Tag Archives: business

Make soap not waste: the MBA graduate on a mission to reduce plastic packaging

Martina Schwarz wearing a grey t-shirt standing against a white background.

Blackmarket founder Martina Schwarz. Photo by Simon Habegger.

Martina Schwarz came up with the idea for a refillable soap that produces no plastic waste while writing her MBA thesis. Her business, Blackmarket, launches this September.

What should you do when you’re worried that the role you are great at is contributing to climate change?

This was the dilemma facing Martina Schwarz, an experienced packaging designer who’s worked with the likes of Unilever, Procter and Gamble and Kellogg’s, when she enrolled on the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA.

“A friction started to develop between my work and my values”, Martina explains. “I decided to write my MBA thesis on packaging and sustainability to incorporate my experience as an insider in the packaging industry with a focus on sustainability.”

Martina began her exploratory thesis with a focus on skincare, but when the pandemic hit, pivoting to handwash seemed like a natural step. In April 2020, Martina left her job to focus full time on her business, Blackmarket, and its first product: a refillable liquid handwash that uses no single-use plastic packaging.

“The first question I always get asked is why ‘Blackmarket’”, she explains, “You could say that the name has negative connotations, but I’ve chosen it so that people will ask questions. Blackmarket symbolises a desire to change the status quo and challenge someone’s thought process about how we design products.”

Blackmarket’s handwash stands out from mainstream refillable competitors through its innovative delivery system. Through her research on the MBA, Martina realised that a lot of personal care and cosmetic products are made mainly of water. By removing the water, she was able to design packaging similar to that of dishwasher tablets or laundry detergents that dissolves in contact with warm water.

“It’s about rethinking how we create packaging”, says Martina, “the film is a thickener that gives the handwash the gel texture that we recognise, so the packaging becomes part of the product. By removing the water at the packaging stage, the product weighs 95% less than its competitors, so transportation emissions are also reduced. Why would we bother to transport something that we can get on tap at home?”

The film packaging of Blackmarket liquid soap is the thickener that gives it a recognisable texture. Image credit – Blackmarket.

Blackmarket’s innovative approach saw Martina receive the UAL Creative Enterprise Award for Innovation in July 2021. She receives £5000 and a mentorship from IBM iX, who sponsored the award.

“The prize money is absolutely incredible – as a startup founder, there are a lot of costs associated with launching a cosmetic product – but the mentorship is as valuable as the prize money if not more,” says Martina. “I’m so pleased that IBM iX is the sponsor – I’m looking forward to using the mentorship programme to focus on behavioural change and the customer journey, making it as easy as possible for people to make sustainable choices.”

While, environmentally speaking, the best choice for handwash is a bar of soap, Martina’s market research found that the majority of consumers aren’t willing to make the switch from liquid soap. The product aims to make it as easy as possible for consumers to make pro-environmental choices.

Blackmarket has launched with a Kickstarter campaign, and Martina has an ambitious vision for the business: “Long term, we want to launch new products like shampoo and conditioner, but also to think about packaging differently. The nature of packaging is to be something that protects, but I really want with Blackmarket to think of that quite differently. I want to change perceptions of packaging to something that is long term, precious, and to be proud of how much you have used it.”

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Rainbow washing: what should we think when every brand seems to support Pride Month?

With Pride Month becoming increasingly commercialised, Dr Olivier Sibai, Lecturer in Marketing at Birkbeck, University of London, Dr Mimoun, Lecturer in Marketing at the Business School (formerly Cass), and Dr Achilleas Boukis, Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Sussex discuss how brands are engaging with the month of celebration.

A zoom in on some people's feet with rainbow colours on them

Image credit: Angela Compagnone

It’s June again, the first heatwave has arrived, flowers are blooming, and more and more rainbow avatars appear on your social media feeds! Yes, it’s Pride Month again and brands won’t let you forget it! As everyone celebrates Pride, brands won’t stop showing their surface-level love and support to position themselves as socially progressive and increase their resonance with their younger audience.  From brands’ rainbow LinkedIn profile picture to Google Doodles, every brand and its neighbor are jumping on the occasion to demonstrate their virtue. Yet, people are not so easily fooled and criticism abounds! Between accusations of rainbow-washing, blog posts wondering whether we can escape the commercialisation of Pride, and lists of brand’s “Pride fails,” consumers show their disapproval vocally.

a screen shot of a Disney post showing disney characters walking across a rainbow 'Pride Flag' backgroundOur research recently published in Psychology and Marketing uncovers how consumers interpret brands’ LGBTQ+-related support and decide on whether to condemn or to approve them. We show that consumers are more likely to condemn brands as ‘woke-washers’ if they are unable to prove morally competent. Specifically, media and consumers make up their minds on the biggest corporates by assessing such performative acts of allyship through three moral criteria: sensitivity, vision, and integration.

