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Birkbeck on University Challenge

Birkbeck’s University Challenge team stormed to victory in the first round of this year’s series. The programme aired on 10th August, with Birkbeck students facing the University of Reading. They secured a place in the next round with an impressive 295 points to Reading’s 50. Here, we catch up with the contestants Jonathan Willams (MA Classics), Joshua Mutio (MSc Politics, Philosophy and Economics), Jonathan Taylor (MSc Environment and Sustainability) and Nicky Clarke (PhD Early Modern History) on Birkbeck student life and their hopes for the next round… 

Pictured: This year’s Birkbeck University Challenge Team

Why did you choose to study at Birkbeck? 

Nicky: I did my MA here because I really liked the Early Modern History course and I also liked the idea that I wouldn’t necessarily be the oldest student in the room! 

Jonathan W: I’ve been interested in Classics since my schooldays, and I revived that interest by starting to study Latin and Greek in earnest a few years ago.  I took A-levels in both languages last year and wanted to carry on my studies so Birkbeck was the natural choice.  It has a great reputation in the subject, and it’s the perfect place to study if you want to maintain a career whilst studying.  It’s also close to where I live. 

Joshua: It meant I could study whilst keeping my full-time job as an analyst at NHS England. Plus, Birkbeck was the only university offering my preferred course for evening study, so it was a perfect match. 

Jonathan T: I chose Birkbeck because the course looked very good, and because the approach (part time, evening classes etc.) fitted well with other commitments. 

 What made you apply for University Challenge? 

Jonathan W: I’ve always enjoyed quizzing and am part of a regular pub quiz team. I saw the trials were on at the start of the year, and I thought, “why not? It should be fun!” 

Nicky: I didn’t get the chance to do it many moons ago as an undergraduate so I thought it would be fun to try this time around. 

Joshua: My hopes weren’t high, but I felt I had nothing to lose by auditioning. I‘ve always wanted to have something in common with Stephen Fry, too! 

Jonathan T: I applied for fun! 

What was your strategy ahead of the first round? 

Jonathan W: I think we wanted to cover as many subject areas as we could, so we each chose ones to swot up on.  I plumped for physics and chemistry, which seemed like a good idea at the time.  Not so much now…! 

Joshua: I’m not sure we had one… besides answering as many questions as possible, preferably correctly. 

Nicky: We practiced regularly. 

Jonathan T: Our strategy before the first round included several evenings of practice, we are doing the same now.   

What is Jeremy Paxman like? 

Joshua: A gent.  

Jonathan W: Very charming.  He even offered to show us the way to the studio from the stage door. 

Nicky: Pretty good making at teams feel less nervous. 

Have you filmed any further rounds? Can you give us an idea of how things go…? 

Joshua: Our next match is filmed in a few weeks, but we’ll be sworn to secrecy. 

Nicky: We have only recorded round one. The schedule has been disrupted by Covid and we don’t record again until September. 

What’s life been like since the programme aired? 

Jonathan W: I’ve had lots of lovely messages from people I haven’t been in touch with for ages, so that has been nice. 

Nicky: Much the same as before, though several old friends have said they nearly fell off their sofas when they saw me. 

Joshua: There were some articles about me in the tabloids, and Greg James spoke about me on Radio 1, which was all a bit bonkers. Besides that, totally ordinary. 

Jonathan T: Since the programme aired a surprising number of people have been in touch. It gets one of the largest audiences on BBC2 (around 2 million). 

Do you think that you can go all the way to the final? 

Nicky: To borrow a well-known sporting analogy, we are taking it one game at a time. 

Jonathan W: Absolutely! We’re certainly going to give it our best shot. 

Jonathan T: Too early to say how far we might go, the questions get tougher as the rounds proceed, and teams get quicker on the buzzer. 

Joshua: If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that anything can happen… 

The team will appear in the next round in September 2020, we wish them the best of luck! 

Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni – Beth Greenacre

Beth Greenacre is a successful curator and art consultant working across the industry, including being the Curator for AllBright, a female membership club with bases in London and LA. 

Beth graduated from Birkbeck in 2000 with a Certificate in Arts Management and began working as David Bowie’s Art Curator, a role that she held for 16 years, leading the sale of part of his Collection after his death in 2016. 

Here we hear from Beth about her career, working with David and life in lockdown. 

Tell us more about your current work and role as Curator at the AllBright Club:

I am self-employed and have been for much of my career. It allows flexibility and means you can be nimble. I have a broad range of interests and activities, which allows for variety and keeps me on my toes. However, I do try to make all my work linked in some way; this is fairly easy as the art world is small and very connected. It is in itself a healthy eco-system. 

One of my current roles is advising a commercial gallery, the Michael Hoppen Gallery. This takes up a lot of my time. I was brought on board at the end of summer last year to set out what this medium sized, well established gallery could look like in the future – in terms of technology, online activity, new audiences and an ever-changing market. My appointment was actually good timing in regard to Covid-19, as one of the first things I looked at was the Gallery’s digital and social media strategy, so we were already taking big steps with our online activity. But things will keep changing and having to implement new activity quickly at the moment is quite hard. The art market fascinates me and I really enjoy the business side of art as one strand of my career. 

I also look after a handful of private collections; building, growing and maintaining them. 

Alongside this, I am curator at the AllBright Club, which is a female only members club. We currently have two sites in London, Mayfair and Rathbone, and one in West Hollywood, Los Angeles. LA is quite new, it has been open for less than a year. The AllBright is far more than just a club, they are sites for women to grow, develop and learn together. Of course, at the moment they are an online space, with incredible supportive content for women; whether short courses, round table discussions or talks. There is also a great networking app. In terms of my work with them, I select work by women artists to display, loaning directly from artists, collections, public spaces, print publishers and more. In Mayfair alone, the period on display spans 80 years and includes about 130 artists. The collections and hangs often respond to the sites. For instance, LA looks at the female gaze and how that is filtered through films and movies. I keep as much as I can to local artists and galleries, promoting and representing local voices. 

I also advise artists estates, which stems from the work I did with David. I was his curator for the better part of my career and directed the sales at Sotheby’s of part of this collection on behalf of his estate. I find working with estates really exciting; whether that be legacy planning or making sure that the collections are future proof and can function sustainably.

Copyright and courtesy Sothebys 2016

What was it like being the Curator to David Bowie’s art collection? 

Everyone has some knowledge of David through his music or as an actor. However, I think very few knew him as an Art Collector or what motivated him as a collector. It was a very personal collection, driven by private desires and ambitions, it was very much about his immediate history, and he used the collection to understand his place in the world.

David was a great teacher and looked at the world in a unique way. He used his collection as his way to view or express the things happening around him and he taught me how to do the same. He was also very generous. For instance, he supported young artists through Bowie Art, one of the first ever websites for art, helping recent graduates at the first stage of their career. David understood the power of the internet when others disregarded its; he knew that it could be used in a negative manner, but he also saw its positive potential and reach. 

When I first started working with David, it was after I had graduated from The Courtauld Institute in 1997, before going on to Birkbeck. It is so odd to think that I had no access to email as a student I even wrote my dissertation on a typewrite can you believe? Similarly the art world was very different; imagine London without the Tate Modern! The internet was a new and fantastic thing and David managed to harness that. It was extraordinary to work with him. 

What has been your favourite moment in your career? 

It was difficult for me to oversee the sale of David’s collection after his death. I don’t think I really grieved until after the sale. However, it made me incredibly proud to show people the collection that he had built. We toured highlights around the world and opened Sotheby’s for 24 hr viewing – there were queues around the block and, at the time, it was the highest attended exhibition at Sotheby’s. Seeing the pieces together was amazing; it was a loaning collection, meaning that it was never normally all in one place, and David lived a modest life so there was never room for all the pieces he owned. Brining it together like that really helped to understand the achievement of such a collection. It felt celebratory in a way, and I think that people were granted a means to understand him in a different way via the art he collected and treasured. It was the ultimate sharing experience, which is what David wanted; he always wanted to share his passion for the artists that inspired him.

What advice would you give a student looking to go into the art world? 

Embrace the amazing people in the art world; curators, gallerists, writers, academics, collectors. Don’t be afraid to reach out, the art world is full of generous and passionate people who are glad to offer guidance. It can seem intimidating at first but there are loads of really brilliant people who want to talk and share. 

What area of art do you personally tend to most enjoy? 

