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Sarah Weir (BA History of Art 1997)

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.

Pictured: Sarah Weir

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.

This is one of the reasons why I donate to Birkbeck, because I want to help those who are struggling with the costs of education.  

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.

Arvinder Mudhar (MSc Career Coaching and Counselling 2015)

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 the Our Birkbeck podcast. Our Birkbeck is an exciting year-long initiative to showcase the impact members of the Our Birkbeck community are having around the world. In this podcast series you’ll hear from our alumni, students, staff and friends and 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 stories. To find out more about the Our Birkbeck initiative please visit campaign.bbk.ac.uk. 

In this episode of the Our Birkbeck podcast, Bianca Smith speaks to alumnus and chief digital officer of Unum, Arvinder Mudhar.

[BS] Hi Arvinder. Thank you so much for joining me today on Birkbeck’s Alumni podcast. I hope you’re keeping well and a happy new year to you.

[AM] Happy new year Bianca, I’m really glad to be here and looking forward to this conversation.

[BS] Thank you. For all you guys listening at home, we’re speaking with Arvinder, who is the chief information and digital officer at Unum. He’s been in his current position since March of 2020, the ever-dreaded year. Today he’s going to speak to us a little about his time at Birkbeck, a little bit about his career, and why he’s so passionate about his work and talking a little bit about the importance of computer science and economic recovery following the pandemic. I thought what would be interesting is to give you all a little bit of an overview of the relationship that we hold with Unum, as it stands.

Unum have been very, very generous supporters of Birkbeck for the last three years and what they do is they ensure that, through the help with financial bursaries, ensure that our student’s financial barriers don’t get in the way on their journey of achieving higher education. So yeah, it really plays an important role in allowing us to widen access to all students and ensure that we support them on their journeys. Thank you so much for your support Arvinder, it is very valuable.

[AM] I am really, really pleased to be a part of it, I mean I am a Birkbeck alumni myself and when I joined Unum I was really, really pleased to understand that we had this relationship with Birkbeck, and I wanted to use the experience I had as a student at Birkbeck and kind of build that into the role I do and kind of create a long-lasting relationship with Birkbeck. Leverage what I’ve learnt, but also kind of continue the outstanding journey I’ve had with Birkbeck. 

[BS] Yeah, fantastic. That leads quite nicely into what I want to speak about next. So, you know, we really are interested to hear about your Birkbeck experience, and it would be great to tell everyone what you actually studied with us and when, and a bit more about that experience yourself.

[AM] My day job is that I basically run a large digital change infrastructure on IT departments, so I studied computer science along time ago and I’ve worked in IT and IT related disciplines all my life. One of the things I realised, as you get more senior in role actually, the thing you do is not important as working with people and I always had an interest in career mentoring, career counselling, and for many years I knew that Birkbeck had a master’s degree in career management and counselling and for many years I used to pick up the prospectus and look through it and think I should really apply to this they always put it down.  Then one year my wife said to me look, just stop faffing about and just do it. So, I did and that was 2013, I think. It was the MSc in Career Management & Counselling. At Birkbeck, it was a part time and distance learning over two years. And it was, by far away, one of the most fantastic things I’ve ever been involved in.

A number of things, firstly, when going back university after having been out it for so long was a challenge.

[BS] For Sure

[AM] The other thing is that Birkbeck is a fantastic place to learn, the quality of the education the quality of the lectures we had, and the structure was brilliant, and I learnt a huge amount about myself. About what I wanted to achieve, and also about what the subject matter was, Career Management & Counselling, is not it’s not something that is taken lightly. And one of the things I’ve really been able to do is to take what I’ve learned and inject that into my day job.

So, you would look at it and think, well you only work in IT, what’s that go to do with IT? I spend most of my time managing, mentoring, and counselling people to help them grow. I’ve also been able to work with a number of entrepreneurial start-ups. I do a lot of work helping people in the medical and pharmacy sector, and in the charity sector, so people that are in a career so are either been in long term careers and are looking to do something different or a working out what they want to do, and it is massively interesting.  So, I’ve always had that as something I’ve done. 

When I joined Unum, my role is kind of split into two things. One is running all the traditional IT, but the other is, kind of, how do we transform Unum, who are an insurance company at heart, from being an insurance company that effectively insures corporates, to actually being a much more data centric and digital centric organisation. So, what’s been really interesting is, working with Unum and then working with Birkbeck, you’ve got all these fantastic people within Birkbeck who we work with in terms of the bursaries we use, how we put that together. The role at Unum, when someone asked me what your three priorities, and I said my three priorities for Unum are data, data, and data. 

What we’ve learned through the last year of the pandemic, is, it we see the charts every day. We look at the data every day. Actually, how you interpret and use the data how you extract value for yourself, for society, for your firm, is massively important and a lot of that is down to being able to understand where the data comes from, how it’s used, how you translate it into something people can understand. That’s really been a challenge for all of us, but actually computer science and the ability to consume large amounts of data it’s been it’s been the real pivotal point over the last few months.

[BS] Yeah, it’s fantastic. It sounds like the course you studied has been hugely influential in your ability to work closely with people and make a difference in their careers as well. And I think some of what you touched on about how it was quite daunting to come back as a mature student, Birkbeck do have another alumnus that I was speaking sum it up quite nicely, when they said that Birkbeck meets people where they are on the journey rather than creating a one size fits all model that expects people to mould to them. So, I think you summed that up quite nicely as well.

It would actually be really lovely to kind of hear what you think is so special about the Birkbeck community as it had a massive impact on you. 

[AM] I think what’s special, you used the phrase it’s a community. On class I was in there was a huge range of people who were there for a huge range of different reasons. When you go to a traditional university at eighteen, nineteen, whatever, everyone is there to have a good time to learn a bit. The reason people go Birkbeck is that everyone is on a different journey. 

I think that was massively important, but you weren’t just with a bunch of like-minded people, you with some very different ages, different sectors, different backgrounds. 

The other thing that this particular course delivered every year were three residential sections where we spent a weekend with, not just our course, but other courses like occupational behaviour, occupational design and you got to meet people from all over the world and it was it was pretty fantastic. 

The key thing is just the quality of the teaching. It shouldn’t be underpaid. I used to lecture at UCL, and I was very, very impressed with the quality of the research and the teaching that went on there. I came to Birkbeck, and it’s as good, if not better, because there’s a real passion and desire to kind of work with different levels of people on different parts of the journey. You can’t teach everyone the same thing because, as you said, everyone is a different path of where they’ve come from. That’s, I think, the real power of Birkbeck. 

[BS] Yeah, absolutely. I really have heard some incredible storeys about people’s different backgrounds, and I guess you know like you mentioned the traditional university does kind of feed in quite nicely to students that have come straight out of secondary school and have quite a sort of a unanimous, I guess, model. At Birkbeck, I’ve heard stories about people who are refugees and people who have six children, and they took their eldest to a university fair and ended up being so inspired that they ended up joining Birkbeck for an evening course, I think that is really, really special. Obviously, it would have been really quite challenging year for many Birkbeck students having to adapt to an online environment and maybe not necessarily just related to that but is there any advice you give to a Birkbeck student who’s currently studying with us to. 

[AM] One of the things that we were told when we when we started that course was that life events are going to get in the way. Because we’re all at different levels of age maturity family life, personal life, everyone is going to have to deal with different things, don’t assume that you follow the same part as everyone else. The course I was on it was two years, but you can extend it to three years by running your dissertation for an extra year. Then there were some people who were actually remote working, like one chap who was remote working from Switzerland, so everything is different for everyone. What we realised was that when you talk to your colleagues and you talked to the teaching staff, they’re happy to support whichever way you want to work what works for you. Don’t sit there and think. No one else is in this same situation as me. The chances are people will have been through it and will know what to do now to help.

[BS] Yes. Absolutely I think yeah that’s a pastoral support that goes beyond just the educational support is really at Birkbeck and is very much to your point that we have had such a diversity of students come through, that, it is highly likely that someone will have been through the same sort of I guess trial and tribulation as you. So, to reach out and kind of I just feel that unity is really important as well. Thank you so much for elaborating on that a little bit.

You kind of touched little bit on your role at Unum and how that tied in with the course you studied with us. It would be great to hear a little bit as you do sound so passionate about the work that you do. It would be interesting to know, what’s your drivers and what gets you out of bed in the morning.

[AM] I’m passionate about delivering change and, quite often, that change is not something you plan for.  So, if you think about, kind of, a year ago, when I joined Unum, I had a very specific business mind about where I want to take the firm in terms of becoming data centric and digital first. What I’ve realised, actually, if you look around at the firms and the people that have succeeded during the pandemic is people who’ve effectively had more digital dexterity. Well to adapt quickly to be able to respond and change their business model, change the way they work, we have to change how they work and who they work with. And that’s only going to accelerate so that the people who can adapt quickly are the people who will survive and thrive. If you think of the people who, not everyone has done terribly during the pandemic. If you’re if you got a delivery company, they’ve probably been very successful. So how do you get better at that. Say, if you’ve got a restaurant and only do takeaways, you probably doing okay just isn’t always to do with IT but actually the people who have been online delivering stuff, delivering services, IT, delivering teaching or anything. If you think of Joe Wicks, the PE teacher, he’s been massively successful because he’s gone only digital.

Some of this is knowing how to do it, and there’s plenty of education and courses out there to teach you how to do it. Some of this is, just pick stuff up and learn. Anything and everything you ever wanted to learn about everything is on Youtube. You can go on Youtube and search “how do you peel a cucumber” and there is thousands of things about how to peel a cucumber.  All that kind of stuff is there so don’t shy away from trying to find out. 

[BS] Absolutely, yes exactly like my mum yesterday discovered YouTube and its revolutionised her life. I guess something on their programming matched. And obviously you know at the pandemic is highlighting the massive importance of digitization and that feeds really nicely into what you were saying but I’d love to hear a little bit deeper about how you feel about that, and I guess outside of economic recovery, will rely so heavily on the digitization and how you see that occurring and perhaps the role you feel you play your position.

[AM] I think, unfortunately some roles in some job sectors may not come back the way we used to know them, and yet they may have ended up leaving completely online so that didn’t need to educate people to understand how technology works, how it’s not something that sits in the corner and you should be afraid of. It is part of everyday lives. We can almost teach the entire population online now with measures of success. What we need to understand is how do we build people who can deliver these services and systems in the future. Some of that is strictly to build a system to get computer science and learning about computer science it goes a long way on that line. The other is how do we innovate and a lot of the people I speak to in the entrepreneurial community say it’s all been done before. But it hasn’t it hasn’t all been done if you think about companies like Uber or AirBNB, whatever you think of them, they weren’t around get five, six, eight years ago and there is more those coming. 

If you look at simple things that you can’t switch on the TV now without being bombarded with adverts for home food deliveries companies who will now deliver you a packaged meal that you just put in a pan. Technology is underpinning that, but it’s the idea have now, and if you have the right technology support you can deliver it and make it a success. I’ll use that phrase again, digital dexterity. You need to be able to moderate how you work and what you work with to use some of those tools and it’s relatively easy to learn, as long as you ask the right questions because quite you will learn by asking the right questions and yet. Sometimes you’ll ask some stupid questions, and sometimes you won’t. 

[BS] Yeah, fantastic. That digital dexterity that you keep touching on, it’s incredibly important and perhaps even asking the wrong questions which might send you on the right plan and it certainly an interesting twelve months ahead especially with the six-month lockdown period we’re all facing now.

I thought would be really nice if touched on a little fun one now. Obviously, you’ve spent a couple of years with Birkbeck and I failed to mention at the start that through Unum you’ve stayed incredible connected but also, very kindly, you take your time to mentor our students at Birkbeck as well this year. It would be great to hear three words that you would use to describe Birkbeck. 

[AM] I’ve thought about this for a while. The first one is open because that’s exactly what Unum are, open to support you and how you want to learn and what can fit in around you. 

The next thing is caring. You’re not just a number in a sausage machine trying to get through university because everyone is so different. There is an element of care around it.

The third one is professional. You end up with a very, very high-quality qualification and that makes a huge difference. To the point where if I get to CVs through, and someone’s got Birkbeck on their CV, I think that, to achieve that given how people go through that it’s a massive achievement in itself. So, I think that open, caring, professional are the three words I’d use if I think back to my experience there that that’s what I take away from it.

[BS] Well, fabulous. That’s 2021’s marketing campaign. Thank you so much for your time today. I know that you’re an extremely busy man we are very grateful for the support that you and Unum provide us. It’s been really great to chat with you and as I mentioned, obviously, we are extremely grateful for the support that you Unum have provided to us. We will share a link in the podcast that will share a little bit more about the relationship with Unum. Thank you so much for your time today and all the best the year that is to be.

[AM] Thank you very much Bianca. I really look forward to working with you in the future.

[BS] Happy New Year

[AM] Happy New Year.

That’s the end of this episode. we hope you have enjoyed listening to Bianca and Arvinder. If you’re interested in finding out more about Our Birkbeck, please visit campaign.bbk.ac.uk to learn more about the impact our community is having around the world. 

Thanks for listening, and until next time.

#OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni – Joanna Elson (MSc Politics and Social Policy 1992)

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

Host: 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 in their industry or changing 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

In this episode of the “Our Birkbeck” podcast, Felicity Fearon, from the development and alumni team, speaks to Birkbeck Alumni and chief executive of the Money Advice Trust Joanna Elson CBE.