Moral sensitivity — a brand must recognize the moral content of a situation as failure to do so is likely to damage customer satisfaction, customer-brand relations, and brand equity. For example, by posting straight characters walking over the rainbow flag, Disney has proved morally insensitive to the stigma and discrimination that LGBTQ+ individualsThe Uno game packaging with the tag line 'Play with Pride' on the cover are still experiencing in many instances.

Moral vision — a brand must show a clear moral vision when outlining challenges to free speech that help solve problems for markets and society as failure to do so results in brands being dubbed as ‘conformists’ — those who reproduce the dominant moral judgments about what is acceptable to say publicly. While Mattel still shows a lack of moral vision by mostly reproducing mainstream discourses around gender and diversity, it at least shows some moral integration with the launch of gender-neutral Barbie dolls in 2019 followed by the launch of the UNO Play with Pride edition this year (alongside $50,000 donated to the It Gets Better Project).

A screenshot of a Pfizer Inc. Instagram post with a video still of a woman called Valentina, and 'she/her/hers. The caption reads: "We're celebrating #PrideMonth2021 because everyone deserves to be seen, heard, and respected for who they are. At Pfizer, we affirm every way people may choose to identify. Watch what it means to be Pfizer and proud."

The caption reads: “We’re celebrating #PrideMonth2021 because everyone deserves to be seen, heard, and respected for who they are. At Pfizer, we affirm every way people may choose to identify. Watch what it means to be Pfizer and proud.”

Moral integration — a brand must have the ability to pursue their moral beliefs in all situations as failure to do so results in brands being dubbed as ‘opportunists’ and ‘fame-seekers’ — manipulating the boundaries of free speech to serve personal interest rather than reform morality. For example, despite sharing the positive experience of its LGBTQ+ staff members, Pfizer demonstrates a lack of moral integration by simultaneously funding anti-gay politicians.

But let’s not despair, some brands have understood the point of Pride Month and, in doing so, further the fight for LGBTQ equity and inclusivity. For example, over the last few year (moral integration), Skittles celebrates Pride Month with a limited-edition Skittles Pride Packs (gray packaging and all gray candies) to emphasize the rainbow visual as a symbol of the LGBTQ+ community (moral sensitivity), alongside donation of $1 from each pack to GLAAD.

A black and white skittles packet. The tag line reads: 'During Pride only one rainbow maters #onerainbow."

A Skittles packet with the tag line: ‘During Pride only one rainbow matters #onerainbow

So has Pride Month just become another branded holiday? Well, it’s not for us to settle. But what we can tell you is how to judge the genuineness of branded communication: evaluate the brand’s moral sensitivity, vision, and integration. While we can condemn the over-commercialisation of Pride Month, the good news is that these branded discourses, whatever their values and intent, still raise awareness of the LGBTQ+ cause and normalize and legitimize its presence in public discourse.

Want to know more? ‘Authenticating Brand Activism: Negotiating the Boundaries of Free Speech to Make a Change’ by Dr Olivier Sibai, Lecturer in Marketing at Birkbeck, University of London, Dr Mimoun, Lecturer in Marketing at the Business School (formerly Cass), and Dr Achilleas Boukis, Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Sussex, is published in Psychology & Marketing.

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“If you try and do everything at once, you’ll never get started.”

Neither pregnancy nor a pandemic could keep Francesca Calabrese from completing her degree. She reflects on her experience on the BBA Culinary Industry Management.

Picture of Francesca CalabreseWhen I first moved to London, it was really important to me to be independent and not ask for help from my parents. My friends were all going to university and I would have loved to do the same, but as I was working full-time, I couldn’t see how I would be able to get a degree and support myself.

