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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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 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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