Occupational Psychology at Birkbeck: the early years

This post by Gerry Randell, Emeritus Professor of Organisational Behaviour, University of Bradford, was originally published in 2009.

Birkbeck Occupational Psychology: staff and students in October 1958

The first master’s students in Occupational Psychology in Britain graduated from Birkbeck 50 years ago this October: I was one of them.

A postgraduate diploma in industrial and commercial psychology had been on the statutes of the University of London since the 1920s, mainly at the instigation of the National Institute of Industrial Psychology and taught by and tailored to the Institute’s staff. Alec Rodger had been on the staff of the NIIP in the 30s and had risen to be Head of Vocational Guidance. In the early years of the war, most of the NIIP staff were drafted into the services, mainly to work on personnel selection. Alec became the Senior Psychologist for the Admiralty. After the war he was appointed Reader in Occupational Psychology (a term he invented) at Birkbeck and set about resuscitating the old diploma course. He published an article in Occupational Psychology in 1952 describing and explaining the curriculum for the new ‘Postgraduate Diploma in Occupational Psychology’ that he had just established. It was probable that the first students on this course were young NIIP staff and Alec’s friends. One of them was Peter Cavanagh whom Alec had spotted as someone who had scored particularly well on the Navy’s selection tests and had somehow arranged for him to be allocated to the Senior Psychologist’s Department. Subsequently Peter joined Alec at Birkbeck as his first Lecturer in Occupational Psychology.

A diploma, not being an attractive qualification for budding occupational psychologists, was not pulling in the students in the early 50s, so Alec then set about manoeuvring for it to become a masters and recruiting students on the strength of that. He happened to be the UG External Examiner for psychology at Nottingham at that time and persuaded two of the students he examined to sign up for the 2 year part-time MSc/MA to be course, Peter Henderson and I. When we turned up at Birkbeck in October 1956 there was a third student on the course, Russell Wicks from UCL. There was also a ‘visitor’ – Mrs Hussein from India – who would be ‘sitting in’; over the years Alec was very welcoming to ‘visitors’ from all over the world. We assembled in room 408 on the top floor of the college from 6 to 9, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

During the year, the Diploma was turned into a Master’s degree, so the three of us had to re-register and look forward to an extra year of attendance! In 1957 eight new students enrolled and joined in the lectures/ discussions with us, in 1958 a further nine enrolled. After submitting our dissertations in September, eight of us graduated in October 1959, Professor Leslie Hearnshaw of Liverpool being the External Examiner. Of the three of us in cohort 1, Russell went on to teach at Surrey, Peter to Queens Belfast and I stayed on at Birkbeck as Alec’s first Assistant Lecturer.

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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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“It’s crazy to think that an idea I had when I was 21 is now my full-time job.”

Alexander Flint Mitchell took home the prize for Best Business Pitch in June’s Pioneer awards. He reflects on a life-changing year of building his business, Blind Cupid.

Picture of Alexander Flint Mitchell

When Alexander Flint Mitchell enrolled onto Birkbeck’s MSc Business Innovation last September, it was with a view to changing career direction and developing the business idea that had been on his mind for the last five years.

Handing in his notice just one month later, you could say things had moved a little faster than expected. “Looking back on it, that was probably a bit naïve,” Alexander admits, “but if you want to achieve something big, you’ve sometimes got to take a leap into the unknown.”

The motivation for this leap of faith? A little idea for an app called Blind Cupid.

Blind Cupid is a dating app with a difference, using a never-before-used science to match people based on their fundamental values, giving users the chance to see bios and compatibility scores before they reveal pictures to potential matches.

“A lot of dating apps claim to be all about personality,” says Alexander, “but it’s really just a slogan. In their questionnaires, they will ask about polarising issues like politics, which is valid, but simply agreeing on something doesn’t mean that you’re compatible. Take Brexit, for example: people voted Leave on both extremes of the political spectrum. It’s essential to understand the rationale behind the belief.

“The questionnaire that we use for Blind Cupid goes right to basic principles. The greatest feedback we have received so far from users is that they could see the value in the product even from just filling out the questionnaire – before they’d received any matches. When we tested the product, 80% of the test group went on four or more dates with their matches – that’s way higher than anything else in the market.”