I was aware of Birkbeck because I was working in a hostel in nearby Russell Square, but I hadn’t realised that it had evening classes until I came across a prospectus that somebody had left in the hostel.

As a supervisor, I’ve always liked management, and my other passion is for cooking, as my dad is a chef. Ever since I was little, I’ve wanted to set up my own food business, like a restaurant or bakery, so when I was browsing the Birkbeck website and saw a new course launching with Le Cordon Bleu, BBA Culinary Industry Management, it felt like a sign!

Even after applying and completing my interview, I had my doubts about whether I would be able to manage work and study. However, I decided to give myself this opportunity, so I shifted to working part-time and applied for a student loan to help fund my studies. I’m so glad I did, as the course has been an amazing experience and really important for my future career.

The first year flew by: we had the opportunity to do practical sessions at Le Cordon Bleu, which I found completely fascinating. At Birkbeck, I attended lectures and explored management in more depth through small group seminars.

In the second year, we suddenly found ourselves in the COVID-19 pandemic. Even that felt doable, as our tutors were so understanding and were always available any time we needed help or support.

A global pandemic would have been enough to deal with, but last summer I got pregnant and once again was wondering if I would be able to manage. I can be quite a stubborn person and my friends were sure that I would end up dropping out, but I decided once again to give myself the opportunity to succeed. It was tough: my parents were in Italy and couldn’t come over to help me and the thought of the assessments I needed to do once my son was born was really stressful! At the time, I thought I would never make it, but now I’m writing my dissertation having missed just one class through it all and I’m almost done!

I’m so proud of what I’ve achieved and most of all I’m happy that I didn’t give up. Once things are a bit more normal, I’m interested in exploring food development and eventually opening my own business.

My advice to anyone considering studying at Birkbeck is that it’s really difficult to think in one-year terms: take things slowly, do one thing at a time, one exam at a time and things will get much easier. If you try and do everything all at once, you’ll never get started. Take your time, reflect and do things at your pace.

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Pioneer 1.0 Programme 2021: Meet The Finalists

Meet the entrepreneurs who will be pitching their Business Ideas at this year’s virtual Pitch & Awards evening in June, competing for Best Business Pitch and Best Business Idea.

We are delighted to introduce this year’s Pioneer 1.0 finalists who have been shortlisted to pitch their exciting business ideas in front of a virtual audience and judging panel. Now in its fourth year, the programme continues to support and champion early-stage entrepreneurs with innovative ideas, helping to turn them into a reality.

Pioneer 1.0 is an extra-curricular course for Birkbeck students and recent graduates looking to develop the knowledge and skills to excel as an entrepreneur. Over seven monthly weekend sessions, participants learn from a range of entrepreneurs, industry experts and each other to build the skills needed to develop their business idea further.

Representing the best entrepreneurial minds in Birkbeck, the finalists are in with a chance of winning either the Best Business Pitch or Best Business Idea award, each worth a £1500 cash prize to support their business, along with a bespoke package of mentoring, coaching and promotion.

This year, over 150 students and recent graduates have participated in the programme and their achievements will be celebrated at the virtual pitch and awards evening on Thursday 17 June, with a panel of independent judges, fellow entrepreneurs and industry leaders.

Meet the Finalists!

Picture of Nicky CarderNicky Carder

Being surrounded by people doesn’t automatically cultivate connection. Gatherism understands that and aims to bring customers and businesses together who seek community and share its mission to reduce loneliness and isolation.

Founder Nicky Carder has worked in community development and events management for 12 years and has experienced first-hand the importance of bringing people together.

Gatherism starts with a podcast to engage listeners through the storytelling of shared experiences and the power of community with the aim to inspire, motivate and connect people to the communities, projects, products and services that matter the most. Gatherism wants to listen to the needs of an evolving, post-pandemic community to help them to thrive better, together. Will you gather with us?

Picture of Lydia CarrickLydia Carrick

Apputee is an app designed to guide new amputees through their hospital stay and subsequent recovery, connecting them to a support network of experts and other amputees. Over 1 million amputations occur globally, and amputees often feel alone and scared.

The app will accompany new amputees through their recovery, using progress trackers and a gamified system to help amputees get the motivation they need. The app will also accumulate knowledge from medical professionals, such as doctors and mental health specialists, as well as interviews with other amputees about their experiences.