Felicity Fearon: Hello, I am Felicity, and I am delighted to be joined today by Joanna Elson, CBE. Chief executive of the Money Advise Trust, helping people across the UK tackle their debts and manage their money with confidence. Not only has the Money Advice Trust won industry awards for their work, but Johanna has also been personally recognized for her work and her services.  In 2010, Johanna was awarded an OBE and in 2020 she was awarded a CBE for services to people in financial difficulties.  Thank you so much for joining me today. 

Joanna Elson:  It’s a real pleasure, nice to meet you, Felicity. 

Felicity Fearon: I would like to start off by talking about your work, and the incredible impact it has had. The Money Advise Trust is an incredible service. Why are you passionate about it and the work that you do?

Joanna Elson:  Yeah, thank you, its lovely to have this opportunity to talk to you and, beyond the confines of this interview, to talk to other people. I’m passionate about what we do, because there are so many people in this country who are really struggling. I mean, the pandemic has brought this to life and exacerbated the problems. But, even before that, there are many families out there who just struggle to make ends meet. Their income just simply is not high enough to live in any way or sense and, therefore, they get into financial difficulties. That is where we come in, working with other charities to help get people back on an even keel and it isn’t only about the physical and financial challenges that they face but it is also about the mental and emotional challenges that people face, because we know from talking to people that debt is a heavy burden that people bare. People wake up in the middle of the night and worry about it. It affects their relationships, their family life, their work, and if we can help to get people back in a place where they are in control, that is a big boost to their mental health, and goodness knows that we need that at the moment.

Felicity Fearon:  It’s interesting that you brought up that obviously you are helping a lot through the pandemic, but also beforehand. I was curious, obviously the pandemic has placed additional financial pressures on so many people, so what is the key thing people should keep in mind when they’re looking to tackle their debts and manage their money. 

Joanna Elson:  Well, I think the key thing to keep in mind is that there is always that we can do collectively to help, often people panic and think, you know, this is a terrible thing, I won’t be able to get out of these problems. There is always something we can do. Sometimes that is about negotiating with creditors and, very often, when with our help or with another charities’ help people do negotiate with the organizations, they owe money to. Very often, organizations will agree to longer term arrangements to repay or they will write off debts, there are always ways to get through and I guess that would be the key thing for me. It is too easy, not easy, it is too tempting for people to simply think this is just too awful, I am not going to open the envelope, I am just going to bury my head in the sand and hope it goes away. Unfortunately, it won’t go away, but with some help, you can tackle it and get on top of it and, then, you know, life is going to be easier.

Felicity Fearon: Perfect, I think that is going to be helpful for people, especially when they know that there are services, such as you said, kind of out there. So, would you say that you’ve been focused on creating social impact throughout your career or has it been something that you have arrived at through your experiences?

Joanna Elson: Yes, I think there has been a thread that has come through my experience over a number of years, but I worked in a lot of different settings. I was in (…) Before I actually was at Birkbeck, I was a teacher, a primary school teacher, for a short time, a couple of years, and working in an area of Tower Hamlets, which was pretty deprived and where all of the population was Bengali. So, all of the children who came to the school and it was fascinating and eye-opening for me, a bit of London where there is very little green, where children had very little, and where the things we did as a school could make a huge difference.

It was a very early part of my career here I found out that the things we did as an organization could make a difference to people’s family lives. As a kind of add-on to what we were doing as a school, which was obviously educating people. An then, after that, I worked in parliament, for a number of MPs, and clearly that is all about policy and how changing policy can change lives. You hear from their constituents, whether that is sitting on a surgery or whether that’s letters they write and, if you are an MP or somebody working in their office, you get a very clear sense of the impact that people need and then your job if to work out what is it that we can do to change that. After that, I worked for a trade association in financial services, which might sound counterintuitive, because you don’t necessarily think of the banks as being the place where you would go to make a big social difference. But, actually, of course, everybody needs financial services. So, you might say it is public good and, some of the work I was doing there, which was around rolling out basic bank accounts and ensuring that everybody has access to finances and access to some of the best terms. Because, if you know, probably know about the poverty premium, if you are poor you pay more for service and that is clearly not a good thing. Trying to cut through that, making sure that people in financial difficulties actually got some of the best services was a work I did there. So, yes, I would say it has been a thread through my work and often it is a much more rewarding than just, let’s day, if you are working for the banks, if you are changing legislation to help the banks make more profit. That might be something that, within the terms of your work, you are not going to get a lot of job satisfaction from it. So, adding that additional dimension about social impact is as important for me and as satisfying for me, as it is an important thing to do for society.

Felicity Fearon: perfect, it is so interesting to hear how you have been on the ground in so many different scenarios. So, from everything that you have done, what would you say that you are most proud of in your career so far?

Joanna Elson: That is a really good question. Well, you very kindly mentioned at the beginning that I received an OBE about ten years ago and when you get an honor like that you are never exactly sure what is it for. Because this is such a mysterious process, you don’t know who nominated you, anything like that. But, I am pretty sure that what that was for, it was for working with banks, and the government, and charities, to set up a safety net for people in financial difficulties through the credit crisis. So, we set up a scheme that was actually about homeowners who were struggling to pay their mortgage, ensuring that there was a way of them continuing to pay very small amounts over a much longer term, enabling them to stay in their home.

So, that was what the award was for. But, more importantly, it was important during that period. And, you know, the pandemic is kind of the next thing after that, I suppose, in terms of big macroeconomic events. But, during that period it was important to think of what were the things that we could do quickly, that could help people, could stabilize their position and make sure, because you know, we all know, don’t we?, that some of us are only a couple of paychecks away from very difficult circumstances. If you have lost your job, as it happens to people, if you get divorced, if you are bereaved, all of those things can cause you to spiral out of control. Even, a terrible thought, but you look at the people helped by the guy at Shelter, and Crisis, and Centrepoint, and some of the homelessness charities, and some of their stories are of people that had perfectly normal lives and one or two things went wrong and caused them to spiral down. And we were thinking of what was the thing that could keep in their homes during that period, and kind of worry about how you would get on with it afterwards, and that was a scheme that we put in place.

And, it is interesting that through this pandemic we have done similar things in a way, so the equivalent, this time, would be that this is not just about me or my organization, but a number of charities who work together. This time around to persuade the government to stop the use of bailiffs through the pandemic, because, if you think about it, the idea that a bailiff would come to your home in pandemic, when you do not want anybody that you do not need knocking on your door or coming into your house and things are frightening enough, anyway. So, we got that stopped for a period of months. Unfortunately, the government did decide to reopen the possibility of bailiffs being used towards the end of august. And, since then, we have been working with them to see if there are some kind of ground rules that you could put in place, so there are circumstances in which organizations can’t use bailiffs. So, we don’t think that bailiffs should be going it at all, but we surely don’t think that they should be going early in the morning, when there are children in the house, those kinds of things. So, we have been trying to get some sort of ground rules to be put in place around that.

And, If I may, I will just tell you one story that might illustrate why that is important and it is about a debt-advise client’s family, a really brave family, who sought advice when their son. Something terrible happened to their son. So, their son was a blood carrier, as in a motorcycle carrier, carrying blood between hospitals and so on. He received a traffic violation fine from Camden council, which I think it was about a hundred pounds, he didn’t pay it straight away. You know what happens with these things, if you do not pay them straight away, you get another one. So, he git another one, I can’t remember de exact numbers, but it was about two hundred pounds. Meanwhile, Camden council sent the bailiffs around to his house and they said to him: the money has gone up and it’s now something like a thousand pounds, because the bailiffs fees have been added and so on, and so on. He talked to his family and they said, well, they offered to pay half of the money upfront to the bailiffs and see if they can make an arrangement to pay the rest, so that would be half of thousand pounds. And the bailiffs said, no we need the thousand pounds straight away. Tragically this young man then committed suicide. He was 19 years old at the time and he was just overwhelmed by the worry and the threat of what would happen. So, you know, that was a terrible story, and his family are so brave, and I’ve been with them to see ministers and to give evidence to committees and to try and get the law changed around the use of bailiffs because, you know, it is not right that we are threatening people and making them so worried for their life, for a small sum of money.  I am sure Camden council, you know, when they designed that policy, they didn’t intend that this would happen, of course they didn’t. But, because bailiffs are used, because there isn’t any proper independent regulation of bailiffs, it can spiral out of control.

So, sorry, that was a bit of a long answer, but I suppose my point is, for me, it is about impact, it is about taking the evidence from an individual case, from a number of individual cases, and thinking what happened, how can we change, so we don’t have those kinds of families keeping coming onto us, and all their pain and suffering, and you can actually get ahead of that by changing the government or the regulator or whoever it is, or the company, changing their minds. So, that would be another area that I am proud of, and that is not really me, but it is about how we are working together to try to change that.

Felicity Fearon: perfect, and do you think, because obviously, the situation that you brought up is really interesting and I know that a lot of people listening will be wondering how they can help. So, do you have any actions that maybe the listeners could do to really help with this mission?

Joanna Elson: Yes, I mean, there are a number of things that can be done. So, I mean, just around that specific, which was around bailiffs and around how debt is collected and whether it is collected in a humane way. On our website, the Money Advice Trust, we have a map which shows which local authorities, we rate them by six different categories. So, things like: have they got a vulnerability policy?, so they treat people who are in vulnerable circumstances appropriately. Those sorts of things. So, you can go and look at your local authority on the map of our website and see how they perform. And if they are at the low end of the scale, you might think yourself actually I would like to lobby that local authority and say here are five or six things you could be doing. You could stop using bailiffs, you could have a vulnerability policy, and so on and so on. So, that is definitely something that people can do. It is often effective, because, just as I was saying with Camden council, I am sure they didn’t set up to have the tragic end that happened, but we know about that. Local authorities, you know, councilors, don’t go into their work, I am sure, they go into their work wanting to do good. So, they need to understand the impact that their policies can inadvertently have and certainly, as we have talked to councilors and leaders of councils, many of them would say to us: we have no idea that these kinds of things happen, and we would like to put things right. So, yes, people can lobby their MPs, councilors, and make a difference from where they are.

Felicity Fearon: Excellent! Thank you so much for letting us know what we can do and I am guessing there is probably more information in the Money Advice Trust website.

Joanna Elson: Yes, please, you go and have a look!

Felicity Fearon:  Perfect.Now, reflecting on your time at Birkbeck, so, you studied Politics and Social Policy while you were here. What was your experience at Birkbeck and what motivated you to study here?

Joanna Elson: I had a lovely time at Birkbeck. So, this was in the late 1990s, a long time ago. I was working for a labor MP at the time, in the house of commons, I was a researcher, which was a job I loved. But, I had gone into it having it said to you that I was a teacher. So, I had done teaching a couple of years, I enjoyed it, but felt it wasn’t my life’s work and that it probably wasn’t for me. So, I decided to do something different, which is why I went to be a researcher in the House of Commons. And then, the reason I did the Masters was because I wanted to know more, I wanted to understand more about the history, the backgrounds, the potential of politics for social change, really. So, I did my Masters over two years in the evenings, at Birkbeck. I absolutely loved it. It was an incredible nurturing environment, it was exciting, the lecturers were great.

 I remember one of the highlights being listening to Peter Hennessy. Some of you listeners would know about Peter, I mean, he is an absolute world authority on government and politics and he really made the history of British politics come alive. Because he had so many stories about what happened and why it had happened. I do remember, quite often, after our Thursday evening lectures, we quite often ended up with him in the museum tavern, where he would carry on telling stories, as we had a drink with him. I am thoughtful for the students at the moment, all of that is harder to do in the current environment. I have got a couple of daughters, well, I got three daughters, but one of them isn’t currently studying. It is pretty hard at the moment, but, nevertheless, I think the quality of the teaching can even come through in whatever medium that you are using.

So, yes, I absolutely loved Birkbeck, I kind of got into the rhythm of it. It is not easy to start working and studying, but I did not have any children at the time, so that helped. And, I got into the rhythm of being out to go to the library, which was the most fabulous library, sort of straight after work, at six o’clock, doing analysis work there and then to the lecture. Possibly going to the museum tavern. I got into the rhythm of it and I really loved it. I have nothing but praise for it and I think for people who are wondering maybe about what their next step is, maybe in a job they like, but, you know, wondering what the next step is. Something that allows you to study while you are working, because not many people can afford to start again in a point of your life where you are already working. Birkbeck makes it, Birkbeck made certainly in my experience, made that manageable. The people were lovely and they were really understanding about whether you needed more time or, because of the pressure of daily life, it was going to take a bit longer.

Felicity Fearon: That is so glad to hear! Especially with your late-night tavern sessions as well. So, what advise would you give to a Birkbeck student today?

Joanna Elson: That is a good question! You know, follow your dream, I suppose. We all got one life and, you know, being curious, and following that passion, it might well be helpful for your career. But, even if it isn’t, if it is something that you just want to learn, and know more about and dwell into, then, that is the perfectly worth it to do. And, I think particularly at the moment, when, I am really thoughtful about young people, how difficult with the job market it is and so on, having something like a masters can both mark you out for a future employers as someone who has gone the extra mile, so it is worth doing for that. But, more importantly, it is worth doing for your own self-worth, for your interest, and because you are going to learn and grow, and develop. You know, your interest and your passion, be curious and really enjoy it, because it is a wonderful time, it is such a fantastic opportunity that you have to really make most of it.