I am passionate about modern British painting and sculpture, which was a cornerstone of David’s collection. We would always joke that it was very unfashionable! That has changed in recent years though. I think I like that it tells a history that is close to my own. It’s certainly been underrated and undervalued in the market. There were very similar things being explored by artists across continents at that moment but the USA shouted the loudest. Their market was more established, and they had a stronger institutional network supporting their artists. Many people will know who Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock or Franz Kilne are but far fewer will know of Peter Lanyon or Ben Nicholson.

How has the lockdown effected the art industry so far? 

Part of my work is advising private clients, which at the moment is actually quite busy! I’ve worked through a number of recessions and find that people always want art in their lives. It helps us to understand the world, particularly at times like this. 

I’ve also been amazed at some of the great online content that’s coming out, both from our large art institutions and privately owned galleries. I think people are really connecting with art. And given that some people have more time at the moment, the content is being consumed in a new way. I believe that you have to find opportunities at moments like this! Never waste a crisis. 

Art markets, dealers and auctions have been doing ok- all things considered. For instance, Sotheby’s recently announced their highest grossing online sale, which beat the record set just the week before. We are all of course cautious and sadly some artists, galleries and institutions will struggle. However, the art world is biting at the bit to get going again and make a difference to those that are finding it hard in the current climate. 

Copyright and courtesy Sothebys 2016

What do you think will be the long terms effect of the virus?

I think that many industries are due a re-evaluation as are many aspects of our private lives. And I hope that the current situation will help us to look at our values and consider what is important; and I do not just mean market values. For instance, the art world ships art around the world and jumps on planes at the drop of a hat, to the detriment of our environment. I think things can afford to become more localised and considered. 

I just read a piece by The Business of Fashion in the Financial Times, outlining how the fashion world can have a positive impact on the environment. The article asked for a restructuring of the traditional fashion seasons, so that they weren’t driven by four set timelines. It is this sort of innovation we need.

The online art market has also been developing for a long time and though it will never replace physically engaging with a piece or person, it is a valuable tool that we will have to use more and more.

Why did you choose Birkbeck to study at?  

The flexibility is amazing and the level of teaching is great – I was lucky to have Lisa Lefeuvre for one of my modules, who is a bit of a hero of mine. The idea that I could work and earn money (at the time, in the height of a recession) was ideal. The network at Birkbeck was also really important to me. 

What, do you think, makes Birkbeck special? 

What is really special for me is the fact that it enables and supports those who may not normally get the chance to experience high level education, whether that’s because of economic background, gender, age or academic experience. It’s as democratic an institution as you can get and really does enable people. 

Are there any resources that are helping you at the moment? Podcasts/scheduling apps/exercise classes? 

Really, I have just been increasing the things that have always kept me motivated. I self-isolated for 3 weeks at the start of the virus as I had symptoms, and then I had a big list of things to do; podcasts. writing, reading. However, as a mum of a five year old I am not one of those people who has more time during lockdown, and so sometimes I feel like hero if I manage to put a load of washing on by the end of the day! So, no great revelations,  though I am grateful for yoga (I have managed to master the head stand), meditation and my allotment. I never thought I’d hear myself say that about an allotment! 

And time with my son- one benefit of this situation is that it has enabled me time with him that I would never normally have. Early on we created a ‘be kind’ pact as I didn’t want there to be pressure on me or my son to have to do certain things or reach milestones. I did laugh when he said recently with a big grin on his face: ‘Does lockdown mean art galleries and museums aren’t open?’. That made me realise I probably take him to too many!  

What was the last book you read? 

‘The Secret Lives of People in Love’ by Simon Van Booy. Beautiful and poetic short stories about love which are great for lockdown! I have also read ‘Limelight’, which is Helen Gee’s memoir. Helen set up a photography gallery in Greenwich Village NY, during the 1950s. It was a completely new model for a gallery – also housing a coffee shop – and the first to show photography in a commercial context as art. Pretty inspiring stuff; she was a single mum with determination.

If you would like to tell us what you are doing during lockdown and be featured on our next blog, please email alumni@bbk.ac.uk

Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni – Mickey Mayhew

Former Birkbeck Student Mickey Mayhew has recently been nominated for the Positive Role Model (Disability) Award at the National Diversity Awards 2020. Mickey was permanently excluded from school aged twelve, with no diagnosis of his autism and thus eventually no qualifications either.

He was later diagnosed with Asperger’s, Autism and Dyspraxia. He then embarked on a hard-won reclamation of his education. From one GCSE and one A-Level, he gained an undergraduate degree followed by three postgraduate Masters (two at Birkbeck) and then a PhD, becoming ‘Dr Mickey Mayhew’, this with the help of his supervisor, Dr Shaminder Takhar.

We caught up with Mickey to find out about his Birkbeck experience and what he is currently up to:

Why did you choose Birkbeck to study at?  

Because of the flexibility of the classes in terms of scheduling and being able to study in the evening. And of course because of the stalwart reputation!

What did you study and why? 

For my first Birkbeck Masters I studied Creative Writing, under Julia Bell and Russell Celyn-Jones, and for my second Masters I studied Gender, Culture and Society with Jonathan Kemp and Paulina Palmer. I wanted to not only be a writer but also continue my undergraduate sociology education.

What were the highlights of your time at Birkbeck? 

Meeting my wonderful classmates and having my mind opened up to so many new possibilities, points of view, and worldly experiences; education really does broaden the mind.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been told? 

Don’t let your disability – and especially anyone else’s view of it – drag you down.

What has been your favourite moment in your career? 

Just getting a job in the first place; when you leave school aged just 12, your CV can appear pretty…pockmarked, to put it mildly. That, and getting my first book published. 

What did you want to be when you were growing up? 

A writer. 

What advice would you give to current students? 

If I can get a Masters degree (or three) and a PhD after being permanently excluded from school as a kid, then I can’t imagine anything that might stop you from achieving your academic goals. 

How has your life changed during the COVID19 crisis? 

My life hasn’t changed all that much during the crisis, because issues of social isolation continue to abound for people with autism regardless. The lockdown may in fact allow people to feel what those with autism experience almost everyday.

If you would like to tell us what you are doing during lockdown and be featured on our next blog, please email alumni@bbk.ac.uk

Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni – Siobhan Andrews Kapoor

The following blog is a transcript of a Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. You can 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 programme which has been designed to inspire learning, provoke thought and entertain and excite curious minds. 

In today’s episode, Victoria Hurwood from Birkbeck’s Development and Alumni team speaks to former student, Siobhan Andrews Kapoor, who graduated from the college with an MA in History of Art in 2009. 

V: Hi Siobhan! 

S: Hi Victoria, how are you? 

V: I’m good thank you, how are you doing? 

S: Good, thank you. 

V: Well, thank you so much for joining me today, I’ve been really looking forward to having a conversation with you just to hear about your experience at Birkbeck, why you chose Birkbeck and your career since. So Siobhan, you studied History of Art in 2009. 

S: I did. Yeah, I did a Masters degree. 

V: Perfect. And you have such an amazing variety of experiences and I’m really excited to just kind of get into it today with you. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself to start? 

S: Yeah, so I have kind of a two-part career. On the one hand, I am a marketing consultant and a creative producer, particularly working in cultural projects, recently I was working with an organic food brand on reversing marketing outreach, and I also work as a wellness coach, so working mostly one on one with clients just to improve their lifestyle. I’ve had some nutrition training and whatnot, so I do that as well at the same time. 

V: That’s amazing. It sounds like such an amazing balance between marketing and then also thinking about the more holistic view of it as well, it sounds like you have a huge experience over lots of different fields. So where are you in the world and how has your life recently changed because of the Covid-19 crisis? 

S: I’m in London. I was in India for the last 4 years, and we’d actually, my husband and I, had just made the move back to London in January, so it wasn’t quite the welcome back that we were imagining! But it’s been nice to be back in the city, and obviously closer to family and everything while this is going on. And yeah, I mean, life has changed for me in the same way that it has for many people. Unfortunately a lot of the projects that I had in the pipeline, a lot of them are events or festivals, a lot of offline happenings, and obviously most of those are not happening, or been delayed, which has been a shame, but still continue working on communications and social media, and then my coaching is still ongoing and actually it seems like people need it more than ever right now and their managing so much more stress and anxiety. So it’s been really nice to kind of have the opportunity to connect with people, and actually really put the tools and practices into effect, in a time when we really need it. So lots has changed, and sort of nothing has changed as well in the same way, so it’s still the same day to day. And because I’ve been freelancing so many years, I’m actually really used to working at home, that doesn’t feel that unusual for me. So yeah, it’s been alright. 