Apputee helps ease anxieties around the unknown and creates a roadmap from hospital back to their new “normal” – from understanding medication to navigating their return to work.

Picture of Makeda ColeMakeda L. Cole

At Kho Kho London we’re nuts about delivering eco-friendly, affordable fashion! We specialise in repurposing environmental waste into uniquely bespoke bags, saving landfill and reducing toxic emissions and supporting socio-economic empowerment for disadvantaged communities.

Our coconut-shell pouches are designed by nature making them quite literally one-of-a-kind — for the modern person with enough space for what you cherish –handcrafted with love in West Africa.

The amazing thing about our bags is that they are handmade by artisans meaning that we are actively engaged in improving the socio-economic status and livelihood of our crafters in Sierra Leone.

We hope for a world where you know where your products are made and by who. Well, that’s us in a nutshell. Cashew later!

Picture of Grzegorz JadwiszczakGrzegorz Jadwiszczak

Financial Literacy is an ongoing concern, with research showing that many people struggle with basics of finance and money management. My business’s mission is to tackle this issue with a three stage plan, starting with building an online community providing social media content and podcasts under ‘Finance Preacher’.

I hope to utilise this to setup a platform where like-minded individuals can network and learn from each other as well as local experts. This will hopefully enable locals to help each-other, giving more impactful advice than what is available to date.

This platform will be leveraged with the aim to lower the entry point to financial advice. Developing either an AI Chat Bot or a process for short term meetings with financial advisors.

Picture of Rosie MaggsRosie Maggs

History through theatre offers a unique interactive history experience tailored to the national curriculum and delivered straight to the comfort of the classroom.

From plays to talks, we can tailor the session to the school’s needs as well as making it age appropriate. We are fed up of children not getting the most out of their history lessons and disliking a subject that should be valued.

Our goal is to create unforgettable experiences which will spark a life long interest in history.

Picture of Kate StrivensKate Strivens

Afro Cycle is a black owned business designing helmets for children and adults with afro, black natural and thick curly hair. The helmet combines fashionable aesthetics with ergonomic design to produce a product that provides safety to the cyclist and protection to the hair.

When I cycle through London I know I am not safe and my hair is getting damaged beyond repair. This is why I am passionate about using my lived experience to create a helmet for people like me, who want to cycle safely and have products designed with them in mind.

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Driving Investment: The Missing Piece to your Investment Portfolio?

This blog was contributed by BSc Financial Economics student Paul Talbot and was originally written as an assignment for the module Quantitative Techniques for Applied Economics.

Picture of a classic car

Classic cars, an alternative investment that is rarely discussed when investors are looking for a strategy to increase ROI in their portfolios. Some prestige classic cars have increased over 400% in the last decade[1], but what sets these assets apart from status quo investing?

“Stories. That to me is the answer. Every car has its own history, its own adventures, its own japes and probably plenty of scrapes. Tales to be told and shared with fellow enthusiasts. Few other asset classes, however valuable or beautiful, can match it”[2]

The majority of investors would not be able to afford a 1960 Ferrari 250 GT, but investment growth has been seen across the majority of the classic car market. A more affordable sector is British classic cars, iconic cars such as the Jaguar E-Type or the Triumph TR6 has yielded over 50% returns since 2007, outpacing the heavyweight UK asset classes.

Graph showing price indices of UK classic cars

The classic car market also benefits from a favourable tax status, investors do not pay capital gains tax on profits as they are classed as “Wasting Assets” by HRMC. Movable assets such as classic cars can be gifted to family members, if no benefit is retained or lent, or for a period each year, to a car museum to avoid paying inheritance tax on death. If you intend to enjoy your investment on the road, they are also exempt from road tax and a MOT.

Tax relief of 20% on investment gains already drives these assets ahead of other financial instruments and it is no surprise that this is attracting some attention. The classic car market added significant gains to the UK economy last year[3] and is expected to continue grow from £940 Million in 2019 to £1.65 Billion in 2023.

Graph showing projected UK classic car market

Investing in classic cars does not come without a few speed bumps, it is not a case of purchasing any car and hiding it away for many years. Paul Michaels of Hexagon Classics notes “The very best cars — meaning those with full histories in exceptional condition, either completely restored or lovingly maintained with some age-related patina — will always command the highest prices.”