Felicity Fearon: Excellent and, I am curious, because obviously it is incredible to hear so much about your journey and about what motivated you to go through your various different roles. So, considering how much you have achieved and how you have helped so many different people in so many different ways, what have you got planned for the future? What’s next for Joanna?

Joanna Elson: Oh! That is a very good question. Well, I am really lucky that the chair of my organization is pretty tolerant of me doing lots of other things as well as my day job, which is very nice. So, that allows me to have fingers in lots of different pies. So, I have recently taking on chairing a part of Birmingham University. Birmingham is important to me, because the contact centre that we run, that is the national debt line and business debt line is based in Birmingham. So, in normal times, when we are not in lockdown, I spend a lot of time in Birmingham and there is something called “the centre for household assets saving”, in management at Birmingham University, which brings together the social policy department and the business department and it has a big focus on financial inclusion. So, that is learning about how we encourage people to save, what about pensions? what about financial literacy? Those kinds of things, so I am chairing that and the advisory group that is looking after that unit and really looking how can we disseminate their work and share that more widely. So, that is something that I have recently taken on.

I have only taken on a body called “Fair4All finance”, which is something that the government set up and the idea of it is that it takes dormant bank accounts, so money that is sitting in banks, that people have forgotten about and the bank can’t trace bank the person. So, the bank has a responsibility to try really hard to trace the person who has left the account. So, if they can’t be traced, there is things they have to do to check that. But, If they can’t be traced, then, there are millions and millions of pounds sitting in those accounts. So, the government set up this body to use that money for financial inclusion. So, I am working with them, I am on that board, and that is about things like affordable credit. So, that is about how could we have a system where we got rid of many of the payday lenders now, who were really preying on people. But those are the people who can’t afford basic credit, who can’t afford to pay bank rates and the bank might not even offer them a loan anyway, because, you know, they are not a kind of traditional bank costumer. What is it that we could put in place for those people? That is going to be low-cost, still possible no cost, but it is going to smooth the picks of their economic lives. I mean, that when their washing machine breaks down or they need to buy school shoes, or whatever it is, they have got something to draw on.

So, I am working with them and I am incredibly fortunate to also be working with financial services, so I represent vulnerable costumers on the board of an organization called “UK Finance”, which represents bank and mortgage companies and others. It is my job, when they around that big board table, to say: “Have you thought when somebody can’t afford this or what about this product? When you test your product, do you make sure that you are not thinking about some mythical ideal consumer, but you are thinking about what happens if somebody loses their job or something goes wrong?” So, I have a number of different options and I am always looking for other ones and I am really glad to be able to do does things, because part of why I do what I do is because I love the interaction with people and that kind of sparking of ideas. So, you hear an idea here and you think: Oh! I wonder if that could work over there. Very often you can put people together or you can find a way of kind of getting maximum benefit from the idea, or the data, or the statistics, or whatever it is. So, yes, lots of more to do, I think.

Felicity Fearon: Excellent! So, I think what we’ll do just now is we’ll just go into a quick fire round just to find a little bit more about you. Because obviously you have said that you are busy doing so many things. It is interesting to find out what you do in your off time.

Joanna Elson: Ok.

Felicity Fearon:  So, what was the last book that you’ve read?

Joanna Elson: Oh! That is a good one! What was the last book I’ve read? Ok, so I have just read and, I am going to consult my phone to check the title of it, I have got a new whizzy app on my phone because I am on a book club and this new book club app, which is really handy when you can’t remember all these different books that you have read. But, this app keeps track of all the books that the book club has read and you can review them, which is rather good. So, I haven’t finish this yet, but I am really into a book called “Reality and Other Stories” by John Lanchester. So, it is a book of short stories and is only recently out. Its kind of spooky stories based on technology, so it is like when technology gets out of control, but with a bit of a winter kind of spooky thing about it. So, kind of a good book for the longer nights when you are sitting around the fire.

Felicity Fearon:  So, that is probably a perfect Christmas present idea, then.

Joanna Elson:  Yes.

Felicity Fearon: What is the one place that you would like to travel to but haven’t yet?

Joanna Elson: Well, my husband spent the early part of his life as a child in Kenya, where his father was a teacher, and his mom was a nurse. We have always wanted to go and never got there yet. Obviously, with all this thing nobody is travelling anywhere much at the moment, but that is somewhere where I would love to go. I have seen very little of Africa, apart from, I was lucky enough when I was 15 to go on a trek in the north of Africa, Morocco, but other than that I have seen very little of Africa and I would love to go to Kenya and see of the places that I have heard so much about.

Felicity Fearon:  So lovely, especially if your husband can give you a bit of a tour.

Joanna Elson: He has all these old silly films, his parents are not alive anymore, he has got all these old silly films from the seventies with all the kids on the beach and the animals around and everything. So, yeah, lots to look for there.

Felicity Fearon:  Excellent, which living person do you admire the most and why?

Joanna Elson: well, this is probably, probably lots of people would give this answer and it going to be two people, because they are a team and it is going to be Barack and Michelle Obama, because it is so incredible what they have achieved in both getting to the white house and the good that they did while they were there. Actually, what they have done since, both of them. Somebody said to me the other day, you have to really be careful about your politics, about what you say about your politics. But, it is a relief, the US election results are such a relief, you know, we are back to some kind of normality, and more importantly to the kind of politics that Barack Obama pursued, which are a much kind of gentler politics, but also brave, bold set of policies that, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and the divisions that we have seen in America and across the world, it is unthinkable that the response would have been so different, was so different, when Barack Obama was in power. Michelle, in her own way, he couldn’t have done that without her, and that she has her own life and career, and that it has an influence across the world. They are the ones I would point to.

Felicity Fearon: I would say that is a great choice. I have listened to her bio in audiobook, which was incredible, and I definitely want to read Barack’s book now that it has come out.

Joanna Elson: Yes, I think that might be a Christmas gift.

Felicity Fearon:  Yes, definitely. And, final question,describe Birkbeck in three words.

Joanna Elson: Right, just give me a minute. Well, exciting would be one, outstanding, because of the bred of disciplines and the people you have, and the third one, maybe the most important is nurturing, because, you know, students who are working as well have a tough time, you know, it is hard, and you couldn’t carry on doing that if you didn’t have somebody’s arms around you, if you didn’t have the sense that you are being supported and that there is help if you need it, and that if it takes you longer to do an assignment, then there would be understanding. It is a great place; I can only recommend it.

Felicity Fearon:  Perfect, thanks so much for joining us today and it has been obviously incredible to learn more about you and your career and more about you as a person. So, thank you so much for joining us and I hope you have a lovely rest of your day.

Joanna Elson:  Thank you very much, a real pleasure. Nice to meet you, Felicity. Take care.

Host: That is the end of today’s episode. We hope you have enjoyed listening to Felicity and Joanna. If you are interested in finding out more about our Birkbeck, please visit: campaign.bbk.ac.uk to read more about the impact our community is having around the world. Thanks for listening and until next time.

Andrew Molson (MSc Corporate Governance and Ethics 2002)

Based in Montreal Canada, Andrew is Chairman of AVENIR GLOBAL and Molson Coors Beverage Company.

Andrew talks to Birkbeck about how his family have put their community at the heart of their business and how Birkbeck helped him hone his opinions on business and governance that still influence his business today. 

Pictured: Andrew Molson

Tell us about you and the work that you do.  

I am a Lawyer by training and practiced law for a couple of years before switching into public relations in 1997. During that journey I took some time off to get my Master’s degree at Birkbeck College.  

I am also from a family who have been involved in brewing for a very long time. We originate from the UK.  The founder of our family enterprise, John Molson, left Lincolnshire in 1782 when he was only 18 years old and set off to Montreal seeking business opportunities. He studied the market for four years and in 1786 he launched a brewery, which still exists – it is now the global Molson Coors Beverage Company. I am Chairman of the company and sit on the board alongside my brother Geoff, so the Molson’s are still very much involved in the business.  

What made you move from a career in Law into Public Relations?  

I was one day working on a legal transaction as a corporate lawyer and this other firm came in to help with the communication side of things. While I was working on page 234 of a prospectus, checking the detailed legal wording on clause 7.5.3, this firm was working on the story that would be the front page of the paper, explaining why the transaction was needed and the difference it would make. I thought this was fascinating, and it provided my first real insight into public relations. After that, I knocked on the firm’s door, explained my situation as a lawyer and asked if they would take me on. Thankfully they did and put me in their investor relations group. There was a certain amount of re-training involved – for instance, they had to teach me how to become a clear and concise communicator (sorry to the lawyers out there!).  

I’ve never looked back and have been involved in public relations ever since. In French we say, ‘Le Droit mène à tout which loosely means, ’Law brings you to anything and everything’, and I suppose in my case it led me to public relations.   

In your career, what has made you most proud? 

I am proud to have made the decision to change career paths. I was a lawyer, in a very good firm and I could have stayed there for a long time. However, sometimes you need to make those instinctive decisions that take you closer to where your fundamental interests lie. I remember at the time explaining to a colleague that I was going to leave law and he just couldn’t understand why; this was back in the 90’s when public relations was perhaps a little less known. However, I stuck with my own mind and, in fact, it made a lot of sense. There are a lot of similarities between the two fields – building an argument for instance.  

I also love the characters that you meet in public relations. People with such expertise on how to communicate with specific groups; from the ability to talk effectively with investors, to those who know the inner workings of the government, to those, like a colleague of mine who was previously a journalist, who can write so well. I like that diversity of thought and the different routes that lead people to public relations.  

Alongside your work in Public Relations, you of course are involved with Molson Coors, a globally recognized brand. However, some may not know that the Molson Brewery dates back to 1786. What are the main factors that you feel have resulted in its longevity and success?   

I know that there are some much older breweries in the UK, so by your standards we are young! However, we are the oldest brewery in North America. There wasn’t much brewing going on in this continent when John Molson arrived in Montreal, so he was one of the first entrepreneurs in this area.  

I think a combination of factors has helped our longevity. Firstly, we have had a philosophy of giving back to the community right from the beginning. John Molson created a sustainable cyclical enterprise that would create jobs for locals, make money, contribute to the identity of the community, and give back some of that wealth into the local economy.  

We have also been successful through planned succession and have always focused on the continuity and sustainability of the business. It is not just caring about the shareholders, but rather about the overall enterprise, its evolution and how it can successfully transition from one generation to the next. We approach it like having stewardship of the business rather than ownership.  

Honestly, there is also an element of good luck involved, as is the case for most businesses that survive over the centuries. 

Seven generations of the Molson family have been on the Board for Molson Brewery (now Molson Coors). Growing up, did you always know that you wanted to join the business? 

No, not at all. I did deliver beer when I was 19 in northern Quebec with my brother Justin, which was a great summer job, but I never had any real intention of working in the business. 

I originally studied Art History. I loved films and really only moved into law as I realized I wouldn’t be any good a filmmaker.  Law seemed like something “safe” that I could do and I thought that I could work instead in Entertainment Law. So, I rationalized going into law by always telling myself that I’ll end up in entertainment law, so I would still have a hand in the industry. I ended up enjoying other aspects of the legal field, but I never had any intention of going into the family business. 

It was only later when I discovered corporate governance, in part thanks to Birkbeck, that I realized there was a place for me in overseeing this business and that that would be something I would enjoy doing.   

What made you chose to study MSc Corporate Governance and Ethics?   

It was quite a change of direction for me. When I decided to go to Birkbeck, I had been with the public relations firm for over three years and I had worked on some great projects.  Over time, however, I started getting interested in corporate governance (which wasn’t very well known back then). So in 2001, I asked my boss whether I could take some time off to study the subject, knowing that I could bring some added value back to the firm by doing so. At that point, I also had it in the back of my mind that this would be how I could become a good corporate director or shareholder of a company.  

Why did you choose to study at Birkbeck?  

I wanted a place that would allow me to return to my job after my studies, so I didn’t want to take too much time off. I wrote to one of my gurus, Robert Monks, a shareholder activist in the USA who wrote some books on the role of owner of a company and its importance. I told him about my situation and asked if he knew of any place that taught corporate governance. He recommended Birkbeck; at the time, it was one of the few institutions in the world that gave this course. So, it was on his suggestion that I signed up.  

During my studies, I also got a job at the National Association of Pension Funds, so was able to work part time in London. They complimented each other perfectly. It was great to be able to explore and learn whilst working — what better place to do that than in a wonderful city like London! 

Do you think that the course did help your career?  

Absolutely. Thanks to Birkbeck, I wrote a thesis that basically defends a hypothesis I had built around the ownership of a company. It all centres on a dual-class share structure, which our company has, that allows for some shareholders to have more votes than others. Many consider such a structure as being anti-democratic, but I believe it can be very fair and effective if managed properly. My thesis allowed me to defend this view and hone my own opinions. Many Canadian Institutions still use a dual-class share structure, as do big names across the world, such as Google and Facebook. 

You have studied in Canada, America and London. What do you feel the benefits to an international education are? 

The huge variety of people that you encounter. I found this to be especially true at Birkbeck. To study and learn together with people from all over the world widens your horizons and shows you that there are many more perspectives than those that come from your little hamlet. It is very inspiring.  

With over 230 years of history, Molson Coors has no doubt had to regularly adapt and innovate. What do you see as the future of the brewing industry and has Covid-19 changed that? 