V: Gosh, it sounds like there’s been so much change, but that you’ve almost had the training from being freelance, and you know, having multiple career paths, that you know, it’s hopefully equipped you for this kind of situation as much as you can be. 

S: Yeah, I guess no one’s really equipped for this kind of thing really. But yeah I think having worked in a sort of project by project basis as well, I’m used to things kind of starting and finishing and having to juggle quite a few things all at the same time. And I think when you’re freelance as well you tend to be quite resourceful because you’ve sort of always had to be, because you’re always looking for the next piece of work or whatever so that’s maybe been a skill that’s been helpful at the moment. But yeah, I mean still adjusting I think even after two months or whatever we’re at now. 

V: Oh definitely, I think there’s a long period of adjustment, and it’s such a strange world that we’re in at the moment. With your kind of work with, obviously a lot of offline events, have you found that lots of them have been moved online, as different ways of trying to communicate with your target audiences and things? 

S: Yeah, I mean I’ve obviously seen a lot of people trying to innovate now and work out how they can still engage their community, how they can still provide some meaningful experiences, but you know, how to do that with this situation, so there’s obviously been a big shift over to digital and lots of people trying to do things digitally which I think in some situations works really well, in others it doesn’t translate and I, you know, having worked in events and production for so many years I personally feel there’s nothing like when you get a group of people together in person and it’s just so special, and I’m not sure whether that’s ever going to be able to be recreated in the same way online. But in a way it’s great to have the chance to explore and really see what can be done, but yeah, a lot of projects have been postponed until further notice. So it is difficult not having clarity on a few things, and trying to keep projects ticking along, and the artists that I work with, trying to keep them engaged, but not really knowing when it’s going to be when we’re actually able to put a show on or whatever, so it’s a little bit up in the air, but definitely seeing some innovation and move towards digital platforms, so I am quite interested to see what happens, especially in the art world. I mean we’ve seen, particularly in art fairs, and those things going on in the more commercial space moving online. We’ve just had Frieze New York, so it’s quite nice to be able to attend without having to get on a plane, and that kind of thing! But it’s not quite the same experience, but let’s see, I think we’re at the very start of actually digital innovation, so I’m very interested to see what happens next. 

V: I suppose it does give you that freedom, that sounds amazing, that you can attend events in New York and all over the world, so it does have an international outlook, although I know that you know, some of the artists, and people in the art world in general, are struggling. It’s nice, I guess that’s a different side of accessibility to others, if everything’s online. 

S: Absolutely, yeah. And I think you know, another shift that we’ve seen is more of the arts institutions really taking social media seriously, which is funny because when I was working in commercial galleries, at the beginning of my career, you know galleries wouldn’t, like they didn’t really care about social media, because it wasn’t really speaking to the audience that they were interested in, whereas now I think, you know, they’re really waking up to the fact that there’s all sorts of conversations with all sorts of communities going on, and they need to be part of that to stay relevant, and to sort of leverage the careers of their artists. So, it’s a very interesting thing, a lot of those engaging more on social media and doing more and coming up with interesting content. So yeah, there is some excitement despite everything! 

V: Yeah, I guess that’s a huge period of transition. In terms of Art Week, I do want to plug Birkbeck as doing an Art Week at the moment, so I think a lot of that is online, there’s a lot of lectures, a lot of Q and As and things, and I know that alumni can try and take part  wherever they are in the world. Bringing it back to Birkbeck, so I know that you studied History of Art, an MA. Why did you choose Birkbeck and why History of Art? 

S: Yeah, so my background was in History of Art already, I did my undergrad in History of Art and like I said, I’d actually been working for a few years in commercial galleries before deciding to do a Masters. And, you know, for me, the main reason was practical, I needed to continue working, I actually wanted to continue working, to keep my foot in the door of the art world, and obviously Birkbeck is so perfect for anyone that’s a professional and wants to continue learning. And the other thing that I was really aware of was that I was a little bit older, I mean I wasn’t that much older I was about 25 or 26, but I wanted to be in a group, like a class group, with people that were my age or older, I didn’t want to feel old. And I was really drawn to Birkbeck because obviously they’ve got a great reputation, but also there was just so much diversity and that really came through, even from the open day that I attended, and I really liked that idea, that just to have a real mix of opinions, and not just hearing the same world view and so I was really drawn to it in that regard. 

V: That’s so lovely to hear. And I know that, you know, diversity and diversity of thought, as well as the diversity of people in the room, is so important to Birkbeck, and you know that whole theme of lifelong learning, I think it’s so bizarre now to think that once you finish high school you go straight into your higher education and then that’s you done ready to work in the world. I think it’s such a strange idea. 

S: And for me, you know, the gallery world, or even the wider sort of cultural landscape, it is an industry of research, you know, we are looking, whether it’s even at contemporary artists or historical artists, periods in time, and I think for me I really wanted to upgrade my skills to develop my research abilities, even just down to writing and being able to put a cohesive piece of writing together, that’s really important for me in the work that I was doing, and it’s helped me throughout the whole of my career with curation and production, so yeah, I mean I think the skills were really important to me at that time. 

V: That’s so lovely to hear. When you were at Birkbeck, I know that you actually did it full time while you were working full time as well didn’t you? 

S: I did, yeah and it was a little bit intense. I was very lucky that my employer was really kind and let me reduce my hours a little bit in the end when I was doing my dissertation, because that was where the weight of my mark was going to come from, so she was really understanding and sort of allowed me a bit of free time, but other than that I was going into the gallery that I was at that time for a full day, and then going straight to Birkbeck in the evenings! But you know, I mean, organisational skills are obviously super important, whenever trying to do two things at the same time, so I just had to be really strict with myself and study whenever I could, but it was a challenge and most people on my course were doing part time, but yeah for me it worked out. But I would have probably in hindsight, liked to have spent more time on it, just to sort of enjoy it for longer, because I loved being a student in London. And you know, why do it for one year if you can do it for two? 

V: That’s true! Spread out the joy! I think that’s the thing with Birkbeck. We try and make sure there’s that flexibility around it, so, yeah, I know that some students for example go full time and then decide that they want to go down to part time, or I know a lot of students are doing part time if they’re working full time, it’s just kind of what works best for you. Do you have any highlights from your time at Birkbeck, or a moment that you thought, that was amazing? 

S: Really for me it was just being part of a great group of people. I can’t remember exactly how many were in my year, but I’ve made such great personal connections, and also professional connections. A lot of people were already working in the arts in one way or the other whether it was in a museum, or a magazine, or whatever, and I made great connections that actually really helped in my career after that, and made great friends as well, who you know I’m still friends with today, which is lovely. And like I said, just being a student in London, I’d never been a student in London because I’d studied elsewhere before, and I just think it’s amazing, you know? We’re so spoiled for resources. I could go to all these amazing museum shows, I had so much access even just for nightlife and the overall side of Bloomsbury. There’s nothing like it really! And yeah I just loved it, it was great. And you know, being part of the Birkbeck community but then also having the wider University of London community is also excellent, and being able to use the Senate House library when I wanted, I even used the arts library at UCL at times, you know, and I think you just really feel part of something, and yeah I definitely hadn’t experienced it to that degree previously. So it was a very special year for me. 

V: I’m so glad that you enjoyed it, and I completely agree, I think that Bloomsbury is such an amazing mix of different institutions, educational institutions and people, and you know, everyone’s motivated and studying, and when other universities have students during the day, Birkbeck has it during the evening, so it’s a constant flow of people, and it is, yeah, it is a really special place to be. 

****** 

V: So after you finished Birkbeck, I know that you worked internationally, and you worked in India for a couple of years. What advice would you give to students or alumni that want to have a more international career? 

S: Yeah, so I was in Delhi, actually it was 4 years, it was longer, it didn’t feel that long actually! But I was quite lucky because I actually went to India on sabbatical, and just wanted to go travelling. I was really just taking a bit of a break from the company that I’d been running before. And I sort of accidentally ended up positioning myself sort of an India expert, which was totally not my intention of going on sabbatical, but an ex-client of mine got in touch because she knew I was there and she had a project that needed someone to work on it in India on the ground, and she asked me if I could get involved. So my experience is definitely, it was a serendipitous one, but I would say that you know, that really speaks to the fact that if you show yourself to be interested, or you know sort of an expert in the country or the place that you want to move to, then you actually just set yourself apart from the rest. Especially in a country like India which is quite difficult to integrate into, and if you’re from outside it seems kind of impenetrable. So definitely thinking about where you want to be and then just really throw yourself into some research you know? Connect with people as much as you can, which we can still do online, you know LinkedIn and whatnot. I’ve actually recently joined another networking website that might be helpful for people, which is called Lunchclub. You basically join as a member, and they match you week by week with different people that you can have like a 45 minute Skype call with, so you are matched with people in your industry if you want that, but it’s great, I’ve met people in New York and then all over the UK, so I think you know, doing what you can to network in the country or the city that you’d like to work in, and then of course, looking at the companies that you might want to join and seeing, do they have an international presence, do they have offices in a city that I might be interested in transferring to one day, and yeah just being a bit strategic when it comes to applying for jobs and looking for opportunities, and you know, even if there’s no work opportunity then think about volunteering or getting involved in a project that you might be able to support from afar. The great thing right now is that I think lots of people are, there’s no boundaries anymore, everyone’s doing everything online, why not do something for someone in America? It’s no different to doing something for someone down the road, so it’s actually a great time I think to work with international communities, so yeah, definitely looking around seeing what you can get involved with is good. 