It is always advisable to get an expert opinion and the history authenticated before purchasing your investment and continue to keep your new asset lovingly maintained and stored away from the elements. All the above will add an upfront and annual running cost to purchasing the investment, reducing overall yield, but in turn, the better the asset is maintained and stored, the higher possibility of future gains.

The average global investment portfolio last year contained only 4% of luxury investments, this includes fine wines, collectable coins, art, jewellery and classic cars to name a few[4]. With climate change at the forefront of government polices banning the sale of petrol/diesel cars by 2030 and the rise of autonomous vehicles, will only make these investment stars a rarer commodity.

Pie chart showing global average asset allocation.

With central banks flooding the markets with liquidity, artificially supporting equities and driving down bond yields, parking a little piece of history in your garage and diversifying your portfolio will not only provide the perfect inflation and market correction hedge, but you may have some fun along the way.

Next time you look at your annual investment report, the immortal words of Wilbur Shaw may spring to mind.

“Gentleman, start your engines”

Further Information

[1] https://www.hagerty.com/apps/valuationtools/market-trends/collector-indexes/Ferrari

[2] HRH Prince Michael of Kent interview with Knight Frank November 2020

[3] FBHVC National Historic Vehicle Survey – https://www.britishmotorvehicles.com/news/fbhvc-national-historic-vehicle-survey-reveals-significant-contribution-to-uk-economy

[4]The Attitudes Survey is based on responses from 600 private bankers and wealth advisers managing

over US$3 trillion of wealth for UHNWI clients. The survey was taken during October and November 2018

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Around the world in an MBA

Marketing Manager and MBA student Lorena Ramirez shares her journey on the MBA, across three continents and what she has learned along the way.

Picture of Lorena Ramirez

The first time I heard about the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA was while living in Peru. I’d been working in the fashion industry for the last ten years and was ready to expand into different creative areas. I was looking for a Masters degree that focused not only on fashion, but on creativity and innovation.

There are lots of really good MBAs in London, but the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA was different. There is nothing else in the market that mixes art, design, business and social innovation in that way.

I fell in love with the course immediately, but attending face-to-face sessions in London wasn’t an option for me, so I was forced to put my plans on hold.

Moving to London

It just so happened that, months after discovering the MBA, my husband was offered a job in the UK. We moved to London without any hesitation: I arrived, found a job, got pregnant and applied for the MBA! I had my interview with Dr Pamela Yeow, the Course Leader, about a week before I gave birth.

I had my reservations about starting a Masters with a newborn baby, but when I won a scholarship for the course I felt like it was a sign to just do it. I started the programme and absolutely loved it. On a course like this, it’s so important that your peers are with you on this journey. For a lot of MBAs, the average age is around 24 or 25. I’m 37, and while the youngest person in our cohort was 25, the oldest was 60. Through the MBA, I met people in media, television, different organisations and entrepreneurs. The diversity of ages and interests in my cohort was what I enjoyed most about the experience.

Then my maternity leave finished, the pandemic hit and I found myself working full-time with a baby under highly pressured circumstances. Sadly, I couldn’t continue the MBA with my cohort, but Birkbeck and Central Saint Martins were very understanding and supportive. It was not an easy decision, but looking back, I think it was the right one. I wouldn’t have had the time to properly enjoy the reading and the learning process if I had continued then.

Picture of Lorena with her son

Recognise this scenario? Lorena trying to work and study, featuring her son Noah.

A new challenge in Ceuta

Despite having to put my studies on hold, this has been a whirlwind year: I was promoted to Marketing Manager for Spain for my organisation and relocated to Ceuta, an autonomous Spanish city in Morocco. Ceuta is a small, quiet city, so it’s a big change from London!

In my new role, I am already applying the learning from the first module of the MBA, which is all about how to solve complex problems. Right now, in Spain, the gambling industry is facing new marketing regulations which drastically change the way it has worked for the past twelve years. This has a huge impact on our work, meaning we have to really think outside the box when it comes to promotion.