As board members, we give advice and guidance to the CEO and management of the company who seem to be adapting to everything well. Our business, however, is fundamentally a social one; we are all about having people get together to share a beer. In these difficult times we are all craving a chance to be with friends and family. At Molson Coors, we’re just hunkering down and waiting for these moments to come back again; moments when we can all get together and talk about normal things – life, politics, family and news – but face to face rather than on Zoom! I think that many people need that social interaction and, although things will change, I do believe that when it’s safe to do so, having a drink together will come back strongly.  

You and your family have always been actively involved in philanthropy and supporting your local communities. Why is this important to you?  

Our family has been in the beer business for a long time and when we took the company public, we created a family foundation. Started by my grandfather and great uncle, it is dedicated to the betterment of society and my family’s been involved ever since. We know that the business will only thrive if our community is doing well. A healthy community gives you a healthy company. I guess in a way that’s the selfish reason to give back.  Fundamentally, however, we strongly believe that we should help grow and contribute to the place we operate in. Health and education are the major areas of focus of our family foundation, mostly in Montreal and Quebec, but also throughout Canada.  

At the moment, the foundation is busy ensuring that we continue our support to those we already help, assisting them to get through the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, we are also working on a few projects to help identify better processes in dealing with the situation. We are trying to stay as involved as we can be and help where possible.  

What are the main things that sustain a business’s success for over two centuries?  

Integrity, quality and culture. Integrity depends on all levels of the business, including at the top, as well as in the continuity of thought from generation to generation. Then the quality of your product is of course vital. And finally, the culture of the organisation is very important. It’s like yeast, which of course is used to make beer, in that it is living; there are points where it is strong and points where it is weak. You must always monitor and reinforce the culture of the enterprise.  

In short, why is education so important?  

Education brings reason and comprehension to people. It keeps you enlightened, curious and open minded. It is only through education that you can grow as a society. It is the only way to overcome difference and hate.  

I think every day is an educational experience – this interview right now, for example. You must stay curious.  It’s just like the song title by Toby Keith: ‘Don’t Let the Old Man In’ — keep on learning!  

What were the main things that you took away from your time at Birkbeck?  

I was exposed to different people from different countries in a way that I probably wouldn’t have experienced were it not for Birkbeck. It was clear to me that Birkbeck attracts talent from everywhere, which is very cool. It also showed me that you’re never too old to learn something new.  

Principally, I discovered an institution that’s very open minded, flexible and has a loving approach to the individuals who study there.

If you are interested in sharing your #OurBirkbeck story, please visit campaign.bbk.ac.uk to find out more.   

Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni – Simon Meehan (MSc Sport Management and the Business of Football 2018)

The following blog is a transcript of a Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here

Hello, and welcome to the Birkbeck Inspires conversations with alumni podcast series, where we hear from former students and find out more about their time at Birkbeck. Birkbeck Inspires is the college’s free online events, activities and resources program, which has been designed to inspire learning, provoke thought and entertain and excite curious minds.

In today’s episode Kara McMahon from the Development and Alumni office interviews Simon Meehan who is Head of Publishing of Chelsea Football Club and who graduated from Birkbeck with an MSc in Sports Management and the Business of Football back in 2018.

Kara: We are so delighted that Simon Meehan, Birkbeck alumnus and current head of publishing at Chelsea Football Club has joined us to tell us his story. Simon graduated from Birkbeck in 2018 with his MSC in sport management and The Business of football and today Simon will share with us his Birkbeck story and give us some really interesting insights into his role at Chelsea. We will also touch on the impact of the pandemic on his work and the clubs of work in the community during this difficult time and we will end by asking Simon for his advice for our students who are looking to get into the football and sporting Industries. Simon thank you so much for joining me today.

Simon: Thank you for having me.

Kara: So I thought we would start with your time at Birkbeck, what was your journey like to get to Birkbeck and why did you decide to study with us and do your MSc in Sport Management of the Business of football.

Simon: I think there were a few reasons. The major one was that I was looking for a career change. I had essentially followed into a career in public affairs and in politics, entirely by chance rather than design and having studied History undergraduate I didn’t really have a professional path set out for me if you like and I had notions of being a Sports writer or Sports journalist, I’ve been writing for the student newspaper at Edinburgh University where I done my undergraduate degree; I’ve written for some websites but it never really turned into something that you know which was a professional career or looked like being one and so I guess with the skills set I had from history degree it also lends itself to some other potential career paths and actually by chance I ended up working in Edinburgh for the pharmaceutical company Pfizer doing external affairs and I just sort of landed in that role, and then from there (because it was an external affairs role obviously linked to the politics and the policy scene) it just continued, I went from there to the European parliament and from the European parliament I went to working at google and then I ended up working for a company called Tata which is big Indian conglomerate and could have done all this in the space of about thirteen or fourteen years without ever really questioning it. You know I hadn’t thought my initial thoughts thought process was Sports journalist but beyond that the career just let me in a completely different direction so after 13 to 14 years I kind of thought to myself well actually I’ve been doing this for a while and I don’t really think that I’m enjoying it now and so I’m so where do I go from here what do I do and so I started to think of my thought process was really quite simple it was what do I enjoy, what am I passionate about, you know, its football it’s always been a passion of mine from a very young age from playing at a young age and supporting obviously and so my thought process was well I like football why don’t I try and work on it, but I had absolutely no idea how I would do that because, first of all having studied history undergraduate then had a career in public affairs and politics, there is no real natural link in that world into the world of sport or into the world of football you don’t know where you know where to even start and so I started looking at various different courses I did a short course online in Football Management and Marketing and then that kind of prompted the idea that actually I do like the academic world in sport. And I like the academic application to sports and understanding more about it so I started to research Masters courses and then obviously Birkbeck was one of the 1st that I found and obviously it offered the range of different Masters courses that were all interesting to me and I kind of liked upon Sport Management of the Business of Football because I was very curious as to how football works as a business and as an industry and I thought well this seems perfect to me and that’s essentially how I chose Birkbeck and that course. It was really it’s kind of understanding more about it and to get that academic grounding at least even if I didn’t know exactly where I was going with it. So that’s how I got to Birkbeck it was a fantastic experience because it did give me the academic grounding, you know the different modules and sports economics, sports governance you know they all sports law it really gave me an overarching view how the industry worked at academic standpoint I actually really enjoyed going back and learning at the age of 36 or 37. And it was also, I should add as well, my interest in football went beyond playing it and beyond sporting I’ve always been fascinated by you know the history of it, having being a history student I’ve always been interested and fascinated by the history of football, the history of clubs, where they came from, the communities they come from, and how do they operate in those communities that evolved over the past hundred twenty-five hundred fifty years in some cases so I was a particular interested mine was understanding how clubs and the world football operates in the modern world with all of the history and I guess the extent to which clubs are actually institutions very old institutions still operating still functioning that way or whether they are now businesses and how they have adapted to the business needs but then on top of that how do they communicate with these fan bases that have been built over the years and years of decades and decades and how they do that through the all the different meanings in which we can now communicate with people so it was kind of there was a lot of different points let me thinking well if I go to Birkbeck and I studied this maybe I will understand this better at least that once I understand this better, I might be able to find my path within that industry within that world and that’s exactly what Birkbeck provided for me.

Kara: I think that really makes a lot of sense and I am really happy that you shared all of that with us. I think just from listening to your journey it’s so similar to a lot of our Birkbeck alumni who might have done one to create when they were 18 to 21, started working, fell into something, and then realized down the line after having been quite successful that they actually like to do something a bit different and so having Birkbeck give that option to study at outside of the 18 to 21 more traditional framework it really resonates with your story and I think a lot of our alumni will really connect with that and current students as well and I think the point about the role of football clubs in their communities is one that will get back to you later so it’s really great that you brought that up in and it’s clear from listening to you that you have such a coherent narrative from you know your interest in football at a young age and then being able to come back to that and now work in a role working a role where you are engaging with Chelsea fans and you’re able to kind of bring all of this to the light in your professional role I think is so exciting. Can I just ask as well, did you study full time at Birkbeck or were you studying part time and continuing to work?

Simon: I studied full time and continued to work and I was going to say, based on your previous point that actually a big part of the choice was that flexibility that you know first of all that you can study in the evenings I mean it’s pretty intense you know you’re going into a three-hour lecture having sometimes or in many cases had a full working day before that so it was no getting around that. But nonetheless the flexibility it was a hugely important factor for me because I wanted to continue working in the career that I was in while I discovered this other career and it just have transpired this is halfway through the Birkbeck degree I actually left my job, my full time job. Then I had a period where I was thinking about what to do and then ended up joining a football content start-up but it was absolutely clear that there was that flexibility so you could kind of shape the degree around the rest of your life if you like and the other thing that I felt was really good about the Birkbeck experience was that despite being a bit older than the students like, I didn’t feel like out of place like I didn’t feel that I was massively older than anyone else I didn’t feel that I was some sort of anomaly amongst the students because there were people in all different stages of their careers, there were people who were younger than me starting out, there were people who were older than me who coming towards the end of their careers, there were people who retired who simply wanted to study the subject for this for the sake of studying it and so I felt that once I got there and was in that environment I was fairly certain that I made absolutely the right choice and so was always it’s always a really good experience and I think the other thing is it was the first time that I had studied something that I was, well I studied history as an undergraduate because I loved history at school so that was a really good experience but I guess when you’re an undergraduate you’re always kind of thinking well what comes next and I think a little bit of angst about why I’m studying history so what does this mean you know what does this mean does this means I’m going to be a teacher you know that’s what people would ask me and you know, I would say I’m trying to get into sports journalism , but this time I felt much more relaxed about it because I was first of all studying to find out, you know, to actually learn to learn about football sport management, the business football and I was studying something that you know if you eat a passion and interests for years and years and years and still apply kind of academic rigor to that was great and so you know the whole thing was just a very good experience for me.

Kara: I completely emphasise with your being an undergraduate history student, I studied history at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, so I did also get a lot of those questions. But just going back to what you did while you were at Birkbeck, full time whilst working full time sounds absolutely exhausting and its really brave of you to take on and then you said that you then started working in football content and then how did you end up at Chelsea? What was your journey like between you know the middle of your studies at Birkbeck were you decided to leave your job to now being head of publishing at Chelsea Football Club?

Simon:  Well, it was quite tough so when I started I was still in my previous career I was still working full-time in a fairly Senior role in public affairs for Tata Group and halfway through the degree I decided to leave that job to really take the plunge partly because I decided that well actually I really enjoyed what I’m studying I really enjoyed the world that I’m learning about and that’s definitely where I want to be going after the made that decision mentally that’s what I wanted to do and sort of took the plunge in leaving my previous career it was it was purely by chance that I met a couple actually who created this content start-up that was very successful on Facebook in particular, we created sort of funny football videos if like and it done extremely well and then asked me to join them. So that was really I guess the first step in the path to where I am now because it was the first step from my previous career past the academic point where I could I was beginning to understand how the industry worked into an area where I felt well actually all of the skills that I have plus the academic grounding I’m getting can have a practical application even though it was a start-up it was completely unpaid it was just a you know it was more of an experience than anything else but you know I suddenly realized to actually well I have you know I have an interest in how football clubs communicate with their fans communicate with their audiences communicate with their communities you know it’s happening on social media, it’s happening on digital platforms is happening on mobile phones and here was a start-up which did that which existed to do that and so it really was you know it was a bit of a again to move by chance, but it set me into this career path that I’m on now so I was there for a few months I also did some work for a video production company that actually a friend of mine started and so again it was a bit of a stroke of luck but again it was about using new media to communicate with fans, to communicate about football we worked on some long-form documentary ideas for example we had some we did some work with a with a Premier League Club so that set me on the path and then I in must be about six months after graduating maybe a bit longer I actually found my first proper job if you like in the in the world of football again it was with a Sports content agency and so I interviewed with them and they took me on as head of content services so I was responsible for a team of video production, a team of writers, graphic designers and it was to be honest a bit of a step up for me because I hadn’t you know hadn’t had a formal role at that, I’ve been doing the start-up, I’ve been working in with the video production company but this really formalised it and suddenly I was in this content agency working with some fairly big clients to deliver them football content so it was really my first step in to that world that said right now you’re here, now you’re in it. And then I did that for a year , we did some really good things with clients in the football world and that set me up for the Chelsea position I interviewed for the Chelsea position about a year later and you know, obviously did well enough in the interview to land the job so I was very pleased but it wasn’t just because of the, you know the two years or so experience that I’ve been building up in the world of football content. It was also I think very much because I had that broad understanding of the football industry from Birkbeck from Masters and clearly my experience before that in public affairs and in corporate affairs was important, you know it was a big part of me getting that job so I was able to align all of these things and it meant that Chelsea were looking for somebody with that profile who I think they were looking for somebody who wasn’t necessarily deeply embedded in the football industry or been at clubs for a very long time they actually wanted a bit of a fresh perspective so that’s how I ended up there. 

Kara: And so what is your day to day like as Head of Publishing at Chelsea football club I realise that this probably has new ramifications during the pandemic but if you could give us some insight into your average day in your role that would be fantastic.

