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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Where are all the grandparents in modern fiction?

Helen-Harris-Jul-2014-0366-smaller-versionThis post was contributed by Helen Harris (MA Oxon), associate lecturer in creative writing in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. Her new novel,Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart is out now from Halban Publishers. This article was originally published on The Guardian‘s books blog.

Grandparents-in-contemporary-literatureConsidering how important grandparents are in many modern families – plugging the gaps and picking up the pieces when the stresses and strains on working parents get too much – isn’t it surprising that we don’t find more of them in contemporary fiction?

There is, of course, no shortage of memorable grandparents in children’s literature, beaming benignly – or occasionally malevolently – from the bookshelves: from the four grandparents in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, via Grannie Island and Granma Mainland in Mairi Hedderwick’s Katie Morag series to David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny, grandparents seem a far richer source of inspiration than boring old parents.

But look around current adult fiction and there’s little writing about grandparents as grandparents. You can find forever-young baby boomer grandmas falling in love at 60 and novels about spirited older women finding self-fulfilment, but novels about grandparents’ relationships with their grandchildren seem in short supply. One rare exception is Finnish writer and illustrator Tove Jansson’s magical The Summer Book. Jansson (of Moomintroll fame) here turns her shrewd gaze on the interaction between an elderly grandmother and her six-year-old granddaughter, spending the summer together on an island in the Finnish archipelago. The book is beautiful, astute and tells us a lot both about childhood and about old age.

When my novel, Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart, which examines the relationship between a grandmother and her young grandson, was published at the end of 2014, my expectations were low: I hadn’t published a novel for 20 years, my (excellent) publishers are a small independent house and a number of mainstream commercial publishers had previously rejected the book, telling me that it didn’t fit on their lists. So I was quite unprepared for the extraordinary reactions that began almost as soon as the book came out.

front coverIn Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart, Sylvia’s bond with her grandson is threatened when his parents split up, driving her to extreme measures. I was invited on to Woman’s Hour on Radio 4, together with Jane Jackson of the Bristol Grandparents Support Group, which helps those denied contact with their grandchildren after family breakdown. I was quite panicked at the thought of my fiction side-by-side with real-life heartbreak. During the programme, I learned that a million British children have no contact at all with their grandparents because of some form of family rift. After our discussion, Woman’s Hour received so many emails from listeners with their own stories that they opened the programme the next day with a family therapist talking about the issues raised.

Sobered, I went about my business (including getting on with my next novel). A couple of weeks later, I was interviewed by a journalist who told me her own story of a family breakup triggering a loss of contact with grandchildren. Then a neighbour who had enjoyed the book told me about the predicament of a close friend, denied contact with her beloved grandchildren after their parents divorced. Real life, it seemed, was starting to outstrip fiction.

Last month I gave a reading at JW3, London’s new Jewish community centre. Grandparents were invited to come along and join a discussion of the themes raised by the book. Although the weather was cold enough to deter a much younger audience, the room was full and one after another the audience opened up with their own experiences. One woman, a grandma to 11 grandchildren, reduced many of us to tears with the desperate story of how her ex-son-in-law had denied her access to his children following the death of the children’s mother, her own daughter.

My humorous look at a warring mother-in-law and daughter-in-law suddenly felt rather light-hearted. It was a relief when another member of the audience spoke up: “You know the bit where Sylvia gives her grandson ice cream even though her daughter-in-law doesn’t allow it? I’ve done that.” There was a ripple of recognition around the room.

Other posts by Helen Harris:

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