V: That’s fantastic, so many great pieces of advice there, and I suppose, yeah, now is as good a time as any to reach out to people and try and make those connections. I suppose there is so much you can do even before you get to the country that you’d like to be in that you can do online. 

S: Absolutely. 

V: So yeah, no that’s absolutely fantastic. And I know that, you know, everybody has a lot of time at the moment, free time, so hopefully it will aid those connections a little bit more.  

S: Yeah, I think you’re likely to get quicker LinkedIn responses at the moment! 

V: I think so! I definitely think so. That’s one benefit, you know, everyone’s just looking on LinkedIn, having a scroll! In terms of having more free time, what kind of activities or hobbies, or books or anything, has there been anything that’s helped you during lockdown at the moment? 

S: Yeah, I mean I really like walking, and just getting out into nature is a huge, it’s just so helpful at the moment. And we’re very lucky where we are, we’re not far from Hampstead Heath in north London, so I’ve just been able to get out almost every day for a long walk, and you know I actually love listening to podcasts and audio books and I do that on my walk sometimes. There’s actually, there’s a few really good podcasts that I listen to regularly, and one of them kind of speaks to this sort of, you know, multistrand career that we’ve been talking about, which is called ‘Amazing If’, is the podcast, I think that’s right. It’s by two women who wrote a book called Squiggly Careers, and it’s all about, they both have marketing backgrounds, but it’s all about people who sort of have these hybrid roles, where they’ve kind of dipped from one industry to another, or one kind of role or department to another. When I came across their book originally, it really was like a lightbulb moment for me, because I was like, oh my God, that’s me! You know, that’s how I’ve been working, and I’ve always found it really difficult to explain the different things I do and the different interests I have, so I’ve been listening to that podcast, it’s weekly, so that’s a great one. And really helpful for career advice, they give very strong career direction, and really thoughtful episodes, so that one I definitely recommend. And there’s another one by an American writer called Gretchen Rubin, that podcast is called ‘Happier by Gretchen Rubin’. She wrote a book called The Happiness Project, which I think is one of her first big books, and another one which she’s written more recently is called Better than Before. And she’s really looking at kind of, lifestyle upgrades, and just how we can function in a better way, and kind of have more fun and be happier, that’s the focus of her happier project. But it’s very interesting psychology-based lifestyle improvement books I guess. I don’t know if that makes it sound a bit self-happy, but its not! The episodes are really really good, so yeah I recommend that as well. And like everyone I’m just busy cooking, you know! Which has been nice. And yeah, just like I said, trying to be outdoors as much as I can. I know it’s difficult, especially when you’re in a city, but the nice thing is just being to kind of, there’s less traffic, so we’re just walking down the middle of the road when we can! 

V: That’s nice! It must be really surreal and kind of strange just walking down, being like a few months ago this was absolutely packed. These sound like amazing podcasts, anyone who knows me knows I love podcasts, I’ve not heard of those two so I’ll definitely look them up and see. 

S: And if anyone’s interested in nutrition and that kind of more style of lifestyle things, there’s also a podcast by Deliciously Ella, I don’t know if you’ve heard of her, but she’s quite a big food influencer and brand, and her weekly podcast is also really nice if you’re looking for anything particularly nutrition, food based that’s a really nice one as well. 

V: I’ve heard her speak before actually about her own kind of journey, it’s really inspiring, and kind of figuring out what worked best for her. I think that’s kind of how Deliciously Ella came into being, and I think she’s a really engaging person to listen to. 

S: Yeah, absolutely. I think anyone with interesting stories, and actually all of the women, and yeah they’re all women, I didn’t really mean to do that! But they’ve all kind of got interesting backgrounds and they’re all sharing what they’ve been through, and I think it just feels very authentic, and I think at this time it’s really helpful to sort of have, at least for me, to have reflective things to listen to. 

V: I’ll definitely tune in! That’ll be me on my walk today, I’ll go and have a look at them. So I guess you’ve also been involved with Birkbeck through our alumni volunteer and get talking programme, and I know that we originally met on an open day where you were part of an alumni panel, have you enjoyed your part in these programmes, and what benefits do you think there are with being involved in Birkbeck in this way? 

S: Yeah, I mean I’ve loved being a part of it, and actually its funny because it’s something I’d wanted to do, I’d wanted to volunteer for Birkbeck for years but because I was in Delhi, and so many things were offline, I wasn’t able to get involved, and then the funny thing is now I’m in the city but I’m doing everything online with everyone! Apart from obviously the open day, which I did in person. But yeah, I mean I love being part of it, and I really felt for a long time that I wanted to do something to help support new students and you know, really just stay involved in what Birkbeck was doing. I’ve always really strongly believed in the university, and the sort of widening the access for education, and anything I can do to sort of help support new students and making sure that they had a sort of easy route in, that was why I really wanted to get involved. And the Get Talking programme that I was just part of recently, I mean it was great. I was speaking to a woman who is joining in the new academic year who lives in Botswana, and she’s moving her, I’m not sure, maybe she’ll be online to begin with, but she’s moving her whole family to London, and she’d never been to the city before, she’d never been to the UK! And you know, I ended up sort of describing Bloomsbury to her, and trying to tell her what her route from her flat to the college is going to be, and I think, just having a human person that you can just like have a really normal conversation with about such mundane things you know, like, where do you get your coffee from? And what’s it like? And you know, it was really nice to just be able to fill in a little bit of the gaps, just to sort of illustrate it a little bit to her and yeah, it was just a really nice opportunity so hopefully I’ll stay involved in an ongoing way. But yeah, I think any alumni who really enjoyed their experience, you know, we’ve all got career experience, we’ve all got something that we can share, you know, so it’s a really nice chance to do that. 

V: I’m so glad that you enjoyed it, and we absolutely loved having you part of it. I think there’s no better people to give you a really truthful insight to what Birkbeck is, than the people who have already gone through the process, so I think it’s so valuable and we’re so appreciative of people who want to get involved in this way. I can imagine, I’ve studied abroad before, and gone abroad, and it always seems like such a strange experience where you’re just looking things up online and you’ve not got a person who’s been through it and experienced it, so it kind of adds that character and a bit more colour to what Birkbeck is. 

S: Yeah absolutely. I mean this student she was sort of early 40s and she was quite concerned that she might be old in her group, and it’s just, I think I was really helpful for her to hear no, that in my experience there was such a range of people. We had a 70 year old on our course, so you know it was nice to be able to tell her that and to put any fears that she might have to rest. 

V: Yeah that’s interesting. We do have such a wide-ranging age between people. I know that lots of people for example all the time think, oh now’s the time I really wanted to learn history or things like that, and they come into Birkbeck, and I think that’s what makes it so rich, there’s so many different people at so many different stages of career and their life that you know, its just a really great experience to not only benefit from the academic excellence of Birkbeck, but also the people that make it what it is, and I guess that led on to my next question that I’d like to ask about, what you think makes Birkbeck special? 

S: I mean for me, I was always drawn to Birkbeck because I just really resonated with the principles of the college, and like we’ve already said I think access to education is really important. And I think, you know, the more liberal, the more diverse mindset definitely aligns with my own values. And you know, Birkbeck clearly makes it as accessible as possible whilst keeping that academic excellence that you mentioned, and you know I think just the supportive nature of the staff and you know, it just really feels like a community, hence still wanting to be involved with it 10 years later or whatever! But definitely just the diverse mix of people, and I think there’s always so much scope for invention and you know, thinking about things in a new way, when you have a great mix of people who are coming from research backgrounds, you know there’s so many accomplished people who are part of Birkbeck, from the tutors down to the students, so yeah I think I was really drawn to that, and that ethos just really runs through everything Birkbeck does I think, so yeah it was perfect for me. 