Simon: Well I think there isn’t really an average day I think there’s always quite a perspectival day I think it’s, I mean the role is, you know I’m Head of Publishing which is a bit of a , can seem a bit of a strange title but essentially it’s you know I’m responsible for what we publish on our owned and operated channel, on our website, on our app and on our social media channels and that means that you know the team that I have we the responsibility for the communication that we have with our fanbase , and with the audience worldwide I mean you know Chelsea is known almost everywhere and impacts on lots of people’s lives and so we do have a big responsibility but it means that the role is extremely varied because one day you can be communicating about changes that we might be making to the stadium you know and it can be as simple as were changing the entrance point at somewhere in the stadium, to announcing the signing of a major player as we did obviously a few times over the summer so it is a really, it is a very varied job and I think that’s obviously for me that’s one of the major attractions of it and why I do actually love it, it’s because you don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen on a given day, you can get a call from somebody and they’ll tell you that somethings happening and you know it’s our responsibility to make sure people that know about it and that its done the right way and everyone’s informed. So there isn’t really an average day as such I think it has been challenging to do a role like this in the current circumstances you know first of all I interviewed pre-lockdown and the actually joined in lockdown so a lot of it has been remote working obviously as everyone has but you know when you’re doing a communications function where so much of it is about I think human and personal interaction it has been quite difficult to do that from behind a computer screen and so you know I guess the most average thing that I do is be on a lot of video calls in the day like everyone else I’ve been lucky enough to get out and go to some of the games behind closed doors so that’s been a really kind of interesting experience and being in a stadium where there are no fans but a major stadium where I’ve been before with lots and lots of fans 42000 fans in the place and seeing it empty and it’s a slightly eery experience and also a fascinating one because you can suddenly hear all sorts of things you wouldn’t normally hear from the players and from the manager and so on but yeah, the whole experience very varied, very different month to month but obviously I think it would be interesting to see how it is when we hopefully get to get out of the current situation.

Kara: Yeah I think one of the things I was really curious about myself was your role was so much about community building and your long standing interest are in football and the community how have you in your role and how has Chelsea maintained its sense of community throughout this difficult time perhaps we can start with your role of Head of Publishing then we can talk about what the club has been doing actually.

Simon: Well I think one of the things when I was joining Chelsea, because it is such a famous name in the world of football and with that comes a lot of preconceptions. The image of Chelsea for me is a club that is hugely successful, particularly over the past 20 or so years, where they have won so much, they have got a winning mentality. Your kind of, especially if you are coming from outside the world of football, you do not necessarily know what that translates too in terms of the other stuff that they do. How are they as a business? How are they as an institution within their community. But also, what is it going to be like to work there, what is the environment like? And actually, because I was joining during lockdown, I joined at a time where the club was actually responding to the Covid-19 pandemic on its community and it was taking a lot of initiatives. So that to me when I was joining something that obviously immediately took a great source of pride in because the club was also doing things like, offering hotel rooms to NHS workers it was providing free meals to NHS work because it was also providing free meals to elderly and vulnerable people in the community Zoom calls between players the manager and people in the community as well delivering books to school children who no longer able to go to school sports and food banks and so was doing all of these things as I came in the club that I actually started a partnership with the domestic abuse charity Refuge, and so, one of the first tasks I had coming into the club was to support on that partnership and make sure that we communicated around that in the way that we should because what our aims were to A raise awareness about the domestic abuse pandemic which was essentially following the Covid-19 pandemic and we wanted to raise awareness and we wanted to raise funds and so we were asking our fans to contribute we did that through a Facebook campaign we did it by offering first of all fans credit on season tickets which they could either take the credit or they could donate to different charity partners one of which being Refuge and in fact we ended up raising I think a quarter of a million pounds through both of those initiatives which the owner then matched the club and the owner matched and therefore we were able to raise half a million pounds for Refuge for that campaign so that for me was a great source of pride because I hadn’t you know when you join a football club you don’t necessarily know that you’re going to be working on a campaign like that that’s something completely different and so I was tasked with helping on that from day one essentially.

Kara: Just out of interest what is the role of Chelsea historically in the community do you think that what they are doing now aligns with the work that they have done previously in their hundred plus years of existence.

Simon: You know I think so I think that what strikes me is that with football clubs I think with bigger football clubs you know if you think about the top 6 in the Premiere League or major clubs globally everyone is always so focused on football performance and what’s happening on the pitch and the champions league and the glamour and the big name players and I think that community work and work their respective foundations is sometimes from a media perspective a bit of an afterthought where people are not necessarily aware of these efforts and the things that are happening I feel quite strongly that football clubs should be part of their local community they are institutions as we said in the beginning of the podcast there are institutions have been around for hundred and twenty five, a hundred and fifty years in some cases in the case of Chelsea it’s almost a hundred and twenty years a hundred and fifteen years and so they are firmly part of these communities and yet we don’t really hear about that all that much and I think what Chelsea is doing now is something that they’ve been doing they have been doing for years and years and years the foundation has been going and supporting the local community and its coming to kind of its coming to the picture a lot more obviously since lockdown and just been this focus on how everybody is supporting each other I guess but you know it’s just the continuation of what they’ve been doing I should say that in other areas Chelsea has been a leisure I think in its community and the things like the say to no to anti-Semitism campaign which was launched two years ago to raise awareness about anti-Semitism both in the game and beyond is an example of that and so I think its firmly in the tradition of the club that it does it but it maybe doesn’t like a number of different clubs doesn’t always get the recognition for that and I think that one of the tasks that I have as head of publishing in the club is to bring that to the fore is to work with the foundation to make sure that we communicate and we tell that story of the other things that we do that aren’t just on the pitch

Kara: That is perfect. I think it will be really interesting for our current students and alumni to hear more about that especially given that Birkbeck is also so ingrained in our community and that the pandemic has also really impacted our students and staff and just coming back to current students I know that those studying sport Management in the Business of Football and just throughout Birkbeck would be so inspired to hear your story I mean within two years you’ve gone from Birkbeck student to head of publishing at Chelsea’s which is a real credit to your work and your background and what advice do you have for current students or prospective students who might be thinking about coming to study at Birkbeck.

Simon: I think the first piece of advice I would have is quite personal to me because I had already had no clue where I was going on this journey when I started studying at Birkbeck is because I knew I wanted to know more and I wanted to learn about the industry of football and I was looking for a bit of a path and I think the my first piece of advice would be say it’s okay you know if you are looking for a career in football and sports and you were going to study at Birkbeck to help yourself along that path then it’s perfectly fine and perfectly okay to not know where the angle is know where you’re going to end up because I think there’s always this picture around. Right. Set yourself the target. Make sure you get there but I’ve always felt like I don’t really know what the target is you know and so, I guess I’m very lucky in the sense that I’ve been doing events that I found what I wanted to be where I am is exactly where I want to be so that’s good but it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gone and had the experience it going to be going with an open mind going into these different classes in these different lectures and sort of thought I like you know I before starting I wouldn’t have thought that for example the module in Sports economics wouldn’t be my favourite because I’m not economically mind that I’m not really numbers minded you know I’m an art student you know originally and so but actually that was my favourite topic. You know, that was my favourite subject so I think the first piece of advice is it as it’s you know it’s okay not to know where you’re going to or where you you’re going to end up off and you will find it the second thing I say is also quite personal to me which is I would try and try different things you know I took a bit of a chance with the start-up I took a bit of a chance when I started working with a video production company and again this was, you know, having thought well work in you know that digital content, social media and I hadn’t thought that was where I was going to go but I took those experiences and actually helped me along the path as well so I think that you are able to take different experiences to try different things out then you absolutely should I think another important part is to build your network as much as possible because one of the things I did was I just started attending different events. And actually you know I was in a position where I was having still working full-time while being a Birkbeck at least initially you know I’m still earning a salary and therefore I was able to pay to go to various different events in the football world and start building a bit of the network in the world of football but I would definitely recommend that because I started to meet people and speak to the people and so I started to understand the industry a bit better some of the people I met them then I’m still in contact with now you know and so I think building a network, it’s hard work because you have to go out do it but I would definitely recommend it. Other bits of advice I think just keeping at it, persisting, plugging away I know that’s generic and its cliche but actually it’s quite true you have to kind of keep at it even if things don’t work out when I join the start-up it didn’t really work out so you know we were trying to make money out of it and we couldn’t so we didn’t and so you know we spent several months trying this and it didn’t work out and it’s okay.

Kara: Those are all great advice, and they are so practical and uplifting that I think that is what students would like to exactly hear just now. And it’s so great coming from you, who is in the industry already and, who knows that Birkbeck students work really hard in balancing all the different responsibilities that they have and the fact that we are able to offer for such excellent education in things you might not even except that you would like, like your Sports management module. I know that the sports management staff would be pleased to hear that from you. Thank you so much Simon for sharing your story with us, I know that our current Birkbeck students and alumni would be so thrilled to hear from you and so fascinating to hear about your career change to Birkbeck, your current role at Chelsea and your invaluable advice for students especially during this difficult time. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Charlotte House

Charlotte House studied on the MA in Arts Policy and Management course at Birkbeck. She is currently a Grants Manager at Paul Hamlyn Foundation, working on their Education and Learning through the Arts theme, which supports learning in and through the arts in education settings from Early Years to FE, and partnerships between arts/cultural organisations and schools. The theme focuses on enabling pupils, particularly those experiencing systemic inequality or disadvantage, to thrive through engagement with high quality, arts-based learning. Charlotte previously trained as a primary school teacher with Teach First and the Institute of Education. Her undergraduate degree was in Music and Charlotte started out her career in the classical music sector, working in Artist Management for 12 years. 

We speak to Charlotte about her time at Birkbeck, hearing about how it has played a vital part in where she is today and the advice she would give to current Birkbeck students.

Pictured: Charlotte House (credit Matt Clayton)

What motivated you to undertake a degree at Birkbeck?

I graduated from university with a BA degree in Music when I was 20. From there, I went straight into a full-time secretarial/administration role at a classical music agency (with extra weekend and evening work teaching fitness classes). I felt incredibly lucky to have found my role in classical music and was thoroughly enjoying it. At the same time, I was increasingly aware that my understanding of the arts sector was rather narrow and that my own life-experiences were not very broad either. As my first few years of full-time work passed by, the feelings of wanting to learn more and develop my perspectives grew. I have always enjoyed academic study and a friend spoke highly of her experience of doing a Diploma at Birkbeck. The MA course in Arts Policy and Management, which I could do over two years around my full-time job, just seemed like a fantastic next step. The fact that I could study part-time and still work full-time clinched it for me.

How did your time at Birkbeck play a part in where you are now?

Undoubtedly, my degree at Birkbeck has helped me to develop my career. Without that learning and those experiences, I would not have had the skills and expertise – nor the awareness or confidence – to go on to roles in the arts at Arts Council England and at Paul Hamlyn Foundation. The Masters degree has been helpful in practical and personal ways. Ten years after my degree at Birkbeck, I trained as a primary teacher with Teach First: a notoriously challenging and tough two-year experience. However, having combined full-time work with studying in the past gave me some confidence in myself.

What were the highlights of your time at Birkbeck?

There were plenty of highlights. The mix of modules I took as part of the MA were fantastic. I personally liked the combination of highly practical learning, such as modules in marketing, production and legal knowledge, which I could apply to my work right away; balanced with more research-based and academic learning in comparative cultural policy and critical theory. Having the opportunity to do research and write a dissertation was a source of great pleasure and interest for me. That left me with the feeling that one day I might even like to undertake PhD research… we will see! On the campus, the library was a brilliant resource. And on a personal level, I made two close friends whilst on the course, whose continuing friendship I value enormously.

What do you think is special about the Birkbeck community?

If I’m honest, I have not been a particularly active member of the alumni community. However, I love reading the BBK magazine whenever it drops on my doormat. I am always blown away by the breadth and quality of research coming out of Birkbeck. I certainly feel proud to have studied there. I always encourage anyone thinking of university study to consider Birkbeck, as my own experiences were so positive. The Birkbeck approach worked for me, as someone working full-time who still wanted to study. It was a privilege to be part of a community of students many of whom were also combining their studies with work (and other fascinating experiences). This mix contributed to the quality and richness of discussions in our classes.

What advice would you give to a Birkbeck student or recent graduate today?

To a current student, I might say, “If not now, then when?”. This has been a bit of a mantra for me recently anyway. But I would say it in order to encourage current students to take advantage of as much as possible during their courses at Birkbeck.

And finally, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been told?

I heard this in a podcast a few years ago and it is a bit of a cliché, but here it is anyway: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” I often find myself reminding myself of this principle, in work and personal life. Maybe it might resonate with others from the Birkbeck community who are studying, researching, working, and meeting caring and other commitments!

If you are interested in sharing your Birkbeck story, please email alumni@bbk.ac.uk.

Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni – Leslie Primo (BA History of Art 2004 and MA Renaissance Studies 2010)

Having spent over 20 years forging a career in the Art World, former Birkbeck student Leslie Primo has become a renowned art historian in the UK. He not only currently teaches Art History at Imperial College London, but is also a successful author and TV presenter.

Pictured: Former Birkbeck student Leslie Primo

Considering Leslie, aged 16, left school with barely any qualifications, it is quite the unexpected career trajectory.

In 2000, Leslie found himself working in the National Gallery shop in London. He always knew he wanted to study in the art world and was recommended Birkbeck by his colleagues at the gallery. He had previously furthered his interest in Art History by doing his own studies and his own reading, which was helped by the fact that before working at the National Gallery, he had also worked as a librarian.

As London’s only evening provider of degree courses, like so many other students at Birkbeck, the College was the only feasible option for him if he were to study at university. Leslie needed to keep his job at the National Gallery whilst studying. It was in fact Neil McGregor, the former director of the National Gallery at the time, who took an interest in Leslie studying at Birkbeck. He took him to the private library of the gallery to encourage his studies and would often ask Leslie how his degree was going. To this day, Neil is a huge source of inspiration for Leslie.