Changing the way an entire company works is very difficult, especially when you lead teams. For me, the MBA was the perfect preparation to face this challenge. On the course, we completed a project with the London Ambulance Service – what we are learning is not theoretical, it’s real life, day by day. In my work now, we essentially have to reinvent all the departments and how we’re working. For this to be a success, you have to change the way of thinking not of the directors but of the users and your team, and that is the most difficult thing. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to study to have a preparation to understand this better.

Where next?

From March 2021, I’ll be travelling to London once a month to re-join the MBA programme – I can’t wait to get started again!

In the long term, I would like to go back to sustainable fashion, for which my current experience in online marketing will be really valuable. I’d like to work with artisans, especially Peruvian artisans, linking them with brands across the globe. Most artisans around the world don’t speak Spanish or English, so it can be difficult to reach them, but I hope to do this through a foundation or social enterprise – I think the MBA will lead me to the right way to do this.

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Making a difference in the local community: learning from the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA

With over thirty years’ experience working in his local authority, Eubert Malcolm brought a wealth of knowledge to the classroom. Having just been promoted to Assistant Director for Stronger and Safer Communities, he reflects on how the MBA has supported him to make a positive difference.

Picture of Eubert Malcolm

As local authority leaders go, Eubert Malcolm must be among the most personally invested in his community.

“Somebody said to me the other day that I’ve been in Haringey from boy to man,” he laughs, but with over thirty years’ experience in various roles in the local authority, this isn’t far from the truth. Eubert joined Haringey Council as an environmental health officer apprentice in 1988. From there, his role expanded into different fields as his skillset developed, encompassing housing, food safety and pollution.

“I made my way up the local authority and picked up Diplomas in Environmental Health and Management Studies along the way,” explains Eubert, “but I always felt that not having a first degree would hinder me at some point.”

The value of life experience

It was during the hunt for an undergraduate degree that Eubert stumbled across the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA. The idea of studying part-time at the weekends was a particular draw, but was it really possible to do a Masters level programme without an undergraduate degree?

“I went along to the open evening without much hope,” says Eubert, “but I really liked the course leaders and they encouraged me to apply. I think I was the least qualified but most experienced of that first cohort, and the idea of a co-production and developing new types of leaders seemed perfect for my role. It felt like I was in the right place at the right time.”

Seeing things differently

The collaboration between Central Saint Martins and Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics offers an innovative perspective on businesses and the problems they face. This, combined with the diverse international cohort on the MBA, gives students an opportunity to look at situations from a fresh angle. For Eubert, this proved invaluable when looking for ways to connect with the local community:

“When I first started the MBA, there was lots of gang activity and a spate of deaths in the community. I wanted to learn more about how violence was affecting young people in Haringey, so I commissioned a community group to speak to them and to people in prisons to figure out the drivers of criminality. Until you actually sit down with young people and hear from them, their teachers and their parents, you don’t really understand the challenges that they are facing. We need to engage with them and ensure that they are part of the solution.”

Eubert’s MBA dissertation was Haringey’s public health approach to tackling serious youth violence, a combination of academic research and an in-depth evidence base that came from his experience in the local authority, which informed the young people at risk strategy.

“At Haringey, we want to co-produce strategies with the community,” he explains. “Now, we’re incorporating business principles into our local authority point of view and using action learning techniques to think issues through from beginning to end, predicting the challenges we might need to address along the way. It’s an approach the managers I work with are now also starting to adopt.”

Leading in the pandemic

The rapid unfolding of events in the COVID-19 pandemic has made an agile approach essential:

“If you look at how much COVID-19 has cost local authorities,” says Eubert, “I don’t think we’re going to be fully recompensed for that. It has made us look at what opportunities could come out of it instead.

“For example, we couldn’t deliver a lot of our face to face services during the pandemic and many of them went online. We found that the young people we work with instantly took to that approach, which we hadn’t really considered before.”

Now Eubert, his team and the wider council are working on campaigns to bring the local community together to reduce the spread of COVID-19: “The approach we’re taking, trying to get right to the hearts and minds of people in the borough, is something I don’t think we would have attempted before. It just goes to show that with the right support and network in the workplace, you can be successful even through challenging times. I know that anything I set my mind to I will be able to achieve.”

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What’s the best way to raise funds for a startup?

Alexander Flint Mitchell, MSc Business Innovation with Entrepreneurship alumnus and founder of Blind Cupid shares his experience of raising capital for his business venture.