Was the concept for the app born out of Alexander’s personal experience? “People ask me that a lot,” he says, “but in reality, the idea just came to me in a lightbulb moment, fully formed. I came up with the concept aged 21, while studying Law and working in the City. I found the reality of being a lawyer very boring and would end up spending most of the day daydreaming about this app. I knew that I was going to do it eventually, but I wanted to do it properly.”

In 2019, Alexander applied for the MSc Business Innovation at Birkbeck, specialising in entrepreneurship. “Studying in the evening meant that I could continue working in the City until the business was up and running,” Alexander explains. “I thought that, worst case scenario, I could find a role in venture capital, but I really wanted to give Blind Cupid a go.

“The course was everything I wanted to learn. One of the early modules, Entrepreneurial Venture Creation, required us to write a business plan. I wrote a business plan for Blind Cupid, and that’s when I decided to quit my job.”

As Alexander worked through the masters and the Pioneer programme, his business and networks grew. “I’ve made some amazing connections and put together a dedicated team – we’d meet at 8am and still be working together at 1am, before we were earning any money to do it, which just shows the commitment we all have to the business.”

Alexander’s Pioneer experience culminated in June’s virtual awards ceremony, where he took home the award for Best Business Pitch. “It was a shame not to be able to do the finale in person, but I was really surprised and pleased by how many people came along to the virtual ceremony. When pitching Blind Cupid to investors, it usually takes a full hour to go into all the detail, so drilling it down to three minutes was a real challenge. I’m thrilled to have won the Best Business Pitch award; it feels like all the hard work is paying off.”

Alexander is currently fundraising for Blind Cupid, with the aim of getting the product on the market within the next three months. Encouragingly, it seems that he’s also hit on an idea that can withstand the current tough economic conditions: “Strangely enough, the dating industry is booming at the moment. Regardless of what’s happening in the economy, people have a natural desire to have someone in their lives romantically, and that doesn’t go away in a recession.

“The decision to do the master’s was a life-changing, life-affirming decision. It’s crazy to think that the idea that I had when I was 21 is now my full-time job.”

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An MBA with a difference

Sammera applied for the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA to build the skills to have a greater impact in the charity sector. Her efforts have been recognised by a scholarship from the Aziz Foundation, who support British Muslims into higher education to better society.

Picture of Sammera

As Head of Development at the British Asian Trust and with over fifteen years’ experience of charity and voluntary work, Sammera speaks with authority when she talks of the need to innovate in the third sector. 

“Innovation and creativity are central to developing products or services in any leading organisation,” she explains, “but in the fast-changing and highly competitive environment in which charities operate, it is essential. There’s also the added challenge of adapting within a strictly regulated and scrutinised environment.” 

Sammera wanted to return to education to consolidate the skills she had learned through her working life. The Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA appealed as it provided the opportunity to bring together creative and business disciplines. 

“I didn’t want to do anything too conventional – I wanted to bring in a creative angle,” says Sammera. “The four units of the MBA programme link in with my work, so I can apply what I’m learning in my day to day integrating the business management theories practically. There are elements of the course that require independent investigation and research, while others focus on entrepreneurship, leadership and change.” 

In January 2020, Sammera successfully interviewed for a scholarship from the Aziz Foundation, which will partly cover the costs of the MBA programme. The Aziz Foundation offers Masters scholarships to British Muslims in order to empower one of the most disadvantaged communities in the country to bring positive change to society as a whole. 

For Sammera, the MBA is an opportunity to gain the skills she needs to make an even greater impact: “At the British Asian Trust, I have learned the value of social finance, making sustainable changes for the longer term and helping marginalised communities in South Asia. Beyond this course, I hope to continue to empower the diaspora and wider communities locally and internationally.” 

Dr Pamela Yeow, Programme Director of the MBA, said: “We designed the MBA to equip students with the tools to make positive change. I am delighted that the Aziz Foundation has recognised Sammera’s commitment to the charity sector and that they have seen the potential for her to have an even greater impact with the help of the MBA.” 