Leslie graduated from Birkbeck with a BA in History of Art in 2004, and later went on complete an MA in Renaissance Studies in 2010. Studying Art History in a city that is so rich in culture as London was a particular draw for Leslie. He would thoroughly that current and future Birkbeck students take advantage of having all the galleries and museums that are on your doorstep as it can really enhance your studies.

He also recalls how at Birkbeck he received a huge amount of support. It was in fact his tutor at the time, Professor Simon Shaw Miller, who came to realise that Leslie was almost certain to be dyslexic. The College helped Leslie to be diagnosed with dyslexia, and he was subsequently able to get additional support from Birkbeck’s disability office, including receiving full funding for his first computer at home. Acknowledging his dyslexia for the first time allowed Leslie to make sense of his school years and why he left the traditional education system with very few qualifications.

For Leslie, this is what makes Birkbeck so special. He recalls: “You might have dyslexia, or your might have childcare to deal with. Birkbeck however lives in the real world, not just the academic world. It is trying to help you at every junction to succeed.”

Leslie currently teaches Art History at Imperial. He is the first Art Historian to teach at the university which is often traditionally seen as a specialist for Science and Business. Whilst at Imperial College, he still will often promote Birkbeck, with at least half a dozen of his former students having gone on to do further study at Birkbeck.

Leslie is keen not just to share his passion and love of art through teaching. He is currently writing his book From Renaissance to Abolition: A New History of British Art, due to be published in 2023. He is also interested to be a visual presence that is different to the typical mainstream art historian and has taken to television work, recently featuring on Art at the BBC, in which he discussed the works of Michelangelo.  He will also begin presenting a new programme about JMW Turner on BBC4 later in 2020. 

Leslie’s career continues to flourish and it will be fascinating to see where his journey will take him to next.

Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni – Dr Mark Blacklock (MA Modern and Contemporary Literature 2007 & PhD English 2013)

The following blog is a transcript of a Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here

Hello! Welcome to the Birkbeck Inspires, conversations with alumni podcast series.

We will hear from former students and find out more about their time at Birkbeck. Birkbeck Inspires is the College’s free online events, activities and resources programme; which has been designed to inspire learning, promote thought and entertain and excite curious minds.

Mark Intro

Today’s episode features novelist and cultural historian Dr. Mark Blacklock and the interviewer is Charlotte Belson, from the Development and Alumni Team.

My name is Charlotte and I work here in the Development and Alumni team at Birkbeck, I’m delighted today to be joined by Dr. Mark Blacklock. So, Mark is a novelist and cultural historian, who is not only an alumnus here at Birkbeck, having studied his MA and PhD with us, but also now teaches on the MA Creative and Critical Writing course. So, Mark’s successful 2015 debut novel I’m Jack focuses on John Humble, or the Yorkshire Ripper hoaxer and his most recent novel, Hinton, which was published in April to strong critical reception focuses on another real-life figure, this time mathematician, Charles Howard.

Hello.

Hello.

Thank you for doing this podcast with us.

No, not at all, thank you for having me. Always nice to talk about Birkbeck, but also to be able to talk about my stuff as well. That’s a real treat.

Oh, great. On that note, before we move onto another, I wanted to hear more about your experience here at Birkbeck and your time here, if that’s ok.

Yeah, of course. I guess I’m still unusual in that I have come all the way through as a student. In 2005 my wife and I had our first daughter, and my wife was going to go back to work after her maternity leave. I was doing the childcare and because I thought that I was not going to have intellectual stimulation that I had from work (I’d been working as a freelance journalist), I thought I would go back to studying.

I had done an undergraduate degree in Japanese, which I finished in 1996, and I was not a very good undergraduate student, that has to be said; I got a third-class degree. There was an itch that I wanted to scratch, to prove myself that I could actually study, and I started to looking around. As I said, I was a journalist, I was writing professionally but I was also writing my own fiction and getting more interested in that. Obviously reading a lot, I started looking around at somewhere to study. The MA Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck caught my eye, just because of the way it was structured: thematically and periodically, and it looked really rigorous. I toyed with the idea of doing a creative writing course but then it felt slightly safer to be doing something with a syllabus to work through. I thought that it would probably be as useful for my writing and indeed that has proved to be the case.

It must have been hard work to have a daughter and studying at the same time.

Yes, well it was very rewarding. When you got real little ones, it’s pretty full on, but it’s very much a physical job looking after little kids, physical and emotional. Being able to go out at the end of the day, on a Wednesday, on a Thursday, and sit in a classroom with a Birkbeck cohort was brilliant, it was a perfect balance. There was a bit on negotiation as there always is to clear time to do essays. I think that that now gives me an insight, an understanding what it’s like for Birkbeck students. I particularly remember the first Christmas, Christmas is always hard, I always warn MA students about that, Christmas is hard, particularly if you’re full-time.

Tell me a bit, I hope that the fact you did your PhD with us meant that you enjoyed your MA, but tell me a bit about both, going onto your PhD and how you found your studies all the way through.

It was fantastic. I studied Japanese, and I was very interested in literature- there had been a literature component to the Japanese degree but I was no great shakes. In the first term I remember my first essay, I got a merit, I got 67, I remember being pretty disappointed because I worked so hard, I really thought I had read absolutely everything, and I really wanted to do well. And the two things that I got were some incredible, very useful and detailed feedback from the marker. And then I asked a friend, Henderson, to show me his essay, he got a quite high distinction, and it really opened my eyes, that there was this other way of approaching. He had a critical argument that he wanted to make, and he was doing research to support that. I just read everything from the reading list, and it was faithful, but it wasn’t stepping out and reaching for originality, which is what we are always trying to get from students doing MA level. I saw in his work how to do that, and it was very liberating, really exciting. It kicked off from there really. I never planned to do a PhD, but on my second optional essay I discovered this guy, Charles Howard Hinton, who I ended up working on a lot.  And the idea of higher-dimensional space, as it was constructed and moved around in the late Victorian period, and thought there might be something interesting to do there. At the same time, I was attending all the graduate lectures that they were having in the English Department at Birkbeck. I particularly remember Steve Connor and getting very sort of excited by the possibilities of theoretical approaches to the exchange between science and literature. And realised that there was maybe a theoretical model for looking at this material as well. So it just kind of grew as the MA went on. I loved it, it was great, it was fantastic to be able to propose a project within the department.

So nice to hear that you enjoyed it so much. Well, tell us about your PhD, and what you went on to focus on and how you found this experience.

Having heard Steve Connor, I think Roger Luckhurst suggested to me that Steve would be a good person to supervise this project. When I took it in its initial formation, it wasn’t really a very well-defined idea: I want to write about  the fourth dimension, and I think, I remember having a meeting with him, lasted about an hour, he kind of persuaded himself that it might be interesting over the course of the hour and I don’t think I did anything particularly interesting to persuade him, but it was really good fortune that he decided to take it on. Because, with that sort of experience PhD supervision I was constantly challenged to think about how to make the project something that could be interesting to a broader audience, he really encouraged me to think about it as a conversation into the field. But it was part of a conversation about knowledge, that was very useful, and again, the whole idea of it grew. It became about how ideas are a kind of history of an idea as it moves between mathematics, science, different kind of social groupings and then into how expanse was reimagined in cultural contexts. I was part-time, so I spent five years doing it, and it was great that it fitted around looking after the kids, by then there was another one, and another one on the way, so I could make it fit around everything.

It sounds absolutely amazing. Did you find your experience as a journalist helped, especially at PhD level, did it help with your research and PhD writing?

Yes very much. The thing about being a journalist is that you can’t be precious about your words, you just have to produce and that really is helpful in that professional discipline of just putting pen to paper regularly. That continues to inform my approach to writing. You don’t last very long as a journalist if you don’t take editing well, so it kind of fits quite well with the supervisory process. It’s ok if somebody says this isn’t working, this needs to change in this way, you’re used to getting stuff sent back and having to think again how to approach it.

It makes you open to criticism. Then you became teacher at Birkbeck, then the road changed again, tell me about that transition, and how it came about.

Yeah, so, in the English Department, when you are PhD student, I’m not sure if it is exactly the same now, I think Covid may have changed things, we had the opportunity to get experience teaching on the first year BA programme as graduate teaching assistants; which is really useful experience, I didn’t do it in my first two years, I think I did it in my years three and four over the PhD, which is probably best to get a bit of good chunk of research under my belt before starting to do it. And I had some teaching experience, some language teaching experience, so I knew how to make a lesson plan and how to approach teaching and prepare for teaching. But of course, a Birkbeck cohort is very different to standard cohort, in my first group I had people who had already published books, you have to be quite flexible in the room. But again, I really enjoyed that, because it was, I think possibly because it is a Birkbeck cohort, and we can speak more about what that is later, it is something that is unique to the college. And then, I did a brief post doc with Roger Luckhurst in the department and then a job came up, a three-year post, and I was one of two people who got straight into the deep end, managing an MA programme, teaching across the whole thing, you learn quickly and then also, take a professional qualification, which the college supports you to develop your practice, and one learns quickly. I think I’m a much better teacher than I was to begin with because now I’m more able to allow the kind of session to be co-produced in the room, it takes a while, I think in those early days, to sort of ensure that you are comfortable, you over-prepare and you try to make sure you are all over vast swathes of material and actually what works best in the room is to allow a group to work together towards an aim for each session, and I hope I’m better on doing that now.

Did you find that actually helped the whole process the fact that you had just come yourself from doing MA and then the PhD. Did you sort of find it easier to understand, as you said, what is a quite unique cohortat Birkbeck. Do you think that helped the whole process?

Yeah, Definitely. Familiarity with the specifics of the Birkbeck experience, that you’ve got people coming from jobs, families, work, life is going to figure large…it is a real advantage in the room as well, because you get some differing experiences, so yes, it’s grown-up, right? Regardless of the ages of the people participating, it’s a very grown-up learning experience.

As a student and as a teacher in Birkbeck, what’s been your best bits?

So, lots. On many occasions, when you experience, particularly MA students, out-stripping your knowledge and the expertise by some distance, that happens quite a lot at MA level, that’s really exciting. It’s weird, this is quite a Birkbeck thing, I was thinking about something the other day; I was teaching a student on the MA Cultural and Critical studies, and she was working part-time at Housman’s bookshop, and she emailed in the middle of the day to say that they just taken receipt of the offcuts of Professor Stuart Hall’s library. She knew that I was interested in Stuart Hall, the guy who developed of cultural studies in Britain and when he died, his widow Catherine Hall had gone through his library and sorted what would go for archive and what wasn’t need for archive. I got this email, my colleague Frank Joe Brooker was also interested, we ran over Housman’s, and raided this whole library and we got armfuls of books as much as we could afford and carry back, got them into the offices and went through all these books which were signed by Stuart Hall and annotated in the margins, which had arguments with Milton Friedman. This sort of thing could only happen at Birkbeck…we got there first, we got the tip off…those are the kind of students we have…I remember that as a very exciting day. But something that happens all the time is going to the pub after, particularly with MA students, after a session, the fact that you finish teaching at 9pm, you can go for a drink and talk about what you have just done in the session is great, and I always loved that.

An amazing example as well, I loved the books story. It shows, as you said, the diversity of people that we have here, more as peer on peer, sort of network sometimes.

Going on more to your writing, which of course is the sort of the dual side of the things I suppose. I would like to hear more about Hinton, what inspired you to write the story, and you already mention Hinton himself, it would be good to hear what was so intriguing about him.

So when I was right at the start of the PhD, I kind of disappeared down a side alley, that Steve Connor drew me out of, so that I should start thinking again, more about the history of the idea rather than this individual and the life, but I ended up spending about a week in the archives of UCL, the archives of the men’s and women’s club, this sort of a discussion group in the 1880’s and 1890’s, discussing the relations between the sexes.  I knew that some of them knew about this guy Hinton, and I wanted to find out what had happened, and I discovered this cache of letters that were gossiping about the fact he been convicted of bigamy. And it was this amazing archival moment, I think that people who research in archives often experience this, when suddenly you find that thing, the grouping of exchanges of information, which is exactly what you are looking for. As soon as I found it, I thought I want to do something with this narratively, it could be the heart of a kind of telling of this life, and I wanted to use the life. The theme that unites my both books, which I’m interested in, in fiction, and I think probably in my research as well, is the kind of approaches to the real, very broadly conceived, how we represent the real difference of modes of approach to it, and particularly how you then deal with all that sort of messy, real stuff, in representative media such as narrative fiction. And, so using documents is something I’ve done in I’m Jack and struck me as something I could  then locate the heart of the story about this guy’s life and construct it as it were a really elaborate frame around the real, elaborate fictional framework. At one point, I though about doing it just as a book in a box, that kind of BS Johnson unfortunate style thing; where the reader would come across the documents, as if they were found and recreate the experience of finding them in an archive, as is often the way with fine-minded ideas, the reality is that the box ended up being almost constructed out of words instead.

You mentioned I’m Jack as well and I see John Humble seems like quite a controversial figure. What inspired that story as well?