V: Oh good, I’m so glad, and you know I completely agree with everything you’ve said, I think it’s wonderful! No I really do, it’s a really special place to be. And I guess, to wrap up our conversation, what is the best piece of advice that you’ve ever been told? 

S: Yeah, so, I was thinking what’s really stuck with me, and funnily enough when I was doing my A Level exams, which was a long time ago, my mum said to me before going in, I was really nervous before going in, my mum said, you can only do as well as you can do on the day. And it’s actually really stayed with me because, it’s not just about you know, everything relies on this one exam and I’ve got to turn up, but it’s actually about the preserving and the turning up the next day and doing your best, and turning up the day after that and doing your best, you know, we all have bad days and good days, but I just really like the idea that, yeah, some days are going to be good, some days are going to be bad, but if you keep persevering, that’s actually what carries us through and through that we do really great things, so I think that the thing that’s really stayed with me. 

V: And such a valuable lesson to learn at such a young age, you know, to have that perseverance to keep going, it obviously really relates to what we’re experiencing at the moment and you know, trying to make little steps towards we’re all working on at the moment, but also just kind of, throughout your career as well. 

S: Absolutely, and it’s ok to fail  you know, and its actually good in a way, because then you develop that muscle that allows you to still get up and do it again the next day, even though the day before wasn’t that good, you know? So I think that really is a great lesson, because everyone fails you know? Everyone has a day which isn’t good. So well done mum! 

V: I know, that’s amazing! Amazing piece of advice to be told at that age! So that’s brilliant. Well Siobhan thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me today and I really enjoyed speaking to you. 

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

Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni – Prince Louis of Luxembourg

The following blog is a transcript of a Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. You can 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 programme – which has been designed to inspire learning, provoke thought, and entertain and excite curious minds. 

In this episode, Victoria Hurwood interviews Birkbeck alumnus, Prince Louis of Luxembourg, who studied psychosocial studies at the college back in 2017. 

Victoria: Thank you so much Louis, for speaking to me today and for being part of our kind of Birkbeck Inspires conversation with alumni series. What I’d really like to speak to you about today is your time at Birkbeck. So, I know that you’ve studied psychosocial studies in 2017- 

Prince Louis: That’s right. 

Victoria: And just hear more about your experience and your career since, of where that’s taken you. But first of all before we jump into any questions, could you just tell us a little bit more about yourself? 

Prince Louis: Louis from Luxembourg, I’m 33 at the moment, (I did) my Masters degree, my MA in Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck University. Before that, I was doing something completely different I was in aeronautics, I was in environmental management, I was in communications and within the humanitarian field. When I did the Psychosocial Studies degree, I did the degree within 2 years – night classes in order to be able also to work for a start-up that did impact investing, so you could say that my background is quite diverse! Birkbeck was incredibly helpful in my development, Psychosocial Studies was a lot of things it was a massive headache-  

Victoria: (*Laughs*) 

Prince Louis: – from all the information that was given to us and then contradicted and then not looking at coherence think of other subject, compare and contrast, dismantle theories. I mean its incredibly interesting, its incredibly interesting to see how we can use these theories in many ways, to use these theories in professional coaching. What I do is a mixture, it’s a mixture of professional coaching which I started with (?), he took me on the train, he taught me the job, taught me how to act as a professional coach, what it meant, what it entailed. The other angle that I took is with a woman that’s called Beatrice Sauvageot, she has been studying this lecture for 30 years and more, and finding new understanding to what this lecture is. And, so how to evolve with it, how to help it, how to use it. And so what I did was to being 2 theories: the professional coaching on one side with anything that entails and all the different elements where psychoanalysis is used as basis for everything that is done. Then on the other side, Beatrice Sauvageot’s understanding of dyslexia, and I created and tailor made a service for dyslexics in order to help them – in order to professionally coach them. I can do that with anybody, I do that with anybody but my focus and speciality is within dyslexia because I am dyslexic; because I have been through it; because I have gained a lot of knowledge on it, my children are dyslexic. But most of all because the partnership I did with Beatrice Sauvageot which brought me a huge amount of understanding that I had never really put a finger on, or an understanding that I knew to a certain extent but never acknowledged. And so that’s what I tried to help dyslexics do, is try to help them understand and acknowledge what is part of the dyslexia, what is part of their personality, what is part of their strengths, what is part of their weaknesses. And I do that especially for dyslexics because they have been hounded on with what they cannot do, where their weaknesses lie without ever putting any effort or strengths or knowledge of what they are GOOD at. So I tried to shift that a bit, make them understand what they have been through, for being confronted by their weaknesses on a constant state and trying to make them understand that dyslexia is not only a weakness but more than that, it is mostly not a weakness. It can be and should be considered a strength.  

Victoria: That’s fantastic. You’ve kind of touched on so many elements that Birkbeck also works on, and its part of our mission to make sure that we’re, you know, got diversity in our student population and got diversity of thoughts. We are making sure that people with dyslexia but also people with other neuro-diversity related conditions, that they are able to first of all recognise it and recognise what they can excel at. So it’s exactly as you’re speaking, its turning the conditions into strengths and figuring out what people’s strengths are. It sounds like you, yourself, you have such a diverse background and you were doing so many different things before you came to Birkbeck – can you tell us a little bit more about your experience of education before Birkbeck? How did you find it, where did you go? 

Prince Louis: I’ve been all over the place, I went to (well, I don’t know how far you want to go but,) once I finished at the American School of Luxembourg, I went to Switzerland and got my college education there. As a dyslexic, nothing was easy at all but I managed, and I managed not alone but with a lot of help. That’s a quality I have which I take and put a lot of emphasis on, I take it very seriously and that’s the quality of asking for help when I need it. There is no shame in that and it really is an intelligence in itself to know where your limits lie. And my limits do not lie in understanding, understanding is perfect that’s my strength, my it lies within details and within writing – the comprehension of small details if that makes sense. But it is all about always asking why, I need to know why and that is my strength, afterwards always understanding exactly how I got to that understanding with every single detail which is less interesting than the knowledge required itself. And the knowledge that I acquire, I can continue to the next knowledge and to the next knowledge and to the next. Those knowledges will justify the knowledge I had to begin with. 

Victoria: I think that it shows that you’re curious and that’s so important when you’re coming into new, well trying out different things and trying out different topics and things to study and it sounds like yeah, I wonder actually the flexibility you said about working in a start-up before you were at Birkbeck, and actually while you where at Birkbeck, did the flexibility of evening study help you in that way? And if so, how did it help you, was it good with time management, things like that? What were your difficulties?  

Prince Louis: So, yes the flexibility is incredibly important for me, that’s why I couldn’t work in a business structure, no problem at all, but I find a lot more pleasure in being an entrepreneur and being completely flexible with what I do, how I do it and my time management. To be able to manage my time and be consistent within the work I do, with how I manage that work and time, sot that there is no issue whatsoever. And yes, for Birkbeck to do it in 2 years, to have night classes, yes it was hugely beneficial.   

Victoria: So, what were some of the highlights when you were studying? Do you have a particular class that you really enjoyed, a lecture, a really good grade that you got, does anything stand out to you when you think of Birkbeck? 

Prince Louis: When I think of Birkbeck, it was my final dissertation, it was my final paper which was on mentalities and relations to food. So, I had a lot of confidence because I took the extreme and I did it in relation to insects: to what degree can there be a flexibility within the food we eat. What I love to do is bring a lot of notions together into one subject, that’s exactly what I did, I brought the knowledge of gentleness in order to counter disgust and many others. And so yes that’s the pinnacle of my studies because that’s when I could really use what I learnt and really understand it more deeply. So yes, that’s what I enjoyed the most but the teachers also absolutely wonderful, the entire experience I had was fascinating.  

Victoria: I’m so glad that you enjoyed it and I suppose that is a really challenging time trying to take all of that theory and putting it together, but I’m really glad that you enjoyed it and it sounds like an incredible, well a really interesting topic and I think that is exactly what Birkbeck is about. Its about questioning norms, its about thinking about different or approaching things in different ways and I’m glad to hear you had that experience. So, once you graduated from Birkbeck, you have touched on this before and you got into kind of coaching individuals with dyslexia – you mentioned this before about your own personal experience and thinking about / understanding your strengths and how to excel in the workplace. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you hope to make an impact, and just a bit more about work in this area? 

