I’ll also point out that the student that brought forward that idea was studying organizational psychology, so not within the finance world and things like that again goes to show the power of diversity of ideas and mindset and experience and really leans into what we promote at Birkbeck. The power of the community and the power of not judging someone just based upon those initial pieces but looking at the whole person, so I’ll be very pleased to feed that back to her, that she’s making an impact within Goldman Sachs, which is fantastic. So looking ahead, you laid some of that out about you know a continued desire to you know partner and engage with Birkbeck. We’re very pleased to hear that and certainly I’m interested and willing to do that with you. You also talked a bit about longer term the racial equity piece and impacts that we’re still feeling from the pandemic – so if you could briefly tell us what is on Goldman’s radar over the next several years? What are the things that you guys are really focused on and committed to at kind of the highest levels?

ID: So looking at the racial equity question, I think that the commitment that’s been made by our current leadership regime is unparalleled. It’s unparalleled in terms of capital commitment, it’s unparalleled in terms of time commitment and unparalleled in terms of sponsorship. We are very focused on social mobility and we’re very focused on increasing our ethnic diversity within the firm. So if you kind of take a step back and think about all of that, I think that Birkbeck actually selfishly, self-interestedly should sit in the middle of all of those things. It’s like the intersection of the Venn diagram and so I would like to think that we will be committed to improving racial equity and being able to demonstrate that improvement, as our CEO David Solomon has gone on record to say that we’ll be able to do that over time (that’s specifically from you know in terms of Goldman Sachs representation). But at the same time be considered and viewed as both a thought leader but also as a visible leader socially as one of the firms that is driving for lasting change in society in terms of representation. I think one way of achieving that is to have people in leadership positions in your organizations whether it’s in Birkbeck, whether it’s in Goldman Sachs, who are female, who are black who are BAME. I’m very optimistic both about the commitment that the firm’s made and its ability to match that or to meet that commitment just because of the energy and focus that has been delivered by the top of the house and in a firm like ours, if leadership has set out clear goals and is constantly communicating those goals, you see very quickly that the entire organization follows. Ultimately you’ll be the judge of that though, not us. What I would hope is that in 12 months’ time or in 24 months’ time or 36 months’ time, we’re doing podcast two, three and four and talking about the progress we’ve made. Because if we are doing that then it means that we have genuinely made a positive impact on your organization.

NK: Well I’m already pencilling in those dates in the diary for us to sit down for podcast two three and four so get ready for that. But no I think you’re absolutely right, I mean Birkbeck is very keen to sit within that Venn diagram as you rightly pointed out and you know having been an institution that is coming up to its 200th anniversary and has been a very progressive and innovative institution along the way in in making sure that education is available to all no matter one circumstances or background, sharing the power of education and what that can afford people and the power that it has in tackling these very complex and in many instances very deep rooted issues. We can’t tackle it individually we need to tackle it kind of collectively and work together and so that’s why we’re very proud of the partnership in working with you to tackle some of this and certainly wanted to pass along the thanks of our 500 students that have been supported in in this first round of support. We certainly know that it was a difficult time during the pandemic and this helped to kind of buoy them up and shore them up during this this time, but we certainly look forward to working with you more to tackle some of these bigger issues as well. We will be hosting various events throughout the year especially as we march to our 200th anniversary, but having you back in London, coming by seeing Birkbeck you know kind of stomping around our grounds would be fantastic. So next time you’re there, let us know and we’ll gladly give you a tour. With that I wanted to thank you very much for your time, it was a great discussion and certainly we look forward to having more of those in the future, so I hope you have a wonderful day.

ID: Thank you very much and thanks for having me it was great fun.


Narrator: That’s the end of this episode. We hope you’ve enjoyed hearing from Nic and Iain. If you’re interested in finding more about #OurBirkbeck, please visit Campaign.bbk.ac.uk to read more about the impact our community are having around the world.

Thanks for listening, and until next time.