I’m interested in approaches to the real and he was a notorious hoaxer. I think I first encountered him reading David Peace, in the Red Riding Quarter. I think it is the second one that is focused on that period and interested in the fact that there was someone who sent three letters and then a recorded tape to police claiming responsibility for murders that were later discovered to have been committed by Peter Sutcliffe. And because the voice on the tape was distinctively Sunderland in dialect George Oldfield and the investigating officers shifted all of their attention to Sunderland for the best part of two years. And I grew up in Sunderland, I was really familiar with the dialect and really kind of interested in that, what’s going on with language there, they were really obsessing over small odd phrases and intonations, that struck me as a mediation of the real that’s going on there. Forensic attention to the materiality of language struck me as very parallel to what we do as literary critics and it struck me that he was quite like a producer of fiction himself. So, it seemed like a story, it had all the elements that I wanted for a vehicle for what I was interested in.

It sounds absolutely fascinating. With both books, how did you find the process of being published, was it really satisfying experience?

It’s interesting, you know, a lot of good fortune was involved; I was putting stuff up on a blog, and I got spotted by a young editor. This young editor is now the famous novelist Max Porter, but he read something on my blog and he said, do you want to meet? I realised it was a pitch meeting, so I pitched hard; and he saw something in the idea so, you know, it was good fortune, I think…, what I take away from it is that it is always worth putting stuff out into the wild, you know, I think the  blogging process is probably particular to that moment, that people were seeing things on blogs back then in 2013. But, there are similar fora available now. And yeah, in terms of actually getting published, it’s quite a fraught experience. It’s hugely exciting to get a book into the world and all the stuff that goes around it is pretty odd. I get thrown back onto the old post-structuralist idea that it’s no longer yours once it’s out there in the world.They are no longer your ideas, not your words anymore, it belongs to readers. It doesn’t quite work like that, because it becomes a product and you are expected to promote the product, and you want it to do well. This second time around, I think I enjoyed it probably more. I felt more anxious in the run up to it coming out, but now it’s out, that feels good.

Before we spoke, I was reading about Hinton and there are some fantastic reviews and critical responses to it, it must be really satisfying to have your work out there and to have such good feedback for it.

Well, it is really heartening that it gets noticed, to be honest, because that is the biggest fear literally for it not to be reviewed. It’s an exceedingly difficult environment at the moment; so many books are coming out and it is really heartening when people engage with it on its own terms and read it. That’s nice, you know. I don’t think anyone who publishes is ever entirely satisfied. I feel reasonably content at the moment.

Good, good. You’ve sort of mentioned a bit about the publishing experience, but you know, for your students and for anyone listening who wants to write their own novel and begin that process, do you have any advice or tips that would you give them?

Yes probably the key tips are the most-self-evident. I mean, it comes back a bit to that journalistic discipline, you know, just write. To get a book-length thing, you have to write a book-length number of words. So you just have to write it, you can’t put it off. I believe in sort of putting stuff out there. I was involved in various sort of DIY things when I was doing the MA, I was part of a writing group and self-publishing group and used to perform our stuff and that was great, you know, that was the closest I’ve ever got to being in a band and was really good. I kept finding ways to get work out -it is important to socialise it a bit.

I mean, especially at the moment during lock down, it is obviously so much harder to meet with people to have a discussion, do you have any sort of techniques that you use yourself, or that you would recommend to people who are struggling just to get that process going, especially when you are often on your own and locked in a room and there is not much interaction.

Yes, I do a session on this on the MA Creative and Critical course, on how to get pen to paper, you know, on those occasions when it doesn’t feel like it’s happening, what to do; brainstorm ideas and share them in the room. There are many different ways of prompting writing as there are writers. I think from some sort of obvious stuff like go for a walk or run, or do something different, have a cup of coffee. But the things that for me are absolutely key are reading and reading across registers, across, not just reading the type of stuff that you are going to write, but read different sort of forms of writings: documents, archival stuff, theory, non-fiction…fiction…. Just reading everything just kind of chewing it up and you know, similarly kind of taking in all kinds of cultural stuff as prompts and cues. You can respond to anything that comes in and offers an opportunity for response and can stimulate some kind of idea. And then, obviously, discussion, with whoever is available, these days, my children….as much as anybody else. I think that that’s it. Sometimes I’ve recommended using Brian Eno’s oblique strategies as well. These cards are prompts to creativity in the broad sense and they are literally oblique strategies like rip it up and start again, or whatever. Change a dial on something.

You mentioned reading, have you got authors that influenced your work? And do you have those key people who helped you?

Yes, I’m definitely quite obsessive and completist on certain things. In Sinclair, I’ve kind of gone to Sinclair for blurbs for both my books and I don’t think they would exist without his work. I read his first novel, White Chappell Scarlet Tracings, and they both in different ways spun out of that. My wife brought Alasdair Gray’s Unlikely Stories, Mostly into our marriage and that was a really wonderful present. I’ve been obsessed with Gray for 20 years now. Just a wonderful creative force. I don’t know if he is so well known in England as he is in Scotland, where they quite justly have him on school syllabuses. I’d recommend anyone to check out Alasdair Gray if they are not familiar with him.  And then there are people who I admire and I think how do they do that? Even as a critic. Deborah Levy is a bit like that for me. I know our colleague Julia interviewed Deborah Levy during Arts week and I think I was an early adopter on Swimming Home. I subscribed to And Other Stories when it came out and was pushing that on anyone to read it. Actually, it’s amazing, the very subtle gentle use of almost psychoanalytic archetypes in it is really brilliant, but not necessarily so inspirational, more in the sense that’s something I’d like to work out how that’s done, but wouldn’t necessarily try to do it. And then Ballard, I’m hoping to do an edited collection of JG Ballard nonfiction. if it gets it the go ahead, so I go back to Ballard’s stuff quite a lot for that sort of thing, for prompt, for inspiration. It’s a real clear-eyed vista of culture and history that it is exceedingly eye-opening.

I have to admit I haven’t come across them. I love Deborah Levy as well. I’ll have to look up Alasdair Gray. I have never come across him, so that’s a good tip. You mentioned the JG Ballard work that you are doing but have you got anything else on the horizon? Are you working on your next novel and what are your plans?

Yes I am. I’m working on the next novel. I’ve just thrown away ten thousand words that are not going to work and I’m going to try again on them. It’s prompted by a document rather than incorporating them this time, but it’s a contemporary, I suppose it’s perhaps a bit like a thriller. It’s this literary approach to that idea of an espionage story. I’ve been dreaming up John le Carre and something a little bit along those lines.

Exciting. Okay. Last question. I won’t keep you much longer, but just to sort of finish off the interview I would just love to hear a little bit for our alumni and anyone who is perhaps looking to come to Birkbeck. I’d love just to hear what you think makes Birkbeck special, what’s made you stay so involved with us?

It’s a completely unique environment, I think, I mentioned that cohort, I don’t think you will find a room of students like you find at Birkbeck at any other institution in the country. Because you come into that room, and there are all ages, all ethnicities, all religions, the range of nationalities, and it’s constantly surprising and wrong footing and up-lifting when hear what people have to say, you learn as much from the people in the room as people at the front of it. We are kind of inclusive in our bones, because  it’s just, you know, we just have to be like that as working people. And what has kept me there was a certain type of intellectual curiosity that I hadn’t encountered during my undergraduate degree; that idea that it’s not so much what you are looking at and I think we see this with our postgraduates, especially with the diversity of projects is insane. People are looking at all kinds of different cultural phenomenon, but it’s about, how do you think about it? It’s about that, that intellectually curious analytical and theoretically and historically informed approach. It’s a curiosity, I think, what drives it. That’s the real sort of radicalism at the heart of our approach.

That’s a great answer. And I think a great place to finish up our conversations. It was really interesting and thank you so much Mark and we look forward to seeing the next books coming out as well.

Oh great, well, I hope it does come out.

Sure it will.

Birkbeck Inspires Outro

Well, that’s the end of today’s podcast. We hope you enjoyed listening. Make sure you check out what else has Birkbeck Inspires has in store by visiting our website at bbk.ac.uk/Birkbeck-inspires

Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni – Thomas Wingate (MA Victorian Studies)

The following blog is a transcript of a Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here

In this episode of the podcast series we hear from Thomas Wingate who studied MA Victorian Studies at Birkbeck in 2002. In 2016 Thomas started an international school in Mexico City providing education to 350 pupils representing some 40 different nationalities.

In the podcast Thomas talks about his time at Birkbeck, the lessons he learned along the way in starting an international school on the other side of the world and the values he instils in the children he teaches.

B: Hi Tom. Thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you so much for joining Birkbeck Inspires which is a way of staying engaged with our students and alumni. We have been featuring stories of how our alumni have been helping others in various fields. You got in touch because you have a really incredible story about a school that you have started in Mexico City. Thank you for joining us, like I said, we would really love to hear a bit more about it. Obviously, you are a Birkbeck alumni and I would really like to hear more about you time here at Birkbeck.

TW: Well, thank you for having me. It is wonderful to speak with you. Thank you.

Well, I was in a situation in London where I was working. I was actually working in a school in north London and I always wanted to be a lifelong learner and I saw this course at Birkbeck that offered Victorian studies, a fusion of history and literature and, immodestly, I know that I know quite a lot about both but I didn’t really have my ducks in a row. I really wanted to look at the Nineteenth Century and get a kind of philosophical underpinning of that fantastic age. So, I popped off to Birkbeck and met a great guy, I am still in touch with him, now professor emeritus, Michael Slater and he interviewed me. I can remember the room and some of the questions because I got onto the course. As we know, I think, one of the wonders of Birkbeck is its ability to deal with mature students, students already working and the flexibility of those evening classes.

I was tired I must admit. I was doing on the days when I went to Birkbeck something like 54 tube stations  and this incredible journey on the Northern Line and back and travelling is a little tiring. Anyway, it was well worth it. I had a fantastic group of fellow students. One was a policeman, I remember. There was a lady there who was an expert in genealogy, which was always something that fascinated me. We had this wonderful room where we could sit round and really chew the fat  and go into some really fantastic themes. I now have from Birkbeck a particular fascination. I was always interested in him but I now have a fascination for Dickens. Michael Slater is a wonderful Dickens expert, as people may know from reading his biography of the author.

The classes were just terrific and I had the good fortune to live in Bayswater, so I could go from there to Birkbeck. I was a little tired. I would go home and get into my essay and reading and get stuck in the whole cycle at the end of the Northern Line. So, I have very fond memories of Senate House and the room near there that we used. People are very generous with their time. Not just Michael but the other professors who gave us such wonderful insights into an age that has really created much of modern life, much of modern Britain and much of modern thinking. I am forever grateful to them. It added to other qualifications I have managed to get from other universities, at Kent, at Leeds, Georgia State and Atlanta. It was really something that helped make me as a teacher.  I was working as well and travelling on the Northern Line which was a bit of a nightmare, as I say. Afterwards I worked at the City of London School so when I was doing the new masters in Victorian Studies that really helped my A ’level teaching at this wonderful school. So Birkbeck is right up there with my favourite London memories, it really is.

B: That is wonderful to hear as well as the fact that you were able to use the room to chew the fat with  lot of fellow students. The people who choose to go to Birkbeck have that real level of commitment. They go there and it is a real choice and they know it will have a long-lasting impact on them. It is amazing to hear you speak so fondly about your lecturers. Birkbeck has such a rich history and we are coming up to our 200th anniversary in 2023.

TW: Right, right.

B: And it is wonderful how it has impacted. Education is obviously  a crucial part of London as a city. It is great to hear you speak so fondly of it all.

TW: One of the effects actually of the Dickens component that I took, I think it was Michael’s last lecture before he became an emeritus fellow, is that it simulated me to make quite an interesting collection of Nineteenth Century documents which I am now of course sharing in our secondary school, using display cases to help stimulate the thinking of the children as they get older. So, I now have quite a good collection of things related to the life and death of Charles Dickens in particular, quite apart from some other things reflecting Nineteenth Century culture,  politics and literature. So it has been great fun to have this new hobby later on in my life.

B:  Absolutely, and the ability to share that knowledge that you got at Birkbeck, which incredibly gets me to my next question. A lot of Birkbeck alumni have gone on to achieve some incredible things. Hearing about your story, about starting a school on the western edge of Mexico City. I would absolutely love to hear about the Wingate School and what takes someone from studying at Birkbeck to starting a school in Mexico.

TW: I don’t want to sound too dramatic but perhaps I was kidnapped! What happened was I met this wonderful young Mexican lady in the days of my youth when I was at the University of Kent. I was doing my first degree, my undergraduate degree in English and History and the Theory of Art. I met Elena who was doing a Masters in Economics , on the battlements of Allington Castle. How about that? Quite Arthurian. Anyway, to cut a long story short we got married and we weren’t in England long as we wanted to raise our family in Mexico. So, what happened was that I went to Mexico. That was in the early 80s. Goodness. Elena had a very interesting and successful career in the Mexican diplomatic service and that took us all over the place but it also took us back to London where she was the trade commissioner. That’s how as a teacher of English, I was the sort of exportable component and that’s how I managed to do my teaching in London and also go back and study at a British University again, with Birkbeck That’s how I ended up back in Bayswater.

It’s been quite a roller-coaster, I wouldn’t recommend that path to many because you have to kind of stop and start. In education, as I say, you are sort of exportable. People do want someone who has some knowledge of the English language and English Literature as well perhaps and so it worked out very well. We have also been in Atlanta. I have been in Mexico City in a good international school several times as I come and go with Elena’s job. Then it came to pass that we are here and the moment, that fusion of what I thought was the right experience with a little bit of ‘the ready’. The finances, you know, you have to have that. I thought to myself I am not going to be looking over my shoulder at the age of 89 and saying ‘what if?’. Although to be honest, if I could wave a magic wand, it would have been great to have founded the school, the school we have, the Wingate School, twenty years ago and watch it develop even more. You have to make these choices in life. But here we are and we are starting our fifth academic year and it is terrific!