Prince Louis: Of course. So, well I hope to make an impact for dyslexics but more broadly in self-knowledge, in self-understanding at a point here in life because we change constantly, but at one point in life when we are looking for something or we are just looking for understanding and yeah its constant. There are a lot of confrontations between a person where they are incoherent or inconsistent in many ways and one of the main elements of that is the will to be, and the fear of being, the fear of disappointing others, the fear of being a disappointment to ourselves. But Shakespeare said ‘to be or not to be’ and that is the question, and hopefully to be and not to be because of the fear of being or the fear of being a disappointment. And so, I try to give to a certain extent, self-confidence and prove to people why they have the right to be self-confident enough in order to choose to be and to be themselves and to act within their interests and their evolution and we never perfect, I’m sure, in what we do and who we are, we can to certain degree understand, and with understanding, there is a certain ability to let go. And on the other side, I do also mediation and mediation is a wonderful tool also in order to try and decrease conflict and to not reduce but resolve conflicts in applicable ways. That is also a passion of mine, in fact its more on the day-to-day thing, its not one day hope to change a huge thing but its changing one thing at a time, being able to help in a certain at a certain point in time, a certain person or conflict. It’s that which fascinates me, which gives me drive and gives me passion because at the end of the day, we have the present moment to work with and the future, I always look into it because I love imagining things. And not only looking into the future with the knowledge that I know but the only thing I have in order to a certain degree, is control. 

Victoria: That’s wonderful. This is a really lovely conversation to have on a Friday, I think it’s very uplifting, it’s a very wonderful way to look at the world and kind of reflect your actions and what you’re doing in that kind of view of the world. You talk a lot about confidence building and at Birkbeck that’s something we try to do a lot of. Sometimes people have not come through traditional routes of education, and once they get to Birkbeck, there is the fear of the unknown I suppose and no knowing how they’ll get on. It is a hard thing now in education. Do you find that when you’re coaching people, that once you’ve bridged that barrier of confidence building, you start to kind of see people flourish and thrive? 

Prince Louis: Yes, I mean, yes of course. One thing also is that the fear when you enter a new path in your life, there’s a certain fear, a certain excitement, fear of the unknown as you said, but that’s very good also. Don’t want to destroy that! It’s a very exciting and its what brings change and its part of life and it is an exciting part of life, change itself.  Now it is the fear of change that would be the issue but not the excitement of fear when there is change. We say that it is the fear that’s the issue not the fear itself. We are the fear, we can accept it we go for it, the fear of being afraid or the fear of that feeling of fear and we never want to feel it. We block or we run away from it, the feelings and everything that we go through and everything that’s new, we should never think that we are going to go into something new without a certain level of doubt or fear of the unknown as you said. That’s very entirely normal. But, without it paralysing somebody if we are too afraid of feeling fear or too afraid of being afraid, it’s the fear of fear, not fear itself.  

Victoria: That’s a really good point actually, I guess its that anticipation and you make really good points about when there’s that moment of change there’s that excitement and that new things can happen and flourish. I hope that’s what we can bring to lots of Birkbeck students when they are starting and also when you’re graduating these are all different times you are experiencing massive change and I hope that Birkbeck really supports student alumni in that area. You talk a lot about change, I suppose right now we are going through a grat period of change. Is there anything you do to take yourself into the present, is there anything you really enjoy whether that be a hobby or music? What’s helped you to stay in the present right now? 

Prince Louis: Well, to stay in the present, most of the time is to take myself lightly. I don’t take myself seriously and that has helped to have a great grasp on the present moment and what’s concrete and what’s not. So, if I am able to take myself lightly, I take less care about what other peoples view is on me and what it could be. [Unintelligible] Moving forward, a certain sense of the notion of others is important, but in order to be able to take oneself lightly, not take oneself too seriously, one needs to have something that one takes seriously otherwise it’s just going crazy- 

Victoria: [*Laughs*] 

Prince Louis: – and the centre of reality yet again. And so, its that choice as to what is it that I will take seriously in order to be free not to take myself seriously which is the question. 

Victoria: Yes, definitely. And I guess there is that surrendering to what you can control and what you can’t control and making sure that you what you can do in the present is serving you and also some of the people around you. And everything else, you know, you have to… Yeah. It’s a very strange time but you make some very, very good points. Bringing it back to Birkbeck, what do you think, I know that you’ve had lot of different experiences and different forms of education but what do you think makes Birkbeck particularly special or stand out? 

Prince Louis: Diversity. The diversity, not only the people that are there, which is a great strength, but within the education itself. Its great diversity, there’s great hope and there’s openness of the mind which must stay to accept everything and every theory and everything new. We can only move forward if we are allowed to debate about everything, and the day we are not allowed to debate about something is the day we get stuck into something. So, this openness of mind and this ability to debate in order to truly understand. As not to stay in the ‘politically correct’ but the optically correct that we understand. Where there’s understanding attached to it is 0incredibly important, its like legal structures and any law – if it is not understood and we follow it blindly its stupidity.  We have to understand, bring logic to everything and continue being curious about things! Not saying no it’s a law and that’s it. Not saying oh no it’s a theory we can’t say that. No. Why? Continue asking why.  

Victoria: That’s so lovely and I definitely do feel that reflects diversity as well and you need to be able to debate these things and also when you’re studying to be able to speak to people about different theories that we are all going through it together so that’s really lovely. I guess when you’re thinking more about students today, what advice would you give to Birkbeck students now?  

Prince Louis: Now, to stay open minded. Stay flexible. To study like crazy of course as everyone should! As I should have done a bit more also. But it’s a fun experience. Also, to have fun with it! We are there because we chose what we are interested in and let’s be interested in it. Stay passionate about that subject even though there are ups and downs and that’s normal. But the subject interests are enough in order to study it or know why we study it, that’s fine as well. If the subject sometime is not the greatest interest that we have but we know why we do it and that is the most interesting part and stay passionate about it also. Stay focused on it and yeah! But again, search for freedom within it.  

Victoria: That’s so lovely and I think it’s a really positive message to give to students right now and I love the way that you’ve spoken about Birkbeck and tired to make sure to stay open minded and take advantage of the flexibility, build your confidence and have fun. I think that’s great. Thank you, Louis! 

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

Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni – Susan Adams

Susan Adams is Associate Director at Coulson Partners, a strategic advisory firm founded by Andy Coulson. She completed the joint Birkbeck and Central Saint Martins MBA programme in spring 2019.

How has your life changed during the COVID-19 crisis?
Well, my world has become much smaller for one, in terms of both people and geography. Thankfully work has continued almost as normal, and my laptop has become a window into far off and previously unknown places – including the living rooms and home offices of colleagues and clients. It’s been good I think for all of us to share a bit more of ourselves and seeing – not always intentionally over zoom – each others’ partners, kids and dogs.

How has the lockdown affected your work/company you work for?Being a strategic advisory firm, we could move quickly and smoothly to home working so in practical terms we continued uninterrupted really. All our clients have been affected in one way or another by Covid, but it’s not all crisis communications. We needed to be agile – getting across Government announcements, major staff safety and customer service challenges, monitoring industry-wide developments – all while staying focused on the big picture, long-term strategic goals. Context is everything when you’re trying to build trust and connection with audiences that matter to you. Some of our clients have been able to make such a positive contribution in a difficult time, and it’s great to be a small part of it.

Did you learn lessons about your work/life balance at Birkbeck that can be applied to the current situation we are all in?  
Yes, that you have to have one! I also discovered when I work best and when it’s simply pointless sitting in front of the computer waiting for inspiration to strike.

Why did you choose Birkbeck to study at?  What did you study and why? 
I was looking for an MBA with a difference – the Birkbeck collaboration with Central Saint Martins offered that, as well as a powerful combination of two globally respected, pioneering institutions. With the world of work changing so much, and the need for leaders to adapt and change too, the MBA seemed to bring together the best of the more traditional business school with art school innovation. I also needed a programme I could do while I was working full time, and Birkbeck is the best place for that.

What were the highlights of your time at Birkbeck? 
Definitely the people. Students, lecturers and staff. To be challenged constantly in such a supportive space.

What, do you think, makes Birkbeck special? 
There’s something special about the opportunity it gives us to get on in our lives when we might not otherwise have the chance – whether that’s getting into university for the first time, making study possible alongside family or work commitments, or doing your second or third degree for enjoyment in later life. I loved doing my dissertation at the Library, there seemed to be a real sense of a collective endeavour to go places.