Picture of business man launching into the air.

Like most first-time entrepreneurs, Alexander was a total novice when it came to funding startups before setting up his own business.

Having now secured £175,000 to launch, with the prospect of completing fundraising over the next six weeks, he shares his experience of raising capital for a startup.

Angels and venture capital

When Alexander began fundraising for Blind Cupid, a matchmaking app that uses systematic philosophy and artificial intelligence to match users based on their fundamental values, he took a traditional route of approaching angels (high net worth individuals who provide financial backing for startups) and venture capital firms.

“We contacted many venture capital companies and had some very successful conversations with them,” explains Alexander. “These companies are usually specialists in a certain field and it’s common to be asked to deliver as many as five or six presentations to secure funding. While we would obviously spend some of this time talking about the business idea, the key thing to get right was the financial information.”

The downside of this method of fundraising? Time.

“Venture capital funders are demanding and even getting a response from them, never mind retaining their interest, requires a lot of time and effort,” explains Alexander. “There’s a lot of back and forth, often with your whole team needing to attend calls or presentations, which can feel never-ending when you’re in it.

“We also faced difficulties with our product not fitting neatly into a specialist area. The app we’re developing combines matchmaking with brand new artificial intelligence that has never been built before, and so there are no investors currently specialising in it. Given the amount of money that venture capital funds invest, it’s understandable that they would prefer to go with something tried and tested. We raised around half the funds we needed through this method, but I began to look for alternatives to speed things up.”

Gaining crowd appeal

Many different methods of fundraising are covered in the Entrepreneurial Venture Creation module taught at Birkbeck, among them crowdfunding.

Alexander admits to being sceptical to this approach: “I had the impression when I started that crowdfunding was on a smaller scale and more about conventional ideas than disruptive new businesses – I had no idea that companies do their series A and series B rounds on crowdfunding.”

While individual investment amounts can be much smaller, as little as £10, on crowdfunding sites, Alexander now sees this as an opportunity:

“Compared to venture capital, crowdfunding is a really quick and innovative way to finance startups,” he says. “The main difference is that our investors through crowdfunding are likely to also be our users, which is really exciting. Even if they only invest a tiny amount, they will benefit from a future IPO – it’s similar to holding shares in the stock market.”

The personal touch is also something that appeals to Alexander and the ethos of Blind Cupid:

“We aren’t just trying to match people together; we really want to make sure that these matches are accurate and that once you meet someone you will stay together. We’ve done it for 80% of our beta test users, and now we want to do it throughout the rest of the UK and world. It’s an unusual business concept in a way, because we don’t want people to come back – we want people to find the person that’s right for them.

“Our business model is very different from other players in this market because of this — and other reasons. We offer a premium service which gives our users access to podcasts, blogs and more written by experts that advise them on every aspect of their lives. Topics include how to discover who you really are, what self esteem is and how to build it, how to nurture a healthy relationship and more.”

Blind Cupid have now launched their crowdfunding campaign on Crowdcube. For Alexander, it will be a relief to move to the next stage:

“When you’re looking for funding, it feels like it’s never-ending, but I know that when it’s complete I‘ll forget the months that it took. Many things in life are a learning curve and you find what suits you best. It’s great to finally see it all come to life.”

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How to ask your employer for sponsorship

Picture of a man holding a piggy bank.

If you’re in employment and have a place to study on one of our programmes, you may be eligible for employer sponsorship.

Employer sponsorship is when your employer pays for all or part of your tuition costs. This is usually in recognition of the fact that your studies will benefit your work in some way.

For many of our students, a Birkbeck degree allows them to seek a promotion or to perform their role more effectively. Here’s how to discuss your educational ambitions with your employer.

Find out what’s available in your organisation

Before approaching your line manager about sponsorship, do your homework so you know what definitely is or isn’t available.

Larger firms may have established sponsorship schemes with an application process, while others may operate on a case by case basis.

If you can’t find anything on your company website, your HR learning and development lead will be able to help.

Consider your motivations for study

Take some time to think about why you want to study your chosen course. Will it help you develop the skills to perform a technical aspect of your role? Will it provide a theoretical underpinning to help you manage complex problems? Will you gain a broader understanding of how to differentiate your organisation in the sector?