It has been very difficult getting building permits, overseeing construction, acquiring the staff, having the right team around you. It is all about the team. It’s not about one person saying I am going to found a school. You know you lead a team. You know I alluded to King Arthur a moment ago, you know it’s sitting around a round table, it’s not about the head of the table. You meet people in education who know more than you do and people who you know more than they do.  But you have got to be able to listen very carefully and if you have got that skill, much good will happen. And that is how we ended up on the western edge of Mexico City. I am now pretty well rooted here. I have a place in London but I am rooted here. We started just the other day online with the children, after some very intensive staff training and sharing of skills. So that’s the story. That’s how we got over here and eventually, with a big breath, said: ‘Right. Let’s do this!’. We have one crack at this thing we call life, I believe, and let’s do it well. Here we are!

B: Fantastic  As with the rest of the world we have watched things changing. We are now a few months in. I read a little about your evolution to online learning. As you said, you have started the academic year is it entirely online?

TW:  You have to play ball with the authorities here.  Well, I think you should do in any country. So here we have the Secretaria de Educacion Publica (SEP). and the SEP tells the private sector what to do in terms of calendars. In the private sector you can get back to them and say we are a British international school . We have 40 nationalities. We have 350 children on the school rolls this year. We have grown by 90, which in a pandemic is a real compliment to the work of the staff. So, the SEP rules on behalf of the government and the Ministry of Education. We have a traffic lights system. The trouble is – to be honest with you-  is that we have a federal traffic light, with the obvious colours but the federal government has actually slipped in an extra colour: it’s red-organge-yellow-green. Then you have the state authorities. We have 32 states here and there is sometimes a little friction between the state and the federal authority, in education anyway, and they say you can change back (to face to face teaching) when it is green. But nowhere is it green at the moment.

It’s very easy to be an armchair expert, isn’t it. You sit and watch the television and see various ministers make pronouncements and you think ‘why are they doing that? Why don’t you do this?’ Perhaps they see more than we do. Mexico is still in the grip of the pandemic, so we are online. Big plans are being made for when we go back. We very much hope it will be a hybrid model, particularly with classes that involve socialisation. The trouble is that when you talk to the children, as we have started to do, as we are online, some of them have been holed up in flats in the city for months. I mean that is going to have a tremendous psychological effect on children. Others have been swanning around. One child has gone off to his homeland. He was born in Copenhagen and he flits between Denmark and Sweden. We have children tuning in from Korea. As I say, we are a very international school. So, we pay great attention to that socialising part, therefore when they come back they can do some sports with social distancing.

We are very lucky now because we have expanded the school. We have doubled the space to over 6,000 sq m for both building and play areas and the like, things like basketball courts. We have added a field, we have a second field and we really want to see those children running around in those green areas. People think that Mexico City is wall- to-wall concrete but we are not. Here on the edge we have Swiss-style green areas. If you look at pictures of the city you can see that we have some really beautiful green areas with forests and valleys and in the centre we have got a wonderful park.

So, we are online now. I really want to get a hybrid as soon as we can. We have to wait for the authorities.

B: That sounds like an incredible journey Tom that you have been on to get to the school and it sounds like there’s a real need for it there. Having a Mexican wife, did it then feel like a natural move to set the school up in Mexico City?

TW: You have to have self-belief, don’t you? There’s something about if you have had the privilege of a good education, you have got to say ‘look, much has been given to me and I owe something’ and I owe something to this wonderful Mexican society that has given me so much. It is a fantastic land. It has problems, as everybody does. I look at the news. England has been guided, or not guided. I could get political! It looks a little messy at the moment in terms of  the pandemic.

So, anyway, here it is about reaching out and touching lives. I saw a need. There are many great schools in Mexico but what we have done is, we have a philosophy of education which re-emphasises values. So we have got a school here that has attracted quite a big slice of the diplomatic community’s families and international companies, who need a high quality English education because if they end up in Brazil or Moscow or Berlin, or somewhere, this common language, this English, apart from Chinese, is the world language. It is so useful, so exportable.

We want to teach – not great history courses, maths, or whatever – we want to teach great children. We want to form great ethical children so that wherever they go in the world, they do it to the best of their ability and it has a cascade effect on the people whom they come into contact with who will experience something very beneficial because they are in the presence of someone who is well-prepared, centred, confident and ethical.

We really need that, that ethical side. So we know a guy called Dr Thomas Lickona who is from New York University and he is one of the founders of the School of Character, so within our school we also have the school of character which is uniquely fused with the International Primary Curriculum and the younger version for the kinder (sic). We are growing  our secondary school. It gives use the opportunity to get the children to really understand what our school motto is: to strive, learn and serve. And that service part – to give back, is huge for us. So there’s one big rule for the school. I don’t have a directory of rules. I really don’t. It’s called respect. The children sign a document in the front of their agendas, the school diary, where they agree and I agree, and the parent and the teacher agree that ‘respect’ is the number one rule of the Wingate School. Concurrent with that is that our teachers are collegial. I really do insist on that. A great idea is duplicated, not diluted. So the collegial staff will a tremendous extra dimension to it. So then it is a school which has niche – I hate to say it – market. It sounds very business-like but it deals well with high quality education in English. We are not a bilingual school. It could expand, of course, but it is a 80 – 20 English and Spanish curriculum. We touch the international community. We touch a huge slice of the community here in Mexico City and we fuse the curriculum with values.

B: What we fetch out of education is incredibly important. I think what you are doing is trying to educate these students to go on to great success in life. Obviously, of course, with a strong understanding of Charles Dickens!

TW: Oh! I am known as a kind of  obsessed man about it. It comes into assemblies, with anecdotes about childhood and Dickens’ attitude to it and the importance of play. I’ve got a fund of stories for them. I have got to be very inventive about that and not bore them! But his philosophy is an influence, of course!

Int: Thank you so much. And in parting form one another. You have obviously had an incredible journey since leaving Birkbeck and it sounds like it really did have an impact on you. It would be really great if, perhaps, you could share a little piece of advice with our students and alumni who may have grand plans and are wondering how to take that first step into starting a life changing venture as you did? Is there something you would like to say to them?

TW Sure. I don’t want to sound flippant but find someone as good as Elena, my dear wife, in your life. It’s about the team in your life. You meet the great people in your life who inspire you, the great teachers at Birkbeck and they did, they inspired me. So be confident. You are getting a good education at Birkbeck. Use your talents in an aligned way. Line up your talents with an interest that you have, then you can take it further. Don’t do anything just for the job, just for the money. Sometimes I understand that we need to put bread on the table and we might have to do a job that we don’t particularly like. It’s happened to me in my now fairly long life. So seize the moment!

There are certain situations where you have got to say, ‘well give it a go!’. And look, heck! If it didn’t work, the sun comes up in the sky the next morning. Start over! Like, you know, Robert the Bruce and the cave, watching the spider coming down that thread and climbing to the top. He was in big trouble against the English at that time and the story goes that he reassessed his life and got to the top, went off and won a great victory.

Work with people who are like minded, people who support you and you can support them – and never give up! I hope I don’t sound that I’ve got to the top of the mountain. I’ve not. When you get to the top of the mountain you take a big breath and then you see there’s another mountain range ahead.

So, my last piece of advice, and Birkbeck has really underscored this as it was the reason it was founded, be a lifelong learner. Those things together is the advice I would give to people. Life is there for the seizing. Take calculated, well thought through challenges. There’s always an element of luck, I get it. It’s great to do something that you’re are really interested in with other people who are also really interested in it. I think if you follow that kind of line, good things can happen.

B: I think that what you are saying is very much the importance of teams and having people around you ho support you and finding common cause. Thank you so, so much Tom for coming on.

TW: Not at all.

B: It was really incredible to hear about the journey and incredible opportunities. I said at the start that we are featuring stories about alumni helping people in various fields. Your are helping to maintain a strong contingent of students  who are educated with the value of ‘respect’ which we also try and instil at Birkbeck as well and hopefully they will be lifelong learners too, just as you have with your students. So thank you very much for all you are doing. It’s been wonderful.

TW: That’s most kind of you. If I could make a warm ‘salut’ from  from Mexico City to all of the Mexican community at Birkbeck! I am sure they are all there and to all the other different nationalities there. This is a fascinating thing that you are doing. Greetings also to any professors of mine who are still there. I’m delighted to say hello to you and to thank you for all you have done for me.

B:Thanks Tom.TW: Thank you

Mentoring Pathways – why do alumni become mentors?

The Mentoring Pathways programme, which offers final-year undergraduate and postgraduate students the opportunity to be matched with a mentor, has been running for close to ten years. In this time, mentors have supported over 1000 students with their career aspirations as they look to graduate from the College.

Mentors are drawn from Birkbeck graduates and corporate partners working in a diverse range of professions and industries. But why do former Birkbeck students decide to mentor current students every year? We hear from two alumni who currently participate on the programme.

Kristin Dockar (Graduate Certificate in Systemic Practice (Child Focused) 2011)

Pictured: Kristin Dockar

I enjoy mentoring Birkbeck students as I believe I am making a difference to somebody. I am enabling and supporting to achieve end goals, remaining impartial, empowering, being a ‘sounding board’, sometimes being a ‘reality check’, and most importantly, developing a relationship of trust.

My motivation to become a mentor increased as I realised I could use the experiences I had gained over a long period of time in my career.

On joining the Birkbeck Mentoring Pathways programme, I received initial training which taught me to be mindful of the rules of engagement. Practical aspects such as where meetings would take place and how often, and discussions on exchanging email addresses and telephone numbers set the tone of the relationship. Discussions also took place around the purpose of being mentored and what outcomes could be aimed for. An important question to ask a prospective mentee is: “What do you want from a mentor?”

As a mentor I have always kept notes on meetings with dates and timelines included. I have also kept notes on what has been achieved and what ‘next steps’ are. This helps the mentee to set targets and achieve and finish tasks.

There are many do’s and don’ts to becoming a mentor, not least trying to tell someone ‘how I’ve done it’, The most necessary skill is the ability to listen actively and hear the stories behind the reason why this individual has decided to take on the daunting task of studying.

Last year I mentored a student taking a Masters’ degree in Policy Making. This student was interested in investigating the ‘hostile environment’ and the effect it can have on migrants to this country.

Because I have an extensive network of different professionals, I was able to link this student with a person working in Border Control in the Civil Service. He was able to provide advice on career opportunities shown on the Civil Service jobs website and give advice on writing a CV and Personal Statement, as well as advice on interview techniques linked to this career path.

I have also just finished mentoring another Birkbeck student studying for his Masters’ degree in Policy Making. Normally the programme would take place from November until June, but due to current circumstances, it has continued until the end of September this year which has worked well.

I have now signed up to the 2020/21 Mentoring Pathways programme and I can’t wait to get started.

Ken Gardiner (MSc Stratigraphy, 1989)

Pictured: Ken Gardiner

I studied at Birkbeck because I wished to further my education in geology beyond the initial BSc degree which I had obtained from the University of Southampton. So I decided to undertake a MSc Stratigraphy degree at Birkbeck. I could continue working in my job full-time living in the suburbs whilst undertaking the Stratigraphy course. Studying at Birkbeck allowed me to progress in my career as a geologist at Chevron to become a more senior member of a UK based independent oil and gas company.

I take part in the mentoring programme as I wish to contribute something back to Birkbeck as it helped me to build my full-time career in the oil and gas industry.  I also enjoy supporting young students who are looking to start or advance their careers.

What advice would I give to current Birkbeck students at this current time? Make sure you keep an open mind when looking at where you may wish to progress with your career and always have a checklist of where you feel your expertise and main strengths lie. Build your CV taking into account your education and work experience background to date and do not over embellish it.  Tailor your CV for each job application based on company research, and once you have several templates you’ll find you have a work in progress for each job application you make.

Amanda Flanaghan (Qualifying Law Degree 2019)

I never felt I really fitted in my first time around as an undergraduate at university some years ago, and therefore did not have the best experience. At Birkbeck, it enabled me to study at the same time as working, at postgraduate level, and meet some really great people who, like myself, valued the opportunity of studying and still remain close to me over a year since completing my studies. I really enjoyed being a student at Birkbeck: the course content, lectures and teaching style and I am inspired to attempt to eventually hopefully study an MPhil/PhD at Birkbeck. 

I was able to experience and live in a brilliant city, hold down part time work alongside gaining the opportunity to study on the LLM Qualifying Law Degree. The evening lectures meant I could have a good balance to fit in time for work and study which I really valued. The many libraries around the city (especially the 24 hour ones!) were useful to study at with people who I met on the course. For me it was a second chance at engaging fully in academic university life.

I take part in the Mentoring Pathways programme as I know that when I was studying for the LLM QLD, I valued how approachable and friendly our part time group was, along with the really valuable help and guidance I was lucky enough to receive from some lecturers and seminar tutors. Everyone was very helpful, and the course was very interesting. It was brilliant to be surrounded by people who were as inspired to be at university. It can be difficult to balance life with working and also studying and/or volunteering. I wanted to be able to give something, some of the experience and advice I had received to someone else coming up.

If you would like to become a mentor on this year’s programme, please complete this application form by Sunday 25 October.