Where has studying at Birkbeck taken you/How did your qualification help you?
It took me to the job I have now at Coulson Partners. But it’s not just a piece of paper, it helps me do my job with confidence, and to hold my own with some of the smartest and most demanding people I’ve worked with. Every day I’m thinking strategically, ambitiously and creatively for clients and also helping to grow a business I really believe in. Without the Birkbeck experience I’d still be giving it a good go, but possibly not enjoying it as much as I do.

What advice would you give to current students?
Make the most of it. And take a lot of confidence from the fact you’re already on the first step to the next stage of your life and career.

If you would like to tell us what you are doing during lockdown and be featured on our next blog, please email alumni@bbk.ac.uk

Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni – Claude Grunitzky

Claude Grunitzky is a Birkbeck alumnus, graduating in 1994 with a BSc in Financial Economics. He then went on to be the publisher and founder of TRACE magazine, hailed as a major influence in the world of black culture, hip-hop, style and music. Over the years, it has seen stars such as Naomi Campbell, Rosario Dawson, Missy Elliott, the Notorious BIG, Rihanna, Lenny Kravitz and Snoop Dogg grace its covers.

Claude is now Founder and Editor-in-Chief of TRUE Africa, a media platform championing young African voices, and TRUE, an innovative content marketing company. His impressive career is the subject of a Harvard Business School case study, where he is also a mentor and coach.

We asked Claude to tell us more about his career, TRUE’s work with Birkbeck, and New York life in lockdown.

Tell us what inspired you to set up TRUE Africa.

I felt that there wasn’t enough representation of African voices in the media and wanted a space to introduce and discuss the new talents, opinions and skills coming out of Africa. Particularly as many big Western publications were showing a biased view on what Africa is becoming. They would go into the capital cities and spend just 3 or 4 days reporting there before flying back home. As a native son of Togo it was important for me to write and hear from an African perspective, especially now with African’s population being so young; 60% of the African continent is under 25, in Uganda this rises to 80%. Alongside this, there is a massive development of modern technology and culture in the continent.

I am proud to have created a space for the massive team of wonderful African storytellers, bloggers and videographers that I’ve met throughout my career. We cover a huge range of topics, from sport, culture, music, through to social issues and politics. I particularly find it important to showcase some of the taboo issues in Africa, such as mental health, addiction, gender, sexuality and depression. We use first person stories and conversational style pieces to do this. I would like to see TRUE Africa becoming the media platform that unites the African continent and people of African descent across the world.

TRUE are currently working alongside Birkbeck, Innovate UK and Google on an Artificial Intelligence project. Could you tell us more?

TRUE is a content marketing agency that evolved into a technology company over time. We found that advertising for many media companies has been decimated because of large companies like Facebook and Google capturing about 60% of online ads; this makes securing advertising revenue for smaller individual companies difficult. We recognised that we need to look for another way, and we have been focusing on new technologies for journalism. Google and Innovate UK have funded us, and Birkbeck is helping us to create a virtual ‘editorial research assistant’, harnessing AI in order to help content marketers and bloggers, saving in research time and costs. Called ‘Loyal AI’, it has the potential to significantly influence how journalism is produced.

Funded by Google and Innovate UK, we have been working on Loyal AI for the Past 2 years and are delighted to have Birkbeck’s Department of Computer Science involved in the project. Birkbeck’s mission to support young learners from different backgrounds really lines up with the inclusivity of TRUE. People also often underestimate the progressive and experimental nature of much of Birkbeck’s work in the area. We are looking forward to going to market with Loyal AI in 2021.  

During such a varied career, what would you say has been your favourite moment?

I would say that it is when I worked with Alicia Keys in 2001. She came to the TRACE office in SoHo, New York, during what was a low point in her career. Alicia had recently dropped out of her studies at Columbia University to pursue her music career, signing with Columbia Records. However, they then dropped her. When we met, she had just signed with J Records and we were featuring her on the cover of TRACE magazine. That ended up as a real game changer and by promoting her on the upturn of her amazing career, we raised our own image. With the endorsement we secured funding for $15m from Goldman Sachs, who had heard that we were doing something really original. This then allowed us to launch our TV platform, TRACE TV, and things really took off. Before that I was living hand to mouth and trying to make things work. I am proud that I used my intuition and was one of the people who recognised Alicia’s incredible talent.

What advice would you give to current students looking to start their own business? 

I actually lecture in Social Entrepreneurship at Harvard and so am pleased to be able to give students advice when I can. When I started out in the 90s there were not that many young people in their twenties setting up their own companies – now start-ups are really popular.

I like the ‘Lean Startup’ approach, conceived by Eric Ries. It basically tells you to just get started. Don’t talk about your idea forever with no action or get obsessed about writing a lengthy business proposal. You will learn so much from that first product, business or plan and will benefit so much more from real life experience than learning lots of theory. If starting out, design something as simple as possible and get as much feedback as you can. Just get it going, you will know if you have something quickly and if not, will fail fast and be able to quickly move on. The proof of the pudding is in the eating!

Why did you choose to study at Birkbeck?  

Before Birkbeck I was in Paris, studying with the Institut d’Études Politiques (Sciences Po). It is a great place and very well-known but also very theoretical. Whilst I was there, I heard a Massive Attack album, Blue Lines, which changed my life. It came out when I was about 20 and I knew that I had to get to UK to be closer to them!

I researched various places in London which would allow me to work as a journalist; at the time I was working as a freelancer for with French magazine Actuel. I was interested in economics and discovered Birkbeck, right in the centre of London and giving the ability for me to study in evening. This allowed me to continue with Actuel, reporting on Hip Hop and music from London. I also wrote for Big Issue, a column called ‘On the Edge’, about my life in London as a young journalist. Our TRUE company still works with the Big Issue today. They are one of our longtime clients.

It was great that I could study and publish dozens of articles. Thanks to that experience, I went on to work with Jefferson Hack at Dazed and Confused, which then led on to my own publication.

What were the highlights of your time at Birkbeck?

Going to Senate House and interacting with students from SOAS and the London School of Economics. The ecosystem of the University of London allowed me to be an active and engaging journalist with people from all walks of life.

You’ve been involved with a few different universities – what would you say makes Birkbeck unique? 

I have an MBA from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), which is a very scientific and technical university. I love MIT, but I also enjoyed the practical nature of Birkbeck’s curriculum, which covers proper, real-world issues and case studies. It felt very different to my experience in Paris and the theory led courses I had been on at Sciences Po. I remember the Professors very much looked at industry insights and real corporations or institutions. It helped to hit the ground running when I graduated and understand industry issues.

Also being in central London of course and being close to the record stores on Oxford Street. In the belly of the beast!

What is lockdown like in New York right now? 

It’s really different to be working from home, especially having a 2-year old who is confined. Coupled with this there is a fearful mood in New York at the moment; 40 million have become unemployed in 5 weeks. There are many layoffs in my industry where the media has severely suffered in the economic downturn, meaning low morale.

Sadly, your zip code here makes a huge difference – issues around income and equality at the moment are really reflected in the demographic of cases. This is something that is really forcing us to re-evaluate social cohesion.

What are you most looking forward to when life is back to normal? 

I am looking forward to the rebirth of the global economy, which will hopefully be more about equality and social impact. I want this situation to empower people to make choices that are better for society rather than looking after a few corporations who only care about profit, not their community or the environment. This could provide a clean slate to review capitalism as we know it. We have seen the failure of many systems in place; I want to be an innovator, mentor and contributor of the new system.

What was the last book you read? 

I re-read ‘Thinking Fast, and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman, who won the Noble Prize in economics in 2002. I wanted to better understand human behaviours and what some of the biases may be in dealing with a pandemic like this.

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

I’ve travelled to many places but have never been to Australia. I would love to go and see the country.

If you would like to tell us what you are doing during lockdown and be featured on our next blog, please email alumni@bbk.ac.uk

Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni

Birkbeck alumna Sofia Desbois studied an MA in Arts Policy & Management at Birkbeck. She has worked at some of London’s leading cultural institutions including the Royal Academy of Arts, Barbican Centre and The London Library. She is currently Press Relations Manager at Reiber PR, the international public relations and communications consultancy, working across the visual arts and design. She recently managed the European Press Campaign for the Anthony Gormley RA exhibition.

Sofia (pictured) talks about her lockdown experience
  • Hi Sofia. Thanks for sharing your lockdown experience with us. so tell us, what’s life like for you at the moment?

I live in North London with my boyfriend, so this is where I’ve been staying. I’m lucky enough to have a garden so I’ve been spending plenty of time there, especially during these incredibly sunny weeks. I’ve actually been enjoying spending so much time at home. I’ve been able to work here without any problems nor distractions. I’ve been cooking and exercising a lot. I’ve also been able to do loads of work around the house and garden which I’d been postponing, having previously prioritised social outings.