Once you have a clear understanding of why you want to study this particular course, it will be easier to translate this into reasons why your employer should be interested.

Demonstrate the business case

To secure employer sponsorship, you will need to show the positive return on investment it will provide for your employer. Perhaps the skills you gain in the course will enable you to apply for a promotion and stay with the company for longer. Developing your knowledge of an area of the business might make you more efficient, enabling you to take on more responsibility. Link the programme description to objectives in your current role to show the direct value for your employer.

Show your commitment to learning and development

What have you already done as part of your continuous professional development (CPD) that can show your commitment to your career? It could be as simple as reading around the subject, attending a webinar or signing up for in-house training. Your employer will want to be confident that you will make the most of the opportunity that they are investing in.

What if I can’t get sponsorship?

Employers often have limited budgets available for staff learning and development, so don’t be disheartened if you’re unable to secure funding. Having demonstrated your commitment to your professional development and to the organisation, it is worth asking whether there are any alternative opportunities for you to develop your skills, such as shadowing another employee.

You can also find more information about what alternative financial support is available for our students on the Birkbeck website.

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Finding balance and fulfilment through the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA

Before she found the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA, Jennifer Chen felt that a business degree would not be a good fit for her background as a creative. Now juggling the roles of design researcher, charity trustee, Royal Society of Arts fellow, start-up mentor and mum to twin toddlers, she’s embracing new challenges and learning to balance all areas of life more than ever.

Picture of Jenn

My background is in design and advertising. As a creative, I found the work interesting, but from time to time felt a lack of control to make greater impact with my work. The agency setting I was in was rather fragmented and figuring out the why of the projects I was working on was usually someone else’s job. There were times when I would be given a task that didn’t feel quite right, but I did not have the capability or confidence to challenge it. My role was sometimes limited to form-giving, styling, making things look pretty – there is a lot of skill to that, of course, but I knew that I wanted to do more.

I began by searching for Masters programmes in innovation. I didn’t consider business programmes at first because I didn’t think they would be the right fit for me: of my friends with MBAs, as successful as they were, none of them had a job description that sounded like something I’d want to do.

I was delighted when I found out about the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA. Working in the design community, I had always known about UAL, but Birkbeck’s strong research reputation gives the MBA more credibility in the business world.

From the very beginning, we were told that this was a safe space to share ideas, and that there were no stupid questions – I don’t think this is common practice in traditional MBA programmes. We learned from a team of excellent lecturers and industry leaders, but most importantly, from each other. As a more mature cohort with work and family commitments, we learned to plan for contingencies, to make sure colleagues could contribute to group projects regardless of their personal circumstances, and to be empathetic towards each other’s situations. We operated under the assumption that everybody wants to do their absolute best, but a bit of flexibility may be required here and there.

This was particularly true for me, since on the very first day of the programme I found out that I was pregnant with twins! It was almost surreal. My MBA cohort heard the news before some of my family. Birkbeck and UAL were very accommodating. To maximise my learning opportunities, Dr Pamela Yeow, the course leader, advised that I complete the first module, then helped me rejoin the programme a year later with the following cohort.

Picture of Jenn with her twins

Jennifer with her twins after rejoining the MBA in 2018.

Even then, balancing work and family life was not easy, especially as the estimated ten hours of reading per week turned out to be quite an understatement! Towards the end of the programme, we had all nearly become experts in information extraction and priority management.

The course was a transformative experience for me. Through theory and practice, I was able to develop my skillset as a design leader, especially in the areas of collaborative leadership, entrepreneurship and operations management. Having access to industry-specific knowledge and concrete, actionable advice from the teaching staff has really helped me get closer to achieving my goals: affecting change to the world through design.

Chris Cornell, our lecturer on strategy, who has worked extensively with the charity sector, helped me work out a clear action plan. I am now a marketing trustee for the Heritage Crafts Association, refreshing the brand to create a contemporary, engaging and relatable identity in order to attract a wider audience. I also mentor startups, helping their world-changing ideas cultivate the power of storytelling and develop clear communication approaches.

The MBA makes you ask a lot of questions about the work that you do, the work that you want to do, and the work that you can learn to do, in order to implement change and improve the world around us, and in doing so, enrich ourselves.

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