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“I have really relished the intellectual challenge of returning to university after a break.”

When a new role saw Ella moving from practical outdoor work to people management, she applied for the MSc Human Resource Development and Consultancy to build her skills. She reflects on how the course has equipped her for the challenge.

Picture of Ella

I have had a fairly non-traditional career path so far. I worked on farms for many years engaged in therapeutic agriculture, growing vegetables with young adults with learning difficulties and behavioural issues. My passion for people and land now has me working as a senior manager for a small environmental charity which works across the UK planting orchards with urban communities.  

Transitioning from outdoor practical roles to indoor organizational-focused roles threw me into being a line manager, thinking about team dynamics and holding responsibilities across the organisation for recruitment, wellbeing, HR policies and staff development.

The MSc in Human Resource Development and Consultancy at Birkbeck has given me a good grounding in people management and organisational development, with flexibility to deepen my knowledge in areas that have interested me.  

I have really relished the intellectual challenge of returning to university after a break of many years. The course is structured to deepen academic thinking as well as practical knowledge, and that combination means I can bring practical questions from my work into an academic sphere, and I can apply thinking from my Masters directly into my work.  

The support from lecturers and fellow students is phenomenal. I have learned so much not just from lecture and seminar content, but also professors, guest lecturers and fellow students speaking about their work contexts and roles as HR or Organizational Development practitioners. 

I am about to enter my second year, of which a significant part is embarking on a management research project. This differs from a traditional dissertation as it again combines academic rigour and practical organisational focus, as we work with an organisation to address a challenge that it is experiencing as our research problem. I am really looking forward to exploring an area of HR Development in depth, and to try out new research and consultancy skills. 

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“I used my work as a kind of petri dish for everything that I explored in the classroom”

Roscoe Williamson, Creative Strategy Director and Partner at MassiveMusic reflects on how the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA has helped him shape his career path.

Picture of Roscoe

With a twelve-year career in the music industry under his belt, you might be surprised to hear that Roscoe studied Chemistry as an undergraduate. Its hard to know what you want to do with the rest of your life at 18 years old,he explains, Chemistry was a bit of a slog, so I had a real hunger to go back into education later in life, to learn and expand my horizons around topics that genuinely interest me.

Roscoe was keen to develop strategic leadership skills to advance his business, but coming from a creative industry, it was important to find a programme that valued creativity: I was particularly interested in bringing creativity into business and applying design and systems thinking to the corporate world. I was interested in a few courses that took a creative approach to business education, but I chose the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA because it had both the innovative outlook and the solid finance and strategy side.

The MBA focuses on three curriculum units: Provocation and Enquiry; Entrepreneurship in Action; and Effecting Change: Collaboration in Practice. The eighteen-month programme culminates in an extended live project or dissertation. I enjoyed most aspects of the course and the exploratory learning style that was encouraged,explains Roscoe, The whole experience was like tasting a knowledge cake with lots of segments. I left behind those I didnt like so much, while my final research project allowed me to really get into what I liked the taste of.

Roscoes academic dissertation explores how organisations can nurture, scale and grow creativity and innovation. His findings point to ways in which organisational creativity can be led by individual behaviours, teams dynamics and organisational structures. Analysing organisational creativity and innovation from managerial, psychological and sociological perspectives allowed me to identify gaps between academia and practice and understand how to get the best of both,he explains.

Roscoes dissertation is in the final stages, but the changes in his work have been felt already: I wouldnt have enjoyed the course nearly as much if I hadnt been working at the same time. As well as becoming more efficient at managing my time, I used my work as a kind of petri dish for everything that I explored in the classroom. Ive been lucky to have a really supportive business partner who gave me time to devote to the MBA he says he has seen a change in me and the business already. Through the MBA, I got partially interested in strategy and realised strategic thinking is something that we needed more of.

Completing the MBA with a new job title of Creative Strategy Director, it seems that Roscoe has wasted no time in implementing what hes learned to his business. In the future, he plans to create a content hub, where he intends on sharing his leanings to the wider world.

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