  • What are you missing the most during lockdown?

My family. They live in Brussels (which is where I’m from) and I wasn’t able to go there for Easter as originally planned. Something as quick and easy as taking the Eurostar seems so impossible in these uncertain times! I also miss my friends, of course. Zoom is great but isn’t quite the same as hanging out face-to-face.

  • What is an unexpected thing lockdown has taught you?

I suppose what I’ve learned is not to take certain things for granted, to slow down and appreciate having more time for myself.

  • What made you choose to study on the MA Arts Policy & Management course at Birkbeck?

I was working at the London Library in Press and Marketing, when I realised that there were certain elements of the arts world which I wasn’t familiar with or didn’t fully understand. I thus decided to go back to university and gain specialised knowledge in theories and principles of arts and cultural management. Birkbeck was perfect for me, as it offered a great balance between teaching both theory and practice.

  • What were the highlights of your time at Birkbeck?

For me, learning practical skills was just as important as learning theoretical ones and Birkbeck did this very well. I enjoyed being taught high-profile case studies that used leading arts institutions as examples, as well as meeting key industry professionals. Another highlight was getting to know my peers, all of whom came from a variety of countries and backgrounds. Birkbeck created a fantastic learning environment where all students were able to learn from each other’s richly diverse experiences.

  • Did your studies at Birkbeck help your career?

Absolutely. Not only is it a key addition to my CV, Birkbeck also taught me skills in strategy and management applied to current trends and debates regarding the day-to-day running of arts institutions and projects – all of which has been applied to my professional experience.

  • How has your job changed during the lockdown?

It hasn’t actually changed that much in the short term. I can do all my tasks from home without any problems. The biggest change has been not being able to see my colleagues every day, which is the main downfall. We’ve all started using Slack and Zoom though, which has been great to keep closely connected. In the long term however, who knows! The art world is changing and it looks like it will become more and more digitalised. This seems to be the way forward so it will be interesting to see how it evolves.  

  • Are there any resources/podcasts that are helping you at the moment?

I’ve been a lot more active on Strava! More than just an exercise app, it sort of works as a social network in which you can benchmark yourself against others and see what routines your friends are up to. I do both cycling and running and Strava has been great to keep track of my activity. I’ve also started listening to the BBC Global News podcast every single morning. It’s highly informative about what’s going on around the world, especially with coronavirus, and it’s become part of my routine.

  • What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been told?

If you’re not passionate about it, don’t do it. This is the advice my cousin gave me when I was considering journalism as a career. My cousin is a journalist in Spain, and he told me that while it is a great profession, it’s tough and not always rewarding. It turns out that I wasn’t passionate about it and I’m glad I listened to him. Identify your strengths and don’t be stuck in something you don’t enjoy.

  • What’s is the best film, TV or book you’ve watched or read during the lockdown?

I’m currently reading Marina Abramović’s memoir. Her autumn exhibition at the Royal Academy was going to be my next big work project but has now been postponed. I recommend it if, like me, you don’t know much about performance art. It’s a good insight into what it’s all about. In terms of TV, I’m late to the party, but I’ve finally started watching Breaking Bad. It’s amazing! I’m on the last season now and it’s been consistently good throughout.

  • Which living person do you most admire and why?

At the moment, I think that would have to be New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. She is such an inspiration. The compassion, strength and determination she’s showed when dealing with crises such as the Christchurch shootings and the Coronavirus pandemic are utterly inspiring. Not to mention the fact that she is one of the youngest female country leaders, who gave birth in office and powered through!

  • What is your next project on the horizon?

When the lockdown is lifted and freedom of movement is allowed again, I plan to go on a week-long cycling trek with my boyfriend and explore a beautiful area somewhere in the UK.

If you would like to tell us what you are doing during lockdown and be featured on our next blog, please email alumni@bbk.ac.uk

Birkbeck Bakes!

The results of Cookie Hour! Photo courtesy of D&A’s
Charlotte Belson.

Social distancing has meant that many of us are becoming well-acquainted with our kitchens, turning us into a community of home bakers. It has been impossible to ignore the increase in banana bread, impressive sourdough and delightful cake photographs filling our news feeds. The Development and Alumni team has been keen to get in on the baking action too! Last week, the team had a virtual ‘Cookie Hour’, a fun way to spend some time with each other with a tasty treat at the end of it!

Vanessa Bell’s ‘Apples: 46 Gordon Square’

To pay homage to our Bloomsbury based office, we would like to share a recipe which is inspired by Vanessa Bell’s painting ‘Apples: 46 Gordon Square’. The painting shows a tray on apples perched by a window in 46 Gordon Square, the Bloomsbury building that is now home to Birkbeck’s School of Arts. 46 Gordon Square was home to a number of members of the Bloomsbury Group. Vanessa Bell and her sister, the writer Virginia Woolf, moved to the house in 1904. Following this, the house was occupied by celebrated and influential economist John Maynard Keynes. Today, a blue plaque on the building commemorates Keynes’s time in Gordon Square.

The following recipe is by Jans Ondaatje Rolls, who wrote The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love and Art, which is both a cookbook and a social history of the ‘Bloomsbury Group’ of writers, artists, and intellectuals who based themselves in Bloomsbury in the early 20th century.

Apple Squares

You will need:

Recipe taken from:
The Bloomsbury Cookbook
( Jans Ondaatje Rolls)
  • 128g plain white flour
  • 4 tbs caster sugar
  • 249g butter
  • 4 eggs
  • 410g soft brown sugar
  • 120g melted butter
  • 80g dried apples (diced)
  • 2 tbs lemon juice
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 tsp flour

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C
  2. Combine the plain white flour, caster sugar and butter until mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
  3. Press the mixture into 2 buttered oblong baking dishes and bake for approx. 13 minutes in the centre shelf of the oven.
  4. Beat the eggs and soft brown sugar together. Stir in the melted butter, apples, lemon juice, vanilla and 2 tsp of flour.
  5. Pour into the base and bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown.
  6. Cool and cut into squares. Makes 46.

We’d love to see how you get on! Use the hashtag #BBKBakes on social media to show us your baked goods, and to share other recipes with our community of Birkbeck bakers.

Alumni Volunteering goes online!

Andy Stirups, from Birkbeck’s Development and Alumni Team, talks about how the alumni volunteering programmes are adapting to life online

I think it’s fair to say that the rate at which our lives have significantly changed over the last few weeks has caught everyone off guard. As we adapt to a world of social distancing, virtual coffees and staying at home, the way in which alumni are helping and support our student community has also changed to ensure that we can continue the great work that we have been doing.  

Pictured: Birkbeck’s four main volunteering programmes. Over 300 individuals typically volunteer each year.

Just before the Coronavirus pandemic, we were about to start up our Get Talking programme for this year. Get Talking pairs alumni with a prospective student or Foundation Year student, to chat through any concerns they may have before starting or continuing with university. These meetings have largely taken place in a coffee shop close to Birkbeck, but over the last couple of years we’ve also been, somewhat helpfully given the current climate, trialling these meetings over Skype for prospective students outside of London or those with access restrictions. We found that last year, meetings over Skype were just as successful as those which were conducted face-to-face. All Get Talking meetings for this year, will now take place via video call to ensure that we are still able to run this important programme and so that prospective students can still gain an invaluable insight from someone who has gone through the Birkbeck journey.  

Similarly, our Mentoring Pathways programme has also gone online. Mentoring Pathways sees alumni and individuals from some of our corporate partners matched with final year students at both undergraduate and postgraduate level so they can help these students with their career decisions as they approach the end of their Birkbeck degree. Over the course of the academic year, we’d expect mentors and mentees to meet six times. The remaining meetings are now due to take place online and we look forward to hearing feedback from our mentors and mentees in due course. 

And our Careers Clinic programme, where alumni review CVs and conduct mock interviews, is also in the process of moving to the virtual world, so watch this space! 

We recognise that these are not just potentially anxious times for our students, but also for our alumni community. Although the Development and Alumni Team are working from home for the time being, we are more than happy to have a chat with you at any point so do not hesitate to get in touch. 

With all that is currently going on in the world I want to thank our volunteers for being so flexible and supportive. More than ever, your work is incredibly vital, and we truly appreciate your levels of commitment to Birkbeck and its community. 

You can contact Andy Stirups at a.stirups@bbk.ac.uk, or if you would like to speak to the Development and Alumni team more generally, please email alumni@bbk.ac.uk